Survival is not good enough

Bob Dylan once said: “I accept chaos. I’m not sure whether it accepts me.” He wasn’t speaking about the COVID regulations at the time, but his comment seems particularly appropriate as the virus-plagued summer of 2020 turns to mysterious autumn. 

Unlike Mr Dylan (né Zimmerman), I have never been happy with chaos, except as an artistic tool. In real life, I like to know what’s going on; that’s why I react so strongly against a bunch of anarchists stopping the newspapers being printed – among other things. 

It’s not just anarchists, though. No-one really has any idea what the Government will do next, because the coronavirus is as unpredictable as Boris. And vice versa. In looking for solid ground, one feels tempted to echo author Neil Gaiman’s words in his novel The Kindly Ones: “I would feel infinitely more comfortable in your presence if you would agree to treat gravity as a law, rather than one of a number of suggested options.”

Admittedly, gravity is not the issue here. Indeed, scientific laws are not really the issue, because although we are supposed to be following the “science”, what we really see is a number of scientists holding different views. Indeed, that is what science is about. That is why taking what “most scientists” say as gospel is a particularly dangerous thing to do. All those conflicting studies and all that contrasting research. 

What effect is all this chaos having on us? The three major constraints imposed on us at the time of writing are to wear masks in shops, in church and on public transport (plus a number of other places that I don’t remember at the moment); to not meet in groups of more than six – a pretty random figure; and to keep two metres (another pretty random figure) away from people you don’t know.

You can’t hug, you can’t smile (or be seen to smile), and you can’t sing. Is this sensible restraint, or is it taking away from us a large proportion of what it means to be human? To be human means to move towards other people; following COVID regulations is to erect barriers between us, like the Mexican border wall.

You can see your friends or colleagues on Zoom, but you can’t touch them. Is this really what we want? To be in their presence but not in the same place? Not able to read their body language?

I’m not suggesting ignoring the regulations, because that would be chaos. What I do suggest is that whoever is responsible for dreaming them up gives it some serious thought, because making us less than human is as destructive of life as any illness. Simply surviving is just not good enough.

My first illegal journey

I’m not sure if I should admit to this, but just over 50 years ago I was in the United States illegally. For a fortnight – and I hope that will confuse the authorities enough to let me get away with it, because Americans have no idea what a fortnight is.

It happened when I worked, fairly briefly, for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They had just bought a very old British newspaper called The Christian, and by an amazing coincidence, the previous summer I had been on holiday at a guest house in Minehead, Somerset.

Not an obvious coincidence, unless you know that a Scottish journalist with four theology degrees was staying at the same guest house. I don’t know why. Somehow, he and I got talking, and he discovered that I enjoyed writing. I showed him some short pieces I had written, and the following autumn he gave me a ring at my home in Norwich.

He had just been appointed editor of The Christian and was looking for writers. At the time I was training to be an accountant. I don’t think I would have been a very good one. Dr J D Douglas (for it was he) asked me if I would like a job in London, and I – or whoever was inhabiting my body at the time – said yes. I soon found myself in a bedsit with shared toilet and bathroom in North London. I was on my own.

It was the start of my journalistic career. I made my way each morning to Bush House in central London and reported on various meetings and events. The first press conference I went to was in French. Fortunately there was a translator.

J D eventually decided that it might be a good idea if I went to a writing school. The one he decided on was in Minneapolis, headquarters of the BGEA. It was my first flight. I had been outside the UK before, but only on school trips.

And there was some kind of strike. Instead of flying straight to Minneapolis, I had to travel via Prestwick to Toronto. From there I had to find myself a flight to Winnipeg – also in Canada – and from there a train to Minneapolis. It was not straightforward.

I did however manage to get a flight on a rather shaky old propeller-driven job from Toronto to Winnipeg. It went via Thunder Bay, which was appropriate, because there was a lot of lightning around at one point. Quite spectacular, if I remember.

