Posts Tagged #Covid19
Somehow the impending anniversary of VE Day had not impinged on my consciousness. I didn’t get the memo about the Mayday bank holiday being shifted to Friday so we could commemorate the end of WWII in Europe.
And I’m deeply uneasy about it. We’re in the midst of a crisis which, as we are reminded daily, is the toughest thing we’ve had to face since the last war. And it’s by no means over. We are assured that the infection has ‘passed the peak’ but people are still dying and the dying will continue for some time yet. Street parties – even physically distanced ones – surely aren’t quite capturing the mood. And the more cynical amongst us may suspect that this anniversary is giving government an opportunity for distraction – remind us of our finest hour, whilst offering us only spin and tweaked stats and pieties in place of decisive, timely and compassionate action.
And there’s more to my unease. Are we marking the defeat of a genocidal fascist dictatorship which had brought about the deaths of millions, not just soldiers, or civilian casualties of bombing, but people targeted for death because they were Jewish, Communist, Roma, homosexual, disabled? Are we marking the fact that in the wake of this horror, Europe forged a peace and a unity that has held ever since?
Or are we celebrating because ‘we’ defeated ‘them’? Because Churchill was the Boris of his day, facing down an enemy with British pluck and bulldog spirit? Just to illustrate my concerns:
What did the end of that war really mean for us here in Britain, and for our neighbours in Europe? Primarily, I would guess, for the British, it was relief. Relief that they no longer had to listen for the sirens, or listen for when the V1 engines cut out. Relief that nights in shelters or underground stations, waiting for the All Clear, were at an end. The prospect of life returning to some semblance of normality, or to what we would now call a ‘new normal’. The prospect of the return of the people they loved who had been serving in Europe, and the relief those people were no longer in daily peril.
But even then, it was tempered with the reality of loss. The gaps on the streets where houses used to stand, where families had lived. The people who would never come home, or who came home unutterably changed and damaged.
And the new normal had to accommodate – not right away, but soon – the full knowledge of what had happened ‘over there’. For those who’d arrived in the UK as refugees, there was the terrible wait for knowledge – and then the terrible weight of knowledge. Some returned to their families, if not to home, unutterably changed and damaged, and those to whom they returned had to wrestle not only with grief but the guilt that they had been spared, and the impossibility of truly understanding.
Across Europe, if not here, people had been starving – not just in the camps but in bombed-out cities, occupied territories. People now were sick, not just in the camps but across the continent, because of malnutrition and the breakdown of infrastructure in cities, towns and villages that had become rubble.
The thing is, VE Day didn’t mean it was all over (and not just because a brutal war continued in the Pacific, for another three months). For many it was never over. They may not have talked about it, often or at all, but it stayed with them. The survivors of the camps, the soldiers who liberated the camps, those who survived but saw more cruelty and destruction than their souls could bear. It may seem as if the war is being invoked all the time, especially at present, but rarely by those who really remember it, who were actually there.
I can’t mark VE Day with little flags and Vera Lynn and Keep Calm and Carry On. I mark this 75th anniversary by remembering the cost, remembering the loss and the pain and the destruction. And by remembering how Europe rebuilt and repaired, not only buildings and roads and ports, but alliances and communities and trust. I will think of victory in Europe, and the victory of Europe as an ideal of peaceful cooperation. Any VE day celebration that does not celebrate Europe is a sham, a fantasy of Little England, standing alone (apart from the Polish airmen, and the troops from across the Empire, and the Yanks, and the Red Army and the Free French and…), a myth that we use to bolster our sense of exceptionalism and our perverse decision to actually stand alone now.
Of course people celebrated 75 years ago. In that giddy moment of relief and release, they sang and danced and drank and kissed unsuitable strangers. It wasn’t all partying. There was joy, and pride in the courage and fortitude of soldiers and resistance fighters who had dared so much and won. There was hope that now things would be better. But as Frank Capra says in It’s a Wonderful Life, made in 1946, on VE Day they ‘wept, and prayed’.
75 years on, we can recapture neither the giddy relief nor the raw sorrow. We have a different perspective, inevitably. We know so much that they didn’t, about what happened during the war, and what came after. Our commemoration must be honest and clear-sighted, not sentimental.
