A thought on lockdowns

Lockdowns have changed the United Kingdom.

Shifted the way people feel.

Upended how we think.

Changed what’s important.

And I don’t think there’s any going back.

It’s perhaps why Boris Johnson is so desperate to jettison all virus related restrictions, and get us all back on the treadmill of life.

Long ago, at the beginning of 2020, when COVID-19 was still just a headline, and Johnson was making speeches in Greenwich advocating herd immunity, a lockdown was inconceivable. We all thought they were an impossibility.

Then COVID-19 caught fire in the United Kingdom, ripping through the population like John Wick in a Russian nightclub. As the number of infections skyrocketed, and the dead started to pile high, it quickly became clear. If something wasn’t done, the National Health Service would be overwhelmed, and there would be an unprecedented loss of life.

Johnson didn’t want to lock down. He clung to the idea that we should take it on the chin, let the virus rip through the population. This meant he spent at least a month dithering.

Then, on the 23rd of March 2020, when there really was no other move, Johnson pushed the “pause” button, finally giving the order to “stay at home”.

Over night our household income plummeted. How were we going pay our rent? How do we pay our bills? How are we going to survive? On top of the money worries, daily life got very small. We couldn’t do anything. So it became a repetition of shopping for food and our flat. Netflix or the garden? Computer or phone? Twitter or Kindle. The bed or the sofa?

London got quiet. Apart from the constant acoustic intrusions. Doors banging. Children screaming. Raised voices. Drunken arguing. The noises of people having sex. The music, other people’s music, blasting at all hours. A sewing machine rattling somewhere until midnight. An upstairs neighbour doing jumping jacks over our living room.

No money and no way of escape.

As bad as it was for me and mine, many others had it worse. I feel for the people that lived alone? Who do you talk to? What if you don’t have a garden? At what point do the walls start to close in? What about families with children? How do you keep the “brats” entertained week after unrelenting week? What about their education? What about the elderly, the frail, and dependant?

An entire country forced into a confused hibernation.

When details of furlough, and the self-employment income support scheme were finally announce, it eased some of our panic. Our hysteria went from a shriek to a muffled scream. What it didn’t do, was alleviate the pressure of being in close proximity with the same people for-ever. Even the most accommodating souls, which I am not, will eventually run out of road.

Tears turned into floods, as mole hills became mountains.

Personally, I need to do things. Otherwise my thoughts start to spiral and I become unbearable. Food. My teeth. My eyesight. My weight. Sex. No sex. Sleeping. Drinking. Too much alcohol. Not enough water. Too much TikTok. “Watermelon sugar.” Writing. Not being able to write. My spelling. The typos. The English language. “Watermelon sugar.” Artworks. Images to create. Words to post. Things to say. “Watermelon sugar.” Politics. Justice. Injustice. Brexit. Sovereign individuals. Extinction Rebellion. Imminent ecological collapse. Wealth. Poverty. Housing. Mould in the kitchen. Cracks in the sink. “Watermelon sugar.” Money. Our futures. My partner’s business. Redundancy. Furlough. Being unemployed. Being unemployable. Universal Credit. Getting older. Being old. Soap.

For me this internal chatter, the unrelenting voice speeding across my tongue, starts to sound like an auctioneer at an American cattle market. It’s overwhelming. I go a bit mad. Get short tempered. Sullen. Distant. Argumentative. I have trouble concentrating. Focusing. Listening. I fidget. Random memories, decades old, flash into my imagination. That stupid things I said. The hesitations. The wrong turn. The other version of “that” conversation. The moment of “if only” that would’ve meant a different life. All of it there and gone like some perverted subliminal advertisement.

For me, and many others, lockdown made all of this worse.

Why am I confessing all of this personal trivia? To explain what I mean when I say “shifted the way people feel”.

