Postcard From the Isle of Wight

3 November 2020  /  Updated 7 March 2021

By A.R. Norman

One of the particular joys of living in our island corner of England is the sight of sailing boats out on the Solent – occasionally those menacing black-winged speed yachts hurtling at unfeasible velocity in their bid for Americas Cup glory, occasionally too the square or gaff rigs of large classic yachts, but many more of the brightly billowing spinnakers of the various racing boats vying for silver over the treacherous tides to the north, east and west of Cowes. Most of all, though, is the delight inspired by the sight of those earnest little dinghies sailed by youngsters in their thousands during the summer months.

But not this year. Cowes week was cancelled and now, with this second lockdown, 2021 is in the balance. As for the smaller sailing organisations, like our local club, though past stewards built up a cash reserve to keep us afloat during the economic downturns that trouble the finance committee from time to time, the club’s viability is now seriously threatened. No doubt it will survive, but it is unlikely to do so in its present form. For why? In a way the answer is obvious: it’s the economy, stupid. But there is another, more troubling answer, of which the economy is only part.

Our sailing club is over a hundred and thirty years old and has thus weathered two world wars, the Spanish flu, the Depression of the 1930s and the stagflation of the 1970s. Yet, though its membership is, first and foremost, comprised of people whose delight is to brave wind and wave and, more often than not, get very wet in the process, we are reminded – yet again – that physical courage and moral courage are not at all the same thing. We, too, have dipped our pennant to the mania that is presently gripping the world.

Arguably one should not expect otherwise. Any English club or institution with a long and proud history – not to mention strict entry criteria, a rule book, and even a weakly upheld dress code – is likely to be a bastion of social rectitude and conservative values. For polite (meaning mainly privately educated) society the priority of appearance over reality has always been a given, of course. Moreover, it is the nature of things that the more self-regarding the club, association or institution, the more committed it is likely to be to upholding society’s mores. Thus, for example, this year, there were few courses for the young (there was a minor fight back: originally there were to have been none), but no cadet weeks, no club barbecues, no prize-giving parties, no fund-raising ball and, it goes without saying, absolutely no fooling around and jumping in and out of each others’ boats.

Because being seen to comply with society’s expectations is of paramount importance, it matters not a jot that a child is far more likely to drown than to die of COVID-19. It does not matter that, even if you are 75 or older, unless you have serious underlying health problems, your chance of survival should you contract the disease is still better than 90% or that, being outside in the sunshine your chances of getting it in the first place are minimal. No indeed! What matters is that the club membership are exemplary participants in the pantomime. So children are no longer taught the rules of the sea in groups in the classroom. There may be no games of tag or hide and seek among the sand dunes. Heaven forfend! As for the bar being open for adult members, the days when there was a bar to prop up are long gone.

As a result, the club’s finances are shot to pieces. There will be redundancies and there is to be a loan scheme to try to steady the ship over the next 12 months. (Inevitably, the summer activities subsidise the operation throughout the rest of the year.) No doubt what is true of our club is true of thousands of small commercial operations throughout the country. Certainly every seaside resort town is wholly dependent on its summer trade for survival. The Isle of Wight’s entire economy is dependent on what is effectively a nine-week season. All this notwithstanding, the real issue is not financial but moral. And this is true not only of the sailing club but of every corporate entity, whether public or private, throughout the land.

When adult men and women, many of them educated to the very margins of intellect, are willing to participate in the charade that our little sailing club’s off-the-water social activities have become, it is little wonder that the civilisation that gave it birth faces ruin.

Last Sunday, I went for lunch. Sporting a face-mask, the proven efficacy of which is only to anonymise me among the membership with which I might be on at least nodding acquaintance, and having navigated myself along corridors of mine tape and past numerous reminders to keep a ‘social distance’ I arrived at last at the dining room. Shown to my table, I was permitted to de-mask – but only when the waitress took my drink order. When, however, it was my turn to approach the buffet, I had to mask up again while collecting my food from the, similarly masked, serving staff. This ludicrous and undignified torment is all the more shocking given the well-known fact that the average age of Covid fatality is somewhat above the national average life expectancy. Yet it is, alas, the inevitable consequence of our collective loss of confidence in the very traditions that provided the glue for Western society itself.

Here, by tradition I don’t just mean the way things have always been done, but the whole inheritance of our culture: what has been handed down over the centuries, thought about, modified here and there, acted on and finally passed on to the present generation. Included within tradition spoken of in this sense is all the wisdom of what G.K. Chesterton called that most “obscure of all classes” – the dead. That is to say, we no longer look at what people used to do in the past to guide us in our present dilemma. Still less are we likely to turn to God. Instead, we put our faith in a priesthood of professionals – not just the scientists themselves, but also the soothsayers who promise vaccines and cures – unless, of course, it comes from Russia, in which case we will be told to refuse it – and the “defeat” of the disease. Never mind that no life was ever saved, only death postponed. No, we are fed the pious falsehood that “every death is a tragedy”.

Of course, every death would be a tragedy if its occurrence among human beings was one of the practical problems that science is so good at solving and there was a viable alternative. But such is not the case. Even if scientists could find a way both to eliminate all disease and to arrest the ageing process, there would remain hazard. There is no alternative to physical death.

In ignoring what tradition tells us, we have forgotten that there can be good deaths and bad deaths, holy deaths, heroic deaths, peaceful deaths and, to be sure, many tragic deaths. Yet to say that every death is a tragedy as now we must – unless we are willing to be thought uncompassionate – is in fact a calumny and a slight on those whose deaths are truly tragic. It is why the death from Covid-19 of a 95 year old in the last extremity of Alzheimer’s disease is not to be mentioned in the same breath as that of a child led off to the gas chamber.

But we have, as a society, lost sight of all this. Now it is not fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom, but the inanity of sentiment – of following your heart (while being sure at all times to be self-compassionate). Unfortunately, the chances of the club membership recognising the perils of untethered sentiment are as minimal as for what used to be Christendom as a whole. Yet we should remember that there is no cruelty which cannot be justified when it is approved by its perpetrator’s conscience and exercised for the benefit of its victim. As CS Lewis wrote

…those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

From C.S. Lewis’s essay anthology “God in the Dock” (1948)