The Wallpapergate scandal

First, a warning: Actual wallpaper is involved in Wallpapergate–massively ugly wallpaper, in my opinion highly biased opinion–but no actual gate is known to be part of the story. If there were a gate, though, it would be a very expensive gate, a high-end type of gate, because this is about Boris Johnson and his partner, Carrie Whatsit, spending something in the neighborhood of £200,000 to redecorate the apartment that prime ministers live in. 

Whose money were they spending? That’s where it gets interesting. Initially it seems to have been from major Conservative Party donors, but when the nosy neighbors–also known as the rest of the country and specifically a former aide who he’d first confided in and then pissed off–started honking and quacking about it, he paid it back.

Apparently. All he’s saying right now is that he paid for it personally. He’s not saying when he did that, although he has been asked.

Irrelevant photo: Wallflowers

Prime ministers are given a budget of £30,000 to redecorate the prime ministerial apartment when they move in, and you might think a person could manage with that in a pinch. The Johnson-Whatsit household could not. So, hands up, please: How many of us (al) have £200,000 worth of spare change rattling around in our pockets and (b) would use it to redecorate an apartment we don’t own and don’t have a lease on? An apartment we could be kicked out of the minute the political winds start blowing from some new direction? 

Yeah, preliminary polling predicted the count would go that way.

Maybe Johnson and Whatsit are counting on a long political and residential tenure–a kind of thousand-year Reich, only with wallpaper.

The story starts, as nearly as I can figure out, with Johnson and Whatsit moving into the prime minister’s apartment and declaring it a “John Lewis furniture nightmare.” 

I need to stop and translate that for readers who don’t live in Britain. John Lewis is a department store, and it’s either upmarket or downmarket, depending on what street you entered the market from. If you came in on the street not just used but owned by people who’d be mortified to have the same couch as anyone else, then John Lewis is downmarket. 

Johnson and Whatsit very much came in on that end. 

But I could be wrong to call the piece of furniture we’re talking about a couch. Maybe it’s a sofa. Or a davenport. Or–oh, hell, I’ll never understand the linguistic clues to class that make British English such a minefield. I do know that key objects have different names depending on your pedigree and your bank account. And that it’s all horribly important and completely insane. And may all the gods of snobbery help you if you get one of them wrong among the people who came into the market from Unique Sofa Street, because they take this (not to mention themselves) very seriously. 

Stop giggling. They do. So consider their embarrassment if they find out they’re sitting on a couch that any Tom, Dick, or Theresa May could buy. 

Theresa May was never really one of their crowd, but in fact she wasn’t responsible for buying the couches. Silly thing that she was, she left the furniture alone when she moved in and focused on trying to govern the country. I can’t say I was impressed by her idea of how that should work, but I will give her credit, belatedly, for not trying to make it involve wallpaper.

The Johnson-Whatsit wallpaper is said to cost in the neighborhood of £800 a roll. And of course you need a couch and curtains to match the wallpaper, and a rug to clash with the wallpaper, and all manner of other stuff in startling patterns. The funniest of the photos seems to have disappeared from the internet, but as I remember it, it involved overwhelmingly patterned wallpaper, a couch screaming to itself in the same pattern, and a person who was almost camouflaged by it all. Someone who wasn’t me described the style as Victorian bordello. I’ll take their word for it since I’ve never been to a Victorian bordello–I was born far too late–but they may be doing bordellos an injustice.

[Late addition: You can find a photo here.] 

I do understand that tastes differ, but if I moved into a place that looked like their post-renovation apartment does, I’d pay a lot of  money to make it stop. And I could do it for less than £200,000. All I’d need is a few cans of white paint and a wrecking ball.

So what happens next? I don’t mean furnishings-wise, because the couple seem happy enough in their house of horrors. I mean what happens politically

Well, the Electoral Commission will be investigating whether Johnson broke any of the laws about political financing. That should be fun, even though the commission’s investigations don’t usually end up with criminal charges. 

What all this proves–if anything–is that it’s not the big-league scandals that set the national alarm clock ringing–the ones where the people running the government hand huge contracts to their friends, who then bungle the work and are thanked for it and get more contracts. Those hit the headlines regularly and we roll over and go back to sleep. The ones that wake us up are the wallpaper, the snobbery about stores most of us can’t afford to shop in. It’s not that the others are hard to understand, but this is on such a human scale. We’re watching a panto, that over-the-top British theatrical form where there’s always someone to boo and hiss.

