Words Matter - Jo Carroll

We live in apocalyptic times.

I've not read much dystopian fiction - The Day of the Triffids was enough for me - so I'd be interested to know if the current runaway virus and the panic it has engendered is accurately reflected in fiction.

For one thing that has struck me in recent days (distracted me, if I'm honest) is how words that have such momentous consequences for us all are thrown around now without a second thought. For instance:

Social distancing: this, we are told, means we have to stay about two metres away from anyone else. Unpicked, it means no hug for the friends you bump into in the street. No sharing a cake. No sharing books unless you both do the ritual handwashing thing first. But - does it mean we shouldn't hug our children? Can we cuddle up to our partners on the sofa? (In theory, I've heard - no. We must all sit in separate chairs; couples should sleep in separate beds. As if every house has enough chairs and a spare bed lying around. To say nothing of anything couples might like to do to while away an hour or two).

Self-isolation: this goes one step further. Not only must we stand well-beyond hand-shaking distance from everyone, we must shut the door on them too. Supplies must be left on the doorstep and we can only pick them up once the angel who has brought them steps well back. In a family, it means one person has a room and, if possible, bathroom, to themselves (the great and the good might have enough rooms to do that, but in most people's real world when one person sneezes the whole family catches a cold). For two weeks, with the help of the internet and a book or five, it's probably manageable. 

Lockdown: everyone is in isolation. We can only scurry out for milk if we have to. Every other hour of every day is spent in your own four walls. 

I understand the need for such measures. I'm not in the camp that insists this is an overblown drama and, though maybe a few people will pop their clogs, it's not worth this palaver. It will be months - and maybe longer - before we are out the other side of this, and our world may look very different by then.

No - what exercises me is how these words: isolation, lockdown, have been sewn into our everyday vocabulary in such a way that their full implications are sanitised. I, like thousands of others, live alone. I will not be in the same room as someone else for months. I can no longer go to my singing group; I can no longer help in the library; I can't go to a gig and sing till my throat hurts. Nobody will surprise me in the street with news. No grandchildren will hold my hand, nor climb on my lap for a story. Tough for me? yes; and for the families with small children who face the same four walls for days; for those with disabilities whose only social contact is a day care centre (now closed); for the homeless and the workless and the children in care.

We will do this, because it's essential for our safety and to do our bit for our beleaguered NHS. But we will not like it. Isolation - packaged as it now is in government directives - is not our natural way of being. 

And so, next time Boris and his henchmen remind us to shut ourselves away and repel all boarders, maybe we all need to remind ourselves what such isolation means. Lockdown is not how we should live; when this is all over I hope the word is confined to the pages of dystopian fiction,


Umberto Tosi said…
I feel for your plight, and all those who live alone having to isolate themselves at home. I'm lucky enough to have a partner. We are, thank heaven, compatible. I would prefer solitude to being with someone not so. Think of Sartre's "No Exit." Hell is other people - or can be. At least in this era we have Skype and other video chat channels. I rely on these to share face time with my daughters, who each live far and wide, thousands of miles apart. Perhaps you can utelize these tool to stay connected and relieve isolation. I saw a video by members of the Rotterdam Symphony Orchestra yesterday in which a dozen musicians - each sequestered at their respective abodes - performed a Beethoven symphony beautifully. It must have taken them hours of practice and coordination - for which they weren't paid, but I am sure rewarded in spirit. Perhaps we in this group can connect as fellow writers in some way, even more than we ordinarily do, by making use of our private FB group and group blog, etc... to help each other through this terrible time, electronically as well. Stay connected. Stay safe and stay well.
Bill Kirton said…
Good idea, Umberto. If we can do anything collectively to help each other (or indeed, all others) I'd gladly contribute. And thanks, Jo, for such a clear exposition of the current nightmare.
julia jones said…
On the subject of apocalyptic fiction ... I found myself listening to a quite uncharacteristic rant by one of my older children (father of 3) about th epotential break down of law and order, packs of looters roaning the the countryside etc etc --- then he began listening to himself, paused and said 'To be fair I think I shouldn't have been reading The Death of Grass...' I looked it up later and discovered a novel by John Christopher with a terrifying-sounding scenario where the worlds grass, grain and rice crops get a virus. I advised him to return to his usual PG Wodehouse reading at once
Susan Price said…
That made me laugh, Julia!
JO said…
Thank you all - for your comments and your understanding. I live alone; even so I’m luckier than many - my daughters are being brilliant; I don’t have to worry about money and I have a balcony that (on a good day) is full of sunshine. I’m not saying I don’t need support - of course I do - but I also know that there are thousands of people far worse off than I am.
I feel like the dog in the psychology experiment that is given random shocks in a cage. Not knowing which way to jump next, it eventually just lies down and suffers them - and then, even when the cage door is opened, it does not flee but simply lies there listlessly waiting for the next shock. It seems to me that we are all being punished, and yet I have done nothing wrong. The beautiful weather here in the UK this week that I've been looking forward to all winter for getting out into beautiful places and meeting my friends just adds insult to injury. It's been raining every single day since September it seems, and now we're looking at a whole summer of lockdown? I read quite a lot of dystopian fiction so I'm terrified of what might come next. I'm expecting the aliens to land at any moment...

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