From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: A Covid Encyclical

December 1.  A literary question:  Who is the author of this concluding passage of a book published today?

“By making the integration of the poor and the care for our environment central to society’s goals, we can generate work while humanizing our surroundings.  By providing a universal basic income, we can free and enable people to work for the community in a dignified way.  By adopting more intensive permaculture methods for growing food, we can regenerate the natural world, create work and biodiversity, and live better…. By making the restoration of our people’s dignity the central objective of the post-Covid world, we make everyone’s dignity the key to our actions.  To guarantee a world where dignity is valued and respected through concrete actions is not just a dream but a path to a better future.” (132-3)

You might search amongst the leading ideologues on the left in Britain and the US, but the answer is Argentina via Rome.  They are the words of Francis, 266th pope of the Catholic Church, in Let Us Dream.  The Path to a Better Future.

I would not expect to find myself reading such a text amidst the widespread commentary on the pandemic. I was raised a methodist and have no sympathy for religious hierarchies and rituals.

More broadly, organised Christianity has been notably quiet in this crisis.  There are accounts of individual clergy playing active roles in the plenitude of community support groups that have sprung up around the country.  However as institutions, the churches have been marginalised.  Their guidance is not sought, their views are rarely cited.  The drama of illness and death, of caring and curing, has been largely secular.  There have been polite protests by bishops at the controls placed on church services, and occasional acts of publicity-seeking disobedience by evangelical congregations, but little contribution to the main public discourse or programmes of action.  It is a disjuncture that separates this plague from all that preceded it.

In England, the Catholic Church has been further distracted by the continuing fall-out of sexual abuse scandals.  Most shockingly, the leading Catholic boarding school, Ampleforth, where Cardinal Basil Hume was a pupil and teacher, has just been forbidden by the Department for Education to admit any new pupils following a series of damning reports on its performance and management by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, Ofsted and the Independent Schools Inspectorate.  The school is appealing the decision but is fortunate that an over-full news agenda has not given the event more publicity. 

The pope admits in his book to a collective responsibility: “As I will not tire of saying with sorrow and shame, these abuses were also committed by some members of the Church.” (25)  Further he is aware of his many conservative critics who by arguing that “there is too much ‘confusion’ in the Church, and that only this or that group of purists or traditionalists can be trusted, sow division in the Body.” (71)  Nonetheless he is determined to use the pandemic to reassert his long-matured views on social and economic reform. 

The engagement with the detail of Covid-19 is slight.  There are no statistics of infection or  investigations of particular experiences.  Rather it is viewed as a revelation of the true fraternity of mankind and “a moment to dream big, to rethink our priorities – what we value, what we want, what we seek – and to commit to act in our daily life on what we have dreamed of.” (6)  Sundry biblical texts are cited in support of his case but so also, for instance, are the views of the economist Mariana Mazzucato in her recent The Value of Everything

Let us Dream belongs on one side of the divide between those who believe the pandemic will be followed by a return to normal, with all its minor comforts and major inequalities, and those who see it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the agenda for radical change.  “Today” it argues, “we have to avoid falling back into the individual and institutional patterns that have led to Covid and the various crises that surround it: the hyperinflation of the individual combined with weak institutions and the despotic control of the economy by a very few.” (45-6)

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Panels

Consider these panels.

I have just painted them. Together with more than fifty other panels in several rooms in my house.

They stand for virtue postponed. It is a decade or so since last I carried out interior decoration on any scale. After the beginning of the first lockdown their neglect has been a continuing reproach. The pandemic, if ever, is the time to set about such a task. But the months have passed without activity, only partly excused by the need to attend to the garden as spring gave way to summer and what has been a long-flowering autumn. Finally, as Christmas approaches, I have run out of excuses not to clear the rooms, buy supplies of sail white emulsion and assemble my collection of brushes and rollers.

