From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: ‘A New Child’

George Mackay Brown

October 5.  We are sent a video clip of our new granddaughter, lying on her mat, looking up at her mother, and making greeting sounds.  Her huge eyes focus, and her mobile mouth softly and deliberately responds to the person who is her universe.  Just one minute and twenty-one seconds.  I play it over and again.  It is partly that this is, at four weeks, her first conversation.  And it is partly that the communication is utterly divorced from the noise in our world being made by Trump, Covid-19 and Brexit.  So here, in honour of the moment, is a poem by the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, written for the daughter of a friend. 

A New Child.  11 June 1993

i

Wait a while, small voyager

                On the shore, with seapinks and shells.

The boat

                Will take a few summers to build

That you must make your voyage in.

ii

You will learn the names.

That golden light is ‘sun’ – ‘moon’

                The silver light

That grows and dwindles.

And the beautiful small splinters

                That wet stones, ‘rain’.

iii

There is a voyage to make,

                A chart to read,

But not yet, not yet.

                ‘Daisies’ spill from your fingers.

                The night daisies are ‘stars’.

iv

The keel is laid, the strakes

                Will be set, in time.

A tree is growing

                That will be a tall mast

All about you, meantime

The music of humanity,

                The dance of creation

Scored on the chart of the voyage.

v

The stories, legends, poems

Will be woven to make your sail.

You may hear the beautiful tale of Magnus

                Who took salt on his lip.

Your good angel

                Will be with you on that shore.

vi

Soon, the voyage of EMMA

                To Tir-Nan-Og and beyond.

vii

Star of the Sea, shine on her voyage.

*The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown, ed. Archie Bevan and Brian Murray (John Murray, 2006), pp. 328-9

**The story of St Magnus is told in the Orkneyinga Saga.  He gives his name to the cathedral in Kirkness, Orkney, founded in 1137.  George Mackay Brown wrote a novel about his life, and later an opera was composed by Peter Maxwell Davies.  Emma is the child addressed in the poem.  Tir Nan Og is the Land of the Young in Irish Mythology.

From David Vincent in Shrwsbury, UK: all in Tears

October 2.  In his Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe set himself a double challenge.  He wanted readers to engage with the scale of the epidemic, making a critical use of Bills of Mortality.  It is likely that the death toll was double our current number, in population of a little over five million.  And he wanted readers to engage with the experience of dying.  He appealed to their imaginations by deploying sight, smell and above all sound in his lightly fictionalised descriptions.  In a famous passage he wrote:

London might well be said to be all in Tears; the Mourners did not go about the Streets indeed, for no Body put on black, or made a formal Dress of Mourning for their nearest Friends; but the Voice of Mourning was truly heard in the Streets; the shrieks of Women and Children at the Windows, and Doors of their Houses, where their dearest Relations were, perhaps dying, or just dead, were so frequent to be heard, as we passed the Streets, that it was enough to pierce the stoutest Heart in the World, to hear them.  Tears and Lamentations were seen almost in every House.”(p. 18)

It is one of the major differences in the modern encounter with a major health crisis.  Covid-19 is almost entirely a silent event.  A friend reminds me that when the streets of London fell quiet in the immediate aftermath of the March lockdown, all that could be heard, apart from birdsong, was the wail of ambulances transporting the sick to hospital.  But as traffic reappeared, the prominence of the sirens diminished.  What was left was an escalating disaster which largely occurred without any kind of identifiable noise at all. 

We live in a culture in Britain which confines the expression of grief to private spaces.  Amongst the bereaved of what the Office for National Statistics calculates to be more than 50,000 victims, the tears are shed in the home.  Double glazing keeps disturbing noise in as well as out.  The only Covid-generated sound has been the Thursday-evening applause for health workers.  Funerals too are in our own times orderly events where undisciplined grief is discouraged.  And in the lockdown they were rendered into near silence by the severe restriction on the number of mourners.