The hope that VE Day brought was not just the hope of being reunited with loved ones. It was the hope of lasting peace, the hope that with peace would come the chance to build a better, fairer society. That hope led to the European Community, to legislation to protect individuals and communities against prejudice and discrimination, to the UN and its role in establishing and protecting human rights worldwide. As imperfect as those protections are, they emerged directly from the victory we are commemorating tomorrow.
Here, it led to the creation of the welfare state and the NHS. If we really understand what VE Day meant, perhaps this anniversary will help us to see how a better, fairer society could emerge once we’re all able to emerge from our quarantine. Perhaps.
With respect and gratitude to all of those who fought and died to defeat Nazism, with deep sorrow to all of those engulfed by the barbarity, those who were murdered, those who survived, those who lost so much.
Let us commemorate, by all means. But most of all, let us learn. Because if we do not learn from this bitter victory, night might fall again.
Tonight, as we have done every Thursday night since this crisis began, we will open the bedroom window wide at 8.00 pm and lean out, clapping, and rattling a tambourine. Our neighbours come to their windows, or to the tops of their drives, some banging pots and pans or ringing bells. From the other side of the house we can hear the same sounds from across the valley. As we clap, we wave to each other, we remind ourselves and each other that we’re a community, that we need each other.
And every Friday morning I see grumpy posts on Twitter, pointing out that if we vote or ever have voted Tory, we’ve no business clapping for carers. Pointing out that those carers need PPE and testing and decent salaries more than they need our applause. Really? We had no idea! We thought that clapping would solve everything!
Of course I can see where this cynicism comes from. I’m not an automatic joiner-in. When I see Tory politicians who not so long back brayed their delight at having blocked a payrise for nurses, and who support an immigration policy that defines most of our carers as low-skilled workers who would not be eligible to come here under the points-based system, joining in the applause, I share that cynicism.
When I hear that we are enjoined to clap for Boris, or sing to congratulate him on the birth of his umpteenth child, I’m having no truck with that. Nor even to sing birthday greetings to the redoubtable Captain Tom. I am cross when the BBC News claims that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge ‘led’ the applause. Not my applause, they didn’t. I can be as grumpy as the next person, in other words.
This whole thing wasn’t started by politicians or royals. It was an idea mooted on social media, inspired by the video clips we were all seeing from Italy and elsewhere, of spontaneous rounds of applause for health workers, and displays of solidarity within communities. I wasn’t sure it would take off here – we are British, after all – but it has, and I’m glad.
Because if we want, not to go back to how things were, but to learn from this crisis, to learn who we really need, and how we can support those most valuable members of society, not just in times of crisis but at all times, we need to keep making a noise.
We’re making a noise about all of those people who are risking their lives, who are keeping us safe, who are taking care of us, because we want to ensure that when the crisis is past they don’t just disappear back into the shadows. We’re making a noise about carers because we want to ensure that when the crisis is past, their value is not forgotten.
I don’t even really care whether those who clap now have voted Tory in the past. I care that their values may be shifting, may have shifted, and that even Tories may think twice about disparaging or dismissing those who are our heroes now. I don’t care if they haven’t been angry in the past, as long as they understand a bit more of the anger now, as we see the impact of underfunding of the health service, inadequate staffing levels and failures of planning.
I care that now, as so many of our priorities and values have been overturned, we are sharing both the gratitude and the sense that those priorities and values were wrong before, and must change permanently.
Polly Toynbee’s response to the clap refuseniks chimes with my own:
So when next week’s clap for the NHS comes, join in out of gratitude but also out of anger – anger at how depleted the nursing workforce has become and how badly the successive Conservative governments have treated the profession.https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/24/year-nurse-tories-10-years-bad-care-nhs-crisis
I’m reminded too of how, when there have been major terrorist attacks, many attempts to assert solidarity with victims, to emphasise our shared humanity in the face of hatred have been derided as clichéd and simplistic.
