Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Now Wash Your Hands

It's all a bit confusing, isn't it? Listening to the news yesterday morning, I heard a senior government medical adviser set out the current advice on avoiding the COVID-19 virus, and thought: but that's a description of my normal everyday life! It was hard to know whether to enjoy the kind of smug glow that a slim, low-cholesterol, vegan gym-nut must feel much of the time, or to be concerned: what kind of self-centred recluse have I become in retirement, that my day-to-day existence counts as "social distancing", verging on quarantine? When this crazy war is over, maybe I should get out a bit more.

It's also hard to judge whether the entire world is overreacting wildly, like a germaphobe trapped in a public toilet [1], or whether there is really rather more to this thing than "a bad bout of flu, with a teeny-tiny chance of dying". It's not helped by the kind of tin-eared insensitivity that allows a phrase like "herd immunity" to go viral in the public media. Inevitably other, not entirely unrelated expressions come to mind, like thinning and culling the herd – that is, the removal of weak, elderly, and diseased individual members, to the benefit of the abstract "herd". Yes, it's a shame about grandma, but look on the bright side: no more tedious visits at the weekend, and more turkey for everyone at Christmas!

I imagine most of us are finding virus-related reports have started to come in from home and abroad. No-one I know has so far been directly affected by the virus, but I'm hearing of travel plans that have been disrupted, real concerns about work and the daily commute, and the inevitable anxieties of the elderly and those with "underlying conditions". Several old friends are now effectively quarantined in France. A neighbour's son has been isolated in his Shanghai flat for what seems like months. Even the photo-bloggers are doing their bit: the always readable Mike Johnson has put up a good post at T.O.P., and Andrew Molitor has an amusingly bushy-tailed blog-response to school closures in Washington State. So far it's all about boredom, inconvenience, and the absurdity of hoarding behaviour (I learned a new piece of German vocabulary this week: Hamsterkauf). The longer it stays that way the better.

Such times may yet make what seem like unreasonable demands on us all. I was very struck by an account I read recently of a visit home to Australia, following those much more spectacular catastrophes of drought and fire:
During my last visit to Armidale I listened to passing conversations, eavesdropping, taking comfort in the civilities of the townspeople. Under café parasols and at the tables inside the secondhand bookshop people talked and talked. Each person seemed to be responding to a single question: tell me about yourself. They made small announcements. My arteries are like bark. When I was a child we lived two doors down from the Prime Minister. A Yorkshire accent is the hardest one to lose. Of course they talked about the catastrophe that had befallen their town. Later, as I walked through the devastated streets, finally standing at the gate of my former home within view of the tall shrivelled hedges, I grew afraid for all of us. I was once told that Scots at the Battle of Culloden stood upright, reciting their genealogies as they were shot. Unless we arrest the processes of climate change we will perish, still announcing ourselves, telling our stories as we fall.
Brenda Walker, "Nothing to be Done", TLS 6099, Feb 21 2020
On one level, this amounts to little more than "we must love one another or die" (the famous line from Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" which he later removed, saying, "That's a damned lie! We must die anyway"). But it's more than that: the image of highlanders reciting their bloodlines in their final fated moments – both noble and ludicrous: tragicomic Homeric posturing among the gore-spattered heather – has stayed with me. History and the herd care little for the individual and their petty self-obsessions, but what else does the individual have? And what else are history or the herd than the stubborn residue of individual lives?

Some glass-half-full type recently remarked that Shakespeare was able to take advantage of the closure of the theatres in the plague year of 1606 to write some of his great late works. Which is quite likely true: see James Shapiro's book The Year of Lear. So, it's an ill wind, etc., especially if you're a world-class writer under pressure or merely someone who needs to get the house redecorated. But what is also true is that he had a number of well-documented close encounters of the plague kind. A quarter of the population of Stratford on Avon was wiped out by the outbreak of 1563-4, the year of his birth, including some very near neighbours. A small shift in the wind of luck, and there would have been no Shakespeare, the man. Then there was the closing of the theatres in the plague year of 1592-3 when thousands of Londoners died. Had Shakespeare been among them, we would know him (if at all) as the reputed author of about six plays, with only the texts of Titus Andronicus and the three parts of Henry VI surviving. So, no "Shakespeare" the legend. Then the outbreak of 1603 saw off a fifth of the population of London, and that handy "time-out" repeat performance of 1606 was actually the narrowest squeak of all, as it (probably) killed the landlady of his lodgings in Silver Street, Marie Mountjoy, as described by Charles Nicholl in his book The Lodger. Alas, no "great, late" Shakespeare.

