Dumb Oratories

In The Eve of St Agnes Keats created a poem that can cause a shiver even on a summer’s afternoon. Like the accrual of snow, or the gradual appearance of frost, the poet adds layer upon layer of freezing imagery. Into this icy world Keats introduces the fire of youthful passion, dangerous and agile, breaking convention and stealing away into the night. The chill of the poem goes hand-in-hand with a general sense of the supernatural and of a world that vanished ‘long ago’, but is brought to life through the magic of poetic imagination.

The poem includes references to funerary monuments: ‘The sculptur’d dead’. It is these figures of noblemen and women that Keats describes as ‘praying in dumb orat’ries’. Often we find the depictions of the deceased in our churches and cathedrals placed in a pose of intercession. In some religious understandings this may suggest that virtuous people who have died continue to support us through their prayers. Although not in church (but more significantly in heaven) the good continue to be in relationship with us through the prayers they offer on our behalf. It was the theology that powered an industry of intercession in the Middle Ages, with the sick, poor and clergy in particular, paid to intercede with the Saints for the souls of the wealthy seeking admission to paradise. Keats describes one of these ‘beadsmen’, someone typically pensioned in order to pray, using his rosary for those he was tasked to remember.

Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told
His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
Like pious incense from a censer old,
Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

John Keats, The Eve of St Agnes, 1819

For anyone who has experienced a close bereavement this may not seem to be very surprising. The dead are seldom forgotten by those who were caught up in their living. The deceased continue to be with us in our thoughts, dreams and daily living. I cannot count how many times I have heard hospital patients speak about a visceral experience of a loved one being present with them. Sometimes it takes place in a dream, but it can also be an experience that appears to be as real as anything else. It was these encounters that led me to write a paper in 2014 with Stephen Sayers, discussing these experiences and suggesting how NHS staff might support such events during a patient’s admission. Interestingly, I think it is the only paper to which I’ve contributed that remains entirely uncited. This lends support to our contention in the paper that the clinical world is inclined to dismiss experiences that don’t make sense, and categorise them as evidence of mental illness. Awareness of this culture is something people discern and it is likely that many experiences like this are never shared with anyone. It seems that we lack a narrative for experiences which are real and meaningful for many, but fail to fit in with our sense of rationality.

On All Hallows’ Eve, and with All Souls’ Day this week, people around the world will be reflecting on those who have died. Given that our awareness and thoughts about the dead are often private and internal, this week offers a rare moment for names to be spoken and people remembered in public. Despite the continuing growth of a playful and scary Halloween, the serious, quiet and moving act of explicit remembrance offers a less spectacular but deeper moment when we acknowledge our continuing bonds with the departed. Remembrance Sunday adds to the sense that November has an inclination to memorial.

We continue to have traffic with those we have loved but see no more. There are particular moments, such as a family wedding, when those attending may think of the people who are absent – but whose blessings would be with the couple and their future. Choices we make in life may lead us to ponder what the deceased would think of our decisions. For better or worse, the silent prayers of the dead circle our experience and commune with our conscience. What may seem to be dumb and frozen out of our reality is never wholly gone. In different ways Halloween; All Hallow’s; All Soul’s and Remembrance Sunday remind us of this truth and allow a fleeting moment for what is hidden to be spoken and named.

We die with the dying: 

See, they depart, and we go with them. 

We are born with the dead: 

See, they return, and bring us with them.

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

Set in a Silver Sea

John of Gaunt’s valedictory speech is one of the most famous texts left to us by Shakespeare. It paints a picture of an idyllic England – a second Eden – benefiting from natural advantages that make it the envy of other nations.

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

Richard II

Most of us remember parts of this lyrical acclaim for all that England might be. However, as Gaunt goes on to say, this vision of a country playing to its strengths is undermined by the reality of its government. The glory of ‘this sceptre isle’ has been leased out like a ‘pelting farm’. There is some uncertainty about what pelting means, but it isn’t difficult to hazard a guess. This is the kind of farm, not well managed by owners, let out instead to irresponsible tenants. Rotten deals and blotched paperwork converting the richness of the land into a shameful destruction. Feeding the greed of a few rather than the common wealth of the many.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

There is little to suggest that our island fortification has served us against infection. The recent report on the UK’s Government’s handling of the pandemic identifies a sense of resignation about widespread infection: “a policy approach of fatalism about the prospects for covid in the community: seeking to manage, but not suppress, infection“. As we journey into winter there is growing concern about the impact of an approach that appears to tolerate a high level of virus transmission. Quite what immediate and enduring damage that policy will inflict can only be guessed. Vaccination has made dramatic changes to the severity of illness and number of deaths, but very small percentages of very large numbers may still overwhelm the NHS.

Whether with COVID-19, human conflict or climate change, it appears that we continue to pose a danger to ourselves. We have turned parts of a beautiful world into pelting farmland, leased our lands and sold the future through the debt of bonds. Offering a different perspective on familiar problems, Professor Brian Cox gives us new cause for thought in his TV series Universe. According to quotes in The Guardian he believes that life capable of generating meaning may be a very rare phenomenon. It leads the paper to conclude that “the demise of Earth could wipe out meaning”.

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

Whilst humanity has flirted with the apocalypse since people could create meaning, our capability to destroy has never been greater. We have focused on the development of technologies that have made astonishing strides in our ability to alter and shape our environment. A question to which we should give urgent attention is whether our moral and ethical capacities have matched this pace of development? Looking around the world it appears that the growth of wisdom has lagged ever further behind our capacity to manipulate our environment.

