Anthony Peacock – Necessity: the mother of invention
This week’s blog comes from one of our regular writers here at ULU: Anthony Peacock. If you’ve been reading Anthony’s blogs over the past few weeks, you’ll know that he’s got a knack for taking our current fears regarding the pandemic and prompting us all to reframe them: to uncover some desperately needed positivity that might be buried just below the surface. So, read on for a hopeful spin on the current coronavirus situation in the UK.
Necessity: The Mother of Invention
Back when the Second World War dropped its bombs on London, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, declared that she was glad Buckingham Palace had taken a hit. Not because she didn’t like the curtains: instead so that she could now “look the East End in the face.”
A full 70 years later, her daughter – also called Elizabeth – addressed the nation in the face of another onslaught, this time the coronavirus.
Her message? That this difficult time, like the last one her mother spoke about, will pass and that modern Britons should be able to say that they faced up to their ordeal with the same degree of fortitude as their ancestors in wartime.
But how much will coronavirus actually change life in the long-term? There’s been lots of advice recently posted online from business people who recall going through the tumultuous 2008 financial crash, not to mention 9/11, and feeling at the time that the world had immutably changed and would never be the same again.
Yet just a few years later things were back to normal, the angst a distant memory, business processes stronger than before. What these people are saying is exactly the same thing as the Queen, albeit less elegantly: you might think that this is the big one, but it really isn’t it.
For the moment, however, things certainly look very different: especially in the streets of London that are normally thronged with tourists. The streets have fallen post-apocalyptically silent apart from a few zombies queuing for shops, studiously keeping their distance. Many people, including several I know, have admitted to feelings of helplessness: like being a passenger stuck on a life raft mid-ocean with no horizon in sight.
Yet look at it the other way and it’s actually possible to feel empowered by this experience. People are having to rely on their own ingenuity and selves like never before; learning to improvise and be practical in ways that they never thought they were capable of. Necessity being the mother of invention and all that.
There are clever solutions to everyday problems wherever you look. One man in urgent need of a desk, for example, simply tipped a child’s cot upside down and made a perfectly serviceable desk. Another person in Italy has invented a way to turn an ordinary scuba diving mask into an oxygen mask. There’s a start-up company that’s developed a wrist band that will alert you when you’re about to touch your face, and yet another that’s come up with a portable door handle – so you don’t have to touch the one that’s there already.
Radar, computers, rockets, even superglue: all these things were invented at breakneck speed because of the urgency of war. The enforced solitude is also hustling the pace of digital innovation, with home working software and telecommunications taking massive steps forward.
People and businesses have been enterprising enough to rapidly diversify in all sorts of ways, with restaurants turning into shops, a British Airways 747 pilot now flying a Tesco van, and a local wine merchant introducing guided tastings over the internet (via Zoom) – he’ll send you six half-bottles and you taste them together online.
Even Formula 1 teams, best-known for protecting their own self-interests, have come together in a consortium to manufacture vital medical equipment.
More subversively, a friend of mine is also working on a computer programme aimed at home workers who are now meant to be in front of their screens all day. It will simulate online activity, making the boss happy while allowing the home worker to sunbathe in the garden, watch TV, or whatever.
With shopping being tricky, I found myself the other day wondering how best to repurpose a packet of very old brussels sprouts whose sell by date was a distant memory. Normally I would have thrown them away, but they’ll be fine if chopped and fried with fresh chilli (Nigella says you should never be without anchovies, I reckon the same applies to chilli). The point being that I had never really tested my vegetable resurrection skills before.
So it’s been a remarkable display of invention and resolve all over the country, on a macro and (very) micro scale.
But how much of it will actually last? Will we able to take some of these innovations and apply them to our lives post-corona? Will there be an explosion in home working (I guess not, if Dan gets his programme successfully up and running…)?
It’s just about possible that life might look a bit different afterwards. One American politician recently suggested that handshakes should be permanently consigned to history now. He has a point as they’re a symbol of distrust anyway: originally, shaking someone’s hand was just a test to see if they had any hidden weapons up their sleeves..
But the strong likelihood is that we’ll simply slide into our comfortable old ways once this is over: the reassuring routine of familiar everyday activity.
It’s just human nature, even if you can’t quite imagine it now. Like the Queen (and Vera Lynn before her) said: “we will meet again.” Guaranteed.
And for more pandemic-related content, check out “We’re Living in a Pandemic – But It’s Not What You Think!”