So, yes, a plague year can deliver invaluable free time for writing or redecorating alongside death and misery, but it can also be a bit of a toss-up which you get. Remarkably, our ancestors all made it through every pestilence thrown at humanity so far, one way or another, so we'd all still be here, anyway, Shakespeare or no Shakespeare; working from home, washing our hands (please, guys!), staying away from the pubs, clubs, and theatres, hoping for the best, and just doing our little bit for ourselves and for the herd. Unless, of course, we are medics, in which case: may you get through this trial by plague unscathed [2].

There's a much-quoted passage from Pascal's Pensées, that goes: "I have often said that all of humanity's problems stem from the inability to sit quietly in a room". Really? What, all of them? Well, we may be about to find out. That's an easy opinion to hold, of course, when meals appear regularly at your elbow, servants sweep and scrub your floors for a pittance, and your time is your own to contemplate intriguing mathematical problems, or even write blog posts. Not so easy, when failing to turn up for work means no rent money or bread on the table as, 350 years later, it still does for so many. So, as that other deep thinker Sgt. Phil Esterhaus used to enjoin the morning roll-call in every episode of Hill Street Blueslet's be careful out there. There's not much else we can do, and we can only trust it will be enough.

1. Although I was astonished to learn that SIXTY PERCENT of men don't wash their hands after using a public toilet. How do they know?? Apparently some academic study used actors to ostentatiously wash their hands in public loos (you can just imagine: "what is my motivation?"), and this actually had a statistically significant effect on handwashing behaviour (a positive one, surprisingly).
2. Can you believe people have been stealing the hand-sanitizer dispensers and boxes of protective gloves from hospitals? Sadly, it's true.


Paul Mc Cann said...

The old trope about the French living to eat while the English eat to live is accompanied by the one that say a Frenchman washes his hands before he widdles while the Englsh man washes his after. Personally I'm not in the habit of peeing on my hands whilst I micturate

Mike C. said...


Heh... If that means you're in the 60% then, should we ever meet, an elbow bump is in order...


Thomas Rink said...

Germany enters shutdown mode right now. Schools are closed since Monday, there is noticeably less traffic and and goods like bread, noodles, flour, rice and the infamous toilet paper are on short supply. Even though the weather has been very nice the last couple of days and Covid-19 is still an abstract threat for most people around here, it feels like a dark cloud is looming above everybody. It feels similar to the Chernobyl disaster, but much more intense.

I'll be on home office from next Monday.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


We're just a step or two behind -- schools will shut from tomorrow (although they'll act as childcare centres for the children of medics, delivery drivers, etc.). A telling fact is that in Scotland school exams have been abandoned for the first time since 1888. World wars, Spanish flu, nothing has interrupted them until now. Really? You can't help but feel that either the magnitude of the situation is being underplayed, or that we're caught up in a vicious cycle of excessive caution.


mistah charley, sb, ma, phd, jsps said...

Paul - There is, or was a half century ago, a version of that witticism on this side of the Atlantic, which I heard in my university days in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was at MIT - we fellows at Tech (or "The Institute") resented that Harvard seemed not to notice us, so the joke is aimed at them. It's the Harvard-Yale annual football game, and one student from each urinates - the Harvard boy goes to the sink to wash, while the Yale man heads directly out the door. The Harvard boy says, "At Harvard they teach us to wash our hands after urination," and the Yale man replies, as you wrote, "At Yale we don't pee on our hands."

Mike C. said...

mistah charley,

Sigh... It's always a pleasure when commenters get straight to the true core meaning of a post.

Mind you, those Yalies need to see the results of a simple spatter test: it's amazing how far and wide impact droplets can travel...


old_bloke said...

Arriving late at this post, I'm taken back to Michigan in the seventies. In the toilets of the world-famous research lab I was fortunate to work in, an American co-worker asked why I was washing my hands after I stepped away from the urinal. "Don't you know that urine has been ultrafiltered in your kidneys, so it's sterile?" "Yes, I said, but I have a prepuce . . ."

Mike C. said...


Well, thank you for sharing!


Kent Wiley said...

Amidst all this talk of male appendages and sanitary habits, I'd like to thank you for the "hamsterkauf" contribution. Great word.

Mike C. said...


Isn't it? A friend brought it to my attention recently. I'd always known than "hamstern" means "to hoard" or "store up" in German, and assumed the process went the other way, i.e. a hamster is a "hoarder", but apparently not.