Day Five of Home-Schooling: teachers, you are busted!

I saw a lovely thing on Facebook last night from a school up in Surrey. It told its parents that what we’re doing right now isn’t home-schooling. Home-schooling is a choice where you considered things, planned for it, and were ready – this is more like distance-learning. But in reality, it’s trying to stop the spread of coronavirus.

It said that parents have always always been the child’s primary educator, but are not trained teachers, and that if you feel it’s better for your family to play in the garden, bake, or watch TV, that’s your right and there’s nothing to feel guilty about, because these are exceptional circumstances.

And it said that it’s impossible to facilitate distance-learning with a primary-aged child and work from home at the same time, so if you’re doing that, stop. Your primary focus is your job and your survival. You’re not a superhero. They’re not expecting miracles.

I thought it was great. Very insightful and reassuring.

Then I got an email from the headteacher of my school down here in Dorset sharing some of her thoughts. She said that home-schooling is a choice, whereas this is more a necessity. She said that parents have always always been the child’s primary educator, and that if you feel it’s better for your family to play in the dirt, bake, or watch TV, that’s your right and there’s nothing to feel guilty about. And she said that if you’re working from home and juggling home learning at the same time, STOP – you’re not superheroes. Your focus should be your job and survival.

Sound familiar?

Looking on Facebook, it appears that many headteachers up and down the country have had the exact same thoughts as each other at exactly the same time. How weird!

You know when every kid in the class copies from the same book and they put it in their own words so they don’t get accused of plagiarism? Teachers, you are busted!

Now, I don’t mind that they’re all copying from the same source. It’s a good message and it deserves to be spread far and wide. But don’t pretend as though it’s something that just occurred to you. And perhaps next time, don’t use many of the exact same words!

My kids have broken the Naughty Step!

A while back, I wrote a three-part guide to disciplining your children. In the first part, Understanding your toddler, I explained a child’s understanding of the world. In the second, The Fundamentals, I explained the theories underpinning different forms of discipline. And in the third, The Naughty Step; or, How smug am I?, I explained why I’m the king of infant behaviour modification.

Actually, not quite. I wrote the first two thinking I was doing really well at this parenting thing and I could share these techniques with other people. And then life happened, and the nice, obedient little girl I was looking after turned into a massive arsehole that I was incapable of controlling, and I didn’t really feel like finishing a series that would make me a fraud.

The Naughty Step has remained my principal means of disciplining my kids, however, and I stand by it’s utility, even if at times it doesn’t feel like it’s working.

The theory is pretty simple – the best form of discipline is a combination of love withdrawal (punishment) and induction (guilt), and the Naughty Step fulfils both criteria. You first get down on their level, get their attention, and warn them that if a particular behaviour continues, you’ll put them on the Naughty Step. If they then do the behaviour, for example hitting their sister, you put them on the Naughty Step and say, ‘I am putting you on the Naughty Step for X-number of minutes [equal to their age] because you hit your sister.’ Then you turn around and walk away.

You ignore all the crying, shouting and screaming. Every time they get off the Naughty Step, you put them back on it without a word or eye-contact, and restart the timer. This is very difficult at first – when I started it with my eldest, I had to put her back more than sixty times. After a few days, she no longer got off that step.

After the allotted time has elapsed, you get back down to their level and repeat the reason they’re there: ‘I put you on the Naughty Step because you hit your sister. We don’t hit people. Okay?’

Then you get them to say sorry, hug and kiss, draw a line under the incident and move on. No lingering nastiness, no lasting discomfort – crime, punishment, atonement, forgiveness, restoration, all in the space of a few minutes. It’s a remarkably effective tool and just the threat of the Naughty Step is normally enough to prevent behaviour escalating to inappropriate levels.

At least, it was an effective tool, until today, when my children broke it.

‘You really need to go and tidy your playroom,’ I said.

‘No.’

‘Girls, I’ve asked you three times already to tidy your playroom.’

‘No.’

‘Right. If you don’t tidy your playroom, you’ll both go on the Naughty Step.’

With lots of sighs and moody hand gestures, they turned and left the room.

After a few minutes I thought it was suspiciously quiet, so I went to see what they were doing and found them both sitting on the Naughty Step.

‘Why aren’t you tidying your room?’ I asked.

‘We’ve decided we’d rather sit on the Naughty Step,’ said my four-year-old.

‘Oh,’ I replied. ‘Well, go and tidy your room.’

‘No, we’ll just stay on the Naughty Step.’

‘Go and tidy your room or I’ll, I’ll -‘

‘You’ll put us on the Naughty Step?’

Bugger, I thought, they’ve outsmarted me!

What do you do when your kids aren’t afraid of the Naughty Step anymore!?

The only people who don’t know about coronavirus…

…are the assholes in the Department of Work and Pensions.

My wife receives PIP (Personal Independence Payment) – what used to be called DLA (Disability Living Allowance) – to help her cope with her needs.

