Everyone deals with things in their own way. For me, saying things aloud or writing things down gives them form and allows me to look at them a little more objectively. I have always appreciated the “How can I know what I think till I see what I say?” school of thought.
So, back when the coronavirus was little more than a Chinese whisper (am I still allowed to use that expression from my childhood?) I started making notes and gathering anecdotes. At the time, I wasn’t sure I’d ever put these thoughts into any kind of order or make them public. Now though, I’ve decided to go back through them, make some corrections and changes, and see what happens when I string them together.
Having done so, I think this blog is the best place for the finished text, even if it is still somewhat haphazard and certainly not intended as anything more than a collection of personal ponderings accompanied by some tangentially-relevant pictures. (Just don’t ask me to explain some of the associations!)
A few weeks ago, right when the public conversation about coronavirus got started, we had lots of news pieces that referred to population statistics and the habits and reactions of the typical, representative, member of the public etc. All this kept prompting memories for me of “the man on the Clapham omnibus” and of the old Mass Observation initiative.
I’m sure my father had MO publications on his bookshelf; it’s just one of those things I associate with my childhood; I hadn’t realised that the original project stopped somewhere back in the Fifties or Sixties and was only restarted in 1981. I gather that they still accept new writers and, at least as far as I can tell, are expecting to organise their usual May 12th one-day diary collection this year. If we’re still all self-isolating and keeping our distance, our personal lives may be a little less interesting than in some previous years, but probably more people than ever will have time to write and the social commentary may be particularly useful for future researchers.
So, for the last few weeks, although we’ve been discouraged from travelling on the Clapham omnibus or any other public transport, I’ve been observing the masses, at least as far as is possible given restriction of movement and the biases of the media.
The plague years
It’s easy to think about the news in biblical terms – the swarms of locusts, the streets running with blood in Buenos Aires, the bushfires across Australia… it’s all very apocalyptical. We don’t seem to be following the order of the ten plagues of Egypt, and I am finding it slightly comforting to note that I am not the first-born.
I don’t think Egypt suffered a plague of birds, but with so many people referring to the corvid-19 crisis it’s very easy to think that this is all the fault of the crows. And when enough crows get together, it does, perhaps, mean murder’s in the air.
But this is a pandemic, not a simple murder. And I can’t be the only one who sees that word and immediately thinks “panic!”
After some thought, I reckon this is associated with typoglycemia – that ability we have to read and understand a text when we have the first and last letters of the words but the other letters are mixed up. I think my mind just decides to skip the syllable in the middle. But I only think “panic”; others actually take action.
The tissue issue
It’s already weeks since the first rush to stockpile occurred. And, of course, the first shortage here in the UK was toilet paper. Which is odd, because, being brutally realistic, if you’ve got plenty of hand-sanitiser and soap – also an early target for hoarders – loo paper is less of a necessity than almost anything else in the supermarket.
No one has really come up with a logical explanation for our panic-buying of loo rolls, though I personally suspect it was a misunderstanding of the much repeated mantra to “wash your hands”: so many associate that instruction with going to the toilet that I think they must have just made an instinctive mental connection and thought that lots of loo paper would also be needed, although, as far as I’m aware, no one has suggested that diarrhoea is actually a symptom of the coronavirus.
Then again, it is supposed to be a type of ’flu, and if I’m going to get the ’flu, I would definitely want to have spare toilet paper as it’s cheaper, and often softer, than using hankies to blow your nose. Again, though, I’m not at all sure that a runny nose is actually a symptom.
In Western cultures, I think that toilet paper has been elevated to become a symbol of civilisation and control: as long as we have our loo rolls, we haven’t quite lost it. And so we desperately cling to our self-respect and our personal image of first world success by a flimsy strand of two-ply tissue.
Of course it wasn’t just toilet paper and soaps that disappeared into people’s stock cupboards. The dried pasta was the first food stuff to disappear almost completely from the shelves of my local store. (The pasta sauces remained stacked high for days afterwards.) Strangely, it took a while before the hoarders started on the rice noodles, the rice and the instant mash, which I’d have thought were equally desirable to supply easy – and mostly empty – carbs.
The flour stayed around even longer, though now it has mostly been ganneted away: plain, self-raising, strong white, wholemeal, and all the speciality flours made from exotic cereals and seeds. I admit that when I first heard mention of a two-week isolation period, I bought a bag of wholemeal flour. I always make my own bread, and a kilo bag makes three loaves: enough to feed me for a fortnight with very little else in the cupboard. Since then, it’s been pretty much unobtainable and it’s annoying to think how many people went out and bought flour they will never use, particularly as the supermarket still has a wide range of bread on its shelves pretty much every day.
Which brings me on to a conversation I had with a woman in the checkout queue two weeks ago: she had her trolley piled high and said she’d been tempted to just rake things into it – like one of those TV supermarket races – “just in case”. Then she continued, “I’m buying stuff I know I won’t even eat – if I’m sick, will I really fancy black beans in sauce? – so it’ll all end up at a food bank.”
