Flindt on Friday: Cheers to big beards and small particles

What’s confusing me this week? Masks, that’s what. Twelve months ago, the mask was a cheap and mundane piece of essential farm kit.

Around June-time, there’d be a cry of “What do we need for harvest?” The answer: “Black tape, tub of grease, draught excluder for the aged trailers – oh, and better get a couple of boxes of masks. FFP1 and FFP2 will cover everything.”

Chances are there’d actually be plenty left over from the year before, scattered round the farm. You’d find them lurking in twos and threes in toolboxes and door pockets.

See also: Read more from Charlie Flindt

How that changed last spring. Masks (once the authorities had stopped flip-flopping about their usefulness) joined paracetamol and loo paper in the “must buy lots now” category, even if most buyers were unlikely to be sweeping barley into a lorry.

I’m not saying the prices of the ones I finally found on the internet were steep, but I do hope some of the money made its way back to the labourer in China.

Stocks are now plentiful of course – which is lucky. Everyone seems inexplicably happy to wear them. I passed a mask-clad walker the other day on the farm lane. He stepped off the road for me, and I smiled and waved in thanks. He may have smiled back – I couldn’t tell.

If you want to know just what a significant year the humble mask has had, consider this: it is now a feature of my “Watching International Rugby” Drinking Game.

Rule updates

Mind you, it has to be said that this game isn’t what it was. For a start, I’m on my own (three flatcoats don’t count), and several key forfeits have vanished.

“Scrum put-in straight” has gone from rare to non-existent, and “referee checks his hair on stadium screen” hasn’t been used since Steve Walsh retired – and he could render a whole room legless within 10 minutes.

There are worthy replacements, though. There’s “audible obscenity” (almost as frequent as “Antipodean referee narcissism”), “apologies for audible obscenities” and – my new favourite – “player/coach realises he’s on screen and hastily dons mask”.

And this is where I get really confused. Some years ago, I was “invited” to a Heath and Safety Day. I, and about a hundred other farmers, had received the “you don’t have to attend, but…” letter from the HSE, and genuinely interesting and informative it was, too – especially the talk on mask efficiency.

The one certain way to render your dust mask pretty useless is to have a beard, we were told, quite firmly. “Surely that doesn’t apply to my carefully sculpted designer stubble?” I asked (sounding a bit like an Antipodean rugby referee). Oh yes it did. Facial hair wrecks any seal against dust particles (average size, about 30 micrometres).

Cheers to that

So I was baffled when the England hooker finished his stint at the “coal face” (two fingers, please), and started a well-earned break from all the wrestling and grunting and biting and general exchanges of bodily fluids (and the swearing, of course).

The first thing he did was put a mask on. It sat slightly awkwardly over a beard that wouldn’t have shamed an 18th-century pirate, but was supposed to protect him (and everyone around him, I assume) from a virus estimated to be 100 nanometres across. And if my maths is right, that’s an awful lot of viruses to a dust particle.

Still, the moment qualified for a small cheer and a lonely swig of weak shandy. I got a disdainful look from a flatcoat, cross that her sleep had been disturbed. That’s another two fingers, please.