I can’t say I’ve ever been described as an optimist. Curmudgeon, yes, but optimist, no. Which surprises me as I have always harboured a faith in human progress. Living to eighty is better than living to forty. Surfing the internet is better than sitting through a Latin mass. Flying around the globe is better than trying to walk it. Democracy is better than all other forms of government. I suppose this made me some kind of humanist. Things always appeared to be getting better in the greatest happiness for the greatest number kind of way. Until Trump, whose ascendency seriously shook and weakened the foundations of my poorly built edifice. I’m not entirely sure when it collapsed but I can tell you about the day I noticed my faith in humanity was gone.
March 2020. I was in my parents-in-laws’ house in Kent staring out a window at sheep scattered across green hills when I concluded the most likely place I’d find a gun was in the cluster of farm buildings down the lane. Farmers were always shooting something, I told myself. The hills were alive with the sound of slaughter. A gun would mean we’d be safe. That was the same day I googled - How do you butcher a sheep? How do you preserve meat? And later found myself browsing machetes online. Guns run out of ammunition, I recalled from some movie, but a blade is forever. I even wondered if my tennis strokes might make me quite a proficient killer if ‘worst comes to worst’. Not realising if I was thinking such thoughts, they already had.
I moved to the UK from Australia at the end of 2019. Partly because my English wife Tamsin wanted to move home, partly because Escape to the Country’s Jules and Alistair had seduced me with their promises of a thatched cottage in a gorgeous garden settled amidst green rolling hills only a short walk from the friendliest pub in the kingdom. However, those charming fellows neglected to mention that Britain was quickly becoming a basket case. Buyer beware I suppose.
Over the years everything everybody said couldn’t happen in Britain had happened culminating in Boris Johnson winning a thumping majority soon after I arrived, quickly followed by the signing of a Brexit deal. I might as well have moved to Trump’s America.
When a virus some said was like the flu and others said was like the plague jumped from far away China to nearby Italy. I took it personally. I’d been had.
The Chinese government was nailing people into their apartments and Italy was running out of coffins and The World Health Organization was declaring a pandemic, and what were the leaders of my adopted country doing to prepare? They were celebrating the return of a blue passport. I felt as confused as those who had voted for Brexit only to discover they had scuppered their dreams of retiring in Spain. Then, as if to cut off my escape route home, Australia appeared to implode. My compatriots were filmed punching each other in supermarket aisles over packets of toilet paper. The world chuckled one last time as I lost my mind.
I am sure I would have acted more reasonably if the world’s leaders had been more inspiring. It is hard to have faith in humanity when people in democracies willingly elect the kind of leaders those with no vote have forced upon them. From Trump to Modi, from Morrison to Bolsonaro, from Putin to Xi to Johnson, we were being led by men who were more like Bond villains than statesmen, skilled at dividing people not uniting them.
Then, as predicted by the government who signed the deal no less, Brexit began disrupting supply chains. Those fights over toilet paper everyone had been laughing at only a few days before, were suddenly happening in supermarkets in Britain. Was it because of Brexit or Covid? Didn’t matter. Empty supermarket shelves had fools like me panic buying non-perishable food and carrying out rice by the sack.
A sense of impending doom spread through the UK faster than the virus. I don’t think it was fear of the virus though, I think it was fear of other people. Those idiots will empty the supermarket shelves if I don’t empty them first. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in my reasoning. It wasn’t a time for critical thinking. If all those zombie films had taught me anything it was that zombies are the least of your worries. Other people are the real danger.
In those early days of the pandemic everything was so obviously wrong, but Boris Johnson kept assuring the public that it was business as usual. I think my near hysteria had something to do with living in the incredibly beautiful and serene English countryside. I was living in a cosy crime novel. It was all so pleasantly sinister.
No that’s wrong, it was more like living in the opening chapters of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds after the Martians have arrived and the hero has witnessed them incinerate forty people but still goes back home for supper as he would on any other day. Some of his neighbours have heard about the arrival of the Martians and some haven’t, some laugh at him when he brings it up. The following day he tells us, ‘I saw my neighbour gardening, chatted with him for a time, and then strolled in to breakfast. It was a most unexceptional morning.’
I was living one long unexceptional morning, and in the circumstances it seemed rude to harp on and on about the end of the world. So I prepped in silence, noting the comings and goings on the farm, Googled tips for salting meat and drew up plans for my bunker convinced I would end up saving my wife and her parents, and anyone else who sought refuge with us.
But I was a fool listening to fools. Governments and filmmakers around the world had convinced many of us that other people were the problem. That we should fear ourselves and each other. That an unprecedented event like a global pandemic would end in riots, anarchy and martial law.
But they were wrong. I was wrong. People weren’t the problem. In fact, here in the UK many people had already been wearing masks and had placed themselves under lockdown long before the government got around to doing so.
The pandemic tested governments and the people in ways that revealed the character of both. On the whole, the people did a damn fine job. More often than not it was governments who let us down.
Navigating the pandemic seems to have given people the confidence to demand better leaders. The US turfed out Trump, Australia has just given Morrison the boot and Johnson teeters on the brink. Could this new found confidence herald a new age? I’m optimistic.