I have a fondness for smaller cities. Compared to the great metropolises, they are more discrete, more human in their scale. They are also often built upon a single resource. One thinks of Salzburg, with its salt mines, or Seville, which hosted all the gold of the Americas. Oxford is the most human of all, though, as it is built on the very commodity which puts the sapiens into Homo sapiens. Here, they mined wisdom.
I remember my own sense of awe when I arrived as an undergraduate in the mid-1990s – first as a biology student under one of Kenya’s greatest ecologists, and then studying philosophy under a tutor whose own tutor could trace a direct line, tutor to tutor, back to Immanuel Kant himself. I remember how, in the warm autumn sun, the university buildings stood like vast stone-clad thrones for the human mind – their distinctive golden colour coming from the ancient coral reefs that fossilised to form the limestone deposits of nearby Headington.
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Since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic I have written in these pages about the European countries in which I have suffered their various countermeasures.
I witnessed Marines patrolling the streets in one of the hardest lockdowns in Europe, Spain, where I ran a half-marathon inside a small apartment in an attempt to stay sane and fit while they locked their physically vulnerable elderly and psychologically vulnerable children away from all sunlight and exercise, despite the measurable protection these two factors offer against the virus.
I returned to England when I was allowed, and was invited to bear witness to the catastrophic collapse of the hospitality industry, with hotels and restaurants desperately trying to outweigh the off-putting countermeasures of the odour of bleach, enforced hand-sanitisation, masks, and social-distancing, by practically begging customers – and travel writers like myself – to visit.
(The original article can be found by subscribers at The Telegraphonline here.)
With the snow piling thick on the ground in Salzburg, I am amazed at two things in Austria which I do not think are unrelated.
The first is that neither temperature nor lockdown has in any way affected the average citizens’ visibility in the streets.
When I walk out of my front door on the Nonnberg, adjacent to the ancient convent where Julie Andrew’s portrayed a novitiate in The Sound Of Music, there are invariably locals tramping up and down the stairs and slopes, wading through drifts and sliding across ice, to stare at alpine mountain ranges in the middle distance.
As they say here, there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.
The second striking fact about living in Austria is that during this ‘lockdown’ – their third – in which you may leave your house at any time of day or night for any reason, psychological or physical, they have reduced the contagion of this novel coronavirus by 90% since mid-November.
Yes, it is true that bars, restaurants and hotels are all closed, and only one person from a household may visit “close family members” or “important contacts with whom contact is maintained several times a week” in another household.
I was originally asked to write this piece by The Spectator, but apparently I was a bit too late filing my copy – zoology professors and professional hunters are hard to round up at short notice – so here it is, unexpurgated and unimproved.
Je ne suis pas Cecil… and neither was he
I never cease to be surprised either by the posturing courage or the sheer inhumanity of the expressions of ‘moral’ outrage on social media, but this recent furore over the death of the ageing Zimbabwean lion everyone knows as Cecil really has been quite special.
The complicity of the press is particularly grotesque. CNN went as far as to run a photo of the big cat with the caption, “Cecil the lion probably never knew how beloved he was,” surely winning some sort of prize for most redundant use of the modifier ‘probably’ in journalism.
He also certainly didn’t know he was called Cecil, a hilarious piece of nominal colonialism by British conservationists working in the country bloodily carved out of the Dark Continent by Cecil Rhodes and for almost a century called Southern Rhodesia in his questionable honour. (Rhodes is a distant relation of mine.)
I myself fell under the aesthetic spell of lions aged nine –thirty years ago – in London and Colchester Zoos, joined and raised funds for the WWF from that point on, went up to Oxford to study Zoology under renowned Africa ecologist Dr. Malcolm Coe, and myself visited the Hwange Reserve almost twenty years ago where I followed the pride made up of the grandparents, and probably parents, of that lion, whom I photographed at the time.
The European countries with the strictest lockdowns have come out no better
I’ve been under different lockdowns in Spain, Austria and the UK – and still, there are no clear winners