Carla Carlisle: ‘It sounds tactless, but I’ve long believed that the most beautiful word in the English language is “cancelled”‘

Raging against the lockdown isn't for Carla Carlisle, as she admits to 'a swoosh of contentment' whenever she thinks about how little she has to do — and how nobody will judge her for not doing it.

In the beginning, it felt as if it was only me and Tom Stoppard. Writing in The Spectator in early March, he confessed that, if it weren’t for the terror behind it, ‘social isolation without social disapproval’ is the life he has always dreamed of. This is the only MeToo movement to which I belong. When I wake up and remember that I have nothing more urgent on the horizon than feeding animals, I feel a swoosh of contentment. It sounds tactless, but I’ve long believed that the most beautiful word in the English language is ‘cancelled’.

If ‘sheltering in place’ sounds like poetry to me, it is not a poem my husband has read. Never a resistance fighter — his unwritten political memoir will be called Moderate with Fog Patches — he insists that he will not be incarcerated during his twilight years. As soon as the lockdown shows signs of softening, he vows to defy the age ban and march forth to Brooks’s, the Beefsteak, the London Library, the Woody Plants Committee.

“I see coronavirus as one of the most transformative events in modern history, a crisis that reveals our fragility as human beings”

‘Wow, you’re really storming the barricades,’ I almost say. He thinks I underestimate the implications of this state-sanctioned discrimination. ‘The Queen can never again appear in public! ‘Charles denied his coronation in Westminster Abbey!’ ‘The House of Lords finished!’

The intimate lockdown reveals our dormant prejudices and different pulse rates. I see coronavirus as one of the most transformative events in modern history, a crisis that reveals our fragility as human beings. He sees it as a serious historical event, but not one that should fundamentally change the way of the world. It seems it takes a pandemic to sharpen the points of your compass. It also opens the memory bank.

Once a year in my elementary school, our teacher would put up a large poster in our classroom. Under the words Help fight polio, a wide-eyed little girl or boy looked up at us, leaning bravely on their crutches and wearing a metal brace on one leg.

It was March of Dimes week and the whole school filed into the hall to watch the film The Polio Story.

As soon as the lights went out, we heard the sound of sirens. We sat in the dark until the ambulances appeared on the screen, racing through city streets, bumping along dirt roads, crossing wooden bridges all across America. They were carrying children to hospitals.

Scary as the sirens were, what really terrified us were the small heads like our own sticking out of the iron lungs, long metal tubes that breathed for the children whose lungs had stopped working. Some children spent a year in the iron lungs. Some spent the rest of their lives in them.

A man who looked like my grandfather told us he had got polio when he was 39 and that he started the March of Dimes to raise money for research and crutches and wheelchairs for crippled children. We didn’t know he was President Roosevelt, because he died before we were born.

Back in the classroom, our teacher would ask us if we knew anyone who’d had polio. Most hands went up and I always thrust mine high in the air. ‘My big sister had polio when she was five!’ I announced proudly. Her case was mild and dancing lessons made her legs stronger.

“This is no time for the Privileged Old to incubate feelings of discrimination and persecution. The most liberating thing we can do is to create a more accommodating wind vane to our compass”

March of Dimes week planted the virus deep in our hearts. We learned that it was invisible and highly contagious, how it was important to wash our hands with soap and hot water. We saw pictures of bus and train drivers wearing protective masks and entire neighbourhoods with signs that read ‘Polio! Quarantined!’

Although we watched it every year, we always found it spooky. We loved the ending. Adorable monkeys, young mice, guinea pigs and rabbits in cages twitched and hopped as Dr Salk explained that animals such as these had made it possible for him to discover and test a vaccine that was safe for us. We were lucky children who would not get polio.

Neither coronavirus nor Covid-19 rolls off the tongue — my Southern cousins call it ‘Rona’ — but more people have died from it than polio, edging towards 30,000 in the UK at the time of writing and 250,000 worldwide. Memories are short. The first beneficiaries of the Salk and Sabin vaccines are the 70-plus folk, the generation that bypassed the fear, the bewilderment and the suffering of a virus called poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis — the generation that’s now complaining loudest.

Some of us (me and Sir Tom) may have a greater capacity for solitude, but for the vigorous, nimble and gregarious (my husband and co) patience is required. The Queen will still reign over us and, when the day comes, Prince Charles will be crowned in Westminster Abbey. If its members continue calmly to shelter in place, the Garden Society will gather again in St James’s. A vaccine looks hopeful, but this is no time for the Privileged Old to incubate feelings of discrimination and persecution. The most liberating thing we can do is to create a more accommodating wind vane to our compass.

PS: My sister who had polio lives in Maryland, where she is self-isolating with her husband. I had an email this morning: ‘We’re doing fine. Maryland hasn’t peaked yet, but should soon. I’m blown away by the folks who don’t believe this is real and say it’s just a government takeover created by the liberal news media. Easy to stay quarantined when you think about people like that out there.’

Rosie and Jim will be back next week.


Curious Questions: If not now, when?

It might be morbid to write your own obituary, says our columnist Carla Carlisle, but nobody knows your story better