A letter arrives in the post. It has an air of sternness which I don’t much like. My hunch is correct; I’ve been reported to something called ‘Operation Crackdown’ for driving at 38mph in a 30 zone in West Sussex when I visited my mother a few weeks ago. I scan the words quickly to see what my punishment is: a fine? Points? Court and the clink?
Actually, it’s nothing because Operation Crackdown isn’t an official police exercise. Instead, the letter’s been prompted by a bunch of local vigilantes wearing high-vis jackets, standing in a Sussex village and taking it in turns with the radar gun. I remember seeing them at the time and thinking ‘Ha, lucky I’m going at the correct speed!’ so a trip to Specsavers might be in order once we’re allowed out again.
Having clocked offenders, the high-vis jackets report them to the local police; the local police send out threatening letters. I can’t be stung for a fine or penalty points but my details will be kept by Sussex police for 12 months and ‘if the vehicle comes to our notice again, it will be investigated further.’
Alright, hands up, I was speeding and certainly above the fabled 10 per cent which one is supposedly allowed in certain situations. Fair enough, I’m sorry. And yet I can’t help feel peeved at this busy-body snitching. Partly that’s because I’ve been caught out and nobody likes being told off. But it’s also because the letter’s landed at an unfortunate time, a time when there’s a mad increase in smug, curtain-twitching around the country as people rat on their neighbours for taking their dog out for another wee.
Northamptonshire police revealed this week that they’ve received ‘dozens and dozens’ of calls from informants saying ‘I think my neighbour is going out for a second run – I want you to come and arrest them’. Just imagine calling the rozzers at a time like this because you’ve seen Sue from the down the road step outside in her lycra. The Gestapo’s loss is apparently Kettering’s gain.
Northamptonshire police added menacingly that they didn’t want to ‘crash through garden fences’ to check on people, ‘but be under no illusion, we will be using these powers if necessary.’ Would this be such a stretch? Derbyshire police have been chasing ramblers with that drone, after all.
I’m not trying to play down the seriousness of the current situation. Cheating the lockdown is bad. Speeding is bad. But human nature’s desire to exert superiority over others by dobbing them in is being fuelled right now and I can’t see this as progress. Yes, we should stay at home; yes, some of us need to ease up on the accelerator. But there’s a balance between being a good citizen and being the sort of cove who would have done jolly well in Düsseldorf in 1937, and what if the balance is tipped the wrong way during this crisis? The after-effects of the snitching might have more sinister consequences for Britain than the virus itself. Although you can sleep easy if you live next to me, because my dodgy eyesight means I can’t tell which neighbour you are anyway.
Talking of letters, are kitchen tongs the new letter knife? I hear reports of people retrieving their post from the letterbox or doormat as if handling a sizzling piece of bacon in order to lower their chances of catching the virus. Difficult to open a letter with tongs, however, so others tell me they’re tackling the mail wearing woollen or bicycle gloves. This reminds me of the child’s party game where you put on a hat, scarf and gloves before attempting to cut into a chocolate bar with a knife and a fork. One health expert has advised you open your letter, take a photo of it on your phone and then ‘immediately dispose of it’ which has the added advantage of making you feel a bit like James Bond, opening classified information instead of yet another statement from Santander. I can’t imagine 007 would bother with a pair of tongs but, still, a fun game to play every morning if you’ve tired of Monopoly.
I’ve loved Kate Winslet ever since she played Marianne Dashwood in the film version of Sense and Sensibility but I’m not convinced by her latest role. In a short video released this week by an American public healthy body, Kate orders us to wash our hands like our ‘life depends on it’ before offering a demonstration. ‘The virus is washed away with the grease when the soap molecule attaches to it. Yup! Yup! A scientist taught me that,’ she adds, ever so slightly self-importantly. Her qualifications for this job? She played a ‘disease detective’ in the 2011 film Contagion, which was about a pandemic. The internet, obviously, has much enjoyed this. ‘Hi Kate, I starred in the nativity as Jesus but that doesn’t mean I go around healing the sick or making the lame walk,’ commented one. Why can’t celebrities get into puzzles and bread-making like everybody else?