Well, I did warn you. As I typed my column last week on the imminent end of Covid I said I knew that I was tempting fate. The main fear I had in mind was that the moment the magazine hit the newsstands some wild new strain of the virus would break out, wipe out half of humanity and lead to quite a cross letters page the following week.
Fate had a more minimalist plan. Having dodged Covid for two years, it took me writing a column predicting the end of the virus for the fates to eye me up and snicker: ‘Now we’ve got him.’ The day after I filed, I developed a sore throat and a blocked nose. By the time the magazine was on the stands, I was wondering whether Betty White had chosen to strike me down from beyond the grave.
At the start of the Covid crisis there was a rush to be the first journalist to get the virus and write a world-exclusive survivor’s account of the experience. You need not fear. This is not going to be such a piece. Though if it was then — sticking to last week’s theme — I’d hope it would be the last of the genre.
For while having a sore throat and runny nose hasn’t made me think any more deeply about Covid, it has made me think about fate. The truth is that I am in fact slightly more superstitious than I like to think. As I mentioned to my editor ahead of last week’s column, I do slightly believe in the old gods — or at least I fear them. I’m still not clear whether this is superstition or common sense. But I regularly do things that are meant to appease forces I can’t possibly believe in.
The obvious one is ladders. Even now, if I see a ladder propped up against a building I prefer to walk around it. I know I’ve got more chance of being hit by a bicycle if I take the brief detour into the road. But still I am more content taking that risk than the larger one of walking under a ladder.
I have other superstitions of a similar kind. When I go up or down a flight of stairs I prefer to finish on my right foot. It’s not an absolute prerequisite for happiness. But as the final steps come up I tend to do a quick scan and mental calculation so that I end up landing on my right foot. It doesn’t wreck the day if it doesn’t work out. It is simply more comfortable.
These could I suppose be counted as quirks. But others of my beliefs in the old gods are more severe. I am especially strict about hubris. I can hear some rustling even as I acknowledge this. But there is almost nothing that troubles me more than when someone tries to congratulate me on some success, perceived or otherwise. The moment someone says ‘You must be so pleased about [insert]’, I grimace. This is not a humblebrag, I promise. I simply feel that I know the gods well enough to be aware that the point in my life when I actually sit back, raise a glass and toast anything that I have done with total satisfaction will be the moment when the gods will hitch their skirts and take their best run at me. I would be Job in no seconds flat. I’d make Job look like Lady Luck.
Lingering bits of common wisdom attest to this truth. ‘Pride before a fall’ is one of the most famous and in my experience one of the absolute truest sayings we have. I used to think it was some presbyterian inheritance that made me think this, but the older I get the more I think that we were on to something with the old gods.
I have been listening to Mahler a little on my Spectator-caused sick days, especially when my sniffle was at its worst, and of course he had one of the most acute senses of fate of anyone ever who ever lived. He even avoided numbering one of his late works as a symphony so that he wouldn’t get to the dreaded number nine.
As I was thinking about him I suddenly remembered a Mahler-related superstition of my own. Some years back, I was playing through some of his works at my piano, including his ‘Kindertotenlieder’ [Songs on the death of children], itself a highly unwise piece for him to write. A couple of my godchildren came to visit the next day and just before they arrived I suddenly remembered what was on the piano stand and hid the score as swiftly as I could under a pile of Hoagy Carmichael.
Anyhow, I make these intermittently embarrassing confessions in the hope that I am not hereafter reckoned any special type of lunatic, but rather to point out that I suspect that we are all subject to various irrational fears, which confuse us all the more because they occasionally turn out to be rational. Even before the universe got as wildly noisy, speedy and confusing as it currently is, we were already making our own bargains: weaving around a ladder here, touching a piece of wood there.
No wonder everything seems so additionally confusing now. We were already nowhere near working out our relationship with what was rational, what irrational and what commonsensical.
I know people who think that we are in the midst of a grand, planned reorientation of society. I know others willing to wear masks and get jabbed without question for the rest of their lives. I know someone who has ingested more drugs in his life than a veteran laboratory rat who has recently become all ‘my body is a temple’ about taking the vaccine. Other people take the vaccine and do get ill.
I don’t know what the rules are. I think I tempted the fates last week, or at least caught their attention. Who knows? In any case, the virus is still over.
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