Dom Joly: You got the fear

PUBLISHED: 12:24 11 May 2020 | UPDATED: 12:24 11 May 2020

Feel the fear and doing it anyway: Dom Joly in Chernobyl

Feel the fear and doing it anyway: Dom Joly in Chernobyl


‘Back home in lockdown, I feel an urge to cough but try to supress it as though I can repel early virus symptoms away using the power of my mind’

It’s interesting that Trump started calling the virus The Invisible Enemy because that was the term Ukrainians use to describe the radiation when you visited Chernobyl.

I went there in 2009. It was my first real taste of not being able to gauge danger properly for myself. I’d been in danger before - running into the house in Lebanon as rockets landed in the garden, the sick panicky feeling as our car approached an armed roadblock, the rising sound of gunfire coming up the hill from Beirut. But that was when I was young and not making my own decisions. As a grown up, travelling to dodgy places, which I’ve done a lot, I can decide how far to push things. Danger is usually a tangible concept - the weather is bad, too many men with guns, the streets suddenly get empty. In Chernobyl, however, as now in the UK, it was very different.

I had a Geiger counter but, to be honest, these were only really useful for TV as they made dramatic, good-for-TV noises but didn’t actually tell you what you needed to know: how much radiation were you ingesting into your body? For that you’d need a dosimeter. But you really don’t want one of those, as then you’d know how much radiation you were ingesting into your body…

Paranoia gripped hold. My tongue started to taste metallic and panic started to take over. It was like that moment when scuba-diving and you get to the cut-off depth, no longer able to safely make the panic-break for the surface. Everything did not compute. You had to make a decision - the ultimate sink or swim.

A twenty-something I was with in Pripyat did panic. Not the most co-ordinated at the best of times, he stumbled and fell over, covering himself in the very danger dust that we’d been obsessively wiping off our shoes. Not only that, but he cut his leg and the dust started to mix with the viscous blood seeping from the wound. He lost it, and was in a total state for the rest of our visit. As a small group of strangers, we found ourselves instinctively quarantining him, nothing was said between us but it was brutally instant and deeply primeval.

As we entered and exited the ‘zone of alienation’, the 50km no-go zone around the reactor, we couldn’t help but notice the family sitting on the porch of their house. I was less than convinced that its positioning, three metres on the right side of the fence, rendered them safe. Possibly they had weighed up the invisible fear of the invisible enemy alongside the fear of leaving home and everything they knew, to start again in the all-too visible Khrushchyovkas of Kiev.

Back home in lockdown, I feel an urge to cough but try to supress it as though I can repel early virus symptoms away using the power of my mind. Finally, I give in. I cough in what I hope is a casual manner but my wife looks up accusingly and moves ever so slightly away from me towards the children.

“Are you OK?” She asks, half concerned, half probing.

“Yes, fine… just something got caught in my throat.” I reply as I can feel my chest start to tighten. I know it’s just anxiety, but it’s all encompassing and so hard to control.

Every night I go to sleep, hoping that we will all wake up healthy the following morning. I try to wean myself off the rolling newswagon where worst-case scenarios are trumpeted as dead certainties for clickbait. Social media force-feeds me horror stories like some sadistic sibling. Every time I hear of someone contracting the virus, I check their age, whether they had underlying conditions… it’s becoming an obsession.

“This is a wake-up call, a turning moment,” scream the hopefuls on Twitter who declare that everything will change post-Corona. I’ve been on too many reality shows to believe this. Extreme situations breed extreme promises. We might be better people for a couple of days, but in the end we’ll all revert to type and normal service will be resumed.

“Forget everything and remember” sang Ian Brown. Spot on.

Contact @domjoly

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