It was about midnight when I arrived. I found a taxi and asked the driver, who came originally from Horsham in Sussex, to take me to a hotel near the station. I didn’t have change; so we had to into the hotel to get it. To my young and cynical eye, the hotel seemed rather less than trustworthy; so once in my room I propped a chair against the doorknob and put my passport under the pillow.

You may wonder where all this is leading. But no, I was not robbed – not at that point, anyway. The next morning I trotted over the station and bought a ticket to Minneapolis, which was pretty much due south, across a very large number of wheatfields. Just over 450 miles. The cost? Ten dollars. I was deeply shocked, and very pleased.

And of course during the rail journey I passed from Canada into the United States. I don’t know exactly when, because there was nothing to indicate it. But eventually the conductor came round, looked at my ticket, and I explained I would be here for a fortnight. There was a long conversation, and eventually I twigged that in the US, two weeks do not make a fortnight.

Probably confused by all this, he said I needed to sign some kind of form, and he would come back with it. But he never did.

So when I came to leave the United States, a fortnight or two weeks later, it could have been tricky. I did not have the paperwork. Thankfully, someone was looking after me. I met a man who knew a travel agent, and she sorted it out.

I have been to the Unites States since then, once via Canada to Florida, and twice directly there. I can recommend Captiva Island. It was all perfectly legal.

Why are we so keen to get out of the quiet rooms?

“All of humanity’s problems,” wrote Blaise Pascal, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” 

He was probably not thinking of coronavirus when he wrote it, but it seems a useful observation in the current crisis, and one that Boris Johnson might find helpful as a variation on “Stay alert. Stay at home unless you go out. Wear a mask”, which lacks something in depth and subtlety. 

I’m sure it would help if more of us could sit quietly in a room alone and not rush off to the nearest beach in a panic because the package planes are grounded. Now that there are so many more things you can do in a room on your own – television, radio, video games, recorded music – it’s bit surprising that the urge to get out is so strong. 

I have always been attracted by Corey Ford’s dictum, “I’d go away if it wasn’t so far.” Perhaps we could adopt is as a kind of subliminal slogan popping up between programmes.

But there are many comments from the past that could be adapted to current circumstances. For instance, if you’re feeling the urge to travel unnecessarily, you might be influenced by this philosophy, which I believe came from the Peanuts comic strip, one of the world’s great sources of wisdom: “Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow. It might not be necessary.”

I wonder what motto is hanging on the wall of those who make decisions about our behaviour in Covid times. I feel folk singer Tom Paxton’s comment many years ago would be appropriate: “If I’m absolutely sure of anything, I probably forgot what it was.”

Or maybe this from Mark Twain: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

Super-scientist Albert Einstein felt that when explaining complex problems you should “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”. In the years since he said it, almost everyone in authority has routinely forgotten the vital last three words, and this has continued during the critical last six months, resulting in such conflicting idiotic instructions as “Go to pubs and restaurants, but not church, because that’s obviously much more dangerous, especially if you sing.”

But how do we – the locked in, masked and socially distanced – feel about the way the world is going? Poet Philip Larkin comes into his own with “Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives”

Or maybe another poet, Stevie Smith:
“I was much too far out all my life.
And not waving but drowning.”

The effect on us all is really one of disorientation. Before March this year we were comfortable, in the sense that we sort of understood the world and how it worked. We may or may not have liked it, but the familiarity of it made it bearable at worst and wonderful at best. The bits in between were understandable. 

But all that was just a delusion. Most of us didn’t really know what was going on – and as Donald Rumsfeld would say, we didn’t know that we didn’t know. Now we do.

Life, we now see, is unpredictable, and that must affect the way we approach it. Two vastly different writers saw this clearly. First, the singer Leonard Cohen, who described someone as “starving in some deep mystery, like a man who is sure what is true”.

And the writer and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge: “Some see that life’s a mystery. Others think it can be grasped.”

As we step wonderingly into the second half of 2020, the others must surely be shrinking in number. 

