Good heavens, this is hard to write. To experience a national humiliation and shame is one thing. To describe it is far, far worse. It is like making a public confession of weakness and defeat. My beloved city, Oxford, is closed and silent, like a large, well-ordered cemetery. Its stone buildings still glow in the cold spring sun like a vision of the Celestial City. But they cannot have known such desolate silence in centuries. I do not mind the near-disappearance of motor traffic, but there are no human voices, either. The streets have been cleared by an irrational panic, which has engulfed almost everyone.
Even people I previously respected as reasonably independent minds have fallen for it. They think (though there is only highly debatable evidence for this claim) that by hiding in their homes they will save others from a cruel plague. And so at noonday, you may hear your own footsteps in the heart of the city. On Sunday, I suspect the happiest man to be seen there was a wrinkled, gibbering drunk with a can of strong lager in his hand, vaguely moving crabwise along the front of Balliol College, using that mighty seat of learning as a handrail to keep himself from falling over. He had two reasons to be relaxed and cheerful. First, he was virtually insensible and so had no idea of the sad fate that had overtaken his country. Second, in an unintentionally comical codicil of our new Chinese-style curfew, the homeless are specifically exempt from the law that confines us all to our, er, homes.
The rather questionable legal basis for our mass house arrest is a document called The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020. It is itself based on the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. Apart from those without homes, who are told “Regulation 6, Paragraph (1) does not apply to any person who is homeless,” we are constrained by Regulation 6, paragraph (1), which says, bluntly and humiliatingly: “During the emergency period, no person may leave the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.” There is then a list of officially accepted excuses, which do not include standing and staring at the landscape, pausing to take in a hilltop view, or any other form of contemplation or normal joy. One leading member of the Government, the increasingly disappointing alleged intellect Michael Gove, has suggested we should limit our walking to an hour a day. I have known Michael for many years. The idea that he should now be empowered to tell me when and where I can walk in the fields and woods of my homeland is absurd beyond belief. But a dour ban on even the tiniest pleasure is everywhere enforced with rigor and righteousness. It is like being occupied, except that the grim-jawed occupiers are my own countrymen. Outside a pub I know (which is of course locked and dark), the benches by the riverbanks have been officiously festooned with plastic tape to prevent anyone from sitting down. Fortunately, a number of fallen tree trunks, farm gates, and grassy knolls remain, for the moment, available for lawless countryside sitters as long as they stay out of sight of the police. Even a stretch of path by the Isis, our local stretch of the Thames, now has notices warning that the boat-dwellers moored next to it are “self-isolating” or “vulnerable,” and we should go some other way.
This is one of many examples of a peculiar madness which has so many of us in its grip. If, while out on foot or bicycle, I offer a cheerful greeting to a passer-by, nine times out of ten he or she will turn coldly away. I fear some think that even by speaking to them I am increasing the risk of infection by the plague. A similar nervousness is often on display as we all stand seven feet apart in queues to enter shops. Inside, it can be worse. I was studying the label on some supermarket fish the other day (our venerable and beautiful covered market, airier and more spacious than any supermarket, if you wish to avoid breathing on your fellow shoppers, has been mysteriously closed). As I checked the date to see that the fish was not about to go bad, I became aware of two legs approaching me down the aisle. Looking up, I observed they were attached to a fearsome female figure, her face tense with fury, making swatting motions toward me with her arms as if I were a mosquito or some other pest. I am afraid I smiled. And at that she began to berate me, saying, “It’s not funny! It’s a government instruction! We must stay two meters apart!” Note the officious use of the foreign, bureaucratic measurements (meaningless to many older people) instead of a friendlier English seven feet.
Actually, while regarding the whole thing as a mixture of a joke and a tragedy, I try as hard as I can to observe these restrictions. I have been known to march round food stores with a scarf swathed round my mouth and nose, like a bank robber. I keep my required distance. I thank the check-out clerks for turning out to work, as I have no doubt that most of them believe they are in danger from me. It is like living in a country where most of the population follows a different religion from mine. Even if I think its precepts wrong and ludicrous, I will still treat it with outward respect. But I will not be bullied into publicly adopting it. There is now a strange ritual, in many places, of going to front doors or apartment balconies at a set hour of the evening and applauding “our” National Health Service and its brave workers. We are constantly told that by accepting our confinement in our homes, we are helping to save the NHS, long the nearest thing the secular British have to a religion. While I appreciate the work done by medical staff, and the risk they take, I have an aversion to compulsory applause—much like my loathing of compulsory jollity, dating from my boarding school years and reinforced by my voyages through the Warsaw Pact lands. So I will not do this.
But now comes the awful question of my real religion, the praise and worship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being, and from whose life and words I take, in these times, an especial comfort. I cannot do it as it has been done for centuries. The churchwarden at the small village church where we still follow the 1662 Prayer Book, read the King James Bible, and sing proper Anglican hymns wanted to continue. He pointed out to the Church authorities that there really aren’t very many of us, and that even now we mostly manage to worship while at least seven feet away from one another, and sometimes farther. Not a chance. The services were stopped and a few hours later the doors were locked, and nobody knows when or if they will ever open again. Such a thing has not happened in England for 800 years, since the days of Bad King John. This unpleasant man found himself put under a Papal Interdict, which forbade almost every church service save Baptism, and this too has now been banned by our Prime Minister, Alexander Johnson. Nor was this miserable, legally dubious ban announced by heralds with drums and trumpets, reading proclamations from the steps of town halls. It does not even seem to have passed through Parliament, which has obediently gone home after failing to stand up for itself.
Instead it was decreed by a televised address, our new chamber of government. A few years ago one of our wiser politicians warned that a wholly different problem would mean the end of a thousand years of history. He was right, but only in a technical, legal way. I think this week was when the actual spirit of those thousand years was finally chased out of the remaining serene groves and ancient arches where it still shyly lingered. This is what the end I have long feared actually looks like. We love Big Brother. I try to argue against the closure of the country, and a few listen, but in general I might as well be reading Russian verse to an audience of koalas (though they are not all as nice about it as koalas would be). England and Britain as I knew them are gone. They are now nothing more than geographical descriptions of a patch of land, into which some ugly new thing, its hour come round at last, will shortly slouch. I wish, oh how I wish, it were otherwise.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday.