Just thinking back on the bizarre fever dream of last summer, when Dominic Cummings drove to Barnard Castle and became the most hated man in Britain. Remember that? When he did the little press conference over a trestle table? It feels strange to look back on that moment of British culture now. Because we were all there, we were all involved. We were all doing very bizarre things in lockdowns one, two and three – downloading the Houseparty app, for instance – and for a hot week, being transcendentally angry at Dominic Cummings was one of them. We’ll have to explain this to our children, one day. “Well, it was 2020 and nobody really knew if it was legal to leave the house or not,” we’ll say. “The isolation was doing very strange things to all our heads. Dominic Cummings – a very bald man who loved bluebells and had a blog 15 years after anyone else in the universe did – worked for the government and we were all very angry at him. No, I don’t remember precisely why.”
Anyway, he’s back. I feel like this will be a biweekly occurrence until I die now, actually: Dominic Cummings “coming back”, either by dropping a blogpost or doing a tweet or appearing in front of a hearing or bullying Matt Hancock so hard he has to meekly tell assembled press through a union jack face mask that he doesn’t think he’s hopeless. Cummings’ latest back-coming move was to drop WhatsApp screenshots of Boris Johnson at the start of a pandemic – and nothing soothes the soul quite like knowing the prime minister of the country, a man who messes his own hair up for photo opportunities because it’s the only thing that takes the burn off his palpable Eton-ness, actually responded to a pandemic with a panicked “Wtf?” at 10.18pm.
Cummings then followed it up with a roving Twitter thread where he took aim at the “Pundit babble” of blue-tick political journalists who were trying to explain how the Conservative loss in the Chesham and Amersham byelection made sense, actually, if you were really paying attention, despite what my tweets might have suggested yesterday, last week, and earlier today.
“Want to improve your understanding of politics?” Cummings tweeted, in a multipart thread that soon became a sort of reply-guy hot-zone for anyone who’s ever left their card behind the bar at that pub they have in parliament. “Stop reading these pundit babblers … It’s all bullshit, all the way down. If you want to get anything big done in politics you must learn to tune out the noisy hum of the drones.” And, fair play, as a pundit babbler and a humming drone, he’s got me in an absolute headlock. But it is interesting how Cummings has managed to recast himself, amid all this, from Wormtongue from the Lord of the Rings series but for telling the prime minister to marry his girlfriend so he’d poll better, to “delightfully uncensorable gossipmonger”, just by calling Matt Hancock a wanker – something the rest of us have been doing without applause for well over a year.
It helps that Cummings’ overarching posting aesthetic is so strangely old-school: every scratch he makes on the internet reads like it was being tapped into a usenet forum from a time before jpegs were invented, back when the web was just text-based online chess and perverts. He tweets – lofty vocabulary mixed with the inescapable dad-like energy of shortening a word to an acronym without really saving any character space at all – like someone who is still on a phone plan that requires them to pay per letter in a text; he’s fond of both a made-u-think ellipsis and the asterisked-in *emboldening* of a word, both of which I thought we all agreed to stylistically abandon around the time AOL stopped sending out discs.
Cummings’ online vibe is oddly reminiscent of history’s greatest poster, President Trump, who essentially fired a nuke at the concept of grammar and created a syntax all of his own, only his is more honed by blogging into strange old beige websites and downloading “UNDER CONSTRUCTION” gifs over a 28kbps modem. Cummings taking to Substack to answer reader-submitted questions this week was inevitable: it’s the closest analogue you can get to an Ask the Mods forum thread in the year 2021.
In a way, I preferred Cummings when he was a whirring cog in the calamitous governmental machine: he made sense to me, there, with that distance, a sort of permanent embarrassment to everyone around him, but in a way that felt at least semi-deliberate. Now that he’s yet another poster, someone chasing the dopamine rush of getting 99+ notifications on Twitter, it doesn’t sit right with me: he’s allowed to just be there, and do things, and say sentences and have opinions, and live near that nice deli in De Beauvoir, as if the entire country didn’t come together last year to unilaterally say we all hated him. How did he do this? He tweeted a few things out in a slightly bitchy way and we all forgot that time he was the most loathed man in the country? I have to hand it to him: if all it takes to have your evils wiped clean from the slate is just “gossiping a bit”, Dominic Cummings really has cracked the code.