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I am writing to applaud and support Bill Russell's
brave comment in last Friday's Lockdown Cafe questioning the prominence on TV news of painful interviews with the relatives of recent victims of COVID-19. It is bad enough for those of us in our 70s or 80s (Russell and I are of similar advanced age) having to cope with the endless barrage of reminders that the older you are the more likely your succumbing to coronavirus – so much so that if you continue to feel well you begin to feel there must be something wrong with you. But to watch the nightly news and see and hear nothing but hushed descriptions of the demise of those who all too possibly could be you, is deeply distressing. The pain COVID-19 is causing so many families is all too real. But like Bill, I wonder in what sense is it news?
Meanwhile, like many others who are self-isolating, I've been watching quite a lot of TV. Did you watch the final of University Challenge
last Monday? I'd been reading about popular support for Wang, the captain of the Corpus Christi Cambridge team, but I was pretty sure their opponents Imperial College London would be the winners. Why? Because of the presence in their team of an American student called Brandon. In the semi-final, Brandon had provided something like three-quarters of the right answers. In the final, he was again the dominating presence. I quite liked the idea of a brash American outscoring all these bright Oxbridgers.
I thought I'd check out Brandon, where he had studied etc. What a surprise – not to say disappointment! Brandon turns out to be a full-time quizzer. Since boyhood, he has taken part in quizzes all round America – and earned pots of money. Even more extraordinarily, he had heard about University Challenge
and decided he wanted to win that too. So his enrolment as a postgraduate student at Imperial College was simply a way of getting himself into the University Challenge team. And there he was lifting the trophy! Amazing – but then he did get all those right answers.
Although Charles Borromeo had been declared archbishop a few years earlier, he took 'possession' of the diocese of Milan in 1565. He thought it very important that a bishop should reside in his diocese and be the pastoral support to the people entrusted to his care – a very rare opinion, indeed, in the 16th century. Born in 1538, he was a very young reforming bishop, implementing the decrees of the Council of Trent in whose final session he was very influential.
When plague struck northern Italy in 1576, the Spanish Governor of Milan and all the nobles, as was the custom amongst the rich and powerful, headed for the countryside to escape the contagion, leaving mostly the poor behind. Charles stayed on in the city but he asked the governor to issue a decree that the citizens should stay in their houses – the first recorded 'lockdown'?
He led processions to pray for an end to the plague but the people taking part had to walk in single file and three metres apart – 'social distancing'.
He changed his clothes very often and had his clothes boil washed – 'personal hygiene'. He purified everything he touched with fire and vinegar – 'purifying surfaces'. He also kept people who wished to speak with him from coming any closer than a distance which he marked out with a wooden stick held at the end of his outstretched arm - again 'social distancing', this time 16th-century style.
He ordered the priests out of their churches to celebrate Mass at the street corners so that the people could take part without coming out of their houses. He organised the feeding of between 50,000 and 60,000 victims of famine daily. He couldn't have known what the real biological cause of the plague was but he knew from its effects what had to be done. The measures which he put in place did the job. It is estimated that in the plague of 1576, in the city of Milan, 17,000 people died out of a population of 800,000. In Venice, where these measures were not put in place and the plague ran riot, one in three of the population died – 70,000 out of a population of 200,000.
So, even in the 16th century, those who cared about helping others survive contagious diseases knew that certain things made a huge difference: 'lockdown', 'quarantine', 'social distancing', 'personal hygiene', 'cleaning surfaces', 'feeding the poor'.
He was credited with saving the city through prayer and through the appliance of tough measures against the spread of the plague. Holiness, wisdom, courage, and concern were the qualities he showed – all of them necessary.
Fr Michael MacDonald
Balcony and Rainbow
Sorting, matching, piling, moving,
he sets and resets his place.
So much to do as dimpled hands
chase fancies in his speedy mind.
Dinosaurs stand by
in this marvelled space,
the rain on concrete dry.
A balcony in quarantine.
Gems picked up on daily daunders
and epic saunters to childcare destinations
bring no need to heed the times
or hurried deadlines of parents' pleas.
Anguished bribes do not disturb
his focus firm on each journey's treasured yield;
sticks and stones, all grasped tight till home.
His cache is now assembled at his command,
transported two floors up, transformed
and active players in his busy paradise.
The sun sends colours through the open door
and kitchen units shine where the rainbows end.
letter about things falling down reminded me of a story told by Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), the Ulster Scot who became professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow in 1726 and whose liberal views on theology and social life scandalised the reactionaries of his time. His Reflections on Humour
, written in 1725, examining the limitations of Thomas Hobbes's explanation of humour, include a reminiscence of the 18th-century doctor, author, and scourge of the unco guid, Archibald Pitcairn:
'Many an orthodox Scotch Presbyterian, which sect few accuse of disregard for the Holy Scriptures, has been put to it to preserve his gravity, upon hearing the application of Scripture made by his countryman, Dr Pitcairn, as he observed a crowd in the streets about a mason, who had fallen along with his scaffold, and was overwhelmed with the ruins of the chimney which he had been building, and which fell immediately after the fall of the poor mason: "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, for they rest from their labours, and their work follows after them".'
It seems that Hutcheson had succeeded in getting a humorous reaction from more than one iron-visaged contemporary by repeating this story. His point was that its humour lies not in our feeling superior to the unfortunate mason, as Hobbes's theory required; but in the unexpected application, and apparent aptness, of the Bible text to the event, as well as in our appreciation of Pitcairn's instant wit in making the connection.
So this week I set myself on fire. However, this was not an act of self-immolation, in a fit of pique or deep conviction that all before me was overwhelming and the only escape I could see was to bow-out, literally in a blaze of glory. A more mundane explanation could be found in that it was simply an accident with matches. Let me explain.
The gas-sparking device which lights the fire in our living room can, on occasion, prove unpredictable, sometimes bursting into life when the control is turned, on others, only producing a flint like spark, which does not catch and fails to light the gas flow. Not a new problem though and one which can be addressed by the old-fashioned, putting a match to the gas flow method, favoured by many a 1960s mum as she ignited the oven or cooker rings in preparation of the evening meal.
Ignition by match is not a simple process, firstly you need two hands to light a match. Okay, I concede that some people don't but I am a purist as far as these things go and I cannot see beyond the two-hand method. Match in one hand, box with sandpaper edge in the other, draw the match across the box and hey presto, man with fire! Added to that, there is the faff of using the other hand to turn the gas flow and finally bring the two actions together and lighting the fire. Complicated? Not really, but then not that easy to explain in a short paragraph.
Only, when I attempted my tried and trusted two-handed match-to-box process, the head flew of the match and in what appeared to be slow motion, my jersey suddenly became alight. Both panic and instinct kicked-in simultaneously, and within the blink of any eye, I managed to extinguish the flames, using my hands only to pat down the fire, remarkably with no damage done. My hands unscathed and jersey albeit now smelling slightly charred, showed no other evidence of the trauma I had gone through.
What does this have to do with the current world situation though, I hear you ask? Well, on reflection I think I most probably avoided damage particularly to my jumper because of lockdown. As a direct consequence of my not having the same need or motivation to change clothes to the same extent as I would normally, I now think the jumper must have had some additional fibres and foreign debris attached to it and that is what caught alight, not the actual wool/cotton blend of the jersey. Quite literally I was saved by slobbery.
Now to get back to convincing my wife I should be allowed access to the scissors...
I'm pleased that some readers appear to like the absolutely true stories I relate in this part of the Scottish Review – although the editor stated she had last heard the story I told in a theatre in Glasgow way back in the 30s. Anyway, another one:
Man goes into pub.
Man orders three pints and sits on his own and quietly drinks them in turn.
This continues for a few weeks; then the barman suggests: 'Look, why don't you order your pints one at a time? That way, each pint will be fresh'.