Impossibly out of sync with reality

Twelve years ago, when I was in hospital recovering from a radical prostatectomy (removal of prostate and accompanying cancer), I had a peculiar experience. More than one, actually – but one in particular.

I woke in the night, and I could see the clock clearly. Everything was wrong. For some reason, I was no longer in Norwich but in King’s Lynn, and this was quite frightening, because there was no reason for it. I tried to get back to where I knew I should be, but I couldn’t, because I was not connected. It was as if I had been shifted very slightly out of sync with reality.

A long sequence of bizarre events ensued, during which I seemed to wander round the ward, looking for a way back. The two nurses ignored me. At last, exhausted, I sank back into my Norwich bed, closed my eyes for a while and then opened them again. According to the clock, the whole tortuous episode had lasted no more than a minute – and that in itself was terrifying, because it was impossible.

I was reminded of this when I was in hospital again last week, on antibiotics for a problem with my gall bladder, and a stone stuck somewhere near my pancreas. Again, I woke in the night – one of many, many times – and had trouble recognising where I was. The curtains seemed familiar (or did they?), people moved backwards and forwards, and so did the room. I was struggling to connect. Was it real?

Eventually my brain slid into sync and I walked hesitantly to the toilet. But the impression I retain is one of confusion: was I slightly out of sync with reality again? What was going on?

The only other time I have felt anything like this was in the weeks following a serious car accident in which I broke my arm – less than a year ago. On at least one or two occasions while walking by the river afterwards I felt I was in some other reality. Had I died in the crash, or was I really here? Was the real me walking just behind me, catching me up?

OK – all this is weird. Most of the time, I think I have a fairly good grip on reality, as most people do. It is hard to express how frightening it is when this is called into question.

In hospital time itself distorts. Most of the time nothing happens, and happens very slowly. Without meaningful contact (especially in these coronavirus times) none of it seems to make much sense.

I’ve been here all day. How can it be 10am?

All I can say is that my wife’s daily visits just about kept me sane. Or did they? I’ll let you be the judge.

Pain, waiting and other personal problems

First of all, I’d like to make it clear that I’m very aware that there are many people who are in more pain than I was over the last couple of weeks, and even more of them are in pain for longer. The thing with pain is that it’s very personal. If you’re in pain, it doesn’t help that someone else is hurting more.

I woke up with a pain in my abdomen. At first it was sort of tight and gripping, and spread out quite a bit. It nibbled at my ribs. It kept me awake most of the night; eventually I took a Paracetamol and after a few hours got to sleep. The next day it was much better.

A couple of days later it came back again, only more precisely located. It was quite a different kind of pain, really, but they had one thing in common: they were strong and frightening, because I didn’t know what was causing them, and it all seemed to be getting worse.

Eventually, I rang 111. They told me to go to the walk-in centre, and the walk-in centre took it pretty seriously. They were quick, too. They said I should go to A&E if it got any worse. It did, and I did.

I do not like A&E. I know many people love it and seem to spend half their lives up there, but to me it’s just a massive waste of time, with no-one seeming to be in a hurry or connecting with each other. I’m sure that’s an illusion. Or it may be the IT system. I have been known to say I’d rather die than go to A&E, but that’s not strictly true. Obviously.

It was tortuous. Morphine didn’t affect the pain, but they eventually found something that did – about three hours after I arrived. I was moved here and there, had an x-ray and an ultrasound and eventually was taken to a ward by a nurse who thought I’d come from there in the first place. She was very nice. All nurses are nice. When I clap the NHS, I’m clapping the nurses and not the organisation.

The surgeon I saw a few hours later wasn’t sure what was wrong. To do him credit, he didn’t ask me to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I would have had no idea of the answer to this. I never do. It seemed pretty painful to me, but if someone was cutting my leg off without anaesthetic, I’m sure that would have been worse. I usually say 7 or 8. If someone were to try out the full range of pain on me and then ask, I would know, but I don’t really want that to happen.

