The Spectator's Notes

Mixed messaging is good for us

16 May 2020

9:00 AM

16 May 2020

9:00 AM

A friend, a senior retired mandarin, emails. He complains that rural lockdown means that he and his wife have ‘got out of the habit of making even the simplest decisions’. I know exactly what he means, and I suspect the problem is more widespread than the shires. The capacity to decide is like a muscle: if it is not exercised, it quickly atrophies. This may explain why some people are so querulous at the suggestion of Boris Johnson that they should now, given the declining rate of infection and death from Covid-19, decide whether to go back to work. They complain of ‘mixed messaging’, instead of the clear earlier instruction to stay at home. But the messages of normal life are mixed, and rightly so. One has to decide whether to spend more or less time with one’s family, whether to borrow a lot or a little to buy a house, whether to do something dangerous, such as motorcycle racing, or safer, such as crochet, and so on. As glimmers of normality return, one has to balance the need to work against the risk of infection, a risk which will not be the same for everyone. This capacity to choose is otherwise described as freedom. Sir Keir Starmer and Nicola Sturgeon seem to be setting their faces against freedom. Surely most people will be sensible and welcome the chance to make up their own minds. It is not usually a compliment, in Britain, to call someone a ‘stay-at-home’. If it’s the workers vs the ‘stay-at-homes’, surely the workers will win. If I am wrong, there is no obvious reason why the country can ever recover.

A sad side-effect of the Covid lockdown is the threatened closure of the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’ Hospital (whose ICU recently nursed the Prime Minister back to health). A small charity, the museum depends almost entirely on what it can raise coming through the door. But it cannot now get anything for its 200 objects exhibition (visible online) to mark the bicentenary of Florence Nightingale’s birth this week. There are so many ways in which the lady with the lamp illuminates our current woes. Washing your hands is only the most obvious. Others include her capacity to adapt nursing to adversity — in Scutari during the Crimean war, she found herself in charge of four milesof patients — and her insistence on uniformity of statistical methods across hospitals. It was partly her experience of an epidemic (cholera in the Middlesex Hospital) which drove her desire to improve nursing. Her belief in sanitary science was such that she saw hospitals as only ‘an intermediate state of civilisation’ which could eventually be abolished, an outcome towards which the Covid experience is edging us. Charles Hanson, the antiques expert as seen on TV, is generously organising an auction on 5 June in aid of the museum, which needs £160,000. Anyone wishing to offer lots (and lots and lots) should please contact (Full disclosure: I am Florence Nightingale’s first cousin four times removed.)

Roula Khalaf, the newish editor of the Financial Times, is said to be aware that her paper looks foolish for having gone hook, line and sinker against Brexit. She is ‘in listening mode’ for voices from the other side. I was therefore more excited than I would usually have been to see that the FT’s ‘Global Boardroom’ was meeting online this week to discuss the coronavirus. Among the 75 speakers, might there be fresh faces with fresh thoughts? Well, there’s Carolyn Fairbairn! There’s Sabine Weyand! There’s Al Gore! There’s David Miliband! And, yes, there’s Tony Blair!… Not one Tory; and not one declared Brexiteer.

In his piece about obituaries last week, Nigel Farndale explained that the Times likes to give the cause of death of its subjects. The Daily Telegraph has a different policy, for the following reason. At about the time I became deputy editor of the paper in 1990, obituaries were one of the battlegrounds in a war between modernisers and the old school. The modernisers, keen that readers should know who had died of HIV-Aids, wanted the cause of death to be tracked down and published in every obit. The traditionalists, among whom was the paper’s great obits editor Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, objected that the cause was often hard to discover in time and could, if discovered, be embarrassing. The editor, Max Hastings, favoured this old-school view, but eventually decided to give the reformers their head. The first day of the new policy happened to be a rather thin one for obituaries. The page was forced to lead with a not terribly well-known jazz musician from New Orleans. The unhappy cause of his death had been the explosion of an implant in his penis. Calculating that the readers would see this information as gratuitous and revolting, Massingberd gleefully put it in. Sure enough, the switchboard was jammed with complaints. Hastings immediately reversed the reform, and the old discretionary policy continues to this day.

My paternal grandfather died before I was three years old. Quite often in my youth, letters would arrive at the house addressed to ‘The Executors of the late Sir Alan Moore, Bt’. This worried me rather. I wondered who had executed my grandfather and why. In the funny way that children have of half-understanding they must be wrong, I did not dare ask my parents about this, so I just went on brooding. Now I am an executor of my own father, who died a year ago this week. Just before writing this, I received no fewer than 15 letters in one delivery from those selling his stocks for his heirs. I notice that the modern formulation on each envelope is different from that in relation to my grandfather. It says:

‘Mr Charles Hilary Moore
Re: Mr Richard Moore

As a small boy, would I have found this usage less alarming? Probably not. There is something dismal about that one word with a line all to itself.

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