FOR thirteen years I have been writing an advice column in the Saturday Daily Mail, and because this work is so personal and emotional I thought I knew our readers pretty well. Giving talks from time to time (pre-lockdown, of course) I have actually confessed to a strange and unsentimental love for my readers who, after all, share their pain as well as some joy and affection with me.
What a sheltered life I’ve led. For last Saturday, in response to Matt Hancock’s sudden, arbitrary and illogical ‘rule of six’ diktat, I wrote a strong opinion piece (at the request of my newspaper) headlined ‘NO, NO, NO! I’m having Christmas for 14 – and no puffed-up Covid marshal will stop me’.
As you might expect, there was a huge response. I never look online, and am not on Twitter (I expect there was a lot of poison swilling around out there). I am talking about emails to me and the newspaper. What interested me was the fact that, if I am to be honest, the antis outnumbered the pros. I didn’t expect that from Mail readers.
In my article I talked about the principle of government by consent and said that although I had obeyed rules during lockdown, a line had just been crossed for me. My judgement on the ‘rule of six’ was this: ‘It defies reason – because there appears to be astonishingly little evidence-based justification for the Government’s latest ruling. And it defies morality because any intelligent person can see that the current policy is a mix of bullying, panic and fear.’
I went on to talk about the importance of family occasions, especially as my parents (who live fifteen minutes away) are 98 and 96, which makes every Christmas all the more precious. Nothing gives them more joy than to sit at the table surrounded by me, my husband, my two children and their delightful spouses, plus four great-grandchildren. Four generations is such a blessing. We are also joined by beloved friends (my daughter’s godparents) who have no children of their own and are thought of as family. That’s a lot of roast potatoes!
Of course, for many readers I became their spokesperson: a brave defender of freedom and the sanctity of private life. But I regret that they were outnumbered by furious people who called me appalling, selfish, irresponsible, entitled, immature, whining, etc. Some couldn’t understand how I had ‘coerced the Editor’ (that made me smile – as if!) to print such a vile rant and others accused me of ‘killing people’. Yes, this homicidal grandmother is pretty well personally responsible for any future Covid deaths. I was accused of being indifferent to the deaths – I who wrote hundreds of private emails to readers all through lockdown, many of which gave bereavement counselling. Some kind readers hoped I would not have the cheek to accept an intensive care bed for myself or a family member; others hoped I would get a hefty fine. A few informed me: ‘I will never read you again . . .’ Your loss, chum.
Why was my opinion such a threat? An outrage against decency? Maybe they couldn’t bear it because somebody was standing up for freedom of choice. But why? I thought of the bleating sheep in ‘Animal farm’ – ready to obey whoever is in charge. At the end of my piece there was a small, essential qualification: ‘I’m sorry, but – barring a change in the evidence such as a true “second wave” or a confirmed infection in the family – no here-today-gone-tomorrow government can dare to instruct me not to celebrate.’ Christmas is a way off – and of course I believe in common sense and obeying the law. But what if those are in conflict?
The overwhelming impression from those reader emails was of a populace who are utterly terrified and have lost the ability to think for themselves, trust their own judgment, show resilience. ‘Cowed by Covid’ should have been their collective signature. It shocked me that so many are ready to relinquish their liberty when the jury is very much still out on just how the wretched virus might have been tackled, on ‘herd immunity’, the Swedish experience and so on. But, like members of a strange doomsday cult, the people who wrote attacking me were utterly convinced that we are all going to die unless we stay home, stay safe . . . and any other craven, shivering, pathetic and totally unrealistic exhortation you care to squeak when the bogeyman stalks your dreams. I realised, with amazement, that if Boris Johnson broke his own heart still further by announcing a ‘rule of four and a half’ (the half being one child) that too would have to be obeyed – with a click of the heels by the Covid marshals. Would you have imagined that British people (‘Land of Hope and Glory’) would turn into such compliant, brainwashed wimps?
To succeed in journalism for fifty years, as I have, your hide has to be pretty tough. But the emails that enraged me were those that presumed to tell me how to take care of my own parents. In effect, by refusing to comply with the order I was refusing my duty of care to the beloved people to whom I owe my life and for whom (in the natural order of things) I will sooner or later mourn. How dare they?
My mother and I talked about it. Since my frail father has dementia (but is still able to come to us for Sunday lunch and chat and chortle at his own jokes over a glass of sherry) and looking after him is often a challenge, my mother lives for family times. Without them, there is no life. Forbid her to celebrate her great-granddaughter’s eighth birthday (because we’d exceed the rule of six) and she will ask why, at 96, you would wish to preserve your life if it is to be so trammelled.
My daughter and son (in their forties) tell me they don’t know anybody who respects the latest command from a panicking, rudderless government. My friends feel the same – although of course we all obeyed the first lockdown because it seemed the right thing to do. But now? I tell you this, even though I voted for this Government my disillusionment is now complete. The cure seems far worse than the disease. My mother would rather be dead than end her life huddling in her house. Come to that, at nearly 74 and with a history of asthma, so would I. Family life and family love is worth far more than fear – and no power on earth will keep me from them.