Until the 23rd of March 2020 most of us lived on a treadmill. Constantly moving. With no time to think about anything but what’s pressing. One way of dealing with negative thoughts is to keep busy. Distract yourself out of the pattern of thinking. If you have any experience with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy you’ll know what I mean. For me this modality is remarkably similar to the treadmill of existence. This constant motion carried us through our lives. Eat. Sleep. Work. Repeat. Whether we realised it or not, these routines stop us ever contemplating, never mind realising, what we really feel.

Lockdown forced us all to stop and take stock.

In this paused state, the voices that normally keep us on the treadmill, that keep us striving, faded into the background. Think about the stories we’re routinely fed to keep us moving. Television shows about buying, building, converting, or decorating a house, seed the urge to own property. Travelogues make us want to explore. Scripted reality normalises our desire for wealth and privilege. News broadcasts make us feel attacked. Dating shows frame beauty as the only metre of connection. Dramas offer catharsis, a way to excise our frustrations.

For me, there’s an inevitability to the voices that urge us on. They push a version of life that’s intrinsically toxic. To bastardise a word or two from the fictional Tyler Durden, “if television is our model for life, we’re starting to realise, television doesn’t like us”.

That’s probably why there’s a tsunami of mental health problems headed our way. It reflects the moments of realisation, forced on us by lockdown, that there’s something “rotten in the state of Denmark”. That the world doesn’t care about us. That we’ve all been so busy trying to survive, we’ve forgotten how to thrive.

It’s also why, since March 2020, there’s been a vociferous cohort demanding an end to lockdown. They don’t work! We’ve needlessly trashed our economy. The numbers of dead are over reported. We have to learn to live with COVID. It’s only the flu. It doesn’t exist. It’s all just one huge conspiracy.

So many voices united by a yearning to have a “normal” life.

My question is, why? Why are they so keen to get back on that treadmill? Is it fear? Are they afraid their status, privilege, wealth, will disappear? How much pain must you feel when you realise, none of that “stuff” really matters?! That the nurses and supermarket staff, bus drivers and delivery people, are all more important, than the “armies of consultants, bankers, tax advisors, managers, and others who earn their money in strategic trans-sector peer-to-peer meetings to brainstorm the value-add on co-creation in the network society“?

The fact is, the longer we remain paused. The more time people have to examine their lives, and understand there’s something wrong. That they’re not happy, and want off the fucking treadmill.

I think that’s one of many reasons why Boris Johnson is hell bent on ending restrictions on the 19th of July 2021.

He wants everyone back on that treadmill? He needs us all running to survive. Distracted. With no time. Unable to think. So we don’t just say “we want something more”.

Personally I hope people realise what’s important.

Take the action needed.

And change.

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A thought on Cummings

I think Dominic Cummings is a smartarse.

He’s been all over the news recently, trashing the government he was once part of, and tearing pounds of flesh from the Prime Minister he helped get elected. It could be argued that his testimony was revelatory, in a “we knew that already” kind of way. It confirms many of the things, anyone who’d been paying attention for the last year, already suspected. One thing is for certain, his evidence to the health and science select committee, was a damning account of Boris Johnson’s negligent response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Cummings in front of the science and technology committee.”
(Parliamentlive.TV)

Side note. I hope Cummings’ critique of Johnson raises more than a few red flags for those faithful to our dolt of a Prime Minister. Hopefully it will make them look at their foppish leader with fresh, critical, eyes. Unfortunately, as blind allegiances is all there is these days, that’s about as likely as Johnson remaining faithful to his new wife. Johnson’s supporters, it seems, have hitched themselves to his chariot, and are happy to drag their naked king wherever he wants to go. Thus spake the binaries of a political landscape Cummings helped create. Us and them. Be one of us, and tow that line, or be a “bed-wetting” heretic.

None of that’s why I think “Cummings is a smartarse”.

“I think we are absolutely fucked.”

If you listen to him talk. The tone of his voice. Those long sentences, information heavy, corralling, it feels as if he has the answer before the question has been asked. I don’t think Cummings is an idiot, far from it, but I do think he’s a know-it-all, and in this instance, one with a narrative to sell. He’s cast himself here as a hero, battling a world of incompetence, the one with all the answers, if only people listened.

Some take this “know-it-allness’ for genius. Personally I don’t see it that way. To me he’s just another smug smartarse, the way a first year undergraduate is a smartarse, the way Clark, in the bar scene from Good Will Hunting (1997), is a smartarse.

Good Will Hunting was written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and directed by Gus Van Sant. At its core Good Will Hunting is a coming of age story. Will, played by Damon, must come to terms with the traumas of his childhood, accept his genius, and earn the love of a good woman. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It won Best Original Screenplay for Damon and Affleck at the 70th Academy Awards.

The scene in question, the one with the smartarse Clark, starts on page eighteen of the screenplay, and finishes with one line of dialogue on page twenty-two. It’s part of the films set-up, and is the “meet-cute” between Will and his love interest, his good woman, Skyler.

“My Boy’s Wicked Smart”

Cummings and Clark both have the same paternalistic swagger, they’re self-assured, certain they have all the answers, possessed by the kind of conviction you only ever see in people with faith, or a privileged education. They’re the kind of people that go through life seemingly unencumbered by doubts, they’ve read all the right books, retained all of the correct information. What neither of them have done is really examined the information they’ve read, reorganised those theories, and found something unique to their own understanding of the world. It’s all there in the way Will taunts Clark. “Do you have any thoughts of your own on the subject or were you gonna plagerize the whole book for me?”

It’s not hard to reason why.

These characters, one fictitious, the other real, both had privileged upbringings. They remain untarnished by the harshness of life. They’ve never known the kind of desperation you feel when deciding to pay your rent or feed yourself. Neither have they felt the cold that comes from not having money enough to feed the gas meter. The harshness of things hasn’t knocked the corners off their arrogance.

They know everything and nothing.

One thing’s for sure, Cummings has never butted heads with the likes of a Will Hunting. No-one has ever ripped Cummings open the way Will eviscerates Clark. I very much doubt if Cummings has ever been in that type of confrontation. Perhaps the closest, was the time Karl Turner cornered him “in the lobby of Portcullis House to protest at the aggressive language being used by the Prime Minister during Brexit debates in the House of Commons”.

“Get Brexit done.”

Turner is angry, and all Cummings has in response is a smartarsed “get Brexit done”. Throughout their exchange Cummings looks lost, the way Clark is lost, and “searching for a graceful exit, any exit”. Both characters fall back on what they know, and continue with their smartarseery. I get the feeling Turner wanted to thump Cummings, the way Will calls out Clark, “I guess we can step outside and deal with it that way”. Turner and Cummings didn’t come to anything, but we can all guess how Cummings would respond. Probably the same way as Clark, when he “decides not to take Will up on his offer”.

This encounter exposes Dominic Cummings for what he is, a sniper, a griper, a bitcher, and backbiter. He is not a fighter.

And that’s why I think he’s a smartarse.

A thought on voting

Vote as if you have a gun pointed at someone’s head.

I was recently made aware of the reasons some people voted Tory in the 2019 general election. They voted tactically to send a message to Labour; they weren’t happy with the “radicle” agenda of Jeremy Corbyn.

Voting tactically in 2019 has backfired in the most vicious way possible.

We now have 126 thousand deaths from COVID. A no deal “deal” exiting the European Union that’s tanking the economy, and abandoning the Good Friday Agreement, trashing thirty years of peace in Northern Ireland. We have a government intent on making protesting illegal, while at the same time handing lucrative PPE contracts to friends and donors to the Conservative Party. At best they’re hypocritical, at worst corrupt.

My approach to voting is simple. Vote as if you have a gun pointed at someone’s head. Are you willing to pull that policy trigger? Tory policies kill. Ten years of austerity have proven that. The only message anyone sends by voting Tory is you agree with Tory policies, and voting Tory tells me “I’m happy to kill”.

Songbird (2020)

A film that piqued my interest by using an out of control variant of COVID as the backdrop.

