from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Anti-Vax

Edward Jenner

July 7. After half a year of the pandemic, we should be immune to shock at the responses to it.

But this morning there is published a finding which is startling and depressing in equal measure.  A survey conducted by YouGov, an entirely reputable polling organisation, has found that almost one in six British adults will ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ refuse a coronavirus vaccination when one becomes available.  Another 15% say they are not sure what they will do.*

We expect this kind of anti-science in the United States, where according to the latest research, only a third of the population believe in secular evolution, a century and a half after Origin of Species.**  But Darwin is our man, indeed my man, born and educated in Shrewsbury (his parents, for an unexplained reason, are buried in the churchyard of Montford parish church, just down river from my village and some distance from the town where they lived).  Surely we are beyond so irresponsible a rejection of medical research.

In the popular history of medicine, Edward Jenner lines up with Alexander Fleming as a hero-discoverer of life-saving remedies.  In 1796, as every textbook tells it, he vaccinated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, with cowpox, which gave him immunity to the disfiguring and frequently lethal illness of smallpox.  Crucially Jenner not only applied a remedy which was already being investigated, but conducted a series of tests to prove that it had worked with young Phipps and later triallists.  There then followed the first public legislation in the field, with Vaccination Acts in 1840, 1853 (the first to make the vaccination of children compulsory), 1867 which tightened the regulation, and 1898 which introduced a conscience clause for parents still opposed to the practice.

The last of the 19th century Acts reflected the power of the anti-vaccination movement which had grown up as regulations were introduced.  In the present moment, Leicester is in renewed lockdown, at least in part because of the failure of sections of the population to observe social distancing advice.  Here is the same city in 1885, with up to 100,000 anti-vaccinators marching with banners, a child’s coffin and an effigy of Jenner:  “An escort was formed, preceded by a banner, to escort a young mother and two men, all of whom had resolved to give themselves up to the police and undergo imprisonment in preference to having their children vaccinated…The three were attended by a numerous crowd…three hearty cheers were given for them, which were renewed with increased vigor as they entered the doors of the police cells.”***

The Victorian era was notable not so much for the progress of medical science, which for the most part was more successful at diagnosis than therapeutic intervention, but for the growth of mass literacy, which turned every citizen into a consumer of the printed word.  With newspapers came advertisements for every kind of quack medicine.  With the Penny Post of 1840 came the machinery to distribute products by mail order, using stamps as currency.  The most credulous were not the newly literate farm labourers whom Jenner had treated, but the confident, educated middle classes.  In 1909 the British Medical Association, alarmed at the success of patent medicines, conducted an inquiry into the market:

It is not, however, only the poorer classes of the community who have a weakness for secret remedies and the ministration of quacks; the well-to-do and the highly-placed will often, when not very ill, take a curious pleasure in experimenting with mysterious compounds.  In them, it is perhaps to be traced a hankering to break safely with orthodoxy; they scrupulously obey the law and the Church and Mrs. Grundy, but will have their fling against medicine” (BMA, Secret Remedies (1909), p. vii).

Facebook and other sites, which bear a criminal responsibility for the resistance to orthodox medicine, are merely the inheritors of a long tradition of self-medication weaponised by commercial forces and facilitated by communication systems.  The medical profession itself has not always been as secure a bastion against these pressures as it might wish to be seen.  It took twelve years for The Lancet finally to retract the article it published in 1998 falsely claiming that the MMR vaccine caused autism.

It is, of course, possible that if and when a vaccine is made available, there will be less resistance to it than is now threatened.  History offers scant comfort that this will happen.

* https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/one-third-uk-may-not-get-coronavirus-vaccine-one-developed-new/

**https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/11/darwin-day/

*** https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/history-anti-vaccination-movements

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Six Giants

William Beveridge

June 24.  In the matter of identifying the aftermath of the pandemic, history has to be used with caution.

Peter Hennessy (see June 23) knows well that the Beveridge revolution was initially resisted by the war-time Conservatives.  Churchill believed that planning for a post-war future was simply a distraction in the middle of a conflict whose outcome was far from certain.  His attempt to bury the Beveridge report was defeated by its dry-as-dust author, who proved surprisingly adept at deploying the media of his time to publicise his document.  The report was full of practical detail, but by couching his target in terms of the five ‘giants’, Beveridge tapped into the moral subconscious of the British people, engaging with a tradition of social justice that stretched all the way back to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The report became a best-seller.  My dog-eared copy once belonged to my father, who used it in the latter days of the war to lecture to his fellow sailors with whom he was serving in a naval outpost in Sierra Leone.   It was central to Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 (though Beveridge was himself a Liberal), and in turn the scale of that majority was critical to overcoming the opposition to many of the proposals, ranging from the Tory Party to a host of vested interests.