When they came up with PIP, the government outsourced the transferral of people over from DLA to an external company called Atos, whose remit was pretty much, ‘Cancel everyone’s benefits, make it next to impossible to appeal, and see how much money we can save.’

Now, delegating the decision on who gets welfare to private industry is essentially the government saying, ‘We don’t give a shit about the needy and we can’t do our jobs so let someone else sort it out,’ and that’s how it worked in practice. Atos would reject almost all applications for PIP and then make the appeals process a logistical and administrative nightmare in the hope that a significant proportion of claimants would be incapable (i.e. too vulnerable) to appeal. You know, a really caring, morally upright philosophy that proved so popular they had to change their name to Independent Assessment Services to avoid the backlash.

That’s the reason why, when they moved my wife from DLA to PIP, they decided she was 100% capable of looking after herself on her own, despite her having supporting documents from Social Services, her doctor and her autism support service to say she was quite incapable of that. It then took six months of appeals for them to concede that, okay, they were wrong, she’s a nutbar.

The DWP are the people who ask someone with Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy, a hole in his heart and severe scoliosis that confines him to a wheelchair to attend a fitness-for-work interview. They’re the people who ask terminal cancer patients when they think they might get better. They’re the people who at my interview asked me how to spell autism, and then told me I must be really good at Sudoku.

So it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that they haven’t noticed we’re in the middle of a global health crisis.

Today my wife received a letter from the geniuses at the DWP saying that, as she’s had PIP for a year, they need to see if anything’s changed. There isn’t an option to say, ‘Nope, still autistic.’ There is, instead, a 24-page form that must be filled-in in excruciating detail, with corroborating evidence from Social Services, the autism support service, and her GP, to be returned by the 17th April, or they will cut her off.

By my reckoning, that’s three weeks away. We’re now only three days into a three-week lockdown where we have to stay at home, everyone’s off work, doctors, social and care services are stretched to breaking point, and we can’t see our families for support filling in a complicated, misleading form. Are they freaking joking?!

I’d only just managed to calm her down about coronavirus when this little present landed on our doormat like a wet turd to stink out the house we can’t leave. I was never a fan of Jeremy Corbyn, but I can’t help thinking that this kind of shit would never happen under a Labour government.

Day Four of Home-Schooling: the health risks of spending time with your children

In the same way that suffering through The Best of Frank Sinatra eight hours a day while working in a bookshop ended with me buying the CD when I left, the rather annoying Cosmic Kids Yoga has, after four days, become something I actually look forward to doing. I can even overlook the praying hands ‘namaste’ stuff.

There’s just one problem left: it‘s bloody difficult.

Today, for example, we did the Jungle Safari, and oh my gosh, it races through 13 minutes of poses and stretches so quickly I was out of breath by the end. I had no idea I was this out of shape. There’s my kids pressing their foreheads to their feet; here’s me hunched over like an arthritic octogenarian still nowhere near his knees let alone his ankles. If you think you’re relatively healthy, check it out – it might disabuse you of some misconceptions.

I ache all over. I’ve already pulled muscles in my butt, my groin and both upper thighs. I’m hobbling around groaning like I just ran a marathon, all from writhing about on my lounge carpet. Who’d have thought the living room floor could be so damaging?

Of course, spending all day with your kids also sends your stress levels skyrocketing. We shouldn’t be awarding honours to public officials but to teachers for bearing with our little monsters. Yesterday my four-year-old erupted into one of the year’s worst tantrums – stamping feet, slamming doors, projectile tears, the works – because I took the garden hose off her. Why? She was chasing our 22-year-old cat around the garden, continuously spraying her. Not good.

There’s also the difficulty of the four-year-old being able to read, write, play football, tie shoelaces and construct an imaginative narrative, and the two-year-old wanting to do all those things with her big sister but being incapable of any of them. So either the little one is screaming and crying because she wants to do what she can’t, or the big one is screaming and crying because she wants the little one to leave her alone, or else ‘play properly’ i.e. the way my bossy eldest wants her to.

I had a bittersweet moment last night when I heard the youngest talking to herself in bed. I crept up to the door and spied around the crack. My eldest was fast asleep; my youngest was sitting up with a torch and a book reading the title over and over again, trying to teach herself to read: ‘Me and My Mummy, Me and My Mummy, Me and My Mummy.’

So in the evenings I’ve been getting on the exercise bike as a stress reliever, and I’ve discovered that that is far more dangerous than any other household activity, because I think I might have broken my penis.

It’s something apparently far more common than practically anyone realises, so it’s important to make people aware of the potential damage they can cause their best friend when they put on lycra and climb into the saddle.

No, I didn’t get it caught in the pedals. No, I didn’t ride over it. After about half-an-hour of cycling, I reached down to scratch an itch and, well, there are no words to describe the terror of being able to feel two testicles but nothing in between.

I scrabbled around like someone who’s lost his wallet. ‘Where’s my dick? Where the hell’s my dick?’

A quick inspection revealed it was still there – it was just completely and utterly numb. Entirely free of sensation, like my manhood had been replaced by a rubber sausage. Oh sweet Jesus!

After a panicked hour, I could finally feel it again. And then I started researching, and discovered I wasn’t alone.

When you sit on a chair like a normal person, your weight is distributed between your buttocks; but when you sit on a bike saddle, it puts pressure on your perineum, squashing the nerves and blood vessels that lead to your genitals. Indeed, meta analysis of 62 studies showed between 50% and 91% of cyclists experienced genital numbness and 13% to 24% had erectile dysfunction. This is because, as other studies show a narrow bike seat can cut blood flow to the penis by 66% and even a broad one by 25%. In some cases penile numbness can last up a week (a week! Can you imagine?!).

So, is a rubber manhood just part and parcel of cycling, something to put up with and get used to? Apparently, that’s an emphatic no.

According to cycling health specialist Andy Pruitt, ‘Numbness of any kind or duration should not be tolerated, period…Imagine taking an electrical cord and garden hose and driving over them with your car again and again and again. They may rebound initially, but over time they’ll stay collapsed and won’t function as well.’

Yikes. By the end of this crisis, I’m either going to be a hundred times fitter or else a crippled eunuch!

How hard is it to follow rules?

Maybe as an autistic person, it’s easier for me to follow rules. Nonsensical they might sometimes be, but rules are rules. I’m very black-and-white on this. I acknowledge that there are grey areas, extenuating circumstances, and human frailty, but we all know what we’ve been told to do and actions have consequences.

At a time like this, we can’t just follow the rules – we have to be seen to follow the rules. This isn’t a ‘keeping up with Joneses’ sort of thing, this is setting an example that people will stick to. What happens if the neighbours see us allowing a family member to visit? They think, ‘Oh, well if they’re having someone over, I might as well have someone over too.’ And before you know it, the whole thing falls apart because everyone makes exceptions. That’s why we have to follow the rules.

After yesterday’s war with my wife, she went out to the shops anyway in search of eggs because she wants to bake – I can’t exactly chain her up. But she couldn’t find any eggs. Never mind.

I thought that today, things were improving. She seemed calmer, more rational. While I was giving the kids a bath, I heard her ring [redacted] briefly – no problems, that’s absolutely fine.

What was not fine was [redacted] turning up at our door an hour later with a box of eggs that my wife had asked her to bring round.

I didn’t let her in. Of course I didn’t let her in. We are not allowed to see family members who are not part of our household, even if they’ve driven fifteen miles to see us.

She stood on the front lawn and asked me to open the windows so she could talk to my children, who were jumping up and down with excitement that [redacted] had come round. I said no – they can see her and talk to her through the glass. She made out like I was being ridiculous. My kids started crying. My wife started shouting.

Instead of engaging with my kids through the glass, [redacted] stormed back into the car, slammed the door and drove off at a rate of knots, leaving my children in bits and my wife fuming at me.

In the past hour there have been multiple phone calls about how awful I am, and my children are calling me mean for upsetting [redacted]. Currently, my wife is trying to find someone who can bring her some flour as she wants to bake, which is hardly endearing her to the people she’s asking to go out and get it for her.

But hey, at least she got her eggs!

It’s not meant to be this hard

When your wife has autism and Emotionally Unstable (Impulsive) Personality Disorder, life isn’t going to be easy. I’m pretty sure, however, it’s not meant to be this hard.

When Boris Johnson announced last night that we can only leave our house to go to essential work, buy essential food, look after a vulnerable person or exercise (once a day), and specifically that we should not see friends or family members who don’t live with us, it was a time for couples all over the county to turn to one another and say, ‘It’s okay, we’ll get through this. We’re in it together and we’ll emerge stronger on the other side. With love and mutual support, and a sense of humour, we’ll cherish this time as a family. Nothing can break us apart.’

That didn’t happen in my household. World War 3 broke out in my household.

‘They can’t stop me seeing [redacted],’ was my wife’s response.

Initially, when my wife met each new restriction and condition with, ‘They can’t do that,’ I took it literally to mean they can’t do that, so reminded her that yes, they can: they’re the government, the ones with the tanks and the bombs and the soldiers. They can do whatever they want.

On reflection, I decided that when she said, ‘They can’t,’ what she really meant was, ‘I’m scared, I don’t want to do that, this is going to be hard, hold me.’ So I softened my approach to simply supporting her rants.

Last night has made me realise that I was right the first time – she does really think the government literally can’t stop her from doing what she wants to do.

Having Emotionally Unstable (Impulsive) Personality Disorder means you struggle to control your impulses. The desire to do something results in the thing being done, with no consideration for the consequences and probable negative outcomes. And if someone tries to interject between the desire and its gratification, oh boy are they going to get it! Tantrums and behavioural explosions are par for the course, as is the sudden swing from ‘I love you, I need you, I can’t do anything without you’ to ‘How dare you, I fucking hate you, I’m ringing my lawyers in the morning!’

