The Land the Sunset Washes

It was a very warm mid-afternoon. Cycling had ended for the day, and our tent was pitched. I was 18 years old, sitting with my back to a tree by a babbling brook somewhere in Belgium and reading The Portrait of a Lady. A book that opens with an idyllic description of afternoon tea in a beautiful Thames-side garden during ‘the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon’. The kind of writing that lends space and warmth to the image it creates, a picture conjured when the full heat of day was ebbing: an hour which ‘expressed that sense of leisure still to come’. While it is an image steeped in privilege, the leisure and heat of a perfect summer’s day is something many of us have been fortunate to experience at one time or another.

There is an unpredictability about the climate in England that lends a sense of unexpected gift to weather events. Whether it is the warmth and stillness of a summer’s day, or snow falling at a time we are able to enjoy it, nothing in the climate can be taken for granted. A year may pass with hardly any glorious summer days – and winter can fizzle its way through drizzle and damp without the spectacle of a world transformed in a sheet of white. Perhaps we talk about the weather so much because we lack the certainties taken for granted in other countries. Yet even there, climate change means diminished confidence in weather patterns familiar for generations.

Summer in the northern hemisphere can be a time when many people are away and the pace of life seems to slow, just a touch. For classical music lovers The Proms season begins and, to quote Sir David Attenborough’s in this year’s BBC trailer, ‘a kind of light comes into the diary’. Watching Ralph Fiennes’ stunning performance of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets at York Theatre Royal last week, I was reminded of the reference to ‘summer, the unimaginable Zero summer’. Perhaps this is the kind of perfect day that lives in our memory and is also expressed as a future hope. The pause at the close of an August day, when nature is full and still, and when the warmth feels comfortable and enduring. In a culture when we are so often invested in the last thing, or planning the next thing, a rare moment when we attend to what is at hand.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

The final lines of Adlestrop by Edward Thomas

It is this kind of moment, set against the horror of WW1, that made Adlestrop so popular. The poem by Edward Thomas captures the heat-filled moment of a train pausing at a rural station. Long before the rise of mindfulness, this unexpected stop allows the poet to drink in the reality of the moment – from meadowsweet to birdsong. Its uneventfulness somehow achieves a transcendence, even as the moment slips away and the train resumes its journey. It was a picture of peace published just weeks after Thomas lost his life in the war, and it became a touchstone for people longing for the ordinary beauty and peace his words evoked.

In a more recent poem Sean O’Brien reflects on another train journey, this time lost in marking adjudication as the engine draws the carriages through an England of past and present. A daydream lacuna of stillness when work is set aside and the landscape passes like a film.

“This green reserve where no one comes or goes and all

Are necessary as the weather, and where no one seeks

Coherence greater than this afternoon suggests, and where

To all intents and purposes the living and the dead may pass

Their time beneath a sun in cloudy splendour.”

Sean O’Brien , The Lost of England, from The Beautiful Librarians 2015 Picador Poetry
View from Route 66 of the National Cycle Network near Dunnington

As we attempt to recover from the worst effects of the pandemic we need these moments of pause and reflection more than ever. They cannot always be planned, but when they occur we should sink into their stillness. Moments of tranquil and transcendent beauty, when the burdens of past and future are lifted and we are simply required to ‘be’. Entering into such stillness is not a luxury but a vital ingredient of being human. A fleeting pause which, if well observed, becomes food for our journey.

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.

TS Eliot, The Dry Salvages, The Four Quartets

Peregrination

It is an eerie and frequent sound heard around the Minster. Peregrines screeching at one-another (or a passing pigeon) from dawn until dusk. Somehow the falcon’s wing shape feels fitting for a Medieval structure, angular and evidently strong, they combine speed with a sharp eye for distant prey. At height various parts of the cathedral’s platforms and towers show evidence of the peregrines’ success as predators. Pigeon carcasses as strewn about with abandon. Hilary Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell’s life in the company of Henry VIII sees Bring Up the Bodies open with the protagonist using hawks. Imagining Wiltshire in 1535, Mantel reflects on these skilful, amoral and focused carnivores.