Starmer’s Labour Party will need another landslide, and another document to energise the electorate.  The Beveridge Plan offers only a partial model.  Lakes of ink have since been spilled over its recommendations.  Eligibility for relief was centred on the outdated figure of the male breadwinner with his dependants.  The ‘National’ in the NHS and other reforms reflected a passion to centralise every form of welfare, in most cases denying effective local participation in the provision of services.  There was no engagement with the environment by a Labour Government which spent its time in office burning every ton of coal it could get out of the ground.

There is a case for simply taking on the same giants and this time slaying them properly.  Anne Chappel has directed me to a recent article which points out in convincing detail how Beveridge’s agenda is still yet to be met.*  We still have work to do with poverty, health, education, unemployment and housing.  Nonetheless, three quarters of a century on, it is perhaps time to update the mission.

I would slightly re-shape Hennessy’s agenda.  The giant of Squalor remains a task in the form of social housing.  Idleness remains a task in the form of the vast numbers, barely visible in 1945, beyond working age and needing affordable social care as they grow old.  Ignorance remains a task in terms of acquiring the skills to combat and exploit technical change, including artificial intelligence.  Want has worsened since 2010, a permanent stain on the record of successive Conservative administrations.  There is a new giant of Pollution to be attacked.  And there is a new giant of Power, collected at the centre since the war by both parties, and now needing to be distributed to the localities in which the new sense of community is now flourishing, and more effectively devolved to the nations, where Labour urgently has to relaunch itself.

Above all we must revive and give purpose to the closing paragraph of the Beveridge Report: 

Freedom from want cannot be forced on a democracy or given to a democracy. It must be won by them. Winning it needs courage and faith and a sense of national unity : courage to face facts and difficulties and overcome them ; faith in our future and in the ideals of fair-play and freedom for which century after century our forefathers were prepared to die ; a sense of national unity overriding the interests of any class or section. The Plan for Social Security in this Report is submitted by one who believes that in this supreme crisis the British people will not be found wanting, of courage and faith and national unity, of material and spiritual power to play their part in achieving both social security and the victory of justice among nations upon which security depends.(para 461)

* https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/10/beveridge-five-evils-welfare-state

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Numbering the days

June 8.  Besides his weekly column in the Observer, and sundry research activities at Cambridge, my friend and former colleague John Naughton is maintaining a daily blog, Memex1.1, to which is attached a short oral diary.  Both are well worth attention.  And the oral diary begins with a shock.  Yesterday: ‘Sunday June 7.  Day Seventy-eight.’

Seventy-eight?!  If asked I would say perhaps a month since the lockdown began.  Likewise, with this diary.  About twenty since the site was established.   But I count back and find that this is my fiftieth piece (unlike John I don’t write at weekends).

Time has collapsed.  We have only a distant sense of it passing.  This is the immediate consequence of erasing our diaries when Johnson confined us to our homes.  In my case, out went working trips to Cambridge and London and Ireland, a short holiday on the West Coast of Scotland, and various visits, planned and not-yet planned, to and from family and friends.  Events to embed in the memory the succession of days and weeks.

In response to this common experience, it has been reported that increasing numbers of people have been occupying their spare hours by anchoring their present in the history of their own families.  Some years ago, on behalf of the OU History Department, I manned a stall in the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ show at London’s Olympia, where tens of thousands of people paid £22 a head to wander past stalls helping them with their genealogies.  Next to my table was ‘Deceased.Com’, a database of tombstones, which remains a favourite electronic address.  My pitch was that if you want to understand what it means to have a family tree, you need to study some history of those times.  I didn’t get as many customers as my neighbour.

Now I too have paid my shilling to Ancestry.co.uk, the largest of many online resources for this activity.  In my filing cabinet are the paper records assembled by my parents at a time when such research meant physically visiting archives and buying copies of birth, death and marriage certificates.  I have long meant to put these in electronic order for the sake of my children and those that come after them.

