Catherine Mayer's diary

Written by Catherine Mayer on 17 December 2010 in Opinion
The London bureau chief for TIME on why you should never grumble about interviewing the PM

David Cameron has changed over the few years I've been profiling him for TIME. He's blossomed into a world-class schmoozer, in the Bill Clinton league, but without the compulsion to collect telephone numbers.

At Tory conference this autumn he pushed through crowds at a party to tell me that he'd been listening to my husband's band, Gang of Four. Aficionados will know that the band's lyrics don't exactly chime with Conservatism, not even small state, big society Conservatism. I doubt he's been dancing around the remodelled Downing Street kitchen to Capital (It Fails Us Now).


In July, we were sitting in Newquay airport's VIP lounge, a setting every bit as glamorous as you might imagine, when Cameron asked which Gang of Four track I'd recommend.

My editors had summoned me back from book leave to interview the PM before his first official trip to the US and I was pretty grumpy about being there. I was determined to finish the first draft of my book by the end of the summer, but the Gods of News seemed to have other ideas.


TIME gave me a three-month sabbatical after the elections to research and write a meditation on the changing perceptions and realities of age and ageing. Called Amortality: the Secrets of Living Agelessly, it's due to be published by Vermilion, an imprint of Random House, in May 2011.

A copy editor at this very moment is standing by for my final version. Which is why I was tempted to cover Ireland's crisis from London. I've worked in Ireland often over many years.

But to viscerally understand the intractability of Ireland's problems, you really need to be there, not in buzzy Dublin but on a ghost estate where children paddle in sewage or a high street where the only things still for sale are shop leases. There's no substitute for on-the-ground reporting.


"The locusts are coming," remarked an Irish economist I rang. Such bitterness was understandable. Ireland's attempts to fend off a bailout were faltering and the influx of foreign journalists briefly promised to offset a fresh exodus of the country's brightest youth.

Anger bubbled against the banks that had lent incontinently and the politicians who believed their own propaganda about the unstoppable Celtic Tiger. But another emotion was more pervasive: shame. "How could we have been so stupid?" people wondered.

And when you heard their stories about the high-rolling years of conspicuous consumption and saw legions of half-finished, semi-derelict housing developments littering the countryside, you began to see their point. Yet anyone who knew Ireland during the 1980s will also understand how easy it would have been to succumb to the collective euphoria that attended the country's emergence from recession, and the years of prosperity that followed.

"We're f***ed," said a protestor in Grafton Street. "You tell the Brits: it's coming to them next."


Right and wrong. Many Britons won't fully feel the sting of austerity until next year. Any impulse towards national solidarity is likely to be sorely tested if the City's irrepressible Masters of the Universe start celebrating the next round of bonuses just as their less fortunate compatriots slide into deeper hardship.

But the UK isn't in the same predicament as Ireland. One of many key differences lies in the political cycle. Brits have already kicked out the government they blamed for the mess and vented their mistrust of the entire political class at the ballot box.

Fear of the markets' distaste for weak government helped to impel the formation of Britain's doubleheaded coalition monster. Few in Britain, not even Tories or Lib Dem - indeed especially not those two - trust or like the creature. But Ireland offers a bleak vision of what happens when politics fails.


People across the political spectrum do seem to harbour a soft spot for Boris Johnson, guiltily, like a junk food they know isn't good for them. At the Foreign Press Association's annual awards ceremony, London's mayor congratulated the assembled ranks of international correspondents for circumventing Britain's "crazy immigration system" to work here.

To my surprise, he then summoned me on stage and thrust a chunk of engraved perspex into my hands. My piece about Cameron's US jaunt had won a gong. A moral of that story was that Britain matters more to America than is sometimes recognised. The moral of this story is never grumble about being sent to interview David Cameron.

Catherine Mayer is London Bureau Chief for TIME

Tags: Boris Johnson, Catherine Mayer, David Cameron, Diary, Ireland, Issue 31

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