Anomie

Reasons must be found for everything, from looting, to breaking lockdown, to running battles in the streets with the authorities. A detached observer might think that the world is teetering on the edge of a chaos from which it might not recover and utopia is further away than ever.

I rarely post the thoughts of others here, but Melanie Phillips in her quite astonishingly prophetic book ‘The World Turned Upside Down: the Global Battle over God, Truth and Power published ten years ago, offers remarkably prescient insights into the causes of the dystopian crisis in which we now find ourselves. 

If you do not believe there is a crisis and all is well, then read no further – this isn’t for you. I have added my own thoughts and edits to the following excerpt.

In many ways the modern world is no different from the world of the past, insofar as mankind has attempted to better his lot by either ingenuity, subterfuge or force. The condition of the modern world, however, provides emotional fuel for the growing yet hubristic belief that it can be transformed. Furthermore, the ‘can’ has now been replaced by ‘must’, sometimes at any cost. Anomie, that state of radical rootlessness caused by  existential detachment in a post-religious age which leaves people without meaning or purpose to their lives, can find its antidote in apocalyptic causes or beliefs which galvanise people en masse into collective resonance, making them feel more alive as they join with their comrades and put their united shoulder to the wheel of progress.

Yet, there is a dark, sinister downside.

As Eric Hoffer observed in ‘The True Believer’, his classic analysis of mass movements: ‘Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find context not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both’.

Unlike, for example, the Crusades, the mass movements of today are not so much religious or political as cultural: anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, environmentalism, scientism, egalitarianism, anti-racism, libertinism and multiculturalism to which we might in our day add the toxic mix of LGBTQ+++. These are all quasi-religious movements, however, in the sense that they are inherently passionate, evangelical, dogmatic, fanatical and with enforcement mechanisms ranging from demonisation by social media through ostracism to expulsion in order to stamp out any heresies or dissent. They are also millenarian and even apocalyptic in their visions of the perfect society and what needs to be swept aside in order to attain it. In such visions, the requisite  ‘pros’ to replace the ‘antis’ are usually unformed and nebulous as if by mere striving as in a modern day ‘Mein Kampf’, they will magically crystallise them into achievement.

… The crucial element in all millenarian movements is the reaction that sets in when the prophecy of utopia fails – which of course it has done every time throughout human history. The inevitable outcome is that the disappointment turns ugly; adherents create scapegoats for this failure, upon whom they turn with a ferocity fuelled by acute disorientation, anger and shame – all of which they do not recognise – in an attempt to bring about by coercion the state of purity which the designated culprits have purportedly despoiled.

When the classless utopia failed to materialise in the Soviet Union, Stalin murdered dissidents and sent them to the gulag; when Germany failed to achieve its apparently rightful place as the defining paradigm of Aryan purity in Europe, Hitler committed genocide against the Jews and others; when Mao failed to bring about universal justice and the Confucian ideal of harmony, he had millions of Chinese killed, jailed or terrorised into submission.

Today, the failure of the environmental vision of spiritual oneness between man and nature has seen mankind blamed for despoiling the planet and imperilling the survival of life on earth. The failure to arrive at a perfect state of reason in which all injustice and suffering are ended has been blamed on religious believers. The failure of the apparatus of international law and human rights to prevent war and tyranny has been blamed on America. And the failure of the existence of Israel to bring about the end of ‘the Jewish problem’ has been blamed on those same Jews for its continuation.

Having identified these scapegoats upon whom they can project their anger and shame, disappointed millenarians have tried to carve out their perfect society through coercive measures against the people they hold responsible. In the French Revolution, when religious folk showed too much attachment to their old ways, the revolutionaries tried to do away with Christianity altogether, desecration of churches was commonplace. This was in accordance with Rousseau’s dictum that if the universal good of the ‘general will’ failed to be accepted, the people would have to be ‘forced to be free’. Where I used to live near Paris, a fourteenth century statue of the Virgin and Child was discovered buried in the garden, tossed there in the heat of revolutionary fervour – how ironic that people are pulling down statues in our time, albeit for different reasons.

… In our own time, the Left forces people to be free in a myriad different ways. In Britain, left-wing totalitarianism wears the pained smile of ‘good conscience’ as it sends in the police to enforce ‘hate crime’ laws, drags children from their grandparents to place them for adoption with gay couples or sacks a Christian nurse for offering to pray for her patient. In America, school textbooks are censored by ‘bias and sensitivity’ reviewers who remove a reference to patchwork quilting by frontierswomen in the mid 19th century because it stereotyped females as being ‘soft and submissive’.

Some who perhaps think more clearly would call this tyranny. But to the progressive mind, tyranny happens when utopia is denied. Virtue has to be thus coerced and then enforced for the good of the people. And there can be no doubt that it is virtue, because progressivism is all about creating the perfect society and is therefore incontestably virtuous; and so – like the Committee of Public Safety, like Stalinism, like Islam – it is incapable of doing anything bad. Animal Farm’s ‘two legs bad, four legs good’ is easy enough to learn, binary symbolism defines the sheep from the goats very successfully.

… Hoffer believed that at the root of the ideological ‘true believer’ invariably lay some kind of deep self-contempt; and that self-contempt was transmuted into hatred of others, since ‘mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil’.

