When certain fixtures have been part of the cultural landscape for so long that nobody is precisely sure how or why they got there, you know it’s hard to imagine life without them. Although there are several suggestions as to why wigs became part of the courtroom uniform for the legal profession in this country, one interesting theory that may nonetheless be as apocryphal as the rest is that the familiar white wigs we all recognise from dramatisations of trials were first worn as a curious means of marking the death of Queen Anne in 1714 and simply stuck. Of course, periwigs were fashionable accessories for both sexes at the time anyway, but the legal design never fell out of fashion in the theatre of justice. Indeed, for all the understandable accusations of the headgear being an archaic irrelevance 300 years on, wigs are so intrinsic to the British courtroom experience that judges or barristers seem to lose their authority when stripped of them. Wigs were normalised for that one context long before the everyday variety disappeared beneath Madame Guillotine, and they have largely remained with us in that context ever since.
I only bring this up because I was thinking about the ‘Covid facemask’ the other day. Hell, how could I not when venturing into anywhere that isn’t our own home necessitates covering up our bloody mouths and noses? But I just wondered if, like the horsehair wig in court, we are now stuck with it for good when visiting any interior public space. So successful was Pandemic Project Fear in convincing the majority that every risk-averse recommendation must be adhered to, once mask-wearing became mandatory there were plenty who saw it as a vindication of the (over) precautions they’d already been taking long before the rest of us were forced to comply. This means some people in this country haven’t been anywhere without a mask on for more than a year now; if they were convinced such a restrictive item of ‘clothing’ was necessary when even professional scaremongers like SAGE weren’t insisting they must be worn, will a time ever come when they’ll feel safe enough to remove them? Moreover, will a time ever come when they’re actually allowed to remove them?
I’ve seen several online headlines over the past few days that highlight people who don’t want to remove the mask and are quite happy retaining them, even if their compulsory use should ever cease. I think for such sad individuals, masks have become akin to a baby’s dummy; and just as it can often be quite a challenge to wean toddlers off their comforters, persuading mask-wearers that it’s not necessarily a good thing to hide half their faces forever could be just as difficult. I’ve seen lone individuals wearing them whilst walking outdoors through quiet suburban neighbourhoods where social distancing is a given and there isn’t a shop in sight to justify a mask; I’ve even seen drivers in otherwise empty cars with masks on – I mean, what do they think is going to happen? Do they imagine Covid will be tapping at their window, desperate to get in like some sort of virus version of Cathy? Some mask fanatics have essentially become the helicopter parent to their inner child. Fair enough, if this sartorial insanity makes you feel safer, so be it; but I’ve had enough of your paranoid hypochondria being imposed upon me by the state, especially now that restrictions are gradually lifting and the death rates are plummeting.
Ironically, as someone who hasn’t set foot in anyone’s house or used any form of transport for over a year, I feel I have – in my own way – become as conditioned to a certain style of living as much as the aforementioned mask fanatic. For them, the mask represents an additional shield against a virus they’ve probably had a couple of injections to keep at bay by now, yet the illusion of safety they’ve derived from the mouth nappy is something they’re reluctant to relinquish as they re-enter the social sphere. For me, the prospect of a grand reopening of society is something I have to admit I feel slightly apprehensive about. It’s not really anything to do with fear of becoming infected by the Chinese lurgy, more a case of having got used to minimal social contact for a period of time that has been an extended one, even by my own personal standards (which far exceed those of the average punter at the best of times). I’ve said it before, but it’s undeniable that I genuinely liked the ambience of the empty roads, tranquil streets and audible birdsong that characterised Lockdown I in its early days. It was an atmosphere I slotted into without any great difficulty; had it not been for the supermarket queues and scarcity of toilet paper, I probably wouldn’t have minded certain elements of the first lockdown remaining in place.
Naturally, I’m speaking from a purely personal perspective there; I acknowledge I was in a fortunate position compared to many people in this country, for whom normal service being suspended was a disaster with nightmarish consequences they’re still dealing with a year later. Mind you, Boris has declared social distancing will end within three weeks, so presumably that means all the other outstanding restrictions will eventually follow suit over the coming months. Or (as James Burke might have once said) does it? The caveat in the PM’s announcement was a warning of another wave next winter, with the latest in a long line of endless overseas variants waiting in the wings threatening to reduce the current restriction-lifting to a brief burst of sunshine like the one we glimpsed before Lockdown II. Gruesome events in India seem to support the World Health Organisation claims that the pandemic will be with us for the rest of the year, and if the next variant comes from the Subcontinent, don’t be surprised should this year’s winter end up being reminiscent of last year’s.
‘The end of the lockdown is not the end of the pandemic’ was the statement Boris maybe reckons will be his own ‘It is not even the beginning of the end; but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning’ line. We shall see. The Prime Minister also announced there is to be ‘an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis’ into the pandemic and the way it was handled by the combined powers-that-be of the state, though does anybody really expect this will result in the Government finally answering for some of the more disastrous decisions it made? And, of course, as is customary (just think of Grenfell), it will drag on and on like some legal version of ‘The Mousetrap’; it’s not even expected to begin for another year. Perhaps the Government is hoping by the time the inquiry publishes its findings the pandemic will have been all-but forgotten about. If healthy, vaccinated people of all ages are still forced to be clad in masks when that comes around, don’t bank on it; then again, masks are already so halfway to being normalised that perhaps nobody by then will be able to recall a time when they weren’t worn or why they were ever introduced, so who knows?
In a clever move designed to appeal to the nation’s dubious fondness for the marking of private loss in public, Boris also spoke of a ‘Commission on Covid Commemoration’ as a sentimental sweetener to bury some less benign policy moves. Some of the proposals for dealing with demonstrations that were announced in the Queen’s Speech this week could be perceived as either further over-caution when it comes to public gatherings or as an attempt to prevent the anarchy that characterised last summer’s BLM exterior redecoration projects. Then again, they could be regarded as evidence that the powers invested in this Government by Covid-19 have whetted an authoritarian appetite which is seizing the opportunity to extend public order measures that the coronavirus facilitated. We can’t say we didn’t see this coming, though. Surrendering every civil liberty that government suggests is necessary as a short-term sacrifice for the long-term good and then expecting each individual right to be returned is a bit…er…naive. Not getting them back will mean you’ll eventually forget you ever had them in the first place – just like never wondering why you need a mask.
© The Editor