Besides providing a template to set out the family tree, the value of the resource, I have discovered, is not the now digitised census records, which only provide one line of information and for the most part had already been visited by my parents.  Rather it is the access it provides to the work of other amateur genealogists.  Each of my forebears, going back to the late eighteenth century, also feature in up to a dozen other family trees which have already been industriously assembled.  The past is now a networked world.  All I have to do is call up one of these lists, and most of my work is done.

I have filled out the detail of a story I already knew.  That my parents were the first to break out of the ranks of the labouring classes.  That amongst their forebears were a scattering of skilled workers – a postman, a policeman, an overman miner – but at the beginning of the nineteenth century, most were just farm labourers.  In what way their wives and daughters contributed to their family economies is almost never recorded.

Above all, across the six generations or so that can be traced, my family is utterly English.  There is some movement out of a common point of departure in Sussex to the new employment opportunities in the capital and the north Midlands, but no hint of a connection even with Wales and Scotland, let alone further afield.  Marriages were contracted by people of the same social standing, usually in nearby villages and towns.  Until, that is, my children’s generation.  My brother and I, who went so far as to take wives with a Scottish heritage, have sons and daughters-in-law from Japan, France, Ireland, and Iran by way of the United States.  These alliances are for the most part the consequence of higher education and attendant gap years, experiences wholly denied my forebears. 

Just as my family tree largely conforms to what I know to be the broader demographic transition in Britain, with an evolution from large Victorian families to the tight two and three-child units of the twentieth century, so also this sudden internationalisation of the Vincent tribe may well be the common experience of the generation born in the closing decades of the last century. 

If so, it will do much to explain why the young are so unattracted by the petty nationalism of Brexit, whilst the old cling to the world contained in the carefully-assembled family trees.

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.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Flowers…

May 29. Flowers!  On May 19 I discussed the very high level of domestic gardens in this lock-downed country.  It is a practice with a long and much-described history.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, specialised plant-rearing spread out from country houses to the mass of the population.  By the beginning of the Victorian period there was a large industry of specialised nurseries, supported by a burgeoning literature which in its way supplied as much useful and timely information as Monty Don’s Gardener’s World.  The 1803 edition of John Abercrombie’s Every Man His Own Gardener, for instance, ran to 646 pages of monthly tasks, followed by another hundred pages cataloguing plants and then a thorough index.  Artisans joined together in associations which offered annual prizes.  A survey of the industrial north in 1826, identified fifty auricular and polyanthus shows annually, together with twenty-seven tulip, nine ranunculus, nineteen pink and forty-eight carnation competitions. 

I have on past Fridays, supplied stay-at-home food from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861Here now, for those who like me still cannot get to garden centres, is the London trade in plants as sold in the Covent Garden and Farringdon wholesale markets.  In this case the volumes are not the point; there were numerous nurseries on the edge of the capital also supplying a substantial market.  But Mayhew’s table does describe the basic tastes of Londoners in garden flowers:

Primroses         1,000                                     Polyanthus                         1440

Cowslips           1200                                       Daisies                                  1400

Wallflowers     1920                                       Candytufts                          1200

Daffodils          1200                                       Violets                                  2400

Mignonette      3800                                       Stocks                                   2880

Pinks & and Carnations   800                      Lilies of the Valley            288

Pansies              1080                                      Lilies and Tulips                 280

Balsam               640                                       Calceolarii                            600

Musk Plants       10560                                   London Pride                     720

Lupins                 1600                                     China-Asters                      850

Marigolds           10560                                    Dahlias                                  160

Heliotropes        1280                                      Michaelmas Daisies         432        (p.131)

Most of these plants, in one form or another, are the staple of modern nurseries.  It could be argued that gardens constitute one of the strongest links between the present and the past.  In most other areas – diet, clothing, occupation, health, mortality, warfare, politics, religious belief (in particular) there is a void between our own times and a period even as recent as the Victorian era.  But less so in the practice of growing flowers (and vegetables).

Rose Cecile Brunner

John Clare (1793-1864), the great peasant poet of nature, owned half a dozen gardening books, including Abercrombie, and had a deep interest in the latest developments in horticulture.  Were he to find his way into my garden, he would recognise many of the plants as versions of those that he grew, and would take an informed interest in later imports and introductions.

Above all he would understand why I spend so much time between my hedges, and what pleasure it gives me, with or without the current inconvenience.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: fast food …from 1861!