In other words, it is essential for the true believer to have someone or something to hate. The believer is defined by what he or she is not. Not racist, not sexist, and so on. Positions are then taken not necessarily because they are believed or even believable, but principally because the alternative is unthinkable.

… For the millenarian, the high-minded belief that creating a perfect world requires the present imperfect world to be purified by the true believers. From the Committee of Public Safety to Iran’s morals police, from Stalin’s purges of dissidents to British and American ‘hate crime’ laws, utopians of every stripe have instigated coercive or tyrannical regimes to save the world by ridding it of its perceived corruption.

The symmetry today is as obvious as it is striking. At a time when radical Islam is attempting to purify the world by conquering it for Islam and thus create the kingdom of God on earth, the West is also trying to purify the world in order to create a secular utopia in which war will become a thing of the past, prejudice, hatred and selfishness will be eradicated from the human heart, reason will replace superstition, humanity will live in harmony with the earth and all division will yield to the brotherhood of man.

…And for all these millenarians and apocalypticists and utopians, religious and secular, the target is the West. As Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit write in their book ‘Occidentalism’ , the West is seen as a threat ‘not because it offers an alternative system of values but because its promises of material comfort, individual freedom and dignity of unexceptional lives deflate all utopian pretensions. The anti-heroic, anti-utopian nature of Western liberalism is the greatest enemy of religious radicals, priest-kings and collective seekers after purity and heroic salvation’. How very Orwellian.

That’s why the West is squarely in the sights of all who want to create utopia and are determined to remove all the obstacles it places in its way. For environmentalists, that obstacle is industrialisation. For scientific materialists, it’s religion. For transnational progressives, it’s the nation state. For anti-imperialists, it’s American exceptionalism. For the intelligentsia, it’s Israel. And for the Islamic world, it’s all of the above plus the entire un-Islamic world.

All of us, religious or not, crave redemption from both our own nagging deviance from a moral compass and a realisation that the world is both imperfect and frequently deeply hostile. In this Manichean desire for redemption and the totalitarian suppression of dissent from the one revealed truth and the path of virtue, Western progressives and radical Islamists are uncomfortably closer than they might imagine.

Two Roads Meet

The statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College Oxford is set high. One has to crane one’s neck to see it, a slightly avuncular figure, nestling in an alcove, looking as if he’s wearing a check suit. In fact, the statue is protected by chicken wire.

They’re going to take it down because black lives matter.

Beginning at the University of Cape Town and spreading elsewhere in Southern Africa a movement was started at the university to better represent non-white culture in the curriculum as well as to combat racial discrimination and insensitivity. Organising members of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ in Oxford have demanded that awareness should be raised at the university about the institution’s implication in colonialism and the violence that accompanied it, and that representation of ‘black voices’ should be improved.

A Daily Telegraph journalist described Oxford’s ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign as the product of “a generation raised to believe that their feelings are all that matter”, arguing that academics had been too indulgent towards student activists, which puts the matter much too gently since there are far too many academics with neo-Marxist tendencies filling young minds with thoughtless, emotionally charged dialectical materialism.

Yet, we now find ourselves in a situation where two separate ideologies have commingled so effectively that they have become virtually indistinguishable. The life of a black man on the streets of Minneapolis has been subtly conflated with anti-imperialist propaganda.

Were the world to acquiesce to the ethical blackmail which is now not only apparently desirable but virtually compulsory in so-called democratic, “woke” societies, there would be precious little left standing to commemorate our past. A cleansing so thorough, sweeping the alleged detritus of history before it leaves us naked, bereft of culture, shivering in the cold climate of root and branch reform, hence removing all requirement to learn from histories sometimes, in fact all-too-frequently, steeped in the blood of the oppressed.

And now, a new demonstration of mute obedience to the Moloch of propriety and the new freedom has sprung up. We now are supposed to ‘take the knee’. As football emerges, blinking, from the shadow of lockdown, shirts are seen, emblazoned with the slogan ‘black lives matter’.

Peter Hitchens wrote:

“All – along with the referee and match officials – also ‘took the knee’, the sign of obeisance to the new ideology.”

And:

“As far as I know, none of those involved had any qualms about this. But if they had done, would they have dared express them, if they wished to continue in professional football?”

I have been thinking much the same thing. Watching the fruitless banner-waving clashes between police and football ‘firms’, out for a bit of a ruck, under the totally spurious and largely irrelevant chanting that black lives matter, I along with so many others who lived through other demonstrations are asking ‘has it really come to this?’. In fact, it seems so obvious that the manipulation and crowd control – or lack of it – is almost symphonically orchestrated by those whose agenda is far more sinister. The co-founder of BLM, Patrisse Cullors describes herself as a ‘trained Marxist, super-versed in ideological theories…’

So, here’s the hard part.’Taking the knee’ is the third step in a decades-long program of intimidation.

First we had political correctness, which told us in no uncertain terms what we ought not to say, or even think.

Then we had gender politics, which told us what we must think or say – even what pronouns we were supposed to use. A person can declare themselves to be female if their chromosomes are heterogametic. An intergalactic visitor from another civilisation would laugh in amazement before annihilating the lot of us for our stupidity, deeming such thinking unworthy of intelligent lifeforms. Anyone who is familiar with the trouble that Jordan Peterson has had with the more hate-filled people in this category will be in little doubt that this is the new perceived truth.

