A Journal of The Plague Year

Weeks 5 and 6, April 23rd 2020. Cravings and Ravings

In these strange times, full of empty days and an uncertain future, one inevitably turns to musing all things philosophical. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Will there be any cricket this summer? Lately these thoughts have turned to man’s greatest achievements, in an attempt to decide whether or not we as a species deserve to survive. After much thought, I’ve got as far as these. In no particular order, I give you:

  • The Sistine Chapel ceiling
  • The Flushing Toilet
  • The Cruyff Turn
  • Abbey Road side 2
  • Much Ado about Nothing, Act 4, scene 1, lines 251 – 325
  • The Waitrose Chocolate Berliner Donut

Perhaps you could choose four more and then we could go to a vote. I’m sensing a Twitter poll coming on

It feels like the tide is beginning to turn in terms of our glorious government and the Blessed Boris. Having been surfing on a tide of brainless good will since he Rose Again, Johnson is, at last, being subjected to some proper scrutiny. And what do you know, when the spotlight of interrogation is on him, the mystery melts away, and just like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, a rather silly pathetic, ineffectual little man emerges. His canonisation reached its peak, hilariously, with Alison Pearson’s tear stained, masturbatory eulogy in The Telegraph about how the nation held its breath as he teetered on the edge of death. He was, Pearson declared, the incarnation of the spirit of Albion, the Johnson body (steady Alison, you’ll need to wash those sheets) being one and the same thing as the body politic of the realm. Transubstantiation or Consubstantiation? Thinking about it, with Johnson, it was almost certainly Con.

But even in the breathless, evidence free zone that is the Tory press, eventually reality must break through. Those damn bodies. In the same way that the relentless clips of young Americans being flown back to the US in body bags from Viet Nam did for LBJ in the Sixties, so the daily press briefings giving the inexorable rise in deaths from the disease, has gradually chipped away at the Johnson myth. The briefings have been led by a series of utterly hopeless Tory Ministers (Alok Sharma?!) and have been notable for several things. First, the absolute inadequacy of the journalists questioning. The questions are poor and repetitive, and no one is challenged for not directly answering. Then the “independent” scientific advisors. What a joke. The petrified Minister passes the difficult question to the advisor who plainly fails to answer it before passing it back with a rictus smile, pathetically grateful that a few more minutes have passed and the end of the whole charade of a briefing is a little bit closer. Finally, the latest in a series of desperate promises about the future is delivered, whether that’s the target or 100,000 tests by the end of April, a figure blatantly plucked out of thin air, a delivery of PPE from Turkey, or all homeless people will be given secure accommodation. It does not matter what the promise is, you can guarantee that it’s a lie to placate the simple minded and to take up a few more moments of the briefing.

And so to the Sunday Times story, delicious and horrifying in equal measure, confirming what most of us long suspected: Johnson is a lazy, lying charlatan, whose instinct is to wing it and hope for the best, confident that he will get an easy ride from the media. After all, why on earth change an approach that has got him into  number 10, with a proven track record of moral turpitude, entirely ignored by Fleet Street’s finest?

The simulation of the pandemic scenario in 2016 nails it completely. The conclusions of this exercise were as stark as The Tory party’s blithely continuing to ignore them as they accelerated their run down of the basic structures and provisions of a modern state, motivated purely by ideology. The lack of intensive care beds and ventilators is truly shocking given what they knew. Then came the head in the sand approach to clear warnings from Wuhan and Europe. Johnson allows Cheltenham, goes to the rugby, tells everyone proudly, bloke of the people style, that he shakes hands with everyone and why shouldn’t we all go to the pub? Then he disappears for ten days, finishing his book apparently at Chequers, all loved up with Carrie Symonds and does not bother to attend never mind chair the first five meetings of Cobra. The veritable cherry on the icing is the news that the failure to participate in an EU wide supply of ventilators was, indeed, a policy decision not the laughable “we didn’t get the email” excuse ( surely this ranks alongside “the dog ate my  homework” in the all time lamest excuses list.)

Yes, that’s right. Don’t just move on to the next paragraph. Government spokespeople repeatedly lied to us about this. Once more with feeling: Government spokespeople repeatedly lied to us about this. What on earth has happened to us and our expectations that this is, apparently, unremarkable? Time was, there would have been a media feeding frenzy, with news organisations scenting blood, nagging away at every opportunity until there was a resignation or two. Now, it’s no big deal. Move along please, nothing to see here.

Beyond this, what else has weeks 5 and 6 of Armageddon brought us?

