Quite enjoying the Cancel Culture, actually

An empty diary. Everything is cancelled – cultural, sporting and social events, even those due after the lockdown must have finished: no village revels, no funfair, and also no Tolethorpe, no Edinburgh Festival, no Party Conference: I don’t need to make an excuse to avoid any of them.

No canvassing over the spring was a relief. No meetings for any of the bodies whose committees I seem to have been strong-armed into, no AGMs. Many were not cancelled but just sort of wandered off.

You might have come to this article thinking I was talking about the ‘Cancel Culture’ about which other commentators fume: the cowardice in the great institutions finding any petty excuse or none to cancel appearances by people they dislike politically, and yes, that is the usual meaning of ‘cancel culture’. I am not sure that it is much different, as the months go on. Organising a big event is wearying, sapping at the soul and always with the risk of disaster and the criticism that comes with it. They must welcome an opportunity to cancel the event and get it out of their hair. I would. The Wuhan coronavirus is a wonderful opportunity.

You wondered why there was little resistance from the clergy to the closure of churches? It must be a relief to have the time off, and a videoed sermon does the job.

So we are back home. No church children’s summer club to organise this year, even after the lockdown ends? Oh, such a disappointment! No garden parties to run, no quizzes to set, no lengthy financial reports to deliver to critical members. Wuhan? Woo-hoo! And no bookings to take and organise (so now I find that I have evenings, with the family).

I still work of course, and frequent the plague pits of London – I quite miss the early lockdown when there was nothing to fill the day but gardening, DIY, country walks and terror about the future.

Now the lockdown is ending. There have been enquiries about bookings. Meetings and functions though are still all off for the foreseeable future, until we are all really, really sure. With such an excuse to shun those endless social responsibilities, I am in no hurry.

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Oxford Street begins to reawaken

It is a start. Not so long since, the major shopping street of the West End was silent, empty, and even at what should have been peak times there may have been just one or two souls visible on it, not using the vast emporia ranged along it but just taking it as a way for exercise, not even ‘a way between the one tavern and the one shop that leads nowhere and fails at the top’ as there was no tavern open nor shop.

Then this week they appeared: the shoppers, absent before, now in multiples. Shops have opened – not all of them by any means, but some – expressing a piety about social distancing that most of us gave up months ago, and little queues are seen along the pavements (except for those little, practical shops we know where they take these things is a better spirit and let us get on with buying things, but say not a word).

However the shops are still starved of their due.

Commuters are few:  the trains even in the rush hour carry a mere drizzle passengers, and even those lines where I would usually be crushed in the door, my face pressed against the glass, are carrying just a few per carriage. On the journeys into town all are now in masks in a variety of styles from the clinical to the black professional to those that would not seem out of place being fumbled on hurriedly in a trench at Ypres – masks that are whipped off though for long mobile conversations or a good coughing fit, on trains provided in a fitful, lackadaisical manner.

The customers are not coming. Without them, the shops will die. They need the commuters and they need those who just come into the big town for a shopping trip or a gawp, but they will not come when any doubt is a hesitation is a cancellation. The Chinese are absent too, and their credit cards. It will be a lean summer.

Much could be clawed back if the pubs and restaurants were open again. People with open wallets will not come in from the suburbs and the farther towns if they have to go home again for lunch and the loo, but tempt them to stay all day and into the evening and the tills will ring: the closure of pubs, cafés and restaurants does not just beggar their owners but all the shops in the town.

On that sector of the economy the rest hinges. Licensing rules then should be under the spotlight: if the government are still afeared to open everything, then councils can at least allow the most entrepreneurial bar-owners and restaurateurs to open in new ways. They have started to do so in Westminster, apparently to the horror of the council’s jacks-in-office, by opening up on the street and serving eager customers by waiter service or through hatches.  Good for them.

Licences can be flexible. In the old days, you were either allowed to open or not, with a single sheet of paper as a licence and everyone had the same rules and so everyone was banned from novelty.  The reformed system is thanks to Mr Blair’s team (and I rarely say that) and it gives almost infinite flexibility through the imposition of detailed conditions appropriate to the business, premises and location. Councils as licensing authorities early on allowed take-away service where there had been none, and that is a good start, but what else do proprietors want to be able to do? They must listen and react, and grant temporary alterations to licensing conditions, or at least letters of comfort about non-enforcement of the more stringent conditions if that is what it takes.

