Under a spell

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Everyone knows Magic Spells, as usually described can’t happen in real, physical life.

Creating something out of thin air contravenes the intuitively obvious law of conservation of matter, while spiriting an object from a to b takes energy, which has to come from somewhere and then travel via some known, measurable means (sound waves, laser beams, the No 7 bus…)

Light, darkness, fertility, and all the other things magicians may want to invoke don’t just turn up on demand without a physical cause.

But ‘spells’ of a sort are nevertheless out there, and I think it pays to be able to notice them, particularly at times like the present.

Nobody actually refers to them as ‘spells’, though – that would be giving the game away.

Take a large body of people going about their everyday lives. Most of us – even those like me who like to think themselves immune to that sort of thing – have something in life that we want – or at the very least would like more of. If it isn’t the obvious one of money then it might be security, love, prestige…

And these wants make us susceptible to ‘spells’.

If they didn’t, then I defy anybody to explain why firms expend so much money and expertise on advertising things such as (to take one obvious example) dark reddish-brown fizzy drinks of whose existence we are all perfectly well aware already thank you.

Adverts, and the sort of spells that concern us here, don’t work by directly moving the physical world but instead cause us to believe something – whether it’s the classic ‘The Forest is Malevolent (and threatening that safety that you want)’, ‘There’s a conspiracy, founded in Continental Europe, to keep your wages low (and depriving you of more of that money you deserve)’ or ‘This Government is Benevolent (and has, with Herculean effort, dispelled a Plague)’.

All this has the effect of altering our behaviour. It harnesses energy in the form of enthusiasm – energy, in other words, that wasn’t previously visible.

Thus there are people who are now convinced that the present U.K. government have handled the pandemic well, and that here it is effectively all but over. This conviction stands, in spite of verifiable evidence to the contrary.

At the time of writing, the U.K. has suffered 43,000 deaths, with more added every day. Even Sweden, with their bold experiment of eschewing lockdown, have now suffered fewer deaths – both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the population.

Added to our death toll, and less often spoken of, is the large number of people who have not, and perhaps may never, recover from C19.

Their number is not at present made public, and may not yet have even been collated. All I know from my own experience is that the total is not yet so vast that we all know one personally. So, even if the number were eventually to come out, those ‘under the spell’ of belief in our Government’s good management of the pandemic may dismiss the news because the idea of ‘surviving but never fully recovering from Covid-19’ doesn’t fit with our ‘background knowledge’ – our mental model – of colds and ’flu, two infections with which we have been led to compare it.

However this number, like the death toll, could eventually be verified – through health records, for example. Also verifiable in numbers are: the initial shortages of P.P.E. for people working in close proximity to the afflicted; the cost of attempts to devise the wrong sort of set-up for tracking the spread of the disease, and the ongoing non-existence of any Government-established means to do so. Though I do recommend one devised by the Research community.

So much for stark numbers. What have we actually been led to believe?

Most people think of a disease as some kind of ‘enemy’ which one must ‘fight’. This can be harmful on a personal level: if I ‘lose my battle’ with some affliction, doesn’t that make it sound as if I lacked the Character to put up a proper fight? But on a national level it can be useful: we are called upon to do things, even make sacrifices, beyond the everyday. We are kept informed of the progress made, using charts or figures, so as to keep up morale. True leadership is also, in a way, a ‘spell’ cast over followers.

Now think of the two dates which the U.K. Government chose for the easing of restrictions: 8th May (V.E. Day, and a Bank Holiday weekend), and 4th July (‘Independence Day’ – not here, but who in the U.K. doesn’t make the association?)

What are we being convinced of, without the words being said? What mental models are we inadvertently pulling out of the bottom drawer of our minds?

And so, as we pour out of our houses and flats, to the beaches and beauty spots – as the Government with its messages to our unconscious evidently intended us to do – they can step back in feigned shock and declaim “No! We didn’t mean that!”

But they did.

If, due to people having to return to work in indoor workplaces with their recirculated air, a second wave of disease comes, who will get the blame? The few individuals who take profit from those offices, shops and factories, or the very visible crowds in the open air where the virus quickly disperses and, as research has shown, is far less likely to be caught?

If you think the latter, are you sure you’re not under a spell?

 

Eyewitness

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In the light of an interesting recent find, I’m stepping aside from our history of interviewing techniques for a moment, to ponder their content instead.

How good can our memory for a face – a voice, a person – really get, even when poorly seen like in my picture here? And are some faces more memorable, on some kind of absolute scale, than others? What if we were witness to a crime..?

No-one should stand on the right. But below me, and blocking the way to walk down the rush-hour escalator, is a bunch of rowdy Italian lads with whom I’ve no desire to argue. It’s 1980s London and I’m on my way to work.

So I stand, on the right.

Till someone kicks me in the back.