Amongst the living, outdoor noise associated with the pandemic is mostly transgressive – gatherings in public houses or street parties that are at best a threat to collective health and at worst illegal.  A justification for the new 10 pm curfew in pubs is that alcohol in crowded spaces causes people to shout more, thus dispersing infected droplets over a wider area. 

Amongst the dying, there is a journey from the small sounds of coughing to the quiet of a hospital intensive care unit.  Family members are excluded.  Patients are sedated.  At the last, only the rhythmic working of the ventilators can be heard.

The consequence is a greater division between the afflicted and those still going about their lives.  Britain is not ‘all in Tears’.  Where an event generates serious noise, it is difficult to ignore.  Now, the only aural disturbance to the peace of the fortunate are the messages broadcast on radio and television.

At least the Londoners of 1665 did not have Charles II regularly addressing them in the privacy of their homes. 

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Snitching contd.

Steve Baker, MP: ‘1984’

It is reported that more than 80 Conservative MPs are prepared to rebel against the imposition of new coronavirus laws.  The MP Steve Baker has invoked Orwell’s 1984 in his portrayal of a dystopian regime.   The numbers are sufficient to defeat the Government and would represent a major reversal in its management of the crisis, at just the moment that deaths and infections are beginning to rise sharply.

The final straw was the overnight introduction of a new set of offences at the beginning of the week.  Fines of at least £10,000 are to be imposed for a range of behaviours, including deliberately mis-identifying someone as a contact of an individual who had tested positive for an infection.

There are several possible explanations for this expansion of the disciplinary state. 

Just as the Minister of Health sought to blame the malfunctioning of testing on too many fit people using the system, now the failure of the tracking mechanism will be attributed to a shadow army of maliciously nominated non-contacts.

Or ministers and officials have indeed identified a vulnerability in the structure of official surveillance.  As I wrote in my entry for May 7, there is a long history of ‘snitching’ – using a new disciplinary mechanism to settle scores between neighbours.  Introducing significant fines for infractions of regulations weaponises local disputes.  If you are irritated by the noise someone next door is making, now at the swipe of an app, you can shut them in their house for a fortnight, or expose them to a hefty fine.

There is evidence that with the coronavirus entering its second wave as the nights draw in, tempers in communities are fraying.  Mediators who deal with neighbourhood disputes are reporting a sharp increase in business.*  According to a provider of such a service in Manchester, “The problems will get worse as people are home more.  If the neighbours are being difficult and you can’t go out because of the weather, that’s going to cause a problem, whether it’s breaking lockdown rules or someone trimming your hedge.” 

As the months pass, tolerance becomes frayed.  The police 101 reporting line [for non-emergency issues] is said to be “swamped” with complaints about people breaching the ‘Rule of Six’ that was introduced as the second wave began.  Some of these reports are well-founded, driven only by a concern to protect public health.  Others have less heroic motives.  A mediator explained that “in a tit-for-tat dispute, people will employ any kind of measure they can and make false allegations about breaches to settle a score.” 

Or, finally, the new regulations are, as Steve Baker and others on the Conservative right are now claiming, the consequence of ministers and officials exploiting the shift of power from the individual to the collective that must happen in any pandemic.  As the number of infections starts to rise again, they can amuse themselves by inventing new offences without any kind of Parliamentary scrutiny, in the latest case seemingly in the small hours of the morning. 

It is a game without limits.  Soon we will need a regulation fining those who maliciously report people for maliciously reporting their neighbours.

