From Brenda in Hove: “It is the lives we encounter that make life meaningful.”

11 June

 “One key feature that we have come to appreciate about Covid-19 is that it is a disease of old age. The chance that a person over 75 will die from it is actually 10,000 times greater than it is for a 15 year-old who gets infected.” * If you are, like me, over 75, that sentence concentrates the mind. It also puts you on notice that, unlike most people in the population, your life won’t change dramatically when lock-down is lifted until a vaccine is found. Even then you are highly unlikely to be anywhere near first in line to get a vaccine. Administering a vaccine to a sufficient number of people to make a difference takes a long time – a very long time. Years.

Pondering what this means to my life put me in mind of the novel A Gentleman in Moscow and an arresting quote: “Adversity presents itself in many forms, and if a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them.” The novel is about a Russian aristocrat, Count Rostov, who is ordered by a Bolshevik tribunal at the time of the revolution to spend the rest of his life in a luxury hotel in the heart of Moscow. He has to vacate his suite of rooms in the hotel and instead take up residence in the servants’ quarters – and all his activities are bound by what can take place in the hotel. It feels a bit like what we oldies are to endure – and how we can find meaning and pleasure in our much reduced circumstances.

When we started out as a group recording this time of Covid, I was immediately pre-occupied by getting my affairs in order, dealing with the practicalities (like wills and other personal papers) as indeed the Count does in the story. The Count is portrayed as a very disciplined person who does not allow himself to drop his personal standards in the matter of dress and daily exercise. He also sets himself the goal of reading the books he has always meant to read (Essays of Montaigne!) but never got around to. Intellectually, one agrees that these things are important when confinement is visited upon one. I even set out to do the very same things! I failed – not miserably, but a ‘fail’ nonetheless. I can’t say I feel ‘mastered’ by circumstances but I do feel challenged. Standards have definitely fallen around here. I wear the same clothes for days on end (who cares?), my hairstyling is left to the tender and haphazard mercies of my husband, my exercise regime goes in fits and starts, and my concentration levels don’t seem to extend to the great books I was so determined to read at the start of all this. Getting the apartment in order after our big move doesn’t seem that important any more. We will take it at a much slower pace. One thing is true and that is that my bridge has improved. Better than nothing, I suppose. Even the inestimable (fictional) Count didn’t get to finishing Montaigne!

If television and YouTube and the vast domains beyond are to be believed, the on-line world is practically humming with self-improvement: virtual exercise classes of one sort or another, language lessons, choirs, orchestras, zoom encounters from one end of the world to the other. I am lost in admiration – but I can’t help noticing it is mainly younger people who are keeping all this going. It is one thing to throw yourself into these activities to pass the time until lock-down ends, it is quite another to embrace this as a new way of life. My world is enhanced by real people interacting with real people in real time. Of course I miss theatre and concerts and exhibitions and dinner parties and book clubs and journeys to far-away places – but they all seem relics  of a life denied for the foreseeable future. Does this challenge my will to live? No. Not even close. Maybe the phrase “master my circumstances” is a bit too ambitious. It could be that we are coming to understand the essentials that make life worth living.

Certainly the essentials for me are the people in my life: my family, of course  – but importantly, my friends. Strange to relate, Covid has brought us closer together. Thanks to the wonders of Whatsapp I can spend hours and hours, week after week, talking to friends all over the world. Most of them I have known for a very long time and we never tire of talking to each other, sharing our ups and downs, our insights and issues, our families’ fortunes and misfortunes, exchanging book and film titles, tips for getting on and leading meaningful lives. It was Guy de Maupassant who said “it is the lives we encounter that make life worth living” and how lucky am I to have such marvellous friends  – and, it must be said, to live in a technological age. Where would we be without technology?

*The Guardian quoting Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, 7June.   