Now, BLM have taken the whole process a step further. Because it is impossible to read someone’s mind, they seem to have come up with a way of making people demonstrate what is in their mind, while knowing that those who fail to acquiesce, for whatever reason, are likely to be drowned not just by the chorus of twittering, revenge-porn disapproval but threatened with much worse. The opponent has become the enemy and enemies must be eliminated.

Even this may not be enough. Taking the knee is not always going to be practical. The next step will be to ‘ask’ that people attending football matches – whenever that might be – wear a red armband – red for blood – so as to ‘demonstrate’ their solidarity with BLM. Armbands. Oh, yes. We’ve seen those before.

Who in their right mind would go to such a gathering and have the stones or the stupidity not to comply ?

I won’t ‘stand with’ BLM because we all matter, the young, the old, the disabled, the sick and the healthy. The dark faces of BLM are bullies who blame white people for everything while all the time failing to address the very serious problems in their own communities, which a de-funded police force would have even more of a hard time in dealing with. And they are silent about the bloody history of some of their own icons, such as Nelson Mandela, whose ANC party had a habit of encasing people in tyres doused in petrol and then setting fire to them, or ‘necklacing’ as it was called.

I haven’t heard anyone calling for Mandela’s statue – who, if memory serves, Thatcher referred to as a ‘terrorist’ and Reagan’s government had on a terrorist watch list – to be removed from Parliament Square.

The removal of statues, films, paintings (books will be next and then perhaps, people) has nothing whatever to to with black lives, neither has so-called ‘decolonisation’ of university curricula – how is one supposed to decolonise Newton, I ask myself. Rather, this is about power. It is a spiteful reminder for anyone who has forgotten about the projected demographics that what the French writer Renaud Camus referred to as ‘Le Grand Remplacement’ is well under way, and anyone who doesn’t like it had better just get used to it or get out of the way.

Life and Property

Graffiti and vandalism in Hamburg

I don’t think most graffiti is art and I have a particular revulsion to and abhorrence of vandalism. Wanton destruction of or damage to other people’s property seems to me to be the quintessential act of the anarchist – one who destroys without regard for the consequences – and as a wilful act of deliberate social harm.

As we emerge, blinking into a not-so-brave post-Corona world, some seem to have cast inhibition aside as people, forced into isolation for months, finally are getting out again and letting the rest of the population witness it in no uncertain terms. A black man in Minnesota was killed, perhaps accidentally, by an overzealous policeman, and the world goes crazy, with outpourings of rage, looting and criminal damage under the shelter of the fatuous hashtag #blacklivesmatter. But, what is worse, is the rather absurd conflation of his death with the enslavement of his forebears by Southern plantation owners.

Would the same scenarios have erupted if a black policeman had done the same to a white man? Would the media have polarised so spectacularly and would the subterranean voices of Babylonian anarchy have surfaced so violently? I don’t think so.

Most people are appalled that the anarchists seem to be winning the culture war. The gleeful dismantlement and daubing of a bronze statue of the philanthropist  (and seventeenth century slave trader) Edward Colston, and its subsequent dumping in the river was perpetrated by a group who made no attempt to hide their crime and knew that the outrage over the behaviour of a long-dead benefactor would outweigh any concerns about the damage caused. It took a firm denunciation by the Home Secretary to at least redress the balance, if only slightly since the local police chief robustly supported the actions of the perpetrators.

Bristol vandals

Defacement of Winston Churchill’s statue in London echoes similarly triumphalist views of a clear minority who are nevertheless well-organised and funded. A stroll through many large British cities means that we frequently get up close and personal with the repercussions of slavery yet at times we quite fail to acknowledge that despite all our virtue signalling it still exists in the world in places we often don’t want to talk about. Reminders of the merchants, the buildings, the foundation stones of modern-day wealth are everywhere. Should the past, such a very foreign country to us, no longer receive visitors and all trace of it expunged as ISIL attempted to do in Nineveh and elsewhere? Oh, I hope not, otherwise we cut off the means whereby history displaces myth and education brings enlightenment. People have made comparisons with the destruction of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad – an iconic, memorable image. But, this was not the same. People had suffered directly at his hands, relatives murdered, disappeared or worse. Both black and white ‘protesters’ rolling a statue down a hill, they themselves are entirely untouched by the misdeeds of the man whose bronze effigy was being so swiftly despatched and had no tangibly personal reason for its destruction. Indeed had not the media maelstrom not made such a stink, they might never have heard of George (Big) Floyd at all.

Various publications have commented, both for and against.

Bristol’s obsequious monument to a slave trader is a sorry reminder of past mores…’

Wrote the Guardian; what else could they be expected to support, as if some kind of deep, malaise has gripped everyone and the only way to break free is by storming a metaphorical Winter Palace.

And yet:

…but perhaps the answer lies less in boycotts and more in celebration of the contribution of minorities.’

Perhaps. The mayor of London (himself belonging to an ethnic minority) has weighed in as follows:

“London was (is?) one of the most diverse cities in the world, with more than 300 languages spoken every day, yet statues, plaques and street names “largely reflect Victorian Britain”, as highlighted by recent Black Lives Matter protests”.

