Hobbiton is a long way off

By the time you read this, I should have been at a party.

'Hip, Hip, Hurrah! Artist Festival at Skagen', by Peder Severin Krøyer (1888), painting of a garden party with men and women around a table laden with drinks

But: no.

Last week I posted a review of my writing goals at the halfway point in the calendar year. Back in January, in addition to those goals, I also wrote this:

“One breath in the wrong place and you’re infected with COVID. And right now, the UK is near the top of the list of the wrong places.”

After months of a lockdown only half as restrictive as the first (March 2020), the UK is again on a hiding to nothing. Our direction of travel is headed for: No masks, no distancing, no attempt to limit the spread of infection.


William A Haseltine

There are no visible plans for longer-term management of the pandemic. There seems to be little acknowledgement within the government – however they may have been briefed by scientists and specialists – that this disease is not flu (not even a bad flu, even one as dangerous as the 1918 pandemic as described in the excellent Pale Rider by Laura Spinney).

The words in my head right now are “infected blankets”. Whether or not New World peoples were deliberately given Old World diseases, or we just didn’t know about germs back then, when new populations encounter mature disease for the first time, the disease usually wins.

Part of my studies in ancient history covered human evolution, and I’ve written about genetic evidence for human diversity and how we spread across the planet.

Geneticists point that we survive chickenpox, the common cold, most influenza and other viral diseases because, in the past, those who are vulnerable to childhood diseases have removed themselves from our gene pool.

This thread on Twitter says:

“Think of… hunter-gatherer children, getting the same viruses we all catch in childhood, and those same successful viruses still doing their thing tens of millennia later

Dr C J Houldcroft

Immunity to childhood diseases has been gained over thousands of years, generations of the vulnerable lost through the ages, our lives today a result of our ancestors’ survival.

We don’t have centuries of living with COVID. Cramming a hundred thousand years of death into a couple of years is… scandalous. Especially when we have the wherewithal to avoid it.

line illustration of three crouching figures on a grey background, The Dead Marshes by Cor Blok
The Dead Marshes by Cor Blok

Shortly after I graduated, I applied to work on one excavation which required all staff to have a smallpox vaccination scar before they’d let you onsite.

They were digging up an old cemetery where some of the bodies were thought to be smallpox victims. Even though smallpox has been eradicated from modern life by vaccination, there was enough of a chance of infection from those old graves that the archaeologists were taking no chances.

I didn’t get the job in the end – even thirty years ago I couldn’t afford to live in London, even with a job and only for six months. But the lesson this taught me was that infection with a deadly disease is no simple matter.

Now this latest wave is upon us, even though most of the people I know are double vaccinated, I’ll have to try and keep my household safe.

No going out.

No mingling, no fluffy muffins in a farm shop café, no long summer afternoons in a beer garden watching the world go by and setting it to rights in half-cut hubris.

We are still struggling our way across Mordor. Hobbiton is a long way off.

painting by Ulla Thynell of the Dead Marshes in Lord of the Rings, marshland with three figures and will-o-the-wisp lights
Frodo and Sam in the Dead Marshes, by Ulla Thynell

This is not a war; the enemy won’t submit to propaganda, or negotiation. The civilian population seem resigned to being herded, not to safety, but into needless peril.

What should have been our Waterloo summer is looking more like Dunkirk, or Gallipoli.

I’m aware how much I rely on others taking risks with their health that I am reluctant to consider with mine, and how much those others may have no option but to continue taking those risks as part of a lesser threat to their prosperity.

I hate that we are being forced to make these choices, by the actions or inaction of the powers that be, when there are alternatives available.

What can we do, though?

The outrage and fury counts for nothing.

Protests have an uneasy taint about them. Viewing the daily statistics in the hope that somehow the outrage might bring down the government won’t help either.

I know people are tired of this now. I’m tired of it too – I want life to return to something like how it was before COVID, even if I don’t intend to visit the cinema or go to a nightclub.

Safe enough to get on a train and meet up with @dawnthepoet and wander round the British Museum.

Safe enough to see my family, and those friends I was meant to be with this weekend, all dressed up in our fancy duds at a garden party in the sun.

Safe enough for my sister-in-law to receive the surgery she needs, not delayed yet again while she’s waiting in agony, disabled and unable to return to the job she loves.

I’d like to see the government take COVID measures by the throat and shake us free.

Not like this.

black and white illustration by Tove Janssen for Tolkein's The Hobbit showing Smaug the dragon flying over boats on a lake
Smaug, illustration by Tove Janssen

Ooookayyyy, after that I reckon we need some interesting links:

How much did grandmothers influence human evolution? Aunties and grandfathers too! An article in the Smithsonian magazine, found via palaeoanthropologist John Hawks (writing about how long menopause has been going on – too damn long! shout women of a certain age everywhere…).

Vintage artworks illustrating The Hobbit, on BrainPickings. Some of Tolkien’s own artwork can be seen on Museoteca – interestingly, there are none of Mordor or the Dead Marshes. Did he produce any?

The art shop of talented illustrator Ulla Thynell, who produced one of the images of Sam and Frodo featured. I’m rather partial to her “Tiny Elves” making their way through a snowy landscape (yes, the UK is currently in a heatwave).

Discussion of Sam and Frodo’s journey through the marshes on The Fandamentals, from where I found Ulla Thynell.

A list of the independent bookshops of the UK and Ireland, with a map. Because we all need books, with which to fill our hours.