Happy Christmas from me, Joan Didion and the people of North Shropshire
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That’s the title of a book by Joan Didion and also, perhaps, the nearest she got to a world view. Today, many people are mourning the loss of one of the greatest writers of our times. She showed us that non-fiction can be art, but only if you do it well enough. She showed us what it’s like to tell the truth.
So what story do we tell ourselves about the past year? That we were warriors in a battle we were on our way to winning? That we were dutiful citizens trying to protect our neighbours? That we were freedom fighters? That we were mugs?
We have all seen plenty of graphs. The recent ones have a line that is, essentially, vertical. It represents something called “exponential growth”, a concept Tory backbenchers seem to think is a left-wing myth. It would be interesting to plot a graph of our own moods as our government and elected representatives continue to find ways to explain why scientists, doctors, trade experts, economists, business leaders, teachers and mathematicians are all wrong.
My own graph would have more spikes than Omicron: a mix of disbelief, frustration, horror, disgust, embarrassment, shame and pure, blind, burning rage.
The other graph that might sum up this year is the graph of our hope. A big spike with the news that the vaccines work. A big drop as it becomes clear that an awful lot of people would literally rather die, and kill their neighbour, than have a tiny needle in their arm. A gentle rise as vaccines start to kick in and fewer people die. A sudden plummeting with the news of Delta.
And now Omicron. Oh my God, Omicron. Yes, it appears to be milder, or at least it appears to be milder in a population with the level of immunity (both “herd” and from vaccines) that ours has built up. But the maths are bad. Really, really bad. The University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics has predicted that three billion people will be infected with Omicron in the next three months. Even if the death rate is much lower than for all the previous variants, that’s still enough to sink many healthcare systems and kill millions of people.
I rarely talk about feelings on social media, but earlier this week, as I was struggling to write a review, I asked if other people on Twitter were feeling a similar sense of doom. Many said they were. Some told me I should cheer up and not give in to the hysteria. Others told me I should ask my grandparents how they managed during the war, and that I could surely manage a few more weeks.
I was almost touched. Some people really do seem to think the pandemic will be over in a few more weeks.
It won’t, of course. Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust and a former member of Sage, recently said that we’re “closer to the start of the pandemic than the end”.
I can’t say it was a big surprise, but it didn’t do much for my graph.
So, here we are. Two years in. Christmas not quite “cancelled”, but I don’t think too many of us will be having parties in the next few weeks. There are all kinds of things I’ve been looking forward to, but I think we have all learnt by now that all plans are provisional. We have, in fact, all been learning to adjust our hopes. Mine currently include not having to write in all my Christmas cards for the rest of my life: “let’s hope next year is better”.
Still, there are reasons to be cheerful.
We have vaccines. They aren’t fool-proof, seem to wane quite quickly and won’t work against all variants, but the past year would have looked very, very different without them. And there will be even better ones in years to come.
We have antivirals. It took scientists 30 years to come up with antivirals that work well for HIV. What a miracle that we have them for Covid now.
We have North Shropshire. Well, technically the Lib Dems have North Shropshire, but what I mean is that every citizen of the United Kingdom who isn’t all that keen on corruption, hypocrisy, obfuscation, surreal “lines to take” voiced by robotic ministers or philandering charlatans who are also pathological liars, has the comfort of North Shropshire. When Brexit-voting Tories no longer vote for a Brexit-voting Tory, you know that something has shifted. That doesn’t mean that it has shifted permanently, or that lying charlatans will be ousted. But it does mean that you can take deep, deep comfort in knowing that the despair you feel about your country may not last for life.
A pandemic seems like quite a lot to deal with. A pandemic in a country run by populists is much, much, much, much worse.
In this excellent piece this week, Rafael Behr talked about what happens when people notice that “cakeism” doesn’t work. “That,” he says, “is when the light changes, the smile darkens into a sneer, the populist loses his people, the polarities of his magnetism are flipped, and the force that was once attraction turns repulsive.”
Rafael Behr is not Pollyanna. I am not Pollyanna. But this, my friends, is a true ray of hope.
Joan Didion was certainly not Pollyanna. “I'm not telling you to make the world better,” she said, “because I don't think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I'm just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture.”
Hear, hear. This Christmas, let’s drink to that. To truth, to beauty, to art. And to stories, of course.
My Christmas will largely be a big pile of food and a big pile of books. That’s not bad. That’s pretty good, in fact. They can’t take that away from me. Or, at least, they’d better not try.
PS I’ll be reviewing the papers on Sky News on Boxing Day at 10.30pm and 11.30pm, just in case you’d like a blast of realism in your little Christmas bubble…