I’m not against a bit of opportunistic book marketing. Lockdown feels like ‘Instant Karma’ but for books. I bet it wasn’t always called that, but right now it feels as if it has been ripped from the headlines. Published at the beginning of this month, this novel dates from 2005, when, according to its author, no publisher would touch it because it was ‘unrealistic’.
As a long-time reader of science fiction, I find this excuse hard to believe. It’s not a bad thriller, as it happens, though you might argue that its protagonist is unsympathetic. It’s a genre mashup, anyway, a little bit of science fiction in the form of a flu pandemic, and a little bit of thriller; a science fiction thriller, if you will. In these slow lockdown days, the unrealistic part, for me, is the sheer pace at which it all barrels along. A classic police procedural it is not, and it smashes through plot like a desperate copper on his last case on the track of a psychotic killer.
London is the setting and the epicentre of an out-of-control bird-flu pandemic. There’s a lockdown; NHS is overwhelmed; bodies are being disposed of in mass cremations; there are army checkpoints, a curfew, and the police are short-handed. An emergency hospital is being constructed (can they do it in a week, like they did in China?), but work is halted when a bag of human bones is found.
Enter our protagonist, D.I. Jack MacNeil, who is about to work a long and action-packed final shift against a backdrop of societal breakdown. His adversary is an efficient killer who is ruthlessly cleaning up the evidence before it can be tagged and bagged.
For me, this pandemic – a little like the one in Emily St John Mandell’s Station Eleven – is a bit too efficient at killing its victims to be as widespread as it is. Explicit mention is made of the way asymptomatic children can spread the disease around willy-nilly, but then there’s a child in the novel who gets it and deteriorates as rapidly as everyone else. Still, we’re learning, aren’t we, that a single virus can affect a wide range of people in a wide range of different ways.
A lot of people might steer clear of a book like this right now. I was fine with it, because I seem to be able to compartmentalise at the moment. On the other hand, flu pandemic aside, there are gruesome and distressing scenes in this novel that you might find upsetting at the best of times. Having not read much Peter May in the past, that may be par for the course.
Anyway, a rollicking quick read and very zeitgeisty.
Was listening to George Monbiot on Radio 4’s Inside Science earlier, and for once he was optimistic (or at least pretending to be) about the prospects for real action on the climate because the pandemic had shown how willing people were to change their behaviour. For years we’ve been told, he argued, that action on climate was impossible because people wouldn’t wear it. Look no closer to home than fuel duty, which has been frozen in successive budgets for years now, because the government is running scared of the motoring lobby. And yet, here we are under lockdown, with 70% less traffic on the roads. It’s a shame that those on the roads tend to be mostly speedfreak sociopaths, but you can’t have everything.
But then the presenter pushed back to Monbiot, saying, well, but you can’t take people’s right to take a cheap flight to Dubrovnik for a beach holiday, it wouldn’t be democratic. Which was your usual BBC woolly thinking, of course, because, duh, if we voted for it, then, yes, you could bloody well take the ‘right’ to take cheap-but-environmentally-expensive flights away from people.
Still, it was there wasn’t it, in a nutshell, the thing we’ve all been noticing. No amount of warnings about our impact on the planet and its climate would change peoples’ behaviour, but give them a pandemic to worry about, and they’re very compliant, no matter what it does to the economy in terms of jobs.
Just a few headlines from today: Amazon potentially being allowed to buy Deliveroo because the latter is about to go under; Debenhams, shit retailer with shit management*, in receivership; farmers who probably voted for Brexit having to fly in workers to pick their crops: colour me shocked; newspapers circling the drain; government throwing money at the fishing industry. And, over and above, the economy of China actually shrinking.
And yet, many of these disaster narratives could be seen differently, through the Monbiot lens of optimism. As economic growth is unsustainable and incompatible with preventing climate disaster, isn’t a shrinking economy a good thing? I mean, what else would it look like to tackle the climate problem? Stores would have to close, people would have to consume less, we in richer countries would have to have less stuff. And fishing? Wouldn’t it be fucking brilliant for fish stocks if nobody did any fishing for a year?
But never let it be said that people weren’t weirdly capable of all kinds of doublethink. Every time somebody worries about economic growth, drink. Every time someone argues that it’s ‘not the time’ to think about the climate problem, drink. Every time someone talks about the airline industry suffering, or car manufacturers, or oil producers, drink.
I don’t really believe George Monbiot is optimistic. But I guess he’s hopeful that if you remind people of how they were willing to change their behaviour, they might think again. Still, as long as this lockdown is likely to be, it has an end coming. And as long as we live, the climate is always a problem without a beginning or an end.
*I mean, they’re management and they’re British, so they must be shit.
