We are living in a world of tiers. In Scotland, there have been tiers for a bit, but they’ve only just come in in England so that means they are now headline news. Everyone is talking about the tiers. Tiers, apparently, are not your destiny. (I think that’s what the Prime Minister said.) And you can move from Tier Three to Tier Two if you are very good, and at Christmas the tiers don’t apply for ten minutes and you can hug your grandparents but not, according to the Chief Medical Officer, if you want to see Granny and Granda live until next Christmas.
In some tiers you can go to the gym but you can’t go to the pub and nobody knows what will happen when all the pubs go out of business and ordinary decent Britons can’t drown their sorrows in an honest pint. Baffled commentators keep asking ministers about imaginary tier situations, and the ministers all sound rather baffled themselves and say things like, ‘the main thing is that we listen to the science’ and Dr Whitty, who is The Science, looks sadder and graver every day.
And the good news is that the Track and Trace system, which once cost twelve billion quid and did not work, now costs twenty-two billion quid and does not work. I hear the voice of Donald Trump, like a distant siren, as he fades into history: so much winning.
I’m actually really, really cross. I’ll obey any rule that makes sense and I’d do anything not to pass the virus on to someone else and I’ve already cancelled Christmas because I’m not willing to take the risk for one lunch. I don’t write furious libertarian posts on Twitter and I don’t think that the pandemic is a government plot and I don’t believe that wearing a mask means I have lost my freedom. But oh, oh, the lockdown and not the lockdown and then the lockdown again and now the tiers and which tier means what and all the contracts put out without going to tender and nobody even talking about Brexit which is stalking the land like a stage villain and the twenty-two billion quid.
And I think: why can’t someone just get on the blower to South Korea and ask them how they did it?
There’s been a tragedy in our village. It’s nothing to do with coronavirus; it is to do with despair. Perhaps I’m angry about that too, in the way that something truly heartbreaking can make you suddenly, violently furious. It’s the second time we’ve been hit with this kind of sorrow in six weeks and we are a small community and everyone feels it. It’s one of those things you don’t really know what to do with.
Perhaps nobody really knows what to do with the pandemic either, so people are turning to Twitter-rage or melancholy or drink. The livid anti-lockdowners are going on television and saying indignantly that the pubs didn’t have to shut during the Blitz, but I don’t feel there is much Blitz spirit about. I get a sense that everyone is just rather worn out now. People are getting on with things, because they know they have to, but nobody is singing Roll Out the Barrel.
(Did Britons really sing all the time, in those dark days of the war? Did they truly have a knees-up at the drop of a hat? I know there was a lot of dancing, and there was a lot of sex, but I wonder whether they didn’t feel a bit worn out too. Their threat was much more existential than ours; they could lose everything at the random flight of a bomb. They didn’t have enough to eat and they never knew when they were going to see their sons and brothers and fathers and uncles again. I don’t know how much of that Blitz spirit is a cherished national myth, but I do know they got through, that tough generation, and I do think that should put a bit of stiffening in my backbone.)
Anyway, I’ve got the rage, because of everything, and I don’t know what to do with it, and I ring up a wise friend on her sheep farm in Wales and yell down the telephone, ‘Have you got five minutes? Can you help me process an emotion?’ I have a moment of deja vu. I think this was virtually the first thing I did when the lockdown started. She’s very good at this stuff and she doesn’t seem to mind me calling and hollering down the line.
She asks at once where the rage is in my body. I am slightly startled. ‘In my back,’ I say. ‘It’s like someone has laid a metal rod across my shoulders.’
‘Stretch it out,’ she said. ‘Get that fury out.’
So, standing with the dogs on the springy Scottish turf, I bend over and lengthen my back and throw my neck up towards the sky and feel all my muscles stretching out to their limit. The lurchers stand patiently as I stick my bottom into the bright morning air. Then I stand up again and hunch my shoulders and jiggle them about and roll them in their sockets. (My dad’s shoulders, I think irrelevantly, used to fall straight out of their sockets when he rode a tight finish. He had to have them stitched up and he wore great, livid scars an inch thick for ever afterwards.)
‘How’s that?’ says my friend.
‘Damn,’ I say. ‘You are good. That took you about forty-five seconds. And my rage is gone.’
Rather surreally, it was. The rage was not only gone, but I found myself in a dreamy, Zennish state. All that from sticking my bottom in the air? Apparently so.
I didn’t want to write to you of my rage. I had this ludicrous idea when the pandemic first started that I would write enchanting things every day so that I could add to the gaiety of nations. I quickly discovered that I could sometimes not dig for enchantment with a spoon, and that some days became so tiring and wearing that I could not put down a word of this diary. What was there to say? I had no gaiety; I was simply keeping my own ship afloat. I didn’t want to bore you with that.
Even though I understand now I am not Officer IC of the Sum Total of Human Happiness (how does one get these ideas?), I still think I should give you some cheeriness. Or, at least, not blasts of undifferentiated fury. (It was the twenty-two billion that set me off this morning, but really when I get into this state I’m just raging at every damn thing.)
But now it turns out that I do have something valuable for you after all, thanks to my brilliant friend in Wales. The next time the news makes you crazy, locate the crossness and frustration and impotence in your body, and stretch it all out. Jiggle it out and wiggle it out and stomp it out and roll it out. And maybe, if you are lucky like me, your mind will follow.
It’s worth a try. We have nothing to lose but our chains.