“Their lives are simple. When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.”

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies, 2012

There is little doubt that the reader is meant to connect the behaviour of these prized birds with the unflinching determination and modus operandi of Cromwell. Just as the hawk seems patterns hidden from sight at ground level, Cromwell is surveying a landscape inaccessible to all but a few. The breadth of his experience, from the narrow and stench ridden back streets of London, to the privy chamber, enabled him to see the connections of the body politic in a way that facilitated his inexorable rise to power. Mantel’s literary construction of this complex figure in English history is a masterpiece in itself, linking the diverse threads that come to make such a sumptuous story.

“The Peregrine sees and remembers patterns we do not know exist: the neat squares of orchard and woodland, the endless varying quadrilateral shapes of fields.”

J A Baker, The Peregrine

Gaining the kind of strategic overview exemplified by Mantel’s Cromwell requires more than elevation. It is one thing to see, another to interpret correctly and to understand. When we are in the thick of events this becomes very hard, as the jumble of information is likely to bury the facts which history will come to establish as definitive. Holding the puzzle together feels as if we have the pieces of the jigsaw without any picture to help us judge where to place them or connect them.

At times we have to resign ourselves to the fact that some key questions of our time cannot be resolved. The challenge is not how to rush to some precipitate interpretation of limited facts, but how we live well with the knowledge that events refuse to reveal their outcomes. When we lack the razor sharp detail the peregrine can see, we still need to find our way through the tangle of information and decisions that lie before us. It is here that our ethics and convictions provide a steer urging one course of action over another. To trust in the received wisdom of people who have travelled before us in similar territory, finding a way through huge complexities to arrive in a place that offers some greater clarity and a deeper sense of peace. It is not a trust which should be uncritical or lacking enquiry, but must recognise that humanity’s most frequent experience is to live with uncertainties.

The name peregrine derives from Latin meaning foreign, also linked to pilgrim – or traveller. TS Eliot’s writes in Little Gidding of the ‘spirit unappeased and peregrine’, caught between two worlds, past and future. We cannot live without a knowledge and interpretation of the past, neither can we live as though the future is already decided. Whether it is COVID or climate, there can be little question that decisions now will have far reaching consequences. Mindful of this the task of the present is to perceive and evaluate reality as clearly as possible. In his seminal work about the peregrine, JA Baker begins with a reflection on the disparity between the clarity and scale of a peregrine’s picture in a book and the fleeting blur of the real thing in flight. The static compared with the ‘passionate mobility of the living bird’. The ornithology book distills many examples of the bird into its archetypal specimen – in the wild each bird has its own character, hunting ground and eyrie. Paying attention to the living detail, rather than allowing the book or abstract data to overlay our perception, is vital if we are to see and understand the experiences through which we are living.

The capacity to retain fresh vision, alert even to the familiar, matters a lot. Classification can be useful, whether of birds or people, but it also holds dangers. Identifying a few characteristics so that we can order our world means that we may miss the exceptional and unexpected. It is one of the most moving themes in the ministry of Jesus that he refuses to see the world in this kind of way. He meets people on their own terms, with their own identity, even when that means they should be sidelined and ignored. A woman at a well; a Roman officer; the leprous and the unclean; people of religious power and the children in the streets. To allow the world to be as it is in that moment, erased neither by history nor personal attributes, is a rare and remarkable achievement. Doing all we can to improve the way we see the world might be one of the most important things we can do with our time: because it has the power to change everything.

“The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there”

J A Baker, The Peregrine

Freedom for Whom?

Landmark days are often false dawns. Think of George Bush standing on the USS Abraham Lincoln under a sign announcing ‘Mission Accomplished’. The irresistible political pull leading a politician to make this kind of announcement is the knowledge that it’s what most people want to hear. Even as George Bush spoke, plenty of commentators baulked at the implication of the banner’s message. It is increasingly likely that ‘Freedom Day’ in England will be yet another fictional waymarker, an illusion of normality which will run up against the reality of a strained health service and exponentially rising infection.

