Now is the time for comfort reads

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

24 April 2020

11:00 PM

It all started on the day after the Brexit referendum. People who do not get the result they voted for in any election are naturally annoyed, sad, even despairing. If we sincerely believe in one political party and point of view, and lose to the opponents, we feel doomy and gloomy and say so. We used to speak our minds to friends and fellow believers, and that was that.

Brexit changed everything. For many who lost, that was not that, and it still isn’t. What started on social media extended to public platforms and personal communication. Disagreement became vicious, language abusive, people tore at one another, claws out, simply for having a different opinion. I lost count of the old friends who dropped and blocked me on discovering I voted Leave and have never picked me up again. The media stirred the pot. Interviewers aimed to trip up and trap anyone ‘on the wrong side’, rudely and aggressively.

This new way of interviewing public figures, notably politicians, has worsened in coronavirus times. I no longer watch or listen to the news, I read it calmly and silently in newspapers, but when I catch the daily briefing I am appalled at the confrontational tone and lack of manners. Twitter trolls are the worst offenders, intolerant and finger–pointing, and the offensive language and pugilistic attitudes are often terrifying. Brexit rightly aroused legitimate concerns and strong feelings, but why did manners and respect fly out of the window? Why has a pandemic which is killing thousands and bringing countries to their knees turned normally polite and reasonable people into deriders? How does every man and his dog suddenly know better than the experts and beleaguered politicians trying to get it right?

Things deteriorated when usually responsible people in positions of authority chortled when the Prime Minister was hospitalised, hoped he would die when he went into intensive care, and jeered about ‘second homes’ when he was discharged to recover at Chequers. Lockdown is affecting some people’s mental health, and though I think mine is fine, I understand and sympathise, and good help is available, even online. But to live in a permanent state of negativity, rage, aggressiveness and hate cannot be conducive to anyone’s peace of mind. How can a well-educated, intelligent person say that ‘we do not have anyone in authority in the UK whom we can respect and listen to’, as I read yesterday? You need not agree with everything those in authority say or do, but if you do not respect men such as Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and the Prime Minister, you are a lesser person. I am not a Labour voter but, knowing his educational achievement and career trajectory, I would listen respectfully to what Keir Starmer says — possibly even agree with some of it. Things are rarely black and white, a truism particularly apposite in the present crisis when party politics should take a back seat. In isolation, we can do nothing but trust — and if we disagree, at least do it nicely.

‘Be kind’ comes trippingly off the tongue but do those whose mantra it has become act upon it? ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.’ Now that’s a lie if ever there was one.

As ever at this time of year, I look out for hirundines, and though the swifts won’t be here for a while, friends in Devon and Yorkshire have boasted about seeing their first swallow. I was told a cuckoo had been heard in this village, though I am sceptical, but a kingfisher definitely flashed its miraculous blue over the pond, which is seething with tadpoles and — frogpoles? Whatever. The moorhens are paired and nesting under a willow, in their default mode, the triumph of hope over experience, and two swans looked us over and, we thought, had decided to make it home, but after a week they upped and went. I was quite hurt.

Spring has come creeping up on us this year. The faint wash of greenery on the treetops took a while to thicken, and apple and pear blossom are just showing through. The real joy is near the house. As well as the usual squabble of sparrows in every rooftile, tunnel and hedge, goldfinches have nested in the arch over the door we never use, and wrens in the thicket beside my bookstore. People in cities say their wildlife is more bold and confident because the streets and open spaces are deserted, but I wonder if we don’t just take more time to notice things. No one is rushing or shoving one another out of the way, on foot or wheels. Everything is quieter, though I have to take other people’s word for this, quietness being the norm in this backwater.

I am asked if I know any other films as beautiful and spiritually enriching as Into Great Silence, mentioned here recently. I do. If you want to understand why people join strict religious orders, watch Hidden: a Life All for God, about the lives of the Trappistine nuns in Mount St Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, Massachusetts (on YouTube). The joy on these women’s unadorned faces shines as if they are lit from within, which of course they are, as nun after nun from many countries of origin explains how and why she was called to this plain, rigorous life, what makes her love it, how she defines its purpose. Watching this, as I often do, something mysterious and ‘of God’ creeps over mind, body and spirit, and settles there.

In the interests of balance, and knowing you have all just finished reading War and Peace/Ulysses/Moby Dick, I feel you need comfort reads. Mine are, as ever, The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse, rib-achingly funny; The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford, and if you cannot indeed love then there’s no hope for you; and Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, the Bond novel which ties for top place with Moonraker. As the waitresses will soon be saying again: ‘Enjoy.’

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