Now what? - Lauren Booth takes precautions against Sars
Diseases are fine as long as we bring them on ourselves. But Sars is random!
In times of national danger, I can barely manage to go about my normal business. I do so only in a state of terror. Last time Jack Straw issued one of those al-Qaeda alerts, I was due to have lunch in the Commons. I went in to prove to myself that I could. I then spent 45 of the most uncomfortable minutes I've ever spent on the Underground - including the time next to the man who clearly needed the toilet.
At Finsbury Park, a young guy got into my carriage. He was wearing a padded coat. By King's Cross, I had noticed the beads of sweat on his brow and had become convinced he was on a suicide mission he didn't want to carry out. My mind played out a variety of heroic scenarios in which I would talk the man round, unclip his explosives and then stop the police from beating him senseless, proclaiming to the grateful crowds: "He was just doing what he thought was right. He still deserves justice!" My daydreams were shattered at Holborn when the alarm on a watch beeped and I nearly peed in terror.
Now we've got Sars to worry about. Getting off the train at Leicester Square was a palaver the other night. I was trying to climb the escalator without touching the handrail. Trying to put my ticket in the machine without touching anyone or anything. I was so intent on not being sneezed over that I backed into the actress Alison Steadman on her way to work. It wasn't a happy reunion. We met recently when her team (and everyone else's) slaughtered mine in the pub quiz. My cheeks still burn to think about it. Anyway, the only reason her team did so well was that all the questions were fixed firmly in the 1950s. Even the current affairs round managed to feature questions about lords whose wifeys had received an honour "in their own right" for wifely, charitable work. I pointed this out to Alison as we jostled up the stairs from the station.
"I'm going to get the oldest people I know together and then you'll have a fight on your hands," I heard the weirdo who looked a bit like me say.
I was burning with the memory of the humiliation my team suffered as we failed to score on so many rounds. It was like being in physics classes all over again, where the teacher became so infuriated with my whining, "But why does electricity work and how does it pass through water?" that she simply pretended I wasn't there. At the pub, we had sat glowering into our drinks as yet another question on flat racing over three furlongs had us stumped. The three Miss Havishams at the next table cooed kindly, "Never mind, it's pop music soon . . ."
We left before the final round.
But that day at Leicester Square, Alison Steadman was waving goodbye and striding off into China Town. I hovered at the cut-through. Then I took the long route to Shaftesbury Avenue. All that "Chinese-looking types are dangerous" propaganda is having an effect. China Town itself is in the grip of its biggest recession, with restaurants reporting record numbers of diners staying away.
It was the same when I anxiously took the kids to the Chinese State Circus. The big top was half empty. At the front were families which, having paid £40 a go, were determined to have the best view, whatever the Daily Mail says about deadly viruses from the Orient. Behind them were rows and rows of empty seats as others had cancelled at the last minute and found something for Jane or Johnny to enjoy that didn't feel like a news bulletin waiting to happen.
Mortal injury and illness are fine with my generation as long as we bring them on ourselves. Fags and booze, cancer and cirrhosis, OK. A random virus, terrorists or the grey goo Prince Charles says may swamp the entire planet are what make us want to pull the duvet covers over our heads and stay in bed.