Strange times, these. Dull and unsettling in equal measure. Much of life feels as though it is stuck in some interminable holding pattern, waiting for permission to land and move on. The days drag, even for those of us accustomed to working from home. But the city is a dreary place, for now, stripped of most of its conveniences and opportunities.
Worse still, there are professional problems. This is a game in which you’re always supposed to have a view and the hotter it is the better. Incentives favour certainty; if in doubt double down on your lack of doubt. Bets should not be hedged; everything is a triumph or a disaster and we ricochet from one to the other unencumbered by a moment’s self-reflection.
At least, sometimes that seems to be the way the game is played. Shamelessness and faux-contrarianism are rewarded; hucksters and charlatans can always make a buck or two. Who’s up and who’s down, who’s the hero and who’s the villain? We must always be keeping score. Outrage is the reserve currency and value is measured in clicks and the length of comment threads.
And yet, right now, in these circumstances, I find opinions melting away. Certainty is an enemy here and strong convictions the falsest of comforts. Besides, if this crisis reveals anything it may be little more than the hollowness of so many of our everyday controversies. This need not concern you, perhaps, but a dearth of views is a minor problem for some of us.
I cannot muster the anger so clearly felt by some, even if I think much of this rage is really a proxy for the stress, anxiety and general sense of helplessness that’s all too apparent and yet also all too difficult to acknowledge. And so some allowances should be made. There is no playbook for this, no correct form or protocol that offers a lead. It’s okay to be worried even if it’s also important to know that the burdens imposed by this crisis do not fall upon us equally. Someone, somewhere, is almost certain to be in a worse position than you.
Different times governed by different rules call for a different perspective. Chief of these, for me anyway, is a near-total dearth of partisanship. It helps that, since the weekend, the Labour party has returned to a state of decency. This is not a time for self-indulgent student union politics. British politics needs all the grown-ups it can find right now. If he offered only that, Sir Keir Starmer would have done enough.
But, for heaven’s sake, the Prime Minister occupies a bed in intensive care. If you cannot divest yourself of cheap shots now, when might you ever? Not because Boris Johnson is, as an individual, any more worthy than any other patient but because his hospitalisation is a clarifying moment: this is a pretty big deal.
Other great matters are on ice too. Brexit? Who cares? Scottish independence? Let’s agree that now is not the time to be talking of such things. Ask again at some later date, if you must. Because at the moment that’s mere frippery too. Nicola Sturgeon understands that and it’s to her credit she does so. But then she is a grown-up too and that, as we are all beginning to understand more clearly now, is important.
And so we wait and then wait some more because, for many of us, especially some of us who are fortunate right now, the waiting is all there is. Previously significant matters are trivial now, though we trust they will become important again. The distinctions between left and right and those somewhere in between matter little at present and the culture wars – by God, the ceaseless, grinding, utterly tedious culture wars – seem ever more self-indulgent and spectacularly irrelevant. For that at least, there is reason to be cheerful.
Some still fight them, of course, and social media is choked with blowhards and know-it-alls. Mostly, but not exclusively, men who have the answers and remain stupefied by everyone else’s inability to appreciate it’s all so very obvious. These Captains Hindsight and Captains Obvious and Captains Whatabout have always been with us but, by God, they’ve been recruiting well in recent days. But they don’t know anything worth knowing either and their protestations to the contrary cannot disguise their fundamental inadequacy.
So the days melt into each other like some strange Beckettian drama in which everything and nothing matters. Beyond our own observance of the restrictions and save for some volunteering or checking in on distant relatives – so near to us yet ever so far away – there is little to be done. Agency is a matter of past and future but not the present. You do your bit by not doing very much at all.
It’s okay to be discombobulated by this, I think. Fine to be uncertain about everything; fine to think we do not really need an hour-by-hour tick-tock account of the Prime Minister’s health or, indeed, much else. What will be will be and accepting that – trying not to think too much – is a coping mechanism too.
It’s different for some, of course. Different for the NHS and care home staff stretched to the limit yet performing heroically; different for the drivers and food producers and logistics managers who, despite everything, are keeping the show more or less on the road. Different for so many. But for the rest of us – those many millions of us – we are not much more than bystanders to the crisis. In it, but not quite of it and knowing, deep down, there are weeks left of this before anything like ‘normality’ returns.
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