So, as I listened to the Prime Minister asking us to be decent human beings and abide by a few rules so that – God forbid! – we save thousands of lives, while most people might have been thinking of themselves and what it meant for them, all I could think was, ‘Oh hell, get ready for the fireworks.’

And fireworks there were.

‘They can’t stop me seeing [redacted].’

‘They can and they have.’

‘He didn’t mean I can’t see [redacted].’

‘He literally just said you can’t visit family members who aren’t part of your household.’

‘He can’t stop me from seeing my family.’

Everybody is in someone’s family. This doesn’t work if we all make exceptions.’

She looked at me with pure hatred on her face.

‘You can’t stop me.’

And then the screaming and the shouting started, because by stopping her from doing what she wanted, I became the enemy. It’s no longer the fault of the virus or the government, it’s mine. I am truly the devil.

Midway through, she declared she was going to ring [redacted] and tell her what an evil prick I am. I begged, pleaded, demanded that we talk it out between ourselves, that we deal with it as husband and wife, like a family, like adults, like rational human beings. We’re meant to be a team, and inviting someone to interfere in our marriage is not very sporting.

It was all to no avail. She rang [redacted], burst into tears, said I wanted to have her arrested and I wouldn’t let her see [redacted].

‘That’s not entirely true,’ I said, and she screamed at me and called me a liar, and [redacted] said she doesn’t see any reason why my wife can’t visit [redacted] (because clearly the rules don’t apply to them), and I’m being unreasonable, and I should think about the effects of my behaviour on my children, I’m needlessly scaring them and being a bad dad.

I feel so betrayed. We’re married. We’re supposed to support one another. We’re supposed to deal with issues between ourselves. We’re not meant to run to our mummies and tell them the mean man we married isn’t letting us get our own way.

After the phone call, my wife told me she’s going to take the kids and move in with [redacted] for the duration of the coronavirus, and I’m not invited. In no uncertain terms, I told her that would be the end of our marriage.

She insisted she’d keep visiting him, and I said that she’s quite welcome to move in with him by herself if it means that much to her.

We’ve been given rules to follow, and as responsible, socially-conscious, moral, upstanding and good people, the onus is on us to do everything we can to stop the transmission of the virus and thus save lives. I don’t understand what is so difficult to grasp about this. Her dad has multiple underlying health conditions anyway.

So, today she’s done everything she can to punish me for stopping her from seeing [redacted].

‘Come on,’ I said, ‘we’re in this together.’

‘No we’re not, you’re on your own.’

‘We need to support one another.’

‘You can take a run and jump if you think I’m going to support you.’

‘Please, we need to be civil, if not for our sake then at least for the kids.’

‘No. You don’t let me see [redacted], I won’t be civil. I’m divorcing you after this anyway.’

‘So you don’t love me anymore?’

‘No, no I don’t. I hate you. I hate everything about you.’

You know, really mature behaviour from your wife and the mother of your children.

I’m doing my best here. I’ve been trying to keep her calm this entire time; I’ve been trying to look after my family as best I can; but I can’t do it all alone, and I really shouldn’t have to. Not once has she asked me how I’m doing, how feel.

Every time I glance in her direction, she snaps, ‘Don’t look at me!’ So I kept the kids entertained today. We did more yoga, some writing, imaginative play. I took them for a short bike ride. I planned our meals for the next ten days so we don’t need to go out. I played with them in the garden. I cooked lunch. I cooked dinner when she refused to do it.

World War 4 happened this afternoon when she said, ‘I’m just popping out to the shop to get some eggs.’

‘You can’t just “pop out to the shop” anymore. We can’t leave the house except for essentials.’

‘Eggs are essential.’

‘We have enough food for the next ten days, and much longer than that if needs be.’

‘Are you telling me I’m not allowed to go to the shops now?’

‘We’ve been told to avoid shopping except for essentials. Going out to get one item when we don’t need it is hardly essential, is it?’

‘So you won’t let me go and get some eggs?’

‘No, we need to do as we’re told.’

‘For fuck’s sake, for fuck’s sake, you can’t stop me going to the shop! I want eggs! I want to bake!’

‘It’s day one of this – we’re going on be shut in together for at least three weeks, probably more. Please, let’s make it bearable.’

‘No, I’ll do what I want.’

In all honesty, if the coronavirus wasn’t going on right now, I would walk away from this toxic situation. Of course, without coronavirus, perhaps my wife wouldn’t be acting like such a crazy person.

The trouble is, some words once spoken can’t be taken back; some things once broken can’t be repaired; and when someone acts selfishly, unsupportingly, and irresponsibly during a national crisis, and makes it far harder on the people around her than it needs to be, sometimes that changes how you see that person.

We’ll revisit this conversation after the crisis is over. In the meantime, we just have to get through it.

Day One of Home-Schooling: cosmic yoga, maths and biology

I was cooking dinner today while my wife was ‘teaching’ my four-year-old in the lounge. The teacher has given us homework to do, one of which involves watching the yoga videos they use in class.

