Posts Tagged ‘pandemic’

The woman in the queue ahead of me was clearly glad to be out of the house. “What a pleasure,” she said, “to be out and to see other people”.

I’d followed her into the sport’s hall at Edge Hill University where they were dishing out the vaccinations. The receptionist said I’d timed it well – it being so quiet – that there’d been huge queues first thing. The chap who gave me my dose looked young enough to have still been in school uniform, but that’s because I’m sixty and still think I’m twenty-five. He asked me if the AstraZeneca was okay, as that’s what they were issuing today – like I had much choice in the matter, the only choice being this or nothing. I joked that I was happy to have anything that was going, and I meant it. All the same, I was thinking: that’s the one that makes you ill, isn’t it?

While he stuck it in, my eye caught the waste bucket, full of spent shots. They’d definitely had a busy morning. We had to be turning a corner with this now. It had been such a grim year, a hundred and twenty-five thousand deaths to date. And now here we were, the National Health Service, forever under-funded and fighting off the wolves of privatization, was doggedly hauling us out of the mire, one shot at a time.

She was right, the woman. It was a pleasure to be out, seeing other people – all be they few, well spread out and masked. There was pleasure in the polite exchanges, the small-talk, in the occasional joke. It was like there was an energy, long contained that wanted to be social again.

The drive over had been strange. Shops in Burscough and Ormskirk were all closed. It was like a Sunday, yet the traffic through both towns was as heavy as I can ever recall it being. I didn’t get it. Where was everyone going? I was nervous in traffic, and I’m going to have to watch that. I’m not getting out enough. I’ve always hated town driving, but these towns are familiar and have never intimidated me before. The world seems to have been growing faster in my absence, or at least Covid hasn’t slowed it down much.

I see the world changing actually, becoming accessible only to those who, all along, have had the self-confidence to flout restrictions. Those who did not, those who have stuck to the rules and stayed at home, like me, hunkered down and ordered all their shopping online, risk finding everything in the future, even a trip to the supermarket, a struggle with their nerves.

As for the jab, the instruction leaflet assured me only one in ten people suffer any side effects at all. This sounded optimistic, since of the five people I know who’ve had the AstraZeneca, all were ill. So, I beg to suggest there’s something off with the stats on that one. Sure enough, it took me about eight hours for the onset of flu-like symptoms, and I was out of action until tea time the following day, so I’m not exactly looking forward to the booster. But then a day of mild symptoms is better than dying of Covid. Plus, if it improves the chances of us all getting out again over the Summer, I’ll take as many shots of it as the Health Service tells me to.

On the way home, coming out of Ormskirk, I got lost. There’s a place in town where the lanes split and if you miss it, you’re off to Southport, instead of Preston, which is the direction I needed to be in. Sure enough, I got muddled and found myself on the way to Southport instead. But the sun was shining, and it was good to be out more than a couple of miles from home. I wasn’t sure if the old zoned Covid boundaries still applied – which would have put Southport still out of bounds for me – or if they’d been dissolved with the latest stay at home order which puts everywhere out of bounds, except for those who don’t bother with the rules.

A drive down Southport’s sea front would have been just the thing. I might even have caught the tide in – it being the right time of month. To have seen the sea and the sun shining upon it would have been a real tonic! But no, the guy who gave me my shot that morning, and the vast, publicly funded organization behind him, were playing a big part in getting us all out of this mess. My part was much smaller, simpler: Stay at home. So, I sheered off at Scarisbrick, threaded the car along the little lanes that cross the wind-blasted Lancashire plain, back towards home, and to await the onset of side effects.

Maybe I’d be lucky, and get away with it.

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on pendle hill

Pendle Hill December 2019


My novel-to-be “Winter on the Hill” isn’t about Coronavirus. But then, like all other aspects of life, the virus hijacked it early on and, since then, it has become both backdrop and the occasional plot device.

Our protagonist, Rick (followers of this blog will have met him before) is a former left-wing activist and climate protester. But he gave all that stuff up on the night of the December 2019 election when the Conservative party and “market forces” swept to power. He took a look at his country then and decided he didn’t understand it any more, that while he felt he wasn’t wrong in his lefty, middling-socialist beliefs, he was indeed very much misguided in thinking he could ever change anything. So he joined a walking group and, Covid regs permitting, he’s been climbing hills all year. At first, he was angry and scathing about his fellow countrymen for being so damned irredeemably stupid, but as the story progresses, he experiences a strange mellowing when a deeper truth is revealed.

Meanwhile, the pandemic pulls the mask from the Government, exposing an avaricious face familiar enough to those who have been round the block a bit. Self-seeking, complacent, incompetent, contemptuous of the poor, fanatical only about BREXIT. They have presided over sixty thousand dead – official figures – and now seven months in, the death-rate is doubling again every two weeks.
None of this is a surprise to Rick but, in spite of the urging of his former activist colleagues, he’s too philosophical now to indulge in partisan argument, let alone direct action. Instead, he’s meditating on the nature of “truth”, and how, in a world obscured by untruths, it might be possible to live the authentic life. Or is that just for the monks, while the rest of us must construct whatever comforting false reality we can while at the same time drowning in poo?
There’s nothing truer than boots on a hill, he says. Everything is down to you – the energy, the route, the hill-craft, your eye on the weather. That’s what’ll get you up and down in one piece, not bluff and bluster. But will Rick, in his new-found mellowness, ever return to the political life? Will he return a wiser man, a man with a plan, something that will put it all right for the rest of us? Or will he let the clouds take him, and then his compassionate wisdom becomes lost to us? Has he already decided that in a world dominated by billionaire froth and spin, ever ready to smear him as a crazy-left-Marxist-Commie dooda who eats babies, does it matter what the earnest men and women of Rick’s ilk say anyway?
Let’s remind ourselves of the problem by asking a man who knows, someone very much like Rick, but who hasn’t turned away from the front lines:
I agree with George, but I would add one more thing, and perhaps not surprisingly it’s something Rick might say too. It’s gone wrong because not enough of us care about, or understand enough of what it is George is saying. We are so far down the rabbit hole, all his words can do is further polarize us – those on the left nodding in agreement, while those on the right gather their spittle. And that may be why Rick is tying on his boots and heading up into the clouds again. Election 2024? Forget it, he says. For the things that really matter, environmentally and socially, it was already too late ten years ago.
No, come on Rick. That’s not good enough. We want answers.
No you don’t, he says. All you want to know is how you can go on living a comfortable lie without the uncomfortable consequences catching up with  you.
And there, I think, after several rewrites and dunderheaded attempts, I have the closing lines, of Winter on the Hill – available from all good bookshops nowhere soon, but otherwise free. Just watch for the link in the margin.
I thank you.

