Traffic signals in New York are just rough guidelines.

October 17, 2020 – David Letterman


I have always been prone to rushing into new tech-ware without entirely understanding it. As an eight-year-old told me last year on examining my smartphone: ‘So much mess and you’re not using all your functions.’ It seemed to be a more fundamental comment about my existence when I thought about it.

In the late 90s I bought Paperless Office. It made little difference to my paper mountain but I loved it because it made a wonderful noise, just like a metal filing cabinet being shut, whenever you saved a document. I started filing everything just to hear that noise. My roommates, Paddy Corkhill and Mandy Hobbs, now Dame Mandy Hobbs DBE, hated it. It drove Mandy mad and that was an unwise thing to do as she had been captain of the lacrosse team at a muscular girl’s school in the Welsh Marches. Paddy wanted to find something which replicated the sound of a cork being pulled, without success.

Recently, I purchased another app which installed clever traffic lights to be assigned to emails and assembled them all afterwards in a ‘to do list’ under Red, Amber and Green. It struck me that the government, not for the first time, was missing a trick. I hate all this new, insipid blue and white COVID signage, and those charts have all the thrill of an illustration in an A level economics textbook. We want to see striking images, things that move and, most particularly, features that change. Imagine a flashing light altering as the dreary press conference wends its depressing way: ‘Gosh, Puddlebury-on-Sea has just gone amber’; ‘well done Lytham St Anne’s, your amber has just turned green! Oh no, sorry, it was red.’

Much easier surely than Tiers 1, 2 and 3. Everyone will keep forgetting which the bad one is – Tier 1 or Tier 3. Colours are much more memorable. I told Hetty Briar-Pitt about it when she called round with her husband, Sir Ernst Pennington (Pennington J) before we all in London go into Tier 2. It is unusual for me to see Hetty socially. She has time for only two things: her practice and her horses. I could imagine her equine snort at the very prospect of seeing a human being over Black Diamond or Tilly’s Tumble. Both she and Ernst enquired after my health, a more meaningful question nowadays best not answered in too much detail, and I reassured them I had contracted the mild version in March and was still bursting with antibodies. Hetty liked my traffic lights idea and thought it could be used on another interactive online service to see how likely it was that your new year’s fixtures would actually be tried. Ernst could never be drawn on anything that might even vaguely suggest criticism of ‘the system’ and simply said ‘it’s all very difficult’.

Although it was only the middle of the afternoon, I cracked open a bottle of bubbly to keep our spirits up. Even though the cork flew off, hit a portrait of my grandmother and brought it off the wall to the ground, nothing seemed to cheer the Penningtons’ spirits. Then, all of a sudden, Hetty burst into tears. I had only ever seen her do this on rare occasions, usually involving some perceived human outrage upon occupants of the animal kingdom. She came over and hugged me in complete breach of any kind of distancing measures, social or otherwise. Her clasp was so tight that I realised I could taste the salt from her tears on my lips. ‘Oh William!’ she said. ‘We are ruined! I’ve earned £25,000 since March and even with Ernst’s salary, we can’t keep the house and the stables going. There is nothing except remote sentences and directions and bail applications.’ ‘You could always do some paperwork,’ said Ernst, unwisely.

‘Paperwork!’ she screamed. ‘There is no paperwork at the criminal Bar. Oh yes, I suppose I could write a three-hundred page advice on appeal to a client who got eight penalty points from some magistrates’ court for having no insurance and get paid NOTHING. You “civil” people, Ernst, live in an entirely different world.’ ‘It was just a thought,’ he said, sheepishly. ‘Do you think Chambers might want to sponsor some horses, William, otherwise they will probably just have to be shot?’ ‘Definitely an amber question, Hetty,’ I replied. ‘Let me get in touch with the committee.’ I had no idea what committee I meant, preferring, like the government, to delay a very difficult decision just a tiny bit longer.