On Wednesday, I celebrated – is celebrated the word? – a year in lockdown. On March 17th 2020 I sat on the opposite end of a park bench from Mum, ate a burrito wrapped and said so long to reality for a while. We were a few days earlier going into lockdown than the UK Government, but since we had the ability to do so it seemed like the right thing. In the initial lockdown, my partner was furloughed for a few weeks as spring blossomed across the city, and for a weird few weeks the whole thing was almost… nice? The cherry blossom blew in the breeze, we got to walk together hand-in-hand through silent streets that were usually thronged, and though my birthday was celebrated mostly by text message from unseen friends, we could still find a slice of cake and sit on a bench beneath a clear blue sky. The reality of the pandemic seemed a long way away, hidden behind statistics and unseen hospital beds, absence far more a theme than present, lived reality.
That was many, many months ago. Since then a long winter trapped indoors beneath grey skies and a mounting sense of “well this all sucks” has stripped away even my enthusiasm for park benches and DIY. Trauma has sneaked into either the periphery or centre of everyone’s lives. My medical mates are knackered, and everyone I know has either lost someone, or had long Covid, or lost a job, or is grieving. I’ve escaped fairly unscathed, my world narrowing to the streets around the flat and the weekend long-run. But as I write this the official death toll for the UK stands at 126,026 dead. To put that into context, that’s three times the number that died in the Blitz. No one’s ok. We muddle by and that is a triumph. You, dear reader, you who are muddling by as best you can: you are a triumph, and you are not alone.
Meanwhile, just to crown off what has been a remarkably shitty year, the UK government is rolling out a raft of policies designed to dehumanise and undermine our civil society. Despite us having the fifth highest number of dead in the world; despite a year of pain and trauma and inadequecy at every level; despite corrupt deal after corrupt deal that did nothing except spend your money on enriching Tory stoodges; despite a Brexit deal that is crippling jobs and destroying the Northern Irish peace process, popular support for Boris Johnson remains high. It would be easy – and is tempting – to spend the rest of this post being tired and sad, but what’d be the point of that? I heard an interview recently with Mara Gay, who serves on the New York Times editorial board. When asked how she avoided being cynical her reply was something of the flavour of “what use would that be? If you’re cynical, you’ve given up on hope. You’ve given up fighting for change.” (Mara Gay might be on course for being one of my new heroes.) Meanwhile How To Save A Planet, one of my new favourite podcasts – and what a lifeline podcasts have been – ends its every episode with a call to action, inviting people to take part in fighting back against climate change in small but meaningful ways.
Small but meaningful! Those words feel like an inordinate, blessed gift right now. And lucky for you, medical science is here to tell you that little acts of altruism, tiny moments of feeling like your actions have consequence and you are part of something bigger than yourself, make a huge, huge difference to our health and wellbeing. Turns out signing a petition is good for your blood pressure after all.
So, if like me you’re trying to find those small, easy things you can do that help contain the urge to run to the window and primally scream out across your local borough, unleashing twelve months of pent-up rage and frustration in a single sky-splitting shriek of deafening torment and despair, here are some ideas below….
1. Vote! On May 6th large swathes of the country are going to the polls to elect local authorities and Mayors. In London this includes the delayed 2020 Mayoral Election, but there’s also a by-election in Hartlepool and hugely important elections in Scotland and Wales, with hundreds of seats up for grabs.
Why May 6th matters: local government has been gutted since 2010 – my local borough has had more than 50% of its funding stripped. That’s money spend on education, youth services, social services, welfare, the elderly, local parks, environment, recycling, sexual health services, sports services, libraries – it’s literally the streets you live on. If – really fairly – you are worried about going to a polling station in a time of plague, you still have time to register for a postal vote. In most areas you’ve got a decent window of opportunity until at least late April to get the form in. Put May 6th in your diary, tell your friends about it, read up on what’s happening in your area, and vote.
2. Support the Electoral Reform Society.
Why: as I’ve mentioned before, the government are attempting to introduce voter IDs. In pilot schemes across the UK, the effect of this was to disenfranchise hundreds and hundreds of people, all to stop a tiny, miniscule number of fraudulent votes. Voter ID is like curing a verucca by cutting off the leg. Moreover it is a discriminatory attack on the poorest in our society and minorities, who are less likely to have ID for the very simple reason that getting a passport or a driver’s license is expensive. It’s estimated that there are 3.5 million people who won’t have appropriate ID if this law goes through. 3.5 million people losing the vote. Sign petitions, get loud, get angry, write to your MP, tell your friends: this is your democracy.
Why: well, apart from the warm glowy feeling inside and an excuse to leave the house and heaven help us, maybe even see other people or at least their masked faces, as a volunteer you’re also in line to getting jabbed, you cynic you.
4. Oppose the policing bill. Liberty is running a campaign on this and many other topics and it only takes a few seconds to sign, and a few minutes to help spread the word.
Why: even if we ignore how the government are pushing through a bill that means you’ll get a longer sentence for defacing a statue than committing rape, this is still legislation designed to make protesting harder, increase powers that have been used relentlessly in racist profiling and criminalise Gypsy and Traveller communities just for existing at all. There are hundreds of thousands of cases still waiting to be heard in the UK courts, with a backlog caused by relentless government de-funding of the judicial system, merely topped off by Covid. Police forces across the UK were so gutted that it can take up to a year for forensic evidence to be assessed, and the prison system is decrepid and not fit for purpose. In light of all this, draconian laws making it easier to be criminalised for turning up and opening your mouth, are not a solution. They’re just a knee-jerk reaction from a government that spends an inordinate amount of time spouting dog-whistle rhetoric rather than dealing with facts. If you’re looking for a good present for a friend who might also want to get angry about this, then The Secret Barrister has both the blog and the books for you. (On a similar note, however, the magistrate’s service could really do with more women, younger people and minorities on the benches, and the Prison Reform Trust would love your support too.)
And that’s it! A handful of short, easy things you can do to lower your blood pressure. Cheaper than chia seeds, tastier than a protein shake. That might have to be the motto of this blog for the rest of time….