Peter Rhodes on lockdown literature, the optimistic Victorians and how to bore a virus to death

By Peter Rhodes | Peter Rhodes | Published:

Read the latest column from Peter Rhodes.

Jerome K Jerome - optimistic

Yes, I know I should expand my reading horizons during this lockdown. I should probably get stuck into proto-Mayan feminist literature of South America or have a determined stab at something terrifyingly impenetrable from the Booker shortlist. But these are strange times and, just as we turn to familiar food for comfort (I have never eaten so much corned beef), so we pick up the well-thumbed books we know and love.

For me, first off the shelf was Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome followed by The Diary of a Nobody by the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. The first was published in 1889, the second in 1892 and both capture the extraordinary optimism of the Victorians. They lived short lives, epidemics were common, surgery was barbaric and dentistry a nightmare, yet they took pleasure in such simple things as painting a walking stick or packing a suitcase. Their default position seems to have been laughter. If they could step through the ages and meet us, even before this pandemic, they would find us astonishingly wealthy but unaccountably glum.

They might also find us extremely stupid. For example, if you deliberately helped spread a typhoid epidemic in the 1890s and then published a photograph of yourself doing the deed in the parish magazine, you would have been regarded as insane. Yet here in the 21st century the lockdown-breakers cheerfully post their images on social media. Have they really no idea that retribution may follow?

The orgy of hindsight and political point-scoring goes on. So bear this in mind. Governments act on advice from Whitehall's medical and scientific experts. And whichever party had been in power over the past decade, it would have heard the same advice from the same advisers.

Some doctors in the States are not surprised by how many fellow Americans are dying of Covid-19. It is an unhealthy nation. According to one study, only 12 percent of Americans aged over 20 are considered “metabolically healthy.” About 36.5 per cent are obese, compared with 28 per cent of Brits. There are risk factors in this pandemic and, as the World Health Organisation tells us, the better shape you're in, the better your chance of surviving. Just as being a man puts you at higher risk, so does being overweight. We can't do much about the first but there has never been a better time to fight the flab.

Nor has there been a better time to be dull. The news agency Reuters compiled views from citizens of the Chinese city of Wuhan where this pandemic began. I recommend this tip from one resident: “Bore this virus to death by staying at home. This is the best solution.”

PS: For the benefit of Walsall readers, Jerome K Jerome is, of course, “Walsall-born Jerome K Jerome.”

Peter Rhodes

By Peter Rhodes

Award-winning columnist and blogger. Keeping an eye on the tribulations and trivia of a fast-changing world


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