Can Europe Make It?

Put him to bed: social fabric and the spirit of laws

'According to Hancock, “Every time you try to flex the rules that could be fatal …”... he was right. A mere hug, just one fond kiss, can be deadly.'

Iain Galbraith
14 July 2021, 9.35am

According to figures published on June 28, 128,100 people have died in the UK of Coronavirus. Who can understand this figure? Anything – whether number, event, dream or stone − is practically incomprehensible by itself. Comparison and relation of the similar and dissimilar are the tools of understanding.

But does it help to know that, in 1918, 228,000 died in Britain of the influenza pandemic? Or what is 128,100 when set beside the 67,100 British civilian deaths of WWII? Or how do the 67,100 sit beside 100,000, the number of civilians killed in a single night’s bombing of Tokyo in March 1945? Perhaps all we can do in the face of such blinding figures is think of the death of someone we have known. The only number we can compare 128,000 with is one. Each big number includes the same number of individually and communally experienced personal losses – these are palpable tears in the social fabric.

According to Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of Laws), published in 1748, the principle that upholds that social fabric (at least in a republic) is the “love of virtue”. This is the confluence of moral and political virtue “in the sense that it points toward the general good”, and where such “love” exists it will be in this sense too that laws are made. Perhaps the former UK Secretary for Health and Care, Matt Hancock, was citing this spirit when on 10 January last year he claimed in an interview: “People need to not just follow the letter of the rules but follow the spirit as well and play their part”. According to Hancock, “Every time you try to flex the rules that could be fatal …” And of course he was right. A mere hug, just one fond kiss, can be deadly.

When my uncle died at the end of December last year, for a moment I seriously considered attending his funeral. But the kiss, the hug, were rightly considered a danger and consequently forbidden. At the time the infection rate was staggering, the number of dead increasing intolerably, and on January 6 the Health Secretary was promulgating the “common good” and enjoining the Great British Public to follow what he called “the stay-at-home imperative”. Between my uncle’s death and the funeral I would have attended if I had flouted the laws, England was ordered into National Lockdown. So I stayed at home and thought what a funeral could be like if the spirits of the absent were to join the legal limit of 30 funeral guests. Aside from hugs and kisses, a funeral sometimes brings the opportunity to meet again, maybe for the last time, relatives unencountered for decades, or, for the first time, children born and almost grown up since a previous family event. I considered what I might say in my funeral address about my uncle’s place in a remembered social fabric − irrevocably torn since he had left it.

Today we bury a friend. The gurgle of sleet in the drain runs a rag-and-bone clip-clop through his mother-in-law’s back yard. I ate his food, he drank my drink, he asked the questions. Needleman of the north he stopped by on his route to Harris. I buried his sister-in-law, buried his brother-in-law, twisted with his wife at his mother's grandson's wedding, whose sister went a-waltzing with Archie of Austria, who gave her a gold crown for silence. He never threw a car away all his life, and here they stand, worsted yards apart, in a circle around his grave, and no place nowhere to park. Thirty silent, according to the Sacred Law: as paper roses flutter let the trowelfuls beat his breast. His father-in-law's granddaughter lost her girl, his brother-in-law's furious aunt drove a fearsome cart and horse, her nephew's father hill-farmed Blackface in the West. Who knows who was a mason, who went farther still? He it was who fathered his brother-in-law's niece and nephews. He married his sister-in-law's sister. He was an in-law with a decent family to boot. And from time to time he booted them − how could we ever forget? For he was a hoaxter, a prankster, a jigger and joker of fine spirits. His final trumpet was his final woe, the one he didn’t blow: and here comes the cold upper lip, melting now to weep. How shall we come down from here till tomorrow? Today I see him better than ever, knowledge unfurling as if from know-where, swirling around this standing stone. But the lichen of myth tears through the toughness of memory leaving only names and years: Arthur Braithwaite, Zilpah Garbutt, Annie Leaper, Born X, Died Y, names delicious to the palate as to the ear. Rulers-in-law, shakers-in-law of drink, wool and bespoke stuffs, you are taking us through the steps, the how much longer to wait. "Rags! rags!", sings a gurgle-in-law from the drain.

This Splinter was first published in the July 1 edition.

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