It felt like they were going to ride it out, for all the catalogue of what they’d done; that they’d surf a national wave of commingled anxiety and goodwill and hope and fear and uncertainty and all the rest, and that those venting and disbelieving would be politicising a tragedy when now was not the time. We were all in shock, angry or not. This was the early days, when Johnson was reciting Boy’s Own blather – we will take it on the chin, we will send coronavirus packing, and, oh look, it turns out that even in the midst of everything else you can still roll your eyes and cringe. Followed instantly by the shame of the mark: it’s not as if provoking bien-pensant embarrassment isn’t also the point of Johnson’s Churchill-as-farce. He’s goading the goadable no less than pleasing the easily pleased. But knowing you’re being grifted doesn’t make you immune to it. Back in the dully glowing Coronaviral Bronze Age we were All In It Together. The ironclad rule: any time any politician deploys the first-person plural, start asking what kind of bullshit you are being fed.
When Covid-19 struck Johnson, not content with obligatorily wishing him a speedy recovery, some Labour politicians tweet-simpered a gratitude profoundly undeserved. (‘Thank you for everything your Government is doing to help us fight this’: Sadiq Khan. ‘[T]hanks for what you have been doing to help the country fight this’: Andy Burnham.) You certainly didn’t have to be one of the edgelords publicly wishing Johnson death to find this – to a PM who’d recently decreed that pubs could stay open but that you shouldn’t go, who’d boasted of still shaking patients’ hands, who’d floated a version of ‘herd immunity’, who’d allowed racing and football matches and concerts to continue after his own advisers called for lockdown, who’d dispensed with track-and-trace, who’d failed to follow up offers to help with ventilator production, and on and on and on – a grotesque dereliction of opposition.
An early epoch of discombobulation, frantic mass stats-crunching, the boning-up on reproduction numbers and beginners’ guides to epidemiology. Of rummaging through cupboards and learning what you didn’t have. You grew familiar with the feel of a meat thermometer’s spike under the tongue. With the sight of new rejectamenta; blue skintight gloves like husks shed mid-crawl. Still you couldn’t but live like something suspended, watching from behind glass, sensing an approach.
They governed by truculent hint and pre-haunt: we may have to lock down, we may have to extend and tighten this, we rule nothing out, training us to know what that meant: prepare yourselves. Not that this was willing. ‘We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place – public and media pressure pushed the lockdown,’ kvetched some high-ranked source to the Telegraph. Because of the economy, stupid – the baleful effects on which are, yes, incalculable, an epochal shock. But this resistance is economically illiterate in its own terms, a symptom of decades of worshipping rentier accumulation. And, in the face of mass death, it’s turpitude. These ‘hawks’ are more clubbable cousins of the deranged morituri for neoliberalism, the initiates of outlier cults who are insistent not that risks are not real but that it’s dulce et decorum to be ready to die for the dollar. Hayek’s ‘party of life’ needs its Valkyries, its suicide squads.
Their piacular dreams move them to strange poetries, inverted vatic insight. ‘While death is sad for the living left behind,’ writes Bill Mitchell, one Trumpian provocateur demanding the end of lockdown, ‘for the dying, it is merely a passage out of this physical body to a spiritual existence, free of this mortal coil.’ This is why we should have no fear. ‘If one turns off the radio, the music is still there. For all we know, the dead weep for us.’
At last the scandals piled up enough, and the British press decreed with its bystander ingenuousness that the administration was ‘on the defensive’.
These moments are always weird and contradictory. The government’s approval ratings remain higher than they’ve been in years, even as national rage grows, in this moment of uncanny suspension, of watching, like specimens in formalin, staring out in the long light at unspeakably beautiful planeless skies, breathing cleaner air and hearing giddily bickering animals, and your held breath feels as if it might emerge as a shout. You laugh too long and hard, your temper’s short, your tongue feels thick in your mouth.
People who’ve overseen a years-long spiralling crisis in the NHS put rainbow images in their windows, stand on their doorsteps and #clapforcarers every Thursday with shit-eating grins. At least now there’s a growing sense that they should go fuck themselves. ‘We do not have any basic surgical masks,’ Dr Peter Tun wrote desperately to his managers. ‘We do not have eye protection kits, gowns nor scrubs.’ If they were not given such equipment soon, ‘it will be too little and too late’. Two weeks after he wrote that he was diagnosed with the disease. A week later he died. Every Thursday, the Cabinet claps as if the blood on their hands won’t spatter.
There are those who swear by hot water, disinfectant, certain foods. For whom the 5G mast is the new Air Loom, sowing sickness. There’s a species of left condescension for which such fallacies are opiates of the oppressed, deflections of just class rage. That’s sociologically simplistic. What’s harder to contest is the intuition that governmental claims to have matters in hand and our best interests at heart are worth a bowl of piss. And more condescending still is the lumpen rationalist, railing against tinfoil hats and the motes in other people’s eyes. Our era is one of agnatology and nostrum-collapse: superstitions and talismanic thinking proliferate. The mesmeric hoodoo ’fluence of Russian bots; the transformative powers of impeachment; the fundamental decent klutziness of our rulers, who might cock up but would never conspire: the conspiracy-scolds, too, have their lullabies.
