The Spectator's Notes

Covid-19 is giving me hyper-focus on the beauty of spring

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

We know, because of the lack of widespread testing, that incidences of Covid-19 are under-reported. What is less well known is that they may be over-reported as a cause of death. In hospices and in care homes, I gather, where tests are not available, doctors are encouraged, if in doubt, to write ‘suspected Covid‑19’ on 1A of the death certificate, as the ‘primary cause’ of death. They do not wish to be accused of underplaying it. But they do not know they are right, because there have been no tests. A cough and a temperature can be enough to secure a Covid diagnosis, yet the cough could have many causes and the temperature could have come from sepsis. At the time of writing, our daily death figures are only hospital deaths. When hospice and care home ones are added, as is intended soon, can anyone know their accuracy?

A neighbour of ours, self-isolating and with poor lung function, has twice been telephoned recently by the medical authorities. After pleasant preliminaries about her health, both callers muttered something about ‘If the worst happened and you did become ill’. So she cut through: ‘Are we getting round to DNR [Do Not Resuscitate]?’ They admitted as much. My neighbour told them she did want to be resuscitated. Yes, medics might want to know these preferences, but is it right to chase old people living compulsorily alone? It casts a chill, as does the waiter who stands over you and says: ‘Have you finished yet?’

Roy Kerridge has died (not of the coronavirus). Older Spectator readers will remember his remarkable articles in the 1980s. Small, mild, myopic, in a shabby suit, Roy would have been well cast as Mole in The Wind in the Willows. He used to arrive in The Spectator’s offices carrying plastic bags full of articles and sometimes manuscript novels, all in his clear, childish hand. He had been a lavatory attendant for a time, but was a natural writer. His journalistic persona was that of the innocent observer. He liked nothing better than to mingle with people who are beyond the grasp of ideology — gypsies, a skiffle band, a West African church. But his eccentricities hid his sharp awareness of political and social trends. Glancing through a six-month period in 1984, I see Roy wrote in these pages about the Haxey Hood ceremony in Lincolnshire, a poodle dog show, Mary Seacole, a feminist book fair, the Lancashire town of Clitheroe, and how he had been manhandled by leaders of the race-relations industry in Liverpool. This last was typical of his courage. Brought up with many black friends (his half-sister, the writer Zenga Longmore, is half-Nigerian), Roy knew that black experiences in Britain were distorted by the grievance culture of anti-white extremists and was one of the first to expose this problem. He would walk into ‘anti-racist’ gatherings and gently challenge them. His naivety was pleasingly ambiguous. Once I sat at supper with him and an important-looking man. ‘What do you do, then?’ asked Roy blinkingly. ‘Oh, I’m a Tube driver,’ the businessman answered, with studied self-deprecation. ‘Oh,’ said Roy, ‘then you must know my friend Mr Samba, who collects the tickets at Baker Street?’ ‘No,’ came the nettled reply: ‘Actually, I’m the head of London Transport.’ Was Roy teasing all along?

‘Hyper-focusing’ is a quality often found in autistic people. It enables them to gaze at one image with absolute attention. The combination of this spring and Covid-19 is making me hyper-focus. When I first noticed so many long-tailed tits and nuthatches, followed a pair of buzzards circling in the rising air currents above the lawn, spotted a red kite, surprised a grey partridge, heard a score of woodpeckers and an early cuckoo, or discovered so many clutches of orchids among the bluebells, I imagined this lovely spring was uniquely intense. But then I realised that the chief difference was in me: I was at home all the time and looking at nature with a ‘confirmation bias’ towards its beauties; so I found them. My parents’ generation loved recalling how glorious the summer of 1940 had been in their childhoods. I believe this is meteorologically correct, but the psychological phenomenon was similar. They could do little about the terrible events, so they hyper-focused on the country they loved.

The Prince of Wales chose Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ on the Today programme last week. He declaimed really well, which is unfortunately not true of all the poem-choosers, some of whom read as if poems are simply prose in a jumbled order. His was a good choice, too, at a time when we particularly wish, hyper-focusing, to ‘see into the life of things’. It is a great poem, but I can never think of Wordsworth without remembering J.K. Stephen’s parodic encapsulation of him:

Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud’s thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine…

Frank Johnson, once editor of this paper, liked perversely to argue: ‘Winston Churchill — great peacetime prime minister, useless wartime one.’ Is there a Frank of poetry to claim that Wordsworth’s late verse is his greatest — making the case, for example, for his sonnets in favour of capital punishment?

Good news from the Covid-19 front. Last week, I reported that my friend Prue Penn, aged 93, had seemed to despair as she endured the virus. No sooner had I published, however, than she texted to say: ‘I have decided to hang on in. DV.’ D did indeed appear to V, and she is back on form. Next she rebuked me for getting her age wrong. I apologise to Lady Penn: she is actually 94.

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