The extent to which the coronavirus is dominating our lives was reflected in Saturday’s edition of The Herald. Its main section has 24 pages and they are almost entirely devoted to the pandemic. COP26 likely to be postponed, PM and Health Secretary have virus, on-the-spot fines for flouting the lockdown, estimated infections in Scotland 65,000, military helicopters to assist rural communities, drinks firm to produce hand sanitiser, Tunnock’s teacake production stopped… Actually it would be easier to list the articles that are not Covid-19 related: apart from the weather forecast, nothing at all until page 10, where there is a tribute to the Govan songwriter Bill Martin who has died aged 81. Even the ads, for Lomond Gallery, Glasgow Rangers, the Bank of Scotland etc., are all about keeping the show on the road at this difficult time. Page 12 is more or less virus-free, but the full page ad on page 13 is back on message: BT – stay connected in isolation. Page 14 is devoted to obituaries, which you may or may not consider a respite, then on page 15 we are back to Covid-19. Then the leader on page 16: There is light amidst the darkness. Then it is a measure of the impact on Scottish public life of the Alec Salmond trial, that there are two articles dealing with the aftermath of Mr Salmond’s acquittal – but even then, that aftermath has been put on hold pending the (putative) end to the pandemic. The two Letters pages (18 and 19) are dominated by coronavirus, and there is disgruntlement that the Prince of Wales should have headed for his second home in Royal Deeside and allegedly skipped the queue to get tested.
(Parenthetically, I wrote to The Herald letters page myself earlier in the week when they reported that the Morar Hotel in Inverness-shire is going to honour the memory of the composer Sir Arnold Bax with a bronze plaque. I have stayed twice in the Morar Hotel, and on the last occasion I suggested to the management that they put up a plaque. I’m sure it wasn’t my suggestion that resulted in the plaque, and I wrote not to claim any credit, but in praise of Bax’s wonderful symphonic output. I wasn’t surprised that The Herald didn’t publish my letter. After all, Bax is something of a minority interest, and I was competing with the wall-to-wall viral load. Mind you, I think they missed a trick. It’s at times like these that we need Sir Arnold.)
Where was I? Page 20 – the puzzles page. In troubled times, the puzzles page becomes even more important than usual. It is vital that the puzzles page be proof-read with great attention, because an error, for example publishing the wrong set of clues with the wrong crossword grid, causes real distress. Many people find puzzles to be very therapeutic when they are feeling fretful. I’m sure the current regime of general house arrest is compounding the stress. The Herald must recognise this, because all week they have been providing us with a backlog of cryptic crosswords to keep us amused. This emphasis on puzzles right now has a certain poignancy, because one of The Herald‘s longstanding cruciverbalists, Myops, has passed away at the age of 80. He was a retired Glasgow Classics teacher named John McKie. I met him in the Curlers Bar on Byres Road one night and asked him if he used software to compile his puzzles. He never did. Just pencil and paper. Amazing. Some of us crossword nerds used to gather of a Tuesday evening in Curlers to make up cryptic clues. So I offer this, in memoriam John McKie:
Social Security: listened in on the radio – two mics in No. 11 (4,8)
Answer supplied below.
Then, the business pages: I can’t say I generally follow the vagaries of the stock market. How best to manage your portfolio when the dreaded downturn happens. In these difficult times… And on the back page, Distillers eye exports comeback after virus.
For all the wall-to-wall coverage, we actually know very little about this new disease. We don’t know how widespread it is, how capable we are of mounting an immune response, and how long such a response would last. And while we know a few risk factors – being male, being old, heart disease, diabetes, smoking – we don’t really know why some people are particularly susceptible to the agent’s virulence. And that is why we are afraid.
But is this obsessive wall-to-wall coverage entirely healthy? Our media have form here. Remember Brexit. Brexit was wall-to-wall, and we had no idea then that The Next Big Thing was just round the corner. Now, what else is going on in the world? I don’t just mean that the Morar Hotel is putting up a plaque to Bax. What is happening in Yemen, in Syria, in parts of Africa? I can’t imagine all the wars and rumours of wars have suddenly been put on hold. What of the world’s poor, whose condition is already so dire that they may scarcely notice this added burden? At home, we are only living under the conditions that our grandparents would have regarded as the norm – the possibility of being suddenly struck down by a virulent and remorseless pathogen. So what do you do? You follow the government’s advice re social distancing, and carry on.
It would be a crass utterance indeed to declare one was enjoying the current regime, but I can’t say I’m unhappy. I walked from my home down deserted country lanes yesterday morning. I live directly under the flightpath of all the British air traffic heading for North America, but there were no aeroplanes, and no vapour trails, in the azure sky. South of me, the A811 cuts its swathe from east to west straight across the central belt; the steady hum of traffic was absent. All I could hear was birdsong. It was like being in a Thomas Hardy novel. I think it was the closest I have ever been to recreating life as it might have been before the industrial revolution. I recalled the first sentence of Desiderata:
Oh! But first: the clue.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.