Notes on a Pandemic #3

In the topsy turvy world of the Pandemic where social distancing is paramount, the news media and politicians are broadcasting from their home environment either by Skype, Zoom or other technological wizardry. This is fascinating as instead of a neutral studio backdrop we get a glimpse of the real personalities behind the public image. Or do we?

The funny thing is the majority of such broadcasters are careful to arrange themselves in front of their vast book collections reminiscent of a city library with thousands of resplendent volumes on custom-built floor to ceiling shelving. It’s as if they have to prove to themselves and to the audience just how intelligent and ‘expert’ they really are. I would love to know how many of those books they  have actually read and digested or are they merely status symbols signalling their supposedly superior social class. The tasteful middle class interiors with designer accessories  and original artworks are a universe away from the average person’s home, that is if they’re lucky enough to have a home at all. I have yet to see an ‘expert’ speaking from a cluttered bedsit or a small kitchen with dishes draining by the sink. Perhaps we would trust these people more if they showed their human side. They’re keen to prove how intelligent they are but books are not the only marker. There’s something called “common sense” which has fallen out of fashion in recent years. And there are different types of intelligence, not just the academic sort with its focus on science and rational thinking, there is also emotional intelligence, the intelligence of direct experience. There is intuition, gut intelligence, survival instinct, body intelligence.

 

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According to Howard Gardener, the American developmental psychologist there are nine different types of intelligence, all equally valuable. Which one are you? I am probably a cross between interpersonal and existential but perhaps that’s something for someone else to judge.

So back to the Pandemic crisis…perhaps we would be coping better with defeating Coronavirus if we relied on people with different perspectives on life, different skills and different types of intelligence. A footballer, a psychotherapist, a musician, a poet, a plumber, a mother of six, a gardener..they all deserve the same respect. Their insights and skills are just as useful as any so-called expert with an impressive book collection and a David Hockney on the wall.

 

 

Notes on a Pandemic # 2

The Coronavirus pandemic is being widely compared to a war, a war between humanity and an invisible, mysterious enemy – the virus.  There are many weapons used in a war and propaganda is one of them.

The word ‘propaganda’ was derived from the verb ‘propagate’, meaning to spread. It can take many forms including the withholding or distortion of information, the dissemination of fake news,  emotive language and subliminal ‘brainwashing’ techniques which pass unnoticed, for example, the repeated use of suggestive images and slogans. Since the early twentieth century propaganda has been used to  persuade or manipulate an audience into behaving or thinking in certain ways.  If you think that kind of thing couldn’t happen in a Western democracy, think again.  Look at Donald Trump’s election campaign and Brexit. Look at any advertising campaign. Democracies depend on the cooperation of a compliant population.  We are told we are free so we believe we are free, but how free are we really?

In 1929 Everett Dean Martin argued that, “Propaganda is making puppets of us. We are moved by hidden strings which the propagandist manipulates.” In his book ‘Propaganda’ Edward Bernays wrote “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

Back to the Coronavirus pandemic and the British government’s response (or lack of it). Think of the slogans and language used repeatedly.

STAY SAFE ………STAY AT HOME……..STAY 2 METRES APART…….STAY….STAY…..

STAY is a command used in dog training. Stay safe is a pat phrase we all say to each other now as we become ever more fearful and ever more passive, meekly accepting the nonsensical titbits of information about the virus that the government doles out. We are treated as sheep not equals.

FOLLOW THE SCIENCE, follow the yellow brick road, follow the Pied Piper…

At the start of the pandemic when the British government were wallowing in sloth and denial of the seriousness of the situation, doing fuck all to protect the public and wasting precious weeks, the Prime Minister would appear on his podium flanked by two government scientists. He claimed his decisions were based on ‘science’. There is no one science. Science is not God. Every country has its own scientists and experts with widely divergent views on this unknown virus. Even within the UK there are different opinions. While harbouring their covert dark agenda of ‘herd immunity’ and protecting the Capitalist economy at all costs (elderly and vulnerable groups considered collateral damage) the British government hid behind the veneer of so-called science. As a result, several weeks later the UK has the highest death rate in Europe and the mortality figures are ‘massaged’ to exclude deaths in the community.

 

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Image by the author

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of lockdown. We must take strict precautions.  But we need other State measures to successfully eradicate Covid 19. Testing everyone, not just those with symptoms or in hospital, adequate PPE for all care workers, a safe vaccine, antibody testing, anti viral drug treatments, research into why some but not others succumb to this disease apparently for no rhyme or reason, proper financial support for self employed so they are not tempted to go back to work. Instead of throwing every resource into those measures the Government have been working behind the scenes; giving new powers to the Police similar to those in a Fascist state, the Care Act has been suspended, mentally distressed people can now be sectioned by just one doctor for example. And God knows what else has been going on behind our backs…

People are snitching on their neighbours. Poor Mrs Wigglesworth from No 19 is being blamed for the collapse of the health service and the spread of the virus because she took her dog Bowser for an extra walk! The public are told to stay home and if they don’t behave like good little children many will die.  Like any skilled magician the government is making us look one way while they perform their dirty tricks. The health service and social care would not be in such a fragile state if it hadn’t been for years and years of cutbacks and austerity. Now the public are deemed responsible if the NHS can’t cope. Parents are scared to take their sick children to A and E as they don’t want to burden the system.  Many people are dying unnecessarily and not just of Covid 19.