They’re not behind us (as the audience yells at a panto). They’re right in front of us. We can’t take our eyes away.


News from the Department of Unexpected Results

Belgium is facing a different kind of crisis: It needs people to eat more potatoes. The country normally exports them, but the Department of Unexpected Results reports that because of the pandemic a lot of potatoes went unexported.

What’s going on here? Do people eat fewer potatoes during pandemics? Does exposure to Covid reduce people’s carb cravings? Do people only eat potatoes when they’re away from home? Tempted as I am to toss you a few off-the-top-of-my-head answers, these questions are too important for that. What we need here is a serious study. While—we hope–someone’s doing that, let’s treat the issue gently and try not to break anything. In other words, let’s not speculate.

And while we’re waiting for the results of those studies, why not make yourself a nice portion of potatoes? You’ll help improve international relations and fight Covid, all in a single act, with no intermission. The Belgians like their potatoes deep fried, with mayonnaise, but you’re welcome to eat them any which way. 

My thanks to Be Kitschig for alerting me to this crisis. 


Young kids in Ireland and the U.K. responded to the recent lockdowns and school closures by reading longer, more difficult books. That comes from a survey of a million kids, who are reading fewer books but more challenging ones. And they’re understanding them. They’ve had more time to read and the little stinkers are surprising everyone by actually doing it. 

Then they get into secondary school–in the U.K. that happens when they’re around eleven–and after the first year the improvement stopped dead. 

Okay, admittedly, there hasn’t been time to follow the same kids from primary to secondary school. This is a different batch of kids we’re talking about. But is something about being in secondary school killing off kids’ interest in reading, even when they’re not in the building? The answer is a resolute I don’t know, but the study’s author is calling for schools to make more time for kids to read and for secondary schools to encourage kids to read harder books.

Still, we take our good news where we can find it these days: Young kids are voluntarily reading harder books. It’s a safe guess that they’re doing that because they’re enjoying them. And that’s got to be a good thing.

54 thoughts on “The Wallpapergate scandal

  1. Since John Lewis is the recently deceased Civil Rights icon here in the Former Colonies. I was relieved you explained the UK version, as our John Lewis gets little enough respect from the GOP.

    Too bad the pic you mentioned was pulled. Most of the photos of Victorian bordellos I have seen were in the Wild West. Wouldn’t think that was BoJo’s style and certainly not his Partner. And how come they only get an apartment ?
    A lot of kids amazed themselves by reading all of Harry Potter, which were not exactly short books. It would be interesting to see some of the titles they were reading.

    FYI Today I got the email notice of your post. I am not on WordPress, but several other blog’s emails have been missing, or there are two of them, or the Saturday reminder arrived before the Friday one.. So there is probably nothing you have to (or can) do about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In reply to another comment, I asked Lord G. about the wallpaper again and found a link to one of the trashier papers: Have fun. Don’t go blind.

      About the emails: Have you combed through the spam folder? Sometimes stuff starts getting dumped there and if you move it to the inbox a few times the filter may (or may not) decide that you actually want it.

      And yes, it would’ve been nice to have some titles. The survey itself probably did. The articles I found didn’t.


    • The apartment is “over the shop”, i.e. in Downing Street itself, in the row of 18th century houses that also accommodate the political and office staff for both the PM and the Chancellor (=Treasury Secretary). They also have the use of a country house (Chequers), though I believe that’s run under some sort of trust arrangement which means the temporary occupants don’t get to muck it about according to their tastes: it runs more as a country house hotel and conference centre.

      One other significant, and not totally irrelevant, factoid is that the basic £30k re-decoration allowance is just about or slightly more than the average annual household income, and decidedly more than the maximum annual amount allowed for goverment welfare benefits for a family (of any size). It’s also less than one-fifth of the PM’s official salary.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the summary, and the last bit is entirely relevant. It was also tempting to mention that the government’s digging in its heels about extending an extra–I think it was £20 a month to an extra category of people who are out of work. Because god knows they’d do nothing but drink beer and get lazy with £20 a month. And the cuts in foreign aid. And school lunches. I’ll stop before my head caves in on itself.


