Professor of Social History at the Open University and formerly Pro Vice Chancellor. Author of a range of studies of British and European Social History. Latest book is A History of Solitude.
April 2, 2020 The loss of public confidence
Trust and communication police the boundary of acceptable and unacceptable isolation. It is probable that the British population will accept any amount of inconvenience if the reasons for it are clearly stated, and if government and its agencies are believed to be competent.
Over the last twenty-four hours there are worrying signs that these conditions no longer apply.
Hitherto, vocal criticism of public policy has been muted. There is a general sense that this is the moment to replace the divisive discourse of Brexit, which has dominated politics over the last three years, with a nurtured consensus. There is an acceptance that short-term hindsight is unreliable and unproductive. Whatever might have been done, Covid-19 could not have been fully anticipated. Better to leave the search for mistakes to historians in later years. There is also the contingent factor that the three leading figures who could be interrogated, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Health, and the Chief Medical Officer, are all self-isolating with the disease. And the Labour Party, which might have held ministers to account, is currently largely absent, conducting a leadership contest (which will be over on April 4th).
But this morning’s press, particularly and worryingly for the government, the right-wing newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Times, have front-page headlines denouncing official policy.
There have been rumblings of discontent, particularly from front-line medical practitioners, about the shortages of ventilators and personal protection equipment (PPE). But what has translated complaints into focussed anger is the failure to provide testing facilities. These are fundamentally necessary, as the Director General of the World Health Organisation has stated from the outset, to track the incidence and transmission of the disease. They are also vital for health professionals, who need to know whether they are safe to go to work. As is now pointed out, however, the government deliberately stopped testing on 11 March, when the policy of containing the disease was abandoned. It would only be used for those seriously ill in hospital. This policy was amended after the lockdown was declared on March 23, and the number of infections threatened to overwhelm the health services.
But now the government seems unable to source an adequate number of testing kits, and is competing on a hostile open market for new supplies. At its daily press conferences it is setting out ambitions for testing which are contradicted by its own statistics. Today’s headlines are driven by the report that of the half million or so front-line health workers, only 2,000 have been tested. The charges against officials embrace strategic mis-judgment, operational incompetence, and poor messaging.
This may be a blip. It is possible that the tests will ramp up, the PPEs will be delivered, the ventilators manufactured, and public trust restored. But on this day, none of this seems likely. That the criticism may harm Conservative prospects in some future election is irrelevant. Doctors and nurses are dying now who should live, or are isolating at home when they should be at work. Confidence in those policing the lockdown may not recover.
As a footnote, I was interviewed on Monday about my book on solitude by the London correspondent of Die Welt. When we finished I asked her where she would rather now be living. She replied that although she had an English husband and loved the country, she would feel safer in Germany: ‘better health service, better political leadership.’ 0000
April 1, 2020 ‘The greatest misery of sickness is solitude’
I have spent the last three years writing a history of solitude in the modern era. Its long-planned publication later this month has suddenly turned niche subject into a topic of wide interest. I have been writing for various online publications on this subject, in some cases with my colleague Professor Barbara Taylor who runs a large Wellcome Trust-funded project on the ‘Pathologies of Solitude’ based at Queen Mary University in London. Barbara is an early-modernist, and has drawn my attention to the encounter with isolation experienced by the poet John Donne, at the time Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.
In 1623 Donne, was suddenly struck down by a mysterious illness which left him feverish and sweaty (historians are not sure what it was; the most likely culprit was a form of typhus). As he wrote in his Meditation V of Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, published the following year, he found the experience terrible:
[T]his minute. I am surpriz’d with a sodaine change, & alteration to worse, and can impute it to no other cause, nor call it by any name.
Weak and frightened, Donne was confined to the St Paul’s deanery, where fear of infection kept everyone away from him, even his physicians.
As Sickness is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness is solitude;
when the infectiousness of the disease deters them who should assist, from
coming…Solitude is a torment which is not threatened in hell itself.
The instinctive response of the healthy to the afflicted did nothing except increase his suffering:
when I am but sick, and might infect, they have no remedy but their absence, and my solitude.
Donne’s Almighty was a social being:
there is a plurality of persons in God, though there be but one God; and all his external actions testify a love of society, and communion. In heaven there are orders of angels, and armies of martyrs, and in that house many mansions; in earth, families, cities, churches, colleges, all plural things; and lest either of these should not be company enough alone.
In this regard, Donne, stood against a Christian practice that stretched back to the fourth century and thence to Christ’s sojourn in the Wilderness. The desert fathers, who rejected company and material comfort in search of an intense communion with a lonely God, had a profound influence on the early church. Their example was institutionalised in monasteries which sought to combine individual meditation with a structure of routine and authority that would protect practitioners from mental collapse or spiritual heterodoxy.
In Britain the monastic tradition had been almost obliterated by the Reformation. Instead there was growing emphasis on the natural and necessary sociability of mankind. Further on in the same publication, Donne wrote in Meditation 17 one of the most famous passages in the English language, yet more relevant in this moment:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
March 31. Diary Writing and Blogging. Partly because of the scale of the crisis, and partly because so many people are at home with time on their hands, there is an immense volume of diary-writing and blogging taking place nationally and internationally.
The following highly pertinent quote comes via a German reader of the daily blog, Memex 1.1, kept by my friend, former OU colleague, Cambridge academic and Observer columnist, John Naughton:
‘However much we are affected by the things of the world, however deeply they may stir and stimulate us, they become human for us only when we can discuss them with our fellows. Whatever cannot become the object of discourse – the truly sublime, the truly horrible or the uncanny – may find human voice through which to sound into the world, but it is not exactly human. We humanize what is going on in the world and in ourselves only by speaking of it, and in the course of speaking of it we learn to be human. Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times.’
