I didn’t want to be the political person. I didn’t want to be the one who was jumping up and down and setting her hair on fire. I didn’t want to be judging and pointing fingers and carping from the sidelines. I was going to be the person who put up nice horse pictures and lines from Robert Frost. (Although, come to think of it, I don’t think I ever did put up the lines from Frost.)
I wanted to think positive and stay calm and not, not, not get into the shouting.
‘What did you do in the war, Great-Aunt?’
‘Well, you know, I did some damn good shouting.’
I didn’t want that to be my answer.
My plan was to add to the sum total of human happiness by posting a lot of pictures of Scotland and the red mare. (I also am doing an online course on critical thinking to help the home-schoolers. I was so proud of this idea. I was doing something helpful. Four people and a dog are currently watching it. But still. The dog is loving it.)
And then I started getting so angry that I could no longer type. So I didn’t write anything, because there would be shouting and I had promised that I would not shout. But sod it, I resolved that I would be honest and true, so I can’t pretend that butterflies and bluebirds are going to cut it any more. Or not today, anyway.
It’s not so much the mistakes. Every single decision since this crisis started is a matter of life and death. Imagine having to take those. It’s a shuddering thought. And all the people having to take the decisions are human, and humans are flawed.
It’s the denial. It’s the robotic repeating of the message of the day, like some bad, skewed version of The Thick of It, but without the swearing. After last night’s Panorama, which was so shocking that I could hardly believe it was not fiction, a government minister was sent out this morning, like a lamb to the slaughter. When she was asked about the lack of PPE, she said, ‘We were following the science.’ I imagine she was told to say that. An email would have gone out. That’s the line. Stick to the line.
And that’s when I lost it. No, that’s not the fucking line. The line is, ‘We were wrong. We are more sorry than we can say. We are doing everything in our power to fix it. We will make sure that nothing like this ever happens again. We take absolute responsibility for our actions. We will do better.’
That’s what grown-ups do. Everyone makes mistakes. I make them all the time. When I make an error that upsets another human being, I so, so want to run away and hide. I want to barricade myself in a dark cupboard. I want a line of the day, that I can stick to, but it won’t do. I have to force myself to face it, apologise, make amends, try to be a better person. That sounds so pious, but it is the only way to do it.
The numbers are so terrifying, but let’s take it down to one. Imagine that one person who died before their time was your mum. Imagine that she was working in the NHS, and she was begging for the correct protective equipment. (You don’t, in fact, have to imagine this part, because it has happened. Letters have been written, emails sent, desperate tweets circulated.) Imagine that she did not get protected, and she caught the virus, and she could not be saved. Imagine, in your haze of grief, turning on the radio and hearing a government operative say, ‘We followed the science.’ Imagination is my job, and I am having to stretch every inch of my brain to try to understand what that would feel like.
I realise now, as I write this, that this is not a political point at all. It’s not a left-right thing, or an ideological thing, or a party thing. It’s a category error thing. I think that, deep in the lizard-brain of the conventions of public life, there is a belief that apologising equals weakness. Whether you are a Prime Minister or a CEO or even a bog-standard famous person, you have been programmed to put saying sorry in the wimp category. It’s truly bizarre, because most ordinary humans are actually quite good at saying sorry. Even odder, there is that comical British habit of saying sorry when something is not your fault. We Britons all know that other countries laugh at us for this. Someone bumps into us, and we reflexively say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry’. Yet the big sorries, the ones that really matter, seem to be impossible.
Would it make any difference if they were not? I don’t know. I think the continuing uncertainty and sorrow of the crisis, and the big numbers, and the lockdown, and the farewell to the consoling rhythms of daily life mean that emotions are turbulent and unpredictable. I’ve fallen into a sudden, uncontrollable fury, and I want to point my finger at someone. You, I want to yell, with your weasel words and your bland message of the day and your refusal to take responsibility and your bloody excuses. You, you are the one I can focus my rage on. If I can get cross with you, then I might feel better, for five minutes.
Yet, even as I bang away at the keyboard, I sort of know this does not work. I wish it did. If only a bit of shouting and blaming could bring everything back to normal. There are, luckily for me, some serious commentators and journalists who are keeping their heads and holding people to account. (They are not shouting, but they are asking serious questions which require serious answers.) Now I’ve got my fury out, safely on the page, I can go back to doing my work and looking at the hills and hoping for a better day. For many better days, for all of us.
There will be red mare pictures, because a glimpse of beauty is not nothing. There is a gentleman on Twitter who is currently putting up astonishingly beautiful photographs of garden birds. He never mentions politics, or PPE, or anything to do with the virus. He expresses profound joy when he sees a chaffinch. There is something wonderfully consoling about that. I feel he is doing a great public service. A glimpse of beauty, on the wing. And one can breathe, and bring down the tight shoulders, and unclench the jaw, and remember one’s simple humanity. That really is something.