from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Sunday night and a project

May 31. I don’t like Sunday nights. Maybe this stems from my years at boarding school, when Sunday nights were the pits. Maybe it was the long weeks remaining of term time, or the sad girls coming back from exeat, or struggling over an evening meal of brown vegetable soup, or the sound of weeping after lights out.

And this Sunday night, the last night of May 2020, it seems the world is not getting better on many levels. I planned to write a blog about how we all hoped for an improved quality of life emerging after Covid-19. I would amass the feel-good stories of people being kind and resourceful and imagine how this might carry forward.

Instead, tonight the TV news was about the USA cities on fire with protests as the country is saddled with a president who fails on every count of decency, honesty and moral leadership. Next came the news about the virus: we have reached over 6 million cases and 370,000 deaths of Covid-19 world wide and that is surely a significant under-assessment of the real numbers. These numbers are rubbery, certainly not overstated. The virus spread continues – without much check in densely populated countries.

My husband and I are in the cohort of the elderly in need of ‘shielding’ (as the Guardian suggests). The over 70’s. As my friend, James, said, it’s a bit like being back at boarding school. There are certain similarities: that feeling of nothing to look forward to, an awareness that you are being controlled by the system. This sense that tomorrow is like today.

But hold on! We have so much more we can do. We baby boomers have, in general, lived a charmed life in the West. Better education, better health that ever before. So, we have lived longer than the generations before us. We are a bridge between the old world and the new one of our grandchildren and we are in a position to remember the lives of our parents and the stories that came down through them of our grandparent’s lives. We might have snippets, or long stories; we might have old black photos albums or diaries. But I am sure we have something – and that something is of value.

My father was born in 1911, my mother in 1920. They were strong people and valued their backgrounds. I learnt of my grandparents and their birthdates go back to the 1880’s. I have stories of the Boer war, of the Kimberley’s diamond mines, of a great uncle dying in the Gaza desert in the 1st WW; of an uncle shot down in the Dieppe Raid, of my father fighting the Italians in the mountains of Somaliland in the 2nd WW and of my mother driving an African man mauled by a leopard to a hospital in Tanganyika. And so it goes.

The thing is, our kids are too busy, our grandchildren are too ignorant – at the moment to ask, to remember, to value this. We have a debt to pay, to record what we know of the past: to keep our family stories alive for the future – whatever form that takes. We are the shaky bridge between the past and the strange post Covid-19 future.

It’s not a repeat of a boarding school exercise, but it is a serious project to take on board during Covid-19. No exams to fear, no pass or fail, just a challenge to record your past as a gift for your future generations.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: children of the aftermath

May 13.  As much as we are all wondering how we will get through to the end, we are also contemplating how we will be changed by the experience.  From hospitals to universities, managers of complex, rule-bound organisations are astonished at how behaviours set in stone for decades have been transformed in a matter of weeks, and are speculating about how long such a metabolism of change can continue.

There is another way of considering the aftermath.  I have a new great nephew, born on May 1st in a village on the shores of Loch Lomond, a great niece due next month in York, and if all goes well I shall have a new granddaughter, born to my son and his wife towards the end of August in East London.  The brave post-pandemic world will be the one in which these children will take their first steps, and form their identities and ambitions.

In this regard, I have a shared experience.  I was born early in 1949, when Britain was still in the midst of reconstruction after VE day which we have just celebrated.  The bomb damage in the major cities was yet to be cleared.  Rationing was to continue for a further five years.  Whilst we now celebrate the heroic construction of the welfare state, life in those years was hard.  The winter of 1946-7 was one of the coldest on record, causing and compounded by serious fuel shortages.

Looking back, what strikes me most about my childhood was how much my perspective was cast towards the future.  This was partly because my own family had not suffered greatly in the war.  There were no fatalities, no battlefield injuries still blighting civilian life.  It was partly because I spent my early years in parts of the country which had not experienced physical damage (in Stoke-on-Trent, where my father’s family came from and which we frequently visited, the story was that the Luftwaffe had flown over the city, concluded that it had already been bombed, and passed on). 

And it was partly because as a small child I was the direct and immediate beneficiary of the Welfare State.  I was conceived in the same summer that the NHS began its life.  My father was a junior civil servant, seconded to Blackpool after the war to work on planning the new system, then promoted to run the first office of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in the north midlands town of Banbury and then in Oxford.  I was in every possible way a child of the new provision, and I can still remember walking with my mother to collect my welfare orange juice from the clinic and my reading books from the children’s library next door.  Later came free education all the way up to my Cambridge doctorate.

If I have hope for the new members of my family, it must be based on two aspirations.  Firstly, that they should be lucky in the homes into which they are born, as I was in mine.  Where there has been death from coronavirus, where the outcome of the pandemic is of embittered lives, undermined health, shattered finances, long-term unemployment, it will be so much harder to form confident, optimistic identities. 

Secondly, that we do in fact create a new world in which, once more, the wellbeing of every child, physical and educational, is front and centre of our collective action.  It is a matter of addressing the inequalities which continue to disfigure our society three quarters of a century after the reforms of the 1945 Labour Government.  And is a matter of ensuring, by signs and by facts, that each child feels itself the most important and cared-for person not just in its immediate family, but in all the places in which it develops as a person.  I had that sense in my beginning.  I grew up looking forwards, learning about the Second World War and its suffering only much later, mostly through history books.  Whilst as adults we must never forget what we have lived through this year, these growing children should never be held back by it.