*https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/28/covid-crisis-inflames-neighbour-disputes?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other  

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Counting Loneliness

September 28. Pandemics have always generated numbers.  Defoe structured his Journal of the Plague Year around the weekly Bills of Mortality which allowed him to track the progress of the disease from parish to parish across London in 1665.  We have the same ambition on a global scale.  Today’s figures are 32.85 million infections and nearly a million deaths.* 

Less directly we can consider quantified measures of physical or psychological suffering.  A number of university departments and other agencies set up funded questionnaire-based enquiries with great speed once the scale of the event was recognised.  These have delivered immediate information although they have often have suffered from the haste with which their sample populations were assembled.  Much the best source of information has been generated by the weekly reports of the estimable Office for National Statistics (ONS).  Instead of creating a fresh bank of interviewees, it addressed new questions to its ‘Opinions and Lifestyle Survey’, an established, weighted sample of the population. 

Amongst the issues measured by the Survey is the key experience of loneliness in the pandemic (solitude, the subject of my recent book, is almost never counted).  There is an obvious risk that repeated lockdowns are causing disruptions to social patterns leading to increased personal isolation.  Two basic truths are revealed by the tables, which apply not only to the coronavirus crisis, but to contemporary society more generally. 

The first is that the instance of ‘often/always’ loneliness, the category where real suffering is to be found, started at around five per cent of the population, and has moved, at most, by a single decimal point over the last six months.  Whatever else it is doing, the coronavirus is not making us much more lonely.  Five per cent still represents around one and a half million people of sixteen and over, and is to be taken seriously.  But in its most acute form, increased loneliness is not consequence of the pandemic.

The ONS then asks a question which previously had not been systematically addressed: the relation between loneliness and disability.  The results are striking.  Those not suffering a self-reported disability have an ‘often/always’ loneliness level of only 2.8% in the 8-18 July, 2020, sample, compared with an overall figure of 6.2%.*  By contrast the disabled show a level five times higher at 14.5%.  Separate categories of impairment display still higher scores – 19.7% for vision, 15.8% for mobility, 21.7% for learning, 24.7% for mental health.  It is not difficult to comprehend why these conditions should discourage or prevent levels of social interaction which individuals wish to undertake, or why they should make the experience of being alone so much more painful.  There may also be a reverse causal flow, with, for instance, mental health problems exacerbated by a lack of human contact. 

This confirms an argument I have made elsewhere, that those seeking to engage with loneliness across a broad front are missing the point.  The experience is above all a function of specific forms of impairment, each with their own dynamic, each with a set of pressure groups and campaigners, and each having a destructive interaction with austerity-driven health and welfare policies over the last decade. 

Here, as with other categories of suffering, the pandemic is exposing critical shortcomings in the provision of support for a range of disabilities, perhaps most importantly, mental health.  Loneliness, in this sense, is a proxy for wider failings in our systems of medical and social care. 

*https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2020/sep/28/coronavirus-live-news-global-deaths-near-1m-as-india-poised-to-pass-6m-cases

**https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/disability/datasets/coronavirusandthesocialimpactsondisabledpeopleingreatbritainmay2020

Add Mss on Counting Further to my entry on logs and panic buying, it is reported that Tesco has again begun rationing loo rolls, pasta and flour as shelves empty following the renewed lockdown restrictions.  When this crisis is over, it will be possible to count the evolution of public anxiety by constructing a loo-roll purchase index

From David Vincent in Shewsbury, UK: On Saints

St. John Henry Newman

September 25. I read that Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu has resigned suddenly over a scandal concerning the purchase of property in London.

This is, of course, not the first time that a large sum has been used to buy housing in the world capital of laundering illegitimate money.  What caught my eye was the role in the Vatican played by the Cardinal, which presumably will be carried on by his successor.  The corrupt prelate was in charge of the department that decides who will become saints.

It might be supposed that in this time of crisis, when the wrath of God is being visited on the children of disobedience, we are in sore need of such exemplary figures.  Since the early days of the pandemic, there has been chorus of praise in the media for the devotion in particular of health professionals who were risking their lives to save the afflicted.  The now discontinued collective applause on Thursday evenings was a diffuse recognition of their selfless dedication.

