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Splendid isolation


By Trevor Moore


My daughter sent me a link to a Spotify playlist called COVID-19 Isolation Bangers You have already guessed, of course, that it is a set of songs to listen to while you are locked down, socially distanced or isolated … choose your favourite term. I immediately passed this on to my good friend and fellow rock aficionado Macman. If you have any ear for a good song, then the playlist is a good listen but we were amused enough by simply reading the titles … The Police’s Don’t Stand So Close To Me, Elton John’s I’m Still Standing, the Thompson Twins’ Doctor! Doctor! and Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. And the list goes on. There is, however, one song that should be on this playlist that is not. The greatest rock ’n’ roll singer songwriter of all time – bar none; and I am unanimous in this – is Warren Zevon. Even Macman now regularly plays a Zevon song on his 2EARFM shows; last week it was The Envoy (1982) which is lyrically dated but musically right on song.

The song that should be on this playlist is Splendid Isolation which, as you all surely know, opened side 2 of Zevon’s 1989 album Transverse City. He sings:

I want to live alone in the desert, I want to be like Georgia O'Keefe

I want to live on the Upper East Side and never go down in the street

Splendid Isolation; I don't need no one. Splendid Isolation.

If you do nothing else today, then listen to this; you will not be disappointed. Zevon had a brilliant dark side to his lyrics but that dark side is always woven into a comedic thread. And it seems that, as much as anything, in these strange times we need to weave a comedic thread with the dark stuff.

I have always been of the view that every cloud has a silver lining. Stuff happens and you don’t like it and it’s not good but eventually there’s something positive that occurs. Perhaps this is the human condition: we have to put up with a deal of shit if we are to make any progress. Perhaps that sounds biblical or perhaps it sounds like I believe in predestination. I don’t. The brilliant English mathematician John Conway wrote a paper many years ago in which he effectively proved that we have free will if and only if subatomic particles have indeterminate spin. And we know that certain particles have an indeterminate spin. Well, that’s enough quantum theory but my point rests. Our problem at the moment is that we don’t know what is at the end of the tunnel - or more properly “the flattened curve”. How could things be better after this current crisis?

Photo by Claudel Rheault on Unsplash

There was a piece in The Guardian over the weekend, by the Editor of Guardian Australia, Lenore Taylor, which is headlined The coronavirus story is unfathomably large. We must get the reporting right. She is right, of course, and it has been hard to get really solid facts about what is going on. This may well be because no one really knows. One good thing that might come out this crisis is that the word “unprecedented” may become so overused that it falls out of use. You may remember that the bush fires were “unprecedented”. There are things that are “unprecedented” but COVID19 is not really one of them. It is of course A Big Deal and should not be underplayed. But there have been pandemics before as indeed there had been bushfires before. That in no way diminishes the severity of either the bush fires or COVID19. It just means “use language that is reasonable for getting your point across”. It seems that no politician can speak today without using the word “unprecedented”. It has become a jargon word. Even Lenore Taylor, who is trying I think to inject some calm into the situation, says in her piece “How do we track these daily convulsions and make sense of how society is shattering and how or when it will recover?” (I have added the “?” which her copy omitted).

Now, it is clearly great journalism to use phrases like “daily convulsions” and “society is shattering” but they are hardly terms that help people of a nervous disposition to cope. The New York Times talked the other day about the stock market “cratering”. I mean, whoever uses the verb “to crater” in their everyday speech. No one. Or only a journalist who needs to be sensational to get you to read their piece. But sensationalism doesn’t really help us when we need facts. We are not particularly helped by our leaders. Morrison did not do well with the bush fires and he is not doing all that well with the coronavirus crisis. In the UK, Boris Johnson is doing a daily press conference and, for all the criticisms levelled against him, has acted and has acted fast. That is not what we are seeing at present. Morrison has given up on the words “surplus” and “deficit”

but he isn’t acting fast enough.

Now, some of his difficulties stem from the legacy that the drafters of the Constitution left us in the document that describes how our nation is to be governed. The Constitution gives powers to the States and Territories that are not always easy, or even possible, for the Federal centre to manage. Morrison, rightly, established a National Cabinet which is really only a slimmed down COAG. You cannot call it a Cabinet of National Unity (which Morrison keeps calling for) because the Federal opposition has no seat at this table. At the May 2019 election while 41.44% voted for a Coalition candidate, 33.34% voted Labor. There should be some responsibility to represent that view Federally. Hiding behind the fact that some State Premiers are Labor people is a marketing spin.

Photo by Mélissa Jeanty on Unsplash

Most of the people I spoke to could see the problems that would occur from a National Cabinet. I am not saying that he should not have formed such a body. I am assuming that he knew that chairing it would be like herding cats. And this last weekend we saw the thing falling apart when Daniel Andrews effectively said “we’re shutting the schools and if the National Cabinet doesn’t agree … well, we’re shutting the schools.” NSW followed suit. The cats are out of the bag and the result is that many people aren’t sure whether the schools are shut or not. Now, it was inevitable that the cats could not be herded. Anyone who has been a project manager knows that cats cannot be herded but anyone who has been a project manager knows that communication is the best and only weapon you have to keep the project on the road. The National Cabinet will not, ultimately, fix anything. It cannot as it does not have the power to execute. But the chair of the National Cabinet could improve his approach to communicating to us. That means providing facts and being very clear about what we are all supposed to be doing and when and how we should be doing it.

I am reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s poem If. In my corporate life we would frequently adapt the first three lines of this poem to better describe the antics of the latest meaningless decision by some random senior executive:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

Then you haven’t grasped the seriousness of the situation …

What the poem actually says is

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too

The trouble with politicians is that they are wired to shift the blame and to react to doubt with condescension. Of course, Morrison is not as bad as Trump but not as good as Johnson - and I never thought I would have a good word to say about BoJo.

But be in no doubt: there is light at the end of the tunnel, the curve will flatten and go to zero, we will find the silver lining. Whatever metaphor you want to use just make sure you stay safe, wash your hands, keep your distance … do whatever it says on the Federal Government Health Website. And if you aren’t already doing it, then you better start now.

Note: The term “splendid isolation” is also used to refer to the 19th-century British diplomatic practice of avoiding permanent alliances at the end of the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th. It didn’t work very well.

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