O My Lamb

This post originally appeared on my old blog, and is reposted here in response to a twitter query: ‘which books have made you cry’.

How I hate this world. I would like to tear it apart with my own two hands if I could. I would like to dismantle the universe star by star, like a treeful of rotten fruit. Nor do I believe in progress.

Peter de Vries was an American humorist and writer of Dutch Calvinist extraction. Anthony Burgess called him ‘one of the great prose virtuosos of modern America’, Kingsley Amis said he was ‘the funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic.’ Absurdly, he is now little known.

At times the pith and wit of his comic novels can to me feel slightly relentless. In The Blood of the Lamb however, this pith and wit is transformed into a biting wisdom. The book deals unsparingly with the limits of faith and the limits of doubt. And it does so without being at all pretentious because of the authority of its grief and the directness of its writing.

Brevity is here not just the soul of wit but the blade of tragedy; suffering is briefly dealt with and lasts as long as life. De Vries does not spare the reader with melodrama and he does not romanticise. It is all the more powerful because the bravery within the book’s covers is the bravery that we will all have to show to greater or lesser degrees in our own lives.

Its briefly lyrical moments are hard earned and are very painful and beautiful.  It’s one of the best books I have ever read and the only one I’ve read that’s made me cry, which is, if I may be dry about it, a testament to the care with which it is structured and the skill of the writing.

The clear-eyed sanity with which it is written is at times unbearable. If that comment seems slightly melodramatic itself, I would example the end of Bend, Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov, where the author relieves Adam Krug of his sanity in order to relieve him of his intolerable grief. Peter De Vries cannot, will not do this. Thus the unbearable is shown to be bearable, only by the fact that it is borne.

So The Blood of the Lamb is incredibly sad but it is also, remarkably, often funny. It will not, I suggest, make you depressed, or gloomy. This is because although I said the book deals with the limits of faith and doubt, this is not what it is about. Ultimately it is a hymn of praise, and a memorial to its subject.

#Peste 5: After the Lockdown

People are thinking about the beginning of the end. In his very good weekly newsletter Alex Hern was speculating about the travel industry in the immediate aftermath of Covid:

But it won’t kill wanderlust. If anything, at least in the short term, I can’t see how it does anything but strengthen it. Perhaps it’s a nightmare scenario for epidemiologists, but when lockdowns lift, I could see it being like uncorking a bottle: people will flood out of their homes to go elsewhere, anywhere.But it won’t kill wanderlust. If anything, at least in the short term, I can’t see how it does anything but strengthen it. Perhaps it’s a nightmare scenario for epidemiologists, but when lockdowns lift, I could see it being like uncorking a bottle: people will flood out of their homes to go elsewhere, anywhere.


What will the end of lockdown look like? Will it be like the uncorking of a bottle? People flooding into the pubs on the first day back? Hugging each other in the street?

It’s hard to imagine. It’s clear that ‘post-lockdown’ is going to be an extremely extended transitional period. In a long and useful thread from a press conference by French PM Edouard Philippe and Health Minister Oliver Veran on what ‘easing’ the lockdown looks like:

Masks obligatory on public transport, bars and restaurants to remain closed. Schools to re-open as soon as possible, but gradually, in least affected regions first. Travel to and from France? Unreasonable to go back to normal at this stage.

In their now twice-weekly podcast, Stephen Bush and his excellent team of political commentators at the New Statesman took something of a sweep on when they thought the lockdown would end. In different ways Patrick Maguire and Ailbhe Rea questioned what the definition of that would be. For Ailbhe it was ‘being able to sit in a cafe observing social distancing’ and her suggestion was September. Stephen thought it would last out the year.

Certainly I am not expecting to go back to work in an office in any meaningful way before September. I would be surprised if it was then.

It’s very hard to imagine pubs or public sporting events happening until next year.

In his article analysing Rishi Sunak’s ‘risky’ aversion to taking on more government responsibility for debt (for ‘risky’ read ‘wrong’ imo), Bush wrote the following:

at the moment, we don’t know for certain what the government’s fiscal response will be after the UK exits lockdown, we don’t know when, how or if we will properly exit lockdown, we don’t know how people will behave if we do exit lockdown


All that’s right of course. But even there, what does ‘properly exit lockdown’ look like?