It is important, however, to look carefully at the criteria for canonisation in the Catholic Church.  Besides leading an ‘exemplary life of goodness and virtue worthy of imitation’, and ideally having suffered martyrdom, the candidate also has to be shown to have performed directly or posthumously two miracles.  Much of Cardinal Becciu’s time will have been spent sifting out candidates who were exemplary moral beings but could not display the requisite number of verifiable miraculous actions.

A miracle is a divine event that has no natural or scientific basis.  The latest English saint, Cardinal Newman, was credited with curing a man’s spinal disease and a woman’s unstoppable bleeding.  I used to teach Newman’s theology for a living as part of a Master’s course in Victorian culture.  He was the leading Christian intellectual of his generation in England, first in the Church of England, and then following his conversion in 1845, in the Catholic Church.  None of his writings, and no scholarly examination of his career, ever featured a personal role curing the sick, but the Vatican managed to find two instances which could not be explained by medical science.

It could be argued that this kind of saint is nothing but a threat in our present difficulties.  The public figure who by his own estimation mostly closely fulfils the criteria of performing actions that defy scientific reasoning is Donald Trump.  Since the outset he has made predictions about the course of coronavirus and the efficacy of remedies (including bleach) that are not only unsupported by medical knowledge but in his terms are the more credible because they are the product of a higher grasp of the truth.  Trump evidently believes that he has access to knowledge that has more authority than the reasoning of toiling scientists.  So, by extension, the internet is awash with covid-19 cures sold on the basis of their superiority to orthodox medicine.

We see it also in the pale imitations of Trump who govern our destiny in Britain.  Whilst they must make a profession of listening to scientists, their narrative of progress is essentially magical.  Johnson has made a series of proclamations about the course of the pandemic which have no basis in evidence-based fact, but are justified only by private insight into the future.  Similarly his hapless Health Secrecy has promulgated achievements and targets for track and testing (with a new app launched yesterday) that are the product of faith rather than substantive calculation. 

Now, more than ever, we should seek solutions that have a rational or scientific basis.  We want leaders of goodness and exemplary virtue; we have no use for saints.

That said, the odd martyrdom would not come amiss.  St Dominic Cummings would be a good start.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Log Stack

September 24.  It’s the autumn equinox, so we take delivery of a thousand kiln-dried logs to get us through the winter. 

As the logs tumble out of the trailer onto our drive, we ask how business has been during the pandemic.  Never better says the man from Logalog, a Shropshire firm specialising in high quality timber.  In March, orders were three times higher than the same time last year. Enquiring on the web confirms this report.  ‘Kindwood’, a firm claiming to be ‘the UK’s first and only true sustainable firewood brand’, experienced a 320% rise in sales at the beginning of the lockdown.

It’s an oddly atavistic form of hoarding.  It was to be expected that there would be bulk buying of modern essentials such as loo paper and pasta, and later handwash and face-masks.  But not firewood, at the end rather than the beginning of winter (I find a report of a similar rise in demand in March in the Stirling Woodyard, Adelaide, Australia, but there at least the obverse seasons made this a more rational behaviour).  There is something very primal about stocking up with firewood in the face of a looming national crisis, just as the days are lengthening.

Our heap of logs has then to be transported down the garden and carefully stacked.  For this activity I rely on one of my favourite books, Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood.  Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.  This was a surprise hit when it was published in Britain in 2015.  Its title fully reflects the contents.  Chopping, and in particular stacking wood are treated as both a science and an art.  There are wrong ways and right ways to construct piles that are stable, damp-proof and aesthetically pleasing. Mytting writes (p.113):

‘You know exactly where you are with a woodpile. Its share price doesn’t fall on the stock market.  It won’t rust.  It won’t sue for divorce.  It just stands there and does one thing:  It waits for winter.’

Or a pandemic.

Amongst the information the book conveys is the existence of a Norwegian law which requires every house over a certain size to possess a source of heating independent of the electricity supply.  This makes a lot of sense.  Most forms of domestic warming depend on the national grid, either directly or in order to pump the water through a central heating system.  In an arctic winter, if the electricity supply fails, families can freeze to death.  Hence the importance of a log-stack (and a wood-burning stove, upon which Mytting is also a source of encyclopaedic advice).