We need to hear the roar return, from the bars and the restaurants, and as soon as can be, the theatres. Small towns may be working again, but the great cities which are the great workhouses of the national economy, work to a different dynamic and for them, the politicians should come to a realisation that it is no use reopening the shops unless you reopen the stream of customers.

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What happened to immunity passports?

There are many now, perhaps the majority, who are now immune to the Wuhan plague and so they cannot pass it on nor contract it themselves. What relevance then are the lockdown restrictions to them?

The extraordinary rules of the lockdown were introduced for an emergency and were explicitly intended to be limited to that single purpose, and that purpose is to slow the spread of the disease so that it could become manageable. It was to be done by limiting person-to-person contact so that it cannot spread from an infected person to one who is vulnerable. Those who have had COVID-19 though are no longer a risk to others and no longer at risk from others. There is no reason at all to restrict their movement, at least nothing beyond the fatalistic superstition which has grown up around this whole thing.

When it came in, I for one expected the lockdown to be a temporary measure, until the warmer months when COVID-19 would not be such a menace. It would have been intolerable otherwise. Boris Johnson was explicit at the time that the health service could be overwhelmed in the cold months (and March was still cold), but now we have has the warmest May in many years, summer has begun, and we are still here. It is another week before shops start to open properly, and then only tentatively.

Foreign lands, usually ruled with a measure of suppressed tyranny, have left lockdown already, leaving us, unusually, the unfree nation.

It is more particularly galling for those for whom the restrictions have no relevance at all: those who have had it already. This was highlighted recently when Alok Sharma went down with suspected Wuhan Flu and the papers screamed that Boris Johnson would have to go into isolation under his own rules – but Boris has had it, and cannot get it yet again nor pass it on to others so there is logical no reason at all for isolation, and this time we all know it. As it happens, Mr Sharma does not have the disease.

Early on it was suggested that those who are immune, who are known to have had the disease or who have the antibodies for having had it, should be allowed to go free. I raised the point myself, and independently the idea of ‘immunity passports’ was floated. Yet nothing has happened.

Issuing immunity passports might cause resentment from those not entitled to one, but it would certainly produce hope, because it shows the lockdown passing and it shows there is a future after the disease.

Those who should be free but who are kept away from work because the regulations are to wide are being kept out of the economy without purpose. They should be released to get the country working.

When I wrote about this before, there were no reliable tests so the applicant would have to have had the disease and been diagnosed with it at the time. Now though there is a reliable test. Doctors and all those working in the medical and dental field should have the test and so relieve their own minds and get them working again, and follow up with anyone with a public-facing role. We may find that there are so many that we can stop worrying.

Perhaps it is no bother for the Health Secretary, since his brief is those who are sick not those who are well, but it is those who are well who can work, feed their families and pay the taxes that keep him in a job in the first place. He should look to the well, those who have been through it and out the other side, and give them their freedom immediately. The current position is cutting a hole in the economy for no purpose.

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Theatre online? Why then the world’s my oyster

It is a bit late in the lockdown to have discovered the wonders of theatre on YouTube. The theatres remain shut and barred, but Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre and others have been putting filmed performances on YouTube. I recently watched the Globe’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, which I last saw at Tollethorpe Hall many years ago (and Tollethorpe productions are always excellent). The National has a good selection too.

It is almost a shock to find that YouTube is not just cat videos and the fortnightly Moggcast.

There is a different dynamic sitting in your own house watching the grand scene, the inns, grand houses and fields of Windsor, first encompassed in a wooden O, then crammed further into a box in the corner of the room. It is done well though. The Globe is a more intimate theatre experience anyway, with the actors playing to the groundlings and often bustling in among them for their exits and their entrances. Coming into my own front room is just the next obvious step. It does not replace the theatre – the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, the immediacy with no physical barrier between me and the action, but it is good.