Just a couple of days earlier, I had felt embarrassed to buy two tins of tomatoes – although I had none in the cupboard and they were stacked high and on special offer.
Of course what one buys to put in the store cupboard and how the rest of the household view it are not always compatible. The jar of peanut butter I bought as a standby never got farther than the kitchen counter; within 24 hours it was half empty. Perhaps I should have stockpiled a second while there were still plenty in the shop.
Watching the shoppers shuffling round the supermarket with their trolleys piled high, I’ve been reminded of when brother was an ant in his school play – The Insect Play by the Brothers Čapek – which I must have seen when I was about seven. All I really remember is the dung beetles:
Mr. Beetle. Our capital—that’s what it is—our lovely capital—careful—careful.
Mrs. Beetle. Can’t be too careful with our capital—our little pile.
Mr. Beetle. How we’ve saved and scraped and toiled and moiled to come by it.
Mrs. Beetle. Night and morning, toiled and moiled and saved and scraped.
Mr. Beetle. And we’ve seen it grow and grow, haven’t we, bit by bit—our little ball of blessedness.
Mrs. Beetle. Our very own it is.
Mr. Beetle. Our very own.
Listening to that speech in my head now, I wonder whether it could be combined with Gollum’s possessive, “We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious” and overlaid on a film of supermarket stock pilers.
Of course there are various ideas about where the virus came from – and why.
I’ve heard one rumour that it’s actually all Greta Thunberg’s doing: that the “world tour” she did last year would have been the ideal time to sow the seeds for this devastation. If you consider the decreased pollution levels round the world and the increase in wildlife activity being reported since towns and cities have gone into lockdown – even if the dolphins in the Venice canals have been debunked, nitrogen dioxide levels have definitely dropped and coyotes have been seen on the streets of San Franciso – it would certainly provide a motive. (I’m not blaming Greta, but I’ll admit that hearing a woodpecker this morning in the few moments after waking did set my day off to a good start.)
Another theory is that the virus is a way to kill off the most vulnerable – the least productive who are a drain on our welfare state resources. After all, we’ve been worrying for years now what to do with our aging population and how we will ever manage to provide pensions and health care for them all. If this virus can wipe out a hefty number of the oldest and the most infirm, it will surely be good for the country’s future finances.
A royal crown
Talking of the elderly – though for some reason my fingers wanted to type eldritch – there was a lot of fuss two or three weeks back when the Queen was seen shaking hands despite official advice not to. As she generally wears gloves, I’m not sure the instructions were quite as critical for her as for us plebs who don’t. Prince Charles, on the other hand, adopted the namaste greeting with hands together and a slight bow. Despite this, he is the one who is reported to have contracted the virus. Up till now he has only worn a coronet, but now he has corona. There is, of course, a long-standing rumour that the Queen is determined to outlive her eldest son and heir and never let him have the crown. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.
Some weeks ago, the approach was all about herd immunity. My understanding was that we needed some 60% of the population to catch the virus and recover (never mind the fatalities along the way) to provide a kind of barrier of natural resistance. If that was the case, then I think it would be up to us, in the interests of the community, to go out there and get sick. For all we know a lot of people did and are simply asymptomatic. Or perhaps asymptotic – like me, forever going off at tangents.
But the official line changed and now we are semi locked down, socially distant and self-isolating.
Personally, I feel that telling the elderly to self-isolate is in bad taste: financial pressures and government funding cuts have forced closure of local post office branches, destroying the heart of many communities, while bus services have also been cut back, meaning that the elderly have been isolated for years.
They, of course, have been isolated through no choice of their own. That’s in contrast to half the people I know, who already choose to live pretty much alone, relying on the internet as their window on the world. For them, I suppose the current situation makes little difference.
Songs for survival
It really is impossible to think of writing about the last few weeks without mentioning the number of songs we have learned to sing as we wash our hands. And the number of ancient celebrities who have come out of retirement to sing to us as we carry out our ablutions. From Gloria Gaynor’s I will survive (of which I haven’t yet found a video that lasts the recommended 20 seconds) to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline – hands washing hands… Or do you dedicate your hand washing ritual each day to the friends that FaceBook has told you are celebrating birthdays. (Perhaps it’s just as well that “Happy Birthday to you” has been ruled to be in the public domain, or we’d all be going bankrupt even if we don’t lose our jobs during the lock down.)
I said this would simply be a collection of personal ponderings, so there really is no conclusion to be reached here. At over 2,000 words, this is probably stupidly long for a blog post, but it’s been interesting to take some of these thoughts out and air them, to see how they can be linked together and how I can find old photos from much older posts that may also have vague connections.
I didn’t have much idea at what point I’d stop, nor what picture would go at the end. Then I found this screen shot from back in 2017. I hope, dear reader, that your immune system is a full time one, not a just a weekend one.