Well, of course they do. Would one expect a statue of a star of EastEnders on the Old Kent Road? There is even talk of renaming the Tate. Henry Tate, sugar merchant, was a philanthropist. It would be absolutely tragic if his legacy was tarnished by ‘woke’ thinking and blind subservience to the trashy political correctness which has replaced civilised discourse.

One statue, that of Thomas Guy, the speculator and founder of Guy’s Hospital, might well be a target. He held a large number of shares in the South Sea Company, which provided slaves to Spanish America. There are a number of other luminaries who made their fortunes on the back of slavery and became important philanthropists, contributing vast sums to our national well-being.

Mr Khan, said: “Our capital’s diversity is our greatest strength, (is it really, Mr Khan?) yet our statues, road names and public spaces reflect a bygone era. (as perhaps it should, since if we disregard the lessons of history we are condemned to repeat them) It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored. (A noble thought – but who should be commemorated, and why?)

“This cannot continue. We must ensure that we celebrate the achievements and diversity of all in our city, and that we commemorate those who have made London what it is — that includes questioning which legacies are being celebrated.”

If in so doing our history is trashed and collective memory is debased, then it is not worth doing. I was reminded of George Orwell’s conversation with a Stalinist after it was clear to the world what a pernicious influence the dictator actually had become. The Stalinist said “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” To which Orwell replied ‘where is your omelette?’

The diversity and indeed shame of Britain’s colonial past has made expert multiculturalists of us all as we have sought to justify, or at least excuse past misdeeds by developing often shambolic caricatures of inclusivity. To simply airbrush out the major contributors to our national heritage, without the slightest idea what to put in their place and at a time when the UK is struggling to find an identity, is short sighted and foolish.

Reputational Risk

Place de la Concorde, 1789

I went to public school where I was remorselessly bullied. It’s both a spectator and a participant sport, dependent on where one stands in relation to the poor soul being kicked about, either mentally or physically. Participants do it because they can, spectators develop the collective impression that the person being bullied deserves it. Once this is established, the bully can clothe themselves in a peculiar form of moral righteousness. The witch is burned because she’s Satan’s handmaid. Aristocrats were guillotined because they were rich. The Jews are persecuted, because they deserve it. Pitchfork mentality rules.

Punishment by the Collective is peculiarly reserved for anyone who refuses to go along with the hive mind. Ask Stalin. Or Robespierre. In times of group stress, the need to find scapegoats, and thus collectively express our pent-up frustration, is all the greater. It is not just the virus that is highly contagious at the moment, so too is what the French anthropologist and theologian René Girard called “the scapegoat mechanism” stoked by physical isolation and social media.

René Girard

The latest collective scapegoat is, of course, No 10s own Svengali, Dominic Cummings. And, yeah, he looks as if he deserves a jolly good pasting then sent off into the political wilderness. After all, wasn’t he the person who practically re-invented populist politics for the twenty-first century? And what is populism other than the harnessing of the ‘mob spirit’? Cummings, surely, deserves everything he gets. Those who seek to manipulate the eddies of popularity shouldn’t be surprised when they get sucked under by its dangerous currents; the schadenfreude of sweet, poetic justice.

The Scapegoat

This is why morality is like navigating a minefield. Because, among many other things, morality is a way of speaking about who deserves punishment. Which is why, at its most dangerous, morality can be almost an exoneration of collective bullying. Cummings is guilty of, well, something, he broke the ”rules”, he lied (naughty man), he deserves it. Morality justifies all.

Let me be clear. I have no particular affection for the gentleman. I don’t know him. I have never met him. I don’t know if he is kind to his dog. And while his politics do align with mine in some respects, I can’t imagine us getting on very well. Nonetheless, I can perfectly understand why a desperate parent would drive to the other end of the country to make provision for the care of his child. And the public fury now directed towards him is out of all proportion to the severity of his offence. Those who shout at him outside his home, hound him in the streets; the collective pile-on; herein is deeper moral failing. And a society that is content to see this happen even to its pantomime villains is weakening its resistance against public hatred being directed against the innocent.

In recent days, some quite senior C of E bishops sheltering under the umbrella of “speaking truth to power”, have allowed themselves to become cheerleaders for the spirit of collective bullying that has seized hold of so many, making unprecedented criticisms of the PM and the strange Rasputin in his shadow. With, no doubt, the best of intentions, they have thrown themselves into the whirlwind of collective anger looking for a way to express itself.

Most of the time, clerical outrage collapses into the soft managerialism of the narrow centre ground as if they are all woolly LibDems ushering in the year of the Lord and bishops seem a bit too much like health and safety officers, agonising over public compliance. It all feels a long way from a man hanging on a cross.

Regardless of politics, we can’t help but recognise that Jesus himself was destroyed by the dynamics of mob hatred, a collective power so strong that even his most trusted followers turned against him in the face of it. The same crowd waving the palm fronds were a week later screaming for him to be strung up. Now, here’s the rub. Sometimes, it’s our moral duty to be hated. To say things that no one wants to hear. And in particular, to speak up for those that collective moral righteousness has condemned.

