Life

This Is Year Zero for Life in Britain

Beneath the "famous stiff upper lip" are a trembling lower jaw and a virus-ravaged tongue that can no longer tell Bovril from Bollinger.

by Clive Martin; photos by Chris Bethell
06 April 2020, 1:30pm

Somewhere between the morning's death graphs and my third instant coffee of the day, I made a list of things that no longer make any sense: capitalism, fashion, celebrities, burglars, "wild swimming", supper clubs, Condé Nast Traveler, Tyler Brûlé, Tom Ford, aftershave, Tom Ford aftershave, being "fussy about design", being "particular about coffee", lunch at Shoreditch House, dinner at Pret, Talksport, Tripadvisor, "Run Dem Crew".

It seems that only now are we able to realise the strange and useless culture we've built for ourselves.

In the years before the virus, we really believed society would stay as it was until the next ice age or beyond. We were supping the dirty water of a trickle down economy, hands clasped and mouths open wide – indulging in a society built on fear, debt and themed brunches. But since the dawn of Co-op queues and Zoom wakes, our priorities have shifted. "Luxury" now means little more than running water and working lungs, "escapism" has become reading dubious stories about wonder drug trials in Poland, while our only real topical entertainment is taking sweepstakes on which world leader gets the bug next.

Right now, the abiding feeling is one of patient but helpless dread – a long, creaking climb to the summit of a decommissioned rollercoaster. For all the Brexit-era posturing about being good at this sort of thing, the United Kingdom is in a state of deep anxiety. Beneath the "famous stiff upper lip" are a trembling lower jaw and a virus-ravaged tongue that can no longer tell Bovril from Bollinger. However, you don't have to be a widely-no-platformed accelerationist academic to wonder if our worst nightmare might also be our best shot at lasting change – the brick through the double glazing that we've been crying out for.

london tube coronavirus safety

The future has always been hard to imagine here. For so long, this country has prided itself on its past victories and response to disasters, incubating a deluded superiority built on nothing more than a colonial hangover and Sunday afternoon reruns of The Dam Busters. But in reality, an issue as all-encompassing as this has seldom entered our safe ex-European home. If there's bacon on the shelves, if there's a holiday in the pipeline, if Holly and Phil are pretending to be hungover on morning telly, then it's all gravy by us. It's business as usual until it's not.

We're told that things are changing, that bits of the planet are shifting, that our systems are on the brink – yet, outside of now being able to wear a T-shirt in November, we rarely see them on this island. The looming apocalypse is something they have in countries with guns, snakes, extreme weather.

But now, from a far-off land, comes a foe frog-marching us – sweating, hacking and retching with terror – towards a different kind of reality; towards mass casualties, market catastrophe, overloaded infrastructure, internal movement restriction, widespread germ-consciousness, finally saying goodbye to your granddad's best friend, Arthur.

Our illusion of safety, of stability, of political temperance, of "we don't have that kind of thing here" is coming to an almighty crescendo. We have been dragged – kicking, screaming, nails dug into the soil – into a global nightmare, an all-disrupting storm that makes Brexit look like some quaint problem from a pre-Iraq episode of Question Time.

Already, COVID-19 is showing us things we couldn't have imagined until now: nationwide lockdowns, quarantined cruise ships, death curves, balcony raves, morbid vidiprinter results from Bergamo, checkout staff in masks, doctors in bio-suits, rambler-hunting police drones, bog roll brawls, the Prime Minister on a ventilator. Imagery that wouldn't look out of place in a deeply pessimistic 1980s nuclear war drama is being blasted into our living rooms at an astonishing frequency, but we're going to be told to get "Britain open for business again" in a few months.

Even our usual defence mechanisms – our "national spirit" – are defunct in this situation. Our instinct has always been to organise, to come together, to "give us yer fuckin' money", to huddle up and sing "Knees Up Mother Brown" as the world crashes around us. But the nature of the lockdown means that we can't. Yes, "clap for our carers" could probably pull a teardrop from Nick "father of accelerationism" Land himself, but it only emphasises the alien and terrifying nature of the situation.

We are isolated, alone, reliant on easily-compromised apps to stay sane. There will be no village fundraisers, no garden parties, tombolas or flash mobs, no newsreaders doing Rocky Horror, no "Amarillo", no "Agadoo" – only depressing driveway dances that make the whole street look like a palliative care ward. Your Geldofs, your Curtises and your Henrys are bunkered down in their country pads. For the rest of us, it's dog eat dog eat Super Noodles.

But even when dry land finally comes into sight, when the pubs reopen and the herd is immune, the effects of this crisis will have altered the national consciousness like nothing since VE day. However it manifests, this will be a year zero for British life. Beyond the numbers of the dead and the newly destitute, it will be the imagery, the information, the reckoning with mortality and forces greater than ourselves that will leave the lasting impact on this land. Barely a month in and we're already seeing things that we never thought possible in our lifetimes. The rug of first-world safety has been pulled from underneath us.

coronavirus 5g vaccine

Part of the reason we haven't properly been able to grasp climate change in this country is because we don't really know what it looks like, how it feels on our skin. But what the coronavirus has done in no time at all is give us a sneak preview of the end; of the language and aesthetic of disaster, of the formats we'll use to call out the dead, of the technology, the uniforms, the tone used by HR directors as they cull the workforce and the made-up laws the police will use to keep us still.

We've had disasters and tragedies before, but nothing on the sort of scale that would convince anyone they're merely one small part of the same big planet. A merciless, amorphous pandemic like this is not something that can be mourned in any conventional way; it can't be twisted into an example of our national strengths or passed off as being something that only happens to Scousers, Scots, Chinese cockle pickers, poor bastards in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This virus is an enormous broken mirror being held up before a country that thinks it's in much better health than it is. The hope is that we learn something from it.

@thugclive

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