Tuesday, 12 May 2020

The Minefield of Life

Each time we leave the house, we expose ourselves to risks that could ultimately shorten our lives. Even within our own homes, in fact, there are countless things that could harm us, from the shower to a stepladder to a loose floorboard. We don't dwell on these risks because, on some level, we understand that trying to mitigate them would be more trouble than it's worth. We accept a degree of uncertainty in exchange for the benefits it brings.

When this cost/benefit analysis is laid out in stark terms, it can appear quite brutal. For instance, slashing the speed limit would probably prevent thousands of road deaths each year, but we allow those deaths to happen because we value the convenience of getting about at speed. Just because we don't obsess over these risks or think about them in such utilitarian terms doesn't mean they don't exist, nor that tacit trade-offs aren't being made.

If we over-thought all the potentially dangerous situations we subject ourselves and others to daily, we'd become neurotic. We would end up fixating on the costs of our actions, because they appear, on face value, more significant than the benefits, which look shabby and selfish by comparison. We would fail to see the disadvantages of not taking that risk, because they are often hidden in the maze of infinite regress that flows from every course of action.

Most of us think of ourselves as decent and compassionate, so if we were asked whether it is acceptable to sacrifice a few thousand lives for the convenience of driving at more than 20mph, many of us would instinctively say no - especially if the question was posed in such emotive terms. We wouldn't necessarily consider the benefits of driving more quickly: the greater productivity it offers, the way it helps vital supply chains, the advances in vehicle safety it has brought, the ability to visit loved ones and see places that would otherwise be out of reach.

When the question is framed as a choice between selfish desires and saving lives, these considerations are sidelined in favour of a simplistic moral equation. Our attention is drawn to costs we'd not previously considered, because to do so would have had us wondering if this, then why not that, and if everything, then life is not worth living. As long as the issue in hand is kept front and centre, however, and no sense of perspective is allowed, then it's disadvantages appear intolerable.

What we say and what we do are not the same thing, however. People are already at liberty to drive slowly. On the whole, they choose not to because the downsides are not continually rubbed in their faces. I dare say that if a concerted media campaign was waged against driving above 20mph, which accentuated the negatives with no mention of the positives, the public mood would swing against driving any faster. This isn't to say that people are weak and impressionable - they simply form judgements based on the data and the arguments they are presented with. If those data and arguments are one-sided and are allowed to dominate the news cycle, people's judgement will be skewed.

Once the public debate is hijacked in this way, and particularly when the authorities offer their endorsement, the prevailing view becomes gospel. Conflicting evidence, however true, comes to be seen as unhelpful, and those who speak it, selfish, contrarian bores. Calling for perspective or offering analogous scenarios is considered foolish. After all, who's going to know more about the matter at hand: the people in high places, or Joe Public?

This blind faith in the wisdom of experts is partly the result of politics being contaminated by managerialism. Since at least the 1990s, social issues have been presented as practical problems with a technical fix - an approach sold as a cool-headed alternative to the ideological approach of old. Of course, many of these experts are, in fact, ideologues who hide their agenda behind a scientific veneer. The idea that problems can be fixed if only we empower technocrats is alluring to those who want to diminish the influence of individuals. The rise of this credentialed class has allowed its supporters to denounce opponents as irrational bigots. It has invited those who want to feel smarter and kinder than everyone else to enjoy a vicarious sense of superiority by subscribing to the verdict of misanthropic experts.

People often cope with the hardships that technocrats infict upon us by refusing to think too hard about the possibility that they're wrong, let alone acting out of malice. Fortitude in the face of manufactured adversity becomes its own compensation - a coping mechanism against the idea that it's all for nothing. When dissenters speak up, they aren't embraced as voices of reason, but shouted down as heretics. Better to accept the party line than indulge distressing truths.

This brings us, circuitously, to the Coronavirus. It is clear from government statistics and scientific opinion that it is not as deadly as first thought. This is obviously of little consolation to its victims or their families, but the fact remains that the eventual death toll will be comparable with that of other viruses that didn't prompt the destruction of our way of life. Significantly, there are nuances to the virus and its effects that suggest it poses little threat to able-bodied people of working age and virtually no danger to children. These should be facts of interest to everyone, yet they are scarcely discussed, not least by lockdown advocates.