Prior to a vaccine or social immunity we will, as the French Health Minister said, have to ‘learn to live with the virus.’ In a world where social distancing is maintained, restaurants being told the lockdown is over, support is ended, will fail, because they won’t be able to generate the same revenue, or process the same number of people, as they could prior to Covid, and that’s assuming people have the same willingness to socialise. It is almost impossible to imagine, almost on a physical, visceral level, the crushes of public transport in rush hour returning at any time, let alone soon, with all the implications for that network lower volumes implies. Workspaces may require injections of capital investment to maintain Covid-safe working environments. Sure interest rates are low and capex can be amortised, but that’s a hell of a decision in the all-but-certain context of a global recession, and at a time when many businesses will be wondering what a post-Covid business model looks like (obvious examples – jettisoning as much floor space as possible, increased reliance on digital platforms for commerce and B2B transactions of all sorts).

People are thinking about the beginning of the end. The ugly and insidiously deniable vectors of communication around the Tory party (incessant Telegraph pieces about the need to end the lockdown, Toby Young’s self-styling as a ‘Covid dissident’, taking his cue as usual from US libertarianism, the Twitter psy-ops of fake NHS accounts) are pushing it hard. They fear the pressure on Tory party ideology a paradigm shift in substantial government debt financing would imply. Much of the Tory party’s response – including Sunak’s equivocal support of bank lending – is expressive of a group of politicians backed into the response of a social democracy, but fearing to finance that reponse ‘too much’. They certainly fear that financing lasting too long, and will I think happily see risks taken with public health to avoid that proposition. Starmer wants to see a plan, though it would be nice if he could hold the government’s disastrous and chaotic response to account as well, as 500 people a day are dying, and people on the front line of fighting the virus are still inadequately protected and supported.

In a Twitter typo, BBC journalist Lewis Goodall, referred to Rngland. This seemed to me a good name for post-lockdown England. It brought to mind a ‘living-with-pandemic’ world (maybe not this pandemic, maybe another), where country’s R-rating is put alongside the weather forecast:

“England’s R-rating is currently 1.2 and most leisure activities are currently curtailed. Wales and Scotland however are currently at a relatively mild R-rating of 0.3 and most tourist and visitor activities are open.”

#Peste 4: Desire Lines

We all know about desire paths or lines. Those diagonal paths across grass, chopping off the right-angles of pavement, those snickets through hedges to avoid the long way round, emerging through constant use because people have a good eye for quicker, easier ways to getting to the same destination.

The path below, in Brockwell Park, is slightly different.

It hasn’t been there in previous years; it’s emerged since the government has recommended social distancing rules to minimise the opportunities for Covid-19 transmission.

Out of consideration to others and themselves, people have increasingly found themselves moving off the tarmac path to the left and going across the grass. It’s helped that it’s been dry – that ground can get quite boggy in the wet. But it wasn’t created because it was a quicker or easier route, but because people have been doing their best to keep social distance. It is a Line of Consideration, yes a desire of sorts, to show a care to oneself and others, overcoming ‘quicker and easier’.

Seeing it emerge made me wonder what other habits, what other ‘lines’, will be emergent as a result of Covid social and economic measures. What patterns are we entrenching in our behaviours, quotidian processes, and mental adjustments, what paths will emerge?

It is perhaps only a different way of asking the question everyone is asking, about what gets unpicked after Covid, what doesn’t, what the new normal is. How people are answering that question seems to be determining some of people’s responses to the possibility of a short lockdown, or a long lockdown.

‘We will go back to normal’, ‘We’ll have to start reopening by June’.

Or ‘Things will not be normal for a long time, and when we emerge what memory of ‘normal’ will we have? Will our perception of how normal is constituted have changed, so that any attempt to go back to the ‘old’ normal, seem artificial in the extreme?’

It takes a lot to change people’s behaviours, despite our remarkable mental adaptability to new situations. We remain sensibly open to the quickest, easiest route to our destination.

But maybe new paths of consideration are emerging, which will persist beyond this social winter.