There’s a curse for which everyone blames the Chinese, but which is apocryphal: “May you live in interesting times.” It’s always wryly invoked when the news goes mad, but we passed that point long ago. We now live in dark, depressing, God-awful times — so bleak that many have turned away from the news (if only journalists had that option). War, famine, the rise of the far right, Trump, antisemitism, Brexit, Brett Kavanaugh, Jair Bolsonaro, austerity, racism ... every day we are witness to a parade of awfulness. Studies claim news can make you depressed. Tell me something I don’t know.
No wonder that, mired in gloom, we seize on glimmers of light — the good news stories. The story of how Leamington Spa welcomed several families of Syrian refugees has kept me away from the brink since February. (My husband, who is from Leamington Spa, claims that tailoring your news feed towards local news makes for a much less distressing experience. Alas, when I tried this I was greeted with an abundance of drownings.)
More recently, I was cheered by the news that the UN has said that the ozone layer is finally healing after years of aerosol damage. The possibility that the ozone layer may be fully repaired by 2060 is something we can all feel positive about, though it leaves Australians in want of conversation topics. Climate change warnings have become so ominous in recent years that positive news constitutes a diamond in the dung. Here’s another: humpback whales are doing fine .
The Irish abortion referendum result, too, cheered those of us who have mourned the recent lack of progressive changes. I also find myself seeking solace in archeological and scientific discoveries. The story of Saga Vanecek, who pulled a 1,500-year-old pre-Viking sword from a lake in Sweden, kept me going in October. All I need now is for her to be made the rightful queen of Sweden. In November, news that a new dinosaur species has been discovered in Argentina has me smiling. It is impossible to be sad when thinking about dinosaurs. Another story, closer to home, is that of the Tesco store manager in Bradford who invited Jay Burke, aged 10, who has Down’s syndrome, to have a go on the checkout. “Shopping with a child with special needs can be really difficult,” his dad told a newspaper. “Seeing people recognise that and help you out just takes the pressure off the ideas that others are judging you as a parent.”
Positive stories have become so popular that many news outlets now have good-news sections. I find myself resorting to these increasingly. We need these tales of human progress and kindness to prove that the world and its inhabitants can still be good, even wondrous. There seems to be a backlash against positive thinking, and when you are in the depths of depression I grant that entreaties to “look on the bright side” can be maddening. Equally, the cognitive behavioural therapy technique of countering, which involves contradicting a negative thought with opposing evidence, can, with practice, become an automatic reflex. So while Pope Francis might claim that “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”, I could equally say: “Well, that might be, but in Ramsbottom, near Bury, a woman called Mary Bell just celebrated her 100th birthday by flying a plane over her care home.”
The glow from that should, I hope, get me through the winter.
Forgive my seeming an angry feminist for a moment — even if that is what I am — but many bad news stories have something in common: the involvement of powerful men. There’s Bolsonaro, Trump and Kavanaugh, of course, but also David Cameron, the man responsible for the Brexit shambles, who has such a sense of entitlement that he now, out of boredom, says he quite fancies being foreign secretary.
Which is why I am failing to get het up about the National Trust, which got in trouble for covering up paintings and sculptures of men at a stately home in Northumberland as part of a celebration of the role of women.
The photographs of busts of men with bags over their heads made me laugh. It wasn’t subtle and they looked ridiculous, of course, but why not have a bit of fun with history?
“To cover up portraits of men so they would not offend ladies was just ridiculous. Statues had white bags over them. People were baffled,” wrote one visitor to Cragside, missing the point somewhat, and compounding my amusement as I imagined the scenes.
It’s not that the presence of these memorials to powerful men is offensive, it’s more that they are everywhere: covering them up serves to highlight just how minimal female representation is in the arts, as in other areas.
This is why I would love to see this scheme extended to men in politics and the media. How much Arts Council funding could I net with a proposal that the so-called gentlemen of Westminster don paper head-bags? Could we get one over Piers Morgan? This could be the start of a revolution — and I’m all for it.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd