T S Eliot tells us April is the cruellest month. I'm now convinced January is the longest month. With everything locked down, time itself seems locked up. January is lasting forever. Every day is an age. Every day is the same. I struggle to remember is today Tuesday? Or is it Wednesday? Does it even matter? Intellectually, I know what I'm talking about has to do with being permanently alone. Isolation on this scale is an experience previously unknown to most of us. But being alone, often passing an entire day without exchanging a word with another human being, has become a new commonplace. We live in a society of one.
Mind you, just a few days ago I had an experience which ought to have changed everything. I finally got my initial Coronavirus vaccine jab. Beforehand, I had expected to feel a bit more relaxed, a bit more secure. I anticipated the light at the end of the tunnel would seem nearer to hand, and a great deal brighter. The reality proved exactly the reverse. After hearing over and over again for the last 10 months, or whatever it is, that my age puts me in the most vulnerable group to catch the virus – and that if I do my chances of recovery are not high—I had even begun to feel guilty for not feeling ill. The daily bombardment of lethal statistics was making me wonder why I'm still around.
Post-vaccine, however, rather than reassured that safety is within reach, I've become increasingly obsessed with the need to make it through to the second one. I find myself becoming extra careful about staying at home, about social distancing, about regular hand-washing and all the rest. I keep reminding myself that it takes two or three weeks before the vaccine provides any degree of protection, and only with the second injection – which could be up to 12 weeks away in happening – is the job finally done. So rather than more relaxed, I now feel more nervous – aware that there's many a slip between the cup and the lip. Missing something in the kitchen, I do without rather than nipping into Waitrose. Out for the newspaper, I keep as wide a berth as possible from other shoppers. At home, I tell myself how better off I am living alone.
Then again, my mind has not stopped functioning entirely. Living in a society of one keeps reminding me of one of Mrs Thatcher's more memorable – and perhaps more influential – observations. It was in 1987 that she announced: 'And, you know there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and families'. This is a kind of populist statement of the basic assumption behind neo-liberal economics: individual capitalism should be allowed to steam ahead with deregulation, privatisation, and the free market, untrammelled by any concern for the social other.
Well, here we are apparently living in that capitalist heaven. With restaurants, bars, cafes closed, shops shuttered, streets almost empty, and most of us working from the isolation of home behind closed doors, society has to all intent and purposes ceased to exist. For the very first time we are all in a position to do our own thing. We should be getting ahead of the game, competing against each other with no holds barred. The economy should be booming in this society-free world.
But it's all nonsense. The capitalist heaven is an illusion. Rather than booming, our economy is crashing. Society, Mrs Thatcher, not the individual, is the greater good. I long for its return.
If you would like to contribute to the Cafe, please email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org