If we are saying that, in spite of the evidence, we still need a lockdown (or believe the hysterical approach of the government is a better guide to the severity of the virus than its own statistics), we are prompting the aforementioned question: if this, why not that? If this crisis warrants putting the country under house arrest, then why doesn't everything that poses a similar threat? And if it does, why didn't it previously?

I suspect the answer is that no one tore those other issues out of context and forced us to examine their gruesome detail. Those deaths, many times those of the Coronavirus, remain the unavoidable collateral damage of everyday life. They might trouble us if we thought too hard about them, just as contemplating an egg can turn the stomach, but otherwise (in as much as we think of them at all), we put them down as a regrettable fact of human existence.

For many people, we have come too far and sacrificed too much to turn back now. They indulge the kabuki theatre of social distancing because to do otherwise would involve a loss of face and faith too profound to contemplate. It would turn their reality upside down. 

But reality isn't a question of faith; it's messy and brutal, and is only rendered bearable by keeping it in perspective. Life is a minefield that is best crossed by pretending there aren't any mines. 

Sunday, 5 April 2020

The Rona Diaries

Looking back, I should have known that bad times lay ahead. A couple of unusual incidents in the weeks before the coronavirus struck were clearly bad omens, or “omers” as my great grandmother used to call them (she also called AIDS “the Hague” and crisps “crips” - language wasn’t her strong point).

The first of these events took place while I was driving to the gym one evening. An object flew out of the darkness from an adjacent field and struck the front of my car. When I arrived at the gym, I looked for damage and found a hole in the grille. A shattered bottle of HP Sauce lay inside and oodles of gooey brown muck coated the radiator.

Who knows who threw the bottle or why? Perhaps some passerby hurled it out of disappointment at the bacon sandwich they’d just made. More likely it was a local ragamuffin, who thought it would be hilarious to cover my windscreen in sauce, causing me to careen off the road and plunge into the Thames. Then again, maybe it was something more: a saucy straw in the wind, an HP-flavoured harbinger of things to come.

The second event happened a week or so later, while I was eating dinner at home one evening. I heard the sound of a heavy diesel engine outside, followed by a bang and a crunch. I went to investigate and found the wing and bumper of my car badly damaged. A neighbour ran over to say that a fire engine had struck my car, then driven off.

I followed up with the fire brigade, who turned out to have a different version of events: the van belonging to my helpful neighbour had hit my car while it was being moved to let the fire engine past. Then, the following day, I discovered via our local Facebook page that the van had been stolen. Coincidence? Maybe. Strange? Definitely. Proof that a deadly virus was about to sweep the globe? Almost certainly.

I’m frankly disappointed that one of my work colleagues, who claims to be something of a fortune-teller, didn’t interpret these incidents as signs of an impending global pandemic. I mean, what use is some vague assurance that I will come into money compared to predicting that someone will eat a bat in China and trigger an international crisis? You’d imagine such a huge event would be easier to see coming than me winning a tenner on the lottery.

And so the virus arrived and with it the advice for everyone to work from home where possible. Being the selfless boss, I offered to stay in the office, partly because someone had to and I didn’t want to put my staff at risk, but mostly because the thought of being cooped up in the house for God knows how long made me want to scream.

A few people struggled to adapt to working from home, most coped well enough, and one positively relished the opportunity not to interact with other human beings. For me, sitting in an empty office all day has been a mixed bag. I miss the companionship, the banter, the ease with which questions could be asked and answered. I just miss people. Then someone actually pops into the office and I am filled with seething resentment. How dare they shatter my peace and quiet? Shouldn’t their arse be locked down at home?

When there are just two of you in an otherwise empty room, there are no other distractions, no excuses for not talking to each other. Except I really can’t be bothered. But they don’t know that. They probably think I’d welcome a chat, or that it would be rude not to make conversation, or maybe they’re just itching to speak to someone other than the wife and kids. Either way, they’re the lion and I’m the lone antelope at the waterhole. They get me in their sights, stalk over to my desk (normally showing total disregard for the 2-metre rule) and savage me with small talk.

