Twenty weeks of Coronavirus

We’ve had thirty days of lockdown; let’s review the diary since mid-April.

23/4/20: It IS the end of the world as we know it, and I don’t feel fine. It’s easy to have good and bad days in this lovely springtime lockdown. But don’t get bitter – get ready. The worst is yet to come; the slow-mo apocalypse is happening all around us. It’s pointless to mourn for old England, for she is gone. No use crying over spilt countries, or mooning over past glories. There’s no slow return to normality, where all the angst-ridden environmentalist Guardian readers can assuage their guilt whilst still going to Waitrose three times a week. There will be shortages, there will be privation. This time now, it’s like the “phoney war” in spring of 1940. Ask someone who lived through the cold winter of ’47/48 what they thought about that.

25/4/20: Andrew Marr writes, “The most fundamental thing WWII changed was the political climate. It made democracy fashionable”. What will Coronavirus change? Civil liberties are no longer fashionable, that’s for sure.

28/4/20: It is possible that earlier reports of the demise of Merrie England, may (recalling our Mark Twain) be exaggerated. What is not in doubt is that that classic English quality of understatement, really is dead. And that, my friends, is moderately displeasing…

8/5/20 – VE 75: An action-packed day. We put up bunting, cleaned the house, made some party snacks, and had afternoon tea outside, dressed, so far as was possible, in 1940’s clothes, with red, white and blue in them. An absolutely delightful time of (socially distanced) fellowship all along the street in lovely warm weather.

16/5/20 Reading Margaret Attwood’s apocalyptic novel “Oryx and Crake” which has been a remarkable journey. Shouldn’t have done it really – not really appropriate reading for the current times, at all. Her story-telling draws me along and as an amateur writer, much I ought to learn from her.

18/5/20: The lockdown draws to an end, such as it is. This may be disastrous and cause a resurgence of the disease. Long have I maintained that the lockdown itself will cause more damage in the long run than COVID-19, so “disastrous” is a relative term. Workmen have returned to repairs on the aging railway embankment at the foot of our garden. A piledriver bangs its very necessary but distressingly loud way through the day. I’m informed that this particular embankment, between Croydon and Oxted, is one of the worst examples in the country, of cheap and nasty laissez-faire Victorian private sector railway construction. Who knew?

24/5/20 My latest read was written by my namesake Richard Hough, and is a biography of Captain James Cook. Very interesting reading. I made some oat crackers. We’re making a lot of our stuff bespoke now: bread, muesli, crackers, even pasta sometimes. Chutney when the apples are ready. With my wife to wish happy birthday to an old lovely older gent who lives locally. He has the habit of paying NO attention whatsover to anything you say, and yet he manages to do this without conveying offence.

31/5/20 This evening we had two friends of ours over for socially distanced drinks, at a table on our patio. It was the first social occasion for months other than the VE 75 celebration. Oddly enough, this couple were actually the last people we socialised with in the old times. We enjoyed a pleasant pub lunch with them in the White Hart at Brasted, on the weekend before the lockdown started.

5/6/20: This morning, on my walk, politics and moral philosophy are banging back and forth around in my head like my brain was an empty tin can with a handful of dried peas thrown in to make a rattle. Is it only me that happens to? I read in John Martin’s “Raid over Berlin” “…a long established group of five [prisoners of war] who…to some extent shared things, but not food. This was always individual as it was so precious“. An interesting observation of prisoners.

14/6/20: Last night I dreamed of writing a screenplay for John Wyndham’s classic novel about telepathy, “The Chrysalids“. I woke up and started fleshing it out from my recollection of the chapters. I ended up re-reading the whole book. Would anybody go to see such a film? Or watch it on Netflix?

21/6/20 Father’s Day. I receive some cards and a crate of beer. A good day. “…patiently with invisible structures he builds, and as patiently we must pray, surrendering the ordering of the ingredients to a wisdom that is beyond our own” – R.S Thomas, “Adjustments”, writing of a greater Father than I.