Promised, delayed and now hedged about with caution, the date when all legal restrictions in England are lifted comes at a moment when the virus seems to be everywhere. Data, modelling and research are telling us that a swift abandoning of restrictions will fuel a fire-storm of transmission leading to rising deaths and more people experiencing long-COVID. The Government expects the success of the vaccination campaign to blunt the cases, deaths and debilitation, but they will still come. It appears that we have decided to accept the cost of 200 daily COVID deaths in order to open the economy and allow life to return to normal. In all likelihood these will be deaths amongst the unvaccinated; people from minority-ethnic communities; the poor and those with underlying health conditions.

Before the final restrictions are lifted, crowded streets in York’s Medieval centre

There must be people in other parts of the world (and the UK) looking on in disbelief. Much of the argument seems to run economy/wellbeing against restrictions/safety. Yet if the cost of delayed freedom is high so too will be the long term price of COVID organ damage; psychological harm; and the risk of rapid transmission producing new variants against which vaccines are less effective. I appreciate that the UK Government, like all governments, is making hard choices on limited data. However, ‘learning to live with COVID’ could mean accepting some permanent changes in society rather than simply giving up on attempts to contain levels of transmission and the associated risks. It appears that our accommodation with COVID will suit the hale and hearty, while shifting the emotional, physical and psychological cost to those individuals and communities already disadvantaged in our society.

“as we are aware, the impact of these government policies will disproportionately affect already disadvantaged groups. Michael Marmot’s recent report shows us that the fall in life expectancy due to covid has been much greater in some regions, leading to even greater health inequalities. The social determinants of health inequalities have become wider during the pandemic, and any further mass infections and lockdown will simply make matters worse”.

“Freedom Day” is on the horizon, and brings with it the risk of mass covid-19 infection, 16 July 2021 BMJ Opinion by J S Bamrah, Chairman, BAPIO and Kailash Chand, former deputy chair, BMA

At the start of the Government’s roadmap to unlocking our arrival at a day without restrictions seemed reasonable. Yet on this narrow path of balanced risks we are straying ever closer to a reckless blow-out with consequences which, if the NHS is overwhelmed in summer, will cause major damage in delayed treatment for non-COVID patients (not to mention staff burnout). It is a missed opportunity that the interruption of routine living has not led to a deeper reflection on what a new normal might look like. There is every indication that many individuals have done that reflection, opting for altered lifestyles and early retirement (where possible), but the idea that we might live differently has bypassed political analysis. Even the modest change to greater working from home has been met with political statements about the need to return to the office.

We cannot live in lockdown indefinitely and few are suggesting that we should. However, with rocketing infection rates the wisdom of removing all legal restrictions in England feel like an irresponsible act. Having observed behaviours in a city during the last few months, let alone watched the antics of crowds at Euro 2020, the idea that most people will choose to observe the use of face covering etc., is ludicrous. An age-divide may well emerge in the way precautions are taken, which is ironic given the fact that younger populations have a lower level of vaccination. What was a disease of the elderly may end up taking a toll on the lives of countless younger people, whether in preventable loss of life or an enduring legacy of damaged organs and tissues.

More than anything else COVID-19 has posed a fundamental question about how we live. How the freedoms some of us assumed and took for granted enabled the rapid spread of a new disease around the world. As people took their holidays, or jetted across the globe for meetings and conferences, the virus went with them. While the lockdowns curtailed some of the human impact on the environment, with fewer journeys, this hasn’t stopped the effects that have burned the west of the USA and Canada, or led to the devastating deluge in Germany. On two life-defining issues, unqualified access to a seemingly infinite range of choices is likely to lead to calamity.

To reach the point of ‘freedom’ it feels like we have othered the virus. With the sustained campaign of vaccination the illness now belongs to those who have failed to understand its importance and declined the jab. Today it is a disease for the poor around the world, the people with no access to immunity or healthcare. At worst it is a minor inconvenience for the wealthy and well-resourced. Something to deny us our well deserved holiday abroad. Maybe all this will be true – but this is a disease about which we know very little. Long-COVID is only just being investigated and understood. No one knows what variant will emerge triumphant from the unimpeded production of virus copies being knocked out every day in the UK. Hundreds of thousands of transmissions every week. The angst being felt by the growing number of people ‘pinged’ by the COVID app should not be seen as a needless disruption to life. The Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson got it right yesterday. As a motley group of silhouetted figures dance down a hill towards a town the caption reads: ‘Never send to know for whom the app pings”. As the Health Secretary and PM discovered today (eventually), it pings for thee.

