Masked unmasked

I think some people must like wearing a mask, maybe even getting a perverse thrill from it.

There was a time, when it was all novel, that a particular sort of person, and we all know them, would wear a plague mask aggressively, as a statement of their assertion of a moral superiority. The same people would theatrically cast their hands in front of their faces and cross the road on encountering a fellow human being. Before the epidemic, people rarely crossed the road to avoid me outside election campaigns.

There are fashions in masks, as there had to be, with ladies wearing masks to match their dresses, and businessmen in black masks matching their suits. A few medical masks persist, and I do not know if that is because they are easy to grab, or because wearers think they are somehow more ‘proper’. The muzzles are disappearing though. Masking is a minority pursuit.

It is wearing off. You still see people driving while masked, alone in their own car – is it superstition, or just  that they never take it off? On the London Underground there is still a command to go masked, and just over half of passengers do so on the morning; few in the evening. Even London Underground staff don’t bother – although reading station announcements though a muzzle would not help anyone.

This is a happier land being relaxed. We like a bit of panic and peril to add spice to life, but life must go back to normal. The disease has not gone, but it is no longer frightening:  you used to hear someone had got the Wuhan flu and pray for them in case it was their deathbed, but now we are vaccinated anyone still getting one of its 57 varieties will be assumed to have a snuffle if that.

This makes the recent scenes in Europe so bizarre. Riots, streets burning, a rebellion against lockdown – when lockdowns here seem unthinkable. Cities across Europe have deserted streets even as the shops were hoping to trade for Christmas, while our cities are buzzing. There is no excuse for violent scenes, even if the anger is understandable. Rotterdam, considered such a libertarian city that crime is a way of life and chuckled at, now has orders stay inside and fester, and that is intolerable, and in The Hague, and in Belgium too the story is the same.

The thing about the Netherlands (and its spawn, Belgium) is that while in form they are liberal and democratic, that is barely felt on the ground the way we understand it.  Those systems have succeeded in the principal aim of enfeebling the country to make it no threat to their neighbours, but the governing classes are far from the people their actions affect. The nation is disaffected: the rioting is just an outburst of a frustration that has been building for a generation or two and now finds its last straw. Perhaps the Dutch government is starting to fear the fate of Johan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary, who angered the people, so that he was seized by the mob in The Hague, murdered and dismembered  in the crowd (and allegedly subjected to cannibalism). Let us hope the winter calms the rioters’ ardour before they get such ideas.

All that is a world away though from the British experience.  We walk free, we laugh at the petty admonitions still proclaimed at us from dumb boards. Those Tube trains, once echoingly empty, now have standing-room only again. The city streets are packed, and the tills are ringing. Best of all, faces are smiling.

The fate of the European countries can only be speculation. (Perhaps their governments will run up so much debt from the endless lockdown that they will go bankrupt and a British consortium can buy them up cheap in a fire-sale. A private company ruling such countries could hardly do worse than their government have done.) Here, we are thriving, and as long as politicians are not swayed by panic then we will continue to lift, or will if taxes come down.

The masks are a sign of the the old epidemic which has passed. they mark imprisonment by fear. If they are of use, very well – wear it. They are a still vanishing phase, ebbing away. Ultimately, you have to be the change you want to see, and I want to see normality.

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Books

Song of the Exile

The painful loneliness of the exile, the wanderer, the rootless man, are staples of literature across the ages. It is the subject of perhaps the most beautiful poem in the English language, albeit Old English. A man can be lonely even in a city of five million people.

The exile is now all too common, fleeing from lands which were once home, that can never be homelike again, or seeking a better life amongst the wealthy nations. It is now a dull cliché to say it takes a village to raise a child – really it takes a co-operating, integrated society of common understanding to carry anyone through life in comfort and sanity, and an exile outside a society to which he truly belongs is lost.

Living life and keeping your mind on the level is hard enough at the best of times in a complex, modern nation, but where there are no social bonds and understandings it is near impossible. There are frequent complaints that immigrants clump together in separate societies within society, but that is exactly what you would expect, what is necessary.  If I were to find myself in exile, however much in comfort, perhaps owning a farm in Kenya, in the Rift Valley (well, a man can dream) then I too would seek out fellow Britons for company, to share what we all understand. What is more, I would need to keep reaffirming who I am: I expect that I would become a British stereotype, suddenly taking an interest in the cricket scores, insisting on having tea at exactly 4 o’clock, with scones at the weekend, and following all the detail of news from home.

For the wanderer in Britain, cut off from his homeland, the surrounding society is very strange. He must cling to what he was and emphasise it far more than he would have done at home. The Syrian who was a nominal Muslim in the streets of Aleppo becomes the emphatic Mohammedan in London or Liverpool. In Aleppo once… but now here and less himself by striving to be more himself.  It is a story told over millions of souls.

In Liverpool, we do not know what went through the mind of a young Syrian man at the weekend. He came from that destroyed society where evil is the norm, and may inure any receptive heart to atrocities. He came from a destroyed society into another and was here a rootless exile. They say he was confirmed  Christian in the cathedral but then reverted: did he nominally convert to cheat the asylum system, or genuinely seek to accept Christ to attach himself to the society he had joined, only to swing away again in reaction?  Perhaps he was yoyoing back and forth and his action was an attempt to make an end, stability in death, and maybe to get into heaven by breaking a side window? Who can ever tell. Even the foulest crimes are lurking in the human heart awaiting release when the society that restrains them is snapped. The song of the exile is a lament and it can grow into a scream.

