from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Mr Worldly Wiseman

Pilgrim’s Progress

June 26. Pilgrim’s Progress has featured in the recent entries on Beveridge and the Welfare State.  For those who do not keep the text by their bed, here is a taste of John Bunyan’s writing.  The first part of the book was published in 1678, following twelve years in Bedford prison for refusing to cease unlicensed preaching. 

Christian abandons his family and the City of Destruction and sets off, carrying his burden, to find salvation.  Along the way he encounters a series of temptations and dangers:

Now, as Christian was walking solitarily by himself, he espied one afar off come crossing over the field to meet him, and their hap was to meet just as they were crossing the way of each other. The gentleman’s name that met him was Mr. Worldly Wiseman, he dwelt in the town of Carnal Policy, a very great town, and also hard by from whence Christian came….

Worl.  … I see the dirt of the slough of Despond is upon thee, but that slough is but the beginning of the sorrows that do attend those that go on in that way: hear me, I am older than thou, though art like to meet with in the way which thou goest, wearisomeness, painfulness, hunger, perils, nakedness, sword, lions, dragons, darkness, and in a word death, and what not?  These things are certainly true, having been confirmed by many testimonies. 

Worl.  Why in yonder village (the village is named Morality) there dwells a gentleman, whose name is Legality, a very judicious man, (and a man of a very good name) that has skill to help men off with such burdens as thine are, from their shoulders, yea, to my knowledge, he had done a great deal of good in this way: Ay, and besides, he hath skill to cure those that are somewhat crazed in their wits with their burdens.  To him, as I said, thou mayest go, and be helped presently.  His house is not quite a mile from this place; and if he should not be at home himself, he hath a pretty young man to his son, whose name is Civility that can do it (to speak on) as well as the old gentleman himself…

So Christian tuned out of his way to go to Mr. Legality’s  house for help: but behold, when he was got now hard by the hill, it seemed so high, and also that side of it was the next way side, did hang so much over, that Christian was afraid to venture further, lest the hill should fall on his head; wherefore there he stood still; and wotted not what to do.  Also his burden now seemed heavier to him than when he was in his way.  There came also flashes of fire out of the hill that made Christian afraid that he should be burned: here therefore he sweat, and did quake for fear.  And now he began to be sorry that he had taken Mr. Worldly Wiseman’s counsel; and with that he saw Evangelist coming to meet him; at the sight also of whom he began to blush for shame.  So Evangelist drew nearer and nearer, and coming up to him, he looked at him with a severe and dreadful countenance…  (Penguin 2008 edn, pp. 20-23).

As the pandemic visits our lives, we are all us faced with ‘wearisomeness, painfulness, hunger, perils,’ to say nothing of ‘nakedness, sword, lions, dragons, darkness, and in a word death, and what not.’ The characters, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Legality, Civility, and the places, Carnal Policy and Morality, may find their counterpart in people and locations you know yourself.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Proportionality.

June 23rd

Three men sitting with their friends enjoying the sunshine on a summer afternoon in Reading last Saturday are suddenly attacked without warning by a man they don’t know, and brutally, and with ruthless efficiency, stabbed to death.  Three of their friends are also stabbed, but their injuries are relatively minor.  It soon becomes apparent that their attacker, who is quickly arrested, is a mentally disturbed asylum seeker from Libya, Khairi Saadallah, who is said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his involvement in the Libyan civil war.  The identities of the three dead men are released one by one; moving tributes are paid to them by parents and friends, who express their shock and loss; the pupils of James Furlong, by all accounts an inspirational local history teacher, gather to pay their tearful tributes.   Boris Johnson tweets a formulaic statement to the effect that his ‘thoughts are with all those affected by the appalling incident in Reading’; Priti Patel calls the attack ‘senseless’ and elaborates on her boss by adding her heart and prayers to her thoughts which are ‘with all those affected’; the media are full of photographs of people laying bunches of flowers as tributes.   The attack is appalling, the grief of those who knew the men heartfelt and touching.

The sigh of relief that will have gone round Downing Street and the editorial offices and newsrooms of our predominantly right wing media must have been audible across London.  Here, at last, they were back on familiar non-Covid territory:  terrorist attacks, knife-crime, asylum seekers, Muslims, white victims, grief-stricken parents and friends.  After weeks of increasing discomfort as they watched the government they had supported into power demonstrating an embarrassing level of blundering incompetence in its handling of a killer pandemic, they were able to beat the Law and Order drum to their hearts content and, in the process, turn their collective back on the Covid-19 fall out.

I suspect I am not alone in detecting a certain disproportionality in what has been going on here.  A couple of weeks ago Professor Neil Ferguson, whose statistical analysis was instrumental in persuading our Government to institute the lockdown in the first place, said that the belated imposition of that lockdown will have resulted in some 20,000 unnecessary deaths.   A government that, supposedly, religiously ‘follows the science’ needs to take such statements seriously, even if a number of senior scientists have been sufficiently sceptical of their claim to feel the need to set up their own parallel, but independent, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.   That means that in recent weeks roughly seven thousand times as much grief, anguish and loss can be laid at the door of our incompetent government as can be laid at the door of Khairi Saadallah’s murderous killing spree.  Those 20,000 deaths will have been painful, lingering and desperately lonely; the grief of parents, partners and children will have been just as devastating; uncountably more lives have been irreparably disfigured and futures blighted.   The media could obviously never lavish as much attention on those twenty thousand lost lives as it has been able to lavish on the tragic deaths of the three men murdered in the park in Reading on Saturday, and culpability for the 20,000 deaths will never be as easily provable, but we should bear all those other deaths in mind, even as we are appalled by what happened in Reading on Saturday.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Reading and Solitude.