John also ponders on the forms of personal communication which are most effective in this dark hour. Voice, either as a podcast of some kind, or a conversation, carries more emotion than print. Then there is the video conference to which all of us are turning. I count myself as being in the bottom quartile of technical competence, but nonetheless my wife and I are holding more or less daily link-ups with family and friends (Zoom, the most user-friendly app, is now worth eight times the holding company of British Airways). These vary from individual children and grandchildren, to large family meetings every Sunday at 4 and arranged drinks with friends. So much better than nothing, but oddly less than a physical meeting. There are constraints imposed by sitting still looking at a camera on the frame of a laptop. Perhaps the best response is by my four-year old grandson Reuben. After showing off his latest handicraft (last session a Lego Star Wars vehicle), he gets bored sitting still, and starts turning somersaults on the sofa, exploring what he looks like with his tee-shirt pulled over his head, annoying his more solemn older sister, giggling at private jokes. We naturally sit still when reading and writing, also perhaps when listening to a broadcast, but not when talking. And when in conversation, we look at our interlocutor, out of respect and also to gain clues as to meaning through facial and bodily gesture. What we do not do is look at ourselves when talking, a requirement of visual conferencing, and one which is hostile to un-self-conscious communication.
March 30. On the bank of the River Severn. One of the reasons why my wife and I chose to live in our village was its transport connections. Its position on the bank of the River Severn meant that there was little through traffic and wide-open views into Wales. But two miles to the East the A5 trunk road connected us to the major regional centres of Birmingham and Manchester. Fifteen minutes’ drive took us to Shrewsbury railway station, with through trains to London and everywhere in Wales. There were two major regional airports (with international flights) within an hour’s drive.
In this we behaved as any modern country-dweller. Where once there were shops, a post office and a pub in the village, now there is nothing. We looked to urban centres for services, connections and entertainments, and were careful not to locate ourselves too far from them. A consequence of the Covid-19 crisis is to make Britain local again. Where the A5 goes, no longer matters. The rail services are attenuated, the airports shut, the urban supermarkets dangerous, understocked, and inaccessible to the vulnerable.
March 29. I live not in the county town of Shrewsbury but in a small village a few miles upstream on the edge of the recently and repeatedly flooded River Severn. It is a small but ancient settlement, fully recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book. Now it has no services beyond the church on Sunday. But it has always displayed a collective spirit, mostly for seasonal entertainments and the maintenance of a village green which contains the ruins of a castle built to keep the Welsh in Wales. Planning was taking place for a formal ball in a marquee on the green this autumn, and it may yet take place. In the meantime, the ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ group, in place to deal with very rare criminal activity, has delivered a card to all residents, offering with help ‘picking up shopping, posting mail, collecting newspapers, or with urgent supplies.’ There is a ‘WhatsApp’ group ‘where there are lots of people wanting to offer support.’ By this means we will all survive.
The village clerk sends a notification that the planned 75th anniversary celebration of VE [Victory in Europe] Day has been cancelled. We were to have a sit-down tea in the parish hall. As many are now commenting, the Home Front in the Second World War is the nearest parallel to the current crisis. When will we be celebrating (as the Chinese are now doing) VC – Victory over Covid 19 – Day?
The Eurovision Song Contest has been cancelled. Amidst the destruction, there is some gain. And in the same vein, the Research Evaluation Framework for Higher Education is postponed sine die.
Although a national event, Coronavirus remains a patchwork of local incidence. The fourteenth-century plague was worse in the countryside, where most people lived and where disease-carrying fleas had plenty of livestock to live on. The 1665 plague was, by contrast, a metropolitan event with those who could afford to do so fleeing to small towns or country estates. The same this time. A friend who lives on the East Anglian Coast tells me that the fashionable resort of Southwold, full of Londoners’ second homes, has doubled is population in a week, much to the dismay of the local services. It is reported this weekend that the West Midlands, the region in which I live, is an unexpected and unexplained hotspot. On closer examination this refers to what is known as The Black Country, a decayed industrial centre north and west of Birmingham. The cause is unclear, though it may be at least partly to do with public and private deprivation. It’s only about 40 miles from my home, but the current statistics for my rural area are much lower. Distance matters.
So far, we have been fortunate in that no family or close friends have become infected. For us, the anxiety has been at one remove. I have two lifelong friends with near terminal illnesses, made just about unmanageable and unbearable, especially for their families, by this event. You might think that in such a pandemic, normal disasters would be suspended, but they are not. In one case, what began as cancer has spread other conditions, whilst the sufferer’s children and friends are increasingly unable to provide any support. Two daughters, long since moved away from home by marriage and careers, were unable to fly across the country because of the collapse of the Flybe airline, then were forbidden to make any contact at all with a father alone and possibly dying in an Edinburgh hospital. In the second case, my oldest friend (we shared a desk on our first day at secondary school) broke his neck in a freak swimming accident. He and his wife had emigrated to France on retirement, and did it properly, taking out French citizenship and immersing themselves in the Occitan music scene. They had gone on holiday to the French possession of Guadeloupe and now are marooned there, unable to get back to France whose hospitals are overwhelmed by Covid patients. In ordinary times we could respond to such a tragedy by visits, or by organising help. Now the wife is completely alone, (Guadeloupe shares the French lockdown), and all around her are wholly unable to help beyond supportive phone calls. I hope my friends will both survive, but their trauma, psychological as well as physiological, will not turn up in the statistics.