Seems okay, I said. Helps you stretch and tone your body, teaches you how to breathe. Daddy used to do yoga.

‘It’s cosmic yoga,’ said my daughter.

Oh. You don’t sing Kumbaya and sit in a circle knitting beanie hats, do you?

‘What?’

Never mind, I’m sure it’s all fine.

Back in the kitchen cooking, a few minutes later I heard something on the TV and stuck my head round the door.

Did I hear that right? Did she really just say, ‘Be the pond’?

‘It’s wonderful being the pond,’ said the TV, ‘because you can watch all of your different feelings just swimming by.’

What the shit is this?!

‘Every feeling is welcome. You be the pond and let the fish be the fish.’

I couldn’t help bursting out laughing at the seriousness with which this was being said.

This isn’t like any yoga I’ve ever done.

‘Shhh,’ said my daughter.

‘Except sometimes,’ the TV continued, ‘we might stop being the pond and find we’ve become a fish, like the angry fish, and when that happens we might find ourselves saying or doing something that hurts other people.’

Ah, I see. It all makes sense now. I’m an angry fish when I should be the pond!

‘Be the pond.’

‘Be the pond,’ said my daughter roboticly.

Kill the Malaysian Prime Minister.

‘What?’

Never mind. I had no idea this is the kind of stuff you do at school.

‘Just say to yourself: be the pond.’

‘Be the pond,’ my daughter chanted again.

Wow. This is some Manchurian Candidate level bullshit right here.

‘Go and cook,’ said my wife, and I left them to it.

Okay. I’m all for mindfulness – live in the moment, notice what’s going on around you, try and detach from your thoughts and feelings, if that’s even possible – but is this really the kind of stuff they foist on our kids in mainstream education? This isn’t yoga, a westernized form of exercise mostly stripped of its esoteric underpinnings, this is mindfulness meditation, an esoteric eastern religious philosophy inseparable from Buddhist tradition. She even talks about the Zen Den, for crying out loud. What next? Ending every sentence with ‘namaste’?

I’m not sure how I feel about this. As someone who isn’t religious, if I discovered the school was making my kids go to confession, I’d have something to say on the matter; same as if they were practising Wudu (Muslim ablutions), or Transcendental Meditation; so why does Buddhism get a free pass?

Maybe I’m just a rube, out of step with modern cosmopolitanism. Or maybe I’d prefer more scientifically-minded programming like the proper way to wash your hands over airy-fairy feelgood fads. Watch it and judge for yourself by clicking this link.

Of course, a few minutes later my wife pushed it out of my mind when she shouted through to kitchen, ‘We’re doing maths and I’m having a mind blank. What’s 0 + 1?’

Are you sure it’s a mind blank and not a stroke? I replied. They tend to present the same.

And then my two-year-old burst into the kitchen, pointed an accusatory finger at me, and said, ‘You got a belly-button!’ before storming out.

How many more months of this do we have?

Being British: Captain Mainwaring and Coronavirus

Can there ever be such a thing as a national character? Is it really possible to distill the attitudes, behaviours and beliefs of millions of people across multiple generations into a generalised concept of a society? Is it fair to represent Britain as a bulldog, France as a cock (erel), and Germany as an accountant?

Of course not. And yet at the same time, the stories we tell ourselves about our national character provide an important insight into the values we aspire to and the ideals we wish to hold. As spurious as they often are, these ideas form the mental landscape that shapes our view of the world, and never are they more important than at a time of national and international crisis.

That’s why, once again, the British are talking about the war.

‘Our grandparents were asked to go to war,’ say all the memes. ‘We’re being asked to sit on the sofa.’

I have a European friend who is bewildered by how much the British talk about the war. For a country that has existed for hundreds of years and once ruled over a quarter of the world, it does seem odd that we choose to celebrate an event when we had our backs to the wall, lost an empire, and had to give up our place at the table to the bigger boys, rather than hark back to the glory days when we were still on top.

What this overlooks is that our celebration of the ‘Blitz spirit’ has nothing to do with war, or fighting prowess, or military might – it’s about standing firm in the face of adversity. The British national character, the character we’re so proud of, is our tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s Drake leading a rag-tag fleet against the Spanish Armada. It’s Nelson sailing at the numerically superior French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. It’s Wellington standing firm against the Imperial Guard at Waterloo. It’s 100 soldiers facing off against 4000 Zulus at Rorke’s Drift, and it’s Britain standing alone against a Nazi Germany that had conquered the whole of Europe.

Of course, this is just one view of these events, and they were more complicated and multifaceted than presented here, but that doesn’t matter – what matters is that this is how we choose to remember them. We’re an island nation perched on the edge of Europe, part of but separate from it – stubborn, independent, outnumbered yet punching above our weight.

It’s no surprise that one of our favourite quotes is from Henry V on the eve of Agincourt (as Shakespeare writes it): ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.’ If we could pick someone who exemplified Britishness, it would be our wartime leader, Winston Churchill. We will fight them on the beaches, never was so much owed by so many to so few, this is their finest hour.

