The mask

When I lived in Japan back in the late 90s, I remember getting a big shock the first time I saw a person walking down the street wearing a mask. It’s an odd sight and one you never see in the West. It all makes sense though now. The Japanese are highly mannered and deeply considerate of others (theirs is the culture in which you never, ever wear outdoor shoes in the home, for example). They take personal hygiene extremely seriously; it’s part of their culture. So if you have a cold or cough, it’s pretty much a given that you’ll wear a mask so that you might go about your daily business without the risk of infecting others. Sensible stuff.

So why don’t we wear masks here, we’re in the throes of a pandemic after all? I think it is because culturally we loathe masks and what they represent. Just think of our hatred of the burqa and hijab, for example. Contrast this with Japan where Noh (masked drama) has been part of their culture since the 14th century. In Western culture masks have very negative connotations. Gas masks (reminding us of war and oppression), storm troopers, horror movies such as the hockey mask from the Halloween movies and the black and white mask from the Scream movies.

I have been trying to persuade Vic to wear a mask because she is pregnant and runs the daily gauntlet of what we call the London tube – that feral, subterranean spider web of tunnels that transports millions of us around this dirty, degenerate city every day. It is a grimy rat hole. Sure, you see them cleaning it every morning – but they’re clearing it of rubbish – not actually cleaning it. Where is the bleach to sterilise the handrails? There isn’t any. Subsequently, it’s a breeding ground for all types of germs. And for this sin city in which all of humanity and its myriad illnesses and vices are contained – it is a location ripe for pandemic and plague. I am not at all surprised that we have the highest rate of swine flu in Europe.

We should be wearing face masks. And heck, why not let’s have some fun whilst doing so, like they did in Mexico?