27/6/20 Today I made a cash purchase! I bought some shoelaces from the guy near the station. The first cash purchase since sometime in March. Later on my son and his girlfriend came to visit for socially distanced lunch and supper, and we had a feast of delightful food made by our middle daughter.

8/7/20 A morning of heavy rain. This is the first morning since all this began, that my early morning routine has been disrupted by the weather. So I’m sat in the bower at the end of our garden, listening to the pleasing and refreshing sound of rain on the roof. Looking out across the lawn, I can see it has prospered wildly from the rather smelly lawn-food I spread on it the other day. It is clear however that I did not spread it in an even way, for the prosperance is blotchy. A bit like all our lives!

Near Westminster cathedral

15/7/19 – a little over a year ago.

In about half of my ways, O Lord, do I acknowledge You…coming through to spend time in Westminster Cathedral in my lunch break, I take a back street behind the head offices of John Lewis – Ashley Place, SW1. This lunchtime two things struck me.

The first is, the large piazza outside Westminster Cathedral has no cafes – not one. It is remarkable and unique for that reason. London itself, outside Covent Garden and one or two other areas, does not seem to have the cafe culture it could have or ought to have – ’tis a shame. Cathedral Piazza may be one of the biggest and most prominent squares in the whole of Western Europe that has no cafes. In any other city in Europe, a square like Cathedral Piazza would be absolutely crammed with tables and waiters from Easter til late September. Every square foot of building round the square would be tenanted by cafes and bars. Even in northern cities like Oslo or Stockholm, a square like this would be full of people eating and drinking.

The second is the homeless: I have taken this back street for years to avoid the ubiquitous Big Issue sellers on Victoria Street. There is a limit to the number of times you can buy the Big Issue. Over the last few years, it has become a place for homeless people. It is out of the way, hidden from traffic, largely free of uniformed policemen, and hidden from the bustle of Victoria Street. Today, two derelicts, lying in the street. Where did they come from? They were always there – they are not, in general, very young people. They are generally white Anglo-saxon men of military age. Other ethnicities tend to be much rarer, and few women – though there are one or two. I bought the Big Issue at intervals from a gap-toothed but cheerful street lady round here, often from the front of Pret outside Victoria station. The whole issue of mental health – particularly for men – is highlighted by the unfortunate people found in these streets. To say nothing of social justice. But even though it seems an inappropriate question, it is a question deserving of an answer: why are these homeless derelicts nearly all white men?

Glinda

The car swerved towards him; his moped skidded and slipped out from under him. And then he was down on the tarmac with sudden and frightening violence. He came to a stop and somehow, got up, running and limping away.  He found himself running desperately along a side-street he’d never been down before, his crash helmet abandoned somewhere.  He didn’t know where he was, nor how he got there.  He was limping just as fast as he could manage, breathing in desperate ragged gasps.  They would be after him, his pursuers from the other gang.  They would not let up until they got him. They could not; there was no escape; no way out, no rescue.

Four or five doors down the street was a café, with a big window.  The window had a dark green frame. Peering in the window he could see tables and chairs inside, and napkins, tablecloths, glasses and plates. There were chequered tablecloths of white and brightest egg-yolk yellow.  He became aware that he was cold and hungry.  Inside, he could see a lady, perhaps a waitress or a cook, busying herself with her work. The lady turned toward the window, and with a start, he recognised her.  It was his reception teacher, Mrs Burke!  She saw him. She made a movement of her head that was not a suggestion but a command – that he should come along inside. All of a sudden he felt about four years old; he was in reception class.  He was being chased by the school bully.  He pushed the door open and went inside. A bell gave a little jangle.   

His eyes darted around looking for a place to hide.  In only a few seconds they would be upon him.  They would burst in here and finish off what they had started. Mrs Burke looked at him, arms on hips.

“Round the back”, she said. “Quick”.  He dashed past a serving counter into a sort of private area behind. Here they could not be seen from the street. She followed him, looking at him sternly, and yet somehow kindly.  He remembered her well; she looked almost the same as she did years ago when he was in school. She had been the nicest and friendliest of all the teachers.   

