Last time I re-jigged my bookshelves, I decided to deliberately set aside one shelf solely for books I hadn’t read. I figured stacking the unread together side-by-side would mean whenever I finished a book, I could then return to said shelf and the next one would be patiently waiting for me without my having to root around in various drawers or cupboards, trying to locate a book I half-remembered owning and fancied taking a look at if only I could find it. Bringing some order to proceedings means such a system is a bit like having a miniature public library in my own home, one of which I am the solitary member. Selecting the book – the one that will be sufficiently engrossing to maintain my concentration for probably a good few months – reminds me of when big-money punters are presented with a line-up of delicious damsels of the kind you only get in cinematic portrayals of brothels. I really am spoilt for choice; but at the moment, roundabout a quarter of the shelf’s residents now remain unread, and this week I reduced the unread numbers anew by picking a fresh one out, a 1939 novel by Aldous Huxley called ‘After Many a Summer’.
The blurb on the back of this Penguin Modern Classics edition printed in 1974 proclaims the story is ‘at once grotesque and realistic, farcical and reflective, of an attempt on the part of a rich man to prolong the span of human life indefinitely’. I’m only three chapters in, but the intriguing set-up already has me hooked; and while I don’t want to read any critical assessments or reviews of the novel until I finish it (spoilers etc.), I’m pretty certain the mysterious millionaire who lives in a Californian castle and plans to ‘prolong the span of human life indefinitely’ has more than a touch of William Randolph Hearst about him – or John Paul Getty or Howard Hughes, or any one of the numerous self-made American men that created a large cultural, political and financial splash in the first half of the twentieth century, many of whom I presume Huxley must have personally encountered and observed following his relocation to Southern California in the late 1930s.
Anyway, there was one utterly minor and innocuous, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene I read in the book today that caused the unwelcome spectre of the here and now to gatecrash the escapist 30s ambience – and I really resent the fact it had the temerity to appear. A couple of characters met for the first time and shook hands; so what, eh? Had I read that sequence at any other point of my life, I would barely have given it a second thought and would’ve immediately moved on to the next sentence. But what the hell was my instant reaction when I read it in 2021? Well, I thought of the characters not observing social distancing and actually making physical contact with one another – no gloves, no masks, no hand sanitizer; shit, they weren’t even members of the same household. F**k! It’s really come to this. How pathetic. That’s what more than a year of Project Fear propaganda seeping into and corroding my psyche has done. And I’m ashamed to say it also sometimes barges its way into a movie or TV show from the late, lamented lost world before Covid when I virtually visit – even when the whole point of going there is to get away from here.
I don’t want this way of living to become so normalised that it contaminates the past as well as the present; but if some zealots get their way, it will pollute the future too. Yes, stand aside for a moment, Professor Neil Ferguson, and step forward Professor Susan Michie of University College, London – another member of the motley SAGE crew and a repeat offender when it comes to dispensing increasingly unhinged advice. She has made it clear she will be more than happy for the ‘emergency’ restrictions imposed upon individuals to keep them in a state of perpetual paranoid panic during the pandemic to continue for the rest of our lives. Not for her any optimistic projected deadlines when coronavirus measures can finally be lifted and life can try to reclaim normality – no, Prof. Michie wants us all to ‘stay safe’ until we breathe our last; and chances are that won’t be too distant, because the prospect of restrictions being permanent instead of temporary will probably provoke many into bringing that last breath about far earlier than intended. Prof. Michie has even dismissed the vaccine as the so-called ‘silver bullet’ that can diminish the threat of the virus – something which must come as great comfort to those who made themselves ill submitting to it after the likes of Michie’s crackpot cult demanded everyone must have it pumped into their bloodstream, whether vulnerable to the virus or not.
On the subject of individual responses to living in the shadow of Covid, Prof. Michie has spoken of ‘the behaviour of social distancing, of when you’re indoors, making sure there’s good ventilation or if there’s not, wearing face masks and hand and surface hygiene. We’ll need to keep these going in the long term and that will be good not only for Covid but also to reduce other diseases.’ Well, it beats building up an immunity system in the time-honoured natural way, I guess. Prof. Michie’s vision of this design for life without living is all about normalising it; she compares the wearing of masks and social distancing becoming second nature to the way in which donning seatbelts or picking up dog-shit have now become second nature. ‘It’s not going to be a huge big deal, the kind of behaviours we’re talking about,’ she says. Prof. Michie doesn’t shy away from this ‘long term’ agenda, and her definition of ‘long term’ is ‘I think forever to some extent because this isn’t going to be the last pandemic’. Brilliant. And it goes without saying that we all want to live in Michie-World, don’t we, kids?
The long-trumpeted ‘Freedom Day’ of 21 June – when we can all express gratitude to our glorious leaders for allowing us to exercise civil liberties that are a right in free, democratic societies – is now predictably in doubt courtesy of the latest invented variant; but the benevolent Prof. Michie evidently has the good grace to keep selflessly planning our futures on our behalf, bless her. And if her recommended sacrifice of individual freedoms, opposition and dissent for the greater, communal good sounds suspiciously…well…Communist, perhaps it’s no real surprise to discover that Prof. Michie is a leading light in the Communist Party of Great Britain and was – according to ‘The Spectator’ – known as ‘Stalin’s Nanny’ whilst an Oxford student, which sounds a suitably cuddly nickname; she was also once married to one of Comrade Corbyn’s advisers. When you’re made aware of all that, her notion that we should remain isolated in social bubbles until kingdom come and suppress any questioning of lockdown wisdom doesn’t seem so radical; it just feels very Soviet – or, more fittingly, Chinese.
Implementing a pandemic strategy developed by a Communist State in Western democracies – and witnessing the complete compliance of the populace – must have filled Susan Michie’s heart with joy. She’d praised China’s hardline approach in a tweet even before the West copied the model, and the overnight media careers of previously (and rightly) anonymous boffins that the implementation of this model gave rise to are something that many of them are clearly reluctant to relinquish – Prof. Michie included. Well, I don’t think I have any other unread Huxley novels standing on my special shelf, though perhaps I won’t need to read them if I have; I’ll just take a cursory glance at the news headlines, for there are the latest works by Huxley, and Orwell, and JG Ballard; turns out they weren’t novelists after all – just journalists with crystal balls.
© The Editor