I, like most, watched one of those rare television events last night – the Prime Ministerial address to the nation. Back in the day, these direct announcements by the tenant of No.10 from his/her Downing Street bunker were regular affairs, transmitting simultaneously on all channels (along with bog-standard party political broadcasts): Wilson assuring the shopper that devaluing sterling wouldn’t affect ‘the pound in your pocket’; Heath inaugurating the Three-Day Week by asking householders to cut their consumption of electricity ‘to the absolute minimum’ in line with industry; Thatcher responding to the 1981 riots by falling back on the short-sharp-shock rhetoric that was tough on the crime without addressing the cause of it – these were tried-and-trusted means of speaking to the individual viewer at a time when grandstand performances at PMQs were restricted to those present in the Commons and (from 1978) listeners on Radio 4. Otherwise, Our Glorious Leader would only be seen walking in and out of their front door and offering the electorate a jolly wave.
As someone once pointed out many years ago when ‘Match of the Day’ was hosted by Des Lynam, viewers always knew when something serious was poised to be discussed if Des donned his glasses; the sudden appearance of those austere specs meant the subject of Eric Cantona scissor-kicking a spectator was to take precedence over the mercurial Frenchman’s latest wonder goal. Similarly, the rare sighting of a Prime Minister directly addressing the nation from Downing Street rather than an audience of pressmen from the doorstep lectern signified this was something a cut above routine announcements. The preferred method of Cameron and May was ditched in favour of a traditional route unused since Blair confirmed we had invaded Iraq, the last such occasion in which I can recall a PM adopting this neglected means of messaging the public. But, even more than in 2003, the situation demanded it.
It may seem a trivial fact when one considers the purpose behind the broadcast, but overnight ratings suggest Boris Johnson’s remarkable address has already been enshrined as one of the most watched programmes in British TV history. Upwards of 27 million viewers tuned in – the kind of figures that place it in the same ball park as the 1966 World Cup Final and various landmark royal events; being transmitted across all networks helped, of course; but it perhaps demonstrates the default impulse the British public still have in turning to the mainstream, traditional television medium at times of crisis. Moreover, reserving one of the Prime Minister’s oldest methods of imparting news to the electorate exclusively for emergencies only re-emphasises its effectiveness in getting an urgent message across to a receptive audience anticipating something serious.
As for both content and delivery – well, it was certainly shorn of any soft-soak spin; Boris made his point with concise, unambiguous clarity; he had no choice. Despite the draconian imposition on individual civil liberties – something that is severely at odds with his own personal preferences – he was presented with no alternative following a weekend in which some people reacted to a bit of sunshine by flocking to the coast and countryside in a carefree Bank Holiday manner. As with the insubordinate child ‘spoiling it for everybody else’ by not owning up to his misdemeanours as the class is forced to remain in the room despite the bell, the selfish actions of the few have dictated policy to the rest of us. The PM’s options were limited and unavoidable.
As I am now informed I’m allowed to venture outdoors for essential shopping and a brisk bout of exercise alone (no worries there for yours truly), I took advantage of my few remaining rights this morning. There was a detectable difference in the atmosphere today. As someone highly sensitive to whatever happens to be in the air – a minor super-power, I admit; but it’s a handy radar system – I discerned an unpleasantness yesterday that reminded me of being around someone who’s exceeded their recommended alcohol intake and is about to turn violent. Nothing was said or done by anyone I came into contact with; but I could just feel it. This morning, however, the mood wasn’t quite so tense; perhaps now people have received clarification of what they can and can’t do, the situation has been helped a little. Mind you, contact was restricted to sharing supermarket space – and, ironically, the quieter aisles were more abundant in goods (minus the gold-dust that is toilet paper) than they have been in a week, right on the very day I withdraw from outings until next weekend. I guess the panic buyers can’t cram any further excess goods into their garages and pantries and the greedy f**kers might be forced to start eating them.
As for the street itself, I had to pop something through a friend’s letterbox today as well, so I attended to that after dropping off my shopping. A leisurely twenty minute walk was a bit like being out on Christmas Day if 25 December had been relocated to that welcome burst of warmth that constitutes the best of spring mornings. Traffic was still in evidence, albeit slightly less hectic than usual, and people were few and far between – the odd dog-walker, a stray old biddy, the occasional smug jogger et al; but I actually found the tranquillity preferable to the norm. The window that offers me a view from the desk I’m working at as I write this looks down on a busy road that has been uncharacteristically quiet all day – and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t better this way. The village roots are beginning to show through the big city highlights.
I can understand the sudden appearance of social media ‘support groups’; so few are accustomed to this kind of lifestyle that the need to remain in constant contact in ways that only contemporary technology allows is probably a lifeline for many. Being suddenly deprived of the right to roam and network in person is bound to come as a shock to those for whom such activities form the core of their daily routine. Wealthy celebrities keeping us updated on how they’re coping I could do without, however; yes, they’re doing their best to demonstrate how they’re just like us, but mass self-isolation is only a leveller if all those abruptly pulled out of circulation can survive without fear that their absence from the workplace puts the paying of rent, bills, and mortgages at risk.
Yes, these are extremely strange and unprecedented times; but I suppose I’m fortunate that I can cope with being stuck indoors for days on end as I’ve had plenty of practice. I’m also lucky in that I’ve nobody’s tits to get on and vice-versa. It’s just me, the keyboard and the box-set. The most surreal part of this for me is that an ill-equipped world has now been forced into giving my lifestyle a go at extremely short notice. And while I’ve no real need to raise my own spirits, I appreciate others might feel differently. Therefore, I shall attach a joyous pick-me-up to the end of this post and just say be careful in there. After all, more accidents take place in the home than anywhere else…
© The Editor