The play? It was done in an energetic, chummy way. The Merry Wives of Windsor needs its own review (yet another task for another day). It is noticeable as the play where the women lead the plot more than any other. Shakespeare, alone among his contemporaries, wrote good parts for women, letting them be real characters, not passing extras with a one-dimensional role. In the Merry Wives the nominal central character is Falstaff – he is the comic turn and in a way the McGuffin – but it is the wives themselves who take the lead, ably assisted by their own comic turn in Mistress Quickly. It is said that the play was written at the specific request of the Queen herself: it shows, and is better for it. The scenes, the quips, the clever women and the befuddled men, the local folklore, the comic Frenchman and comic Welshman (whose best scenes were missed, unfortunately) and all pomposity punctured – only Shakespeare can achieve all that in a play so neatly tied together, and all in my front room and all for free.

I will have to look for more on YouTube if I can get past the cat videos.

The main point though is not to spread culture to the masses, good as that is – it is to remind us of what we have lost without live theatre, while the lockdown closes it. They are suffering and many might not survive – and it is not because of COVID-19, but because of the lockdown. When the theatres open they will bring life to all the pubs and restaurants around them too – they are vital to the local economy, in London’s theatreland more obviously, but all around the country. The limitations of the small screen should whet our appetites to see the real thing. That is the point. I will go back to Tollethorpe when I can. In the meantime though we have the theatre coming into our homes, if we just care to look.

The Way to the Stars

A flawless launch and flight, and a milestone in the reconquest of space. This time it is not a rocket built by a government committee but by private enterprise – SpaceX. While bureaucrats sitting in offices seek the dull safety of familiarity with the eyes of bureaucracy on ledgers of politicians on tomorrow’s ballot box, private enterprise always has its eyes on the stars.

The wonders that SpaceX have achieved cannot be overstated. Since 2002, Richard Branson has been trying and failing to use existing technology to get a craft into mere suborbital flight, but in that same time, Elon Musk has created a new company created new technology and built numerous successful rockets, with support structure and drone ships culminating last weekend in sending a crew safely to the International Space Station, all while pushing a transport revolution on the roads too. He is not alone – Jeff Bezos has been beaten to the main achievement, but his Blue Origin has made tremendous progress in commercial space.

The rockstar of the two is Musk. The publicity over the launch was about how American it was but it has Elon Musk’s personality, genius and drive all through it, and Elon Musk is British to all intents and purposes. He is South African, of a South African father and Canadian mother, and has joint South African-Canadian citizenship (and American too – he picks passports up like souvenirs). Canadians and South Africans are Britons really, as we know, with all the inheritance of the world’s greatest culture. We might get faintly embarrassed by our own Richard Branson limping behind, but we have Elon Musk to count as our own, and he has more to do with his company’s technical ability than Branson has in his (he employs Americans).

To be fair to Richard Branson, he has different aims in mind, and when he succeeds, and he must, it is for different purposes, and to make spaceflight cheaper than anyone else will achieve, by being less ambitious.

The new entrepreneurs, Musk and Bezos, have found their own solutions by coming into the field from outside it. I cannot help looking at some other efforts with a feeling of familiarity and knowing there are dangers in a company whose slogan could be “Yesterday’s Technology for Tomorrow!”

Then comes the fourth wheel, while could be a revolution even though it really is using the ideas of the 1980s: Reaction Engines and the Skylon project. The ideas may be 1980s, but the achievement is up to date. The question is whether they can achieve cheaper £-per-pound to orbit launch costs, when their main issue is lack of any investors. Maybe they need a rockstar. If the cash were there, Skylon would be punching payloads into orbit in a year or two.

It looks as if I said at the beginning that governments are useless at this sort of thing, but it was NASA, a state agency which put men on the Moon. There was one crucial difference between that project and any other tumbledown government project: George Mueller. He was a single, driven man who took command out of committees and into his own hands to ensure that he took responsibility and made it happen. NASA in the 60s had George Mueller as SpaceX today has Elon Musk.

Governments fail because they are made up of individual petty clerks with no personal reason to succeed, with a few outstanding exceptions. Companies succeed when they have driven men who know how to succeed. That is what we are seeing today. That is the way to the stars.

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