Fortunately, I’m not particularly anxious about catching the virus, so I don’t scoot away on my chair, making a cross with my fingers. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve already had it. Cold symptoms, headaches, losing my sense of taste and smell - they’ve all come and gone. I guess this is a fringe benefit of risking life and limb to cross the post-apocalyptic wasteland each day. At this point, I’m basically Mad Max with virus immunity.

Whereas I am pretty relaxed about the threat the virus poses to me, some friends of mine have acquired Coronavirus Derangement Syndrome (CDS). They evidently think the air outside is a toxic fug, deadly as cyanide. In their minds, the world beyond their front doors is like something from the Walking Dead: a lawless hellscape, littered with bodies and roamed by zombified hordes of spluttering rona victims.

For instance, one friend, having put it off for as long as possible, ventured out to the supermarket. On her return home, panicked and close to tears, she stripped on the doorstep and changed into fresh clothes her husband had left outside. She then ran to the bathroom, showered and changed into another set of clothes, presumably because the previous ones had been contaminated by her disease-smothered skin. It wouldn’t surprise me if all the used clothes were then burnt and the ashes buried in the garden. There’s being careful, then there’s this batshit insanity.

Of course, the CDS headbangers were fearful people in the first place. They just swapped fretting over global warming for screaming "Flatten the curve!" through their letterboxes. They will always scour the earth for doomsday scenarios with a whiff of scientific respectability, because if there's one thing that worries them more than impending disaster, it's not knowing what disaster lays in wait.

More irksome are the social media scolds who enjoy nothing more than ticking people off for their lack of isolationist purity. These joyless arseholes have taken government advice on social distancing and reinterpreted it to mean that anyone who steps foot outdoors is basically Ted Bundy. They're the ones counting how many times you go for a walk and upbraiding anyone who tries to enjoy any semblance of normality, however harmless. It won't be long before they advocate machine-gunning anyone who leaves the house without good reason - you know, to save lives. Suffice to say, they'll also be distraught when all this blows over.

While we're talking about social media irritants, a special mention should go out to the self-styled supermums. These are the people who put up 'Live, Laugh, Love' signs in their houses, plaster Facebook with cringey guff about how mothers are heroes and inspirations, and invite their friends to congratulate them for simply doing their duty and raising their children. Since they've been on lockdown, we've been spared details of their wholesome days out, but now they're lecturing us on how to do crafts with kids, acting like they're World War Two Land Girls because they planted some seeds in the garden, and presenting themselves as multitasking demigods for adding haircutting to their list of chores.

The final entry (for now) on my list of lockdown losers are the NHS cheerleaders. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the doctors and nurses are out there doing their jobs, but I'm not going to start clapping them on my doorstep. I'm pretty sure none of them were press-ganged into service or are unpaid volunteers. They're just doing the jobs they chose to do - unpleasant and important ones, yes, but it's not as though dealing with sick people wasn't part of the deal all along. Anyone who is still going out to work is doing their bit to keep the world turning and put a roof over someone's head. That includes me, but I don't expect a bloody round of applause for it.

I suspect the doorstep clapping is more about the people doing it than those they're cheering. "Look at me," they're saying, "I'm one of nice caring people, whereas you, yeah you watching Friends and eating your dinner, you're scum." It's only a matter of time before the idiots who live opposite me, who are the most obnoxiously noisy clappers and cheerers in the street, start egging my car for not joining in. Mark my words, this the sort of behaviour that ends in lynch mobs.

Friday, 30 December 2016

The ghosts of Christmas past

I love Christmas and everything that goes with it: the decorations, the presents, the music, the socialising and the shameless excess. It's the summer of the soul in December, as the Muppets once sang - a warm glow of joy amid that cheerless gulf that begins in autumn and ends in spring.