Almost unnoticed in the catalogue of government incompetence, the British long-term energy strategy collapsed last week.  Hitachi pulled out of building a nuclear power station in Wylfa, north Wales, calling into question the planned Sizewell C project.  The only plant actually under construction, Hinkley Point C, is over time and over budget.  The official policy is to rely on nuclear power to fill the gaps in renewable energy generated by the sun, wind or waves.  If that strategy is correct, the consequence of the serial failings in implementing the nuclear programme will be that sooner or later in the UK, the lights will start to go out, and the central heating boilers cease to function.

Better stock up on logs.  But do make sure they are stacked properly.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK. New Life



September 21.  We have a new granddaughter, conceived when coronavirus was only an unreported event in China.  ‘Shielding’ has entered our vocabulary during the last six months, but no living being has been as protected from the raging storm as this infant growing in her mother’s womb.  Now she is amongst us, three weeks old, small but perfectly formed.

There have been a host of petty inconveniences surrounding her first few days.  My son found himself almost completely excluded from her birth, much as fathers were when I was born. It took a fortnight’s careful planning before my wife and I could drive down to London to greet her.  Distance was observed during the visit, masks were worn where necessary.  What effect so many half-covered faces is having on this intensely observing person we will only later discover. 

These difficulties eventually will pass.  The bigger question is the longer term.  I grew up in a country still recovering from the material and human destruction caused by the Second World War.  My recollection of that era is entirely of the future that was being created in the 1950s.  I had no experience of ruined buildings and crippled lives.  Just a newly-built housing estate in the midlands, and parents making their way out of the working class into the relative comfort and security of white-collar occupations.  The state was responding to the failures of a previous generation by creating a structure of welfare from which I directly benefited.  My granddaughter might not feel so blessed.  She may instead experience a childhood over-shadowed by the re-fighting of wars of the previous decade.

About the yet longer term I have almost nothing to say.  With an average amount of luck, this small child will live through the whole of this century.  I simply cannot conceive what her surroundings will look like by the time she reaches my age.  Climate change must constitute the greatest risk, but what in the end will be the balance between human neglect in creating the crisis and human ingenuity in responding to it, is beyond my calculation.

At least we have met.  A cousin has just sent me a photograph of my paternal grandmother, Hannah, called Polly.  She was a miner’s wife, and died of TB, what used to be called consumption, at the age of forty, on my father’s tenth birthday.  I never knew even what she looked like.  Cameras were uncommon possessions in her community.  But it turns out that an image has survived, taken in a studio in Hanley.  I gaze upon her face with fascination.  She has thick dark hair, pulled back from a central parting.   A strong, intelligent, humorous face.  In what way have her looks found their way into my children?  What was she like, and what part could she have played in my childhood, when she would only have been in her sixties and seventies? 

I have lived long enough to encounter five grandchildren, and with this latest there is once more the prospect of getting to know each other, of exchanging views about what the world is like and how we might better live in it. 

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: “very little Difference was to be seen.”

BuildBackBetterUK

September 15.  Once the scale of the pandemic became clear, commentators of all perspectives began asking the question, how different would the post-coronavirus world look?  Would individuals, societies, governments, embrace radical change, or would we do all that we could to reinstate familiar routines and pleasures?

Looking back in 1772 to the 1665 plague, Daniel Defoe was pessimistic about the outcome.  “But except what of this was to be found in particular Families and Faces,” he wrote, “it must be acknowledg’d that the general Practice of the People was just as it was before, and very little Difference was to be seen.”*  At least part of the explanation for the transient effect was that the outbreak of bubonic plague was immediately followed by the Great Fire of London, which reset the programme of improvement on every front.  We have already arranged for a cataclysm next year in the form of a no-deal Brexit, which in the UK at least may indeed wipe out all prospect of progressive change in the 2020s.

