It started very quickly, and precisely, and swept then across the country with an efficiency unsuited to the scale of the isle. “Society’s problem”, or just the problem – forever italicized – for short. It began as something for the media pundits and the chat show hosts, to latch onto and lampoon in comedy panel shows – as though the unexpectedness of the facts was or could be rendered humorous by the weathered tropes of comedic performance, by overplayed gestures and posturing and TV sanitized skits, tying the really real horror of the problem to the kind of vaguely politicized but always sanctioned (for fear of a Twitter reprisal) ritualistic mockery that now passed for comedy, tepid-left-wing stances sitting uncomfortably with any tangible lack of political acuity – but it was also desperately serious, made all the more so by the thermodynamic inexplicability of the infection.
Irish hosts as familiar as old friends were prized out of retirement by the handful with huge cash sums to front-up light and uninformed analysis shows on the unfolding issues (with pop performances and incorporating the lottery draw results), their well-blended Celtic homosexuality – of the British kind, always one step removed from the actuality of physical intercourse and clashing genitals and instead extending only as far as affected vocal inflections or considered grooming practices, primetime queers alien to their own rectums – considered the perfect counterpoint to national fear, until their voices reached such frenzied pitch themselves that they were untransmittable, ultrasonic, and sounded to viewers at home like silence amidst the ambient hum of the studio noise.
They skirted the problem as best they could, entirely at a loss as to how they could report it. It prolapsed panic like a pending cold snap. As long as the TV stayed on and broadcasting as normal then social life could continue also for at least a while, until the proper decisions had been made. Newsnight and similar were scrapped in the meantime, whole teams on sabbatical, it said in rounded font on a rolling banner at the bottom of the screen during the ‘golden-age’ repeat they slapped on in its timeslot. Too sombre was the truth; at a time of crisis broadcasters had a responsibility to protect the people from themselves, not to deny fact but to bury it beneath proudly saccharine human interest editorial slants. They remixed the theme tunes to the major news bulletins at one, six and ten o’clock to include handclaps and ukuleles, which put a weirdly positive spin on the implied gravity of a digitised globe, on the urgency of truth, and the anchors shed their suits and ties for altogether more casual attire, dressed for a night at the local more than the reportage of something bizarre and terminally serious, designer bleached jeans and untucked shirts, for God’s sake, you could smell the sickly aftershave through the screen, Fiona Bruce poured like a decoy into trousers so tight that it made you feel as though you’d been privy to some unalterable physiological truth. This was no crisis, it was amazing, it was beyond modern!
Even the most treasured of our TV scientists were stripped of budgets and relegated to the unwatched channels, took to uploading videos of their own social commentary online to be lost among the tat and animal clips. Producers found the vehemence of their panic and the uncertain severity of their hypotheses to be incompatible with their light broadcasting ethic, and so rather than provide a forum for dialogue, to piece together some kind of understanding of what was happening, they axed the lot of them, the nation’s brief flirtation with digestible popular science programming stamped out as quickly as it had begun. With neither the time nor the rigorous conditions in which to run tests and construct computer models and formulate data for peer review their words had sounded like the most corrupt kind of fantasy against the quintessentially British propriety of approved news items, like the blurted doggedness of militant atheistic fundamentalists – as if there was or even could be such a thing – out to disrupt the natural (which is to say traditional, blinkered) order of the world, to instil the doubt and fear of the century into a stagnated viewing populace all terrified of even the possibility of change and so, as in the case of even mild snow fall, left completely ill-equipped to deal with it. Speculation achieves nothing became the mantra of the media, a determined stance that ensured the widespread ignorance that allowed the problem to spread so quickly. And the problem remained: the dead walked.