Try as we might, we can never recapture the magic of a childhood Christmas. Our sense of wonder fades with age and we lose the ability to be enchanted by the small things: the sparkle of tinsel, the novelty of once-a-year customs, the thought of Santa tiptoeing through the house. Plus, gift-getting is less beguiling when you can afford to buy things for yourself and can no longer get away with being unapologetically selfish.

It seems to me the Christmas we reminisce about and try to resurrect each year belongs to an age that ended sometime in the 1990s – perhaps because this is when the world began to take on a look and feel that is familiar today. The warm glow of remembrance is generally reserved for different, simpler times, not a dog-eared version of the here-and-now.

Christmases of yore were chintzy and cheap, but that was their charm. The gaudy decorations, tacky gifts and blurry snapshots of yesteryear contained more authenticity than anything found in the big-budget, pixel-perfect modern Christmas. Perhaps no one has recorded a decent Christmas single lately because we’ve lost the ability to be so cheerfully uncool. Then again, maybe we lacked the means to be anything else back then, and progress has cost us our appreciation of modest pleasures.

Progress has also made the world a smaller place. We are connected as never before to other people, inundated with a constant flow of news and information, able to document our lives and swap opinions from anywhere on the planet. This is a far cry from when teenagers relied on letters, magazines and radios to reach beyond their provincial bedrooms – lines of communication that made the world feel bigger for being so insubstantial. 

This was the Britain of my youth in the 1980s. The country was still a grey, parochial place – a land of YTS schemes, picket lines and Findus Crispy Pancakes. Entertainment was four TV stations watched on a square wooden box. Offices were smoke-filled places, full of typewriters and casual sexism. Politics was a battleground, stalked by Tory radicals and Labour Trots. And above everything loomed the Cold War and the threat of armageddon.

No wonder feel-good pop music was so pervasive at the time. People needed a little colour in their lives, and those sun-drenched videos, garish hair-dos and ridiculous outfits provided the perfect tonic. Who wouldn't want to visit Club Tropicana or holiday on Duran Duran’s yacht when there were three million unemployed and nuclear oblivion was a four-minute warning away?

The Eighties also represented a tipping point, from a Britain steeped in custom and heritage to a modern, forward-looking nation. For the young, it was an especially thrilling time, because popular culture was pitched more squarely at them than ever before. A technological revolution saw computers, microwaves and video recorders becoming commonplace in people’s homes, and all this razzamataz was sufficiently baffling to the older generation to suggest a line had been drawn in the sand. It was the dawning of a new era that belonged to the young.

This is significant, because our way of life until then had been largely dictated by that older generation. Most World War Two veterans were barely out of middle-age, and their interests and experiences loomed large in our lives. They respected the past and its achievements, and paid tribute to them through the preservation of everything from our social norms to our architecture, providing a sense of continuity from one age to the next.

I am reminded of this by a moment from my childhood. I was seated by the window of my school classroom, enjoying the warmth of an old cast-iron radiator set beneath. In places, the paint had been chipped away from the metal, revealing ancient layers that marked the passing of the years like the rings on a tree. It occurred to me that some of the caretakers who had applied this paint were long dead, and that the hundreds of children who had sat in this spot before me were now grown men, or had already completed life’s journey. That radiator and that classroom were links between me in the present and the events of the past, and made me feel part of a story bigger than myself.

This conservation of what has stood the test of time has fallen out of fashion. The balance between healthy progress and preserving the best of who we already are has been replaced by a belief that the past is a country best forgotten. It's not just unpleasant attitudes and practices that have been kicked into touch. We've given up something more important: our sense of togetherness, spontaneity and fun. 

Perhaps the nostalgia that consumes us at this time of the year is the response of people who feel that, in the march of progress, they have left something behind. Technology has made it easier for us to stay connected but has enabled us to keep each other at arm’s length. None of this is conducive to the joyous, devil-may-care attitude that characterises Christmas, which is probably why we still celebrate it so passionately each year. It’s a chance to throw off our inhibitions and be who we used to be.

So, to borrow from Ebeneezer Scrooge, honour Christmas in your heart and try to keep it all the year. Live in the past, the present and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within you. Do not shut out the lessons that they teach.