“What are you like? What on earth have you been up to?” she asked. “Look at you! You’re in a right state!”

He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

“Someone’s after you.  Don’t worry – they won’t get you.  You’re safe here.  But look at you” she repeated, “your clothes are torn and filthy.  You’ve been fighting, haven’t you?  Sit there, and we’ll see to you.”

He slumped into a chair, all of a sudden drained of strength.  Mrs Burke turned away and left the room for a few moments.  She returned with a shiny green box, and a glass of lemonade.  The big green box had a white cross on it – it was a first aid kit. The glass of lemonade had ice and leaves in it.  He looked askance at the leaves as he took the proferred glass. 

“Some of the leaves are mint” she said. “You don’t have to eat it. Drink round it. It makes the drink taste fresher. You’ll like it. Drink it up.  Some of the leaves are not mint; they are very special, with healing properties.”

As he gulped at the lemonade, Mrs Burke dabbed with cotton wool and ointment, at his grazes and cuts. There was an odd sensation in his head; almost as if everything was slowing down or unwinding.  It was if a single moment was going on, and on, and on. It was like a clockwork toy running down.

“Now, in a minute, go into our bathroom – through there – and get yourself tidied up.  There will be some clothes laid out for you. Wear the new clothes instead of your dirty clothes.  Just leave the dirty clothes on the floor. Have a proper bath with bubbles. There’s plenty of time. If you come out to soon, I’ll send you back in again to do a proper job! Now git! Take your lemonade with you.”

He got up and went further back into the rear of the café, to the door indicated by Mrs Burke.  Through it was a tiny space with two doors, one for boys and men,  the other, for the girls. He went through into the men’s bathroom. There was a tiled floor; it was warm, heated. There was a bath with big old-fashioned taps. There was a dressing table with a mirror. Various grown-up lotions and potions stood on the dressing table. He looked at a few of them and sniffed at them. Grown up perfumes. Body lotion.  Eau de cologne. Shower gel. He had never in his life seen so many toiletries, never had he smelt so many nice smells in one place at one time.

There was a big frosted glass window…there was a big frosted glass window, and there was sunshine streaming in through it.  There was a big frosted glass window, and there was sunshine streaming in through it…but it had been a dull and rainy day only moments ago when he came into the cafe. He peered closely at it, trying to look through, pressing his nose against the cold glass, but he could make out nothing through it other than light.  There was no way to open the window. 

He put the plug in and started the bath.  He poured in a great deal of a green substance with a nice smell.  He hoped it was bubble bath.  It started to make bubbles. It took him quite a bit of fiddling with the hot and cold taps to make the water just right. While the bath was filling, he took his clothes off.  Over a towel rail were laid some jeans and a sweatshirt, socks and underwear.  Bemused, he picked up the sweater and jeans and looked at them, felt the material in his hands, and then put them down again.  He looked through the various jars and bottles on the dressing table. There was a jar of some brightly coloured crystals labelled “bath salts”. He’d heard they were good for baths, so poured them all into the foaming water. He’d not had many baths.  They’d had no bath in the flat on the tower block where’d been with his mum, when he was a little boy.

It was all so fine and grand. All this grown-up posh stuff to use.  There was a bath mat that felt like fur on his bare feet. There was a stack of towels, white like snow or perhaps like clouds against the blue sky of mid-morning.  He took one out and it was so big it wrapped around him a number of times. It too felt soft and luxurious to the touch.  On a little bench he discovered a pile of magazines. “Sick!” he said to himself. They were new and glossy, with pictures. Some were car magazines; another had pictures of scenery and people from different places in the world.  A third was about different pop stars.  Another was about engines and motors.

He climbed into the bath, wincing as the hot water touched the grazes on this legs.  This was nice.  He looked through some of the magazines, and just lay back in the hot soapy water.  When his fingers looked shrivelled, after quite a while, he got out.  He was feeling quite hungry now.  He put the clothes on, and went back out into the kitchen, where Mrs Burke was busy.  She turned as she heard the noise of the door opening.