Nonetheless the question remains on the agenda, even if the point of conclusion is now receding into the distance.  The large-scale Nuffield / UCL Covid-19 survey which I have written about before, has just asked its panel of now over 70,000 respondents whether they expect to change the way they live their lives once the pandemic is over.**

The results are deeply underwhelming.  Whilst only ten per cent expect to return exactly to their previous life, a mere two per cent of the respondents assented to the proposition, “I will entirely change the way I lived compared before Covid-19”.  Over half the population thought that “they were more likely on balance to return to how things were before” with about a fifth expecting to change things and over a quarter in between no change and some change.

When the survey focussed on the specific actions of those who wanted a new life, the poverty of aspiration becomes still clearer.  Top of the list is an activity which perhaps has been created by the pandemic, giving more support to local businesses.  But as the fourth most desired change is more shopping online, it seems unlikely that there is going to be a wholesale shift to buying the necessities of life from the grocer around the corner.  Otherwise the head of the chart is filled with such mundane ambitions as saving more money, exercising more, eating healthier food.  About ten per cent report an intention to ‘seek a new romantic relationship’ but it is not clear whether this ambition has been communicated to an existing partner.

The problem with these sorts of enquiries is the absence of a pre-Covid baseline.  In a culture which foregrounds the freedom of individuals to set their own future, it might be supposed that a desire for some sort of change is near universal.  The content of the reported agenda looks a lot like the first week of any given New Year, when in the aftermath of over-consumption, resolutions are formed to live a more virtuous life.  These peter out as the days lengthen, leading to an outcome that looks very like Defoe’s verdict.

The conclusion has to be that alongside staying alive and getting a virus test, we need to devote serious time to conceiving a new future.  It will not occur by default, nor by responding to short-term inconveniences.  The slogan ‘Build Back Better’ is now widely used by agencies, pressure groups and politicians (even B. Johnson, God help us) reacting to the crisis.  On the survey evidence, what is better remains out of focus and beyond what at present we seem able to imagine. 

*Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722; Penguin 2003), pp. 219-20.

**Covid-19 Social Study Results Release 19, 26th August 2020, pp. 44-50. https://b6bdcb03-332c-4ff9-8b9d-28f9c957493a.filesusr.com/ugd/3d9db5_fba549666ba14e18bc1f844446a31c9b.pdf

From David Vincent In Shrewsbury, UK: Smoking the Mail

Daniel Defoe

September 10.  Over the last six months, the main exposure of our home to the threatening outside world has been in the form not of visitors but deliveries of post, weekly groceries and the fruits of online shopping.   The postman and other van drivers keep their distance.  The problem is what to do with the letters and boxed items.  We know that the coronavirus can linger on hard surfaces for at least twenty-four hours.  This causes us to leave untouched boring items such as advertising circulars and bank statements. But we are less patient with anything that looks as if it will entertain us or improve our lives.

For guidance on how we should conduct ourselves in this regard, we can turn once more to Daniel Defoe.  Alongside his Journal of the Plague Year he also published the much less well-known Due Preparations for the Plague, as well for Souls as Body.  Being some seasonable Thoughts upon the visible approach of the present dreadful Contagion in France; the properest measures to prevent it, and the great work of submitting to it (1722).  This was a more overtly didactic work than the Journal, although it deployed much of the same material. 

Among the topics he addressed was how to treat incoming mail.  James Daybell and other historians have demonstrated that there was a widely-used postal service operating across Britain by the mid-seventeenth-century.  It was deployed for business purposes, for connecting family members of the middling and upper classes, and for supporting an international network of scholars.  At the Restoration in 1660, Charles II established the General Letter Office, which was designed to create a state monopoly in the conveyance of letters.  Operating with a very broad understanding of infection, Defoe regarded the service as a serious threat to health. 

