There are times in my life when I am disproportionately grateful for the most trivial of distractions. This is one such time. It has been a year of unquantifiable horrors, and so I’ve found myself seeking out small pleasures like a pig snuffling for truffles. Things that I previously took for granted – sitting close to friends in a cosy pub, not having to wear a mask in the supermarket and so on – seem like distant memories. I had a cold recently and even that seemed sweetly retro. Ripping open the Lemsip Max was a nostalgic reminder of a more innocent era – the snotty-nosed equivalent of Proust’s madeleine.
It was with this mindset that I approached the recent coverage of actor Dominic West’s colourful private life. For anyone who hasn’t been following this particular saga: the 50-year-old West was pictured frolicking in Rome on an electric scooter with 31-year-old actress Lily James.
The photos were concerning for two reasons. One was the presence of an e-scooter. It seems borderline offensive to me to be using this absurd form of transport for a romantic assignation. I mean, imagine Roman Holiday remade with an e-scooter in place of a Vespa. Dominic could do a lot worse than following the example of TV presenter Melanie Sykes, also 50, who was pictured snogging a 23-year-old gondolier in Venice a week later. That’s the kind of commitment to an age-gap romance and geographically appropriate transport aesthetic that I admire. You go, girl!
The more pressing issue was that Dominic, unlike Melanie, is married. His wife is a gorgeous, aristocratic landscape designer called Catherine Fitzgerald. Two days later, Dominic and Catherine appeared at a staged photo opportunity outside their house, doling out a handwritten note to photographers claiming all was well and good chez West and please move on, there was nothing to see here (I paraphrase, but that was the gist of it).
I found it compelling. I feel bad admitting this because I take no joy in another couple’s marital issues and, besides, who knows what goes on behind closed doors and if they have an open relationship, good for them. And yet…
It was the utterly bizarre nature of it that arrested my attention – why the handwritten note and strangely misplaced grins? Was he wearing the same trousers as in Rome? Was this some meta-cinéma-vérité storyline from Dominic’s TV drama The Affair (in which he stars as a novelist who has… well, an affair)?
It also reminded me of those Tory politicians who got caught in sexual peccadilloes while then PM John Major was touting his Back To Basics campaign. The ones who would appear in their weekend mufti for the waiting journalists, dragging a pale-faced wife behind them and some mop-haired children who would pose mortifyingly against a gate to show everything was just fine, thank you, when it never was.
It was then that I realised the allure of the story was not so much its content, but its framing. It was a good old-fashioned celebrity scandal, the kind we’ve been starved of during Covid. Government scientist Professor Neil Ferguson – who allowed his married lover to visit him at home during lockdown – did his best, but it wasn’t the same.
Then, in one fell swoop, Dominic West reminded us of a simpler time: the halcyon days when the idea that someone high-profile might or might not have slept with someone they shouldn’t have was the extent of what we had to obsess over on any given day.
I’m being slightly facetious, of course, and I don’t forget that behind the headlines exist real people with real feelings. I truly hope everyone concerned emerges unscathed (not the e-scooter, though: I hope it careens into a flaming abyss). But whatever happens next, I’m grateful for the diversion provided by Dominic, Lily, Melanie and the gondolier.