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hogarth drunkennessThere are five public houses in my village. One of them, a mile away, spent the day booming out music so loud I could hear it indoors through the double glazing. But it was the Bank Holiday weekend, party time, the year’s last gasp, and all that – so live and let live – or die as the case may be. Unlike me, frolicsome folks were flocking to it for beery socializing and fun. Judging by my brief evening recce, social distancing they were not – and especially not after a long sunny day of drinking.

I do not know to what extent Covid 19 is prevalent in my locale. The track and trace apps, now ubiquitous in other nations seem to have passed poor old Blighty by. Thus, we’re giving it every opportunity to settle in and thrive. If those apps should ever appear, they’ll certainly be needed.

Nor do I know to what extent Covid 19 is considered a killer now. I look at the extraordinary economic and social wreckage of the past five months and conclude the virus scared the be-jasus out of everyone. Then I look at the beer-garden of that pub and I conclude it’s gone away, or it’s become a different virus altogether. Sure, it’s nothing more than a dose of flu. But then the world always does look different from the bottom of a pint pot.

I have no reliable data upon which to decide if any of this is a problem, but my gut feeling is it can’t be good. Were it purely a matter for the biological sciences, I’m sure every individual would have a well-informed idea of the risks they’re taking. But since it’s also a political and economic issue, to say nothing of news-fodder, and since both politics and the media have a rep for playing with a decidedly wonky bat, there’s a feeling of rushing headlong into the year’s back end with no more idea of what we’re dealing with than when we began.

Of the politics, my sense is our leaders have been winging it all year, telling us everything is fine, until it’s not. And then the media plays it for sensation, or, at times, as the nudge-nudge, wink-wink of the politicians they have symbiotically subsumed.

What I do observe, objectively, is that objectivity is fading as the nights draw in. But then I’ve also observed people don’t act on objective facts at all. Our motivations are much deeper, psychologically speaking. Indeed, I suspect few of us act at all, under any circumstances. More we re-act to emotional cues, and the nature of that reaction depends on our personality type. This means some people are still scared, while others are bored and don’t give a damn any more.

We were powerless to stop it, and for a variety of reasons. Its novelty and its virulence rank highly of course. But other factors cannot be ignored – our laissez faire leadership, the antagonistic and chaotic state of international affairs, plus the now chronic levels of public provision have all played their part. But by any measure, the UK has fared badly.

As for what comes next, your guess is as good as mine. But we should be mindful of the fact that just because we’re encouraged to go out and do a thing, it doesn’t mean it’s entirely safe to do so. Indeed, I find calls to invoke the spirit of John Bull and to “do your duty” by propping up the hospitality “industry” is crass and hypocritical. Yes, the world looks ever so rosy when we’re in our cups. But remember, the dawn is coming, and with it, the hangover.

Engineering, steel and textiles, all were left to rot throughout the eighties and the nineties, when the going got tough. Millions of jobs were shed, shredding communities that had known the confidence and comforts of a decent wage, to say nothing of humane, unionized working conditions. Now all there is is this ragged-trousered dog-eat-dog grafting, reminiscent of a Dickens novel. I admit I am no stranger to the all-be-it transient Bacchanalian delights, but why must the giant brewers and restaurant chains, and the sandwich shops be saved at all costs, even at the risk of life and limb?

There are frightened people who have not left their homes since March. Coaxing them back into any sort of life beyond four walls will be difficult. High levels of anxiety and agoraphobia will blight the lives of many well into the future. They should not be taunted by the tawdry bait of a half price meal. Thus, the reckless tell the timid to get out, to get a life, go drink some beer. But without faith in what’s true, it’s inevitable the sensible will take a more cautious approach, and swerve the beer gardens.

But it isn’t all bad news. I feel sure another world is still possible. I know this because the one we’re living in now was unthinkable just a year ago. But the lights are still on, and we’ve kept going. So, what would you happily see never return? What, among the many lifestyle changes we’ve seen, would you  keep? Or are we merely to heave the creaking carcass of conspicuous consumption back towards some semblance of its pre-covid normality? Are we merely to return to that time when we look once more upon “key-workers” as no longer vital to life, but as a faceless precariat, trapped in thankless, zero-hours work, and poverty pay? A glance in the brewer’s beer garden perhaps says it all.

So finally, and with apologies to A E Houseman:

Beer man, that’s the stuff to drink,
For fellows whom it hurts to think.
Go on, look deep into your pint pot,
And see the world as the world is not.
Such faith, man, sure it’s pleasant ’till it’s past.
The problem is, see? It never lasts.

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