British culture is practically a cult of the underdog, of keeping our heads when all about us are losing theirs, and persevering come what may. Our unofficial motto is ‘Keep calm and carry on,’ and unless you understand that, you’ll never understand either Brexit or our response to coronavirus. 

Of course, if I’m being honest, I think the best representation of Britishness isn’t Churchill but Captain Mainwaring, a ridiculously pompous, arrogant character from the sitcom Dad’s Army (1968-1977). Now before you accuse me of maligning my country, allow me to explain.

For those who have never seen the endless reruns, Dad’s Army is about a platoon of British Home Guard during WWII, formed from men too old, too infirm, or too malingering to fight in the regular forces. Set in the fictional South Coast village of Walmington-on-Sea, these have-a-go heroes work their jobs by day and stand ready to defend against invasion at night with homemade weapons and makeshift tactics. It’s the very embodiment of the British underdog spirit and has reflected, shaped and reinforced much of how we see ourselves today, even the theme tune: ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, if you think old England’s done?’ This is despite the fact that the characters are mostly buffoons.

Easily my favourite, the man who truly represents the spirit of Britain, is the platoon’s leader, Captain Mainwaring. Snobbish, xenophobic, with delusions of grandeur and an inflated sense of his own importance, it would be easy to write him off, particularly as much of the humour is laughing at him, at how ridiculous he is, at how he undermines his own best interests. He is, indeed, every negative thing you can say about the British, if you’re on the outside, looking in.

But beneath all the bluster and pretension, the awkwardness and arrogance, is a man genuinely devoted to his country, trying his best to do his duty, who does the right thing when it matters and is by far the bravest, most decisive character in the show. While Corporal Jones is running around in a flap crying, ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic!’ and pessimistic Scottish undertaker Fraser is sitting in a corner moaning, ‘We’re doomed, doomed,’ Mainwaring is the man who steps up and takes control and saves the day. In the 1971 movie, thinking they are being invaded, he barricades the road and prepares to face German tanks with a single shotgun. Later, he confronts a downed Luftwaffe pilot with nothing but guts, risking his own life to rescue a roomful of hostages. While his faults might be laughable, he’s redeemed by his loyality, bravery, dedication and tenacity.

That is Britain. We’re arrogant, xenophobic, stubborn, pompous and slightly ridiculous. When everyone else is going left, we go right through sheer bloodymindedness. You can laugh at us all you want, but don’t ever underestimate us. We’re the underdogs, and that’s the way we like it, and when our backs are to the wall, you’d better not rule us out, because that’s when we Brits triumph.

In fact, I see a lot of Captain Mainwaring in Boris Johnson. People call him dithering, indecisive, slow to act – a buffoon promoted beyond his ability. But cometh the man, cometh the hour. He understands our national character better than anyone. He tells us we don’t need to panic, though many of us will die. He tells us the way ahead is hard, but we can take it. The allusions to the war are because we know that when facing doom and gloom, the British are more than capable of weathering the storm.

From the outside, our response to coronavirus might appear fatalistic, irresponsible, laid-back even. The fact is, we won’t know the effects of our different approaches until way after the outbreak has ended and all the numbers have been crunched. We could try something different, I suppose. We could panic or quarantine; we could do what other countries have done and lock everything down; we could give in to despair and terror.

It just wouldn’t be very British.

Now wash your hands, you stupid boy!

(And just as I was about to publish this post, I see Richard Littlejohn has written a Dad’s Army parody about the coronavirus!)

The unexpected upsides of coronavirus

While Covid-19 is a steam roller of awfulness flattening everything in its path, it’s important to remember all the good things that life has to offer. Turning a frown upside down is vital for our mental health in the coming weeks and months, so here are some of the positives to come from social isolation and lockdown.

1. You can finally indulge your hobbies

That book you’ve been meaning to read but never started because it was too big? Now’s your opportunity. The typewriter mocking you from the corner of the room? That novel isn’t going to write itself. And the musical instrument you always wanted to learn? With YouTube videos instructing you in everything, there’s never been a better time.

Or you can sit on Facebook and keep checking coronavirus updates and slowly go insane – the choice is yours.

2. You can create a healthier family life 

Tradition might be a dirty word these days, but there’s definitely something to be said for taking your foot off the gas, slowing things down and actually spending time together as a family. Free from rushing around from here to there, desperately trying to clean that school shirt while shuttling the kids to football and ballet and gymnastics, we can get back to the simpler things, like having fun together, playing games, and family dinners. You might even find that, without the endless stress, you actually like the other members of your household for a change.

Of course, I also think 2020 will have remarkably high rates of domestic violence and divorce, but hey, let’s try and make the most of each other at this time in our lives.

3. You can learn to appreciate ‘the little things’

Humans are programmed not to notice, or appreciate, the familiar and everyday. It’s the reason you stop smelling freshly-baked bread after a few minutes, and why after the novelty has worn off, lottery winners are just as miserable rich as they were poor. Two weeks ago, we were bored with our dull world; today, everything in it that we can no longer do seems so precious – even just the ability to go to the cinema, have coffee with friends, or walk down the street without worrying.