Thym Tryeth Troth

In the depths of the Northumbrian countryside is Wallington, a substantial house and estate managed by the National Trust. The walled garden is idyllic, with a wealth of colour and a sense of tranquility, accompanied by the soft trickle of flowing water. A place of calm, colour, order and reflection.

The house at Wallington bears the motto of the Trevelyan family: ‘thym tryeth troth’. Otherwise rendered as time tries faith, it is a reminder that loyalties can be made in a moment but are proven over time. If we ever think about the word ‘troth’ it is probably in the words of marriage service according to the Book of Common Prayer. It is here that people plight their troth, giving both a pledge and their ‘truth’ to one another.

Time tends to reveal many things – not least that apparent truths in one age can become questionable and dangerous opinions when viewed from a distance. Often, even at the time when purported truths hold sway, there are lone voices which query the assumptions underpinning these claims to truth. As the UK woke up to the reality of pandemic there were already those who had seen and set out in detail the implications of the impending crisis. On 12 March 2020 Rory Stewart was willing to voice what was happening and the actions that were needed.

There are also times when the truth about the past continues to have serious political weight. At a Downing Street briefing on 5 May 2020 Matt Hancock characterised the Government’s response to the COVID risk in care homes as an attempt to provide a protective shield. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a political statement being made and been so certain of its mendacity. Being fully aware of what was happening in care homes the idea that any serious Government effort had gone into protecting people was absurd. Even the data in the public domain made it clear that deaths in care homes were running at twice their rate compared with recent years.

“Right from the start it’s been clear that this horrible virus affects older people most. Right from the start, we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes”

Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock speaking at a Downing Street briefing on 5 May 2020

All the evidence suggests that care homes were off the Government’s radar. Early models for the pandemic failed to take account of the way care homes are embedded in communities and what that might mean for transmission. Despite early evidence that once established in a care home COVID could be lethal, rapid and unstoppable, the political determination to halt the spread to homes was weak at best. In fact, as the evidence from Dominic Cummings suggests, not only were care homes unprotected but decisions to discharge untested NHS patients to homes caused illness and death. This is the detail which undermines the claim that any serious attempt was made to throw a protective ring round our most vulnerable citizens.

In the walled garden of Wallington all this seems far away. Places of tranquility invite us to take the long view and consider how humanity has lived through many different moments of crisis. Time continues to flow and every age can learn from critical experiences, drawing on painful episodes in order to become more just and merciful – or choose instead to entrench social inequalities with a spirit of fear and suspicion.

The walled garden, Wallington

If building back better means anything it must be about more than an exaggerated version of the past. From the degree of social inequality, to the environment, political apathy and consumerism, we owe the people who have died more than a warmed up version of previous policies. The pain of loss during the last 15 months is continuing to emerge. During Radio 4’s weekly phone in show, ‘Any Answers?’ a grieving widow noted not only the death she had experienced but its circumstances. Loss of contact in the months before death was a devastating cost in a marriage that spanned many decades.

In the months ahead – and through the promised inquiry – the detail of individual truths will be tested. However, these details of response (and lack of response) must come to inform the greater truth of how we live as a society and global community. Failing to do this will be a betrayal of the multiple losses experience during COVID-19, and the lessons that have come at such great cost. We need a better vision coming out of this crisis. A vision with a much stronger commitment to ‘love one another’. William Temple once said that it is impossible for governments to love individuals. However, there is an alternative way for this to be expressed. He commented: ‘love in social organisation is justice’. Let’s not deny future generations the justice they seek and deserve.

