My mother, who is 91, used to have quite a few routine items in her weekly diary. She attended a Pilates class – specially for elderly people – which helped her, she claimed, to remain supple. She used to meet friends for coffee, and she liked a flat white, sometimes two, if the gossip was good. The bus service – free for her, of course – whisked her into town and back again. She would sometimes go to church on a Sunday, especially to show off a new jacket or pair of shoes. Although she admitted that the older she got the more difficulty she had paying attention to the sermon. But church was “good to see people,” she claimed. She also liked M&S – for browsing and for the sales.
Since lockdown my Mum doesn’t get out so much. She admits to being “bored witless”. She’d gladly accept even church services as an excuse to get out of the house if only they were available. But now, apart from family, she only really sees one friend a week and the only destination available to them for a jaunt is M&S. All the other regular activities have been cancelled. No Pilates. No flat whites with gossip. And even M&S, she claims, “isn’t what it used to be…with those bloody masks.”
My mother, like many others of her age, is perplexed by the ridiculous safeism that pervades everything. “I lived through the war. I lived through poverty. We had nothing when I was a girl.”
She tells stories of the squalor of her childhood years, the outside toilets, her father’s delight at joining up again when it was announced we were at war with Germany, as World War 2 emerged out of the depression years. War allowed him to enlist and to get a wage, and to re-join the army he loved.
She asked me recently, “Why is it that M&S is the only place to go during lockdown?”. I wasn’t sure of the answer.
The decision to allow food stores to remain open during lockdown was inevitable. We’d all have starved otherwise. But stores like M&S had clear competitive advantage over other stores. Clothing continued to be sold. Large M&S outlets co-located with other retailers could remain open when NEXT - and others with no food halls - had to remain closed. It may be some time before the rationale is fully explained. But the stores that were given special dispensation to remain open became chief enforcers and mouthpieces for government Covid-law.
When I interviewed Jon Dobinson of Recovery, recently, he pointed out just how much messaging we are all exposed to, in addition to unrelenting government propaganda advertising on all paid media. Retailers like M&S then amplify the fear narrative – that we’re all essentially walking biohazards – with signage, posters, one-way traffic systems, marshalling and even digital campaigns.
There is no room for any nuance or flexibility in this. The messaging and ‘policy’ are unrelenting. There is no room to question the clear silliness of the entire regulation edifice. Everybody of sound mind knows that insisting that perfectly well people walk around with masks on makes no sense, especially when the entire ‘vulnerable’ population has been offered 'the jab'. And yet, on they go with all the social distancing and signage and patronising nonsense about ‘staying safe’ and hand sanitising. I, and others, can tweet forever about the randomness and silliness of the ‘policy’ – but the compliance officers carry on regardless, like automata. The direct marketing teams fire emails out advising us on how we should turn up at the stores - ideally alone and fully masked and distant. And then they hang a few additional bells on telling us to be kind, like we used (pre-lockdown) to arrive in bovver boots and kick-up the food hall. In the space of a year, we have arrived in a hell governed not by Beelzebub, but by some yellow tabard wearing health and safety moron – where the only quasi-virtue that has any merit is mandated virtue signalling.
The result is a society that is, by every definition, anti-intellectual. We have returned to the days before the great enlightenment. Our government is a cult-master and the pillars of civil society that we once depended on have become collaborators. It reminds me of the scene in Barbarella when the cute little robot dolls that Barbarella initially finds so endearing turn out to have metal teeth and are intent on eating her flesh. “Stay safe” essentially means, “don’t think too much, just accept, and be eaten.”
There’s an opportunity in all of this, of course. It’s a business opportunity. In the same way that pub landlords can ban Keir Starmer and Matt Hancock from ever setting foot in their premises, retailers who have not been dealt a fair hand during lockdown can choose to gain competitive advantage. That’s what the best businesses do. Every entrepreneur will be thinking of ways to get round, evade or simply pay lip service to pointless rules. The more the rules are flouted the more we’ll flock to them and support them. Marks and Spencer, take note. My Mum has a very long memory.