We want to believe in perfect solutions. We want better hospitals without paying taxes to fund them, safety from crime and terrorism without our civil liberties being impinged on, new technological gadgets without factory pollution. In reality, life is a constant trade-off. This is enshrined in various scientific laws, but also in simple folk wisdom: ‘There’s no such thing as a free lunch’.
Back in March last year, when this all started, I didn’t hope that it would be over soon. I expected it to be over soon. As time went on and the seriousness of the situation became apparent, my expectations subsided into hope – or rather, a string of hopes. The hope that the schools would soon reopen. The hope that we could celebrate my father’s 70th birthday together. The hope that a vaccine would be developed. The hope that the developed vaccines would quickly improve our situation. The hope – once the schools had reopened – that they would never close again. Save one, all of these hopes were dashed. And now, I am finding it very hard to frame any sort of hope.
The last few days, as we cycled around our town, we regularly passed heaps of Christmas trees lying at the kerb, waiting to be collected by the council. It’s always a sad sight: the trees that we glimpsed through windows, decked with lights and ornaments, now lying drab and discarded on the pavement. This year, with only gloomy prospects of dull lockdown days ahead, I completely understand the people who are keeping up their decorations for longer, trying to bring some light into these dark times. But I won’t be one of them.
I always find the start of January a difficult time. The house seems dark and dull with the Christmas lights returned to the attic, the living room has an empty hole where the Christmas tree was, the tree itself lies forlornly out in the street awaiting the binmen. This year the bleak prospect of at best a lengthy lockdown (and at worst, who knows?) makes 2021 gape like an endless black hole, ready to swallow me up.
I have certain expectations of how the government should behave during a crisis. They should consult a wide range of experts, carefully weigh up the pros and cons of the available options, and then choose what is best for the country as a whole. That choice having been made, they should clearly communicate the decision and their reasoning to the public, then do what is necessary to ensure cooperation. Basically, I expect the government to behave like an ideal parent, caring and listening but also decisive and in control, knowing exactly what is going on and what the right thing to do is.
We are now living in the 1.5m society. Or, depending on where you live, the 1m, 1m+, 1.4m, 1.8m or 2m society. In any case, ‘social distancing’ is de rigueur. The WHO now calls it ‘physical distancing’, as psychologists have warned that it is essential for our psychological wellbeing that we maintain our social relationships, even at a distance. Relationships can successfully bridge the miles, as I well know, coming from an international family. In that regard, we are lucky to live in an age in which we can make video calls around the world at the drop of a hat, compared to my father who had to ring the operator and then wait for an available slot in order to speak to his fiancée in Finland. Nevertheless, physical distancing inevitably takes its toll on our sense of connection.
In 2000, the artist Marco Evaristti exhibited an artwork consisting of live goldfish in blenders. Visitors were free to press the button to switch the blenders on, if they chose. Of course, the inevitable happened, and someone pressed the button, killing the fish. The museum director was convicted of animal cruelty, but his conviction was later overturned, as the fish had probably died almost instantly, and not suffered. Most likely, they lived quite happily in their blender up until that fatal moment, totally unaware of any danger. I used to be like those fish – that is, until corona turned up.
Previously, my experience of propaganda fell, broadly speaking, into two categories. There was ‘What the Other Side Does’: Russian military parades on the Red Square, Hitler Youth songs, exaggerated productivity claims in Maoist China, American campaign advertising. Utterly absurd and utterly chilling. Then there was ‘What We Did in the War’: ‘Dig for Victory’ posters, humorous films teaching people to behave, sentimental songs that exhorted them to hold on until better times. Also utterly absurd but somehow sweet and nostalgic, with ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ products even enjoying modern-day popularity. In either case, propaganda was something far removed from my daily life, either by distance or time. Not any more.
As a student in Germany, I once came across a window display of radio-controlled clocks. I was absolutely fascinated to see row upon row of timepieces, all changing time at precisely the same moment, as if they registered the heartbeat of a giant organism. When I returned home, it was with one of these clocks in my suitcase, and I have had one ever since. It is my mainstay, never running too fast or too slow, and switching automatically from summer to winter time, so I am never embarrassed by turning up an hour too early or too late. Now, in times of corona, my clock is still ticking away, measuring the hours, minutes and seconds, as reliable as ever. For the rest, however, I am lost and drifting in a weird wasteland of time.