from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: London. Gloomy, close and stale

Little Dorrit (first edition image in public domain) ‘Damocles’

June 12. The most famous literary description of lockdown is to be found at the beginning of chapter 3 of Dickens’ Little Dorrit.  Arthur Clennam, a middle-aged businessman, has returned to London from Marseilles to close down his late father’s estate.  He is gazing out of the window of a coffee shop, summoning the courage to visit his old family home:

“It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale.  Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick and mortar echoes hideous.  Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look out of windows, in dire despondency.  In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round.  Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people.  No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world – all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again.  Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets.  Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets.  Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up.  Nothing for the spent toiler to do but to compare the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it – or the worst, according to the probabilities.” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857; Penguin 1967), pp. 67-8.

It should be noted that this was the perspective of a particular section of British society.  That symbol of a more secular sabbath, the Sunday newspaper, had recently been invented – Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in 1842, the News of the World in 1843, Reynolds’ News in 1850.  At the time that Dickens was writing, Henry Mayhew, whose surveys of food and flowers we have cited in earlier Friday diaries, was walking the London streets collecting material on the vivid, noisy world of the costermongers, which continued the week round.

Nonetheless it was a vivid account of the experience of the evangelical middle class of the time.  As with the current lockdown, it was an essentially man-made event.  In this case it replicated the response to a pandemic without the medical justification.  And whilst the full observance of a day of church services and Bible reading was confined to a religious sect, their influence on the political process was such that they were able to impose their restrictions on the rest of society.  What most annoyed Dickens was their success in closing the widening range of improving entertainments which had opened in the capital and elsewhere during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.  Working a six-day week for the most part, Sunday was the only time that the bulk of the London workforce could take their families to visit attractions which were both entertaining and instructive.  They both deserved and would benefit morally from the opening of the British Museum and other venues.

In normal times, museums and galleries are now open on Sundays as are a host of more profane entertainments.  But we continue to experience the Sabbatarian legacy, with larger shops closed before 10 and after 4 in order that we might attend a church service.  As we begin to explore a return to a post-pandemic world, Sunday opening has become one of the many issues that were described in yesterday’s diary, where Government proposals are provoking argument rather than consent.  In order to boost the retail sector which has been so badly hit, a Minister has suggested that the Sunday trading laws be suspended for a year.  The British Chambers of Commerce is in favour of the change, but Labour argues that it would favour supermarkets over the smaller shopkeepers, as does the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores.  USDAW, the shopworkers’ trade union, protests that “the last thing the retail industry needs is longer trading hours, there is no economic case for this and it will put extra pressure on the retail workers who have worked so hard throughout this crisis.”  Then there associated disputes about whether any relaxation of social contact should be allowed, and if so, what distance should be kept between people.

We need a Dickens fully to describe the times we are living through.  And we need a basis for agreeing change, without setting interest against interest, class against class.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Repentance

June 4. As an historian, I’ve had a nagging feeling that something is missing from the menu of responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Where is the National Day of Fasting?

In part, my sense of omission merely reflects the secular bubble in which I live.  When I enquire, I find that the World Evangelical Alliance designated 29 March as a Global Day of Prayer and Fasting.  ‘The theme of the initiative’, explained the Alliance, ‘is “Lord help!”’  Its impact on Britain passed me by.  On the last Sunday of the month there must have been more people watching their diet because of their waistline than as a form of spiritual apology.

There is a long Christian tradition of responding to outbreaks of infectious disease in this way.  Fast days were instituted in Britain during nine plague pandemics from 1563 to 1721. The theological rationale derived from the concept of special providences and divine judgments.  Natural disasters were seen as God’s punishment for the sins of a community, and required petitionary prayers and promises of repentance if they were to be averted.

During the nineteenth century the growing salience of medical explanations of infectious diseases marginalised this reaction.  According to Phillip Williamson, an authority on this subject, a decisive moment came in 1853, when the Home Secretary Lord Palmerston publicly rejected proposals for a fast day against an outbreak of cholera, arguing that the solution lay in better sanitation and public health.  Now the churches have left the centre of the stage.  Whilst car showrooms have just been re-opened, religious buildings, together with public houses, remain closed for at least another two months.

My view of the marginal role of the Church of England was increased by its response to the Flight out of London.  The Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, was reported as threatening to sever relations between church and state.  “Unless very soon we see clear repentance,” he said, “including the sacking of Cummings, I no longer know how we can trust what ministers say for @churchofengland to work together with them on the pandemic.”   I don’t know why the church of Cranmer and the Prayer Book is now reduced to a twitter hashtag, nor can I understand why any bishop should suppose that Johnson is going to repent of anything.  It’s like asking him to take up ballet dancing or synchronised swimming; it’s just not something he has ever done, knows how to do, would ever want to do.

And yet.  As a Christian, the Bishop had a perfect right to speak of repentance.  It is central to the spiritual rule book of his calling.  There are values, and a structure of faith, forgiveness and redemption to cope with their inevitable infraction in a fallen world.  For all the political excitement, Cummings encountered a basic moral dilemma.  Unlike his employer, he is, by report, a deeply committed family man.  When the virus entered his home, he was faced with a choice between the wellbeing of his immediate social unit, and that of society more broadly.   His panicked solution may have been the wrong one, but he is scarcely the first to make such an error. 

In the event, repentance would have been not only morally but also politically the better course of action.  If in the Number 10 rose garden Cummings had explained his actions and then asked for forgiveness for a mistaken judgment, most of the subsequent damage to his government, and, more importantly, to the public’s trust in the state, would have been avoided.  

We still have a shared moral discourse, the remains, in part, of a Christian heritage.  It is worth reinforcing.