Barnard Castle. For many years of my life, the name was synonymous with some of the top British swimmers of the 80s but never took up more than a fleeting thought. Last year whilst on holiday, we found ourselves passing through it several times and upon seeing the name on the road sign on the first occasion, I became quite excited as I “knew” it as swimming memories came flooding back in the same way that a piece of music can trigger long forgotten times. Barnard Castle itself turned out to be quite picturesque; a small market town nestled in the shadow of an imposing ruined fortress with ancient narrow streets snarled up with modern day traffic. The gridlocked main arterial route to the north west had a strange strip of no mans land between both carriageways that I later discovered was the site for an outdoor market and at the end of the street, a striking octagonal building affectionately known as the butter mart, stopped the traffic dead as you attempted to navigate past it in order to cross the river and leave the town behind and suddenly found yourself in open countryside once more.
Now however, the name Barnard Castle will be forever remembered for one name; that of Dominic McKenzie Cummings Esquire, political strategist, senior advisor to the Prime Minister and possibly one of the most underhand and duplicitous beings of the time. Architect of the Vote Leave result, he was already being widely pilloried before the shenanigans that have erupted this week have ensured he has remained the most talked about person in the country. The farcical attempts at explaining away his misdemeanours have resulted in Twitter doing what it does best: comedic opinations, memes and aspersions are shared between thousands of people across the world and ensure that this story will not disappear any time soon. In fact, Twitter is as embroiled in this sorry tale as Cummings is. Durham was trending, Barnard Castle was trending, even Mary Wakefield (Mrs Cummings) was trending yet Dominic Cummings was not. Suspicious, tweeters changed tack to prove state censorship – Dominic Cummings still isn’t trending but Cummimgs, Cummins, Cumnings or any similar misspell thereof is – the desperation to quash this story is reaching new levels.
When the story broke, crude denials from elected members followed. The press and the public were cast as disrespectful and incapable of understanding the rational behind the decision; Cummings had a Very Important Reason and had self isolated the entire time – the caveat that the self-isolation had to be undertaken at home did not apply in this case. Cummings is of course not the only person in the public eye to have self isolated in a second home; the Highland Estates have generally been occupied at a time of year when to their owners, they are normally still a memory of a quaint getaway where they can enjoy the solitude and play at being King in the North. The difference is that once these people were discovered, they owned up to it. Everybody grumbled but visitors apologised, stayed indoors and were slowly forgotten. Then of course, as the story developed, the narrative changed leading to the pronouncement that the rules had allowed for this very situation all along and we, the public, were just too dense not to have noticed this. Stay at home did not actually mean stay at home and don’t mix households, don’t travel and only venture outdoors for essential reasons were also open to interpretation.
As the outcry intensified, we found ourselves in the unprecedented situation where an employee (who can only have the most tenuous link to being described as a public servant but appears to be the initiator of many of the current lifestyle restrictions in place) hired without scrutiny, held a press conference in the grounds of the home of his boss. Haltingly delivered, an interpretation of the timeline of events that was excruciating to listen to, showed just how little regard there was for public opinion and the reasoning became more and more far-fetched. The difficulty with which Cummings read the script proved how unnatural the words were and to counter every known witness statement with elaborate but incredible detail was the hallmark of somebody desperately trying to salvage a situation, hoping against hope that we would be gullible enough to believe it and knowing wholeheartedly that to admit the truth would be the end. Admitting that he had indeed broken the guidelines after initially denying them, we are expected to believe that Cummings and Johnson had a telephone conversation in their sickbeds. We are expected to believe that Cummings travelling to another county and his wife and child staying overnight in hospital “stopped the spread” and we are expected to believe that the trip occurring at the same time as family events was simply coincidental.
It didn’t work. It won’t work. For too long, people have been suspicious and resentful of the “one rule for them and a different one for us” line but the problem is that Cummings ISN’T one of “them”, he is just one of us and today that line was crossed. We do not live under a presidency yet increasingly the differences between the two forms of rule are eroding. By the time this is published, I am certain that things will have evolved further but today, in that rose garden, democracy was lost somewhere in a fairy story of bluebells and bleary eyes.