Increasingly isolated by the lockdown, increasingly aware of the havoc that lies ahead, and increasingly worried about his own circumstances, Pissed-off Toff finds that his mood darkens still further.
MONDAY 11 MAY
The weather, previously glorious, has turned cold and overcast. Stuck in this lonely grey limbo, I feel half-dead, and I ruminate.
* * * * *
For a few years when I was a small boy, we lived in a cottage next door to William Morris’ manor at Kelmscott in Oxfordshire. My parents were young and beautiful with a bit of money, and their life at the end of that quiet lane was an idyll, part chic, part bohemian. My father, a skilled woodworker, built a punt for excursions on the nearby Thames; we lived largely outdoors; and all our water – including drinking water – came from a well in the garden.
There must have been a spare bedroom, because a steady stream of guests came to stay. However, many of them subsequently developed a nasty fever; and as, one by one, they fell ill after leaving the cottage, my parents grew concerned. So the water in the well was tested, and was found to be teeming with lethal bacteria … cholera, I think; or it might have been dysentery; and they realised that we had developed immunity to a disease which might have killed others. (It was only many years later that my father told me this story.)
Covid 19 is caused by a virus, not a bacterium, but I can’t help reflecting that I’ve had flu only once or twice in my life, whereas some seem to get it every year. I also realise that my view of health – and of health scares – is entirely unfashionable. I view ill-health as an essentially moral failing. I’m not talking about real diseases, mind you, like cancer, malaria, tuberculosis or dementia. I mean general ill health. I have no sympathy for it, and when people start coughing and sniffing and sneezing anywhere near me, my reaction is one of barely suppressed annoyance.
Thus when I was watching a TV programme about the virus the other day, I felt not one jot of sympathy for the obese proles who had succumbed to it and who were emoting in front of the camera, one of the men even bursting into tears and moaning about his ‘mental health issues’. And there was everyone going “Oh poor you, poor you!” when what they should have been saying was: “You know why this virus got you, don’t you? It’s because you’re repulsively fat. Now pull yourself together, stop blubbing, and lose some weight.”
Why, too, was it not more widely commented on, when Boris fell ill, that the reason he succumbed to the virus is that he’s fat and unhealthy? Height: 5ft 9in. Weight (pre-illness): 17½ stone … that’s gargantuan. Plus, he probably drinks too much, and who can blame him, because being PM must be stressful. So no wonder the Corona went for him: prime minister and also prime target.
But that was not the narrative that the TV news channels wanted. Not enough sensation. They preferred the false but more dramatic message of “anyone can get it”… all the better to scare you with, as the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood might have said.
* * * * *
The sun has come out and I go for a walk to try and improve my mood. It helps to admire the beauty of spring and also to look at architecture to which I have given too little attention in the past.
I’ve got used to taking these photos now, so here, again, is Eaton Square abandoned on a weekday afternoon.
Surveying this abandoned stretch of road at the heart of the metropolis, I reflect, once more, that I just cannot understand how you can close down a country as we have done, or how people will let it happen. No sane or healthy society functions like this.
This, surely, is how civilisations end.
TUESDAY 12 MAY
I ring a friend in Yorkshire who, though by no means a drinker, nevertheless enjoys a G&T or two of an evening … and he tells me that during this ‘lockdown’ he has given up booze and is also on a diet. I ask whether he is finding it hard. “It’s not easy for the first few days,” he replies. “And after that it gets easier.”
And my gentleman-farmer friend on his estate somewhere near the Saxon Shore has done the same too, with remarkable results. And a third friend, stuck in his Mediterranean villa, works in the garden for much of the day and swims for miles in his swimming pool and is now the very picture of boyish health.
So the lockdown seems to be dividing us into the virtuous and unvirtuous. I know which camp I fall into. Perhaps I should try going on the wagon for a while. I managed it once, after all. Why not again?
WEDNESDAY 13 MAY
It is clear that the act of national suicide in which we are now indulging could not have happened unless we had in any case been travelling in this direction for quite a while. You do not, after all, wake up one morning and say to yourself, out of the blue: “You know what? I think I’m going to commit suicide today.” No: it is, rather, the end of a process, often a long one.
And the process, in our case, is an ever-increasing – and by now total – inability to accept any risk or danger whatsoever, and an ever-increasing susceptibility to the latest terrifying scare story. Seen in this light, the Coronavirus is just the biggest scare of them all … enthusiastically stirred up by the media, whose sole purpose, nowadays, is to frighten everyone out of their wits, and the bigger the scare the better.
With the current ‘crisis’ the media have, of course, created the very apocalypse they so gleefully predicted. And when, some time in the near future, we survey the ruins and belatedly realise that our national suicide was all for nothing … then, perhaps, we will finally see the rolling TV news programmes for what they are: manufacturers of the fear, hysteria and complete loss of any sense of proportion which are now destroying our world.