There’s a phrase that’s gained some traction in churchy circles: “reputational risk”. One must never do or say anything that might risk people being nasty to you or threatening your livelihood is all about reputational risk. The irony is, a believer is absolutely supposed to court reputational risk. It’s both an occupational hazard and a job description. Jesus quite deliberately stood alongside those people who were a constant risk to his good name. If we don’t risk our reputations defending the unpopular, we might as well give up on the whole Christianity thing altogether.

The bishops seem to think that because Cummings has the ear of the PM, he’s powerful, so they’re being awfully brave by having a go at him. But this is the sort of Napoleonic bravery of being in a crowd of thousands, all baying and whooping, all saying the same thing. This isn’t bravery but capitulation. Simone  Weil once wrote that “those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword. And whoever does not take up the sword (or lets it go) shall perish on the cross.”

Bad Pennies

…the return of Peregrine Spode.

Oh, how awfully nice it is to be back with you all again, rolling up like a bad stotinka. I know, using the word ‘nice’ is meaningless, non-comparative and the last refuge of the linguistically challenged, but there you go. Old Perry has put on a few ounces of avoirdupois since our last meeting, trouser waistbands have rolled inexorably southward and hair, once luxuriant and Adonis-like, has lengthened, thinned out and now looks, well, a bit on the mangy side. This, in addition to the fact that his being – as we all know, a little bit challenged dentally – breath still curdles goats’ milk and so forth – Spode is still sans partenaire and as time goes on, the probability of finding a woman olfactorily challenged, half-blind and with a decent upper superstructure seems, like a long straight American road, to be vanishing into the wide blue yonder.

Nevertheless, what with the Internet and a vast and constantly changing panorama of images (I should never have signed up to Big Black Mamas) life is if not altogether unbearable, is at least tolerable.

Why then this resurfacing, like a long-dead marmoset? Perhaps because the world has seen a few huge paradigm shifts in the last little while (stoppit now. Using words you don’t know the meaning of. Ed) I do apologise for my editor’s frequent, ungrammatical and unnecessary interruptions, he wouldn’t know a past participle if struck on the head by one. So back to looking down the wrong end of the telescope. Since we last met – I’ll make this as brief as possible – there’s been a hiatus; the sandwich of Old Etonians at the Great British Helm was briefly interrupted by a geography graduate who wore expensive shoes and didn’t have a sense of humour. The latter, or most recent incumbent of the tumbling Georgian pile, the rather roly-poly Boris, or, as I and other friends call him, Al, got himself hauled off to Tommy’s, wheezing a bit, and was befriended by both a Commonwealth nurse and another from the EU, thus satisfactorily ticking all the political boxes. I do quite enjoy reading old Boris – he used to be a journalist before becoming Prime Minister, a career path which, I have to say, I quite envy. I might send him some of my stuff. He might pick up a few tips.

Astute readers will have perceived that old P, despite being in the ‘at risk’ category, is bravely trying to get round to the subject of tiny crowns. No, not the dental kind, the kind which would have to navigate my own natural lizard-breath defences in order to set up shop in the Spode alveoli. On the whole, I think a mask is essential for me, not because I am in danger of infection – it’d be a virus with the bravery of an Achilles that would dare to breach my personal defences – but, indeed for the sake of the rest of the population. Socially distancing myself in the pharmacy queue for Listerine is no defence for the innocent populace in front of me in the queue who can’t wait for their Cialis prescription so they can return to bed with their inamorata. All I have is a forlorn blue hippo for company.

It’s been so long, hasn’t it? Our friends over the water have invited a certifiable, near drooling Quasimodo to waddle about over the South Lawn, leaving Big Mac packaging everywhere for the Secret Service to pick up and tidily dispose of. In some ways, he’s a bit like me – that instant sense of revulsion by normal human beings when passing him is a bit like me at Ladies Night at the dance school. He’s trying to make friends with his alter ego in North Korea which does have a certain grim logic about it, except for the fact that the little fat guy in the tight suit keeps letting off fireworks in his back garden, to the delight of all the other fat guys who’ve learned to clap and sometimes smile in unison. Ah, yes, two Dear Leaders. How fortunate we all are to have at least one of them as the leader of the free world.

The last time we all gathered for a little fireside chat like this, I was, er, elsewhere. You’ll all instantly recall that there was talk of swimming pools and wild boar. These days, it’s a little different. Having shaken the dust of Paris from my sandals, I did, I have to say, get a little festive with some pilots in the bar at Charles de Gaulle. After the sixth G&T (or seventh, I can’t quite recall) they rather sportingly invited me to go to Greenland with them. I almost agreed, then remembered that Thule Airport plus environs was either cold, unrelentingly rain-sodden or both, full of hairy cattle, smelly sheep and they didn’t have a duty free. So, two hours in the air brought me to Eastern Europe, where women don’t smile, and men have no neck. There will be more about this alien, savage place in the fullness, but, for now, I shall huddle a bit with my baby hippo – fortunately it doesn’t speak much – and try to remember where I hid the last bottle of Glenlivet.

