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Opinion

Out with the old, in with the new

The pandemic has made us question the nature of society,  and we can create a fairer one with social kindness

Having lived through many grim early Christmases you would expect me to take to a dim-lit, unlively Christmas like a duck to water. But I have had such brilliant ones since I started marrying in my late teens that I’ve been spoilt.

My first family made me warm and welcoming in a way that glaringly exposed how piss-poor were my early years, and how drenched in need they were.

Since then, more children and more joy, more family and more festive fun.

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Now pandemica, like the wicked witch of the north, sharp-faced and Scrooge-like, robs us. And reduces us to what in my chronology of Christmases smacks of 1952. That year my creative elder brothers made Christmas decorations out of old copies of the Daily Mirror and the Evening Standard. Newspaper paper chains elegantly surrounded the walls of our leaky, draughty, slummy front room.

But what we have recently been through, a reversal of fortunes for many, uncertainty and worry, causes my pasts to pale into insignificance. Back then there never was much. So you got used to little. The uncertainty of this winter though is something entirely new – and unexpected.

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But, but, but – where there is a will there’s a way. And there is much to build on; on what we have been calling Social Kindness.

Last week I listened on the radio to the wife of a man who because of the pandemic didn’t get his cancer diagnosed until too late. With a child under two, the grief-stricken mother began to highlight that what the cancer victim wanted for Christmas was the chance of getting diagnosed in time.

Her love for her now-gone partner caused her to turn out in social kindness to honour his memory with love for others. Such a tremendous expression of the human spirit knocks spots off of the kindness that comes gift-wrapped.

I remember American airmen doing their National Service in a North London airbase crying as they entertained us to a vast Christmas party at my childhood orphanage. They missed their children and loved ones and a crazy mass of broken children being cared for by nuns drove them to regret their own isolation. They were so wonderful and as a sad family-missing boy of seven, I cried with them. I could understand their loss.

But now many decades later I realise that not having much has an advantage in one weird way; as it means you have less to miss. Maybe this is a time to review and reflect on what is essential in this world.

I know the health of us all is the necessary ingredient of a good Christmas. Boredom and isolation can be handled if we can stay healthy.

We will face big threats from pandemic-created poverty in the new year. We must find a way of getting the government to keep people in their homes; training and recruiting for new jobs must be the answer to our plight.

Don’t let historians tell you we have been here before. We never have

I do hope you have a great Christmas. And I do hope we have a new year that takes us out of uncertainty and into security. We may have to fight for that. If the government realises the full cost of not investing in new chances then we can weather this inclement time.

The pandemic has certainly got us all questioning the nature of our society and our world. What the nature is, too, of science and why it so often offers opposite opinions. I hope we’ll also begin questioning the priorities that we set in life.

But let’s be upbeat. Let’s look for answers, necessity being the mother of invention. We are here in the weirdest health crisis that has ever hit human society, from back in the days when we first started to accumulate into towns and cities, through wars and revolutions; right through to our pandemic times.

Don’t let historians tell you that we have been here before. We never have. This is a tough one because we haven’t ever had such a suspension of life in all of its social moments.

So if you feel apprehensive because of this don’t kick yourself.

You are somewhere new. And we have to master this newness and create a different way of being in society.

Society probably began about 10,000 years ago with the first cities. We learned to bind together, not just as family and tribe. We started to come together with complete strangers.

All of that is now in question in its current form. We have a contagion in our global community and a form of economy that is contagious in itself. Our economy spreads all over the world. Amazon and Starbucks, as well as Covid-19, are contagious. One an illness, the other a means of pulling people together to spend their money in one place.

Covid-19 monopolises our time while the big internet businesses monopolise our buying.

I do hope you can forget all of this for a few days. Have a good Christmas story. And come out fighting at the other end.

Happy Christmas from an old Christmas hand.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chiefof The Big Issue. 

john.bird@bigissue.com

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