I turn around to see a pin-stripe suit topped by a pale, contorted face. I can’t work out how old he is. The language shocks: I’ve never heard anyone in a pin-stripe swear before. I forget, today, the words of my mild protestation – survival instinct hands me uncharacteristic restraint – but I remember the kick in the chest – the loss of breath. I recall wondering if the Italian lads know CPR. But when I turn to step off the escalator, they’ve gone. A sturdy, white-haired gent in tweeds – my guess is a retired Colonel – addresses a point just beyond my right shoulder:

“I say! That’s no way to treat a young lady!”

The pin-stripe scuttles off like a rat.

I think – I hope – that I thanked the gent in tweeds. I hope he read the thoughts on my face as for the first time in my life 21-year-old feminist rebel me – the only woman engineer in my workplace – realised that men of the Forces could also be kind. There’d been a string of anti-war protests of late, and I’d been on every one.

Fast forward a year, and a train carriage rushing through deepest Hampshire. A man and a young woman in the heavy, sprung seats across the way from me are arguing, and it’s getting ugly. They’re not a couple: they’re strangers. She’s sitting in the draught from the window he’s just opened.

I hate an argument, and this one’s so easy to resolve. I lean over and suggest they swap seats, putting him in the fresh air and keeping her in the warm. She rises to move, but he lets fly at me. Survival instinct cuts in again: I recall the words and voice – the pinstripe, even.

“That bloke kicked me on an escalator on the tube last year. He’s a ruddy menace. I’ll find the guard.”

I wonder how many other women the pin-stripe’s picked on, over the years. Did he get worse? Did he get caught?

Another city, another year: Portsmouth, in fact, and at least two years on. It’s hot, it’s dark and I’m among friends in the student dive, all jumping to George Melly’s lively jazz. I’m dancing on a table. As you do. Someone tugs at my sleeve – well yes, I suppose I shouldn’t really do this: 8 stone might be too much for a Students’ Union table. I glance down to gauge my leap. The sleeve-tugger isn’t one of our crowd. She’s saying something, with difficulty over the loud music:

“I’ve seen you before. You were on that train: you stopped that argument…”

Two years. A flash of a face in the dark. I stared, gobsmacked.

To be fair, she might have been one of those rare people with the gift of super-recognition. But other strangers have remembered me, from other glimpses and other incidents. It’s just this particular one struck me as the most extreme.

And so back to that recent piece of research: how many other people, I wonder, do folk remember?

What it can’t yet explain, though, is this: why always me?

The evanescent face

An invisible affliction haunts Verity, main character in ‘The Price of Time’.

Here, she bares all:

What if you had life-saving surgery as a kid and it worked, you think it’s all over: job done. You do well at school – heck, you go on to a career in scientific research. You like people: you’re always interested in what they have to say, yet you find socialising stressful and you’ve no idea why. You travel, you pick up foreign languages – including Chinese with its tones – yet you struggle to follow the thread of a film: always thinking wasn’t that the same bloke as the one who-?

You care about your surroundings and join a political party – the Greens – yet you feel unable to stand for office: you could make a brilliant interview for radio, TV or town hall but worry you’d look an idiot as their representative ‘on the street’. You wonder why.

People always seem to remember you, even if you can’t remember them. As a teenager you ponder the outlandish possibility that all bar you are telepathic but no-one’s had the heart to let on.

When you have children, someone asks you if looks run in your family and it dawns on you that you can’t begin to describe your Mum’s face – or your Dad’s, or even the husband you love. When the children go to school and you pick them up at 3:30 from a crowded playground you notice you have to wait for them to come to you before being able to tell who’s who.

And later, when their friends call round, it gets embarrassing: “Oh hello, er… come in!”

At international conferences you find your eyes flick to people’s name-badges: just to be sure.

Your former boss, whom you saw every day for years till last spring, happens to spot you working the allotment and you have a whole conversation before he says, quite casually, “You don’t know who I am, do you?”

You can’t lie.

You’re mortified.

And then, after nearly half a century of this, you find out that face-blindness – prosopagnosia – is a thing. There are people – about 0.5%, your comrades – who are no more able to remember a face than an ordinary individual is to remember what Middle C sounds like.

That doesn’t stop us seeing a face and noticing what it looks like – no more than failure of Perfect Pitch prevents the appreciation of music. It doesn’t stop us remembering a voice, a gait, a mannerism, a whole life-story: and that’s how we get by. Or we might try, during an introduction or a handshake, to ‘store’ a face using a list: ‘triangular; brown deep-set eyes; turned-up nose-’ but after 2 seconds it’s rude to stare.

Some folk inherit their face-blindness. For many it’s partial rather than complete and practice, especially when still young, can help.

In my case I was oxygen-starved for just one minute too long after that life-saving surgery and the tiny knot – it’s only a few hundred neurons of the brain – that deals with faces was lost.

Prosopagnosia doesn’t interfere with a person’s ability to read facial expressions.

Verity’s inability to do this – singling her out for her encounter in ‘The Price of Time’ – has its roots in a second injury.