Party Time

With all the fake news, propaganda and what not that’s floating around social media, it being Pesach and all, I thought a little clarity might help us all as we struggle with virtual seder and Easter egg hunts, social distancing and homicidal rage in a flat no larger than a garden shed. Furthermore, such shared space is shoehorned in with toddlers, adolescents and a menagerie of assorted mammals who breeze around the place as if it’s they who pay the electricity bill, leaving small but slippery presents on the parquet. So, time to cut through the crapola and get to the heart of things. The white-suited Ken Copeland, who has a habit of, well, being a bit Texan when it comes to talking about the Corona thingy that is dropping people like flies, addressed it personally the other day, as if the collective noun for the nasty wee things was “a Beelzebub of viruses”. Sometimes I feel like the ancient Antiochans who first came up with the derogatory term ‘Christians’ as I squirmed in some discomfort, while debating whether he might give me the address of his tailor, or, perhaps, a lend of his private jet. In contrast, the Good Friday live video from CC in Jerusalem was dignified and exceptionally well done. I almost felt at home there again.

News from the periphery is always worth reading, since its grip on reality is frequently gossamer thin. Like this, for example from a well-placed but mercifully anonymous source. I have edited it for brevity and, indeed, intelligibility. 

‘An intersectional coalition of leftists’ movements in the US has announced they will stop social distancing because it is a “sexist, racist, colonialist, imperialist, abusive, and extractive appropriation of the culture of the people of the world.”’

Quite right. Well said.  The call to action was announced Thursday on social media. The unnecessarily long and frankly yawn-inducing post explained that social interaction and huddling with bottles of beer is an ancient practice, dating all the way back to 2010. “For us to all-of-a-sudden pick up this habit of staying quarantined at home just because it is convenient at the moment, well, that is a gross misappropriation of our culture” trumpeted the post, probably authored by a cabal of neo-feminist post-adolescents in their first year of a political science course. The Machiavellian contradiction is, no doubt, evident.

Since the call to action, leftists have been leaving their quarantines in droves, and brazenly hanging out in crowds in public spaces. The result is a music festivalesque vibe taking over parks in urban areas. Apparently, police have given up the unequal struggle and are joining in, to the extent of swapping their uniforms for the batik T shirts of the revellers.

The crowds of exuberant hacky sackers, baton twirlers, tree-huggers and anti-vax-vegan-picnickers have been celebrated by an unlikely source. A group of right-wingers comprised of libertarians, bikers, and people from Ohio, has celebrated the leftists’ defiance against the shelter-in-place orders. “I don’t agree with these America-hating socialist hippies on much, but I support them on this,” said Chuck, who drove to Central Park from upstate New York in his custom lifted Ford truck. “When I heard about this, I just had to practise my God-given right and come show support in person. These weirdos have a point. This isn’t some A-rab dictatorship where you can just tell the people to stay at home.” Spoken like a Protestant.

In other news; oh, yeah, we’re still gonna blame the Jews for the outbreak. C’m on! Why not? Everybody else does.

Finally, the East Sussex police moved a solitary couple on as they sat on Hove beach, two metres apart. With a small, well-behaved dachshund. The dog is now in therapy.

Masks Prophylactic

Not bad. Nasal seal a bit duff.

The last time I wore a mask was in an operating theatre. Everyone here is wearing them, some properly, most not. And no, this isn’t Meghan DoS, although the resemblance is uncanny…

Here’s how to use a mask:

Before putting on a mask, clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water. I sing “Oh Flower of Scotland”. Or “For those in Peril on the Sea” as if I’m travelling on Titanic. Others’ preferences differ, but “Nessun Dorma” is unnecessarily long. Unless you have access to at least 120 proof Polish vodka, rinsing the hands with cheap gin won’t work.

Cover mouth and nose with mask and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask. If you must, and the thing has a wire, press down on the bridge of the nose to better seal it. My nose is, er, a bit on the flat side, so I could press away till Kingdom Come and it wouldn’t make a decent seal, but, if you gotta big hooter it might work.

Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands with – here we go again – alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water. I did exactly that and the surgeon supervisor I was with made me scrub up again from scratch. Nobody died, fortunately. 

Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not re-use single-use masks. Which means usually about ten minutes otherwise with the crappy Chinese stuff you feel like you’re inhaling wet toilet paper.

If you’re using a proper European or American made hazard product, they last rather longer. Like lawnmowers.  Racist? Moi?

To remove the mask: remove it from behind (do not touch the front of mask); discard immediately in a closed bin; clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub (do not swig from the bottle, it isn’t mouthwash) or soap and water. More flowers of Scotland, especially if you forget and just screw the sodden article up and lob it bin-wards.

The whole mask thing has become a political football. If where you live doesn’t have many, they’re saying you don’t need them. If there’s plenty, everybody panic buys. As of 3 April, the general consensus seems to be to use a mask outside a medical facility only if you are infected – so what are you doing out and about; you should be tucked up in bed watching Netflix – or you come or may come into contact (<1m) with known infections. Social distancing, yes six feet, two metres, ‘get the f*** out of my way’ is the best protection. French people stop kissing strangers, politicians, no kissing babies, everybody else just steer away from absolutely everybody, especially if they look ill. I’m thinking of getting hold of a greenish makeup to keep people away from me. The alternative is no showers for a week, but even I think that’s a bit extreme since the only sentient life to come near me will be the dog. Oh, finally, from the WHO, hot baths and gin will neither terminate a pregnancy nor protect you against COVID-19, eating garlic doesn’t work, drowning your torso in bleach or hydrogen peroxide will damage your skin, naked sunbathing might do wonders for your vitamin D levels but not much else, apart from the antibiotic effect of a bit of fresh air. Do not try this if you live in northern Finland. Frostbite isn’t nice.

