Tuesday 7 March 2006

Don't panic, Captain Mainwaring

So we finally get to meet the first horseman of the Apocalypse, and he turns out to be a sneezing duck. How’s that for bathos? I have naturally been as shocked as anyone by the way the bird flu panic has begun to take hold. But at least it hasn’t all been bad news, as I remarked when Keith Harris and Orville were stoned to death by a frightened crowd in Stoke-on-Trent the other night.

With the European public responding to the crisis with all their usual calmness, we can also look forward to some really excellent bargains on the poultry counters. Even though you appear to risk catching avian flu from sleeping with, or at any rate sharing your house with, poultry. As opposed to cooking and eating it.

Still, can’t be too careful. I understand that the country’s art galleries have been ordered to quarantine all portraits of Leda and the Swan as a precautionary measure.

How can I joke at a time like this? Very easily, as it happens, since there is what is technically known as blank all else to do. It’s one of those moments when you have to choose between being a Private Frazer, helpfully pronouncing, ‘We’re all doomed, aye doomed I tell you!’ Or a Corporal Jones shouting ‘Don’t panic!’

My own aim is to see through the crisis with all the urbane assurance of Sergeant Wilson. Can you imagine John Le Mesurier going round in a face mask, spraying disinfectant? If you’re tempted by that approach, do remember that you’ll not only make yourself look ridiculous, it will also really take the fun out of having a pint and a fag. In the few remaining months when you’re still allowed to do so.

I don’t particularly want to go in the near future, drowning from some ghastly respiratory infection. As a former girlfriend of mine used to say, ‘I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my dear old dad. Not screaming in terror like his passengers.’

But what will be, will be. My uncle narrowly survived the great flu pandemic of 1918, which killed more people than the rather better-publicised first world war, but he had the advantage of being two at the time. Because that particular strain of the disease apparently had one strange characteristic. It didn’t pick off the obviously vulnerable, the very young and the old. Instead, it cut huge swathes through those between 20-40, who should have had the best chance of shrugging it off.

I don’t think we yet know whether our new pal H5N1 has any such bias. Fortunately scientists will be able to compare the two strains quite closely, as they were able to recover a sample of the 1918 flu from a victim who had been deep-frozen in a grave in the Canadian Arctic for the last 80-odd years. I don’t know whether her name was Pandora, but opening that particular box did strike me as a similarly brave or foolhardy thing to do.

So we await our fates, as we usually do. Personally, I have a bit of a bias against the view that an endlessly growing population is an essential national virility symbol. I think this country is overpopulated, as is the planet. More importantly, the planet seems to agree, and it has a rather good self-regulating system to put things back into balance. Whether through disease, floods, earthquakes or ultimately making the place too hot for most of us, or at any rate our descendants.

You might as well sit back, relax, pour yourself a drink and watch the miracle of Mother Nature at work. It may not be very pleasant, but then I don’t suppose it’s a barrel of laughs being an antelope during a close encounter with a lion.

At the end of the day, which may be sooner than you think, we’re all frightfully small and insignificant. Just remember those wise words of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour: ‘Nothing matters very much. And few things matter at all.’

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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