THE SPECTATOR: GRASS PRIVILEGE

Long ago, a friend warned me I was living in a J.G. Ballard novel, but only in lockdown has the plot of High-Rise started to unfurl on the banks of the Thames. Developers are forced to build a certain number of homes for Londoners who could never otherwise afford anything, and height comes at a premium. So we’re stuck on the lower floors, in small, airless flats, overlooking land we’re not allowed to stray on to, as the rich exist in splendid corona-isolation above, peer down from their balconies and call security — to persecute us by making hints and suggestions. 

Ten days ago, a letter was stuffed underneath my door. ‘Complaints have been received regarding the strong odour of cannabis smoke being emitted from your apartment which is causing distress and discomfort to other residents,’ the denunciation read. If this went ‘uncorrected’, I was informed, I might lose my home. 

I heartily wish I had been puffing a joint out of the window to spite the bastards upstairs. As I’ve not done anything of the sort, I wanted to know what gave the estate manager the right to hand-deliver threats on the say-so of anonymous accusers. But in this pandemic we’ve all been encouraged to denigrate, judge and expose others for anything and everything, so now I’m the one with the problem — for having a problem with it.

Those of us who have had no access to fresh air would dearly love the same privilege anyone with a garden enjoys: the ability to breathe it in. But for the whole of lockdown, every single bit of lawn here has been cordoned off with tape like a crime scene. Not to ‘keep off the grass’ was to declare yourself a disgusting individual, intent on causing death by dangerous sitting. So the corona-purists above (in spacious homes, educating their children with iPads, enjoying a banana bread-baking, sourdough-starting, gin-consuming, video-the-NHS-street–clapping existence) felt righteous in reporting it.

Many parks were closed by the police — and most were situated in working-class areas. This never made sense. We’ve shopped at supermarkets in hordes; it was far easier to social distance outside. But access to grass has always been a class concern. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Homo Deus, the poor could never ‘afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passer-by: “I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.”’ Ultimately, Covid-19 has exposed the divide between those who have it and those who don’t.

The condemnation of ‘covidiots’ is classist and often racist. The last weekend we had sun, I watched a group of black girls valiantly trying to uphold some semblance of freedom of association while being screamed at by one of the residents and then warned off by security. Elsewhere, Patrick Bateman types spotted each other’s exercises with perfect impunity. 

If we go into another lockdown, we’ve got to be more relaxed about parks. Those who make the rules may for the most part have gardens, but they should remember those of us who don’t. A few weeks ago an off-duty ambulance driver was detained on suspicion of sitting in the sunshine. ‘You’re here with your friends… and you haven’t really given me enough reason to believe that you’re not here just seeing them,’ the arresting officer explained before slapping the handcuffs on and searching him for drugs.

Three months ago, it seemed important to take as many precautions as possible. But you can only remain terrified for so long. While my friends (0.2 per cent chance of death) wore actual gas masks when shopping at the supermarket and disinfected all their purchases in the bath, I started committing constant minor infractions of stupid rules that made absolutely no sense in order to stay sane. So far I’ve lived to tell the tale.

No one has stood up for the gardenless covidiot’s right to sunbathe — because self-censorship is raging out of control. The R-rate for the transmission of an alternative point of view is at an all-time low. 

‘Question lockdown and an old person dies’ has been the narrative. But I wonder if anyone has ever asked the at-risk age group what they would choose for themselves? ‘No pleasure,’ Kingsley Amis wrote, ‘is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare.’

Before fear of a second wave shuts down discussion again, we have to conduct a full investigation into the social, emotional and psychological cost of lockdown. It’s a matter of life — and not just death.

THE SPECTATOR

20th June 2020