November 7, 2021. For the book which I am now writing, I have been collecting diary entries from various sites, including the long-standing Mass Observation series. They commissioned accounts of a single day last year, May 12, asking contributors to set down their experiences of Covid-19. An effort was made to collect responses from as wide an age range as possible. One of the youngest was a five-year-old from West Sussex. His entry read, in its entirety, ‘We stay at home. We can go on one walk a day.’
Two short sentences and a comprehensive summary of life under lockdown. Covid2020 generated a more prolix response to the largest historical disjuncture in ways of living in the modern era, at least since the second world war. The length of entries, roughly five hundred to a thousand words, was just sufficient to permit a discursive but disciplined response to a particular feature of the crisis. And as Brenda and Anne hoped, the recruitment of voices from around the world made it possible to gain some sense of what has been a truly global event. To follow on from Anne’s new entry on the unreliability of the international scorecard, the only two countries which claim never to have had a single death from Covid-19 are North Korea and Turkmenistan.
The pandemic has had an ambiguous effect on our geographical perspective. On the one hand it is now two years since I visited another country, the longest period that I can remember since first I owned a passport. There are times when I feel that all that I know about is the scattered population of the villages along the River Severn where day after week after month I have spent my Covid life. On the other hand we know that this will not be over until it is over everywhere. Never before have we felt so much a part of a worldwide community. For me the best pleasures have been the bulletins from furthest away. If nothing else I now know so much more about the flora and birdlife of Australia and Canada and how they have been a comfort and resource in such bleak times. Nearer to home, Nike from Katerina’s finely-described accounts of the pandemic in Greece have been both a diversion and an education.
Disraeli once described Gladstone’s Treasury front bench as a ‘row of exhausted volcanoes’. So also with the Covid2020 diarists. It is partly that there is a limit to how long you can carry on protesting against the same abuses. David Maughan Brown has launched missile after missile at the incompetence and dishonesty of the Johnson government. What is the result? The worst corruption scandal last week of the entire event. Nothing seems to change. And it is partly because the sheer novelty of the experience has dulled into routine and then into sheer weariness. We can still recall the beginning, but none of us can predict the ending, when it will come and what it will look like.
Of all the contributors, the consequence of the exercise has been most profound for myself. Having uploaded over 80,000 words in nearly 150 entries I was tempted into supposing that I might write a book on the social history of the pandemic. This is of course an oxymoron. Histories can only be written after the event, preferably long after. But I have a contract, a deadline (next April), and five chapters now drafted. Nothing will convince me that this is not a mistake.
But if The Fatal Breath ever does appear on the bookstalls, you have Brenda and Anne to blame for it.