They stand for absorbed attention. All of us locked in our houses have been seeking occupations that will take our minds away from looming dangers and postponed pleasures. Hobbies and handicrafts have been embraced not so much for the outcome as for the distraction of their practice. One of the consequences of living in one end of a cruck-framed medieval house is that routine maintenance demands serious concentration. Over time, the oak moves fractionally one way with variations in heat and moisture, and the plaster in another. Minor cracks open up which have to be meticulously repaired (hence the pollyfilla delivery in my last entry) and then the edges of each panel have to be slowly painted, keeping clean the surrounding oak beams. There is no particular skill, just great care and patience as the brush is drawn down the edge of the plaster. The hours pass, amounting to almost a week for our bedroom alone and its thirty-odd rectangles. Radio 4 reminds me how often its programmes are repeated.

They stand for the domestic climate-heating disaster. The exterior panels consist of a single layer of brick, plastered on either side. Heat passes readily through them. Only some new panels in the gable wall are filled with a modern take on an ancient practice – chopped French hemp, a light, warm equivalent of wattle and daub. Most of the current housing stock is of course better constructed, but almost none of it has been designed to be carbon neutral any more than it was in the fifteenth century. Johnson’s new green strategy will fall at this hurdle. It is just too late and too expensive seriously to reduce the energy footprint of every residence from the latest Barratt estate box to the remnants of much older domestic accommodation.

And they stand for hope deferred. I set out on the task in order somehow to increase the prospect of a family Christmas. What, after all, is the point of such an effort if it is only to be enjoyed by the two of us? But as I put back the furniture and tidy away my paints, the lockdown rules for the festive season are announced. It would be possible for my children and grandchildren to join the Gadarene rush out of London two days before Christmas and back three days later, but the balance of risk is against travel, whatever the regulations. Rates of infection and death show scant sign of declining. School ends too late, the parents cannot fully self-isolate. Our age-group is just as vulnerable as it was, and with the vaccines coming in the New Year, there seems no case for letting our guard drop.

All that can be said is that on Christmas Day we shall have clean walls looking down on our quiet pleasures.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Shopping

Herodotus

November 19

I am reading Herodotus at nights in the new translation by Tom Holland.  In section 94 of Book One, The Histories describe the practices of the Lydians:

“Their habit of sending their daughters out to work as prostitutes excepted, the Lydians live their lives in a way not dissimilar to the Greeks.  So far as we know, they were the first people ever to strike gold and silver coins, and to use them: the result was the invention of shopping.”

Future historians may come to see the Covid pandemic as the beginning of the end of this practice.

Consider this.  With the second lockdown, I have bowed to the inevitable and embarked on a major redecoration of my house.  This is partly for want of a better occupation, partly to undertake long overdue improvements, and partly as a pact with the Gods. If I make all the rooms as smart as possible, perhaps after all they will be occupied by my children and their families at Christmas.

Just before the lockdown began, I bought the necessary materials, but as was bound to happen, close encounters with neglected walls and woodwork caused me to run out of some essentials.  I was left with the choice of living with decommissioned rooms until the lockdown ended, or going online.

Thus it was that yesterday a van drove through the narrow lanes to my village, up the unadopted lane that leads to my house, and the driver walked along my drive carrying a package containing a pot of Polyfilla.

This is an insane way to run a consumer economy. There is a real danger that after Covid-19 we will build back worse, incorporating habits that were only justified by the extreme circumstances of the lockdown. 

I am not unduly sentimental about B and Q where I would otherwise have shopped.  Over the last decade it has systemically put out of business every other DIY warehouse in the area, as well as all but two of the neighbourhood ironmongers in Shrewsbury, including Birch’s opposite the river, where an elderly lady of irreproachable gentility in her manners and clothes, would emerge from her little office in the back of the shop and sell you a tin of polish or a dozen screws in a brown paper bag. 

Nonetheless there is an economy of scale in making one trip to the shops every so often to acquire a range of essential and non-essential items.  With all due respect to Herodotus, shopping as we now know it was the invention of the nineteenth century, when rising living standards intersected with innovations in the manufacture and distribution of all kinds of products.  In this world, personal delivery was widely practised.  Servants from middle- and upper-class households would leave orders at shops which would later be brought to the door by toiling delivery boys.  Horses and carts passed by selling or delivering fresh food and larger goods.  During the twentieth century the bustling streets gradually emptied, and consumers became accustomed to travelling to the centres of towns and cities to make purchases.