And they have their shibboleths. A celebrated author spits righteous fire about the parlous state of the nation. Saves his hottest flames for the end: if the government, ‘for Brexit-related reasons’, failed to collect as much PPE as possible via an EU scheme, the front bench should face charges of conspiracy to murder. What of all those manifold other scandals, non-Brexit-related decisions and evasions that have led to deaths? Are they not also evidence for the prosecution?
At least it is a piece about the world. At least it’s angry. What is this self-flagellating urge to read all the lockdown diaries, all the ‘Not another lockdown diary!’ first lines? These reams of writerly vacuities, column after mot juste-hunting column describing this shape of the day, this view from the window, such-and-such a tree and such, this which is on the desk, this which is in the fridge what with food not being as easy to get these days, these the new modes of going to the shops, this which is the conversation that was had with this friend or child or neighbour, this, now you mention it, which is the newly warm neighbourly discourse, this the recourse to Netflix, this the thing the author had thought they would miss and does not, this the one they weren’t expecting to and do. This the sense that things will never be the same again. Et cetera, repeat to fade. They provoke incredulousness greater than the sky. Who gives a fuck?
In the city, amid the tragedy and trauma, we’re granted a new silence. Distinct. Not total, any more than what we used to think of as London quiet, in the minutes between cars at night, the sound of a distant train part of the silence itself. Now you can hear the wings of a bird you watch. And when a car or van or a delivery driver on a scooter – one of the new heroes – passes by, the interruption startles. Glimpsing home-exercisers through windows you’re overwhelmed with affection for a new sort of community. Mist comes and goes across your vision: your mask sends breath on to your glasses. What would this lockdown be if it were autumn? What if it were winter?
At the close of the eighties, Helen Chadwick created her Viral Landscapes, images of paint-smeared canvases attached to great panoramic photographs of the Pembrokeshire coast overlayed with blown-up images of cells from her mouth, ear, cervix, kidney, blood. Wilderness, through the stained-glass window of the body. ‘The living integrates with other in an infinite continuity of matter and welcomes difference not as damage but as potential,’ Chadwick said.
Less than a decade later she died, terribly young. A heart attack, perhaps linked to a viral infection.
Look out across the roofs and those images recur, now that we know we live in a viral landscape. Whatever the aftermath, you won’t see the city again except through the agency of absence, recalling this semi-emptiness, this viral uncertainty. Only key workers – a newly vital category of the recently undervalued – are tested. Even those of us knocked down for weeks by illness can’t know without all doubt if we’ve had it, or know if we can still pass it on. Care means leaving space, and in these bright warm days the city is full of spaces. Thus, in negative, Chadwick’s self, integrated with the other.
A photograph of an American demonstrator of Bill Mitchellian ilk does the rounds: on their placard, social distancing = communism. Would that it were so.
Store up descriptions for a curious future. As well as everything else that this is – an experiment, a contested machine of petty spites and of astonishing kindness and solidarity – the new city is a found artwork, and a rumination on itself.
For Fredric Jameson, urban absence is key to a modernist imaginary, the vacant city ‘revealing an object world forever suspended on the brink of meaning, forever disposed to receive a revelation of evil or of grace that never comes. The unpeopled streets, the oppressive silence, convey this absent presence like a word on the tip of your tongue or a dream not quite remembered.’ These streets are depleted but not empty, and the silence is anything but oppressive. For all that, in the viral city there is such a sense of endlessly receding meaning. Everything is vivid, pregnant, a receptacle eager to be filled with meaning, with something, and if the revelation has not yet come there is a growing intimation, one that we must cultivate, that this absence is an invitation. We have not been passed by: this is an opportunity.
The historical odds suggest that when whatever comes, comes, it will be evil. But we don’t have to sit back and take that. We might have something to say about it.
These are days of viral anger and despair and fear but of something else, too.
‘We will miss this when it’s over,’ she says to you.
Somewhere among all that is evoked by all the death, the suffering, the brutal, disproportionate impact on BAME people, the unspeakable conditions of those at the sharp edges of danger; on those locked in with terrorising partners in shitty flats much too small, on renters still unprotected, on all those terrified of destitution, without support, without resources, you blinked, felt guilt, at the rising of a certain excitement. A breathlessness. That after so many years of feeling that some Event was due, that something vast must surely happen, something vast happened. Is happening.
Of all the various investigations of our Covid state, probably the most important, certainly the most moving, came in mid-April, from a YouGov poll for the Royal Society of Arts’ Food, Farming and Countryside commission. Citing the air, the wildlife, closer social bonds and other factors, 85 per cent of those questioned said they want to retain at least some of the changes wrought by these moments. Fewer than one in ten desire to return to the status quo ante.
Even with all there is behind them, we find value in these days. What a wrenching thing. That in this we glimpse something new, something we want, a viral landscape we deserve.
Artwork © Leanne Shapton