If coronavirus holds a lesson, it’s to learn to appreciate those little things that we take for granted. Consciously acknowledge those things you’re grateful for, like a roof over your head, or personal freedom, and continually remind yourself of it when this is over. Like water to someone dying of thirst, we might find ourselves far happier with the everyday when the restrictions finally lift.

4. Home working lets you re-evaluate your work/life balance

All those times they told you that you couldn’t do your job from home? Turns out you could. Those meetings they said couldn’t be done by email or teleconferencing? Ha! Without the dreaded commute, how much more time would we have in the morning? How much better might our working conditions be? And how many cars would be taken off the road, making everybody happier? Coronavirus might lead to a new model of business that is less likely to drive you to the brink of despair.

And even if it doesn’t, at least you will know which you prefer. After being locked down with your wife and kids, you might even find you never moan about going into work again!

5. Pollution is clearing up rapidly

A lack of cars on the road and planes in the air, and entire economies grinding to a halt, has had the effect of reducing carbon emissions and clearing a lot of the crap floating around in the air. Indeed, given that thousands die each year from the effects of air pollution in cities, some are claiming that in China alone, coronavirus has saved the lives of 4000 children under five and 73,000 adults over seventy.

Of course, it won’t last long, since as soon as this crisis is over we’ll be burning everything twice as fast to make up for lost time, but people can make the most of it while they can. In Venice, for example, a dearth of diesel-spewing tourist boats churning up the canals has reportedly led to a sharp increase in water quality – the water is so clear you can actually see fish swimming in it.

And if nothing else, at least we’re not going to be hearing about Greta Thunberg and the impending doom of climate change for the next few months, and my mental health is already better for it!

Coronavirus, conspiracy and bullshit

It’s two days since we were asked to avoid all non-essential social contact, and already I’m sick of the conspiracies and the bullshit. From my mother-in-law, who thinks if you can hold your breath for ten seconds, you’re neither infected nor infectious (FYI, that’s bullshit), to those who keep asking what’s ‘really going on’, there’s ample proof that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has put its socks on.

So here’s the coronavirus bullshit I’m most sick of hearing.

The ‘I’ve heard…’ bullshit

So much discussion about coronavirus starts with, ‘I’ve heard…’

Whenever I state a fact on this site, I try to provide a link to a reputable source that supports it. Anecdotal evidence of the ‘I’ve heard’ variety – usually from a friend who’s a nurse, or an uncle who’s a doctor, or a cousin in Italy – is worse than useless, it’s often dangerous.

Vitamin-C stops you catching coronavirus; if you have a runny nose, it’s not coronavirus; it’s just the flu.

All wrong. This kind of hearsay stuff encourages falsehoods. It dissuades people from listening to sound advice and makes them ignore the very things that’ll help with this pandemic. It leads to them panic buying, stockpiling, pulling their kids out of school, and doing things that go against our best interests. It leads to chaos and individualism, when order and collaboration are how we save the day. It leads to people refusing to follow the steps we need to take to end this because they think they know better.

I often challenge people who make these kinds of statements to provide a source. ‘Google it,’ they respond, as though the onus is on me to find corroborating evidence, not the one making the batshit claim. If you tell me the world’s flat, it’s up to you to bring the evidence, buddy.

So next time, before clicking on that ‘share’ button, do a bit of fact-checking. It’s incumbent on all of us to do our part. If you don’t, you make things worse.

The conspiracy bullshit

The worst, most extreme form of ‘I’ve heard…’ is the conspiracy theory. I’m not going to go into the biological weapon bullshit here. Instead, I want to talk about the significant proportion of society who seem to delight in telling us the outbreak is either much worse than it really is, or else is a minor inconvenience/entirely non-existent virus that’s being exploited to take away our individual freedoms.

The first tends to take the form of, ‘I know a nurse, and she says they’re lying to us – it’s so much worse than they’re letting on.’

I’ve seen that sort of comment, phrased slightly differently, around fifty times already, mostly at Daily Mail Online. ‘The official statistics are wrong’ finds fertile ground among the distrustful minds of this post-truth age. These comments are the height of scaremongering, actively encouraging us not to trust the very government that is trying to help us. I’m pretty sure that, in times of war, this would be tantamount to treason.

But worse is all the NWO crap, that somehow seems to have shedloads of upvotes, hinting at a sizeable body of tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists living among us.

For those who don’t know, the New World Order is a massively popular conspiracy theory that claims a secretive cabal of globalists, Zionists, Freemasons and/or aliens are manipulating the world from out the shadows. Their aim is a totalitarian one world government, often called The Fourth Reich, that will enslave mankind and cull it to manageable numbers. The IMF, the World Bank, the WHO, and the UN are all believed to be arms of the NWO, slowly strangling individual freedoms. Part of Trump’s popularity is because people think he’s fighting back against this ‘Deep State’.

