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"In good spirits"

A caveat before I get going on this week's blog: this isn't about politics, it's about language. It goes without saying that I want Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to recover from his current debilitation, any reaction other than "get well soon" is the wrong one, but the way it's being reported, both by the press and by his party, reveals a lot of what's wrong with the language of how we talk about these things, as well as respond to illness. The way we talk about "fight" and how people are "laughing and joking". It's unhelpful at best, and counterproductive at worst.

I'll start with a shameful confession, I used to use these terms, too, and it took a while before I worked out what was wrong with them. Ten years ago, I was on the phone to my soon-to-be-dead brother, who was informing me in no uncertain terms of his soon-to-be-deadness, shocked and confused (because, of course, these sorts of thing never happen to your nearest and dearest, or, in the most secret, narcissistic reaches of your soul, to you) I reached, as anyone would, for platitudes. I burbled stuff about how he'd "pull through", how he was "a fighter", he sighed and said that there was "no fucking chance". He was right. And what shames me to this day was that this moment, when he knew there wasn't much time left, I was still grasping at straws, I was, in essence, telling him to fight harder, I was trying to prolong his pain for my own selfish reasons. Because that's what we've been conditioned to do. He, with admirable clarity of thought, wasn't having any of it.

We are absolutely rubbish at death in this country. But we're worse at illness. All the talk of Johnson in ICU has been of him being "a fighter", of him "sitting up and joking with the staff" about how he's "in good spirits". This is inane, patronising nonsense. The man's in intensive care, it's serious. It's okay to be serious about it, it's okay to be concerned. But, somehow, it's assumed that we'll all be happier if we hear that he's "in good spirits". I understand that it's jollying people along, but at the same time it undermines the severity of the situation, and messages like this are important. Hey, maybe it's not so bad, I mean, sure, he's in intensive care, but he's still cracking gags, how bad can it be?

Nearly 1,000 people died yesterday.

The obvious problem with the phrase "he's a fighter" is its unspoken assumption that those who sicken and die, aren't. As if illness is somehow a test of moral character, something to be overcome like fear of heights, or being rubbish at French. It's a reductive and childish view of the world. I have been blessed with a pretty good immune system, I am rarely ill, and if I am it's not for very long. This does not make me a better person than my brother, who was riddled with an aggressive cancer, he didn't die because he wasn't enough of a "fighter".

But we have long viewed illness as a sort of moral failing in this country. In my profession, a culture of carrying on regardless is ingrained into you early doors. Chefs are tough, Chefs show up, Chefs don't let other Chefs down. I've been guilty of this too, cutting myself badly, going and getting stitched up and then heading back to the line. Working through illness. The show must go on. It's what you do.

Except, of course, it shouldn't be, and as I've got older and risen through the ranks I'd like to think that I've grown out of this, to an extent. For one thing, I don't particularly want that ill person coughing and spluttering near my food, and I certainly don't want them anywhere near it if they're feeling sick, I don't want to be the vector that transmits illness to other people.
To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever suffered from a meal that's left one of my kiychens, and I'd like that to continue to be the case: if you're ill, you're going home.

So, by this token it's possible to argue that the whole British keep calm and carry on myth helped contribute massively to the spread of COVID-19. Cheltenham Festival, now widely recognised to have been a giant transmission-fest, went ahead in part because the organisers saw the PM at the England and Wales game. The PM himself joked about shaking hands with sufferers. People being vox-popped going about their day voiced the ludicrous line that not to do so would be "letting the virus win".

It's long been apparent that far from being the pragmatic, industrious nation that we like to see ourselves as, a great seam of self-delusion runs right through the middle of our national consciousness, national myth is more important than fact. There is another blog to be written about this (indeed, I'm sure it's a subject that's already been well-covered), and the continued insistence of HMG that 31st Dec is a be-all-and-end-all date for leaving the EU will make it a more pressing issue as the year wears on; but with specific regard to the language we use around illness, the myth of being a "fighter" has, in this case, directly contributed to the rapid spread of an indiscriminate and deadly virus. Every person that tried to work through it, every person that just assumed they'd be all right, every person who thought that the advice didn't apply to them, all are, to a greater and lesser degree, culpable. Not that this is their fault, it's the fault of the lie of the indefatigable worker that we tell ourselves, the fault of a narrative that trivialises a serious illness, the fault, in short, of the language that we use to talk about illness.


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