A Narrowing Path

In April I achieved a level of optimism about the pandemic which was entirely new. The success of the vaccine programme in the UK, combined with the lockdown, was delivering results that exceeded expectations. Numbers of cases and deaths weren’t just declining, they were tumbling. The BBC’s map of COVID infections was changing from the deep colours of danger to the lighter greens of relative safety. Everything looked set for joyful reunions on May 17, as indoor visits and restaurant dinning become possible. This optimism began to level off as reports of a new and more transmissible strain of the virus began to circulate.

The primrose path that seemed tantalisingly close has been replaced by the prospect of a more fraught road ahead. This is a narrow path with steep falls in either side. There is the real risk that tomorrow’s easing of restrictions will accelerate the transmission of the new strain. Given the huge response to vaccination in the UK this may appear to be excessively pessimistic. However, we are now experienced in COVID-19 and know that wherever there is an opportunity this virus thrives. Even with the shield of immunity for many, the pandemic will find the cracks in our defences. The people who haven’t been vaccinated; the people for whom the vaccine will not work as it should; the people whose health means that even mild symptoms push them into crisis. A much more transmissible version of the virus will find these people and fill the beds of the NHS.

Photo by George Morina on Pexels.com

What’s even more remarkable about the 1918 flu, say infectious disease experts, is that it never really went away. After infecting an estimated 500 million people worldwide in 1918 and 1919 (a third of the global population), the H1N1 strain that caused the Spanish flu receded into the background and stuck around as the regular seasonal flu.


The History Channel

This is quite depressing. As millions of people across the world continue to be infected, the changes that take place in the virus through transmission will intensify. When it came to the flu pandemic following the First World War the reduction of infection took place in a world where travel was enjoyed by the few, and a lot of journeys happened very slowly. Will COVID-19 recede so quickly in a world where normality in the West means an immense amount of rapid international travel? In the first lockdown in the UK it is calculated that there was a ‘74% reduction in the average daily number of contacts’. Normalised Western interactions in the 21st century are the perfect conduit for a disease that can be asymptomatic and spreads with remarkable ease among human beings. The role of ski resorts in gathering, infecting and dispersing people around the world is a microcosm of the global village.

Eleven months into the pandemic, we know that ski resorts played a significant role in seeding the pandemic across Europe 


World Health Organisation, Regional Office for Europe 16 December 2020

Both with the UK Government’s initiative to incentivise visits to restaurants, and the prospect of eased restrictions for Christmas, well-intended stimulus to human interaction fuelled transmission. The disheartening experience is that, as easing of measures approaches, time and again we have found the way ahead vanish in mists of uncertainty. The key difference this time is the high rate of vaccination – a factor which may turn the tide of any new surge. The simple fact is that we don’t know. However, we do know enough about the consequences of making a mistake in the freedoms we allow to incline us towards caution. It’s not what anyone wants to hear, but the reality of risk for the NHS, for care home residents, and for vulnerable individuals and communities cannot be discounted.

The government initiative (‘Eat Out to Help Out”), which cost around £500 million, caused a significant rise in new infections in August and early September accelerating the pandemic into its current second wave.


The University of Warwick
Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

While it is unclear what will unfold this week (and it may take two weeks to emerge) there is every sense that the path ahead is narrowing. Too many times we have failed to give the risks associated with the virus the respect they deserve. Of course we need to resume near-normal living as soon as possible. We know that there are many twists and turns in the pandemic, and harmful consequences can arise where least expected. Nevertheless, some risks are clear and should be avoided as far as possible, especially when so much is unknown.

As we chart the way ahead there must be a balance between the devil-may-care attitude of abandoned caution, and the doom-mongers who can only see risk on the horizon. A hundred years after the last pandemic, when that virus is still with us, we need to learn to live with the reality of COVID-19. As the first pandemic to occur in an age of rapid and plentiful transportation, the solutions we find to live with the virus will need to be new and innovative. Otherwise this won’t be a blip at the start of the 2020s – but the beginning of a decade of damaging restrictions.

