From my seat in the greasy spoon café I looked out on a typical English row of shops on a typical English street in a typical English village turned suburb.
It was a rundown block consisting of a betting shop, a hairdresser, a charity shop, a chemist, an off-licence, a tattoo parlour and, right at the end, a ‘wellbeing’ clinic, which I took to be a place selling methods to undo all the damage done in the other places.
We had driven to this suburb just off the M3 to help a friend who is trying to sell his collection of classic cars. The builder boyfriend is a dab hand with motors, so he offered to help our friend do the pricing.
We stopped at a café for a bite to eat before getting to the lock-up, and our friend treated us to lunch for our trouble.
‘Look at that,’ I said to the BB as we tucked into our meals, a roast beef dinner for him and for me a double cheeseburger which turned out not to have any cheese, which was not a major surprise as the man who took my order over the counter, standing beneath an enormous board emblazoned with hundreds of menu choices, did not show any sign of caring whether the cheese would come or not, even as he handed it to me.
‘Look at what?’ asked the BB, cramming over-boiled cabbage and rubber beef into his mouth with gusto, for he likes that sort of thing and if anything butters him up it is a place he can pronounce ‘caff’.
‘Behold the English high street in all its glory. You see here all our preoccupations. A place to carry out each of our addictions, followed by a place where you can then try to put right the problems you have caused yourself. Britain is a sort of one-stop parade where you can mess yourself up, then try to pretend you can put it all right. Roll up, roll up for a bottle of booze, 20 fags, a load of scratch cards, a tattoo of an eagle on your bum cleavage and some roman numerals on your wrist, an hour’s CBT, then back to the betting shop and start again.’
The builder boyfriend nodded, but he wasn’t listening to me any more than the man taking orders for burgers à la cheese surprise. ‘You wan’ chee’?’ was never intended to fill me with confidence.
I am starting to sound so much like a broken record that everyone I know is just nodding as I bang on about what is wrong.
This is a symptom of trying to live in the time of Covid. It is dawning on me that something is awry about the way we are opening back up after lockdown.
Let me try to explain as follows. The betting shop was open, the hairdresser and tanning salon were open, the off-licence was open, the tattoo parlour was open and the greasy spoon caff was up and doing, coating organs with fat.
However, the wellbeing emporium was locked. Telephone for an appointment via video link.
If you go through a list of what you can and can’t do in this country right now you paint a grim picture of what has been achieved by this virus, or, if it was planted, by the people who planted it, though I am not wedded to that theory. I’m happy to complain merely that the accident of a pandemic that was no one’s fault has accelerated us towards becoming the nation we always wanted to be, deep down.
The worst of everything is now freely available and being sold with enthusiasm, no risk too great, while the things we need most to save our sorry souls are being carefully rationed.
Churches are just about open for worship but there is no singing. No singing in church, but you can have a man pierce your skin with a tattoo needle.
The pubs are all open, and crammed full, with people pressed up against each other spitting beer into each other’s faces. But should these people hit the bottle hard enough, which they certainly seem to be, they can’t go to an AA meeting.
With the exception of barely half a dozen meetings at a handful of church halls in London, alkies have nowhere to go other than Zoom, where the relapse rate is what you would expect for a self-help group trying to help people over the internet as gate--crashers take their pants off live on camera. But obviously it’s too risky just to sit people on chairs two metres apart so they can talk. This is the unbrave new world we live in. I didn’t like the other one much but now I realise how ungrateful I was.