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The Oracle of Twickenham

Let’s be clear from the outset – no one likes a smart alec, and there is no skill in being wise after the event.  Having taught history for so many years, I am all too familiar with the benefit of hindsight and how it can alter our perspective of what actually happened, so looking back and saying that I told you so is of little or no value.  My final caveat would be to say that we are often more inclined to remember when we get things right than when we make predictions that do not come true. 

Having said all that, I am increasingly inclined to have a word with the good people of the Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust to see if they would let me rent out the grotto on a long-term lease.  This would allow me to restore it in a way more suited to my personal style than the eminently sensible plans they have in place, and to set up shop as a dispenser of wisdom to anyone who wants to listen. 

If you are not familiar with Pope’s Grotto, you could think of it as an eighteenth-century man cave.  It was where Alexander Pope went when he needed some ‘me time’, to drink with his pals and slag off the government of the day.  Who said that history doesn’t repeat itself?  Another of the grotto’s functions is to provide a tunnel under the road that emerges in St Catherine’s School, which back in the day allowed Pope to get to his garden without being run over by coaches and horses.  There are also two side chambers that resemble shrines, though you need quite a lot of imagination to recreate what these might have looked like at the height of their glory.   

I have realised that I need to add another disclaimer, which is simply to say that I am not wise.  My wife is wise, blessed with more common sense than one person deserves, and almost always able to plot a sensible course through life’s challenges.  My plan would therefore be for her to occupy one of the side chambers, where she can share her calm, rational approach with those who are feeling anxious.  I would occupy the other chamber, where I would hope to share my thoughts about the world and how I would run it differently if they would let me be in charge. 

If you look back at some of my recent blogs and the comments I have made in the weekly bulletins, I am reasonably confident you would see that I have charted the progress of the virus and its impact on our lives rather more accurately than the people who are allegedly in charge.  I think I predicted that the situation would get out of hand after Christmas, that schools would have to close and that public exams would not go ahead in 2021.  These were not epically powerful insights, more an application of what seemed blindingly obvious to me, though perhaps my wisdom was disproportionately magnified because it came in the face of such robust counter-claims from our political leaders. 

The key to sanity, and indeed to survival, in the coming months, may simply be to believe and to do the opposite of what we are told by government.  Many people, of course, do this already, but it looks like it may be time for the rest of us to follow.  Exams will not be cancelled.  Yes, they will.  Schools will not close.  Er… Christmas will go ahead as we said it would, until we had to call it off at the last minute.  There won’t be any problems after Brexit.  No, of course not. 

Apparently, this is Lockdown 3, but I seem to have missed Lockdown 2.  Perhaps I was out when it called and it didn’t leave a note asking me to collect it from the post office?  From what I remember of Lockdown 1, it was actually something that approached what I would think of as a lockdown, in that everything was closed apart from genuinely essential shops and we were firmly discouraged from leaving our homes.  While Majestic Wine and Screwfix might be essential to some people, or even many, is it any wonder the virus is not under control when we are allowed to continue shopping in such places? 

The cat was out of the bag in terms of compliance when Johnson was too spineless to dismiss Cummings, as history will surely judge he should have done and will condemn him for accordingly.  But when elite sport is allowed to go ahead because money seems more important than lives, when so many contracts are awarded to cronies without proper scrutiny and when so many blatant lies are told over and over again, is it any wonder they are struggling now to get us to comply?   

If I ran the school like these people run the country, I am pretty sure I would have been rumbled by now and my tenure brought to a close.  Parents, pupils and staff would not have stood for it, nor would my boss.  I am therefore confused about why we are allowing this culture of incompetence to persist, almost without protest. 

Let us not end on such a low ebb, however.  I read Rutger Bregman’s ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’ over the holiday, which provides plenty of grounds for longer-term optimism.  He makes the point that there is a persistent myth that by our very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic.  It is what Dutch biologist Frans de Waal likes to call ‘veneer theory’: the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation.  In reality, the opposite is true.  It is when crisis hits – when the bombs fall, the floodwaters rise or the pandemic strikes – that we humans become our best selves. 

Bregman says that catastrophes bring out the best in people – though he wrote this before he could witness our government in action!  He claims that he knows of no other sociological finding that is backed by so much solid evidence and yet is so blithely ignored.  The picture we are fed by the media is consistently the opposite of what happens when disaster strikes. 

I will share more of his findings in the coming weeks, because it was a genuinely uplifting book.  For the time being, I’m off to my man cave to do some more thinking and to appear wise in the face of so much stupidity – which should not be too difficult! 

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