22 May. As part of the hesitant relaxation of the lockdown regulations, some of the fast food chains have been experimenting this week with reopening their restaurants.  McDonalds has unlocked thirty-three drive-through outlets in London and south-east England.  Burger King, KFC and Nandos are said to be exploring the challenge of selling food whilst observing safety measures. 

It’s a glimpse of pleasure, the possibility of going out for a meal, whether or not these particular outlets are entirely to taste.   But in my shielded lockdown, this is still a forbidden promise.   So as last Friday, we must be content with reading about food, again relying on Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861.

After reviewing the markets for fruit, vegetables and fish, he turned his attention to the ‘street-sellers of eatables and drinkables.’  Once more he found a trade of enormous vigour and variety.  He recognised that the demand was not necessarily for the most nutritious food.  ‘Men whose lives’ he wrote ‘… are alternations of starvation and surfeit, love some easily-swallowed and comfortable food better than the most approved substantiality of a dinner table.’  ‘Easily-swallowed and comfortable food’ is a perfect description of McDonalds and their rivals, however much their menus are deplored by nutritionists.  And like the fast food outlets of the modern day, it was essentially cheap, though far more varied.  The following feast was delivered to the penny economy of the London poor in the mid-nineteenth century:

The solids then, according to street estimation, consist of hot-eels, pickled whelks, oysters, sheep’s trotters, pea-soup, fried fish, ham-sandwiches, hot green peas, kidney puddings, boiled meet puddings, beef, mutton, kidney, and eel pies, and baked potatoes.  In each of these provisions the street-poor find a mid-day or mid-night meal

The pastry and confectionary which tempt the street caters are tarts of rhubarb, currant, gooseberry, cherry, apple, damson, cranberry, and (so called) mince pies; plum dough and plum-cake; lard, currant, almond and many other varieties of cakes, as well as of tarts; gingerbread-nuts and heart-cakes; Chelsea buns; muffins and crumpets; “sweet stuff” includes the several kinds of rocks, sticks, lozenges, candies, and hard-bakes; the medicinal confectionary of cough-drops and horehound; and, lastly, the more novel and aristocratic luxury of street-ices; and strawberry cream, at 1d. a glass, (in Greenwich Park). 

The drinkables are tea, coffee, and cocoa; ginger-beer, lemonade, Persian sherbert, and some highly-coloured beverages which have no specific name, but are introduced to the public as “cooling” drinks; hot elder cordial or wine; peppermint water; curds and whey; water (as at Hampstead); rice milk; and milk in the parks.  (p. 159)

That’s Fast Food!  Enjoy the sight.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: the bad news and the good news…

May 19. Last week two differing visions of the post-covid19 world were published.

The first was by the distinguished political philosopher John Gray in his ‘Unherd’ blog (thanks to my friend John Naughton for this).

https://unherd.com/author/john-gray/

He answered the question in his title, ‘How Apocalyptic is Now?’ with a resounding affirmative.  The pandemic fitted into an established pattern.

‘history is repeatedly punctuated by discontinuities in which what was gained is irrecoverably lost. Whether because of war or revolution, famine or epidemic — or a deadly combination, as in the Russian Civil War — the sudden death of ways of life is a regular occurrence. Certainly there are periods of incremental improvement, but they rarely last longer than two or three generations. Progress occurs in interludes when history is idling.’

After dwelling at length on the millions of lives lost after the Russian Revolution, ranging from civil war to state-induced famine, he reached the modern day full of pessimism:

‘Much in the way we lived before the virus is already irretrievable … More than government-enforced policies, public attitudes will prevent any reversion to pre-Covid ways. Covid-19 may not be an exceptionally lethal pathogen, but it is fearful enough. Soon temperature checks will be ubiquitous and surveillance via mobile phones omnipresent. Social distancing, in one form or another, will be entrenched everywhere beyond the home. The impact on the economy will be immeasurable. Enterprises that adapt quickly will thrive, but sectors that relied on pre-Covid lifestyles — pubs, restaurants, sporting events, discos and airline travel, for example — will shrink or disappear. The impact on the “knowledge classes” will be far-reaching. Higher education operates on a model of student living that social distancing has rendered defunct. Museums, journalism, publishing and the arts all face similar shocks. Automation and artificial intelligence will wipe out swathes of middle class employment. Accelerating a trend that has been underway for decades, the remains of bourgeois life will be swept away.

