Another week, another mood. It started calmly enough, at least by the frenzied standards of this pandemic. During my visit to Kew Gardens last month, one of many pauses for thought had come as I’d wandered through a wood where, in ordinary years, bluebells erupt in April and May. Imagining the leafless trees in bloom, I’d felt then that the sight would be sadder this year. It is – not least because the sight can’t be seen, now that Kew has closed its gates – so when I stumbled across a little blue riot near Hyde Park Corner on Sunday, I became quite sentimental. So much so that, in memory of springtimes less weird, I decided to keep an eye open for more. Flower-appreciation’s never been my greatest strength, but bluebell photography would, I figured, at least give me something pretty to worry about.
Events, as usual, intervened. By last weekend, death rates and epidemiological graphs were becoming familiar enough to make the immensity of COVID-19 slightly comprehensible. Though it hardly felt safe to go back in the water, it looked at least as though the shark was looming into view. But on Sunday evening, when news of Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation stuttered out of Downing Street, perspectives skewed and the outlook darkened all over again. Within hours, state-owned Russian media was citing ‘a source close to the leadership of the national health service’ to report that the UK prime minister was about to go on life support. The claim was as wrong as the supposed source sounded, but government assurances that Johnson was simply undergoing ‘tests’ were also misleading. His condition worsened, and he entered one of the intensive care units at St Thomas’s Hospital on Monday evening. By Tuesday afternoon, BBC journalists were on standby to cover his death.
Almost everyone has firm opinions about Boris Johnson by now, and those in London are a lot less favourable than they used to be, but the shock of his sudden deterioration sucked yet more energy from the already subdued capital. If the streets I cycled on Monday and Tuesday were representative, a quiet atmosphere turned into a hushed one. And, during a week when it emerged that COVID-19 has so far killed ten doctors and fourteen Transport for London workers – twenty-four tragedies in a daily toll that’s now hovering close to a thousand – my personal sense of foreboding also grew. Something that must have been true from the start struck me for the first time: it isn’t just food stores, chemists and post offices that are allowed to stay open during the lockdown, but funeral parlours too. They’re looking as inert as ever behind their discreet screens and fixed floral arrangements, but it’s been disconcerting to realise what’s become obvious: the business of death is booming. And on Wednesday, when I travelled through south-west London in glorious sunshine to wish my mum a happy birthday, yet more gloom punctuated the day. As I rolled through the meadows and lanes of Richmond and Kingston – leafy suburbs, with fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any other London borough – I counted seven ambulances, parked outside houses or speeding to unknown destinations.
I’m not as despondent as those morbid reflections might suggest – cycling in the sun definitely has its benefits too – but the prime minister’s hospitalisation directly affected me, and not just because I’m a man of almost exactly the same age. As many people reading this already know, I was quite close to Boris for years, through a long friendship with his recently divorced ex-wife, and until Brexit wreaked its havoc, I liked him. That wouldn’t be worth saying on Facebook, except that it helps contextualise what I’ve just written – and it’s also made me acutely aware of certain reactions within my social media bubble. Insofar as my news feed keeps me properly informed, all my close friends (hi!) sensibly kept any opinions they may have had about the prime minister’s illness to themselves, and most of the people who expressed a view noted – sometimes to their own surprise – how strongly they were rooting for Johnson to pull through. But a handful of acquaintances preferred publicly to signal that their sympathies lay elsewhere. A couple were indifferent to his fate; at least two hoped he would die.
Such sentiments are awkward even to describe, but the attitudes are also worth recording and considering. It’s the urge to go public with contempt for a hospital patient that’s particularly unpleasant, not unarticulated uncaringness; there are several thought experiments involving Donald Trump that would probably end very badly in my own head. And though sympathy has typified the public’s response to Boris Johnson’s illness, that minimal mercy doesn’t equate to unity. This country has deep political wounds that four weeks of combating the coronavirus certainly haven’t healed – and for all the government’s talk of ‘shielding the vulnerable’ and doing ‘whatever it takes’, the present crisis will invariably end up exacerbating the divisions. A prediction that sweeping requires more reasoning than fits comfortably into Facebook, but the takeaway’s short: the stunned fear that’s been generating consensus and compliance is likely soon to give way to disagreements and disorder. If I’m wrong, no problem (I’ll just edit this post to prove I was right), but hopes for the prime minister’s full recovery are only decent and proper; they’re no guarantee of stability, and won’t change whatever lies ahead.
In fact, the very insistence of ministers that they can hold it together has already started to feel like a sign of things falling apart. Michael Gove’s attempt on Tuesday morning radio to reassure listeners that all was under control, for example, was followed three hours later by a statement that he was going into self-isolation; nothing has been heard from him since. The politician standing in for the absent prime minister, Dominic Raab, meanwhile instils no confidence at all. In respect of the government’s most urgent duty – to procure protective personal equipment for critical workers, and to roll out reliable COVID-19 tests – he’s done nothing but repeat unfulfilled government promises that now date back almost a month. With eyes that are both terrified and terrifying, Raab’s resemblance to a rabbit in headlights has been too apparent to be funny; at the first press briefing he led after the prime minister’s admission into intensive care, he twitchily declined four times to say he was in charge. Asked how policy differences would be determined in Boris Johnson’s absence – if Cabinet ministers disagree about steps to loosen the lockdown, for example – he insisted nonsensically that disputes would be resolved by everyone assuming collective responsibility for the argument. As I listened to Raab’s performance through headphones on my bike, he managed somehow even to sound like roadkill.
Anyway, that’s enough discord. I’ll go easier on the politics next time. It’s important still to imagine that we’re all in this pandemic together. And as I started this post by saying, I’ve been taking photographs of a much prettier outbreak: the bluebells that are spreading across London at the moment. I’ve even turned a few of them into a self-indulgent video. It’s been a nice distraction. At the moment, reasons to look away from the enormity of events feel more precious than efforts to comprehend them.