It’s funny how often in life the bizarre and out of character quickly becomes the norm. We got used to calling Opal Fruits “Starburst”, accepted the prevalence of Twitter, and, at least until recently, accepted a dithering throwback as the leader of Britain’s party of opposition very quickly. Of late, this tendency has become visible in the repeated Thursday night spectacle that is ‘clap for carers’.
Should you be reading this from the underside of a rock, or having just jumped forward in time, ‘clap for carers’ occurs at 8pm on a Thursday and involves millions of Brits stepping onto their front steps, into their gardens, or hanging out their windows to join in a national round of applause for NHS staff and other carers who have continued to work during the lockdown response to COVID-19.
Now that we’ve had eight such joint doses of ‘the clap’, it’s safe to say that Brits become used to it. Each Thursday, many of us are roused by the trickle of applause pouring down our streets and rise, Manchurian Candidate style, to where we can be seen and heard to be participating in that week’s minute’s thanks. It is, despite how much a part of life it has become, deeply unusual mass behaviour and, in my view, needs to stop.
I was, and remain, a staunch defender of the first clap for carers. To me, that first week was a genuinely heartwarming, defiant, bottom-up show of support to those who deserve it from a grateful nation. That it was brought to our shores by a Dutch lady drawing inspiration from her native Netherlands merely added to the sense of community and solidarity that the first round of applause across Britain generated.
However, it’s now seven weeks later and things feel very different indeed.
What started as a quirky and heartfelt, not to mention entirely voluntary, show of appreciation has now morphed over time and now feels obligatory and spurred by social pressure. There are anecdotes of individuals being shamed by their neighbours for not taking part and the relentlessly glowing and guilt-laden coverage of each week’s stunt (complete for viewers in Scotland with defiant bagpipe music, our own aural shorthand for “get choked up”) has meant that the whole thing has started to feel less like something you can do if you want and more like what is expected of each of us. To me, with each week that passes, the clap falls into the category of national myth, alongside “Keep Calm and Carry On” and stiff upper lips, and is just as low tier a motivation.
Worse still, as the tedious weeks have rumbled on, the clap for carers has become yet another opportunity for the smug and pleased with themselves among us to show just how much they care. Standing in your tastefully chosen athleisure wear, wearing the facial expression of someone taking a satisfying piss into a swimming pool, has become the new way of extolling just how much you care about the NHS and the service better brace itself because all that sickly sweet posturing is a diabetes epidemic waiting to happen.
Don’t believe me? Have a look at some of the faces on the clappers in your street this coming Thursday and ask yourself if they actually care or are more concerned with being seen to care.
One of the best things about Britain is the uneasy and skeptical nature of our relationship with authority and the state. Our police are unarmed, judges are in control of much of the law, and our head of state is apolitical for exactly that reason and long may it continue. Quite simply, we are not a county in which standing up to give socially forced applause to state employees feels right and the countries in which that does feel suitable are not the kinds of countries whose trappings we ought to be borrowing.
Instead of these weekly prostrations, which do nothing but reinforce how virtuous the participant think they are, would it not be better to redirect that energy into the millions of little acts of kindness that we all know we’re capable of as a nation when the chips are down?
Why not text that friend who works in a care home to check he’s ok?
Surely your doctor pal’s day would go better if you ordered some delicious chocolates to her home for her to enjoy when she eventually gets off work?
Give your postie a wave as they pass your window, it might just make their round all the more bearable, who knows?
Surely any and all of this would be better than acting like a bunch of trained seals waiting for a fish while accomplishing precisely nothing?