From David Vincent in Shrewsbury UK: Plague-free Communication

October 24.  Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about the merits and demerits of the digital phone.  The early excitement of a device that could free the user from all structures of power has been overtaken by growing pessimism.  It exposes the owner to commercial and state surveillance, abolishes privacy, erodes face-to-face contact, destroys conversation, locks the individual into a private bubble of fantasy and disinformation.

What was not apparent until the present pandemic was the virtue of the digital phone as the cleanest possible form of making contact between people.  It can of course carry germs on its crevice-free surface (for which there are a range of cleaning liquids on the market), but unless you are very careless, they will be yours, not someone else’s.

In an earlier entry (‘Smoking the Mail’, September 10), I cited the description in Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year of the London merchant who went to ever more elaborate lengths to avoid getting the disease from his post, before abandoning letters altogether. In Camus’s fictional account of an outbreak in Oran, “a new decree forbade the exchange of any correspondence, to prevent letters from transmitting the infection.” (Penguin, 2013, p. 54)   Letters remain under suspicion.  In my household we place incoming mail in quarantine for a couple of days, except on the rare occasion, such as the recent envelope of drawings from two grandchildren, when we choose to open and sanitise, rather than put on one side.

By the time Camus was writing, the corded, landline telephone had been in use for more than half a century.  But in the 1940s, it was still only to be found in businesses and middle-class homes.  It was intrinsically a shared device.  One instrument was accessible to all members of a household.  In an office anyone could pick up a handset lying on a desk and insert their finger in the dial.  This came to be recognised as a health hazard, and until lately there were firms offering services to clean regularly all the phones in a building.   Multiple cordless handsets in the home allowed calls to be made in greater privacy, but the equipment was still available to different potential sources of infection.  The digital mobile, by contrast, is essentially a personal possession, protected by increasingly sophisticated security devices which ensure that it is only capable of being used by its owner. 

More basic forms of communication are viewed with still greater suspicion.  Uttered speech transmits droplets of virus. Hence the two-metre distancing and the face masks which curtail but do not wholly abolish risk.  Public houses are shut early, because the later the time and the less restrained the drinkers, the greater the danger of raised voices and increased transmission.  The still more fundamental mode of making contact, physical touch, is generally forbidden except between intimate couples.

The i-phone rescues us from silence and isolation.  Had Steve Jobs been as far-sighted as he is seen to be, he would have held up the first device in 2007 and simply said:

“Behold, here is what we have been looking for since Biblical times, the world’s first plague-free mode of communication.”

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Pandemics and Plots

Albert Camus, by Cartier Bresson

October 18. Covid-19, and earlier outbreaks of bubonic plague and influenza, are undoubted facts.  They are material events that cause death, suffering and widespread dislocation of ways of living.  Yet the two most influential and widely-read accounts of pandemics in the west are works of fiction.  

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year features an invented document written by an imagined individual about an event which took place when the author was four or five years old.  Albert Camus’s La Peste, or The Plague, which uses a line from Defoe as its epigraph, is a novel about an outbreak that never occurred at all.   Yet if you were to introduce a new reader to all the complexities and truths of living through an epidemic, these remain the key texts.

There are of course good histories of the major outbreaks.  Paul Slack’s Plague.  A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2010) is a particularly useful introduction to the field.  But none of these works, nor the scholarship which they build upon, lodge in the memory in same way as the classic fictional accounts.

The conventional form of the novel, which Defoe had a hand in creating, allows the writer to focus on the central question of the relation of individual to social experience.  However much evidence the historian accumulates about deaths and behaviours, the moral dilemma of how to subsume personal interest to collective wellbeing remains difficult to bring into focus.  A pandemic presents choices which define the possibilities of human action in the face of suffering.  Novelists find it easier to move between the registers of conduct and to draw larger conclusions from them.

Freed from the tyranny of footnotes, such writers can deploy their imaginations to illuminate the complexities of emotion and calculation.  They both depend upon and transcend even the best histories.  We see this process at work in Hilary Mantel’s successful Wolf Hall trilogy.  She fully respects the framework of historical fact, earning the respect, amongst others, of the foremost historian of Thomas Cromwell, Diarmaid MacCulloch.  But she clothes that scaffolding with explorations of motive, belief and behaviour at a convincing level of detail only attainable by an outstanding writer who has spent decades refining her craft.

Further, novelists readily work with plots.  Whilst pandemics have effects which last decades for polities, economies and societies, and for some part of a subsequent lifetime for individual survivors, they are for the most part framed events.  Other great threats of our age, such as poverty, racial injustice, climate change, have no clear beginnings and no timetable for their completion.  Covid-19, like the bubonic plague and the Spanish flu, arrived at a certain moment, and will depart, at least for the time being (as it already appears to have done in China).  What is happening now is that all the players, from Trump upwards, are seeking to narrate plots whose final chapter keeps retreating before them.  When, as was reported in the press yesterday, politicians demand “an exit strategy” from the renewed lockdown restrictions, they are just trying to organise the event into a manageable narrative, which like the novels of Defoe and Camus, reaches an end in the closing pages.

And like the best works of imagination, there is always room for a sequel.  These are the last lines of The Plague:

“Indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy that rose above the town, Rieux recalled that this joy was always under threat.  He knew that this happy crowd was unaware of something that one can read in books, which is that the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.” (Penguin 2013, pp. 237-8)

In that regard, I noted in my previous post that there was an outbreak of bubonic plague around the River Orwell in Suffolk early in the twentieth century.  I subsequently discover that public health officials were still testing rats in the area for Yersinia pestis as late as the 1970s.  Vigilance cannot be relaxed.