In these feverish times, what counts as an essential job? Some are self-evident. Doctors, nurses, carers and chemists, of course. People in the food supply and distribution chain. Transport workers, posties and delivery people. Personally speaking though, I’d have to trawl down a very long list of decreasing vitality before I came to the BBC’s Shouting at People in the Street for being Too Close Correspondent.
Did you see him on the BBC network news last night? Mark Easton is his name, and he was out with – his words – “Virus Patrols in Watford”. In normal circumstances, that’s a job that sounds as if it’s based in a mobile swabbing unit parked on a Friday night outside Reflex or Pryzm, but these are extraordinary times, and for those, Mark is our man.
“Do you two live in the same home?” he barked – on the end of a regulation long microphone – at two startled young men, walking in vague proximity to each other in the sparkling spring air. They said that they did not. “Well, you shouldn’t be standing so close together then, you know that?” replied our hero, with a distinctly victorious tone, and possibly a twirl of his cape.
Anyone caught within six feet of each other was hollered at from across the street, if needs be. Except the Virus Patrols themselves, strangely enough. They cwtched closer than a puddle of toddlers, then all climbed back into the same car together, and Mark didn’t so much as raise at eyebrow at them.
Our Mark’s official moniker is Home Correspondent, a title that already comes with topnotes of Vera Lynn and ration books. I fear it’s gone to his head. During his report from the frontline (of Clinton Cards in Watford), at one point he intoned deeply and told us in all earnestness, that “the Prime Minister’s beloved land of liberty has become a kingdom of captivity”. I’ll have whatever he’s smoking, please.
This, you feel that he feels, is his moment. A week ago, he finished a report on the gathering gloom with these words (and I am making none of them up): “A storm is coming and we must build our defences for winds that will buffet and blow for many long months. And it will be the test of a generation to find the Great in Britain and stay united in our island kingdom”. At that point, the entire country passed out from the sheer airlessness in the room, while the last remaining Red Arrow sputtered and fell out of the sky over The Mall.
It was the economic crash of 2008 that turned Robert Peston, then a humble business reporter, into a highly marketable news behemoth, and I think Mark is hoping that history could land the same rewards in his lap. He may be right. Ramping up the Johnsonian rhetoric, all Spitfires over the sceptr’d isle, may fit one version of where we are now, but it’s the one that may well soon blow up in its own face, like a long-forgotten piece of WW2 shrapnel.
If there’s one thing that this pandemic is showing us, it is that years and years (or should that be Years and Years? Russell T Davies is a bloody prophet) of crap politicians being gently massaged by a crap media, and all to an agenda set by rapacious billionaires, has led us into a very dark corner indeed. Aside from so very many of us who kept saying so, and were forcibly shut up for so doing, who’d have thought it?
And talking of the 2008 crash, remember how often it was said then that ‘things could never be the same again’? But things were the same again, only more so. The billionaires got even wealthier, the rest of us got austerity. Our public institutions, and the glue that binds us together as a society, were stretched to – and often beyond – breaking point. We’re hearing it all again in this crisis: ‘things can never be the same again’. Can we make sure we mean it this time?