Now the temporary closure of shops may become permanent as they fail to win back business from the online retailers.  The robot-driven Amazon barns will multiply van journeys at just the moment when the necessity of reducing road transport is becoming apparent to all but a fringe of climate-change deniers.  The solution to this problem is far from obvious, other than taxing online retailers to make good the loss of urban business rates, and legislating to prevent the on-line sale of any single item below, let us say, £100.  The exception would be food, where supermarkets should be encouraged to maintain or reintroduce minimum orders. 

This morning, Royal Mail delivered a parcel from John Lewis containing three small picture frames to go on a redecorated wall.  All were smashed, the box full of shards of glass.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Vaccines and anti-vaxers

November 11.  The problem with patrician mavericks like Lord Sumption is that they give intellectual cover for much less fastidious figures.

A week after his Cambridge Freshfields Lecture, Nigel Farage and Richard Tice crawled out of the decaying wreckage of the Brexit Party and announced the creation of ‘Reform UK’ dedicated to the libertarian rejection of the Government’s lockdown policy. 

They wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “It’s time to end the political consensus that there is no alternative to shutting people up in their homes.  The institutions and polices that require change are formidable, and once gain we will have to take on powerful vested interests… We are showing the courage needed to take on consensus thinking and vested interests.”*

As with Sumption and the Great Barrington Declaration that they support, there is a wholesale rejection of the authority of political and medical elites.

In terms of the lockdown, this may no longer be important.  With this week’s announcement of an effective vaccine, the focus of the argument is shifting to the issue of take-up.  Already the anti-vaxxers are attacking the alleged consensus thinking – that the medical establishment is united in regarding the Pfizer results as a major breakthrough even though regulatory approval has not yet been given – and the ‘vested interests’ behind it – particularly big pharma and Bill Gates.**

A succession of studies during the pandemic have described the scale of the anti-vax movement and the strength of its online presence (see also posts on July 7, July 15, August 11).  Politico reports a Eurobarometer survey stating that nearly half of Europeans believe that vaccines are a danger to health.***  Last month The Lancet carried a story based on a study made by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate.  It found that one in six British people were unlikely to agree to being vaccinated, and a similar proportion were undecided.  Traffic on social media was growing.  Globally, 31 million people followed anti-vaccine groups on Facebook and 17 million were subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube.****  A more parochial investigation of Totness published this week in the Guardian, found a thriving Facebook community opposed to face masks, lockdown, and vaccination.*****

It might be argued that such surveys do not matter.  Despite the Pfizer breakthrough, there is no vaccine available today, no real-life decision to make.  Opinion is bound to change once there is a call from the GP surgery.  The question is what the take-up will then be, given that the online anti-vax movement is evidently capable to responding negatively to any claimed medical advance.  It needs to be somewhere near 95% fully to eradicate the virus.

The issue constitutes an interesting case history for the capacity of digital communication to shape private behaviour.  There is a tendency in the critical literature to assume that networked messages have a direct effect on the actions of those who receive them.  That is what power means. The fertility of the conspiracies, the scale of the readership and of the investment in them by advertisers, lead to the expectation that consumers will do things they otherwise would not do if they relied solely on more traditional forms of communication.

In this instance the online-messaging will compete with conventional newspaper, radio and television outlets which at least in Britain are united in their support of the scientific breakthrough, even though some opponents are finding their way onto chat shows.  For all the damage caused to the standing of politicians and administrators during the pandemic, medical researchers retain authority.  The roll-out of the vaccine will start with care-home residents, who are unlikely to be spending their enclosed days following Facebook conspiracy theories, and with eighty-year-olds in the community who will not share the online-habits of eighteen year-olds. Then there are the opinions of close friends and relatives whose views you respect and whose respect you do not want to lose. 

I dare not contemplate the response were I to tell my children that I have decided to let nature take its course.

*https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/11/01/relaunching-brexit-party-fight-cruel-unnecessary-lockdown/

**https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/10/coronavirus-anti-vaxxers-seek-to-discredit-pfizers-vaccine?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

***https://www.politico.eu/article/how-populists-spread-vaccine-fear/

****https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landig/article/PIIS2589-7500(20)30227-2/fulltext

*****https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/11/totnes-covid-concerns-reflect-uk-wide-rise-in-conspiracy-theories?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury,UK: Lord Sumption and Civil Liberties

John Stuart Mill

November 9.  Let us join with Lord Sumption in considering Lord Sumption.