And finally, it isn’t a Jewish conspiracy, Bill Gates didn’t do it and Chinese people don’t make a habit of eating bats. Stay well.

Nothing New.


“On hearing ill rumour that Londoners may soon be urged into their lodgings by Her Majesty’s men, I looked down upon the street to see a gaggle of Striplings making fair merry and, no doubt, spreading the Plague well about. Not a care had these rogues for the Health of their Elders.”

Samuel Pepys: Diaries ca.1665. Allegedly. But, it’s a Twitter spoof – Charles II was on the throne at the time and was unequivocally male. He (Pepys) could have written it, however.

The young are sometimes heedless to the point of asinine stupidity, in the hope of five seconds of Internet fame. A  video went viral the other day of a young man – I think in the US –  running his tongue over the contents of a supermarket shelf, giggling inanely into the phone camera, presumably to the delight of his companions – a new game, it would seem, for the feckless and unemployable. Personally, I hope he is found and locked up, but I doubt that a charge of attempted murder would stick. Reckless endangerment might be an option. Or bioterrorism (see update). A Times columnist suggested a kick up the ass. Yes. Repeatedly. Until the coccyx audibly fractures.

Cody Pfister, 26, Warrenton, Missouri. Arrested and charged with bioterrorism

So, as King Solomon ruefully remarked, there’s nothing new under the sun, then. Here, lockdown is complete and I am snuggled cosily eight hundred metres above sea level in the Rhodopi mountains with a partner, a dog and a cat. Food enough to withstand the Siege of Constantinople, and a supermarket and pharmacy within falling over distance. Apart from a brisk visit out of doors for the beast to fertilise the landscape, all is well, as Mother Julian put it.

There are indeed hard times coming for some and in the last fortnight a paradigm shift of seismic magnitude has taken hold of the world as we have all become our brother’s keeper. And yet, this is the tip of a very large iceberg. The issue of privacy for example, is a battleground between freedom to be anonymous and the insidious reach of Big Brother. Facebook and Google have infinitely long memories; they can and do track my movements, preferences and indeed moods already. It’s a short step to highly sensitive health checking – a kind of Minority Report in pandemic times and, as we seek to stem the tide, various options for containment have presented themselves, from doing nothing to a full-on, invasive mental and physical privacy-invading lockdown. Yuval Harari again put on his prophetic hat in the Financial Times recently with the following excerpt, plus a few redactions of my own. 

“The coronavirus crisis could be the battle for privacy’s tipping point. For when people are given a choice between privacy and health, they will usually, in fact almost inevitably choose health. The soap police are at the moment just asking people to choose between privacy and health, perhaps soon they may actually demand it, including harsh penalties for non-compliance. This is, in fact, the very root of the problem. Because it is a false, Hobsonian choice. We can and should enjoy both privacy and health. We can choose to protect our health and stop the coronavirus epidemic not by instituting totalitarian surveillance regimes, but rather by empowering citizens. Some regimes will clearly find this harder than others and in the free world we tend to look rather disapprovingly if tanks rumble around our streets. In recent weeks, some of the most successful efforts to contain the epidemic were orchestrated by South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. While these countries have made some use of tracking applications, they have relied far more on extensive testing, on honest reporting, and on the willing co-operation of a well-informed public. The word ‘honest’ is underlined for a reason. Britain is “asking” for compliance. How much longer, then will non-compliance be tolerated?  However, centralised monitoring and harsh punishments aren’t the only way to make people comply with beneficial guidelines. When people are told the scientific facts, as simply and forcefully as possible and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can and frequently will do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders. A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant one.“ 

It remains to be seen if good advice is heeded before the law steps in.

The Madness of Crowds

Raphael detail from ‘Adoration of the Golden Calf’ (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

Many people will be familiar with Douglas Murray’s book ‘The Madness of Crowds’. He looks at the current preoccupations with gender, race and identity. It’s a compelling and thought-provoking read.

But, he was not the first.

A Scottish journalist, Charles Mackay, published a book in 1841 entitled  Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. It became quite a sensation.

The first part involves a discussion of three economic bubbles or financial manias: the South Sea Company bubble of 1711–1720, the Mississippi Company bubble of 1719–1720, and the Dutch tulip mania of the early seventeenth century. By way of example, the Mississippi Company was a corporation holding a business monopoly in French colonies in North America and the West Indies. When land development and speculation in the region became frenzied and detached from economic reality, the bubble burst. Mackay’s accounts are enlivened by colourful, comedic anecdotes, such as the Parisian hunchback who supposedly profited by renting out his hump as a writing desk during the height of the mania.

