I sneezed yesterday – not an event that I would generally feel worthy of recording in print, but which was attended on this occasion by a mild curiosity. Was this just innocent nasal irritation, I wondered, or the first sign of something worse? The thing being that my daughter had called me from school last Friday to tell me – in tones of excitement rather than apprehension – that a girl in the year above her had come down with Type A influenza and her entire cohort had been given Tamiflu.
By that evening the Twitter feeds were busy exchanging rumours about suspected swine flu and by Sunday it had been confirmed that it was H1N1 and the school was to be closed until at least Thursday of this week. And suddenly I found myself thinking of that Herbert Farjeon lyric: "I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales". By a startlingly short series of steps, it seemed, a story which began as an exotic threat had come home to our house.
I can't say that we're exactly panic-stricken. There have been some jokes about painting a red cross on the front door and sealing my daughter's room with bio-hazard tape but, by and large, we've assumed that we probably won't get it and that if we do it will be unpleasant but survivable. It does mean though that I can add some personal items to the modest collection of irrationalities I'd been compiling since the Swine Flu story first broke.
My favourite item so far was the scientist on the Today programme who reassuringly explained (when anxiety was considerably higher than it is now) that we were lucky to be so close to 1 May, since that was when flu viruses typically quietened down for the summer. This remark summoned the image of an H1N1 virus getting out its diary and saying "Damn – I knew I should have got an earlier flight". It also summoned a question: why exactly would an English summer dent the activities of a virus that seemed to be doing perfectly well in Mexican weather balmy enough to lure British sun-seekers?
Then there was the odd way in which the media reported the first "person-to-person" cases in Britain, as if this was a significant new development. Given that the people who brought the virus back with them hadn't contracted it from kissing pigs in Cancun this didn't really seem to warrant the headlines it got. I couldn't suppress the suspicion that an unconscious prejudice lay deeply buried somewhere – that what was regarded as notably worrying was that a Briton could catch it from a Briton, rather than from one of those foreign types we half expect to give us diseases. Added to which there were all sorts of other items – from British over-reactions to the internet adverts for a device called "The Handler" – a kind of retractable hook thingummybob with which you can protect yourself from potentially deadly contact with door handles or cash-machine keys.
My own irrationality is this. I'm not frightened. Not even a little bit. And while that might make sense immediately – given that the virulence of H1N1 seems to have been overrated and infections are falling in Mexico – it probably fails to take account of the fact that we now live in a world where it takes less than a month for a new infection to get from a rural province in Mexico to a classroom in Hampstead. Next time it may not be something irritating but relatively harmless – the viral equivalent of the Prince of Wales. It may be something I really don't want near my house at all.
Well done to Winehouse for beating the paparazzi
My congratulations to Amy Winehouse in securing an injunction against the paparazzi agency Big Pictures, the latest example of a celebrity securing legal protection against the rolling riot that now comes with any degree of fame or notoriety. Congratulations too to her immediate neighbours, who are presumably as relieved as she is that the mob has been dispersed.
As a journalist I'm not really supposed to think this. I'm supposed to think as Darryn Lyons, the owner of Big Pictures, has argued, that this is the thin end of the wedge, and that a hallowed tradition of press freedom is under threat from well-paid lawyers.
I'm quite sanguine about this, taking the view that the opportunity to look at a picture of Ms Winehouse looking rough is not a fundamental civil liberty. But if it does turn out to be a precedent for less desirable restrictions, I won't be blaming the celebrities for attempting to preserve a bit of privacy (however shamelessly they've exploited publicity elsewhere). I'll blame photographers who would happily trample children under foot to get a saleable shot. And all those of us who create the market that makes them willing to trample.
The citizens of Indignia need to get a life
The Advertising Standards Authority's list of Most Complained About adverts of 2008 provoked some editorial hand-wringing over what it said about us as a country that the possible ill-treatment of a dog – featured in a commercial for a Volkswagen car – should have stirred nearly as much affront as distressing scenes of child abuse in a Barnardo's ad.
Not much further down the list came that mayonnaise advert in which a gruff New York deli chef gets an uxorious kiss from his "husband" before he heads off to work – allowing some commentators to lament the ingrained homophobia of the British public.
But this top 10 told us absolutely nothing about British attitudes, only about the attitudes of the kind of people who could be bothered to make the 26,433 complaints which the ASA received last year. And they don't represent the citizens of Britain but the citizens of Indignia, that strange territory of the mind in which one's own passing sense of affront must always receive the satisfaction of formal acknowledgement. Of course their preoccupations are weird – because they spend far too much time filling in online forms and not nearly enough in getting a life.Reuse content