At its core it’s a love story, set in the totalitarian regime imposed by attempts to control the deadly virus. It doesn’t try to find a new way of looking at either the love story or the virus, instead giving us a stream of familiar foes. The corrupt. The psychotic megalomaniac. The faceless military.

Imbedded, unquestioned, in the story is this very American idea that the power of love and individual freedoms are the ideal, and only true outcome for any such scenario.

Boris Johnson, herd immunity, and Winston Churchill

Did Boris Johnson embrace herd immunity because he wrote a book about Winston Churchill?

In a recent PoliticsJOE post on Twitter, Peter Jukes the founder of Byline Times, points to Johnsons’s February speech in Greenwich as the “smoking gun” linking him herd immunity.

Johnson has since tried to distance himself from the disastrous idea, but for a time he believed we should take COVID-19 on the chin, let the virus spread through the country, to protect the economy by getting it over in one shot.

The Greenwich Speech is up on the government website for everyone to read. It’s a long and rambling thing, full of bombast and big metaphors. The following chunk is the “smoking gun” that Jukes mentions, the bit that absolutely connects Johnson to herd immunity.

Trade used to grow at roughly double global GDP – from 1987 to 2007.

Now it barely keeps pace and global growth is itself anaemic and the decline in global poverty is beginning to slow.

And in that context, we are starting to hear some bizarre autarkic rhetoric, when barriers are going up, and when there is a risk that new diseases such as coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage, then at that moment humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other.

And here in Greenwich in the first week of February 2020, I can tell you in all humility that the UK is ready for that role.

PM speech in Greenwich: 3 February 2020

In the interest of my own pathological need for completeness, I offer the full Politics Joe interview with Jukes, as seen on Youtube. It’s an interesting twenty minutes on the background and underlying thinking of the Johnson government. The relevant observations about herd immunity starts at 12 minutes, 45 seconds.

Peter Jukes | PoliticsJOE

To be clear, when Johnson makes the argument for ignoring COVID-19, to give the country an economic advantage, he’s making an argument for killing huge numbers of people. There’s a soulless lack of humanity in his words. He just doesn’t realise, or worse doesn’t care, about the human cost of letting the virus rip though the country.

Jukes sums up the morality with a simple question. “Would you take a 25% cut in your salary or loose a parent?” The instant response, from the overwhelming majority, is take the pay cut. From the available evidence I don’t think Johnson would.

So how does someone rationalise such a vicious choice?

We might find answers in the language he uses. If you look beyond the disaster that is herd immunity, and listen to what Johnson says, I think you can understand something of his mindset. Reading his words you quickly realise Johnson isn’t a person of science, his approach isn’t systematic or logical, it’s entirely romantic. He thinks of himself as a hero, a man battling enemies and vanquishing foes. It’s as if he’s some kind of classical hero, a modern day Achilles at the gates of Troy.

You can see this in the Greenwich Speech, when he compares the country to Clark Kent, he paints his government as the heroic Superman, battling for “freedom of exchange”. He revels in the image of Clark Kent removing his spectacles, leaping into the phone booth, emerging with his “cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the population of Earth to buy and sell freely among each other”.

Make no mistake, when Johnson portrays his government as Superman, he sees himself as someone making the tough choices, the heroic champion of the free market, a man capable of vanquishing others irrational panic, to save the economy.

While considering this, I remembered an appearance Johnson made on The Jonathan Ross Show some time in July 2019, promoting The Churchill Factor, his book about Winston Churchill. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, speed through the clip. You’ll find the relevant bit about 9 minutes, 40 seconds in.

Boris Johnson | The Jonathan Ross Show

Johnson explains he wrote the book because he thought we are in danger of “imperfectly remembering” Churchill and his achievements.

Personally I’d say the myth of Churchill needs some work, his actions reassessed, looked at critically, not lionised the way Johnson does.

As the interview progresses Johnson lists some of the things people have apparently forgotten about Churchill. He helped to start the welfare state, was instrumental in forming modern Ireland, helped create the state of Israel, wrote the map of the middle east, had a hand in inventing the tank, helped win the first world war. The list goes on.