'Can't do that,' replies the man: 'You see, when my two brothers lived here, we all went out and had a glass every weekend together. When they went to work abroad we agreed we would keep the tradition going. So, when I order three pints, it’s just as if we were one again and all drinking together'.
'I understand,' nodded the barman.
For a few weeks more, the man comes in and orders his three pints. Then, suddenly, one week he only orders two. This happens the next week as well. The barman discreetly goes over to him.
'I hope I'm not intruding,' the barman says, 'but you are a regular and some of the other regulars and I have been concerned that something has happened to one of your brothers; we want you to know that you have our sympathy'.
'Eh! Oh no; they are both quite well, thank you.'
'Ah. It's simply because you've cut your order back to two pints that we thought something was wrong.'
'Gosh. That's only me. I've given up drinking.'
(the writer from Glasgow! – Ed)
Every day is beginning to feel like Sunday. Being isolated in comfort as I am you end up feeling like you are sitting fiddling while outside Rome burns. There are awful things happening in hospitals and care homes, but that is in another world, one viewed through the television screen. This week, things were not helped by deciding the DVD to watch next was Visconti's Death in Venice
, hardly the best choice in the circumstances as it is about a man dying in a plague hit city, cholera having come by devious means from the East.
The other thing is that the pattern of the day has started to slip – you get up a little later, and all that follows drops down into later parts of the day. I haven't joined Zoom – an abortive attempt on my laptop sent that puzzling machine into a tizzy from which thankfully it has emerged, but I am now treating it with care because just as lockdown started, the sound went on my computer and I don't want to upset the equilibrium of the laptop as well. One realises how technology has taken over everyday life – and how much we rely on it. Facebook is a lifeline.
Spending on things is also becoming a problem, justified by the fact that the old movie DVDs I want cost less than going to a cinema would in days gone by. Businesses and places of entertainment may be facing collapse, but Amazon must be doing very well indeed. There are old movies on Talking Pictures, but that only leads to wondering 'Where are they now?' about people in them and wanting one of their other movies. Did you know Glynis Johns is still alive at the age of 96? But there on screen was Miranda – the original one, not that lanky, peculiar TV woman – flaunting her mermaid's tail.
Putting off doing things include sorting out the papers I keep in my intray. Income tax return time is looming and I should go through all those documents one needs to fill in the return, but that involves disposing of sheets of paper that should not be thrown away intact. The shredder sits there a silent rebuke.
The other thing one starts to think is, if he or she can do that, so can I. I grew up in the age of Elizabeth David when every young man worth his salt gave dinner parties and there were no M&S ready meals so cooking is not a problem. But I never became a baker, unlike my theatre publicist friend Kevin who regales us daily with what he has cooked and baked while recovering from COVID-19. He must have the best-stocked larder in the land. But he also lives in Balham, gateway to the south, with lots of small food shops stocking ingredients, not ready meals like supermarkets. I tell him he can start a business called Kevin's Kookies in due course as the theatre PR business does not look like having a great future – but actually, the press releases keep coming. The anything you can do I can do too , if not better, syndrome has clicked in and orders have been placed for flour, baking powder and cake tins.
Some things cheer me up, like the admirable Captain Tom and his fund raising walk round his garden – that he can hirple like that at his age is an inspiration to all like me who have exceeded the biblical span – but not much else. Ministers waffle, experts dazzle with incomprehensible graphs, the PM remains out of sight – which does cheer me up – and I add to the heap of watercolours I will not get round to framing.
In isolation, you focus in on yourself, selfish though it may be. The garden is nice, the house is clean enough, maybe a little dusty, and the awful things that are happening elsewhere are just as remote from my reality as the night I watched the twin towers going up on the television in an Italian bar and thought it was just a scene from a disaster movie. It was not until the following morning I found out it was for real.
I suppose I could try to put all that family history I researched when I retired into a narrative as one journalist friend is doing, but turning a family tree into prose is a thankless task so I will probably add it to the might have been list. What I need is a deadline, a demand for 600 words or more ASAP – with a trip to the pub for a pint afterwards. No chance of that yet.
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