In 1981 I was working with Dale, a New Zealander who had fought with the South Vietnamese and Americans in the infamous Vietnam War. Dale told me that one of the exercises they had to do out there was patrol the dense local forests, to flush out enemy soldiers. These were extremely dangerous mission, as any accidental noise he or his companions might make, such as snapping a branch underfoot or dropping a piece of equipment, would immediately alert the Viet Cong of their wherabouts, and result in their being shot at and perhaps killed. Hence, the patrol had to be undertaken with the utmost delicacy and in complete silence. But, Dale told me, some of the American GIs would take transistor radios with them, so they could have music for company. Needless to say, a high percentage of these young guys would not survive the mission. Why would they take such a crazy risk, I asked Dale. Because they were high on drugs, was Dale’s conclusion. I couldn’t really see this, as most drugs make the consumer even more cautious, not far less. Dale’s story troubled me. It made no sense. It would play on my mind for almost 40 years.
The UK Government and its senior advisers have been at pains to emphasise and praise the wonderful work so many of us have done to stem the spread of COVID19, and perhaps there have been some parts of the country where the great majority of locals have been pulling together to contain the virus. I can’t know, because Lockdown means I’m only able to make a judgement of my own town, Bournemouth. And here people have more or less abandoned social distancing, even though they’ve been told a thousand times that keeping two metres apart will help keep them and the wider population safe. Debbie and I were walking side-by-side on a clifftop pathway a few days ago. A woman and man were coming from the opposite direction so we slid into single file to give them space to pass by, which they duly did. A few paces later, the man suddenly turned back to face us and said, “Can I just congratulate you two on moving aside for us; you’re the first people who’ve done this since we came out.” I know that the great majority of people who catch COVID don’t get seriously ill, but some do, and of these some get the dreaded Long COVID, and a few get dead. It’s a dangerous condition. 125,000 UK citizens are dead. And yet people get so close to others that they literally rub shoulders. How much effort, I ask myself, is required to move just one pace to the left or right? Too much? Yes, too much. Having to be in a state of high vigilance for months demands more than most people can give, so they simply stop bothering. And at last, after 40 years, I had it – the answer to Dale’s riddle. Why did those young Americans hold radios to their ears when they knew it could be the death of them? Because they were just fed up with all the effort of trying not to die.