So please, please, those of you who have persevered and read as far as this….thank you and next time you listen to a Government briefing, or a media report or any ‘expert’ holding forth…think what language they are using, what are they choosing not to tell you? What might lie behind those smug assurances and token gestures? What are they really saying with those snazzy slogans. Look at the wider picture and think for yourself.

This is not just a war against a pandemic – it’s an exercise in social control. It’s amazing what fear will do to a population. Fear and sex- the primal instincts.

So I won’t say ‘stay safe’ but I will say Keep Well and trust only yourself.

 

The Innocent’s Song

I usually steer away from politics in this blog but these are extreme times.  In the despairing aftermath of a British election that voted for the most right wing, populist, racist, sexist and dishonest Prime Minister the country has ever seen I thought this poem by Charles Causley was extremely apt.  I have changed a couple of lines including the last line.  Thanks to Isabel for sending me the original poem enclosed with her Christmas card.

 

“Who’s that knocking on the window,
Who’s that standing at the door,
What are all those presents
Lying on the floor?

Who’s the smiling stranger
With hair as white as gin,
What is he doing with the children
And who could have let him in?

Why has he rubies on his fingers,
A cold, cold crown on his head,
Why, does he caw his carol,
“Get Brexit done”?

Why does he ferry my fireside
As a spider on a thread,
His fingers made of fuses
And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him
Melt in a million suns,
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes
Burn like saffron buns?

Watch where he comes walking
Out of the Christmas flame,
Dancing, double-talking:

Boris is his name.”

 

God help all the poor, sick, disabled, homeless, immigrants, refugees, unemployed, elderly and other marginalised people in the UK during the coming years.

 

 

And here’s a poem by Rudyard Kipling sent to me by Alastair:-

 

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Anger

If you live among wolves you have to act like a wolf.”

– Nikita Khrushchev.

 
Anger

For as long as anyone could remember, the seed
had lain cold and infertile, buried in no-man’s
land like a relic from World War Zero until

the black rains began, bloody and reeking
of injustice. Diamond winds blasted, unstoppable,
eroding the top soil until the seed was exposed;

hard, spiky, toxic, untouchable. Acid rains
pooled on the stony ground forming
new rivers like convoluted arteries and veins

reviving the bodies of undead soldiers. The seed
softened and grew into a giant lightning tree
with fiery tentacles encompassing the world.

And we all waited to be struck:-
Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, Tolstoy, JFK,
Solzhenitsyn, Sylvia Pankhurst, Martin Luther King,

John Lennon, Pablo Picasso, Karl Marx, Frida Kahlo,
Rosa Parks, Benjamin Zephaniah, Peter Tatchell,
Marie Colvin, Che Guevara, Maya Angelou, John Pilger.

 

 

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The Fall

Small boys sell silver bullets
at the road side, for emergency

use only. In the Land of the Free
clockwork sheep graze sleepless fields.

Do they dream of a lambing
snow tumbling from neon skies?

Do they recall punch-drunk
poppies beyond the electric fence?

The mocking bird twitters
from his gilded tower. Syncopated

rhythms pump black gold.  Blood
moons rise. Hunters summon the blue

-eyed to the door. She drives north
as a skein of geese flies the other way.

 

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Photographic image created by the author

The Good Housekeeping Guide to the Apocalypse

In the aftermath of  the Hawaii ‘whoops apocalypse’ fiasco, here are a few tips for surviving a nuclear war gleaned from the internet.  (A good sense of humour, a vacuum cleaner and a four leaf clover are also essential):-

The best advice for surviving a nuclear bomb is to be somewhere else when it goes off.  If that doesn’t work out for you then remember ‘duck and cover’.

Think of radiation as dust that can be consistently and carefully cleaned and disposed of. Twice daily vacuuming of house hold surfaces is recommended. Warning! Do not dry dust or sweep because this will cause dust, and potentially isotopes, to become airborne where they can settle onto surfaces or be inhaled.  Feather-type dusters should especially be avoided. Internal Contamination is 20 to 100 times more harmful than external exposures. Run the air conditioner 12 hours a day on the re-circulation setting. Warning! Do not use fans or AC units to blow outside air into the house.  Be sure to try and keep indoor air from becoming too dry.

 

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Artwork by the author

 

Some careful kitchen habits:-

Keep your dinnerware in clean cabinets with doors, or place in containers such as Tupperware bins.  Remove covers carefully so dust doesn’t land on clean surfaces. Rinse your cooking utensils with clean filtered water before use.  The best filters use activated charcoal or reverse osmosis which are very effective against radioisotopes. Rinse the outside of food cans before opening them.