    • Thanks for the link. The joke would’ve gone over my head otherwise. The problem is that coming from Unique Sofa Street, you’re forbidden entry to those places. Not by the places themselves but by an instinct planted so young that your every nerve fiber tells you you’ll shatter and die of shame if you do.

      It’s very sad.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Fear not, I have it on good authority (that’s her name, Goode Authority) that BJ (short for Whathisname) paid for the redecoration by:

    a) opening a GoFundMe page
    b) tapping into the unspent money that Harry gave up (hey, someone has to spend it, you can’t just save the money)

    On the potatoes, you can’t help Belgium with their problem, they’re EU and you’re not. It’s against the law for non-EU people to eat EU potatoes. It’s actually on a sign in the potato field: NOT EU? NOT FOR YOU! MOVE ON, STOP DROOLING.

    Okay, so I made the drooling part up, but the rest is true. I swear it on the mental stability of our president.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re a bit late if you wanted to swear on a president’s mental stability. It was the last one you needed to worry about.

      We are, in fact, still getting fruit and veg from the EU. I assume that means they’ve sorted out the paperwork mess and the endless lines of trucks trying to cross the Channel, although we’re so busy with wallpaper that the story’s dropped out of the news.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It may be of some, but not a lot of, relevance that Belgium boasts a Carrot Museum. Perhaps they could find something inventive and celebratory to do with potatoes. I don’t think the Belgians have a lot else to amuse themselves with.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I can’t think of any exciting recipes involving carrots and potatoes, but I could at least manage something colorful.

          Clearly I don’t have a lot to amuse myself with either.


      • No, I have the presidential ducks in a row. When businesses are closing down because people would rather stay at home and continue to collect the government checks, then the president asks that the checks be continued that’s enough to question his mental stability. And I’m talking workers that are very well paid like plumbers and factory workers. Schools can’t reopen because school districts can’t find bus drivers. A new company here can’t find employees at $20/hr so it can’t open.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. WOW. In the US I read a few years ago that people living in houses with wallpaper were being included in counts of “the homeless” (the majority of “the homeless” nationwide having belonged to the generation we’ve almost completely lost by now, so in many places our social workers are running out of homeless people to “help”). Not that I expect this news tidbit will make wallpaper fashionable again…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Apparently her nickname amongst the staff is Carrie Antoinette. I can see why. I do find it ironic that after all his years of lying and cheating, the thing that could bring about his downfall is wallpaper. There was an interesting piece in The Times yesterday delving into his finances. Yes, I know it’s another thoroughly disreputable paper but they popped their head up from behind the paywall so I could read it. Basically, he’s skint. It seems his finances match his morals.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. They’ve had enough and are taking the matters into their own hands (the kids from the last news, that is). I recommend “The Capital” next.

    And also, is the Ms. really called Whatsit? :D :D This sounds like something Ellen would come up with.


  6. Wow. That wallpaper must have real gold woven in. I usually try to understand political scandals, but the ones involving concepts I grasped before going in are usually more interesting. And (ugly) wallpaper that costs well over a month’s food for my son, Snoops, Kommando, and me (per roll) qualifies.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s interesting how official residences always seem to go to one extreme or other. On one hand you have the Johnsons of the world, but Canadian prime ministers have been so reluctant to (be seen to) spend anything on 24 Sussex Drive that it’s now essentially uninhabitable, forcing Justin Trudeau to crash at the Governor-General’s guest cottage.

    And in Sweden they finally agreed to a renovation, but not until time the prime minister missed a transatlantic flight because he was stuck in the lift. Twice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love that about Sweden. But lest you think Britain can’t save money (in an unproductive way), the building where the Lords and Commons meet is falling apart, quite literally. Bits have fallen off the facade onto the ground. They have a 24-hour-a-day fire watch because it’s so dangerous. If I remember correctly, it’s infested with mice, and I’m not talking about the elected kind. They’re self-selecting and four legged. It’s going to cost a fortune to fix and the longer they wait the more it’ll cost. But the Lords and MPs will have to move out for the work to be done and some don’t want to because–and here I’m working from memory, so treat it gently–they’ll miss the many, many bars and restaurants, all offering massive discounts.

      Isn’t politics fun?


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