How will the NWO take over? By faking terrorist incidents and mass shootings to increase the government’s power and take away our means to resist (i.e. gun control), and by faking a global crisis that necessitates the suspension of civil liberties and the imposition of martial law. To these believers, Covid-19 is the end-game: all people will now be forced to vaccinate/have chips inserted in their necks to be monitored before being led to the extermination camps. Just go to Twitter and search the hashtag #Newworldorder and disappear down the rabbit hole of nuttiness.

And this would be fine, if it was just a fringe belief, but it crops up in the unlikeliest of places – I’ve even seen it on Asperger’s parental support sites. So every time you say, ‘What’s really going on?’ or ‘They’re lying to us!’ you could be encouraging someone who thinks our alien overlords are about to take over. Stop doing it.

The political bullshit

I’m also sick of all the posts and comments using Covid-19 as a stick with which to beat the Tories in general and Boris Johnson in particular, most notably at The Guardian. They seem to think that the Conservatives want old people to die, and Boris Johnson is doing everything in his power to bring that about. Specifically, they argue that, following a plan drawn up by Dominic Cummings, Johnson is willing to sacrifice the elderly, the sick and the poor, as they’re drains on the public purse, in order to safeguard the economy on behalf of his rich friends.

Do people really think this is the time to play party politics? They seem almost to want thousands of people to die in order to justify their hatred of the government. But though they dress this up under the veil of intelligence – they know better than the rest of us, don’t you know? – even an elementary understanding of politics makes it clear that blaming this on Boris Johnson is ludicrous.

Johnson is not a medical expert. That’s why he’s following the advice of Chris Whitty CB FRCP FFPH FMedSci, a physician and epidemiologist who also happens to be the Chief Medical Officer for England, Chief Medical Adviser to the UK Government, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Health and Social Care, and head of the National Institute for Health Research. A senior civil servant and practising Consultant Physician, formerly Professor of Public and International Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Health, I’m rather sure he knows more about public health than most left-wing journalists and the majority of Guardian readers. So why the constant Tory-bashing?

All this achieves is sowing disunity and discord when we ought to be supportive and cooperative. I’ve even seen calls for Johnson and Cummings to be arrested and put on trial, and for the government to be overthrown and replaced, which is patently absurd.

The supernatural bullshit

But more absurd are the supernatural interpretations of Covid-19. I’ve seen many people argue that Dean Koontz predicted this outbreak in his 1981 novel, The Eyes Of Darkness, because the book is about a biological weapon named Wuhan-400, where the coronavirus pandemic began. This is obviously just a coincidence – more so when you discover it was originally named Gorki-400 and came from Russia, before being renamed Wuhan-400 in the 1989 reissue.

Even more have pointed to a 100-year cycle of outbreaks, in the manner of: 1520, smallpox; 1620, plague; 1720, plague; 1820, cholera; 1920, Spanish flu; 2020, coronavirus. This is such an obvious example of cherry-picking that it’s barely worth debunking, but I will – what about the Black Death in the 1340s; 1665 London Plague; the 1855 plague in China; the 1889 Russian flu; or the 1957 Asian flu? There are always outbreaks of disease so you can do this with any year. Indeed, as this 18-month-old article shows, we were overdue a pandemic anyway.

In terms of supernatural belief systems, many Christians seem to think that God won’t allow this virus to get out of hand. Those who believe aliens are guiding the evolution of mankind agree they won’t let us fall victim to this (unless they’re part of the New World Order and this is their plan). There are many more who seem certain that the virus will just disappear.

The evidence? The late celebrity psychic medium Sylvia Browne, from shows like Montel and Sally Jessie Raphael, predicted that 2020 would see a pneumonia-like illness spread across the world and then disappear. And far be it from me to doubt somebody who:

  • in 1999 told the parents of a kidnapped girl that she had been sold into slavery and was still alive (she had been murdered within hours of her abduction);
  • in 2001 told a woman her firefighter fiance had survived 9/11 (one month before his body was pulled from the rubble);
  • in 2002 told parents that their missing girl was alive and working as an exotic dancer (she had been murdered in 1996);
  • also in 2002 told the parents of a missing 11-year-old that their son was dead (he was found alive in 2007);
  • in 2004 convinced a mother that her missing daughter was dead (she turned up alive in 2013);
  • also in 2004 told a pregnant woman she’d have a healthy baby boy (it was a girl and died after being born 5-months premature).

And dozens more. But sure, she predicted this. After all, a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The November bullshit

And speaking of time, I’ve lost count of the number of people who claim they had coronavirus in November, or over Christmas, or in early January. They all speak of a mystery, flu-like illness that laid them low long before the illness left China. The official story is wrong, they say – it’s been here for months already.

You know what other illness has flu-like symptoms and afflicts people in the wintertime? Flu.

Give it a rest, people. This is going to go on for months, and it’ll be far harder if we have to spend them knee deep in bullshit.