By contrast, the American writer Rebecca Solnit wrote a long op ed piece in the Guardian. 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/14/mutual-aid-coronavirus-pandemic-rebecca-solnit

She listed multiple examples of how the crisis had been met by community action in different parts of the world, including Britain, and looked forward to a transformed society:  ‘I sometimes think that capitalism is a catastrophe constantly being mitigated and cleaned up by mutual aid and kinship networks, by the generosity of religious and secular organisations, by the toil of human-rights lawyers and climate groups, and by the kindness of strangers. Imagine if these forces, this spirit, weren’t just the cleanup crew, but were the ones setting the agenda.’ 

As with Gray, she viewed the crisis as a turning-point in history, but with a quite different outcome:

The pandemic marks the end of an era and the beginning of another – one whose harshness must be mitigated by a spirit of generosity. An artist hunched over her sewing machine, a young person delivering groceries on his bicycle, a nurse suiting up for the ICU, a doctor heading to the Navajo nation, a graduate student hip-deep in Pyramid Lake catching trout for elders, a programmer setting up a website to organise a community: the work is under way. It can be the basis for the future, if we can recognise the value of these urges and actions, recognise that things can and must change profoundly, and if we can tell other stories about who we are, what we want and what is possible.

Take your pick.  What may be said is that such speculation, though understandable, is premature.  The Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai is said to have replied ‘too soon to tell’ when Richard Nixon asked him whether he thought the French Revolution was good thing.*  So also with our present drama in this third week in May 2020.

What may also be said is that Gray’s determinism seems out of place.  Post-modernism has taught us to mistrust cyclical views of history, the notion that liberalism, imperialism, capitalism, the proletariat, Corbyn’s Labour Party, must eventually prevail, irrespective of individual intention.  Gray’s negative version of this trope, that all plans for progress will regularly be overthrown by versions of the apocalypse, belongs to that tradition.  If a more benign vision is to transpire, it will be the outcome of conscious, determined action in the aftermath.   The coronavirus by itself will not guarantee progress.

*In their tedious instinct to overthrow a good story, historians have now suggested that the exchange was a translation error.  Zhou Enlai, speaking in 1972, may have thought the question was about the French Days of May of 1968.  More likely, less fun.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: going backwards …

spring-time isolation

April 24. Towards the end of Wanderlust, her fine history of walking, Rebecca Solnit passes by a glass-fronted gym, and looks in at the men and women relentlessly working on their exercise machines.  ‘The treadmill’, she writes, ‘is a corollary to the suburb and the autotropolis: a device with which to go nowhere in places where there is now nowhere to go.  Or no desire to go.’  (264-5)

The contrast was with more purposeful forms of exercise, the walk in the countryside, the bicycle ride from one place to another.  This, of course, was in a time where it was possible to undertake such movement.  Now it describes the fate of most citizens in most countries.  In my case I have a private field adjacent to my house, but the Shropshire and Welsh hills basking in this morning’s sunshine are out of reach and are likely to be so for the rest of the year. 

rowing backwards …

Instead I keep fit on a rowing machine.  It is a Concept 2, for those who take an interest in such matters.  A professional-level device which has withstood heavy use over the years.  British readers might know that it was on just such a machine that the broadcaster Andrew Marr gave himself a near fatal stroke seven years ago.  It is said to be the most efficient of all the gym equipment, exercising muscles from the calves to the shoulders, and also, of course, heart and lungs.  This morning I managed 2,924 metres in my standard fifteen minutes, which at my time of life is hard work.

I learnt to row at school in Kingston-upon-Thames.  I loved the business, the walk to the riverside, the sleek fours and eights on their racks in the boathouse, lifting them out as a team and lowering them into the water, adjusting the footstraps, gripping the oars, and on command, a racing start, going up through the gears to a full stroke. The surge of power so close to the water is one of the great sensory experiences.  Better still was the single scull that I could use.  Difficult to balance, but when you mastered it you could race like a motorbike across the surface.  Then back to the boathouse, lifting the boat and turning it upside down to empty the river water, and onto the racks.

My Concept 2 has none of these pleasures.  The machine is housed in what was once a medieval cellar below my house.  The room has been tanked out, fitted with bookshelves, a light-well and bunks for the grandchildren.  It is a pleasant enough space, but nonetheless underground.  There is no view.  No sound of the rest of the household, or indeed a rippling river.  Just the seat running back and forth on its track while I listen to the news on the Today programme.

