April 8. We are all of us having to adjust to the shocking prospect that the Prime Minister might actually die of Covid-19. The historian in me struggles to find a previous case. There have been examples in modern times of more or less concealed incapacitating (see Boris Johnson’s idol Winston Churchill, passim), and of sudden resignations following the diagnosis of a fatal disease – Henry Campbell Bannerman in 1908 and Andrew Bonar Law in 1923. Two leaders of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith, died in post, paving the way for the fortunate Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. But not the nation’s leader at a time of absolute national crisis. The nearest equivalent of such an event would be Pitt the Younger, who died in 1806 in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars (see also Spencer Perceval in 1812, though he was assassinated, and George Canning who expired in more peaceful times in 1827 after just 119 days in office).
Amongst the immediate responses was a curious tweet from Andrew Neil (note for non Brits: grizzled former editor of the Sunday Times and now the most feared BBC political interviewer. In the recent General Election, Boris Johnson, alone of the candidates, refused to submit himself to an extended interrogation by him, which diminished his reputation as it enhanced Neil’s). A reason, he said, why Johnson has proved vulnerable to Covid-19 was his ‘loneliness’ in Number 10. It was not clear whether he meant social loneliness, given that Johnson has been living by himself in the flat above Number 11 while his pregnant partner self-isolates in the official country retreat of Chequers, or political loneliness in the Shakespearean sense of ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.’
Whichever is the case, it raises the question of the balance between solitude and loneliness in the present crisis. The former, the tendency, as Johann Zimmermann wrote, ‘for self-collection and freedom’, has over the period since the eighteenth century become an increasingly valued an enjoyed condition. The latter, which can be seen as failed solitude, the condition, as Stephanie Dowrick writes, of being ‘uncomfortably alone without someone’ has been a growing cause for concern in recent decades.
Enforced isolation has an ambiguous effect on the two experiences. On the one hand it has made solitude a still more valued practice. In families where the adults are working at home, the children are about all day long, the garden is small or non-existent, periods of solitary escape have become as desirable and unattainable as supermarket delivery slots. The most basic form of solitude, taking a stroll out of doors, has become stigmatised or completely forbidden. Walking the dog, for two centuries the most commonplace way of taking time out alone, has suddenly become a basic luxury. A French friend tells me that Parisian dogs are becoming exhausted, as neighbours borrow them from their owners to legitimise exercise in the fresh air.
On the other hand, it has made loneliness still more threatening. It becomes more difficult to make physical contact with such friends as the individual possesses. Intermittent escapes from an empty home to shops, cafes, local libraries, public entertainments, are now forbidden. Access to medical or social services is yet more of a problem. This outcome has been early recognised, and attempts are being made in functioning communities to identity those uncomfortably alone and provide them with necessary support. And there is, of course, the ever-increasing use of digital connections.
Where the balance will finally be struck in these contrasting effects of isolation remains to be seen. At least we should emerge with an enhanced awareness of both conditions.