The Queen said in her address to the nation that what’ll get us through the lockdown and its ramifications will be our traditional British good humour. I’m not certain. Tempers are beginning to fray — and as we are looking at another week, minimum, of house imprisonment, I predict disaster. It is getting quite tense out there.
A day or so ago my wife and I, peaceable elderly folk, were bumbling along the promenade, here on the south coast. A jogger went past, shouting at us: ‘Effing morons!’ On his way back past us, he again said: ‘Effing morons! Take exercise!’ Had I a gun, I’d honestly have shot his head off.
Joggers are always vile anyway, and the ones wearing face masks are the worst. But what’s emerging, across the country, is rudeness, sarcasm and outright rebukes, all in the name of what I’ve heard termed ‘social distance shaming’.
If you stop to speak to a friend in the street, despite keeping a large distance between the pair of you, a busybody will start shouting. There’s a woman in Edinburgh who even produces a measuring tape.
Children are being yelled at in parks if they hide behind a tree to shout ‘Boo!’ Youngsters, siblings actually, idly chucking pebbles into a stream — with absolutely no one else nearby who’d be at risk — have been told off. A dog walker berated a mother who gave her child a sandwich. It was hardly a full-blown picnic.
Every afternoon I hear people sighing loudly and tut-tutting in the queue for Marks & Spencer. There is a lot of exaggerated swerving on pavements and jumping out of the way. Why don’t we all start ringing our lepers’ bells?
The supermarket can be a war zone, with a lot of grumbling and snarling if you take too long choosing a packet from the shelf — but what if checking ingredients is crucial, for instance, if someone in the household has food allergies? Also, as going food shopping is the sole legal excitement at present, wondering whether white eggs are as good as brown eggs can kill a few minutes.
I’ve seen people using their phones to take photographs of families and flatmates, to report assemblies larger than two persons — it hasn’t taken long, has it, for the Warden Hodges mentality to emerge, paranoid bullies barking at householders to put that light out.
The police say that in the first three weeks of the lockdown they issued 3,203 fines for breaches of the rules. We were meant to think this was a big number. When you remember there are more than 70 million of us in these British Isles, however, that’s less than 0.01 per cent of the population needing a talking to. Three thousand is about the total number of people who have bought my books. It is not impressive.
I do dislike the way public benches have been cordoned off, to discourage people from sitting down and resting their legs. It reminds me of Wales when I was a child, when swings and slides were disabled on Sundays. For what’s actually not being permitted is anyone looking as if they may be enjoying themselves, briefly soaking up the sunshine. It is bad form to have a smile on your face.
There’s a similar animus against people fleeing to second homes, getting out of the cities. A potential spreading of coronavirus is but the pretext — the real reason is envy, a little excuse to give the rich a bit of a kicking. How dare people possess more than one home. Who the hell do they think they are?
There have even been stories, haven’t there, of people being told off for playing in their gardens, and a threat that shopping trolleys would be inspected for non--essential items. Well, what’s not essential to one person may be the life-blood for another, in my case the fine wines from the Bordeaux region of south-west France.
Yet the mad thing, when you look at social media hysteria, is that many members of the public are not interested in civil liberties, or even in the impact of corona-virus, not really. It’s all simply an excuse to be beastly. ‘Stick Tasers to police drones to punish wrongdoers,’ someone suggested online, without appearing to be satirical.
I think I have worked out the underlying problem, however — the reason why every-one is starting to snap. Because too many people are having to sit about for long periods at home, there is an epidemic of piles. Skyping colleagues, emailing, gazing at computer screens: everyone is supine. People are also putting on weight, eating badly and continuously. The corona-stones are another cause of haemorrhoids.
Piles are one of those joke ailments it is no joke actually to suffer from — swollen, throbbing blood vessels in the undercarriage. The late comedian Kenneth Williams was a martyr to the ‘farmers’ (cockney rhyming slang: Farmer Giles) or what were also called the grapes of wrath. He was always seeing the doctor, as the pain made him feel ‘utterly lunatic’, like a lot of people you see about the place today, the joggers and busybodies.
‘There’s really no sense in it anywhere,’ he lamented in his diary. Nor is there. I know for a fact that corticosteroid creams and ointments are getting to be in short supply on Amazon.
Until the stay-at-home rules are lifted, however, when we do the shopping or go for the daily stroll, we must get used to seeing scowling, purple-faced piles sufferers everywhere, easily recognisable by their irritable, judgmental air. What they need are large amounts of fibre in the diet, mushy meals and paracetamol, fresh fruit and plenty of water. And an end to the stir-crazy lockdown restrictions.