Ashes Under Eboracum

Around the age of seven I went on a trip to Hadrian’s Wall. My parents took us to Housesteads, then on a walk along the wall from Steel Rigg. It is a dramatic and evocative setting, with the wall climbing the contours high up onto the Whin Sill. For whatever reason, it started an interest in Roman Britain that lasted well into my teens. The Lancashire town where I lived had Roman heritage, and a military shield boss found locally is in the British Museum. Encouraging my developing interest, my parents then arranged a tour in York – Roman Eboracum – with a local archeologist.

Living in that same city more than forty years later I’m mindful of the history lying just below the pavement. At least one of the sewers built by the Romans survives in excellent condition under Church Street in York. From Romans, to Saxons and Vikings, this patch of earth has been the centre of influence in the north for thousands of years. The Minster’s foundations stand in the remains of the heart of the Roman fortress – an empire of spiritual life supplanting the temporal forces that once ruled the city.

History has been in the news in the UK following the announcement that two modern universities plan to cut courses. There is concern that only elite centres of study will continue to offer history degrees. In a world where science is offering so much in responding to COVID-19, it isn’t difficult to see why some universities may be reviewing what they offer. Yet how short-sighted. Without doubt both humanities and the arts offer a vital dimension to our understanding and outlook. As I commented many blogs ago, when it came to COVID-19, our best academic modellers lacked the insight or imagination to appreciate how care homes interacted with their local communities. Without the disciplines that explore lived human experiences key dimensions of our understanding are absent. That absence can result in a failure to register vital elements of the reality we are addressing.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.


Marcus Garvey

History offers us perspective. As we study the past we encounter people very confident about how much they knew and how human life should be governed. These understandings have changed over time, and an important lesson for today should be the provisional nature of our knowledge. Science operates on the basis that there is more to know and, consequently, that what we take today to be certain may be questionable tomorrow. Many years ago, when running an elective course for medical students, I asked what proportion of all that could be known about medicine they thought was known today. With commendable candour one student pronounced it was ‘diddly-squat’. Our learning increases all the time and, when we look back at the past, we can experience horror at the medical procedures people once endured. Our great-great grandchildren may feel much the same when they look back at our response to the pandemic.

History has the power to teach us humility. It tells us that people made choices which seemed rational and wise at the time, only to realise that seeds of disaster were being sown. Understanding the past is vital if human beings are going to learn, change and live well in the future. Simply doing what we want in one generation fails to recognise that we are part of the future, and our choices have consequences that endure. This is perhaps one of the most important lessons in the response to climate change.

To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.


From A Shropshire Lad 31: On Wenlock Edge the Wood’s in Trouble, by A. E. Housman

Housman’s poem reminds us that for all the power and reach of the Roman Empire, today it is a layer of ash under Wroxeter. The Roman remains of York are impressive and have endured a long time, but the people who built them and ruled here are gone. Much of the understanding about how the world works has changed over those centuries and, while some things may remain, human self-perception moves on. It will continue to evolve and change, hopefully with the aid of the arts and humanities bringing their own unique learning to our understanding. To lose that knowledge is too great a risk when we know how quickly human life can change. Living humbly with the limitations of our knowledge might be the most significant contribution history conveys to help us make wise choices today.

Being Well

With good reason there is a growing swell of concern about our mental health and wellbeing. Over a year into the pandemic, with no conclusive outcome in sight, there is a palpable cost to people’s sense of security, coherence and peace of mind. The first rallying response to the steep rise of infection and deaths in April 2020 has been followed for many by exhaustion. The King’s Fund has explored this through the lens of past disasters and produced an illustration of indicative peaks and troughs – a long and winding road.

Already there is debate over the reality of long Covid – reminiscent of disagreements about some other complex conditions. No doubt the debate about this will continue even as its effects become clearer over the course of time. What cannot be disputed is the simple reality that all our lives have changed. This is true all the way from the pocket-check before we leave the house (‘have I got a mask?’) to the relentless addition of zeros to the national debt.

March 21 2020 – the day I encountered the weird appearance of a takeaway with ‘waiting boxes’ for those coming to collect their food

A new broadsheet in the UK is a rare occurrence, but in 1983 The Independent appeared with its own style and ambitions in the news industry. Around that time I was in Preston railway station juggling a bag, coffee and a copy of the new publication. I dropped it and a kindly stranger picked it and suggested that perhaps I wasn’t quite as independent as I thought I imagined.