The first practising barrister to be appointed to the British Supreme Court, distinguished historian of the Hundred Years’ War, Reith Lecturer, and now leading opponent of the lockdown strategy.  A wearer of power braces, a man with a high regard for both his principles and his intellect.

In his Cambridge Freshfields Lecture of October 27, he denounced the entire political response to the pandemic, which he described as “the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country.” 

The most famous definition of the freedom of the citizen in the modern era was made by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty of 1859:

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” 

The notion of “harm to others” has since been much debated, but in 2020 it has a clear and unassailable meaning: the transmission of an infectious disease that will result in the serious illness or death of many thousands of people.  Although they lacked the language of political rights, this was why medieval Venice put incoming travellers into quarantine and why mid-seventeenth London locked plague victims in their own houses.  It is not an attack on the principle of personal freedom, rather a necessary restriction on the harm caused by its unlicensed practice.  As a distinguished former vice chancellor of my acquaintance would say, “it’s not even a question!”

The debate that now needs to take place is not about liberty as an absolute right, but the conditions which should surround its suspension. 

 The first condition is trust in the decision-making process.  It has been argued by Lord Hennessy amongst others that the final fortnight in May, when Johnson failed to make any effort to take the devolved nations with him, then failed to sack Cummings over the non-apology for the flight to Durham, represented a loss of confidence that has never been regained.  Now we are all critical statisticians, interrogating every expert pronouncement, most recently the claim that Britain was on course for 4,000 deaths a day, a figure since reduced to 1,000.  Johnson’s Brexit history of seeking to curtail or suspend Parliamentary scrutiny of his actions does not help here, and it is passing strange that now his fiercest House of Commons critics are those who cheered him on when he illegally prorogued Parliament last year. 

The second condition is tacit consent by the population.  Most legislation affecting significant areas of social behaviour follows rather than creates changes in attitude.  Johnson’s administration waited, perhaps fatally, until it was persuaded that the public was ready for a lockdown before imposing one in late March, and the same applied to the delayed re-introduction.  Sumption says that the government’s actions mean that “in a crisis the police were entitled to do whatever they thought fit, without being unduly concerned about their legal powers.  This is my definition of a police state.”  His ignorance of what a police state actually looks like in twentieth and twenty-first centuries suggests he should confine his historical studies to the medieval period.  In practice the police have neither wanted nor needed to enforce their powers except in extreme circumstances, nor could they if popular sentiment rejected the edicts (see USA passim). 

The third condition is equality of treatment.  As noted in my previous post, ‘Waggons, Carts and Lear Jets’, there is a long history of the wealthy fleeing a pandemic and leaving the government to impose controls on the poor and dispossessed who have been left behind.  The issue is compounded by the wider tendency of a pandemic to expose and exacerbate the effects of personal and household poverty.  There is a constituency for protest on this matter; who better to lead it than an old Etonian famous for his seven-figure income when practising the law.

The final and perhaps most important condition is the repeal of the controls.  After the Second World War, the last time when there was a widespread suspension of civil liberties in the interests of defeating a yet greater danger, most of the restrictions were lifted in 1945, although rationing, and with it identity cards, remained in place for a further nine years.  Conversely a more recent threat to public safety, the 9/11 attack, resulted in a permanent extension of the security state, some of it in plain sight, some not made public until the Snowden revelations in 2013.  The question to be answered in relation to all the current regulations, whether debated by Parliament or not, is whether they will continue beyond the pandemic. 

That’s when Lord Sumption will need to ride forth and save us. 

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Waggons, Carts and Lear Jets

Lear Jet

November 4

It is the historian’s business to show that everything changes.  “The past is a foreign country; ”wrote L. P. Hartley, “they do things differently there.”

Mostly.

In some cases the only change is the technology.   Take, for instance, the wealthy fleeing a pandemic lockdown whilst the rest of the population remain trapped in their neighbourhoods.