The surgeon wanted me to have a CT scan urgently, but of course that wasn’t possible. It was Sunday, and there were lots of people who needed CT scans. He asked if it would be all right if he discharged me, and I came and had the CT scan as an urgent out-patient in a day or two. Foolishly, I said yes.

Still in quite a lot of pain, I waited patiently at home for a day or two. Then my wife rang the CT people. Yes, I was scheduled. Yes, I was marked urgent. It would be ten days or so.

This did not thrill me, but I buckled down, because the painkillers seemed to be working. I rang my GP, who couldn’t take my call but would ring me back. When he did, it was on a different number, and I didn’t answer it within 10 seconds. I rang back and was told I had to ring the following morning. I persisted, complaining about my pain and eventually got to speak to him. Rather reluctantly, I thought, he prescribed some more painkillers. It wasn’t my usual GP, of course. It wasn’t anyone I had ever spoken to before.

Anyway, with the help of the painkillers the pain eased, and when I went to get my scan, it had departed – for a while, at least. I should mention that during all this post-hospital time I had been eating a fat-free diet on the instruction of the surgeon. It would have been easier if I didn’t love fat so much: butter, cheese, steak… Now I had naked bread, bits of fruit and salad, boiled eggs and some jam or honey. I wasn’t hungry anyway.

I asked how long I would have to wait for my scan results, and it turned out to be two weeks or so. Probably. As it was urgent. I did not get upset with the radiographer, who was very pleasant, or with anyone else, because I suspect they’re all trapped within the system and don’t know how to get out of it.

The radiographer wasn’t sure why I was not eating any fat. But I have lost half a stone, which can’t be bad. Or can it? I don’t know. There’s no-one to ask.

Tunnel of contradictions

I am coming out of lockdown. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but at the moment I can’t quite make out how long the tunnel is. Nor how wide, come to that: in many respects it is a tunnel of contradictions, with rough walls and large patches of damp.

And as the tunnel progresses, I have a growing suspicion that many of the other people in it with me are from a completely different species. I mean, would you queue up for four hours in the blazing sun to buy a flatpack from IKEA? Four hours? Really?

And would you go to a world-famous beach and jostle together with like-minded enlightened gentry, while encouraging people to jump from a nearby cliff and stand a good chance of killing themselves? 

Would you gather in small groups and shout at each other from a foot or two away as though you were a character in EastEnders or Coronation Street?

Would you discard assorted unsavoury litter by the side of footpaths in as yet unspoiled countryside? 

Admittedly the litter-sprinklers have been encouraged by the interesting decision to keep public lavatories closed in many areas. There seems to be an opinion rife in some management areas that people go to the loo as a way of passing the time. So in schools “bubbles” of pupils are being allocated a specific time to go to the toilet. This ignores the basic human biological fact about going to the loo, which is that you go when you need to, and there are times when you need to go.

This was brought home to me a while ago on an EasyJet plane back from Israel, already poorly provided for on the toilet front, where whenever we hit a bit of minor turbulence, we were told that the toilets could not be used for the next half hour. So what were we supposed to do? Play video games instead?

I am also a bit nervous about that light I can see. What kind of a light is it? The nearer we get to it, the more it seems like a world designed for young and fit people – the sort who have been joggling and cycling their way vigorously through the pandemic. 

I am over 70. I may have mentioned this before. Although I walk a lot (and many of my age simply can’t), using a car makes life much easier in many respects. It’s also safer, when roads are uncluttered by distracting features like road bumps and contraflows. So why do post-pandemic plans centre on more cycle lanes and wider pavements, especially when we are being discouraged from using public transport in case we breathe on each other.

Interesting thing, breathing. Apparently gasping joggers and cyclists are no risk, but allowing people to get in a church and sing could be disastrous. I can only assume that people putting this view forward have not been in a church for a few years. 

Praying of course, is even more risky. I hope I don’t have to explain to you why that is.

Aiming to keep safe may not be the ideal way to live

It’s beginning to look as if coming out of lockdown will be more stressful than lockdown itself. Well, you know what Kafka said: “It’s often safer to be in chains than to be free.”