“Ah. Good lad. Let’s have a look at you now”. She came across to see him, her sleeves rolled up. There was flour on her fingers.  She peered at him short-sightedly, as if over the top of reading glasses she was not actually wearing.

“You’ve drunk some of my very special lemonade with bits in it. That’ll make you feel a lot better.  You’ve had a bath in my bathroom and that will have done you the world of good too. And you’re looking very smart in some new clothes.”

“How did you know my size? You can’t have known I was coming…and…what about the sunshine?” He moved a little to look out of the door into the main part of the café; outside the big window, there was grey afternoon, rain.  He looked sharply at Mrs Burke and went back into the bathroom.   Sunshine was still streaming in through the frosted glass. He came out again, back into the presence of Mrs Burke, in the café, a shelter in the world from the rain, a place to hide from the other gang, who sought to end him. Their knives were out for him, but he was OK here with Mrs Burke.

“They won’t get you; you’re quite safe here, and when you do leave, you will be safer still.  They cannot harm you now.  Now: sit down here and have some supper. It’s OK; people outside cannot see you.”

He sat down, no longer capable of worrying, just wanting to eat something.

Mrs Burke appeared with a little notepad and a pen, poised to write.

“Are you ready to order, sir?” she asked.

He read slowly through the menu and noticed that nearly everything on it was his favourite food. He ordered pizza with pepperoni and hot chilli sauce, and a coke, and then some ice-cream. It seemed strange to him that the café had no other guests.  Perhaps it opened in the evening only, just for grown-ups. It did not seem strange to him that Mrs Burke was in charge.  He was in a strange kind of place where strange things could happen, and he was not at all bothered by it. 

When he’d almost finished eating his ice-cream, Mrs Burke came to sit down opposite him.

“Nice?” she asked. “You’ve seen our special bathroom; by now you’ll be very much aware that this is an unusual cafe. It’s not anywhere. Not everyone can come here. You can’t even see it on the street.  You could walk by it and not notice it.  But the people that do notice us, well, they always come in, and they always feel very much better for it.  I’m really pleased to see you.  You’re going to be OK now.  You’ll be able to do great things by yourself.  You’ll be going back to the place they can get you: but they won’t get you.  But you need to change yourself.  You’ve to turn to the future, turn away from the past.  You’ve to stop all those dodgy deals I know you’ve done, and get on the straight and narrow. You’ve got greatness ahead of you, believe me, young man.  Even if you had not been here, you would have been able to do great things.  But people who have been washed in our bathroom here, find it difficult to get into trouble later. You will – you must – go on.  You must get back to college. But the very first step is the hardest.  You’ll walk out that door, and then take that step.”

“Have a look in the mirror in the bathroom” she said.  He went into the bathroom and looked at himself.  He seemed unchanged, though perhaps a little pink and clean from the bath he’d had, and from the effect of the new clothes.  As he left the bathroom and went through the anteroom, he noticed that the tiled floor had a spiral of yellow tiles starting in the middle, getting bigger, spiralling out to the door into the café.  He went through the door one last time to see Mrs Burke waiting for him.

“On your way then, young man”, said Mrs Burke.

“Will I be OK?” he asked.

“Believe me when I say, you will be fine.”

And with that, he opened the door – which tinkled again – and walked out into the afternoon.  Hours must have passed: the rain had stopped and late afternoon sunshine was breaking through.  As he walked away from the café, three men suddenly burst round the corner on the opposite side of the street. One of them glanced across the street at him, for an instant, before ignoring him and running on. The other two men did not even notice him. They ran on down the street away from him, past the café, and disappeared.  He came to the end of the street and saw the street name: Lorien Street.

In the next street, there was a crowd at the scene of an accident. A youth on a moped had been hit by a car.  Police were there, and paramedics in green were tending to the badly injured youth.  As if from an immense distance, he saw the youth being lifted on a stretcher into an ambulance. He had an odd head-spinning moment of disorientation, as he became aware that the youth on the stretcher was him.

