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Being alert to change

There was much derision about Westminster’s “Stay alert” message. Rolled-out in late May, it was hot on the heels of being told to ‘stay at home’.

Order. Order.

“I don’t even know what that means,” expostulated our frustrated First Minister.

With visions of Dad’s Army-style broom-handle grabbing and tin hats at the ready, like a nation of meerkats, we twitched our noses into the cautiously normal prevailing wind, gradually tuning our senses to life after lockdown.

Now we learn that Boris, Carrie and Wilf are going to exercise their Covid awareness while heading for a Scottish camping trip (whatever the message, I wish them good luck under tarpaulin with a three month old baby).

Our family decided to head south - far enough to benefit from the heat-wave washing across France; close enough to get home without the use of an airport or ‘chunnel’ should a ‘second wave’ demand return post haste. For editorial clarity, it must be pointed out that our plans to head south had no bearing on Clan Johnson heading north!

So, with tin-hats installed, “alert” we certainly were. Most eventualities were catered for, bar one essential stop at an M1 Service Station where the dog was afforded a strip of baked earth and advised to socially distance from other four-legged friends and we were herded through facilities like sheep waiting for their annual insecticide dip.

Similar to a sophisticated torture technique, ‘staying alert’ seems to have permeated the soul and is now the accepted route (Dom Cumming’s cunning plan may have worked).

Progressing southwards, Stonehenge’s Neolithic grandeur has been brought bang up to date with spotlessly-clean bathrooms that now include recently installed high-mounted curved mirrors. These allow visitors the opportunity to spy on those both coming and going, thus avoiding pinch-point collision and awkward social mumblings. Clever stuff and simple to use; I bet the meerkats would appreciate such a periscope.

Not quite such shrewd awareness of circumstances was, we felt, being exercised when we were encouraged to walk the one-point-two miles in 37o of heat, from visitor centre to standing stones. Visitor buses, we were solemnly advised, should be avoided due to the “the possibility of catching Covid.” With the almost inevitable onset of heatstroke, we took our chances.

Interpretations of the state of being alert were to be found in many guises.

Salisbury’s swanky Casa Fina Interiors imbued us with a sense of circumstantial engagement by noting on their window that “you can’t buy happiness but you can buy local and that’s kind of the same thing,” ie. think before you spend. These days, surely a lesson to us all.

Along the street, stylish independent ladies’ outfitter Raffinee appealed to motor neurones by requesting you snap on a pair of Latex gloves before entering their establishment and wafting between fine threads.

If the idea of venturing into the outlet had you all of a wobble, fear not. Beloved coastal tailors, Seasalt, offered private purchasing experiences and even water bottle refilling (drop-in was fine) in case becoming dehydrated while out on shopping patrol.

One of my favourite ‘stay alert’ connotations was national franchise Vision Express’s interpretation of England’s message.

Perhaps, with half an eye towards their clientele, unmissable police incident-like tape barred entry to its premises, making it clear (in big letters) that clients should wait outside until a member of staff came to your aid!

With the opening of religious centres, spiritual guidance can now be sought and, welcoming its flock, further along the road, St Thomas’s Church simply asked that you “stay alert when entering the building.” No arguing with that and perhaps they have higher assistance.

Any trip to this part of the world is of course incomplete without a visit to Salisbury Cathedral. It’s majesterial presence, standing 123m tall over local environs for eight centuries, offers a steady hand during plague and pestilence, surviving the Black Death pandemic of 1348, when an estimated 200 million people perished, and 1918 when Spanish flu affected a third of the world’s population.

Today, the old lady is staying alert to this new enemy with pre-booking time slots, bans on sitting on any stone surfaces that “cannot easily be cleaned” - which means most of them - and prescribed routes around its magnificent sanctums.

But deep in the bowels of this beauty nestles a tiny piece of paper to which thousands make a beeline.

The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, is one of only four of the estimated 40 originals surviving after their historic creation in 1215. The Cathedral’s Latin masterpiece (one is at Lincoln Castle and two are at the British Library) now lurks in a covered tent in the Chapter House and is viewed on a strict family bubble basis only.

Designed to ensure that no-one, including the Monarch, is beyond the law, this pivotal document was loathed by the incumbent King John of England and swiftly annulled by Pope Innocent 111. After a few heads were chopped off during the ensuing First Barons’ War, a bit of tweaking followed and a final version was decided upon with much of its content - like the right to protest against parliament, challenging government and the trial-by-jury system - still holding firm today.

Zipping forward 800 years and staff at the very recently reopened Cathedral have worked hard to bring history right up-to-date describing Berlin’s freedom march on 1st August against compulsory mask-wearing, the Black Lives Matter movement and toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol.

With the presentation of quotes from the Prime Minister and protesters from just a few days beforehand already encapsulated on permanent exhibition boards, it somehow made this recent period of history so much more significant, powerful and brutally real.

800 years on and fashions and transport methods may have changed but really we’re still all worrying about the same fundamental issues and alert to ancient foes.

Thank goodness for the Magna Carta and the equality and individualism that it affords us even today. We’re all on the same side here and how wonderful that we have the freedom and scope to interpret the rules with a dash of individualism. Let’s hear it for those Barons.

Mairi Fraser 15 August 2020

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