  1. The figures started to sort of come down, accompanied by discussion amongst the experts and wide eyed news readers abut relaxing the lock down. The main focus of this relaxation is, of course, schools. Most teachers would have been horrified to read plans for schools to go back as early as May 11th, on the basis that statistically, kids are pretty poor at passing the virus on and that teachers, a lazy bunch at the best of times, are just sitting around at home doing the garden in anticipation of a scorching summer drinking G&T with the occasional bit of light weeding thrown in. This would be a great theory but for one strangely overlooked fact. Schools generally, in order to function well, tend to have adults in them as well. But as the ghastly Spectator journo Alison Williams opined sagely in The Telegraph, its time for teachers to show a bit of bravery and open up classrooms again. “What we need, Blackadder, is a supremely futile gesture of self-sacrifice, in the grand tradition of gullible foot soldiers through History.”

Bollocks to that, as Winston Churchill once said.

Even just the mention of it, though, with the suggestion that we are past the peak and the whole thing is going to dribble away, has had a strange effect on me. When I went for my latest visit to the supermarket there was no queue at all and I began to think that even the most basic of social distancing and handwashing was a little bit OTT and for wusses. It’s easy to see how relaxation could easily lead to non-compliance and a huge tsunami of new infections down the line. This feeling is compounded by the latest reports of people drifting back to work and normality and a friends reports of Croydon being packed once again, with little attempt at social distancing. Now, everyone wears some form of mask or bandana and just carries on as normal. In the same way that cycle helmets turn people into less sensible cyclists, face masks do the same for people in the public domain.

  • The Populist insanity in America has started to take centre stage with swivel eyed Libertarian crazies taking to the streets with banners and assault rifles (essential shopping in the US remember) swearing their inviolable right to do what the fuck they want in the name of Liberty. I predict, Nostradamus like, that there will be a mass shooting before all this is done. This is the latest in a series of events that make the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale, less an enjoyable, thought provoking fantasy and more a foreseeable reality. The surprise is that there hasn’t been more resistance here from the far right Brexit crazies. The only consolation from the sight of them massing to demonstrate is that they will have infected each other.  No, sorry, that’s a horrible thing to say. Lockdown is clearly getting to me. The job of socialists, liberals and other proper human beings is to protect the nasty red necks from themselves. Forgive them, they know not what they do.
  • I am beginning to fantasise about life before the lockdown. The other day we re-watched Fleabag and all of our conversation afterwards was about how wonderful it would be to be in a Restaurant, or in a black cab crossing the Thames late at night. Similarly, my son and I, having got through The Lord of the Rings films, now watch Youtube classic football reruns obsessively. Oh, for some top-class sport on the telly. I am really missing the way that progress from Spring into Summer is harder to keep hold of without the usual markers of the The Season: Boat Race, Grand National, Football season climax, Cricket, Wimbledon, International Football tournament etc. We have even, in a vain attempt to hold on to the joys of Summer, been watching Rick Stein’s journey through France, vicariously enjoying all of the scenes of Rick sitting at an outside table eating lovely food and sipping an expresso, a cold beer or a glass of fruity red. Having lost several holidays already, there is some pleasure to be had in planning future trips, whilst watching the appalling Rick ballsing up in the most boring delivery known to personkind in the most exquisite locations in Europe.
  • By the time we are released back into the community, if I have survived my perennial manflu, I will need a wheelchair, such is the extent of my muscle wastage. I know I could be more innovative with my exercise regime without going to the gym, but its just not the same. One of the great pleasures of semi-retirement was going to the gym for an hour of treadmill, exercise bike and rowing machine, followed up by a trip to Waitrose for a free coffee, a free newspaper and, joy of joys, a Waitrose Chocolate Berliner donut. Even writing it down is bringing tears to my eyes. You can keep Proust and his Madeleines. All I want is  a Berliner. Just one.
  • Symptom alert: Still got headache, aching limbs, crippling tiredness. It’s clearly only a matter of time now. And then my wife reminds me that I have had these symptoms every week for the past thirty years

Milagritos, Part 1

Covid-19, Martial Law, and the Psychology of Panic Buying

Forty years ago, on February 23rd 1981, there was an attempted military coup in Spain, when Colonel Antonio Tejero led a group of soldiers and invaded Parliament. I was there, and this is my story of a different kind of panic buying.

Meticulous Government planning reveals benefits of being outside the EU

On Saturday morning I battled through a local Sainsburys the size of an aircraft hangar to do the weekly shop, expecting to find acres of empty space as the fear of contagion gripped the good burghers of Bromley, sending them scurrying to their online grocery accounts. No such luck. The shop was rammed with anxious shoppers doing a remake of supermarket sweep. For the second week in a row, the toilet paper aisle was stripped bare by the pillaging hordes, followed closely by the dried pasta aisle and the sanitiser and paracetamol sections. No-one seems remotely bothered about their cats or dogs, however, and the unspoken fear remains that eventually this crisis will end with everyone making spag bol from Pedigree Chum. Without the spag.

