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Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile

In PG Wodehouse’s ‘Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves’, Bertie Wooster is once again compelled (for reasons far too convoluted to go into here) to visit Totleigh Towers, stately home of Sir Watkyn Bassett, where he will need to be at his sharpest (a tough demand for Wooster) yet again to have to attempt to escape the Gussie Fink-Nottle/Madeline Bassett/Wooster marital merry-go-round. I won’t put in any plot spoilers here, for those who don’t already share my obsession for Wodehouse, and therefore haven’t read the book. Anyway, on his arrival at the beautiful house, nestled in its beautiful parkland, Bertie is reminded of a couple of lines from the chorus of a hymn:

“Where every prospect pleases

And only man is vile.”

(Incidentally, that hymn was written in the mid-nineteenth century by a man called Reginald Heber, poet, hymn-writer and C of E bishop – aside from that, I know nothing of him, and just vaguely remember his name in a school hymn-book as the author of ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, to prove my memory is still good.)

The contrast Wooster is making is between the beauty of nature and the vileness of man. That strikes me as quite apposite, in a world of such existential sadness where humanity has become so alienated from the world in which it lives that it has to start masking its face. 

Now, before anybody gets the wrong idea, I am not for a moment one of those complaining and whingeing and moaning that wearing a face mask somehow ‘infringes their rights’. Nobody is being asked to sacrifice their firstborn; it’s just putting a piece of fabric of some sort across your face in certain circumstances, which may possibly save somebody from an extremely unpleasant illness and possible death. So to those who object to masks, because of course they know best, just two words – grow up. No, my thought is less concrete than that, more about why did we get here than is it really necessary.

Of course, this is not a first. Masking the face against plague and disease has been a recurring, albeit infrequent theme. Indeed, in the seventeenth century plague in London, plague doctors were wont to sport some very fetching, all-enveloping headwear, fashioned from leather, which included an elongated nose guard which was filled with pot-pourri or scented flower blossoms in an attempt to escape the worst of the stench of dying patients as they were treating them. However, I have an idea this is probably the first time governmental compulsion has come into the equation.

Most formal religions – and probably most informal ones as well – preach some kind of human exceptionalism. In other words, humanity is somehow of a different, superior category from the other creatures with whom we share the planet. Darwinians, by contrast, would basically argue that although humanity may seem to be at the peak of a pyramid of development, there is a continuous thread linking different life forms. One’s own view of that dichotomy depends clearly on the relative weighting one allots to science and belief; an easy decision for some, more difficult, I suspect, for others.

I have very little time for the position taken by the adherents of Extinction Rebellion/Greta Thunberg/Caroline Lucas’ loony Green party, but I believe we do need to recognise that some important balance has been lost, between humanity and the planet. It may be as simple as not eating bats or pangolins, or scientifically more demanding, like using the earth’s resources to cleaner and ultimately more efficient purpose (cleaner energy for less clean, for example). Perhaps there are simply too many people – or, more likely, too many people in the wrong places, which for whatever reason cannot sustain them.

I have no obvious solution to this, but I am sure that the dissent and violence that has erupted this summer has been made worse by the conditions brought about by the pandemic. Sadly, what we are encouraged to refer to as “leaders” seem purely focussed on the next five minutes, and all the while that balance I spoke of above is getting further and further from equilibrium.

Still, look on the bright side; science and technology have a great record of overcoming problems. And there’s still PG Wodehouse to read, and the world hasn’t run out of wine……..Oh, and Jimmy Anderson has just taken his 600th Test wicket.




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