I spend a lot of time looking out the window these days when I should be at my desk (the first law of lockdown is that the more time you have to work, the less work gets done). Fortunately there is a lot to see. I am with my daughter and wife in her sister’s cottage on a hilltop in Scotland near Inverness.
This morning, like every morning for the past few days, the air is filled with the sound of many hundreds of pink-footed geese. They have spent the winter in the Black Isle and are now getting ready to head to their breeding grounds in Iceland. They seem very excited about it, doing practice take-offs, wheeling over the hills in loose, flowing formations (rightly called skeins, not gaggles), then landing again on the bare fields. All the time they give out exuberant little yips that sound like joy.
The geese clearly don’t give a damn about Covid-19 and I don’t blame them. These days we are being forced to acknowledge an inescapable truth. Nature doesn’t need us. As an obsessive fisherman I have contradictory feelings about this. Virtuously, I want rivers and lochs to be pure and pristine. Selfishly, this is mainly so I might then experience the teeming plenty casually recorded by postwar writers like Arthur Oglesby and Hugh Falkus when on any decent Highland river it would not be unusual to connect with two or three fair-sized salmon in a morning.
Now you would be lucky to do that in a season. Or half-season as it will be this year. The government has decided that angling does not constitute permitted exercise and every fishery is closed until further notice. I’m not complaining but it seems a bit odd. Fishermen invented social distancing. On a riverbank you are invading a fellow angler’s space if you get within 30 yards of him (it will be a him). Instead, like a tourist in the Amsterdam red light district, I just look.
The other day I went for a walk along the Alness, a nice, maneagable spate river that tumbles and glides down the hills of Easter Ross into the Cromarty Firth. It was here that my father-in-law taught me to Spey cast. There are lots of things I would like to talk to him about, as I would my own father, but they are both dead. That’s another inescapable truth that the virus forces us to confront. We’re all going to die. We spend most of our lives finding ways to suppress that knowledge. There are plenty of reminders around here that all things pass. The cottage looks down on the Cromarty Firth, which is full of decomissioned oil rigs, waiting to be towed off for scrap. Not so long ago North Sea oil seemed like a gift from God — a Scottish God according to Alex Salmond and his followers. Now the rigs look as imposing and as obsolete as Victorian factory chimneys.
Is it too soon to suggest a national holiday when this is all over?
Highland hospitality is on hold for the duration of the crisis. We came north to check on my wife’s mother and the drawbridge went up while we were on the M6 so we have a reasonable excuse for being here. We spend a fair amount of time on the Black Isle and on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides.
My Irish mother was born in Glasgow so I don’t identify as Sassenach even though I sound English. In normal times no one seems to mind but these days on my rare outings I tend to keep my mouth shut. Since the crisis the instinct has been to repel outsiders. Holiday cottage owners have had hate mail posted on their websites for continuing to advertise lets. Coming back to my car after a walk the other day a local told me he had passed on my registration number to the police as I was “breaking the law”.
This is happening everywhere it seems. In France, a 75 number plate, which reveals you as a resident of Paris, puts a target on your back. A friend with a house on the island of Noirmoutier reports that second-homers who have fled the metropolis for the Atlantic coast are waking up in the morning to find their car tyres slashed.
The French of course have no “Blitz spirit” to invoke to get them through the crisis. It was inevitable that as soon as the drama began we would reach for the wartime comfort blanket. The Second World War may have bankrupted us but we were left with a huge surplus of self-regard which shows no sign of running out. A lot of it is justified. What is not is the assumption that if the Germans had invaded we would have behaved better than the French.
Working on a book on the 1942 Dieppe raid has reinforced my belief that most French people faced their ordeal with dignity and stoicism and sometimes astonishing bravery. In Dieppe, as everywhere they occupied, the Germans created a safe space for local creeps. It is uplifting to discover how few stepped in to fill it. One was the editor of the local newspaper who having seemed a normal citizen before the invasion soon revealed himself as a Jew-baiter and Pétain-worshipper.
In July 1940 he promoted a “Friends of the Marshal” association for those who embraced the values of Vichy and a list of adherents was published in every issue. After a few months it disappeared. Only a few hundred had signed up out of a population of more than 20,000. The signatories were mostly at the top and middle of the social scale. The resisters in the area were almost all working-class.
In one respect what we are going through now does bear comparison with the wartime experience. That is, that the crisis has awesomely revealed the decency of ordinary people. Everyone has been touched by some act of kindness from hitherto anonymous neighbours. For the next few months supermarket workers, deliverymen, not to mention hospital cleaners, doctors, paramedics, nurses, pharmacists and everyone else who is keeping the nation on life support will be heroes. When it ends, someone should tell them, as Churchill told the crowds outside Buckingham Palace on VE day, “God bless you all. This is your victory.”
How long our gratitude will last remains to be seen. One of the perks of staying in someone else’s house is that you pick up books that you might otherwise never open. On the shelves of my sister-in-law Mary I found a collection of the wartime writings of Jan Struther, once famous for having created Mrs Miniver, a middle-class matron and mother of three, one a fighter pilot. Miniver was a bit of a joke to the intelligentsia but when played by Greer Garson in the movie of the same name, admired as a symbol of genteel feminine grit at home and across the Atlantic. Struther wrote that it shouldn’t need a war to make everyone do their human duty. But once it was over it was vital not to slump back into pre-crisis mode but to “recapture the spirit of this tragic, marvellous and eye-opening time”.
I agree and have a proposal to make. The end of the war produced some great parties. As everyone keeps saying, one day this thing will finish. Is it too soon — is it wildly inappropriate — to suggest that when it does, there should be a national holiday to thank and honour the many to whom we owe so much?
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