Where had I imagined a conspiracy theorist might live? A musty flat, the only light spilling from a bank of computer screens onto a desk strewn with empty brain-supplement packets. A campervan, perhaps, parked up on a remote hilltop, with a grid of satellite dishes arrayed on its roof.
Instead: A semi-detached house in a quiet, genteel road in one of the leafier environs of South London, amid rows of elegant Victorian semis, average sale price £1.8 million, the front gardens lustrous, the cars lining the pavement expensive and new. Within one of these lived my new client—let’s call her Z—a middle-aged woman in a cavernous house. I’d come with a friend to do the garden, to rein in the shrubbery and mow the lawn.
“Have you seen this photo? See the missing crest on the gate? It means the Queen’s a paedophile.”
She had answered the door with a smile two minutes before, and remarked on the felicitous weather. She had the slightly awkward mien of a 50-something nerd, and the look of someone who was preparing to spend the day indoors: a lumberjack shirt and tracksuit bottoms, a roll-up cinched between yellowing fingers.
Now she was holding up a tablet screen, pointing to an image of a filigreed gate, which I immediately recognized as belonging to Buckingham Palace.
“I’m sorry.” I gibbered. Perhaps I’d misheard.
“The crest. Look, it’s missing. People are saying it’s a sign that the Queen’s involved.”
I walked back out to the front garden in a state of shock.
“Everything OK?” my colleague asked.
“Tell you later,” I muttered, and started slowly snipping the pyrocantha.
Surprisingly, Z was the first conspiracy theorist I’d ever met firsthand. Like everyone stupid enough to stay on Facebook, I have had my share of digital nemeses. I’ve seen people go rogue remotely—tripping on the gateway drug of wellness culture, dabbling in a bit of knee-jerk contrarianism, descending into alarming all-caps fantasies about the lizards and the liberals.
Anyone who stays abreast of current affairs will be aware that this strain of magical thinking has infiltrated the Anglophone, perhaps even the global bloodstream. A pandemic, the violent apotheosis of the Trump presidency, and the broader upsurge in emotion-over-fact populism have exposed and accelerated the crisis of “fake news” as never before. A survey commissioned by Hope Not Hate last September suggested that 17% of Brits believe Covid-19 to be a man-made “depopulation plan” masterminded by the UN.
Yet for those of us still clinging to more rational appraisals of how the world works, adherents of such hysterical theories as these belong to a parallel universe, frothing on message-boards most of us will never frequent. Meeting Z, who had so obligingly revealed herself to be a true believer, seemed a golden opportunity. A chance to probe a modern phenomenon that was both fascinating and scarily, increasingly consequential.
And, boy, was she forthcoming. Over the course of the day, Z succeeded in steering conversations about how hard we should cut back the honeysuckle into disquisitions on every batshit conjecture from the Infowars archive.
The queen’s paedophile ring, according to Z, extends throughout the senior echelons of progressive politics. Coronavirus? Something to do with 5G. I guessed that was why she displayed an anti-social attitude to social distancing, wilfully closing whatever gap I managed to cultivate so that I often had to inch away, pawing the air for a spade handle with which to defend myself if necessary. She explained that she’d been feeling splendid thanks to some pills she had been taking, because each one contained as much goodness as “350 oranges”. But then she’d developed a headache on the same day that she saw a plane fly overhead (chemtrails!) and, well, the link was clear.
She offered us a bottle of luridly purple liquid, “full of magnesium,” extolling the miraculous effect it would have on our energy levels. After I’d accepted a whole glass—I could actually taste the metal—Z told us she’d bought it via mail order from America. Its sale was prohibited in the EU, she added as an afterthought. But what did the EU know? Only the other day they had “tried to ban vitamin C.”
Around midday we carried the tools through to the rear garden, passing through a living-room where a well-loved armchair stood in a corner, pulled up close to a computer screen. The garden out back was a sanctuary, overgrown with jasmine and clematis rambling across the borders and ornamental trees fruiting above mature shrubbery. The sun was shining. Bees hummed about the lavender bushes. I hoped she’d leave me alone to enjoy the afternoon’s work.
“Donald Trump is fighting for the people!” Z shouted at my back, without preamble, as I was teetering on a ladder attempting to prune a cherry tree. I looked over my shoulder.
Her reasoning involved George Soros, paedophiles, and other eccentric ideas which, many months later, were identified as the collective delusion known as QAnon.
I felt an urge to grab Z by the collar and scream, “Donald Trump is the conspiracy you twisted maniac!” But I didn’t. I couldn’t. And ever since I’ve been pondering my reluctance to intervene, or even to reply.
On our second visit, I promised myself that I would push back. This time it was late October. Donald Trump had just recovered from Covid. This episode, we learned, was evidence of a last-ditch Deep State plan to derail Trump’s re-election, a plot which, due to his superhuman fortitude, he had foiled. The campaign of which he was the messianic figurehead was nearing its denouement. The architects of the “New World Order”—Z’s preferred epithet for the malevolent globalist elite of her imagination—were about to be exposed. The whole rotten edifice was about to come toppling down.
When her arguments ran aground in the face of my gentle resistance, she chastised me for having fallen victim to establishment brainwashing. “Of course you would say that,” she repeated, ad nauseam. “You’ve been fed their propaganda.” What was I finding so difficult to understand?
What was most instructive was the joy Z took in her own paranoia. Every time she dropped one of her “truth bombs” into the conversation, she positively swaggered. Knowing the “truth” about the Deep State clearly made her feel quite wonderful.
I didn’t know anything much about Z’s life before she fell down the rabbit hole. But I couldn’t help making a few idle speculations. From her lack of tact—failing, for instance, to tease out some sense of our political sympathies before assailing us with the full arsenal of her own—I inferred that she must be at least somewhat socially maladjusted. I wondered whether she was short on friends. But now she appeared to have found a surrogate community online, and developed a cultist’s zeal. She would rattle off some non sequitur, then return to her stool to chew on a roll-up, looking for all the world like Buddha attaining enlightenment.
The conscious decision to reject science and experts and burdens of proof in favour of the unhinged and sensational had invested her with an apparent feeling of superiority, of an illusory control over an otherwise aimless life, I thought. Like an evangelical finding God, she had discovered a magical story she could make her own.
In another time, maybe her finger would have been jabbing at lines of the Bible rather than an iPad screen. But the hunger for righteousness, and for enchantment, were no different. I didn’t have the energy to argue that she’d been duped by the very nexus of greed and corporate power she thought she was resisting. Would it have helped if I had tried?
In the late afternoon, Z came out to the gate to see us off. As we were packing up the car she said something I missed, but which I knew from her deportment—the immovable smirk, eyebrows arched, inviting riposte—was a parting shot for me.
“What was that?” I said.
“World peace. That’s what it’s all about.”
A lot has happened in the months since then. I’m rather looking forward to hearing how Z accounts for it all when her garden starts to grow out of control again this summer.