As we huddle, or not, in our homes, and wait it out, or not, it’s interesting to ponder the response of the UK government, and that of the US government, in comparison to all the others.
Europe, we’re told, is now the epicentre, with Italy the epic entry point for a disease that is both virulent and mild, deadly and harmless, widespread and concentrated. It is Schrödinger’s virus, known and unknown, wave and particle, existing always in the space between certainties. Being in the middle of it, we cannot know it. And because of the actions we take now, we will never even know, at some point in the future, just how bad it might have been.
The World Service produced a brilliant episode of The Inquiry, which asks the question, Why did the USA fail in its initial coronavirus response? Spoiler alert: Trump, but the facts are laid out so baldly and the failures and the reasons for them so dispassionately that it ought to be compulsory listening. Trump’s denial and bluster, his focus on the stock market as the sole measure of his success as a President, his tendency to improvise and lie and then deny what he said: all of that; but also the dismantling of the Federal government’s ability to respond and co-ordinate effectively so that even when the problem was known, even when there was a clear course of action required, the mechanism simply did not exist. Know this: the first case of a person who had been infected on American soil was only detected because someone broke the rules and tested samples they weren’t allowed to test. Here’s to the crazy ones…
Now, our blustering puffball of a Prime Minister has differentiated himself from Trump by speaking more coherently (a first, for him) and by lining up with experts beside him who are not facepalming. There seemed at first to be a genuine belief that the UK’s measures, supported by our NHS which is fairly unique in the world, might prove more effective in the long term. After all, if you go into total lockdown, you might slow the spread of the disease for two weeks or a month, but then it comes back, like the Spanish Flu of 1919, and you’re back where you were.
When I wrote before, I admit, I didn’t understand the importance of testing. I do now. Of course, with widespread testing, those who have had the disease, who are no longer infectious, who have the antibodies, can stop self-isolating and get on with things. Without testing, people are staying at home who probably don’t need to stay at home. So the lack of testing here and in the USA is a problem. (On the other hand, nobody knows yet whether you can get Covid-19 twice, so there’s that.)
Setting all that aside, what might be another reason the British government (and the US government) didn’t want stringent lockdown measures in place earlier? Why were people being nudged and encouraged instead of bound by law?
I think the answer lies in the way the government has “closed” the schools.
Yes, the schools are closed, except maybe they’re not. I’m a teacher. My school “closed” on Friday, but I’m getting up on Monday and going into work because, and here’s the thing, we don’t know how many kids are going to turn up.
When you look at the list of “key workers”, it’s hard to imagine many professions that aren’t covered under its rubric. Now, anyone who can should be keeping their children home. But people in many sectors have been given permission to send their kids to school. So teachers like me, for example, are considered key workers, which means if I had school age children, I could send them to school so that I, in my turn, could go to school.
As I said, nobody knows, as of now, how many will turn up on Monday. Furthermore, we’ve been told we’ll have to go on caring for these children during the Easter holiday. Huh. And now it’s seeming like the right-wing politician’s disdain for “long school holidays” is coming home to roost. One of my colleagues thinks we’ll have more kids by Wednesday or Thursday than on Monday because parents will get sick of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if hundreds show up. Fingers crossed it’s only a couple of dozen, but nobody knows.
It’s the uncertainty, you see, which of course, is far more concerning than certainty.
Why doesn’t the government properly close schools, properly close pubs, restaurants and shops, instead of just “advising” them to do so? My personal conspiracy theory is that, strategically, these neolibs know that a proper lockdown would expose the fragility of the economy, the Oz-like illusion of prosperity, and that a domino-like collapse of the precariat would lead to… socialism. Their solution? Socialism. Bailouts, benefits, mortgage holidays, and – most importantly – free state childcare, even during the Easter holidays. All in service of shoring up capitalism and the free market, which is not really free because, oh look, the government are here to bail you out. Again.
How many people driving around in unnecessarily large German cars are going to miss a PCP payment?
One final thought, which you’ll note from the image above is actually my first thought. Trump’s barefaced lying and denial in the face of facts is, as ever, deeply calculated. He knows how it plays with his supporters, who are in the front line of saying that the whole thing is a hoax. Doesn’t matter that he’s no longer calling it a hoax: they are, because they heard him call it that a month ago. He’s always gambling that the coin will fall his way. But his “it goes away” line struck me hard because it’s what William H Macy as George Parker says in the movie Pleasantville, as he tries to persuade his wife Betty (Joan Allen) to ignore all the changes that are happening: even as she sits in front of him in living colour while he’s still in black and white. She’s fully on board with the change and wants to move with the times, but he faces her, so earnestly, and says, “It goes away. It goes away.”