We are getting close to phoning the last on the list of 230 or so U3A members in York who do not boast email addresses – at least as far as our less than perfect records know. To date I have phoned rather over 120 members and been struck by how phlegmatic and resilient in our present unusual circumstances the overwhelming majority, most of them over 70, have sounded. A few have clearly wanted to make the most, in their isolation, of having the opportunity to talk to someone; most have simply assured me that they are getting on fine and have whatever support they need, and after a brief conversation have thanked me for phoning them. Even those suffering some sort of particular distress in their isolation – a broken foot, a recent stroke, chemotherapy, bereavement – have almost always been able to find something to be positive about. Their overall perspective on the virus, and the lockdown more generally, has been a stoicism – primarily attributable, I suspect, to their age group, but probably also owing something to the county they live in – best summed up by an often articulated: “It is what it is.”
At one level that short sentence is about as banal a statement of the bleeding obvious as it is possible to imagine. How could ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is, ever be anything other than what ‘it’ is? But the statement, ‘it is what it is’, conveys a wealth of coded acceptance: ‘The present state of affairs has descended on us without our willing it to do so, there is nothing whatever we can do to change it, so we might as well accept it and make the best of it.’ ‘It is what it is” is a whole lot more succinct – and one wouldn’t want to waste words in Yorkshire. No semblance of anyone here raging against the dying of the light. But then, of course, the light isn’t literally dying: it is one of more extreme disjunctures of our spring lockdown that the sun is shining and the days are growing longer, even as the light goes out on tens of thousands of lives. ‘It’ would have been much better suited to November. Eliot was right where 2020, at least, is concerned: April is, without doubt, the cruellest month.
But ‘it is what it is’ glosses too easily over what ‘it’, in our case, is. In a 21st century world in which aircraft can travel at 2000 mph, people are able to construct 160 storey buildings, and space probes can be sent to explore the outer edges of our planetary system, the entire world has been brought to a grinding halt by an invisible virus. For all the skill and ingenuity with which mankind can explore the universe, and work seeming miracles elsewhere in the fields of medicine and surgery, there is currently no antidote for this virus, any more than there was an antidote for the Black Death in the fourteenth century or the plague in the seventeenth. ‘It is what it is’ is a kind of comfort in that it deflects any need to reflect on the hubris of twenty-first century man (and of course, if to a lesser extent, twenty-first century woman).