In times of trouble, we act just like our immune system. We either keep a low profile or go into overdrive. Some like to track the second hand as it goes around the dial. Others mine the free/d hours of the day frenetically for new occupations. As a writer recently put it, we might find that we have been in training for this moment all our lives. You always take it more seriously when you know it’s not a drill.
We’re told to stay at home, stay in or go out only when absolutely necessary. We’re told to stay in to save lives. In the spring of 2021, London is a city besieged from within but also cocooned unto itself, like a sock rolled inside out.
Confinements are a big deal when they’re unprecedented, which usually means we can’t remember having gone through one already. If living memory is the benchmark for getting anxious or agitated, then historians are the world’s biggest cynics, for they have seen it all and heard it all.
Most of us have no memory of historic crises. To have a conversation about the Spanish flu, the Black Death or the Plague of Athens, we need to have read a history book or watched a documentary. It gets even harder to talk about the doubtlessly countless epidemics that lie so far back that they haven’t been captured by the written record.
Eyewitnesses are rare, and we are now called to be the eyewitnesses of our own common adversity.
I think I’m reading too much stuff about what’s happening outside. It’s becoming harder for us to stay in and harder for the authorities to keep people in. The more I read about this, the more I promise myself not to read about it anymore, and the more I realise that people have always been the same. If you don’t believe me, you might believe Daniel Defoe.
Three years after Robinsoe Crusoe’s packaged holiday had come to an end, Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year, an account of the Great Plague of London of 1665. It was the unofficial reason why Crusoe never booked another flight again. Defoe was too young to remember the plague, but the report is authoritative and gripping:
“As several people, I say, got out of their houses by stratagem after they were shut up, so others got out by bribing the watchmen, and giving them money to let them go privately out in the night. I must confess I thought it at that time the most innocent corruption or bribery that any man could be guilty of, and therefore could not but pity the poor men, and think it was hard when three of those watchmen were publicly whipped through the streets for suffering people to go out of houses shut up.”
Does it sound familiar?