If the hollowness of 2020 internet mantra “be kind” wasn’t already apparent, it plumbled new depths of vacancy tacked on to author Neil Gaiman’s blog post in which he justified a 11,000-mile journey from New Zealand to Skye, passing through international airports of Los Angeles and London on the way. The roads were quiet on the drive from London to the locked down island, he reported, speaking as the protagonist of everyone else’s reality.
They were quiet, of course, because others are by and large sticking to the rules in an effort to safeguard collective health. Instead of commanding others to “be kind”, how about signing off with a nod to being less spectacularly selfish? Being less ostentatiously entitled to flaunting the rules? Just a little more aware that others are also making agonising sacrifices to stay at home, in many cases away from loved ones, without contravening the guidelines which are meant to safeguard the lives of fellow human beings? At the very least, a link to the Skye community response team currently fundraising to support the island’s health workers wouldn’t have gone amiss.
After being spoken to by police and receiving a massive online backlash, including many disappointed devotees, Gaiman has since apologied for his actions, describing the journey as a “mistake”. Of course, the guidelines have always been clear, and the reasons for holiday homers being told not to trek up to the Highlands and put pressure on health services were always blatant, but to actually blog about the experience suggests there was little expectation of negative consequences.
You may, like me, not particularly care to know the details of Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer’s marriage, and yet we do, because after being spilled across the internet it was tracked further by Gaiman’s footsteps, cited as catalyst for his grand adventure, the raison d’etre for traipsing through the pandemic-stricken world into a small Scottish island, the starting pistol for a 39 Steps-style jaunt across the land, watched by incredulous, cooped-up locals.
On Monday, 18 May, in the apology post, Gaiman blogged “I’ve been living in the UK since 2017”, having also tweeted in recent days about being registered as a taxpayer and voter in Scotland. Four days earlier, on the 14th, it was “once the world opens up and travel gets easier Amanda and Ash and I are looking forward to being together again in Woodstock. (Yes, I’ve seen the newsfeed headlines saying I’ve moved to the UK, and even that we’re divorcing. No, I haven’t moved the UK.” (sic)
At a time when renters are struggling to stay afloat, but governmental support is going to landlords, one can only imagine that owning property on more than one continent makes it easier to feel at home in multiple places, no matter how little time is actually spent in residence, fresh from, say, fluttering around receptions at the Edinburgh Festival with a ukelele under each arm.
We are not experiencing this era as one, but still, our actions must be in sync to stop the spread of Covid. Pointing a gloved finger at individuals generally doesn’t help, not least because it’s unlikely anyone has done everything perfectly, all of the time. Curtain twitching has led to unsavoury neighbour-shaming for not clapping on Thursdays. It’s easy to anger quickly, particularly when frightened. But frustration is inevitable at those who set themselves apart, who forget that everyone else is also making sacrifices while playing by the rules. Personal testimony is useful to contemporaries making sense of their own situation. But it is something else entirely to mistake others for one’s audience, or to mistake Scotland for a backdrop.
This story widely touched a nerve because it epitomised the supreme selfishness that only money permits, and the new urgency to very old problem of Scotland’s Highlands and Islands being treated as holiday retreats rather than living, breathing communities with limited stock of ventilators. It’s particularly galling to be seven weeks into lockdown, which has felt long and hard, to see the rules so arrogantly discarded. Backlash was not just frayed tempers, but frustration of injustice. It is the story of collective versus personal wealth and health.
The pandemic has brought into sharper focus the difference money makes to everyday lives. It is the difference between leisurely access to the outdoors and being stuck in a sunless flat; between being able to enjoy the sunshine and being moved on by the police; between waiting out lockdown in comfort or claustrophobia. But beyond that is the difference between being assured of a secure future and being uncertain what the coming months will bring in terms of employment, housing, and being able to pay bills.
The ‘I’m alright, everyone for themselves’ politics of the 80s never lost its momentum, trundling into the rampant individualism of the present day, disorted by the addition of an online dimension and changes to the way we communicate. It’s the same mass, just in a different shape. This has dogged feminism too, with the recent “girl boss” movement focused on celebrating individual high-net-worth women rather than bringing up the baseline.
Of course, on social media, everyone is a star. Everyone is sitting in their own little cell, among many others doing the same. Those who speak of “community”, artists with blogs among them, are in many cases really only broadcasting to the adulation of fans.
In America, personal stories of ill health, accompanied by crowdfunders for medical attention, frequently go viral, washing up on our timelines. They are not an anamoly, but a product of a system filled with gaps for people to fall through, all packaged up as saccharine feel-good stories. The government’s responsibility for citizens is evaded through the encouragement of individual “bravery” and ideas of charity. This is what the NHS must be protected against, and why it is worrying when personal stories, and personal wealth, is divorced from understanding of our collective public health.
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