Survival Checklist:- Think of radiation as an invisible layer of dust on all surfaces that needs to be carefully cleaned away and managed.

Create an air tight seal in your home. Seal all external doors and windows.  Duct tape is handy and comes in twenty seven different colours and patterns to match your décor.  I recommend Penguin Invasion and zebra print for a modern funky look. The glow in the dark option will help you find your way around when the lights go out.

Aggressively clean off surfaces in your home without creating dust (wet wipes and water filled vacuums essential).  Keep food in clean, sealed containers.

When you go outside, wear a set of coveralls, goggles and good quality dust masks to cover your mouth and nose.  Shower every time you return from outdoors.  Sleep at least two feet above the floor.

Carry young children while outdoors.

Fight fall-out with duct tape, mop, water filtered vacuum, sponge, paper towels, plastic bags, sturdy trash container, hand-held radiation detector.

Essential reading: Step-by Step Home Butchering, A Beginners Guide to Hunting, Self Defense for Dummies, DIY Burials.

Whisky and Red Roses

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Photo of eighteenth century whisky bottle label taken by the author at Timespan Museum, Helmsdale.

 

On the 25th January each year Scottish people celebrate Burns Night with whisky, haggis and bagpipes. It’s a special day to honour Robert Burns, the eighteenth century romantic poet, lyricist and political commentator.  Most of Burns’ writing was in Scots dialect and he is revered in Scotland as national poet and cultural icon.  He was a man of the people, an early socialist and is sometimes referred to as ‘the ploughman poet’. As a non-Scots living in Scotland I find his poems fascinating but a little impenetrable.   His songs are more accessible and to commemorate Burns Night I’m posting a YouTube link of Eddi Reader (former lead singer of Fairground Attraction) singing a beautiful version of My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.  I’ve seen Eddi perform several times and she has tons of charisma and a great voice.  Hope you enjoy.

And for those of you who don’t know what haggis is – it’s a traditional Scottish dish…not for the squeamish or vegetarians as the main ingredients are offal (sheep’s heart, lungs and stomach) and oatmeal.  I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never had the courage to try haggis as I’m not much of a meat eater.  Apparently it’s delicious…

 

It is What it is (or is it?)

I’ve been trying to figure out why I hate hearing this phrase which seems to be everywhere these days.  It’s like the ultimate cop-out, a slick way to terminate any awkward conversation and is used frequently by politicians, the police, sports people, business entrepreneurs and many pop celebrities.  I’ve heard it in bleak Scandi-noir TV dramas and once or twice even caught myself saying it.  It’s the title of several films, songs and books.  Such a pat phrase that just slips off the tongue and makes you seem cool. But why has it become popular and what does it say about our society?

To me, “it is what it is” reeks of negativity, passivity, resignation and defeat.  It’s saying, ‘this is a bad situation but there’s fuck all I can do about it”.  It’s saying let’s accept reality, let’s just lie down and die.  The phrase suggests that reality is a fixed, immutable state and that we have no control, we are merely passengers on an uncomfortable train to hell.  I don’t know about you, but that is not the way I choose to live my life.  I am not a brainwashed battery hen clucking away in a cage, pretending I am free while I’m really being processed for destruction.

OK, I agree some situations may be out of our control but there’s always something we can do to improve matters.  Just because it is difficult to change something doesn’t mean we should give up.  We should at least try.  It’s like when people shrug and say, ‘oh well there will always be wars, it’s just human nature.’ Was it human nature to profit from slavery, rape women, exterminate disabled people,  participate in blood sports and send children down the mines?  These are all horrors that we no longer tolerate in a civilised society.  They may still happen in secret but are considered crimes.  Society can and does change. People can change.

When people say ‘it is what it is’ they are implying that a situation is fixed and knowable.  This is not true.  Any situation, even something simple like ‘it’s raining today’ is a matter of perception, of experience, of interpretation.  Reality is in a constant state of flux and so are we.  It may be raining in your street but not on the other side of town.  And the rain may  stop at any moment. The sun may shine the next time you look out the window.  We are never 100% aware of all the facts.  We only have a partial view based on limited information.  For example, a loved one may be diagnosed with a terminal illness, but doctors are often wrong, the body can and does mysteriously heal itself. The sick person can adapt and learn to live successfully with illness.  Life is a multiplicity of greys, a misty landscape and not a row of black and white boxes.

Take this photograph as a visual metaphor.  It shows a rather elegant entrance to a building which could be a hotel, a school, a conference centre, a hospital, a law court, a police station…we may speculate on what lies beyond the doors but until we pass through them we do not know.  Every day in your life is like those doors.  Never make assumptions about the future. Never give up on a situation.

 

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Photograph by the author

Next time you are tempted to say ‘it is what it is’, hang fire and try to think out of the box.   Change is always possible and it sometimes happens in small steps.  Humans have evolved and survived as a dominant species because of our ability to adapt.  We can be clever and inventive.  We can be compassionate.  The day we stop doing that and become resigned to an unsatisfactory fate is the day we cease to thrive.