Clive James once wrote about how he agonised over getting metaphors right. His efforts certainly, to use a clichéd metaphor, bore fruit. One of Dr No’s favourites describes Demis Roussos. ‘His stage manner reflects the opulence of his domicile. There is an immense reserve of inner warmth, as in a compost heap.’ Then there is the near perfect description of Barbara Cartland. ‘Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff.’ Neither are kindly, but it is not the TV critic’s job to be kindly, but to observe, and in the writing add something, and James’s writing is perfectly larded through and through with metaphors that add richness and flavour, like the marbling in a fine piece of beef.
By comparison, another journalist, now standing in as our Prime Minister, uses metaphors that are inclined to miss their mark, like a blind archer’s arrows. Yesterday’s ‘crocus of hope…poking through the frost’ to describe the coming Covid spring fails on the fragility of the flower, which will be gone by summer. If a sprouting metaphor is what one wants, then let it be the first shoots from an acorn, that will grow to be an English oak, to stand tall and mighty against the winds of adversity.
What of the road map out of lockdown itself? Dr No’s first impression was that it has all the clarity of Whistock’s variations to the Hurlingham rules for Mornington Crescent, with the distinct possibility that we might never arrive at the Crescent, and instead be locked in a never ending antidote to lockdown, with Johnson’s I’m sorry I haven’t a clue echoing endlessly in our ears. We were told that progress will be driven by ‘data not dates’, but that is just last year’s tired mutton dressed as this year’s spring lamb, the Emperor’s new science, indistinguishable from the now largely discredited ‘led by’ and ‘guided by’ the science from last year. If there is one thing we learnt then, it was that Johnson and his advisers make no distinction between data, science and modelling, and we can be sure this has not changed. The progress, or obstruction of progress, will, as it has been throughout the last year, be based not on decent analysis of past data, but on numerological modelling of future trends.
Then there are the dates that aren’t really dates, and the four tests to be met before moving on, that aren’t really tests. Each date is just a marker in the sand, easily blown further down the road by the winds of covid. Each test is vaguely worded: the vaccine programme has to ‘continue…successfully’, it has to be ‘sufficiently effective’ at reducing morbidity and mortality, infections rates must not ‘risk a surge’ in hospitalisations, and the government’s assessment of risks must not be ‘fundamentally changed’ by new variants. Each and every one is so vaguely worded as to mean it can be twisted this way and that. A test of, say, R below one is either met or not met, but our assessment of unspecified risks not fundamentally changed by unknown future variants? There is more than ample scope in these tests to re-write the rules as time goes by.
Which leaves the dates; and they leave Dr No wondering why not use firm dates? As the as yet not fully counted horrors of lockdown continue to grow, why not set real firm dates that will be adhered to come what may? Now, a year after it’s arrival, we know much better what the virus will and won’t do. Today’s ONS weekly mortality data continues to show that almost three quarters (73.94%) of deaths occur in those aged 75 and over (and those aged 85 and over account for getting on for half (42.13%) of all deaths), while in those aged 0 to 14 years old, there have been a total of eleven deaths. Long covid apart, about which Dr No has some as yet unresolved doubts, serious covid–19 remains overwhelmingly a disease of old people; and yet the brunt of the lockdown harms are borne by the young and middle aged, many of whom will bear the scars for years, if not decades. Is it really right to blight and sacrifice millions of young lives just to postpone death for a few weeks/months, or perhaps years, in some oldies?
Before you start screaming blue murder at Dr No for being ageist, don’t forget, at 63 years of age, he is all but an oldie himself. Why shouldn’t he, as many others do, say two things that are vitally important to him? Firstly, that he wants to live the remaining years of his — his, and his alone, not the government’s, nor anyone else’s — life doing what matters to him, things like sailing in the company of friends, and spending time with his family and friends. And secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, he wants to see young and middle aged people get their lives back, the young deprived of education and careers, the musicians sacrificed on the high altar of covid protectionism, and all the others blighted by this protectionism. For some it is almost certainly too late, and their careers will have died; but do we really want to continue the carnage? Dr No, for one, does not.
Instead of dates made woolly by ‘no earlier than’, why not have on such and such a date this will happen. On the 8th March, all schoolchildren will go back to school; on the 17th May outdoor performances will restart; on the 21st of June theatres will reopen; and so on for all other curtailed activities. That would be a real roadmap out of lockdown. But once again, Johnson seems — if Dr No can borrow a metaphor from the man himself — the hesitant crocus poking through the frost, with not so much a roadmap in hand as a vague set of possible routes that might be taken, all predicated on the notion that it better to travel hopefully than to arrive. But, for a roadmap out of covid hell, that notion, however charming it is in other times and places, simply won’t do.