As I prepare for an extended period of self-isolation (previously known as “getting old”) my mind has wandered back in time to an earlier period in my life, when I encountered the full range of panic buying experiences, and learned something invaluable about the standard human response to moments lived in extremis. The year, gentle reader, was 1981, and I found myself living Spain in an early version of the gap year. Back then, this was simply a way for wasters to put off clambering onto the mortgage treadmill. Having greatly enjoyed three years at York University, an educative holiday generously funded at the taxpayer’s expense, I was searching for an innovative means of extending this period of investigative scholarship. I had dipped my toe into the waters of full-time paid work and, to be honest, it was not to my taste. It was certainly not what my years of training had prepared me for.

Thankfully, existential crisis was averted when an old school friend, who had spent the previous year doing TEFL in Madrid, contacted me and suggested I go out to Spain to play. And so it was that in the late summer of 1980 we found ourselves in Valencia looking for English teaching jobs. I had no experience, no training and not much idea. My friend had at least done it before, but that was the extent of his advantage. What we did have on our side, however, was luck and good timing, historically speaking. We were both English graduates in Spain at a time when the TEFL industry was, to put it mildly, a bit of a cowboy operation. We were, to our surprise, snapped up and began life as teachers at the Global School of Languages, under the guidance of proprietor Senor Petit, a huge French Algerian man of prodigious appetites and precarious finances.

Valencia before Social Distancing

He was a true eccentric who constantly surprised. (not least in his approach to the regular payment of salary owed) He would at intervals arrive at the office dressed in full, traditional Arab robes and head dress, complete with mirror shades and would wander in and out of lessons, much to the delight of the little old well-to-do Spanish ladies who made up the bulk of the clientele. At least once  a week, during quiet moments he would announce to the group of young English lads that worked there, “Muchachos, vamos a jugar” and he would take us all down to the bar in the street and pay for all the drinks while we did a Space Invaders tournament. We literally never knew what to expect from him, from one day to the next, and forgave him many missed or late payments because he was rather fun. It might have been different of course if we had had families and responsibilities, but we were, to a man (and it was all men) feckless wasters, so it all seemed part of a glorious adventure.

And then, one afternoon of a pretty slow day “teaching” a group of IBM business men (how he had secured this extremely prestigious contract with IBM was baffling to us all and was never satisfactorily explained) the door swung violently open and Senor Petit burst into the room.  

“Everyone out! There’s been a coup d’etat. Go home. There’s an announcement due. The army are out on the streets!”

We all, teacher and students, looked at each other and after a pause, burst out laughing. That Senor Petit, eh? What a card! Always the joker.

He looked baffled at our reaction. “No, no, I’m serious. There’s been a coup in Parliament. Everywhere is closing. You’ve all got to go. Now.”

Eventually the penny dropped and we all realised he meant it. Spain was in the first flush of democracy after surviving under the jackboot of the fascism of General Franco (or General Francissimo, as our Spanish chums  rather disrespectfully called him) and a few disgruntled members of the old Guard, under the leadership of a ridiculous character, Lieutenant Tejero, had marched into Parliament , fired a few shots and declared a military coup. For a local point of comparison, imagine Mark Francois doing the same thing in Westminster to “save” Brexit. Francois is actually more likely to shoot himself in the foot, but you get my point. It was serious and there was mass panic, with no-one knowing what side the King of Spain, Juan Carlos, would come down on: Democracy or Military rule.

I did my usual walk home, several hours earlier than normal, through the centre of Valencia. The streets were absolutely packed and you could feel the atmosphere – a strange mixture of fear, excitement and shock. Just about everyone was scurrying through the streets with small transistor radios jammed up against their ears, desperate for the latest news. The local newspaper was published every two hours and the whole thing felt like being in a film. You know the sort of thing: brave, principled British journalist in a far-flung former colony, caught up in a military coup carried out by brutal extremists. Said journo risks life to get the truth out, while getting involved in a liberal, caring way with local little-person campaigners, with a bit of love interest thrown in. Local colour is dispensable as far as the plot is concerned and a couple of those characters die, including, tragically, the love interest, despite the heroic best efforts of plucky liberal journalist. Brit journalist returns to Blighty at the end of the film a sadder and a wiser man. That, of course, was the scenario I was running through my head on my fevered walk back to my flat. It was tremendously exciting, not least because at the back of my mind I was pretty certain that, as a Brit, I was safe because there were certain rules about this sort of thing. As I was to discover later, it was an entirely different scenario for most of my Spanish friends, all card-carrying members of the Spanish Socialist party. More of that later.