We now know that the bubonic plague was spread by fleas carried by black rats, and unlike fabrics sent about the country, the hard surface of paper was not likely to be a means of transmission.  But it is now, so we should take seriously the Due Preparations.   In the book Defoe cited the example (also referred to in the Journal) of a prosperous wholesale grocer in London, head of a household which comprised his wife, five children, two maid servants and an apprentice.  The grocer took the precaution of keeping his doors shut in order to avoid physical contact, hauling any necessary items to an upstairs window by means of a pulley:

“Hitherto he had corresponded with several of his acquaintances and customers in the country, and had received letters from them, and written letters to them constantly, but would not do any business, or send any goods to them upon any account, though very much pressed to it, because he resolved not to open his doors, whatever damages he suffered.

“His letters were brought by the postman, or letter- carrier, to his porter, when he caused the porter to smoke them with brimstone and with gunpowder, then open them, and to sprinkle them with vinegar ; then he had them drawn up by the pulley, then smoked again with strong perfumes, and, taking them with a pair of hair gloves, the hair outermost, he read them with a large reading-glass which read at a great distance, and, as soon as they were read, burned them in the fire ; and at last, the distemper raging more and more, he forbid his friends writing to him at all.” (New York, 1903 edn., p. 63)

I can only commend this practice to you.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Public Good and Private Mischief

September 8. I have been reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, a biography of the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665.

Defoe addressed his subject much as Netflix might treat the current event.  Carefully accumulated factual evidence was translated into a moving human document by means of a lightly fictionalised narrative structure.   He wrote in 1722 about an event that took place when he was about five years old.  His direct memory of the plague must have been slight, but as the son of a London tallow-chandler he grew up amidst a community for whom this was an epochal experience.  He was one of the first modern journalists and accumulated as much factual evidence as he could find, making particular use of the contemporary Bills of Mortality which provided a weekly map of the spread of the plague across the city.  Defoe wrote to entertain, to make money, but above all to warn.  The plague had broken out again in Marseille in 1720, and all Europe was on the alert in case it spread across the Continent once more.  The Journal was history written to prevent its repetition. 

In every major plague outbreak from the fifteenth century to the coronavirus, the central response of authorities has been to keep victims apart from those yet to be infected.  Whether it was the forty-day quarantine invented by the Venetians in the fifteenth century, or our own mis-firing track and trace system, the task is to identify the sick and remove them from the company of the healthy.  Until the late nineteenth century there was no accurate understanding of the biology of pandemics, but the coming of DNA analysis has made little difference to the essential common-sense reaction.

Neither has there been any alteration to the basic relocation of power from the individual to the collective at such a time of crisis.  In 1665, the Lord Mayor of London imposed the drastic remedy of locking families in their houses when one of their members fell ill.  Defoe was impressed by the ferocity of the policy:

“It is true, that the locking up the Doors of Peoples Houses, and setting a Watchman there Night and Day, to prevent their stirring out, or any coming to them; when perhaps the sound People, in the Family, might have escaped, if they had been remov’d from the Sick, looked very hard and cruel; and many People perished in these miserable Confinements, which ‘tis reasonable to believe, would not have been distemper’d if they had had Liberty, tho’ the Plague was in the House … But it was a publick Good that justified the private Mischief; and there was no obtaining the least Mitigation, by any Application to Magistrates, or Government, at that Time, at least, not that I heard of.” (Penguin Classics Edition, 2003, p. 48).

So it comes to pass that the plague has arrived in my own small village.  A twenty-year-old decided that he was owed a continental holiday.  On his return he transmitted Covid-19 to his parents.  Defoe’s principle still applies.  ‘Publick Good’ justifies ‘private Mischief’, that is to say the harm caused to the felt interests of individual citizens.  Parties, large-scale social gatherings, foreign vacations, are personal luxuries we cannot afford.  In Defoe’s plague year the Magistrates stuck to their rule, despite the many attempts to evade it.  As we must.