The LRB – improve your solitude …

June 22 The London Review of Books (LRB) sends me a digital advertisement: “Improve Your Solitude. Engage with the world’s best thinkers and writers, with Europe’s largest literary magazine.”

In a practical sense the advert is wasted on me. I have been a subscriber since the happy day ten years ago when I retired from university management and swapped my subscription to the Time Higher Education Supplement for the LRB in the mistaken assumption that I would now have more time for reading books and reviews.

Since then the LRB has been a mixed blessing. Most issues contain a piece that interests and informs, but not all. A great literary magazine makes you think you are a little smarter, a little better-read than you actually are. The LRB generally has the reverse effect.

Nonetheless its advert contained a basic truth. For those of us who are locked down without other responsibilities, there ought to be more time for reading. At the least it gives us a chance to replenish the shelves that we want to display behind our heads in ZOOM meetings (the prize for the politician for what clearly is the least-read, and smallest, background bookshelf goes to Iain Duncan Smith. No surprise there).

Books occupy empty hours. But they have never simply been the handmaiden of solitude. It took centuries after the invention of printing for the act of reading silently to yourself to become the standard practice. In the eighteenth-century women in particular read to each other as they worked at a household task, and one in a family read to the rest in the evenings. Increasing literacy and falling book prices in the Victorian era promoted private consumption of the printed word, but demand for books still outstripped the capacity to own them individually, and amongst the newly literate, children read to their less-educated parents and their parents to grandparents. In crowded households with unheated and unlit bedrooms, those who did read to themselves frequently had to do so amidst company. Books were less often the solace of complete isolation, and more the facilitator of abstracted solitude, the practice of withdrawing from others whilst still physically in their midst.

It is too early to take a final view of reading in the lockdown. Bookshops were shut until last week in the UK, book launches cancelled (including my own), as were book festivals. My wife and I were at the Dalkey Literary Festival in Dublin this time last year, and had planned a return visit.

https://www.dalkeybookfestival.org/

On the other hand, the online trade was already well-established, and unlike food, and (for the most part) clothing, it is always possible to re-use what was purchased years ago. It is reported that sales of thrillers have risen, and also books about pandemics. My expectation is that the overall change will not be that great. For every household with more time on its hands, there will be several more in which the adults at least have lost every minute of solitary recreation.

In my case, where not much has altered in my daily round, the problem is as it always has been, the reluctance to take a book off the shelf after an entire day at my desk, reading and writing words. I’d sooner dig my garden.

Add Mss (1). June 16. Bedtime Stories.  No bedtime stories at Styal Women’s Prison, where the stillbirth of a baby to a prisoner has been reported, the second in nine months. The medical staff failed to diagnose the pregnancy, and gave the prisoner paracetamol when she complained of severe stomach pains. Only twenty-three women across the system have been released under the scheme for pregnant prisoners and new mothers under the coronavirus pandemic (Guardian 19 6 20).

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Why are some people so unconcerned?

22 April: My daughter, her husband and my grand-daughter live in Florida. My daughter is a nurse. She doesn’t need to be told that covid19 is serious. She knows that very well – and has to go to work every day in that knowledge. Her fellow citizens in Florida however, including the Governor, don’t seem to be that concerned at all. Even when the Governor, one of the last Governors to do so, called for a ‘stay-at-home’, his order listed “essential services” to encompass “attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship” – and indeed, he actively encouraged people to attend Easter services. This order was supposed to be in force from 3 April to 30 April but, surprise, surprise, he opened various beaches on 17 April. Sure enough, people flocked to them provoking a rather unpleasant hashtag trend ‘FloridaMorons’ – and there are all sorts of people tweeting that they have a right to respond to the virus in any way they please without being labelled in this way.

Apart from having a vested interest in Florida being rendered as safe a possible during this time, I am fascinated by what makes people scared of one virus and not others. I am reading a book called Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond  by Sonia Shah and she asks the question: “why do some pathogens provoke yawns while others trigger panic?”  Americans have not been particularly disturbed by Lyme disease, dengue (which, by the way, is likely to become endemic in Florida), malaria or rabies but they were absolutely terrified by Ebola. The terror took on a name “Ebolanoia”. Shah concludes that it didn’t seem to matter “that Ebola was easily and simply avoided”, it was “its untamable nature that was at the root of the panic.” Corona virus statistics clearly don’t frighten and the death rate, except for specific categories, is relatively low. So far.

Polls in Britain show that the British are concerned, support the lock-down measures and reduced train and car travel suggests people are obeying the rules (#TheEconomist, 18 April)

One can’t resist pondering whether the difference lies, partly, in the messaging from the leaders in the two countries. In Britain, the Government’s message is unequivocal: “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” – and it is repeated all the time on all media. Maybe it is the positioning of ‘protect the NHS’ that strikes such a strong chord. It seems to me to be an excellent communication.

In sharp contrast, in the United States, the messaging from the glorious leader has been confusing, obfuscating and sometimes, downright wrong.

We know that this pandemic will change the world in many ways, unknowable right now but we should call governments to account for their unpreparedness for this pandemic. That is something that should concern us all. It shouldn’t happen again quite like this. I recommend  Shah’s TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/sonia_shah_how_to_make_pandemics_optional_not_inevitable