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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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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Back to work

The world of work has been slow to revive since Freedom Day. The trains have been filling up for a while and the masks coming off, but the latter may be going into reverse.

Many are still working from home. Many (I suspect) will find the end of furlough is the beginning of unemployment, but with the economy picking up faster than expected, we might not be looking out at the apocalyptic wasteland we feared.

The trains are a lot busier than a fortnight ago, but even before then they were beginning to fill up. I saw passengers standing in the aisles this morning – albeit because they were still reluctant to squash bottom-to-bottom with fellow travellers.

Masks are still generally worn on the Tube in London in the morning at least. That will take a while to wear off, or a change in the Mayor’s commandment.

Shops, many of them, still display pious signs about wearing a face-muzzle and using that allergic goo on your hands, but I have seen no evidence of insistence, except in a couple of particularly close-confined venues in the Midlands.

Work itself does not stop. Builders have continued to build and to improve  buildings throughout the COVID period and shops have opened in hope in spite of the efforts of government to destroy them. Had the professions  which serve this activity actually stopped in lockdown then the economy would have collapsed irretrievably. The revolution has been the technology and broad broadband allowing some desk-jockeys to work almost seamlessly from home: this would not have been possible even a few years ago and for many it still would not be possible.

(It did seem sometimes that a few, those who ignored the lockdown and carried on as normal, were bearing the whole burden of keeping the ship from running into the rocks. It would need a better analysis to say how far that is true than a frustrated observation from behind an office desk.)

The working population now seems split into four: the dismissive and the fearful and the bullies as observed in earlier articles, but the majority are the meekly compliant. The  latter are dangerous. How can there be resistance to tyranny if even in Britain, the well-spring of individual freedom, there is such docility?

It looks from here as if lockdown did not end on 19 July 2021, but just started to fade away. There are still bullies who delight in putting hazard tape on the pavements and shouting signs on every highway. Now at least I feel better able to laugh in their faces, maskless, as they are made powerless.

You have to be the change you want to see. I want a change to normality.

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Lockdown breakdown

Approaching Freedom Day, I looked around at how the nation is reacting in different places. We thought the nation was divided over Brexit, but Maskxit…

In London, the original plague-pit of COVID-19, masks are a rare, exotic fashion accessory. Shops still insist, but wearing one in the street draws a double-take. On the Tube the full force of law demands that all travellers be muzzled, but I have seen journeys where only a minority are. The young and fit frequently do not bother, and they must know that if they get it they are barely at risk. The double-jabbed (as I am) should not have to worry, but the law still insists, and if one is to be a pillar of the community one is expected to look like a pillock in the community. As soon as the crowd though crushes together through the exit, the masks are ripped off in disgust.

One observation: amongst those of East Asian extraction, masks are more commonly worn on the street – maybe more amongst those visiting from those plague-ridden lands who are in the habit.

In other towns there is no observable pattern, other than to see that lockdown is breaking down and has been for some time, not just in anticipation of Freedom Day. The vulnerable elderly are more likely to be in masks, even though presumably they have been jabbed, and it is one-use surgical masks as the muzzle of choice. (Cambridge I found works by a different rhythm: you see more masks on the street, worn apparently for virtue-signalling, or a political statement. You can tell the type.)

Shops are a mixture. Some do the bare minimum on masks and things: they know it has all got a bit silly. Some are all so uptight and demanding on muzzles, tracking, one-way systems and that goo that causes your hands to come out in blotches, that you wonder if they actually want customers. Some pubs will allow no one through threshold unless they have the government’s spy-app (so I go elsewhere). On the other side, in plenty of shops and pubs no one wears a mask, so it would be impolite to do so myself: it would look as if I were silently judging everyone who goes bare-faced.

Monday approaches; Freedom Day. However it is far from back to normal. The lamentable Mayor of London is insisting on masks on London Underground for as long as the virus is with us – but since it is now endemic in the population, that will be forever. He may find his rule impossible to enforce: even when the rule is law, it is commonly flouted. Several venues public and private up and down the land have announced that face-nappies must still be worn, without an end date. (What are they worried about? They can’t be prosecuted or blamed.)

Self-isolation is to remain too, and they are not even allowing the partial exemption for the fully vaccinated until August (and that exemption will be limited even so). It is particularly poor timing that Sajid Javid has just been tested positive with a snuffle: it has fuelled demands for eternal lockdown. Well, if the disease has still been spreading in spite of the lockdown, it’s not going to help to do it again.

It comes down to the analysis Fay wrote at the beginning: the nation is divided into the terrified the fed up and the bullies. The bullies are certainly in the ascendant at the moment.

It is a stifled cheer then for Freedom Day on Monday, but a look forward to genuine freedom when the unofficial lockdown breaks down entirely.

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Yearning to be unfree

Millions begging not to have their freedom: a strange sight yet perhaps expected. It was once a shock to find the nation bowing so quietly to the lockdown restrictions, and now they are to be lifted, many want to hide. Be comforted that a sizable majority will cast off the hated masks with joy, but others are showing positive anger at freedom. That is a new thing for a nation that used to breathe freedom with the air.

Unfreedom is comforting. It is a reversion to childhood, looked after by Mummy and Daddy with barely a care. The wide world where we take responsibility and bear the consequences is frightening.

The harsh reality of all human existence, and all animal existence, is that we must eat or die, and the further away we can get from that reality, the better we feel. Those who have lounged at home, fed by those of us still working and paying taxes, will not want to go back to the work-or-starve world. Those who have been working through it all may have the comfort of a steady salary and can be purely mechanical. It is thought and challenge that are frightening. Freedom is frightening, if you are incapable of running with it.

The grandiose rhetoric of politics talks of freedom in terms of speech, association, due process and those familiar tropes, but these barely impinge on everyday life for most of us – in the everyday, freedom is getting up when we feel, choosing our breakfast, turning left instead of right out of our front door, taking our own car for a spin for no reason, randomly stopping at a cake shop: spontaneity without needing a reason. All this was forbidden.

It is easier, being directed. We have missed holidays, but have been relieved of the pain of having to organise the holiday; those who used to go to a club or an evening classes may miss them, but they no longer have to shift themselves in time for it and lose an evening; those who organise community events have been delighted not to have to for over a year. We may find that all those pastimes we used to enjoy actually we enjoy missing more. We do not want to but gloriously the decision has been taken out of our hands.

An industrial, office-bound world then is readier to accept control by others. These locked-down years with their petty regulations and endless excuses to wag fingers at the non-conforming has been comforting, as for a helpless child who just has to follow all his loving parents say.

It is ending now, and we have to stand on our own feet. No wonder there is resistance. There is resentment too, of those who will exercise their freedom, growing (in the letters page of the local paper and comments columns on the BBC) into anger that some people just will not do what they are asked to do. The nation divides again, as we did over Brexit: it will be interesting to see if there is a correlation between attitudes to the national freedom and attitudes to personal freedom.

There are psychological studies to be done on this phenomenon in future generations.

On Monday, all being well, we will be free again. We will still have busybodies urging us to stop breathing and hide behind useless masks in case, just in case…, but we will free to make our own choice to refuse.

If in the meantime much of the nation has been shown to be like sheep, we are all poorer for it. For the rest of us, there is work to be done, to create wealth and prosperity in these islands by competition for endeavour; to lead and command. If those around are sheep, they should not be surprised to find that I and others are wolves.

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