Independence is a beguiling aspiration. If we could simply have greater control over our lives, choosing to do what we want when we want, then all would be well. Without a doubt there is plenty of this kind of thinking in our world, matched by a marketing machine ready to offer us the perfect solution – almost before we are conscious of our need. With algorithms and artificial intelligence, our anticipation and desires are nudged. The greener grass is just around the corner, if only we can afford the fare.

Life is a hospital ward, and the beds we are put in

are the ones we don’t want to be in.

We’d get better sooner if put over by the window.

Or by the radiator, one could suffer easier there.

From The Wrong Beds, by Roger McGough

McGough’s poem includes the line: “The soul could be happier anywhere than where it happens to be. Anywhere but here”. Perhaps more than ever, the pandemic has prompted the thought that we need to be somewhere else – maybe even in another time.

Photo by Lukas Rychvalsky on Pexels.com

When the flood of sickness subsides there will come a counting of the cost. The 130,000 excess deaths over 12 months; cases of long-COVID, both physiological and psychological; the economic debt; the emerging narrative of what has taken place. There will be a continuing focus on well-being as the bereaved come to celebrate lives and make memorial. The impetus for economic recovery and educational catchup may jar with the needs of people who require a pause and time to digest.

Much of the focus on well-being can feel individual and bespoke. There are countless initiatives to help people manage their emotional life and strengthen resilience. I hope that at the same time sufficient attention will be given to collective well-being and how communities can be guided to increase the mutuality of support to create the ecology in which people can be well.

A recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement carries a review of a new book by Frank Tallis, The Art of Living.

In his review Antonio Melechi notes the risk that the self-help and self-improvement culture born out of the pop-psychology of recent decades omits a critical ingredient. Focusing in the manageable and measurable, it has neglected the enduring truth that ‘the self is a social artefact’. As we move beyond this critical phase of the pandemic, there will no doubt be a flourishing of tips and tactics to make us feel better, calmer, more resilient. None of which will deliver the promised goods unless we also live in communities which are life-giving, creative and supportive.

Rather than forever longing to be in a different bed can we find common cause to make it a better ward; a better hospital; a better town? Maybe, when our endeavour is invested in community, we might find that coveting other beds is not quite so appealing. That being well can only truly be found in the well being of others.

Photo by Dio Hasbi Saniskoro on Pexels.com

A World Entire

The death of anyone represents the loss of unique experiences and relationships. People may have similar pathways through life, but they are never identical. One of my favourite quotes from recent years was in The Guardian and came in an article reflecting on the mind in a self-help culture. It touched on ‘solipsism’, the idea that the self alone is real. The humour reminds us that when someone dies their particular perception of the world – of us – goes with them.

The theologian Alvin Plantinga claims once to have visited a university department where one elderly, frail professor was a solipsist. “We take very good care of him,” a younger academic told Plantinga, “because when he goes, we all go…”

Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian 2014

Familiar figures pass out of life every year, with the certainty of an ebbing tide. Yet since March 2020 this has taken a dramatic turn for many, with losses far in excess of recent years. For some families it must feel less like the gradual melt than a sheering away of substantial heritage and personal association. I’ll never forget the family I met in the early 1990s who requested the simplest funeral I could arrange: they had attended too many in recent months. While COVID-19 may have taken far more people into the shadows of multiple bereavements, it has always been a feature in the lives of the few. At the same crematorium, on another occasion, I led the funeral of a husband and wife – dying just days apart from unrelated conditions.

We die with the dying: 

See, they depart, and we go with them. 

TS Eliot, Little Gidding

The departure of people who are prominent in our lives causes a moment of disturbance for many. When Nicholas Parsons died in January 2020 it connected me instantly with memories from my grandmother’s kitchen. As a very young child I recall her delight with the new radio show, Just a Minute (1967), which she found an entertaining companion while cooking. People whose voices we hear, and whose images we see, are part of the social world we inhabit.

