Carrie Symonds is having a baby. How do we talk about this?
Lester, by email
If we were just talking about Symonds – a young woman who seems perfectly pleasant – having her first baby, there would be no difficulties: only a monster would express anything other than unalloyed joy. But it takes two to, er, tango, and we are also talking about the father of the baby, who happens to be Boris Johnson, who happens to be a prime minister known for his fondness for distraction and obfuscation. So things get even more complicated than trying to get out of him precisely how many kids he already has. (Four? Six? 10? Who’s counting? Certainly not him.)
There are two schools of thought here. “Yes! … Some much needed happy news for the country,” tweeted one PR-I-mean-journalist, when the news broke over the weekend. “Let’s be kind to the pregnant lady, shall we?” tweeted another columnist who, as many promptly pointed out, was not exactly kind to Meghan when she was pregnant (or at any other time, for that matter).
Yet it is true that we don’t always need to be cynical. Indeed, it sometimes feels that the instinct towards cynicism is part of the demise of collective empathy, as we see one another not as fellow humans, but as nefarious adversaries who are wrong. Surely a corrective to that would be to celebrate the Symonds-Johnson baby, no matter what our political differences, right? Right. And yet.
How do we solve a problem like ol’ Boris? / How do we catch a cloud and pin it down? / How do you find a word that means ol’ Boris? / A chronic liar! A narcissist! A clown!
The idea of using a baby to bury bad news is repulsive, as well as being slightly distracting, as the phrase inevitably makes you think of a baby literally burying bad news. Could it hold a shovel properly? Wouldn’t it get distracted from the task at hand and start eating the dirt? (It’s not just me who thinks like this, right?) Anyway, yes, accusing someone of using their unborn child to obscure other more awkward stories is bad – but lord knows the father of this particular baby has done worse. So let’s not start ascribing a moral compass to Johnson, who, as his former boss Max Hastings wrote in this paper last year, “would not recognise truth, about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade”.
There is no question that news of this baby came at a convenient time for Johnson, given the number of less aww-inducing stories he is contending with, such as his predictable uselessness in the face of fears of a global pandemic; his even more predictable absence from the floods in this country; the accusations that his home secretary, Priti Patel, is a vicious bully; the ongoing questions about Russian meddling in the British political system; the interminable omnishambles known as “Brexit”, which has already cost more than everything we paid to the EU over 47 years; and news that 20 Tory party members, including six Tory councillors, have been suspended for posting Islamophobic comments online. You get the picture.
Or rather, you don’t, because news of the upcoming baby topped most newspapers’ front pages on Sunday morning. I like babies. I have even had a couple myself. This country may indeed require some much-needed good news. But better news would be Johnson doing anything about any of the above, not him knocking out another baby to add to his collection, some of whom he publicly acknowledges and some of whom, well, let’s just say, they won’t be getting any front-page announcements any time soon, at least not if their father has any say in the matter.
No one wants to detract from Symonds’ happiness. But a prime minister’s baby inevitably becomes political, especially when we are talking about this paternally focused prime minister, so while we can celebrate the baby, we also can’t let it bury the bad news. And I reckon the best way to do this is to name the baby, using all the words from the stories that are attracting less coverage, and that name should be used in every puff piece hereafter. I surely speak for the nation when I say I cannot wait to see the photos of little Brexit-Coronavirus-Floods-Russian-Bullying-Islamophobia Symonds-Johnson! Hard to embroider that on a babygro, but I’m sure Johnson, with his extensive child-care experience, will find a way.
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