From John in Brighton: My Brave New World

26 May

The World will never be the same again after corona. We must all have hopes for potential benefits that could result from this dreadful pandemic – community spirit, working from home, less pollution …. On a personal level I may emerge a bit more wired – currently in both senses but hopefully just the techno will persist. In a Q&A a few weeks back actor Michael Frayn described the iPhone as “surely one of the greatest peaks of human achievement”. Praise indeed! I’ve never owned one so I cannot confirm or refute his view. Indeed I’ve always had a slight resistance to technology compounded when I read of its addictive potential, cyber crime, concern over data privacy (maybe the denouement of Brexit would have been different if Smartphones didn’t exist) and reports that counter-intuitively the World of the techno age is in some ways more disconnected than ever. And my let-out clause was age, technology is a young person’s game – but Frayn is 86. In fact above all I think I still hanker for the halcyon days of writing a letter, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Instamatic cameras and the trusty old red phone box or if it’s urgent sending a telegram. What do you get from the Queen nowadays when you clock up your century? An e-mail maybe, yuck!
Last week when out on a cycle I read a bit of graffiti  –  “Open Your Mind” and someone had added “But Not So Far That Your Brain Falls Out”. The vision, reminiscent of Monty Python,  amused me which is perhaps a bit of a worry but I’ll put it down to the current circumstances and pressures. Anyway my mind is ajar and my techno pendulum is swinging.  I marvel at how technology is increasingly entering the medical world. AI is beginning to read MRI brain scans and Moorfields Eye Hospital is using it to detect some retinal conditions. Mind-blowing. Antibiotic resistance is becoming a real worry and a  Harvard team have recently used AI to create a new antibiotic named Halicin which is effective against some highly resistant E coli bacteria. Apparently AI is currently pursuing anti-Covid drugs and perhaps they could turn their attention to a corona vaccine if the Oxford prototype is unsuccessful. I’m sure there will be an abundance of further developments. A little over 200 years ago the Luddites’ concern was that machines would threaten jobs so perhaps that’s my new counter argument – dole queues of highly trained docs. But Kenan Malik has blown that one making the case that machines will never (can you ever say never?) offer the ethical and humane aspect of care when their key skill is pattern recognition.
But returning to what is commonly called general-purpose technology and a more personal level last Friday there were a couple of baby steps on my road to Damascus. An hour and a half on Zoom connected to siblings as far afield as Brisbane and with crystal clear images and audio – thro’ gritted teeth I have to acknowledge that as extraordinary, unthinkable even a decade ago. Then in the afternoon online bridge – and as good as if we were physically in the same room. ….which we all but could be I am advised by the fellow players. All I need to do is buy a Smartphone and load WhatsApp – what’s not to like? And there’s my problem – it’s getting easier to maintain lock-down especially with BJ’s relaxation and Dominic Cumming’s amendments than it is to live without a Smartphone. I lack DC’s ability to create fairy tales and fibs and so……
I haven’t quite crossed the Rubicon yet but as I metaphorically trudge across Gaul I’ve got Italy in my sights. If I were a gambling man I’d anticipate being a fully fledged techno proselyte before we emerge from the black clouds of corona. Maybe even the darkest nimbostratus has a silver lining or will I be doubling down on my hankering? …

From David Maughan Brown in York: Reflections on Eyam

April 9th

My nine-year-old granddaughter, Hannah, devoted 15 minutes yesterday evening to reading to me on Face Time – and it wasn’t even my bedtime.  Her reading matter of choice was a page or two of short articles from Whizz Pop Bang, ‘the awesome science magazine for children.’   The articles were short but highly informative and didn’t shy away from using fully-fledged scientific terminology.  I was very impressed by the fluency with which Hannah read some quite technical material, only stumbling a little over ‘palaeontology’ – for which she could very easily be forgiven as I suspect it would floor the majority of our adult population – and I learned a good deal about gargantuan prehistoric turtles 100 times the size of our largest present-day turtles, and a massive explosion in the far reaches of outer space that generated an outsized black hole.

I had no urgent need to learn about prehistoric turtles or black holes, and Hannah clearly didn’t have any need to practice her already advanced reading skills, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was some kind of contact in a world in which the kind of contact we usually have with our much-loved children and grandchildren is impossible.  And that contact was very much the highlight of another day of social isolation.  Thank you, Hannah.  

As we learn to come to terms with the loss of physical contact, the loss of closeness, with many of the people we love, I find my thoughts often turning to Eyam.  The parallels are, fortunately, not all that close (at least we hope they aren’t), but in present circumstances it is salutary to think of the nobility and self-sacrifice of the entire population of a 17th century village who voluntarily quarantined themselves and waited to die so that the surrounding villages and cities would not be contaminated by the bubonic plague they had accidentally brought into the region.  They had no ICUs, no respirators, no personal protective equipment, no antidote; they just waited to die themselves, and in the meantime buried their dead.  Over a period of 14 months of lockdown, those dead numbered over 75% of their families and fellow-villagers.

Most of us are so much more fortunate than the villagers of Eyam in that we know why people are dying, we know how to keep ourselves safe (even if some of us, unlike them, don’t have the good sense to do it), and we know that a vaccine will, once it can be developed, put an end to this plague.   None of which will be of any comfort whatever to those who are currently losing people they love and are, in some instances, even worse off than the villagers of Eyam in that they can’t even bury their dead.  But, when it comes to the daily experience of living in a kind of collective quarantine, where we are perhaps luckiest in comparison with our 17th century forebears is in our often taken-for-granted communication technology.  There weren’t many telephones, tablets or televisions in Eyam.   Nobody in Eyam could have been read to by a granddaughter living in the next village.