The most telling admiration, and for me a damning insight into Johnson’s thinking in the early months of 2020, is prompted by comments from Jonathan Ross.

I didn’t realise how crucial he (Churchill) was to us actually carrying on the fight against Hitler.

Johnson gleefully interprets Churchill’s resolve, his heroic decision to fight on.

Within a year thirty thousand British men, women and children, were dead.

That’s not the most revealing remembrance. Johnson finishes his soliloquies with a chilling postulation.

You cannot imagine any modern politician having the guts to do that.

The things on Johnson’s list are interesting because they expose his particular biases. For example, Churchill’s involvement in the middle east. It could be argued his involvement in the region is the bedrock upon which current conflicts are built. The same could be said of Ireland. Johnson doesn’t mention Churchill’s involvement in the 1943 Bengal famine, or advocating the use of chemical weapons against Kurds and Afghans in 1919.

I think Churchill’s legacy is complicated, not all of it is good, or noble, or heroic. Instead of recognising this, Johnson chooses to “imperfectly remember” Churchill as a saint.

I see this last statement “imperfectly remembering” as prophetic.

Johnson thinks of himself as a classical hero, battling enemies and vanquishing foes. He writes a book lionising Winston Churchill, admiring the most chilling and heartless aspects of his character and actions. A few months later he gives a speech arguing for herd immunity, letting thousands of people die so this country can survive an economic disaster. His government, his supercharged champion, admonishing lesser nations for their caution, and make the case for freedom of exchange.

In less than a year, more than 60 thousand British men, women and children, are dead.

You can’t imagine any modern politician having the guts to do that.

Just so no one misunderstands, I don’t think Johnson was or is heroic.

His words are hyperbole, his actions hubris.

His unchecked ego has killed thousand.

He needs to be stopped.

What’s the point of government?

What if an incompetent government screwed up your life, and tried to get you killed as they did it, what would that look like?

Perhaps we’d watch them stagger through this COVID-19 crisis like Stone Trolls trying to escape the sun. Lumbering panicked from one broken promise to another.

How would you feel if the government lied, and lied again, treating every citizen with the kind of contempt you might have for the gob of gum stuck to your shoe?

What kind of person would lead this chaos? He’d have to be someone unwilling to face and average person, look them in the eye, and speak from the heart.

The Stone Troll’s heart is a purely functional organ. Something so tough it can’t be scratched by emotions like shame or regret, compassion or humility.

If we had a government like that, we might look at their stage managed announcements and ask, why do they rattle past so quickly? Why do they go by unchallenged?

Would it be ruthless to think they’re hiding something? They must think we’re fools? Why else would they present failures as success, and expect us not to notice.

I might respond by calling them cowards, or point out their arrogance. I’m guessing their replies would let me know, they see us as weak, infantilising us for their own benefit.

Why would any government think of its citizens as children? Perhaps they want us to treat them as a parent, a strict and infallible patriarch, there to scold us, tell us what to do?

If that’s how it is, I want to know, has the tail always wagged the dog? And if the government’s wagging its citizens, we’re not living in a democracy, we’re living in a system of oligarchy, where the many are ruled by the few.

A government like that might think we should take the virus on the chin, to “protect the economy!” If that’s their priority it might be reasonable, under the enormous pressure of a pandemic, to feel like their “democracy” might falter.

People might realise who the government is really serving. To protect itself a government might be forced to respond, rationalise a system wide collapse, and offer to pay a companies staff, so they can implement a lockdown.

Win. Win. Protect the interests of the oligarchy while maintaining the illusion of democracy.

If that lockdown continued, how long before the mouthpieces for the few start agitating for a return to business?

Would the government relax the order to stay at home, knowing people will mix, and contract, and spread the virus? Is it wrong to think they’d put everyone at risk in this way?

The Stone Trolls in government see us as feckless children too stupid to stand on our own two feet. If they thought something different, they’d maintain a lockdown until the danger had passed.

Which leaves one final question. What’s the point of government if all they do is service the needs of the few?

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