Worst Year Ever? Worst Year So Far!

A review of Dishonesty is the Second-Best Policy… Kind of.

Upstart Crow

And Other Rules to Live By
By David Mitchell

Probably there has never been more widespread agreement that we are living in dark times. Even the Dark Ages were only named in retrospect, though we have every reason to suspect that it felt bad at the time, like a long drawn out version of 2016 only without Netflix.

When Camus wrote La Peste, he warned that plague rats are always in the sewers, and that the latent threat is never over. But we all thought he was talking about ideas, or religion, or imperialism, or another one of his illegitimate children showing up asking for money. It never even occurred to us that he might actually have been talking about actual animals carrying an actual plague that would actually happen again.

Well, this time it was bats. Someone in China ate a bat and now we are all going to die. That’s where we’re at. I’m exaggerating a bit. But basically, that’s where we’re actually at.

So it makes sense that we’re all agreed about 2020 being the worst year yet. But we were also agreed that 2019 was the worst year yet. And 2018. And 2017. Last night, Stephen Colbert told his audience: ‘It’s only March, and 2020 has done the impossible: Made me nostalgic for 2019.’ But nobody in his audience laughed because they were all dead. Or at home. It isn’t clear at the moment, because I haven’t read the news. For all I know, the virus could have taken a turn for the worse. (Yes, right on cue I’m being told that Tom Hanks has coronavirus.)

I think it all started in 2016, the year when all the good celebrities died, and Morrisey kept living. Worse, Donald Trump happened; Brexit happened; climate change started to be called “the climate crisis”; migration started to be called “the migrant crisis”; really after “Blackstar” it was a just slow glissando into cultural and moral hell.

We also seem to agree that we are, as the Dawes song has it, ‘living in the future.’ People like Elon Musk are designing things that are meant to look the way the future looked in 80s films. His armored truck that got defeated by a pebble at the launch event a few months ago looks like a bit of the scenery from Robocop. Only more flimsy.

Small wonder everyone is miserable: the world has taken on the aspect of a dystopian future-hell just as a deadly pandemic makes us aware that there is no longer any such thing as “the future.” Because we’re all about to die. As David Mitchell says in his new essay collection Dishonesty is the Second Best Policy, ‘in the fast-moving world of tomorrow that we’re living in today, the historians of the future will need to start work by yesterday.’

Even Dishonesty is the Second Best Policy is a line from an old George Carlin routine. As in waste disposal, so in art. Sustainability demands that all new products must contain a quotient of recycled material, and we can’t keep mass-producing new punchlines when there are plenty of old ones lying around. This essay originally appeared in the November 1987 edition of Horse and Rider, for example. But I don’t want to hate on David Mitchell’s book; it’s superb. And in the forthcoming quarantine, it will be the only thing that keeps me sane.

Dishonesty is the Second-Best Policy
(UK: Guardian Faber Publishing, 2019)
Hardback, pp. 272