As to the third, according to Mackay, during this bubble, speculators from all walks of life bought and sold tulip bulbs and even futures contracts on them. Allegedly, during 1637, some tulip bulb varieties briefly became the most expensive objects in the world. He goes on to write – rather wittily, almost sensationally – about duels, alchemy, the Crusades, the influence of politics and religion on the shapes of beards, magnetisers (influence of the imagination in curing disease), murder, prophecies, and popular follies of great cities.

All this to demonstrate one overarching truth. There is nothing new under the sun. As well as the highest forms of altruism and self-sacrifice, mankind en masse is capable of monumental ignorance, wilful self-interest and completely unforeseen delusional behaviour. The behaviour of a rabble is often completely unpredictable and Carl Jung’s description of a crowd is quite prescient: “The psychology of a large crowd inevitably sinks to the level of mob psychology.” Crowds lack the inhibitions and restraints that define our inner controls as individuals. 

If a crowd has a leader, the crowd tends to cease its irrational behaviour and begins to behave like a community.  In the Old Testament, Moses sought to overcome the débacle of the construction of a golden calf and control the madness of crowds by getting the people to make personal and sometimes sacrificial contributions to a collective project, the building of the Sanctuary. He created a community out of an undisciplined rabble. In a community, individuals remain individuals because their participation is voluntary: “Let everyone whose heart moves them bring an offering.” Their differences are valued because they mean that each has something distinctive to contribute. Some gave gold, other silver, others bronze. Some brought wool or animal skins. Others gave precious stones. Yet others gave their labour and skills to bring an important project into being. 

Lest this sound strange and pious, the story is told of a small community in Scotland. 

Melanie Reid is a journalist who writes a regular column for The (London) Times. A quadriplegic with a wry lack of self-pity, she calls her weekly essay Spinal Column. On 4 January 2020, she told the story of how she, her husband, and others in their Scottish village bought an ancient inn to convert it into a pub and community centre, a shared asset for the neighbourhood. 

Something extraordinary then happened. A large number of locals volunteered their services to help open and run it. “We’ve got well-known classical musicians cleaning the toilets and sanding down tables. Behind the bar there are sculptors, building workers, humanist ministers, Merchant Navy officers, grandmothers, HR executives and estate agents… Retired CEOs chop wood for the fires; septuagenarians … wait at tables; surveyors eye up internal walls to be knocked down and can-doers fix blocked gutters.” 

It has not only become a community centre; it has dramatically energised the locality. People of all ages come there to play games, drink, eat, and attend special events. A rich variety of communal facilities and activities have grown up around it. She speaks of “the alchemy of what can be achieved in a village when everyone comes together for a common aim.” 

The avalanche of the Corona virus has caused everyone to step back and think. Ironically, in our separation, we look to each other. On the one hand, there is the individual motivation to stay well and avoid contagion; on the other a sense of community well-being is poking its head out as we have been enjoined to look after and protect the vulnerable and weak. Health workers, front line troops against the pandemic, are working to exhaustion. And yet, Bulgarians gather on their balconies to applaud the medical staff as they go into the hospitals to work. Italians are singing on theirs. We have all become, in an important sense, our brother’s keeper. When all this is over, it is a lesson we must not forget.

With thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Danse Macabre

Massalia ‘La Grande Peste de 1720 (Marseille)

Defoe’s “Diary of the Plague Year”, together with William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Camus’ “La Peste” have been walking off University bookshelves in recent days. Everbody is in the same terrifyingly frail lifeboat, bobbing uncertainly on the waves of an epidemic which everybody is predicting is going to get worse before it gets better. Self-isolation isn’t altogether necessary here, but the Desert Island mentality is creeping into my consciousness. I steer around the rest of the population as if on rails, almost all of whom are doing exactly the same as me and in relatively crowded situations, like the supermarket checkouts, the ‘danse macabre’ is punctuated by bouts of ill-temper and sometimes the odd raised voice or two, should someone be rash enough to attempt to queue jump or put the last of the hand sanitiser in their trolley, overflowing as it is with a hundred toilet rolls. Fortunately, she-who-must-be-obeyed has an entire cupboard filled from floor to ceiling with non-perishables, enough to withstand a moderate siege by any marauding hordes, probably for months.

Enough for a small siege….

I have developed the immunity of age – which is not unrelated to the cunning of age. It requires surprisingly little manoeuvring to make sure that everybody else were the ones opening bug infested doors so I could squeeze in or out behind them like a fare dodger on the Paris Metro. I don’t see many people, being almost a professional Carmelite – not a fair comparison, perhaps but they were on their own a lot – and consequently don’t miss merry banter and arm-squeezing as much as my more sociable brethren. Perhaps not as isolationist as Simon Stylites who sat on a pillar for thirty-five years or those nuns who self-isolate – anchoresses like the fourteenth century Julian of Norwich.

Which reminded me of Wordsworth.

Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room;
And Hermits are contented with their Cells;
And Students with their pensive Citadels;
Maids at the Wheel, the Weaver at his Loom,
Sit blithe and happy; Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in Foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

 I once remarked to a colleague that I’d be perfectly at home in a log cabin in Montana with good skis, fast Internet, Deliveroo and fuel to last six months. He laughed, nervously, imagining I was joking. I wasn’t.  So for all my extrovert friends – this isn’t the end of the world as you know it. Just breathe, relax, make silly comments on social media and do try not to panic. It uses oxygen.