And we do tend to worry an awful lot about safety nowadays. Even before the dreaded coronavirus, most of what we did in life seemed to be directed into ensuring our safety: insurance for everything, ridiculously low speed limits, plenty of exercise, the “right” food, contorted health and safety regulations, dubious dbs checks, cameras everywhere and much, much more.

Now it’s face masks and protective clothing, social distancing and quarantine.

I am not one to criticise politicians for making radical decisions in the face of a threat none of us has ever experienced before – a threat that is unpredictable in who it affects, the way it affects them, the way it spreads and the possible ways of stopping it. It is a no-win situation, and if anyone makes the right decisions, it is likely to be down to luck or prayer.

But what about the science? That might work if there were such a thing as “science”. What we actually have is scientists, and to no-one’s surprise, they disagree with each other. Why wouldn’t they? That is how “science” makes progress. When politicians say “the science” they mean “what our own scientists say”. They try to pick the top scientists, but history shows the top scientists are not always right.

A week or so ago I had a COVID-19 test. This was a bit of a miracle in itself, because the nearest test centre they could offer me was not even in my own county, but more than 30 miles away. I am not sure how I would have got there if I had some of the more striking symptoms of the virus. As it happens, I wasn’t feeling too bad, which wasn’t surprising, because I turned out to be negative. A lot of people have always regarded me as negative; so that was no surprise.

The test itself, which took place in an empty leisure centre car park, was Kafka-esque. A group of young soldiers were supervising, but I had to do the test myself. This involved making a phone call to someone standing just outside my car, a pack being thrown through the side window furthest from me, together with a formidable set of instructions. I had to manipulate a swab of my throat and nose, then pop the swab into a tube, on which I had to stick a bar code. There were lots of bar codes. I then had to put it into a bag, and the bag into another bag, find my way out of the car park and throw the bag(s) out of the car window into a kind of sack. Then drive home.

I may have missed out a couple of stages. On the plus side, I did not turn into a giant insect. At least, I haven’t yet. As far as I know.

Obviously I understand that everyone wanted to be safe. I want to be safe. We all do. But we tend to forget that there are large parts of the world where no-one feels safe, and with good reason. Their lives tend to have different priorities. They look for a high quality of life, taking risks and offering hospitality and love, sacrificing themselves for others. They do not fear death, because we all die. They are likely to look beyond that.

Some of these people live among us.

That, in the end, is surely a life more worth living than one bound up in the chains of safety? Helen Keller said: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.” 

And Helen Keller was deaf and blind; so she knew what she was talking about.

What’s even better than clapping for the NHS?

As I believe I mentioned before, I am over 70. I am not boasting: these things happen – usually far too quickly. I am therefore restricted in what I can do.

I am not sure this is fair. But as a colleague of mine once said: “Who wants to be fair?” If life were fair, I should probably not be 70 at all. I should be elsewhere. So that’s OK. I don’t want fairness: I want forgiveness.

This is not as obvious as it sounds, because in fact one of our prime driving forces is for justice. That’s what we look for in films and books. A fair outcome: people getting what they deserve. Isn’t it?

Maybe not. What we really want is for evil to be overcome, and for goodness to triumph. That’s not quite the same thing.

We see an ideal society as one where justice is administered fairly, under the rule of law. But there is a dark side to that, and it is one it is all too easy to slip into.

It’s called self-righteousness. And there it is in the current crisis, lurking among all the good-neighbourliness and the compliance with intense inconvenience for the sake of others; peeking out from behind the unselfishness and love.

I went out for an exercise walk yesterday, and saw a deer in a cemetery. On the way back I met my wife, with whom I live and who was walking to meet me. I had just passed two men, sitting at least two metres apart, and my immediate thought was that they would assume I was meeting someone in secret, getting too close to her and flouting the regulations. They might report me.