Early in his Journal of the Plague Year Defoe reported on the flight out of London by those who could afford the transport:

“… and the richer sort of People, especially the Nobility and Gentry, from the West-part of the City throng’d out of Town, with their Families and Servants in an unusual Manner; and this was more particularly seen in White-Chapel; that is to say, the Broad-street where I liv’d: Indeed nothing was to be seen but Waggons and Carts, with Goods, Women, Servants, Children &c. Coaches fill’d with People of the better Sort, and Horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away.”*

Now it’s Lear Jets.  There was a rise in bookings before the first lockdown in March.  Companies were marketing “evacuation flights” out of countries hit by the virus. Whilst commercial airlines have almost ceased operating, private planes, which avoid crowded terminals and aircraft cabins, have continued to do good business. 

Travelling to a second home, or for a holiday, is specifically banned under the second lockdown restrictions which come into force in England tomorrow.  There are, however, ways around the prohibition.  It is reported this week that there is a renewed growth in business for alternative means of escape:

According to the Guardian: “Wealthy people in England are booking private jets to escape the lockdown set to be introduced on Thursday, according to jet brokers. Air Partner, one of the biggest aircraft charter firms, said there had been a ‘sharp rise’ in private jet bookings out of the country before Thursday. The company, which supplies planes to Premier League footballers, celebrities, the royal family and six of the eight governments in the G8, said it had been overwhelmed with inquiries.”**

If you are tempted to follow suit, you may wish to know that the cost of a private jet to Tenerife for five people is about £24,000, one way.  Buying a Lear Jet yourself will cost about $20m for the long haul version.  Who knows when it might be useful.

Should you worry about this?  There is the moral issue.  Also the ecological.  Private jets apparently emit about 20 times more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than commercial flights.  

* Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722; London: Penguin, 2003), p. 9.

** https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/nov/03/private-jet-bookings-soar-as-wealthy-flee-second-england-lockdown?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: OpenLearn

November 3

Following my previous post about the varying topography of the responses to Covid-19, here is a sudden ascent.  As the first lockdown began at the end of March, traffic on the Open University’s OpenLearn site jumped fivefold, reaching a peak in the final week of April. 

OpenLearn was established in 2006 as the University began to move its commitment to be ‘open to people, places, methods and ideas’ into the digital age. 

From its foundation, the OU had deployed the leading communications technology of the time to reach an audience far beyond its student body.  Programmes supporting its courses were broadcast on the BBC late at night, attracting an audience not just of paid-up undergraduates, but large numbers of insomniac self-improvers.  It has continued to maintain a relationship with the BBC, sponsoring a wide range of television and radio programmes.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, it was becoming evident that there were new channels for reaching an audience for higher education.  The OU was awarded $10m by the Hewlett Foundation to develop a platform that would make freely available its quality-assured learning materials to a global audience.  Structured extracts from a wide range of programmes were posted online.

The object was both outward facing, in that it would allow anyone in the world to engage with university-level learning materials, and inward facing in that it would be a means of attracting students to the OU who could make a preliminary trial of particular subjects to establish whether they wanted to commit themselves to a full-length course (one in eight of University’s students now enter the institution by this route).

 According to its newly-published Annual Report,* OpenLearn had an audience of 13.5 million visitors over the last twelve months..  Just over half the users were from the UK, the rest from around the world.   Set against the followers of digital influencers, this may be small change [Kim Kardashian, I note with bemusement, has 189 million followers on Instagram and 30 million on Facebook].  But in the context of the deeply constricted higher education system, the numbers are astronomical.

A typical Russell Group University will employ world-class researchers to teach classes of perhaps fifteen or twenty students at a time (or devolve the task to post-docs).  Oxford and Cambridge were still offering one-to-one teaching in parts of their curriculum before the crisis. Faced with the lockdown, these institutions are struggling to film their lectures and seminars for viewing in their rooms by students who are paying over £9,000 a year plus accommodation costs for the privilege.

OpenLearn was ready and waiting for the sudden upsurge in demand for digital learning.  It responded to those with time on their hands who wished to explore new fields of knowledge.  It rapidly devised units to enable people to acquire recreational skills, and to provide support for those experiencing mental-health difficulties.  It provided materials for sixth-form students whose teaching and exams had been disrupted.  Its pedagogic capacities were made available to the many educational institutions which were having to pivot towards online learning at great speed.  Those whose occupations had suddenly ceased to exist were set on the road to re-training.

