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Thursday 4 June 2020

contagion layman

The pencil-snap

Hannah Jane Parkinson is overwhelmed. But backing away from the news, or looking away, feels wrong too


uddenly, I feel overwhelmed; which is how overwhelment feels. Sudden. Though it can build cumulatively, which is why we have the phrases “the straw that broke the camel’s back” (an Arab proverb, reinterpreted by Hobbes and others) or “death by a thousand cuts” (which was an ancient Chinese form of execution, Lingchi, but I will accept the Taylor Swift song for a half a point).

The final straw before a blowout is meant to be minor. The difference with what is currently overwhelming me – the cluster-fuck state of world affairs – is that no part of it is minor. The things sending a lot of people over the edge right now are not small; they are videos of Black people murdered, and cities aflame; a UK parliament voting to disenfranchise representatives, and thereby disenfranchise us all; that we have an unelected mandarin who can undermine a public health message during a pandemic that has killed 40,000 people nationally and that he can face zero consequences. Or the scenes in Hong Kong. Or Brazil.

It’s a privileged position when the things that piss a person off are trivial. Fluff stuck in the filter of the washing machine, a package that hasn’t arrived. And while I still have pencil-snapping moments of the micro during lockdown, I find myself exhausted and enraged by the tumult of the macro.

It all seems so big and unsolvable. Chinks of light are rare (thank you, Jacinda Ardern; and Angela Merkel – even though you personally aren’t cool with my people marrying, we’ll park it for now). Some of what is going on affects me directly, other things don’t. This should not be a world where one can scroll through videos of overt racism while lying on the hot grass of a North London weekend.

I don’t usually feel anger in so many directions. Except for when I am mentally unwell, when it is frequent. I disagreed with the guy in the locked psychiatric ward who leaned into me with a wink, and said: “It’s not us who are mad, it’s the world”. And I had to be like, no, Sam, it is us. Earlier you told me you didn’t trust books in case they could also read you. (In a way I find this to be true, but it wasn’t the time to go into literary theory.) But at present, Sam would be correct.

Lots of people have said, in particular along the lines of the 8pm handclaps for key workers, that they feel this is a watershed moment in the UK for change. A friend, also a journalist, asked me if I felt this. He didn’t. I didn’t either. I can’t shake the fact that a public which was fine to vote in a man we all knew to be a pathological liar, a party that had a decade record of screwing the NHS, has suddenly had an epiphany that will stretch long enough to the next election.

But I can’t help feeling that we are losing. The thing that bigots throw at me and others on social media is that I am “bitter because you’re [sic] side isn’t winning”. Well, yes. Because this isn’t losing a fiver over a dumb bet with a friend, it is about freedom and democracy and the differences between living, dying and existing. I am not just bitter, I am incensed and I am scared. I can barely bear to watch and read the news each day – most topics – and yet I feel guilt for taking breaks; as though I were backing away from a burning building because I had started to sweat. I am an optimist, but I find myself sitting moodily listening to apocalyptic compositions, which is about as helpful as our cultural habit of listening to songs about heartbreak when heartbroken.


peaking of anger (I’m sorry I am not done yet, it’s the one thing I have stockpiled), I turn to Oliver Dowden. He is the minister whose portfolio includes culture, though you wouldn’t know it, as he is yet to say, and this is the technical term, absolutely fuck all about the state of the arts. The arts help us make sense of the world when it seems senseless (see above). The arts serve a welcome distraction; but also a pedagogical function. It is one of the industries that will be amongst the very worst hit because of the pandemic. But Dowden has focused on sport, announcing in purple speech about the return of the Premier League and horse racing.

I am a huge football fan – a Liverpool fan – and I am excited at the thought of football returning. (Though, alongside anger, I feel such ambivalence these days. I want normal life to return, and yet I can’t see any strong evidence as to the extent the lockdown is being eased, etc. We have become used to living in paradox: a perennial present.)

So I am cautiously pleased about the football. But I am furious about the lack of action on the arts. Theatres have already gone into administration, and some of the country’s greatest institutions – the Southbank Centre, for example – are in trouble and pleading for help. The director of the National Theatre says it is “hemorrhaging money” and the future is looking precarious. The NT has been streaming some of its most popular past performances, for free, every single Thursday since the beginning of lockdown.

Indeed, it’s the arts that have been such a source of succour stuck at home. Book sales have surged (Waterstones reporting a 400 per cent increase for online sales) and for those who have struggled to concentrate on reading, event television such as Normal People and Quiz have been immensely popular. So too, the likes of Charli XCX’s lockdown-produced album.

I shouldn’t be surprised by Dowden’s negligence, given the vast majority of the Tories’ track records on the arts is the pits (I have written about this before). Slashing public funding – like those wild people who seem to habitually jump over ropes to take Stanley knives to Picassos etc – pushing institutions to rely on sponsorship, the market, the gift shops and the interval bars.

As with health and education, the arts operates with zero slack. It makes much more sense to put an action plan into gear – there is a Cultural Renewal Taskforce, which we’ve heard nothing of – than to watch the whole infrastructure collapse and then have to repair the amp that the government has put its foot through. Prevention is better than cure. Then again, that’s something this government seems to have had trouble understanding from the very beginning of this entire crisis.

Illustrations by Tim King

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