They didn’t (as far as I know). Most people wouldn’t. But there is a hard core of people who are on the lookout for other people doing “wrong”. This results in newspaper stories like the one about the scientist whose mistress paid him a visit, and the one about Scotland’s chief medical officer, who travelled to her second home when this was being actively discouraged.

Neither of these people was “flouting” the advice given. I’m willing to bet they gave it a lot of thought and decided it posed almost no risk to anyone. But they both had to resign (and deprive us of the excellent work they were doing) because the self-righteous public thought that if they themselves couldn’t do it, no-one else could – and so they had to go.

It is those final five words that are critical. People make misjudgements – sometimes they just seem to make misjudgements – and they find themselves jumped on from a great height. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to allow them to say: “OK. I see what you mean. That may not have been the wisest thing to do” – and be forgiven?

It might not be fair, but it would be the compassionate thing to do. We need compassion. We need forgiveness. It’s not as easy as clapping for the NHS, but it lasts longer and reaches deeper.

Are we so afraid of death that we’ll do anything to avoid it?

I have to admit that I am over 70. I am therefore at risk and cannot be allowed out of the house except for exercise. I cannot buy my own food. My wife and I cannot help anyone else and have to depend on a friend to keep us fed. Neither of us is knowingly ill: I do feel short of breath occasionally, but that is just when the word “coronavirus” is mentioned. Unfortunately that is quite often, especially on the BBC.

It is a long time since I have hugged anyone except my wife. She views this as a good thing, but I am not so sure. My son is in Canada, and my grandchildren are in Buckinghamshire.

On the plus side, the sun is shining, and we have had some very warm days. I have in fact been getting more exercise than I normally do, though I cannot admit that, in case the Government tells me I don’t need it and locks me in the attic. We are eating pretty well and are improving our house and garden considerably.

Not only that, we now understand Zoom. I’m not sure “understand” is the right word, but we have used it to talk to friends, have meetings and “attend” church services. It is astonishing how many elderly people seem able to do this – not to mention FaceTime and Skype. In many cases these are people who would not in normal circumstances admit to any understanding of technology more advanced than e-mails.

My wife and I have now made friends with two blackbirds, who recklessly approach much nearer than two metres whenever we go into the garden, possibly because we feed them.

So where is it all leading? No-one knows, of course, but I am aware that I am extremely fortunate and could continue like this for some months. I don’t want to, but I could. Others, however, could not – especially those who are being deprived of work and money through no fault of their own.

Is it really necessary? Again, no-one knows. Is it all being done to save the NHS? The NHS is an expensive organisation, being operated at face-to-face level by courageous, skilful and caring people. But I suspect at management level it is in need of severe shaking up, and has been for some time.

It needs more money, but money does not appear magically out of thin air. Are we prepared to pay more tax? If not, it’s no use running campaigns to “save our NHS”. Clap by all means on a Thursday evening. We do. But we need to put our hands in our pockets too.

Many more people will die of COVID-19. Other people will die of other things. People die, sometimes in horrible ways, and we have to accept this. We may or may not think it’s the end of everything. I have lost a cousin to this virus, and it was devastating for his family. But are we so afraid of death that we will do anything to avoid it? Anything? Including making life intolerable for others?

If so, we should remind ourselves that those for whom life is being made intolerable are largely the young people who are the future of our country. They are vulnerable too, and they need some of the love that has been shown to so many others.

This is not a criticism of the Government. I don’t know what decisions I would have made, and I am grateful I didn’t have to make them. It’s just a question. What kind of people do we think we are?

Stand well clear

As it’s Easter week, I decided not to write anything about Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Black Saturday or Easter Sunday, on the grounds that what I say will already have been said by members of the clergy not allowed into churches and running desperately to the internet in order to write or stream, or zoom, or do something else I haven’t come across yet.

It is very hard to stop clergy expressing themselves. In that respect they are much like journalists. So instead of writing anything coherent in the way of journalism (Did I ever? you may ask), I am simply giving you a poem this week. Totally free. Not reduced in any way. No response necessary. I advise you to stand a good two metres away from it.