‘My fear is this could be a new normal, a society fearful to the point of paralysis’

Photograph: YorkMix
12 Aug 2020 @ 1.41 pm
| Opinion

Writer Miles Salter wonders whether we will be able to leave ‘neurotic York’ behind when all this is over

On Facebook recently, somebody said ‘Am I the only person who’s not left the house since the start of lockdown?’

My immediate response was ‘No’. Not because I’ve always been at home (I haven’t, as I’m about to state) but because my sense is that a lot of people are worried, anxious and fearful.

They’ve been listening to news reports for weeks on end about Covid-19, death tolls, social distancing and the rest. Like the man on social media, hundreds of people will have barely left their homes since March. And in many ways, it’s entirely understandable.

The confusion surrounding how to behave is pretty strange. People are not sure what to do.

Stay at home? Go to work? You can go to the pub but not the theatre. You can go to A&E but you can’t step inside a GP surgery. The one near me in York won’t let people in. It is operating on a ‘locked-door basis’, its website says. You have to go to a window at the side of the building and attempt a conversation.

Suffering with an ailment recently, I grew increasingly frustrated with the non-interest of the GP and went to hospital, where an actual human (wearing PPE) talked to me.

Not welcome at the party

It’s not just the local surgery that makes me feel like I’m (to put it mildly) unwelcome. I got on a train recently to visit an ageing relative and one of the staff said ‘You can’t go in there’, nodding at the carriage I was about to enter. He went on to explain that the carriage was reserved for staff.

Peering down the rows of seats, I saw a table with some sandwiches on. I wasn’t welcome at that little party, so I never asked what was in the sandwiches.

Walking in York, near where I live, I stepped off the pavement to allow the person approaching room to pass. Instead of accepting this gesture as sufficient, she stepped into the road, avoiding me by an extravagantly wide margin.

A few days ago, at a well-known high street retailer on York’s Coney Street, the cashier asked me to stand back two metres while she gave me some change. I’d been in the same shop the day before, and things had been more relaxed, and no such request was made.

In a pub with a friend a few days ago, we were asked to download an app and use it to order. Baffled (and frustrated), I approached the waiter. ‘Can we just order?’ I asked.

Neurotic York

All of this makes me think York is being a bit neurotic. It’s as if coronavirus has brought out the latent insecurity and fear that all of us carry, to a greater or lesser extent.

Currently, masks are mandatory in all shops, but this is impossible to police effectively. Doubtless bad-tempered exchanges have already taken place. Most people in York have not been wearing masks in the town centre recently.

Part of me wants to stay at home. On July 4th, when pubs re-opened, numerous venues in York centre remained closed. My band, Miles and The Chain Gang, have yet to play a gig in 2020. 

      The sense of control, by government, police and high streets, is becoming more claustrophobic

– Miles Salter

I’m not one of those people who attaches the words ‘conspiracy theory’ on the virus. Clearly, it is real and very dangerous, and we should all respectfully towards each other.

But I do worry that the ‘computer says no’ mentality that David Walliams joked about in Little Britain is becoming more and more apparent as a result of the virus. The sense of control, by government, police and high streets, is becoming more claustrophobic.

Go to a bank in York and your every step is monitored. My fear is this could be a new normal, a hyper-vigilant society, driven by an increasing tendency to obey technology that is fearful to the point of paralysis.

Technology can be a great asset, but when its binary options obliterate human creativity and intuition, we’re going to lose out. I hope I am wrong. But I suspect that we will be living with the prevailing atmosphere of scepticism for some time. I just hope York moves on as quickly as it can.

Miles Salter is a writer and musician based in York. He fronts the band Miles and The Chain Gang. His third collection of poetry, ‘Fix’, will be published later this year