October 2. In his Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe set himself a double challenge. He wanted readers to engage with the scale of the epidemic, making a critical use of Bills of Mortality. It is likely that the death toll was double our current number, in population of a little over five million. And he wanted readers to engage with the experience of dying. He appealed to their imaginations by deploying sight, smell and above all sound in his lightly fictionalised descriptions. In a famous passage he wrote:
“London might well be said to be all in Tears; the Mourners did not go about the Streets indeed, for no Body put on black, or made a formal Dress of Mourning for their nearest Friends; but the Voice of Mourning was truly heard in the Streets; the shrieks of Women and Children at the Windows, and Doors of their Houses, where their dearest Relations were, perhaps dying, or just dead, were so frequent to be heard, as we passed the Streets, that it was enough to pierce the stoutest Heart in the World, to hear them. Tears and Lamentations were seen almost in every House.”(p. 18)
It is one of the major differences in the modern encounter with a major health crisis. Covid-19 is almost entirely a silent event. A friend reminds me that when the streets of London fell quiet in the immediate aftermath of the March lockdown, all that could be heard, apart from birdsong, was the wail of ambulances transporting the sick to hospital. But as traffic reappeared, the prominence of the sirens diminished. What was left was an escalating disaster which largely occurred without any kind of identifiable noise at all.
We live in a culture in Britain which confines the expression of grief to private spaces. Amongst the bereaved of what the Office for National Statistics calculates to be more than 50,000 victims, the tears are shed in the home. Double glazing keeps disturbing noise in as well as out. The only Covid-generated sound has been the Thursday-evening applause for health workers. Funerals too are in our own times orderly events where undisciplined grief is discouraged. And in the lockdown they were rendered into near silence by the severe restriction on the number of mourners.
Amongst the living, outdoor noise associated with the pandemic is mostly transgressive – gatherings in public houses or street parties that are at best a threat to collective health and at worst illegal. A justification for the new 10 pm curfew in pubs is that alcohol in crowded spaces causes people to shout more, thus dispersing infected droplets over a wider area.
Amongst the dying, there is a journey from the small sounds of coughing to the quiet of a hospital intensive care unit. Family members are excluded. Patients are sedated. At the last, only the rhythmic working of the ventilators can be heard.
The consequence is a greater division between the afflicted and those still going about their lives. Britain is not ‘all in Tears’. Where an event generates serious noise, it is difficult to ignore. Now, the only aural disturbance to the peace of the fortunate are the messages broadcast on radio and television.
At least the Londoners of 1665 did not have Charles II regularly addressing them in the privacy of their homes.