OpenLearn was devised for less stressful times. But this is its moment.

*https://openuniv.sharepoint.com/sites/intranet-learner-discovery-services/Shared%20Documents/OpenLearn%202019-20%20Annual%20Report.pdf

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Roller Coaster?

October 29. 

Here’s a puzzle.

Not since 1945 has there been so dramatic a year.  Daily headlines report the imposition, lifting and re-imposition of unprecedented peacetime controls over personal behaviour, steep rises in infection and death rates, dropping to a plateau in the summer and now sharply increasing again, and an unending drama of failed personal protection equipment and malfunctioning test and trace systems. 

Since late March, social scientists have been striving to measure the impact of the crisis on what in the second world war was called ‘morale’.  I have discussed some of their findings in earlier posts.

The two most useful studies are managed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and a Nuffield-funded research group at University College London (UCL).  For the sake of speed, the ONS re-deployed an established Opinions and Lifestyle Study, based on a statistically representative sample of 2,200 people.  UCL went for scale, recruiting over 70,000 respondents through advertising and contacting ‘organisations representing vulnerable groups.’ 

The data in the two surveys are broadly similar, and oddly counter-intuitive.  Whereas the drivers of physical change represent a fairground roller coaster during an event which is far from reaching its conclusion, the dominant shape of the graphs of emotion over the period is a gentle countryside, a landscape of gradual inclines and declivities.  Why this should be so is difficult to understand.

Take, for instance, the basic category of what the ONS terms ‘life satisfaction’, where 10 is ‘completely satisfied with your life nowadays’ and 0 is ‘not at all.’ On their index, it stood at 7.2 when the first lockdown was imposed at the end of March, fell to 6.8 at the peak of infections and deaths at the end of April, and since then has oscillated between these figures, only falling a little below 6.8 at the beginning of October.* 

The baseline for those ‘very or somewhat worried about the effect of COVID-19 on their life right now’ is higher, but nothing like as volatile as the surrounding events.  It runs at the low 80s during the first crisis of infections and deaths, falls to the upper 60s by the end of May where it remains until the end of September when it climbs just above 70.  The last recorded figure, for 14-18 October, is 76.

Similarly, the ‘percentage of adults that say their wellbeing is being affected by COVID-19’ falls from 53 to the low 40s by the beginning of May, stands at 39 in mid-September, and is back up to 49 in the last return.  The ‘percentage of adults with high levels of anxiety’ falls from 50 to the low 30s by the beginning of May and is still at 33 in mid-October.**

I have discussed ‘loneliness’ in earlier posts.  The ONS and UCL use slightly different measures but the results are the same: virtually a flat line from first to last, just a little higher, in its more extreme form, than the condition across the post-war era.

There are discernible changes tracking the surges in the pandemic, but not on the same scale.  And the base level of emotional wellbeing is far less disastrous than might be supposed in this most tragic year.  Most of us would settle for a life satisfaction of around seven at any time in our lives.

Why this should be he case is far from clear.  It is partly a consequence of averaging experience.  Those who have encountered the loss of health, loved ones or employment will report widely different scores.  Nonetheless the relative stability of the graphs over the whole period is a striking fact. 

We appear to be a more phlegmatic society than we might suppose, as was also the conclusion of the wartime studies of ‘morale’. 

*https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritain/23october2020

**https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/healthandwellbeing/datasets/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsongreatbritaindata

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: ARAF

October 26

My county has its own poet laureate.  A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad was first published in 1896. Its theme of the transience of male youth found a wide readership in the First World War and it has remained one of the landmarks of British poetry.

The collection of verses is a taste I have never acquired.  Housman was a Cambridge classics don, who never lived in Shropshire nor even visited it very often.  He projected upon a rural way of life a set of preoccupations which were narrow in their range and melancholy in their outlook.  His poems are not observations of a particular landscape but incantations:

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun,
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.