As Stig Abell says:
At moments of crisis and trauma, the use of comprehensible and familiar phrasing is itself a sign of something important: it is a bid for connection. Cliché demonstrates community, our intention to understand one another. It does not matter that “standing in solidarity” has no practical import, or that prayers may be just so much shouting into a void. … Clichés are good things when pressed into the service of communication in the aftermath of the incomprehensible and the traumatic. They often reveal the good intentions we share, and they are more valuable than ever.https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/cliche-terror-attacks/
Kenan Malik makes some powerful points too, about the use of the word ‘hero’. If that normalises the deaths of NHS staff and other carers in some way, suggests that, like soldiers in wartime, they signed up to put their lives in danger, it’s dangerous. They didn’t. Pharmacists and health-care assistants and midwives and GPs, paramedics, nurses and consultants, signed up to help people, to save lives (directly or indirectly), but there was no reason they would have thought the job could kill them. Of course that makes it all the more remarkable that they’re doing what they’re doing, with or without the necessary level of PPE. When we applaud them we recognise that they weren’t given a choice (or only the choice between risking their life and walking away from patients in need of help).
Few of them would want to be described as heroes. Most would see themselves as ordinary people doing ordinary jobs in extraordinary circumstances. Many might suggest that most people in their place would do what they are doing. And they may be right in that. What they show is that heroism is a very human attribute. It is expressed not in having an incomparable character or possessing superhuman abilities but in being human to the utmost. Heroism in everyday life is, from this perspective, an expression of our humanness. It has become fashionable to denigrate humans as selfish or callous or egotistical. Many are. But many more are dedicated and compassionate and kind. Humans are far better than we often give ourselves credit for. In celebrating the endeavours of nurses and care workers and bus drivers and cleaners and volunteers, and the myriad others working to pull us through these surreal times, we should not forget that many are forced to be heroic, through a lack of resources or poor conditions.https://kenanmalik.com/2020/04/26/heroism-and-the-quality-of-being-human/
And, as Rachel Clarke@doctor_oxford, said on Twitter,
We’re not soldiers. We didn’t sign up to die for a cause. We don’t want red arrows, medals, jingoism or war rhetoric. We want masks, gloves, gowns & visors. Could you actually focus your minds on that, please?
We can agree, passionately, with that. But the Thursday night clapping is not an expensive PR stunt. It’s ordinary people – people who don’t have the resources or the clout to get carers what they need, to change government priorities or policies. We’re telling the carers – and it’s a broad definition, not just the ones who save lives in the ICU – that they are cared about, and the government that we care about them, and that we expect our government to translate that into the action that’s needed to keep them safe, so they can keep us safe.
We clap for all of these people (and those whose deaths have not yet been recorded). And we clap for our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues on the front line. We can’t stop now. And when this crisis is no longer a crisis, we mustn’t stop making a noise.
We’re all experiencing varying degrees of anxiety just now, depending upon our own age and health, or that of the people we love, the people on whom we rely, or who rely on us. We don’t know what’s going to happen, we’re bombarded with information from sources of unknown reliability, and drip-fed information from our government.
What we do know is that all of us are already affected, our lives have already changed. We’re taking precautions that would have seemed silly a couple of weeks ago, and the things we were talking about so intently a couple of weeks ago (Brexit, the football results, holiday plans) are no longer occupying our minds. We’re scared, we’re frustrated, we are in limbo, we are at a loss.
If we find ourselves spending more time at home, as a precaution or through illness, we’ll need more books. Never mind the bog rolls, load up your Kindle or your bookshelves, because whatever the crisis, books are vital. They keep open a window on to the world, they connect us with other places, other times, other people. They inform, challenge, console, inspire, and distract.
This reading list for plague times will focus on consolation, inspiration and distraction. Sifting through my bookshelves I realise how dark much of my reading matter is. Given current world events, and recent personal loss, I feel a hankering for books that can lift me out of the darkness. So I am sharing some of these with you, in case they can lift you too.
I’m not promising that some of these won’t make you cry, if you’re prone to it. I’m not promising that no one dies, or gets diagnosed with a serious illness. I am confident they will leave you feeling cheerier than when you began, or at least having had a break from the grim.
- Clive James – Unreliable Memoirs. When this first came out, I was working in a bookshop. During the lulls between customers, I started reading it, but had to stop because it made me laugh so much, so uncontrollably. NSFW, to be sure.
