Once a week we break French emergency law and have a friend round for drinks on the terrace. The terrace overlooks the village rooftops as if it were a box at the theatre. Two weeks ago we were pleasantly lit up, when, at one minute to eight, the villagers below came out on to their terraces or stood at their windows and front doors to make a noise in support of the ‘essential’ workers: nurses, doctors, carers, postmen, shopkeepers, council workers, and so on.
Some banged saucepans together or beat them with wooden spoons. Some blew horns of one kind or another, including what sounded to me like one of those long prayer horns blown by Tibetan monks from monastery rooftops. And on the dot of eight o’clock the priest advertised the Catholic church’s approval by energetically tolling the church bell. Perched high up on one of the two hills enveloping the village is a social housing estate of small attached block houses partially concealed among the scrub oaks. By the sound of it the people living up there had been drinking all day. Their elated primal screaming and wolf howls added a shrill, minatory note to the communal applause.
Smirking at each other with embarrassment, we put down our drinks and stood in a row and unctuously clapped for about half a minute. As we clapped, I wondered which sentiment of the various plausible options we were supposed to be expressing. Were we perhaps apologising, for example? Were we perhaps saying: ‘Okay. Sorry. This pandemic. Blimey. Talk about caught with our trousers down. Of course we had hoped that this polite fiction of an equal society would continue for a good few more years yet. Yet in a few short weeks this virulent little creature has exposed the true topography of economic power with the same clarity as a one-inch-to-the-mile Ordnance Survey map of the Lake District. Dear, oh dear. Most embarrassing.
‘You understood the word “peasantry” to be an outmoded term, didn’t you? It’s amazing really how well we’ve managed this confidence trick and for how long. A century and a half now, is it? Goodness. You’ve got to admire our sophistry in a way. You should be applauding us really. Not that it was so difficult. State broadcasting. Free food and booze. Free money. Our best brains making the adverts. And all of you educated just enough to make you think you knew everything. Oh well. Some you win, some you lose. It’s been fun. Good luck to you.’
Then I remembered an occasion in the 1980s when I worked for the council as a refuse collector. We’d finished the round early and I was in my overalls. I had crossed the road and was making singlemindedly for the pub door when I was accosted by a middle-aged man. He introduced himself as living at such and such an address and claimed an acquaintance based on my own weekly acquaintance with his metal dustbin.
Detaining me on the pavement he made this impassioned speech. The gist of it was to impress upon me that although my occupation was a lowly one, and poorly paid, it was an essential one. Without the likes of me turning out to perform an unsavoury task in all weathers, where would society be, he said? I was one of society’s unsung heroes. If there were times when I felt downhearted and unappreciated, I should remember this fact. He banged on in this vein for quite a while and I was impressed, if not to say startled, by his passionate sincerity.
But I am sorry to say that I honestly had not the faintest idea what he was talking about and wondered whether his passionate eloquence wasn’t the result of some kind of mental imbalance. I was also tired. We were standing not ten yards from a beer pump. And it occurred to me that this man, though not quite right in the head, and therefore deserving of my patience, might be patronising me in an insufferable manner. Society? What did I know of society? A chap like him might find comfort and essential meaning in an abstract word like that, but I barely knew what he meant by it. My incomprehension would have been similar if he’d stopped me to ask me out of the blue if I was saved. So I cut him off shortly — I forget how — and dived into the pub.
One can overthink things. I’m certain that many, if not most, of those who had come outside that evening to express their appreciation for ‘essential’ workers with saucepan and wooden spoon were doing so in the fullness and simplicity of a grateful heart. But the shrill, nihilistic note emanating from the social blockhouses high on our left was a clear reminder that others, too, were conscious of different takes on it.
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