A pleasing alliteration, but Clun, on the border some thirty miles south of where I live, is in fact a bustling market town, as it must have been in Housman’s time, complete with its own castle.  He could, however, fashion a memorable line, a number of which have entered the national consciousness.  Dennis Potter borrowed the title of one of Housman’s poems for a famous television series in the 1970s.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

The final two lines come to mind as I contemplate the countryside beyond the Severn below our garden.  Wales, unlike England, is now in national lockdown.  The happy highways that take us to our favourite walks, to the nursery that stocks our garden, to Powys Castle for a day out, to the seaside at Harlech, are closed (except for work and exceptional needs). 

The border that runs down the Welsh Marches has always seemed more of an historical relic than a practical fact.  It is only marked on the larger thoroughfares.  Driving west along country roads, the first sign that you have crossed into another country is the appearance of a single word painted on the tarmac: ARAF.  It means slow, at once a warning and a description of the entire transport system in Wales. 

The appearance of a hard borders within the United Kingdom has been a threat since the pandemic began (See my entry for April 14: ‘Borders’).  It feels like one of the many emergency constraints which could be difficult fully to remove once the crisis is over.  In this particular case, however, there may be some gain in the determination of Welsh politicians to find their own solution. 

During the recent row between Manchester and the Government, television journalists kept filming a large, badly-painted graffiti on the side of a building: “The north is not a petri dish.”  You could see the point.  On the other hand, a petri dish is a perfectly useful piece of laboratory kit, crucial, so the story has it, for the discovery of penicillin.  The total lockdown over the border can be seen as a timely experiment.  Conservatives and Labour are arguing about whether a short-term ‘circuit breaker’ is the right way forward. 

Thanks to the Welsh Government, we should soon have an answer to that question.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury UK: Plague-free Communication

October 24.  Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about the merits and demerits of the digital phone.  The early excitement of a device that could free the user from all structures of power has been overtaken by growing pessimism.  It exposes the owner to commercial and state surveillance, abolishes privacy, erodes face-to-face contact, destroys conversation, locks the individual into a private bubble of fantasy and disinformation.

What was not apparent until the present pandemic was the virtue of the digital phone as the cleanest possible form of making contact between people.  It can of course carry germs on its crevice-free surface (for which there are a range of cleaning liquids on the market), but unless you are very careless, they will be yours, not someone else’s.

In an earlier entry (‘Smoking the Mail’, September 10), I cited the description in Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year of the London merchant who went to ever more elaborate lengths to avoid getting the disease from his post, before abandoning letters altogether. In Camus’s fictional account of an outbreak in Oran, “a new decree forbade the exchange of any correspondence, to prevent letters from transmitting the infection.” (Penguin, 2013, p. 54)   Letters remain under suspicion.  In my household we place incoming mail in quarantine for a couple of days, except on the rare occasion, such as the recent envelope of drawings from two grandchildren, when we choose to open and sanitise, rather than put on one side.

By the time Camus was writing, the corded, landline telephone had been in use for more than half a century.  But in the 1940s, it was still only to be found in businesses and middle-class homes.  It was intrinsically a shared device.  One instrument was accessible to all members of a household.  In an office anyone could pick up a handset lying on a desk and insert their finger in the dial.  This came to be recognised as a health hazard, and until lately there were firms offering services to clean regularly all the phones in a building.   Multiple cordless handsets in the home allowed calls to be made in greater privacy, but the equipment was still available to different potential sources of infection.  The digital mobile, by contrast, is essentially a personal possession, protected by increasingly sophisticated security devices which ensure that it is only capable of being used by its owner. 

More basic forms of communication are viewed with still greater suspicion.  Uttered speech transmits droplets of virus. Hence the two-metre distancing and the face masks which curtail but do not wholly abolish risk.  Public houses are shut early, because the later the time and the less restrained the drinkers, the greater the danger of raised voices and increased transmission.  The still more fundamental mode of making contact, physical touch, is generally forbidden except between intimate couples.

The i-phone rescues us from silence and isolation.  Had Steve Jobs been as far-sighted as he is seen to be, he would have held up the first device in 2007 and simply said:

“Behold, here is what we have been looking for since Biblical times, the world’s first plague-free mode of communication.”