- Keith Richard – Life. I never expected to fall for Keith Richards. I read his autobiography because it had had such positive reviews, and obviously because of my interest in the music. But what surprised me is what an engaging writer he is. A lot of it is very funny indeed, and he writes beautifully, perceptively and passionately about music. About the people, particularly Brian Jones and Jagger, he can be harsh (as he often is about himself), but he’s often also generous and gracious. His attitudes to women may be relatively unreconstructed but he clearly likes them, rather than just wanting to have them. Reading about his wilder years, it’s pretty amazing that he’s still here, but I’m glad he hung around at least long enough to write this vivid account of an era and a career that one really couldn’t make up.
- Giles Smith – Lost in Music. John Peel said of this book that ‘if you have ever watched a band play or bought a pop record – if you even know someone who has bought one – you should read this book’.
- Patti Smith – Just Kids/M Train. I love Patti Smith as a musician, but I think even more as a writer. Just Kids, her memoir of life in ’70s New York, and her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, is warm, and funny, and touching, and a vivid portrait of the cultural life of the city. In her later memoir, M Train, she talks about life post-Mapplethorpe, life with her husband Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith (ex MC5), and of the losses that marked those years (not just Mapplethorpe, but brother Todd, and Fred). And, unexpectedly, of her obsession with Midsomer Murders. Her warmth and humour permeates every page.
Reading the Detectives
OK, by definition, crime fiction deals in death, often rather nasty death. But in these, what stays with you after reading is not the cruelty or the gore, but the characters, the wit, the dialogue, the humour.
- Ben Aaronovich – the brilliant and bonkers Rivers of London series. They’re a mad mash-up of fantasy and crime and are a delight.
- Dorothy L Sayers (and the Jill Paton Walsh posthumous titles) – Peter Wimsey series. I can re-read the Wimseys any number of times, because the writing, and esp. the dialogue is so glorious. Paton Walsh’s follow-up novels are pitch perfect, so if you want to renew your acquaintance with Peter, Harriet, Bunter and the Dowager Duchess, you’re in luck.
- Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes. More great writing and dry humour, so even when you know from the start how it’s all going to pan out, you can enjoy the ride.
- Elly Griffiths – Ruth Galloway series. Lots of Gothic darkness in the plots but Ruth is drawn with such warmth and humour that we feel we know her as a personal friend and would happily spend a few hours down the pub with her when this crisis is over.
- Lynne Shepherd – Murder at Mansfield Park. Lynne specialises in literary mysteries. They’re pretty dark, but this one is a deliciously subversive take on the Austen.
- Alexander McCall Smith – No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Love the setting, love the premise, love Mma Precious Ramotswe.
The further back the better, frankly. One can lose oneself amongst the Plantaganets or the Tudors – not that there are no echoes of our own times (the occasional plague, for example…) but they’re not overwhelming. I haven’t listed the obvious title, the new Hilary Mantel, which is brilliant (I’m halfway through) because you all know about it anyway and are either reading it or about to read it.
- Livi Michael – Wars of the Roses trilogy. Michael tells the story through a number of different voices, of major players and very minor players, mentioned but unnamed in the chronicles. And she threads the accounts in the actual chronicles through her fictional narrative, so we read of the events in the words of writers who lived at that time, and then she takes us into the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists so that they live and breathe for us. I would also highly recommend her earlier adult novels, and her children’s series about Frank the intrepid hamster…
- Rosemary Hawley Jarman – We Speak no Treason. This was a swooningly romantic take on the story of Richard III which I adored as a teenager, but it stands up to a re-read by a more cynical adult. Skillfully as well as passionately written. A cut above the Jean Plaidys (which I devoured at the time, but suspect would find less sustaining now).
- Anya Seton – Katherine. As above. I read lots of others by her but this was my favourite. I also loved Dragonwyck (pure Gothickry), and for a couple of slices of US history, The Winthrop Woman and My Theodosia.
- Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo rocks. It’s set on a fictionalised version of the residential recording facility at Rockfield Farm, Murray’s childhood home, itself the locus of much rock music mythology. It’s gloriously funny, but has plenty of heart, and the music is part of every line of the text – I could hear the soundtrack in my head, even the music that was imagined and not real. And I often think of protagonist Halo’s night-time prayer, a litany of rock stars gone forever…
- Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Well, reading anything by Atkinson is a joy. Life after Life is one of my favourite books ever but I find it emotionally overwhelming so it’s not a recommendation for now (especially since it has a lot about the 1918/19 Spanish flu pandemic…) This, her debut, is delicious black comedy.
- Anne Tyler – Saint Maybe. Oh, look, just read anything by Anne Tyler. This was my introduction to her work, but I could just as easily suggest Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist...
- Patrick Gale – Take Nothing with You/Notes on an Exhibition. The most recent Gale, and the first thing I read by him. They don’t shy away from tragedy but the warmth and generosity of the writing always leaves one with a sense of joy and hope. Take Nothing with You talks about music so vividly that somehow I felt I could hear every note as I read.
- Roddy Doyle – Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments, The Van, The Snapper). Also, check out his Two Pints (and its sequel, Two More Pints). All of the entries appeared on Facebook before being gathered together in a book. Doyle ‘used the social network as a home for a series of conversations between two middle-aged men, perched at a bar, analysing the news of the day and attempting to make sense of it.’ Wickedly funny, very rude and sweary, and surreal (check out young Damien’s scientific researches…).
There’s a particular comfort to be found in re-reading. You can look forward to favourite bits, brace yourself in advance for the bit that always makes you cry. You don’t have to worry about the plot, because you already know how it all turns out, so you can just savour the pleasures of the writing, the characters, the descriptions, the dialogue. In this category I would put my favourites of the great nineteenth-century novelists: Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, the Brontes. A lot of people rate Trollope but I could never quite take to him. And Hardy is a bit bleak for these times.
From the early part of the twentieth century, I’d go for:
- Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle, in which we meet Cassandra Mortmain (sitting in the kitchen sink) at the age of 17 (‘looks younger, feels older’) – a marvellous mixture of naivety and wisdom. Far older than me when I read it first, so I grew up with her, catching up and then overtaking her (I’m now old enough to be her nan).
- Arnold Bennett – Clayhanger series. A recent discovery (is it a trilogy or a quartet?) I’ve read the first two in either event, and Hilda Lessways is a fantastic character, she blazes off the page.
- John Galsworthy – Forsyte Saga. Family sagas are grand for times when the future is so imponderable, giving one a reassuring sense of continuity. I watched the original dramatisation in the late 60s, with Susan Hampshire & Eric Porter, the one that caused a bit of a kerfuffle because churches found their pews a bit under-occupied on Sunday nights, due to a clash with the BBC1 repeat showing, and some even changed the time of Evensong so their parishioners would not have to face this dilemma. Try telling your kids about the days when most tellies couldn’t get BBC2 and if you missed a programme it stayed missed…
- Daphne du Maurier – impossible to pick just one. But if some are over-familiar, browse through her back catalogue, and try The Glassblowers, The House on the Strand, The Parasites – all much less well known but thoroughly good reads.
- Revisiting one’s childhood reading is often another source of consolation (depending, I suppose, on one’s childhood). I wrote quite a bit about the most significant books of a childhood spent with my head in books in an earlier blog.
Of course, some may interpret ‘books for the plague times’ entirely differently, and I could easily construct an alternative list composed of books about plagues, and other varieties of apocalypse. However, just now there’s quite enough scary in the rolling Coronavirus updates that I don’t need any more. Books to console, inspire and distract, that’s my prescription.
You’ll have your own. And other people have been sharing their lists on social media, which is wonderful. Writer Lissa Evans (@LissaKEvans) has compiled hers (there’s a degree of overlap but lots of titles that are new to me and so lots of riches to explore:
These lists are as individual as their compilers. What brings me joy might leave you cold, and vice versa. But I love sharing the books I love. And if you’re reminded to track down something you read ages ago, or encouraged to read an author you haven’t tried before, I’ll be very happy.
Stay connected. Hang on to your hat, hang on to your hope. Be safe, be well, be kind.