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.

Ignorance isn’t Bliss

The sales of the Mexican beer Corona have gone into free fall. Absolutely nothing to do with the flu. There’s probably a word for this idea of two completely separate things which are only linked by the use of one word. I’ll ask someone. She’s bound to know. Which reminded me of the true story of how an English paediatrician was attacked at home by banner-waving locals whose literacy did not extend to an understanding that a paedophile was not the same as a paediatrician.

Yes, we’ll get to the pandemic in a moment. In the meantime, spare a thought for the poor old stock market, which has dropped astronomically over the last few days. A bit like Corona, but bigger.

The despotic regime in Iran, infection numbers and statistics unknown, described the pandemic as a ‘blessing’. Indeed, since, as usual, the Israelis are ahead of the curve and may be the first to strike Eldorado with a vaccine prompted an Iranian cleric, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, who is 93 years old, to decree that it’s okay to use a vaccine against novel coronavirus made by Zionists if ‘there’s no substitute’. As late as last Wednesday, however, the ayatollah had said, “It is not permissible to buy and sell from Zionists and Israel”. Make up your minds.

Karl Popper

Our greatest enemy is ignorance. And, ignorance isn’t bliss. If you’re an ayatollah, please write that down. And please remember Karl Popper’s famous statement: “True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it“.

Whole countries, mine included, are in lockdown. Most shops, restaurants, cinemas and bars are shuttered. Traffic is unusually light. Crowds dissipate and reduce their density – veering away from their fellow pedestrians and there are longer supermarket queues although the same number of people are at each checkout – everyone is politely keeping their distance.

The world has been taken rather by surprise by this new corona-style virus. There are a number of them, apparently, so-called because of the crown-like structures on their outer surface.  This one is particularly nasty because of its relatively high contagion rate and a propensity to target the old and sick. A Jewish friend joked that she’d got the blood ready to paint on the doorposts of her house. Leaders are telling us to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice while washing our hands with surgical diligence, disinfect surfaces, cough into your elbow, keep at least one metre distance, don’t wear a mask unless you’re infected… the list goes on and on. Some are predicting a death toll almost as large as the Spanish flu outbreak in 1917/18.

I’ll stick my neck out and say it. I think this is unlikely. And as one in a high risk category, I don’t say it lightly. Yes, this is a nasty one – highly contagious and often extremely unpleasant. Some, mostly young people, whose immune systems are robust, barely know they’ve got it. Others – mercifully few – get pneumonia and die. Newspapers are full of dynamic graphics explaining on a day by day basis how the thing has spread. Which looks very scary, as if the angel of death is crouching at the door ready to devour us all. I watched someone unload their 4×4 yesterday after a spree of panic buying and the image of over 100 toilet rolls stayed with me. At least I know who to ask if I run out – they live on the sixth floor.

Following the science is the safest way to proceed. Flatten the curve so the number of new infections is decreased so they can be managed. Isolate if necessary. Keep your distance, 1-2 metres or more. And stop listening to social media. Somebody posted on my social media page that I would be shot on sight if I ventured out of doors. The troll farms are working overtime to overturn common sense and encourage panic. I am thinking of closing my Twitter account.

But then, over the last few weeks, everybody has had all the safety regulations hammered into them and there might even be an upside. Human beings, by virtue of natural selection and modern politics which encourage us to look after number one first, or ‘the devil take the hindmost’, have insulated us perhaps too well from operating collectively for the common good. When all are threatened equally, the instinct is to huddle together like penguins. And it does rather seem as if a little bit of huddling is going on, ensuring appropriate social distance, obviously. As Jerry Springer used to say at the close of his show ‘…look after yourselves. And each other’.

Leaving Egypt

The Exodus (David Roberts 1830)

I’m finding myself becoming more and more interested in how the three major religions perceive times of reflection. The Muslims have Ramadan – a time of abstinence from food or drink from dawn to dusk, of spiritual reflection, self-improvement, and heightened devotion and worship. Muslims are expected to put more effort into following the teachings of Islam. The Christians have Lent, the forty days before Easter neatly commemorating the 40 day fast of Jesus in the wilderness. It is also characterised by a degree of self-denial – giving something treasured up – a practice which I have to confess I find difficult. I became aware that observant Jews have a similar tradition, from the thirty days after Purim, the dressy-up holiday, to Pesach, or Passover.

Purim begins on March 9th. I discovered this in a Jewish blog written by a rabbi which seemed to sum up well the essential characteristics and leave us with a life lesson at the same time.

The thirty days from Purim to Passover becomes a time of reflection, self-examination and learning. He writes:

Identifying with the Israelites’ yearning to break the chains of (personal) bondage has enabled many to overcome destructive habits, unpleasant circumstances, and unhelpful psychological patterns. 

When we truly see this (Passover) story as our story, when we fully see ourselves as being woven into the fabric of this complex and rich narrative of faith and fear, hope and despair, struggle and redemption, we can loosen the chains of all that holds us back. With the story as our inspiration and guide, we can become the individuals that God invites us to be, and build the world God beckons us to co-create.

This is a specific reference to Jews being ‘a light to the nations’.

And yet, despite the powerful possibilities inherent in personally identifying with the Exodus narrative, I suspect that most of us experience difficulty really doing it. We may understand on an intellectual level what the Haggadah (the text recited at the Seder on the first two nights of Passoveris asking of us, but how many of us really feel it emotionally or spiritually? 

Jewish tradition believes that this sacred imagining should be life-changing. But for many of us today, the exercise is little more than a quaint annual intellectual exercise. It is difficult and rare indeed to fully view ourselves as active participants in the drama of the Exodus. 

This, I think, is why the rabbis of the Talmud ask us to spend the month leading up to Passover intensively studying the laws of the holiday. It has less to do with reminding ourselves about the particulars of the festival’s laws, and more to do with preparing ourselves to personally leave Egypt. We marinate in the Passover story for thirty days so that, by the onset of the holiday, it will be absorbed all the way to our marrow. Then, we can really see ourselves as leavers of Egypt.”

The painting is suggestive of the detritus which is left behind when we leave the old behind and forge ahead into the new. As the panic over the spread of the corona virus seems to have gripped the world, now is as good a time as any to stop and think.