Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Perhaps, there has never been a finer time for fairy tales. As a nation in need of solace and certainty, the straight-cut world of heroes and villains is one that is currently easier to make sense of than our own.
Indeed, Boris Johnson seems more than happy to comply, assuming the role of affable, floppy haired narrator as he spins the dystopian tale of COVID-19 into a digestible and comforting yarn of indomitable national spirit and happy endings. Yet, however soothing they may be, we must be wary of Johnson’s tales and the grittier reality they obscure. The fairy tale landscape is one dominated by the rich and white, in short a landscape where Johnson thrives, but what of people that don’t fit into this group?
Of course, Johnson has paid homage to our contemporary heroes: the key workers working tirelessly on behalf of the nation throughout this crisis. And these heroes are not the white knights of old – this is a collective that is wonderfully reflective of the diversity of British society.
Indeed, this crisis has rightfully encouraged recognition of the migrants who fulfil so many of the jobs that are only now prized as key. Only a couple of weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown, Priti Patel the Home Secretary labelled migrants earning less than £25,000 as unskilled workers. By branding our key workers as heroes, it seems that the Government has changed its tune.
The attribution of hero status to key workers is appropriate and has fostered a great deal of harmony and cheer amid a backdrop of worry and uncertainty. But, the majority of these heroes do not return to castles, nor are they armed with swords and shields. In fact, many of them have been left without the necessary protective equipment they require. The majority of care workers survive on minimum wage, whilst in 2017 the Conservative government (Johnson included) voted in favour against pay rise for nurses. Johnson is happy to laud these people as heroes; such language enables him to weave his story away from the fact that he and his party have failed many of these workers.
In terms of the villain, COVID-19 is the perfect candidate. Certainly, Johnson wasted no time in likening the virus to ‘an unexpected and invisible mugger’. It is a personification that is touchingly childlike and highly revealing – like a child who can’t sleep for fear of robbers, the mugger is Johnson’s paramount fear.
His privilege couldn’t protect him from the virus itself, but it continues to remove him from the depravations of a low-pay lockdown, the sort of depravations that are too mundane for fairy tales. In Johnson’s world there are only goodies and baddies and no-one in between. Yet, it is the middle part that is the stuff of reality; where politics goes about its murky business. COVID-19 may not distinguish between heroes and villains but it does pursue the poor and the marginalised with especially vicious intent.
Even Johnson’s own personal experience of the crisis bears semblance of fairy tale. Just when things are starting to go awry and the public are losing faith in our bumbling protagonist (yes, in this magical world of his own making, Johnson veers haphazardly between narrator and main character), he meets his enemy head on and is dealt a near mortal blow. At this we, the wide-eyed readers, are moved to sympathy and concern, quite rightly so. Fortunately, our hero is restored to health and with his resurrection comes something more, the gift of new life as his baby is born. Such symbolism is extravagant even by Johnson’s own capacious metaphorical standards.
It is now that Johnson’s fairy tale starts to curl inwards at its edges. How to reconcile his own personal happy ending with reality in which the crisis still looms with no distinguishable end yet in sight? As a new father once again, Johnson should soon have to become reacquainted with reciting bedtime stories. Let’s hope he manages to extract himself in time to face the less than rosy reality that the rest of the country finds itself in.