It is difficult not to view the rowing machine as a metaphor for our current circumstance.  A disciplined activity which preserves my health and is going nowhere at all, day after day, backwards.

But there is another, more famous metaphor associated with movement on water, the last line of The Great Gatsby: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’  I am by profession and practice an historian.  This does not seem a problem to me.

from Megan in Brisbane, Australia: how will you remember this time?

April 17. Living history. There have some excellent posts recently which have made for interesting and informative reading. The historical background to life in East Africa has been fascinating, and the interest evoked in the soon-to-be released : A History of Solitude. 

History as a definition has created many and varied responses over time. The website below gives some of these definitions :

https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-history-collection-of-definitions-171282

We, in fact, are living through history (#Greater Purpose). We may feel stuck at home, bored or lacking the energy or creativity to do something meaningful, but in years to come, our grandchildren will learn about the time of Covid19. They will hear of a time when the air was unpolluted for a short time, when dolphins swam in the canals of Venice and when aeroplanes didn’t flock the skies. They will learn of the biggest contribution that people could make to this history – and that is staying at home.  

How will you remember this time?

from David Vincent, Shrewsbury, UK: Prime Ministers, Loneliness and Solitude

April 8. We are all of us having to adjust to the shocking prospect that the Prime Minister might actually die of Covid-19.  The historian in me struggles to find a previous case.  There have been examples in modern times of more or less concealed incapacitating (see Boris Johnson’s idol Winston Churchill, passim), and of sudden resignations following the diagnosis of a fatal disease  – Henry Campbell Bannerman in 1908 and Andrew Bonar Law in 1923.  Two leaders of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith, died in post, paving the way for the fortunate Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.  But not the nation’s leader at a time of absolute national crisis.  The nearest equivalent of such an event would be Pitt the Younger, who died in 1806 in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars (see also Spencer Perceval in 1812, though he was assassinated, and George Canning who expired in more peaceful times in 1827 after just 119 days in office).

Amongst the immediate responses was a curious tweet from Andrew Neil (note for non Brits: grizzled former editor of the Sunday Times and now the most feared BBC political interviewer.  In the recent General Election, Boris Johnson, alone of the candidates, refused to submit himself to an extended interrogation by him, which diminished his reputation as it enhanced Neil’s).  A reason, he said, why Johnson has proved vulnerable to Covid-19 was his ‘loneliness’ in Number 10.  It was not clear whether he meant social loneliness, given that Johnson has been living by himself in the flat above Number 11 while his pregnant partner self-isolates in the official country retreat of Chequers, or political loneliness in the Shakespearean sense of ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.’

Whichever is the case, it raises the question of the balance between solitude and loneliness in the present crisis.  The former, the tendency, as Johann Zimmermann wrote, ‘for self-collection and freedom’, has over the period since the eighteenth century become an increasingly valued an enjoyed condition.  The latter, which can be seen as failed solitude, the condition, as Stephanie Dowrick writes, of being ‘uncomfortably alone without someone’ has been a growing cause for concern in recent decades.

Enforced isolation has an ambiguous effect on the two experiences.  On the one hand it has made solitude a still more valued practice.  In families where the adults are working at home, the children are about all day long, the garden is small or non-existent, periods of solitary escape have become as desirable and unattainable as supermarket delivery slots.  The most basic form of solitude, taking a stroll out of doors, has become stigmatised or completely forbidden.  Walking the dog, for two centuries the most commonplace way of taking time out alone, has suddenly become a basic luxury.  A French friend tells me that Parisian dogs are becoming exhausted, as neighbours borrow them from their owners to legitimise exercise in the fresh air. 

On the other hand, it has made loneliness still more threatening.  It becomes more difficult to make physical contact with such friends as the individual possesses.  Intermittent escapes from an empty home to shops, cafes, local libraries, public entertainments, are now forbidden.  Access to medical or social services is yet more of a problem.  This outcome has been early recognised, and attempts are being made in functioning communities to identity those uncomfortably alone and provide them with necessary support.  And there is, of course, the ever-increasing use of digital connections. 

Where the balance will finally be struck in these contrasting effects of isolation remains to be seen.  At least we should emerge with an enhanced awareness of both conditions.