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Sheep wear masks

I remember once reading that one should never begin a piece of writing with a description of the weather. I suspect this edict was not penned by an elderly British woman, cooped up in a second-floor flat at the scrag end of a wet Saturday in November. In fact, I doubt whether it originated in Britain at all, although I’ve not gone down any Google rabbit-holes to find out. After all, those of us who’ve spent our lives marooned on this off-shore island are painfully aware that we’re animals whose habits are dictated by whether or not we’re able to see the sun. And, rules, schmules. I shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘and’ either, nor ought I to use horrible cliches and leave out the verb. But as I used to tell my students, one has to know the rules of English grammar before one can break them to good effect. And this is my blog, so I can do what I want.

I grew up in a world filled with confusing rules. Why must women wear hats in church, while men had to take theirs off? Why was I expected to wear gloves when we dressed to go out in the middle of summer? Why were my younger brothers sent to school in shorts all through one of the coldest winters in living memory? And why did my mother refuse to allow us to wear denim? Of course, some of the rules were perfectly reasonable. We washed our hands before meals, we said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and we didn’t play with the gas tap next to the sitting room fireplace. Actually, I was terrified of that gas tap. I used to lie awake worrying that someone would leave it on by accident, and we’d all die in our beds, so I wouldn’t have touched it for a king’s ransom.

I was about three and a half when my parents introduced me to Sunday School. I remember my mother pointing out the corrugated-iron-clad building, adjoining the church, during a trip to the greengrocer’s. She asked if I might like to go there on Sunday, and I must’ve said yes, because come Sunday afternoon I found myself, dressed in my best frock, with gloves of course, in a room full of strangers much the same size as myself. There were brightly-painted chairs, and birthday candles, whose smell I love to this day. We sang about ‘small corners’, and ‘taking little lights round the world’, we listened to stories, and we played with plasticine, a substance heavily restricted at home because of the mess. I was hooked.

The church in ‘The Village’, which had in reality already been absorbed into Greater London, became a central part of my life. Before long, Dad was Church Treasurer and Mum was Missionary Secretary, and the bottles of sherry my uncle used to bring every Christmas had been replaced by exotic fruit juices. Nobody had heard of cultural appropriation back then, so we dressed in the national costume of whichever country the speaker for the annual Missionary Anniversary was on furlough from converting, and I learned about food and local customs around the world in a way that was oddly non-judgemental for the 1960s.

As I grew older, I was sent out to collect Christian Aid envelopes, and stood on the church steps, urging passers by to sign petitions. One called for 1% of GDP to be spent on aid for the nations we’d ravaged during our colonial past. That target hasn’t been met to this day. This was Methodism at its best, in the heyday of Donald Soper, whose blend of evangelism, socialism and pacifism still influences my thinking more than sixty years on. I grew up with a deep understanding that the one thing that separated the sheep from the goats in Jesus’ powerful parable of Judgement Day was their active concern for the welfare of others.

During the end stages of the Second World War, my mother had been sent to stay with relatives on a farm in Anglesey, and the summer after my eighth birthday we were invited to spent two weeks in the whitewashed farmhouse of her memories. The 17th century ceilings were so low my father had to stoop, and the walls so thick that the tiny windows let in barely any light. We had milk fresh from the cow on our cornflakes, collected eggs in the ancient barn, and I taught a Welsh-speaking sheepdog puppy to ‘sit’ in English.

No matter how much I longed to take it home, the puppy was destined to become a working dog. One afternoon, I was allowed to tag along with my aunt to watch its parents round up sheep from the hillside for dipping. Sheep may have a reputation for compliance, but it was pretty obvious they loathed the galvanised trough of liquid they were being herded toward. They kicked, bucked, twisted and jumped over one another. Time and again they scattered, and had to be headed off by the dogs. When there was finally no option but to plunge, they galloped through the dip at a speed I had no idea sheep could achieve, some so fast they had to be hooked back into the trough because they’d barely touched the surface. It looked cruel to my childish eyes, and my aunt must’ve noticed my worried expression. She leaned on the gate beside me and explained that blow-fly larvae burrow deep into the flesh, doing lasting damage or even killing the sheep. Far better to endure a few seconds of discomfort in the dip than to die in agony.

From Baa Baa Black Sheep to The Lord is My Shepherd, sheep featured heavily in the stories, songs and experiences of my childhood, and I formed a pretty positive impression of them as a species. Admittedly they went astray from time to time, and had to be brought home by Good Shepherds, but they also fed the hungry, cared for the sick, welcomed refugees and visited people in prison. They liked to live in peaceful communities too, but they weren’t averse to kicking up a fuss in the face of perceived injustices. They sounded like my kind of sheeple.

The words ‘sheep wear masks’ appeared on an advertising hoarding round the corner a month or so ago, and as I’ve been writing today, a few hundred people have gathered in the city centre to protest the coronavirus restrictions. They flaunted slogans like ‘HIDE IF YOU MUST. I DO NOT LIVE THROUGH YOUR FEAR’. No, I didn’t understand that one either, but I think a rough translation would be ‘I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU’RE GOING THROUGH. THIS IS ALL ABOUT ME’. What I do understand is that police officers were assaulted, and arrests made, all because a few people believe they have a right to choose for themselves how to behave during a global pandemic. Rules schmules. After all, who are scientists, virologists and epidemiologists to tell us what to do, when YouTube has the answers? We’ve had enough of experts.

I could, like a lost sheep, wander into conspiracy territory at this point, but it’s not the right time to speculate as to why people crave simple solutions to complex problems, or want to be told it’s OK to break rules. Of course, there are rules that merely reinforce social conventions, like the hats and gloves of my childhood, but others are there to save lives. In my mind the distinction is fairly crucial, which is probably why I neither wear gloves in the height of summer, nor have a gas tap in my living room these days.

The wounds in our communities are growing deeper and more angry by the day, so I think it’s time to be brutally honest. I do not want to catch coronavirus. It’s an illness whose effects are not understood, because it hasn’t been around long enough for anyone to research them. It’s killed more than 50,000 people in this country, left others with debilitating long-term symptoms, and nobody knows how it will affect them. I know an 81-year-old who’s recovered fully, and a healthy 42-year-old who’s been battling symptoms for eight months. It doesn’t matter how loudly people mock me, I don’t want it.

But it’s more than that. I don’t want to give it to anyone else. I’m aware the risk is small, but I’m not about to play Russian roulette with anybody’s life. If wearing a mask in the supermarket means the checkout operator doesn’t end up with a ventilator tube down his throat, bring on the mask. It’s a lot like the sheep dip. The discomfort of living through a global pandemic is very real, but it’s not permanent, and if we all work together things will get better.

If all this makes me a bona fide sheep-in-sheep’s-clothing, it’s a mask I’ll wear with pride. No, I’m not scared, or no more so than a reasonable person ought to be in the circumstances, and anyone who thinks I’m meekly compliant clearly doesn’t know me very well. Instead, I choose to hope we’ll build a positive and caring future for our children and grandchildren from the debris of these COVID days. But to do that, we’ll need to stop tearing out one another’s throats, and I have a sneaking suspicion that’s the one thing the shadowy figures who finance the conspiracy theories don’t want.

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