For this week’s Observer Food Monthly, I’ve written about Marcus Rashford’s inspiring campaign. The story went to press just before the revelations about the latest failures of school meal provision, but looking at those shameful pictures of sorry spuds and solitary tins of beans, one thing struck me.
It was a reminder that the political voices that have been raised against Rashford – suggesting that the solutions to food poverty were “more complicated” than he made out – were also invariably those that cheered the recent reduction of Britain’s foreign aid. That cut rested on two well-worn arguments: that Britain must “look after our own children” before honouring commitments overseas; and that money sent to feed hungry kids abroad ended up instead in the bulging pockets of cronies of corrupt politicians. As details have emerged of school-meal contracts given to Tory donors, alongside scandalous evidence of the resultant food parcels, it’s noticeable that those same voices have remarkably little to say about where taxpayers’ money goes.
Riddle me this
In times of complex crisis, people find comfort in solvable mysteries. This explains how, after the First World War, there was a sudden appetite for crosswords and jigsaws and a golden age of detective fiction. Agatha Christie, who’d been a nurse in a field hospital and witnessed the random scatter of death, instinctively understood the psychological appeal of a country house whodunnit in which mortality was stripped of consequence and cleverly explainable.
For our own times, that desire perhaps explains the ratings successes of true-crime drama. ITV’s excellent The Pembrokeshire Murders was the latest, highlighting how scientific detective work and strong leadership could bring closure to overwhelming trauma.
Watching events in Washington, it is startling how often supernatural forces are summoned. No political speech before or after the insurrection seemed complete without an appeal for divine guidance.
The man who did most to wrap US politics in pieties was Billy Graham, prayer partner to nine presidents from Truman on. While he made much of being “America’s pastor”, he stayed above party allegiance. Franklin Graham, the evangelist’s son, has no such qualms. He has compared Trump’s second impeachment, voted for by 10 Republicans, to the betrayal of Christ. In this, he said, he was channelling his father’s spirit. “My father knew Trump,” he tweeted a year after Graham’s death, “believed in him and voted for him.” This came as something more than a revelation to his family. Aram Tchividjian, Franklin’s nephew, responded: “I’ll never forget that day in 2016 when my grandfather @BillyGraham, shrugged off the symptoms of Parkinson’s and hydrocephalus, got up out of bed for the first time in a year, drove down to the polling station, and cast his vote. What a glorious memory!” Fake news works in mysterious ways.
Despite a few determined efforts, I’ve never got past the foothills of Thomas Mann’s 1924 epic The Magic Mountain. The 800-page novel, set in an Alpine sanatorium, always seemed too abstract and surreal, with its obsessive attention to the detail of an enclosed world in which mealtimes are ritualised and, far away from the life of the city, shapeless days involve circular conversations and obsessive thermometer reading. In the past week or so, in twilit, freezing “daily exercise” walks around empty streets, I’ve been listening, riveted, to the audiobook. It sounds like the bluntest kind of realism.
• Tim Adams is an Observer columnist