Jewish teaching and the Quran both emphasise that saving a life has the value of saving a world. Perhaps this recognises the sense that we each have a unique perception of existence and, when we go, this distinctive experience of the world is lost. Others will come – but none will be the same.

“whoever saves one life […] saves an entire world”

Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5

Yet for each of us ‘there is a time to die’, and for all of us there is the experience of loss. Physical life cannot be extended forever. How we travel with this knowledge and experience is a key part of what it means to be human. Can we be at peace with it and live well while recognising the loss which death brings?

I hope that in the aftermath of the pandemic a new openness about mortality might be born. Before COVID-19 arrived there were already initiatives to encourage people to talk candidly with family and friends. Eventually, when we can gather together and grieve, perhaps we can find new courage to have much needed conversations. To live with greater transparency the reality of limited time in this world – and enable our unique experience of life to be known, shared and honoured.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Different Boats

A year ago our awareness of an approaching wave of illness, like the virus itself, grew exponentially. From distant sympathy for the locked-down residents of Wuhan, to our late-March barracking of the population, the shift from normality to deserted streets was swift. Our lives changed fundamentally within days. While these events took place a dizzying pace, perhaps the most surprising element of the restrictions on daily life has been their duration.

Time and again it feels that just as a clear route to exit the crisis has materialised, in short order it has become narrower – or disappeared entirely. Today, as the UK’s highly successful vaccine roll-out continues, the picture on continental Europe has deteriorated. The prospect of much needed holidays in warmer climes is receding. The scientists, epidemiologists and politicians have started to speak once again about the tunnel at the end of the light.

A York Snickleway

As we head towards Easter, at best, it looks like we might have some return to normality within the UK. The opening of schools may have contributed to the levelling off of new cases but it appears that vaccination may be countering any more harmful consequences. Deaths and hospitalisation continue to reduce. The greatest risk is a variant that eludes much of the efficacy of the vaccines. This could undermine all the gains of recent months and put us more-or-less back to square one. It’s not something any of us wishes to contemplate.

“Our health, our economy, the taken-for-granted ease of travel, will all be changed for years to come by what is happening now.”

Spirituality; Connection and; Covid-19, Chris Swift WordPress, 22 March 2020

A year ago I decided to write regular blogs during the pandemic. Starting on 22 March these enabled me to bring some focus and discipline to my thoughts about this unprecedented crisis. At the time I argued that chaplains must bring “renewed energy, vision and invention to the task of preserving spiritual connection”. This has certainly taken shape over the past 12 months with churches and individuals acquiring new and unexpected skills in Zoom, Teams and YouTube. The internet has allowed people to stay in touch and share in some sense of community and unity. Of course, this has not been for everyone and concern about digital poverty and exclusion cannot be ignored. As one church minister shared with me, people on data tariffs are unlikely to use their scarce allowance to watch church services. In some cases personal notes and hand-delivered newsletters have been an important corrective to a digital-default.

Soul Boats suspended in Birmingham Cathedral. Designed by artist Jake Lever.

While the analogy of same storm/different boats may have become overused in the pandemic, it remains a helpful image. Some are aboard state-of-the-art cruisers with an abundance of resources; others are shipping water like there’s no tomorrow, and look likely to sink. The inequalities revealed and widened by a global health crisis cannot be ignored. All this death, illness, isolation and economic decline, cannot be brushed over. The idea that somehow a public inquiry in the UK might be downplayed or delayed is unthinkable. We must get an accurate overview of what is occurring and understand its differential impacts across society. Only then can public policy identify and address injustices that have emerged. Not least we need to understand why the safety of older people in residential care was so distant from scientific and political priorities.

It will take accurate, detailed and impartial analysis to begin to form the questions we need to address as a society. If disability and age are acceptable criteria to impose a ‘do not resuscitate’ (DNR) order, then let us say this is what we are doing, and debate it. A year ago it felt that – politically speaking – an invisible ‘do not bother’ order was hanging on the front door of the nation’s care homes. The lessons available for us to learn from have been bought at huge cost. Let’s not squander what they can tell us, or ignore how they can help us steer with clarity to a form of society we are proud to name and fearless to promote.