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Books

Matt Hancock book exclusive

Matt Hancock’s How I Won the COVID War, out soon: a thrilling read. Page after page of revelations: ‘If I were to get on top of this one, I’d have to work fast. I took lessons from Neil Ferguson’.

‘I was going to get down to it – if it took all-night sessions with staff, I was up for it.’ ‘It was a fearsome projection: I was facing a massive hump in the summer.’

‘It was vital that people stay at home unless needed: even my wife could no longer join me at the office in the evening, and I had police posted just in case.’

‘This is an international problem – I was discussing Uganda into the small hours. How I kept it up, I’ll never know.’

The book is not out for a few months, but the extracts are revealing. Getting through on tiny scraps of data, bearing a hunch and carrying it through, following tiny clues, hacking phones, bribing publishers and getting the ghost-writer drunk  – that’s how exclusives are made. What I found was less exciting than I thought: here was Matt, plain Matt Hancock, just as pointless and self-absorbed as he always seemed. If you want drama and fantasy, you have what he thought of himself.

Worth and Dignity

The Value, or WORTH of a man, is as of all other things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgement of another. An able conductor of Souldiers, is of great Price in time of War present, or imminent; but in Peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt Judge, is much Worth in time of Peace; but not so much in War. And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselves as the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.

The manifestation of the Value we set on one another, is that which is commonly called Honouring, and Dishonouring. To Value a man at a high rate, is to Honour him; at a low rate, is to Dishonour him. But high, and low, in this case, is to be understood by comparison to the rate that each man setteth on himselfe.

The publique worth of a man, which is the Value set on him by the Common-wealth, is that which men commonly call DIGNITY. And this Value of him by the Common-wealth, is understood, by offices of Command, Judicature, publike Employment; or by Names and Titles, introduced for distinction of such Value.

Books

Deadly, green distraction

It is not right – the thrust of the green movement displayed around COP26 is deadly in many ways. It has become a pagan cult, we have long known that, but worse: it is displacement activity, preventing the world from taking real action. Virtue signalling kills.

We have seen the central focus of COP26, of Extinction Rebellion, namely the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and that this focus has overwhelmed all other considerations. It is today’s scare, and has become the touchstone for measuring virtue – but all that is nonsense. This is not to say that carbon dioxide and other gases do not heat up the world, but a moment’s thought should throw it into shadow. If we turn to gaze at this one issue to the exclusion of all others, we cannot hear the weeping in the shadows. Perhaps that is the point: we do not want to hear it.

If the whole world were to go “carbon neutral” overnight, it would be two hundred years before the composition of the atmosphere will rebalance. The world will continue to heat up, mildly. Arguing over going neutral in 2030 or 2060 is not irrelevant – it is the build-up over many years which would matter – it is that this is not an on-off switch. If the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is enough to heat the world by a degree or two on average, it will continue to heat up long after we have all gone over to clean energy. What are we doing in those years and centuries?

If the changing climate is harmful to vulnerable parts of the world, why is everything being done on the possible cause, but nothing being done to alleviate the results?  I suspect because the latter requires actual work involving actual people – just deindustrialising for carbon dioxide neutrality  is a matter of charts, laws, statistics, and it is something you can scream about in the street – actually helping societies to adapt to a change in the weather is unglamorous and might involve doing something practical. That is too horrible for an individual to contemplate.

That many churches should have abandoned the Gospel for this Gaia worship is revolting. (Not all have, and thank goodness for the fixed lectionary on in these times to keep them to a course.) I take it as  a way to be seen to do something while not actually doing anything, or making an actual effort.

Worse than this: the practical solution to many of these issues is to lift people out of poverty so that they can make their own solutions and protect their families, but the actions demanded by those in ivory towers in wealthy nations would be to close their economies and drive them into poverty.  It is no wonder if those in the developing world think that the West is saying “we became rich through burning coal and oil to lift ourselves to unprecedented wealth, but you are not allowed to.” Farmers in the developing world will be harmed by a changing climate, but they will be harmed even more by being forced into poverty. Just seeing one problem and not all the others is  lethal. It is like those comic books where Batman saves the girl but destroys Gotham City and presumably kills thousands to do so. The world is not a comic.

If we then take it that the climate is changing, which we must because the climate is always changing. then the first duty is to determine where it will change and how, and to adapt for it. Blame is just a harmful distraction. If rainfall will lessen, then hardier crops are required; if rainfall will increase, then again a change in agriculture, and building techniques may be needed. This should hardly be a challenge – mankind lives across the whole face of a world with endless variations of climate. We can always ask a neighbour. Where then were those questions at COP26?

There may be positive effects too, but it may be mankind’s ingenuity which finds them. Why in the Roman Empire, when the climate was warmer than now, was all North Africa’s coastland a garden for growing wheat and barley for the empire?  Or was it (as I have heard asserted by an agricultural botanist) that this monoculture denuded the soil and created the desert: mankind’s destroying hand. Or maybe the warming climate heralds the return of the endless cornfields? That is a worthy job for science to examine.

The greatest practical step forward at COP26, if it can be made to stick, is an agreement against deforestation. That is not something which we would have to wait 200 years to feel the benefit of: it is here and now.  Mankind can and does change the climate locally, and hewing down the trees is the most devastating way we do. Deserts have spread where trees once stood, coast have been washed into the sea, and where monsoon rains are no longer swallowed up by eager tree roots, floods plunged down, scouring all before them, destroying villages and farms over thousands of square miles.

There is no doubt that mankind changes the environment and the climate. The causes of short-term destruction must be dealt with. Slow, long-term changes might or might not be halted in two hundred years or so, but in that time each community must learn and adapt.

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Books