Pissed-off Toff laments the fact that his views on Covid have caused an old friend to ‘cancel’ him; and reflects that in today’s increasingly fractured society, one can be ‘cancelled’ for an ever-increasing number of transgressions in any number of areas.
A few days ago I abandoned my twenty-year-old Nokia mobile telephone and bought the most recent iPhone 12. Among the various increasingly pressing reasons that drove me to make this technological leap was the desire to link in to WhatsApp, and thus to be able to talk to friends all over the world at no cost. And what better way to celebrate this development than to ring an expatriate chum with whom I had not spoken for a while? I was surprised, however, when my first experience of this wondrous tool heralded not the renewal of a friendship, but the end of it.
It happened like this …
* * * * *
To a friend of 17 years’ standing who lives abroad, I had sent a Christmas photograph attached to an email in which I said that I hoped he was coping, and mentioned that the present blog had provided me with a welcome distraction during ‘lockdown’.
‘Do send a word, if only to say that you have rec’d this,’ I wrote at the end of an affectionate note; but was not particularly surprised when no reply came; because unlike me, he is not a letter-writer. Now, five months later, and with WhatsApp just set up, I tried telephoning. No answer. Later that day, I tried again. Still no answer. And a few minutes later I received a brief email in which this friend informed me that he no longer wished to hear from me. Why? Firstly, because somewhere in my blog I had used the word ‘common’ to describe an actress I particularly dislike. That, he said, was unacceptable. And secondly, because my views on the relative danger posed by Covid were unacceptable too. ‘So now you know,’ his email concluded.
The message left me feeling a little sick. Could this charming fellow, known for his easygoing ability to get on with everyone, with whom I have a shared history that goes back over years, and whom I considered to be a friend for life, one of those people who will always be there … could he really be writing in these terms? Was a longstanding friendship really to be tossed aside so lightly?
I will return to this incident later, but in the meantime let us go back to the early months of the lockdown, when it became apparent that anyone who failed to adhere to the official orthodoxy according to which Covid 19 was the worst threat to life since the Black Death was a dangerous heretic, and to be treated as such. My readers will forgive me if they are familiar with a couple of the anecdotes which follow; but I repeat them here in order to complete the picture.
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Shortly after the entire nation was imprisoned in March of last year, a friend emailed me from his country residence in Norfolk to express his incomprehension and disapproval of my view that we were witnessing mass hysteria stirred up by the broadcast media, and that the lockdown was a grotesquely disproportionate reaction to the reality of the threat. He asked for clarification.
I emailed back at length, elaborating on various matters open to debate and pointing out a number of undisputed facts; for example, that the NHS was not overwhelmed, that 42% of their beds were currently empty, that the emergency ‘Nightingale’ facilities were largely unused, and that many doctors and nurses were sitting around twiddling their thumbs in hospitals that had been cleared out in anticipation of an emergency that showed no signs of materialising.
But this friend from Oxford days was having none of it, and replied that he could, if he wished, refute my points one by one … that he could, if he wished, explain to me, line by line, why he was right and I was wrong … but that he would not waste his valuable time doing so. And in know-all tones of maddening condesension, he implied that my views were not just ignorant, but indecent. I might almost have been a Holocaust-denier.
Against my natural inclinations, I wrote a conciliatory note in reply. Since then I have not heard from him, except to receive a round-robin inviting me to buy a copy of a newly published book of which he is the author and in which all the problems of the world are sorted out to his entire satisfaction.
* * * * *
Then there was the time, again during lockdown, when I visited an elderly neighbour who, in the early stages of dementia, was bored to death and welcomed any distraction. She was being cared for by her son, a surprisingly ‘woke’ fellow-OE; and at some stage I was rash enough to express my view that the coronavirus scare was a little overdone … a view with which the mother entirely agreed.
“Oh no,” said the son. “This is a lethal pathogen” … relishing the doom-laden ‘scientific’ ring of the words.
“But in terms of killer diseases, it isn’t even in the top ten in the UK,” I replied. “And yet we are shutting down our whole country.”
“People are dying of it,” he countered.
“Yes, but people die of lots of things the whole time. Car crashes. Pneumonia. Can’t we have some sense of proportion?”
“It’s a killer disease,” came the answer. So round and round we went in a circle; and a highly intelligent – if rather effete – pupil of the most famous school in the world showed himself quite incapable of getting his mind around the idea of relative risk. To make matters worse, we next found ourselves talking about the ‘trans’ lobby. “If a man says he’s a woman, then he is,” the zealot asserted, as his mother and I looked at him in disbelief.
Did we then find something banal and uncontentious to talk about? I can’t remember. But it was clear that on every issue of the day, there was an unbridgeable chasm between myself and the elderly woman’s Guardian-reading son.