Even the most glancing trawl of social media reveals the scary range of human folly and denial. There are people so fed up with the BBC that they have decided not to use it anymore because it should be called the ‘British COVID Corporation’. The BBC is simply seen as a co-conspirator with the Coronavirus hoax. Another message contains a video clip of a group entering an NHS Trust HQ and presenting ‘legal’ documents calling the hospital to account for its complicity with the hoax. Earlier last week Michael Gove was surrounded by a group of anti-lockdown protesters. Following the murder of an MP I can’t imagine how frightening this kind of experience must be, both for him and the Police then required to attend.

What is infuriating for so many people working in the NHS is that despite all the evidence to the contrary, people continue to think doctors and nurses are ‘making it up’. For a decade I served on a research ethics committee made up of leading figures from a number of fields. We had the services of a professional academic statistician; a lawyer; lay members; and senior nurses and consultants from a wide range of clinical disciplines. The focus on probity and evidence could not have been greater. While on a recent holiday I watched the Matt Damon narrated documentary film Inside Job. It tells the story of the 2008 financial crash and, among its many points, draws attention to the way leading economists with lucrative links to Wall Street wrote articles about the safety of new financial products without any hint of conflicting interests. By contrast, medical research has multiple safeguards to ensure this lack of transparency doesn’t happen. I’m not saying the NHS is perfect, but it is light years away from the free-for-all that appears to go on in the financial institutions featured in Inside Job.

Political messaging in the first wave of the pandemic was clear – protect people by protecting the capacity of the NHS

Of course, I have little hope that reasoned argument will diminish the passion of resolute protesters. While it would be easy to dismiss them as voices from the outer fringes of society I am not so sanguine about their impact. The Government is listening to those who believe (or wish to believe) that living with high levels of COVID transmission and deaths is a price worth paying for an open society. Boris Johnson has quoted months ago as stating a preference for ‘bodies piled high‘ over another lockdown. Once again, it is likely to be the vulnerable and elderly who will pay the price for this policy, with the ONS reporting a range of common pre-existing conditions among those who have died in recent weeks.

How we navigate the coming months will tell a story about attitudes in the UK to the vulnerable, elderly and poor – and whether we prefer to be a pestilent and pelting farm, rather than a noble, blessed and happy isle.

Don’t Panic

It was one of the stock responses in the long-running BBC comedy Dad’s Army. Whenever there was the slightest possibility of something going wrong, and Captain Mainwaring appealed for calm, Corporal Jones shouted ‘don’t panic’. He shouted it in a way that communicated the exact opposite of his words. Perhaps this is an ingrained reaction of the British people: when we were told that fuel supplies would be fine ‘so long as we shopped normally’, car keys across the Kingdom flew into people’s hands. The instruction to keep calm and carry on seems to be heard as a clarion call to action. The perception exacerbating the problem.

Listening to Anil Seth speaking on a recent edition of Radio 4’s Start the Week I was reminded just how much of our experience we take for granted. What we tend to notice is the unusual and we therefore focus on ‘exception reporting’ to add to our understanding of the world. Without doubt, especially for people in the West, the last couple of years have been full of exception reporting. The things we took to be routine and reliable have become irregular and doubtful. It began with toilet rolls, moved through domestic flour supplies, and now rests with petrol. Rather than just a tiny part of our experience reporting the exceptional, it feels like the balance has shifted dramatically. From seeing family members, to taking holidays, a once predictable world has become fragmented and startling. The new normal is a somewhat moth-eaten version of our former reality.

This is without doubt a Western phenomenon and even within advanced industrialised nations it is far from everyone’s experience. Many citizens have lived with serious uncertainties as a part of daily life. Much of the world experiences the unreliability of supply as the norm. When I lived in Argentina for a year it was not uncommon for public employees to be paid several months after it was due. This degree of coping with uncertainty is something alien to the West. A few years ago, when there was a hiccup at the Santander Bank, it meant that account holders didn’t get their salaries on the day they were due. In the NHS the switchboards went into meltdown. Operators had never known a day so busy. Even the slightest change in a culture with very high confidence in the delivery of services causes a major wobble.

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

In many respects this experience is changing a form of expectation that is novel for humanity. Across history this degree of reliability and its associated expectation has been both recent and rare. It is arguably the case that this confidence is paid for by the poorest communities on the planet. Post-colonial powers continue to leverage their advantages over other nations, ensuring that our certainty of supply is extracted at the price of unreasonable flexibility for the poorest people in the world. Added to which the emissions of the wealthy nations are accelerating changes to our climate where, once again, the most marginal communities will bear the heaviest toll.

The key question we ought to consider is whether we are panicking about the right things? Minor disruptions to rice and petrol are generally an inconvenience rather than a threat to life. The gradual shift in climate and its consequences for people living on the edge will end lives and devastate communities. However, it appears we are incapable of collective action until the consequences of disaster arrive on the doorsteps of the powerful.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

In some respects it feels as though I have gone full circle in my own attitude towards waste. My grandfather would often berate me in the 1970s when, as a child, I’d put enough butter on my toast ‘to sink a battleship’. I’m not quite sure where the phrase originated, but I always took it to mean that excess use of anything during wartime would require more ships to cross the Atlantic – with the risk of sinking due to enemy action. That was my grandparents’ experience. People’s use of materials during WWII was therefore directly connected to the amount of danger involved with resupply. Maybe we need to reinvent that phrase today, not as a call for unregulated panic, but as a reminder of the small deeds connected to great consequences. Only when we understand the implications of every action and inaction are we likely to see the changes in behaviour needed to avoid a catastrophe.

‘Enough butter to incinerate a planet’?