Rational optimism, Swiss social distancing and love thy neighbour

Travel Talk

It has been over three months since ‘lockdown’ began.   

On the credit side, I have finally got round to doing almost all the jobs that needed to be done in and around the house. New gates at the side entrance, a freshly painted front door with gleaming brass. The faulty wardrobe doors have been repaired, the contents of the wardrobe culled, a new jacket and shoes bought (online, of course). And much more besides.

The temperature is soaring, so continuing to work in the garden today is not a pleasant prospect, though work will have to be done if I am to have in reality the garden I have created in my mind. Perhaps it would be best to wait until the early evening, when the heat has gone from the day, but enough light remains.

English garden In the meantime, I realised just a few minutes ago that the end of June is approaching and I promised Debbie I would provide an offering for July’s ‘Now and Then’.

But on what subject? I don’t want to dwell on the parlous state of the travel and holiday industry, as its woes are well enough known, and dwelling on them will lead to pessimism, and I am, by nature, an optimist. (I’ll get back to optimism in a moment.)

I often think that the hardest part of this job is choosing the topic. After that, the writing sort of takes care of itself. But don’t tell anybody.

“Where do you get your ideas from?” I was asked by an earnest young lady after I had addressed a meeting of literary enthusiasts in Croydon towards the end of last year. It’s a common, and straightforward, question.

A newspaper headline will often do it. A couple of weeks ago I spotted one in The Daily Telegraph on a news item recording that, while continuing its ban on boxing, wrestling and judo, the Swiss government had relaxed the ‘social distancing’ rules so as to permit golf. And while it was in the process of sorting out sports and recreations, it was also permitting the re-opening of brothels, though participants in that particular form of recreation would be required to keep their faces ‘a forearm’s length’ apart. No mention was made of what they should be doing with everything below the neck, however.

I’ve never bought into the idea that the Swiss are a boring bunch – “an outdoor branch of Barclays Bank, populated by head waiters” – so was unsurprised to learn that, prostitution being legal in that country, they keep a proper regulatory eye on the premises used. A very sensible approach, too, not to mention how it benefits the tax man.

Switzerland Other inspiration comes from stuff that simply happens to cross my path. During the present situation the emergence of a website called nextdoor.co.uk is a good example.

I was a trifle suspicious at first, as it spells ‘neighbour’ ‘neighbor’ and drops other clues to a transatlantic origin. But it is definitely local, as the messages and discussions are all about this ‘neighborhood’, its shops and services, its local council and so on.

It regularly carries messages from folk asking where they can find a good carpenter or bricklayer or plumber. (Have these people never heard of Checkatrade?) It has offers of items for sale, or available free if one is able to collect. These posts come complete with seductive illustrations. I am sometimes tempted, but have to keep reminding myself that I am already overstocked with goods and chattels.

The local police frequently post information about how they are successfully fighting crime – mainly nicking shoplifters and drunks.

These posts are then commented on by folk who are 100% behind the efforts of our boys (and girls) in blue. Often they are the same folk who post messages about people congregating in the local park, other people lighting bonfires in their gardens, and assorted infringements of the new order.   

Thus, Plod and Prodnose combine to provide a source of innocent merriment.

I have learned not to participate in the various electronic conversations that take place on this site. A recent one about feeding foxes tempted me to do so, to my instant regret. I had not realised how firmly what I call ‘Beatrix Potter syndrome’ has embedded itself into the hearts and minds of my ‘neighbours’. Foxes (and squirrels, come to that) are not little furry people. They are wild and they are pests.

(And don’t get me started about ‘Miss Two Dogs’, the girl who walks a black Labrador and a smaller hound, and regularly pours two or three pounds of grain from a carrier bag to feed the feral pigeons that infest the car park in front of the local railway station, and roost in the bridges which cross the road there.)   

Unfortunately, news about my home and garden improvements, Swiss brothels, or the antics of my neighbours (including Miss Two Dogs), wouldn’t hold your attention for an instant, so I am still stuck for something to write about.

Lefkada, Greece Which brings me back to optimism. I realise that, at the moment, it may be in short supply, though things are getting better, light is at the end of the tunnel, and so forth. But I’ve been trying to look beyond the current Covid crisis and am convinced that we shall see a massive improvement in the situation long before the end of this year, and life afterwards will continue to improve.

What reinforces this belief are facts, not opinions. Facts that were outlined a decade ago in a book by a chap named Matt Ridley (officially Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley). It’s called ‘The Rational Optimist’, and I cannot recommend it too highly as the perfect antidote to the current gloomsters and doomsters, forever banging on about facemasks and second spikes and goodness knows what else.

He rightly points out that we are living through the greatest improvement in living standards in history, our ecological footprint is steadily shrinking and we are living more sustainably.   

In January, he forecast (in a magazine article) that by the end of the 2020s there would be (I quote)  “…less poverty, less child mortality, less land devoted to agriculture in the world. There will be more tigers, whales, forests and nature reserves. Britain will be richer, and each of us will use fewer resources.”

I concede that forecast was made pre-Covid, but believe it will nonetheless come true. So, if you need cheering up, ‘The Rational Optimist’ is the very book you’re looking for.

Read more articles by John Carter

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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