We are, quite literally, being scared to death. And the main culprit, by a long chalk, is the TV news.
* * * * *
A friend emails to say that on his family’s estate, which is home to a number of small businesses, 90% of the workers are on furlough. Most of them, he reports, are only too happy to sit at home doing SFA, as he puts it, on 80% of their salary. Indeed, he continues, it will be very difficult to persuade them to come back to work. Partly because the Government and media have done such a good job of scaring them; partly because they’re getting used to a life of leisure and are not minded to give it up; and partly because the Government’s own propaganda has given them a copper-bottomed excuse to stay put in front of the large plasma screens in their lounges.
Another friend paints a different picture. Near him, increasing numbers of formerly self-employed people of the sort who even in good times lived a fairly hand-to-mouth existence now have no cash left and are desperate. Presumably they have stopped paying their rent. Which in turn impacts on the landlords.
Whereas for many of the people I know, this ‘lockdown’ is just a surreal interlude, in some cases to be enjoyed … before the bill comes in a series of ominous brown envelopes.
THURSDAY 14 MAY
Yet another glorious spring day.
The number of people out and about in the streets creeps up. In the Duke of York Square at the top of the King’s Road, I see a group of four men drinking beer. And further down the King’s Road I come across two men with suspiciously sharp haircuts, clearly the recent work of a professional hairdresser operating in defiance of lockdown rules. I am tiring of my Robinson Crusoe look and I wonder how I too am going to get shorn.
I receive a telephone call from a friend who lives in a village which, like many others, has an online WhatsApp noticeboard. During the period of stricter lockdown, now over, a sinister anonymous message appeared on it. “We are aware of those of you who are taking more than their allotted one hour of exercise each day,” it read. “We know who you are.”
The same lockdown spies also took issue with a small artisan bakery which a few young people recently set up in the village. A morale-boosting enterprise, one might think, and thoroughly public-spirited. But no! More anonymous WhatsApp messages and accusations appeared. Opening the bakery was ‘irresponsible’, they claimed … the gloom-defying bakery was making ‘non-essential’ products and should therefore be closed … and more shrilly, even: “Do you want to kill us?” and “Have you got the right permits from Environmental Health?” And so it went on, with the whole of the formerly sleepy rustic community joining the fray, which happily ended in defeat for the puritans.
All’s well that ends well, you might think. To my mind however, this little story shows how many people have embraced their imprisonment, and how they are also only too happy to act as the busybody agents of repression. I am beginning to think that perhaps most people in this country do not really care about freedom at all. They would prefer a strictly controlled life of State-guaranteed safety, entirely without any form of risk … a life, therefore, of serfdom.
My thoughts turn blacker still … because have we not revealed ourselves, during this self-imposed ‘crisis’ (less a ‘crisis’ than a colossal nervous breakdown), to be a nation of cowards, serfs and spies, utterly in thrall to upstart barons and their idiot soothsayers and overbearing men-at-arms? Have we not become a nation of snivelling weaklings who richly deserve whatever fate the Chinese have in store for us?
* * * * *
I watch the TV less and less, nowadays. But tonight Four Weddings and a Funeral is on, and I can’t resist it. I reflect, once again, on what a clever film it is. I also reflect that it belongs to a carefree pre-lockdown world which now seems the stuff of dreams.
FRIDAY 15 MAY
The perfect spring weather continues.
A long conversation with a brother in Cape Town, where people are allowed to leave their houses only between six and nine in the morning. Since it does not get light before 7.30, that is even harsher than in seems. To keep fit he runs round and round his garden, which, he says, is very boring. The sale of cigarettes and alcohol is now outlawed, too, with the result that there’s a lot of bootlegging going on. Luckily he has a friend who owns a vineyard.
Nevertheless, for the South African authorities to ban the sale of alcohol and cigarettes is surely an act of sadism … just as we have seen, here, that a significant proportion of our own Stasi clearly relish the power to persecute us at will.
As for the economy in general and his business in particular: the South African economy is stone dead, he says, and so is his business. He is currently presiding over an on-line disposal of stock at fire-sale prices; after which he will formally wind up his company. And the future for him and his family? He doesn’t know. Return to England? But to what, and where? Nor, in any case, can he fund a new life by selling his large colonial-style house. There are no takers.
I put down the phone, my mind blank. Later, I mention this conversation to my flat-mate, who once more voices his view that we are witnessing the first time in the history of mankind when the whole world has gone entirely mad.
WEEKEND 16-17 MAY
I have a series of dreams so violent and upsetting that it takes a long time, after I wake up, to shake them off.