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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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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Celebrate COP26

To celebrate the opening of COP26 we’re holding a big village bonfire: every family bring a  sack of coal and we’ll build it high and wide.

We’ve got burgers and a hog roast laid on, and to mark the internationalism of the event, food from all over the world.

There is so much to be done that everyone can see our commitment. I flew home from Provence for this, and friends and neighbours drove in from their holiday villas. We sent teams around the village to help neighbours to dig up their front gardens and lay down concrete so they have somewhere to charge an electric car, when they get one.

Glasgow holds the hopes of the world, and no one has ever said that before – so we have a festival of Glasgow culture in the local pubs, and sing-songs with the music familiar from the city – the children have learnt this week how ‘Ye cannae shove yer granny aff a bus’, while the village choir have been practising their Glaswegian choruses concluding “Well the famine is over; why don’t you go home?

As we all roll home, no famine in sight after we’ve roasted a herd on the green, we can be satisfied that this one night we have signalled our virtue so high the fire could be seen from space.  Those meeting in Glasgow are our last best hope for peace (or is that Babylon 5?). I hold in my mind the motto which this village has always stood by: ‘Any excuse for a good nosh-up’.

Postscript

That you to all who took part, and who made it such a memorable night. We went away maybe not with a wider appreciation of issues but certainly wider personally. That is what it is all about.

Thank you also to the Fire Brigade for joining in the fun after you had finished putting out the trees and the grass, and The Lodge. Without you, we would have a less of a village this week, and would not have had the bass section of the singalong. The vigour of your singing will long be with us, and your enthusiasm notwithstanding that the song for Glasgow was not a familiar modern piece: it is old but it is beautiful.

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Community returning

I was wrong:  I thought we had lost society for the long term, but it is roaring back quietly.

I relaxed in the lockdown evenings – no more organising for meetings not happening, no rushing home for a scratch meal before leaping out for some function or other, trying to work out where it was while driving there; no more weekends spent on the motorway finding a hall somewhere in Lancashire, or was it Yorkshire this time? (Do I have to turn round?)

Calls stopped coming. I wasn’t having to organise people or think of things to do. I did not have to yawn through others’ meetings and surreptitiously use the meeting to write another chapter or an algorithm. I could relax, and discover that there are evenings, and a home.

In villages and little towns and suburbs, churches, clubs and societies create a web of Big Society. Some go out to film clubs or collectors’ clubs, or  evening classes, or exercise classes, or amateur dramatics, or ladies’ book clubs, or just social meets round a bar.  (There are more village pocket orchestras than you would ever imagine; and writers’ clubs are everywhere: I might even go to one one day and see what they do.)

Then all this was gone; banned by government fiat in fear of the Chinese plague. The thread was broken. All over the land, people were realising they do not have to live by a timetable and an untended bowel in the best evenings of the week, when a sofa calls. How then could the clubs come back?

Yet they are coming back. The church halls of the land are full again. Organisers are clearly built of sterner stuff, and for all the welcome leisure we had, there is a yearning for society.

If I were tempted to think those coming back to the village halls are just those who no longer commuter and need to get out from their home-office, it is not: there cannot be too many home-bound workers left though, going by how the trains are packed again as once they were. In spite of the call of the sofa, the clubs are still coming back. Normality, our weird, Middle-Class, respectable rural / suburban normality is returning in spite of it all.

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An interview with Greta

Meeting Greta Thunberg in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow was a fascinating experience. We discussed the project over meatballs and I was impressed by her single-minded approach – she would not be deviated by a millimetre.

Her English, by the way, is pretty good for a foreigner. A learned professor I read observed that Swedish and English are barely different from each other after a few sound changes (I don’t know if he had made a lifelong study of Germanic linguistics, or he had just been watching dodgy films.) The scheme she laid out though could be followed by both of us.

It all seemed too complicated to my unfamiliar eyes, but the way Greta laid it all out made it look achievable for the first time. All the pieces I would be tempted to gloss over, she grasped the significance of each one and ensured the pieces joined in exact alignment. ‘Every dowel to its hole’ as they say in Swedish apparently (which is enough to get you cancelled on the whackiest of  campuses, or the Guardian).

The complex became drawn together into a logical whole, a thing almost of beauty. She spoke the minimum to get it all together and would not be distracted even for a moment. I could not ask about her family, art, food, music, her school friends – we were here for a reason, as she made very clear, and she would not speak of anything else until she was done.

(I asked later as diplomatically as I could why she was not yet back in school. She has a withering scowl. Little girls can be like that.)

By the time she had finished I was all admiration. She might not know much about science or geography, but I sincerely admire her, because that was the neatest flat-pack chest of drawers I have ever seen built. No wonder they want he at the conference, with all those ‘Ingolf’ chairs they will need built.

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