21 lessons for the 21st century, by Yuval Noah Harari

If you can’t afford to waste time, you will never find the truth”. When you think about that, it’s either nonsense, or it’s the deepest profundity. Yuval Noah Harari’s book contains a handful of similar memorable quotes – another is “the problem with evil is that in real life, it is not necessarily ugly. It can look very beautiful”.

Overall I found this work rather negative, much harder to read than his excellent “Sapiens”, reviewed here. Today we rightly go to some length not to notice or to judge the characteristics, background or ethnicity of people. It really ought not matter, and of course it doesn’t. Now, with some writers you have little idea who they are, or what their politics are. The author is invisible; the story, the writing, is all. John le Carre is one such. But Yuval Noah Harari is not. The reality is that when reading him, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he is gay, very secular, and a Jewish left-leaning university professor. He seems to have a very low view of the human race, which may be partly understandable, but it is not a view I share. I have no time for that depressing but popular school of thought that sees humankind as a Bad Thing.

An important point he does make is that this is not a timeless age, these are very changeable times. He notes that a man in 1020 A.D would have been able to predict, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that things in 1060 A.D would be pretty much the same. That would be true through much of human history perhaps, until the 20th century. Then the pace of change really does start to pick up. Exactly why that was, would be the subject of more debate still.

Harari argues that today, in 2020, NO-ONE really knows what 2060 will look like – and this was written before COVID-19. How much less now? I can’t even see what the state of civil society will be in six months from now, much less forty years. In 1920 you might have dared to predict 1960 with some degree of success. But he suggests that to dare to predict 2060 would be pointless. (Actually, there are a number of writers and philosophers who do make just such predictions, though Yuval Noah Harari, as someone working in this area of thought, seems oddly unfamiliar with their work.)

He argues that the central skill that our young people need today, is not (only) the traditional “three R’s” or even STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), but the ability to deal with change. And that our schools – us in effect, we elders – have failed to deliver this. Resilience – the ability to adapt, to be open to change. To recreate oneself, to re-engineer who and what we are. As someone once said to me, “the jobs of the future are the jobs of the imagination”. How do we recreate ourselves, not once, but again and again and again over the course of a career? How do we earn a crust in a world we can’t even imagine now?

But for all Harari noting that the pace of change may be accelerating, it is worth recalling that developing technology rendered it ever thus. There are not many fletchers, thatchers, archers, or ostlers around today. When trains were invented in the mid-19th century, coachmen, coach drivers, owners of coaching inns and so forth fought long and hard to restrict or prevent the spread of railways. They knew – they knew! Their jobs were going to disappear. But new jobs emerged. New trades became necessary. Harari argues that new jobs will cease to emerge as technology develops and as machine learning and AI improves, but again, I don’t share that view.

Dealing with constant change is just one of a number of important themes and ideas emerging in Yuval Noah Harari’s book covering some of the great philosophical questions of our time. Overall, his analysis of dramatic and unknowable change for the next 40 years, is somewhat despondent and a little overstated. Rather like George Orwell does in “1984“, he underestimates the power of cynicism, inertia and idleness, to say nothing of snobbishness, pride and vested interest. It’s a bit like when classic mid-20th century science-fiction predicted that we’d be on Mars by the end of the century. It never happened – not because we couldn’t, but because we didn’t. We couldn’t be bothered, or because other matters (the Vietnam War for example) were more important.

But one premise does keep me thinking: what if you were ruined tomorrow? What if – as Harari wonders – everything changes and your livelihood completely disappears? What are the steps to reinventing yourself? How do we deal with ultimate change? We’re all going to die eventually, so ultimate change really ought not, at least for Christians, be too hard to deal with. But the post-Christian mind, or the un-Christian mind, has less training to deal with that, perhaps. How do you deal with constant change in life? Not once but again and again and again?