* * * * *
And then there was that telephone call to a girl with whom I thought it would be nice to get back in touch after a number of years. I should have known better (on all matters, her views are those of the bien-pensant metropolitan elite), but for some reason I let on that I considered the lockdown to be out of all proportion to the threat posed by the virus. She bridled, instantly. “I know two people who have died of it,” came the answer. No further discussion was possible, and I immediately abandoned this line of conversation. What good would it have done to ask if these people were elderly and on the way out anyhow? Or to ask if they died of Covid, or with it? Or to point out that the fatality rate of Covid is little higher than that of ordinary ’flu? Or that that doctors are routinely pressurised into giving Covid as the cause of death, even when it isn’t?
None of this would have done any good. As far as my friend was concerned, if two people she knew had died with or of Covid, that was a disaster of biblical proportions, and no measures were too extreme to ‘fight’ the disease. Plus, anyone who suggested otherwise was a monster; barely human.
She too has ‘cancelled’ me, I think. At any rate, when I texted her a few months ago to say that I had been mugged on the streets of London, I received no reply. Perhaps she thought it served me right, vile Holocaust-denier that I am.
* * * * *
We return, in circular manner, to the friend in Italy whose email left me feeling sick in the pit of my stomach. Of the two reasons he gave for cancelling our friendship, the first was that he did not wish (I quote) ‘to hear from someone who thinks that referring to other people disparagingly as common is OK’.
Long enough already, the list of words that one is no longer allowed to use thus grows longer by the day; and now, it would seem, ‘common’ is on it. I would argue, however, that my description of the entirely repellant Kathy Burke as ‘common as muck’ errs, if at all, on the side of generosity. Numerous far less charitable epithets spring readily to mind.
If, furthermore, the use of this admittedly snobbish term – widely whispered in private among the upper classes – now constitutes grounds for terminating a friendship, poor Nicky Haslam is in deep trouble. And what are we to make of Rupert Everett’s memorable description of Madonna? ‘She was tiny and pulpeuse with long auburn hair, slightly curled,’ he writes in Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins. ‘[Her eyes] were the palest blue, strangely wide set; any further and she would look insane, or inbred … In no way was she conventionally beautiful … She was raucous but poised, elegant but common. She had the cupid-bow lips of a silent screen star … She was mesmerising. She oozed sex …’
As for my drawing attention, in the present blog, to the proven fact that the fatality rate of Covid is only a little higher than that of ordinary ’flu, and that the chances of anyone young and healthy dying from it are close to zero, my friend’s objection to this was the same as the objection raised by the afore-mentioned girl who has, I think, also cancelled me. Like her, my friend in Italy knows two people who, he says, have died of Covid. Ergo Covid is the most terrible plague; and to say otherwise is unacceptable.
But however much I try to rationalise it, I cannot see how my transgressions – if that is what they are – deserve such extreme retribution. The whole thing is very sad.
* * * * *
It is also a sign of the times we live in. Because in all this, do we not see unmistakable parallels with Brexit? For Covid, as for Brexit, there are two camps, separated by a gulf that cannot be crossed. When the Brexit war was raging, you had to make sure, before uttering a word, that you knew on which side of the divide your interlocutor stood. I well remember how, at a cosmopolitan party I went to a few years ago, an attractive French girl came close to slapping me in the face when, in answer to her question, I admitted that I was in favour of leaving the EU. Thus with Covid: to state the minority view that the seriousness of this disease does not warrant closing down the country is to become, in the eyes of the self-righteous majority, an outcast.
Indeed, on almost every issue of the day, one is treading on eggshells, and before any conversation proceeds one first has to establish where the other person stands on a whole variety of matters. There’s Brexit and Covid, for starters. And then ‘climate change’, ‘the environment’, the wretched Black Lives Matter movement, ‘racism’, ‘sexism’, ‘homophobia’, ‘diversity’, the obscene ‘trans’ lobby … the list goes on, and express any view on any of these matters with which your interlocutor is not in entire agreement, and you’re out in the cold, an untouchable, a pariah.
And so our society fractures along an ever-increasing number of fault-lines, with various camps glowering at each other across the various chasms that separate them. It was so much easier in the good old days of the English Civil War. Back then, you had only to ascertain whether the other chap was a Roundhead or a Royalist; a puritan or a cavalier. The rest was plain sailing.
No longer, alas. Nor, from my own point of view, is life made easier by the fact that on almost every major issue of our times, I am entirely – and outspokenly – at odds with the prevailing mood.
* * * * *
What, finally, of my friend who has cancelled me with a few words sent from his laptop in a hilltop town in Italy? What if he decides that he’s been a bit harsh, and that he’d like to un-cancel me? The trouble is, what has been said cannot be un-said. So I very much fear that that is the end of that.
What a pity; and what a waste.