Jane Kelly has been keeping an occasional coronavirus diary which we will be bringing to you at regular intervals.
Thursday, March 26, 2020
NOW 465 deaths in the UK, 28 since yesterday. Spain, deaths 738, looks like a massive auto-da-fé of white hooded figures moving in lines through the silent streets looking for people to remove from their homes.
Boris Johnson has inadvertently launched a radical socialist programme: half a million have applied for universal credit, all at the same time, blocking phone lines. The Department of Work and Pensions said yesterday they were redeploying thousands of civil servants to process the claims. And in a move which would be relished by any Labour government in respect to Proudhon’s dictum of 1840, ‘property is theft’, there’s going to be a ‘complete ban’ on evictions. Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick declared, ‘No renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home.’
Nothing can be relied on to be the same. As Defoe put it in his report of the Great Plague of 1666: ‘In the whole, the face of things was much altered, Sorrow and Sadness sat upon every Face; and tho’ some Parts were not yet overwhelm’d yet all looked deeply concern’d.’
Around me people are changing; I received an email from my only close relative, not heard from for three years and expected never to be heard from again. A neighbour who lay in bed till noon, often reading for her book club (now cancelled), is up and out by 9am making the most of her government walking allowance. Another neighbour has discovered Radio 4 for the first time in her eighty years and is glued to it.
I am worrying about going to the shops, something I never considered before. The situation has brought out a neurosis I never knew I had. At the start of the lock-down it was about scarcity: can I get this, or that? The loo roll saga. Now it’s about queueing. I am just too impatient and competitive to be good at a buffet or a queue, and avoid them like, yes, the plague. But this pestilence is making me stand in line.
I never used to bother, even for good theatre tickets. When I lived in Poland in the 1970s, people had to queue for everything apart from tinned fish and vodka. Our community of westerners used special ‘Pevex’ shops, paying in dollars. The only other way to get good food and citrus fruit was to join the Communist party. The head of the university where I worked, a tiny man who sat behind a large desk, once toyed with an orange throughout a long and boring meeting, tossing it lightly from hand to hand. Everyone’s eye was on the small orange orb, something only he could buy, and everyone hated him.
Seeing wartime and post-war photos of women in head scarves queueing, I never imagine myself standing among them, preferring to fantasise something much more exciting, sitting in Hitler’s bath or covering the Nuremberg trials.
All this going out and standing about two metres apart and seeing oneself in a queue stretching down the street and around the corner could have been avoided by the purchase of a chest-freezer and some hoarding and panic-buying. Thousands of people in the UK have done that with ruthless certainty, creating the current rationing measures, although not on the scale of some Australians who reportedly went on organised bus tours to loot the provinces.
Defoe took a detached view of that kind of behaviour: ‘Many families foreseeing the distemper, laid up stores of provisions, sufficient for their whole families, and shut themselves up, and that so entirely, that they were neither seen or heard of, till the infection was quite ceased, and then came abroad Sound and Well . . . doubtless it was the most effectual secure step that could be taken.’ From the houses of those not so lucky, he heard ‘Dismal Shrieks and outcries of the Poor people terrified, and even frightened to Death.’
In one way his account has no parallel with today, at least not yet. Where the people he met in London carried ‘sorrow and sadness’ on every face, the people I meet on my daily legal outing seem to have smiles pasted on. It’s generally accepted that looking fed up in this crisis is letting the side down. People wave and exchange pleasantries, more genial than I have ever known before, but who knows for how long? How will we all look in three months’ time?
This first appeared in Salisbury Review online.