Peter Rhodes on smoking in a face mask, respecting the old and keeping suffering in perspective

Read the latest column from Peter Rhodes.

Priorities – Nick Robinson (Photographer: Joe Taylor)
Priorities – Nick Robinson (Photographer: Joe Taylor)

You will be pleased to hear that my literary self-improvement continues. Until this lockdown I rarely picked up a novel, for the very sensible reason that the plots never really happened. But now I have ploughed through Robert Harris's splendid trilogy on the life of Cicero, enjoying total immersion in ancient Rome and the characters who peopled it.

After a few days of Cicero and his chums, you find yourself thinking in Roman names. Thus, having finished the Cicero trilogy, I picked up a copy of Love for Lydia, a bitter-sweet 1952 romance by a famous scribe of Britannia Major by the name of Hebates.

H E Bates (for it is he) refers to: “These days when the young, as they often said, were getting indifferent and disrespectful and even callous about their elders.” Was there ever an age that was not such an age?

I seem to remember a time, up until the end of January, when some young people, including some journalists and assorted keyboard warriors, took the view that old people were sexist, racist, reactionary, xenophobic, bed-blocking Brexit voters and the sooner they all died off and the EU Referendum vote could be reversed, the better. In recent weeks, however, the same snarlers have been getting all concerned about old folk, regarding them as national treasures who are being sacrificed to coronavirus on the altar of wicked Tory incompetence. This sudden outpouring of caring for the elderly is quite – now, what's the right word? Nauseating.

Pandemic priorities. In deep funereal tones on Today (Radio 4), Nick Robinson told a Cambridge undergraduate: “It's your generation that's taking the brunt of this.” The brunt in question is that there will be no live, face-to-face lectures at Cambridge next year. For obvious reasons, the viral breeding grounds of jam-packed lecture theatres will be replaced by online lectures. And while this may be a disappointment for the privileged young students, their suffering hardly compares with that of another generation, the over-70s who really are bearing the brunt, and dying like flies.

This column does not dodge the big issues. A reader writes: “If we're told to wear face masks, how are we supposed to smoke?” Here's a suggestion: stop smoking. And if passengers are ordered to wear masks during flights, will it mean an end to that other great social evil, in-flight boozing? If you really can't survive staying sober for three hours to Majorca, you shouldn't be allowed out of the country in the first place.

By now we have got used to the weekend follies when Covid-19 deaths suddenly plunge dramatically, only to soar again on Tuesday. When the inevitable public inquiry is held, will somebody answer this question. As the UK faced the greatest public-health threat for a century, who decided the people who counted the deaths didn't have to work at weekends?

Sobriety tags, to be worn by offenders, are the latest solution to booze-fuelled crime. They are attached to you and remind you how much you've had to drink. I've had one for the past 46 years.

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