I noticed, as I dodged the crowds and weaved in and out of the traffic that was choking the city streets, that lots of people were struggling with heavy bags of shopping, and that at several shops I passed, queues had formed which snaked out of the doorway and down the street. I did a double take, a bit baffled that now of all times, people would choose to do their shopping, but then I realised what was going on. They were panic buying. The news on the radio was sufficiently apocalyptic to ensure that everyone feared the worst. Good news was in short supply and the best response to this unprecedented situation was to assume that we would be holed up at home for days and that food was likely to run out.

By the time I had worked this out I was nearly back at my flat, away from the main drag, in the splendidly seedy streets of Barrio Carmen, a neighbourhood of prostitutes, drug takers, revolutionaries, artists and ne’er-do-wells. Blindfold, one could always tell when one had arrived back in those familiar alleys because of the smell: a heady cocktail of sewers, garlic and marijuana, a smell redolent of adventure and contagion.  Of Risk.

My flat was in a crumbling four story tenement block arranged with several others around a tiny plaza in the middle of Carmen. It was litter strewn and daubed with graffiti, but the shabbiness was brilliantly illuminated by a neon purple Bougainvillea that clung to the wall of the block opposite. I use the word “plaza”  loosely. It was in fact the tiny bit of space created when, to steal from Charles Dickens, the surrounding blocks leaped apart out their conspiratorial huddle when disturbed by members of the Guardia Civil. One block went off to help the police with their enquiries and the others hung back a little smoking a Ducados and looking a bit shifty. That was the Plaza where my flat was situated.

El Barrio Carmen, gentrified

But there was one notable oasis in this desert – a tiny shop in the next block from us. It was the human equivalent of the Bougainvillea. Milagritos it was known as. “Little Miracles”, so called because its cramped interior was crammed with every conceivable item of Spanish food and wine known to man. Just before going up to my flat I popped in there expecting to have to wait patently in a queue, but the inhabitants of Plaza Lowlife were a little more laidback than their mainstream contemporaries. It would take more than a military coup to get them to lengthen their stride. The shop was empty and I was able to casually select some choice delicacies: Several plump chorizos, beans, tuna, fruit salad, bread, coffee, two cartons of UHT milk and a ridiculously cheap bottle of Rioja.

The toothless owner grinned and cackled at me, “Eh, Chico, has ganada el Gordo, no?”, the sentence delivered with her Ducados precariously balanced in the corner of her mouth, its familiar, pungent black-tobacco smoke contributing to the curing of the Serrano hams that hung from the yellowing ceiling. “El Gordo”, or “The Fat One” was the big Spanish lottery rollover. She was clearly surprised to see me buying anything more substantial than a baguette and a hunk of cheese. I smiled, and staggered out of the shop with my bags cradled in both arms, struggling with the door while trying to keep everything balanced and secure.

I crashed into the flat, the door swinging on its hinges as I made it to the kitchen table, lunging the last couple of steps so that the bags spilled their contents out onto the bleached and scarred wooden surface. Just as I did so, there came a voice from behind me.

“Hey, you beat me to it. You been shopping as well? What did you get?”

It was Alan, my flatmate and general partner in crime. He was equally laden as I had been, two bulging brown paper bags in his arms. I proudly itemised my purchases one by one as I laid them out on the table. It was an impressive haul. We could survive a siege with the supplies arrayed on the table.

“Not bad,“ conceded Alan, grudgingly, “Not bad at all. Well done that man. We’ll not starve at any rate.”

“Yeah, it’ll do for a bit of panic buying, “ I replied, feeling rather pleased with myself. “What did you get?”

Alan smiled, knowingly, and placed his bags on the table.

“No panic buying for me, old boy. Mine are carefully considered essential supplies” And with that he emptied the bags.

Four hundred cigarettes, premium Ducados of course, three bottles of Scotch and three bottles of Larios Gin.

“Man cannot live by bread alone,” he explained, catching my wide-eyed reception of his shopping expedition, “Especially when one is living through the eye of the storm of History.”

He smiled, evidently pleased with his preparations, and then a frown passed across his face, like a cloud. “Oh, nearly forgot.” He fumbled in the pockets of his jacket and extricated two bottles of San Miguel, opened them and passed one over to me.

“Cheers” he said as we clinked bottles, “It’s gonna be a long night.”

And it was. He was right about that and right about his emergency supplies compared to mine. So, please, don’t stockpile toilet paper and paracetamol, stockpile alcohol and books. It was a long, long night full of extraordinary adventures that seem barely credible now, nearly forty years later here in mainstream Europe. Part two will follow, as my contribution to keeping spirits up during this Coronovirus nightmare. I have a terrible feeling that I’m going to have to do parts 3 , 4 and more because this thing is going to get worse. Keep safe everyone and best of luck.