My mother grew up with stories of her father’s experiences in the ‘Great War’ (what later became known as World War 1): he served in the British army in India. There’s a family photo of him with his regiment enjoying the Passover hospitality of the Sassoon family – the Sassoons built Bombay’s [now Mumbai's] cotton mills and made a fortune from the textile business, much of which they ploughed back into philanthropic endeavours in India and the Middle East.
My mother’s interest in her father’s wartime experience was mirrored in my own curiosity about her experience during the Second World War. ‘What was it like? Where were you evacuated to? Was there bombing near your home (there were shipyards nearby)? Was it frightening? What did you do for all those years?’
Born in 1953, I grew up with stories about ‘the War’ (unlike many Jewish families in the UK, we had no direct family links to Holocaust losses, though a very close friend of my mother had a number tattooed on her arm). And in Manchester, ‘the War’ was still very near at hand: bombsites weren’t cleared for many years, so the evidence was around and obvious even to me as a child when we went, by car or bus, from our home in the suburbs into the city centre.
I never really thought I would live through such a time myself – a time about which future generations will inquire, with distant curiosity or wide-eyed astonishment: ‘You mean you couldn’t go out of the house at all? What did you do all day? Where did you get food? What was Zoom? Did people you know die? Was it frightening?’
Here in the UK we are still, it seems, in the foothills. There’s a long slog ahead – many months, maybe a year. People still talk about ‘getting back to normal’ - and I can understand that talking like that may be a necessary narrative, a comforting fantasy. As if life will resume – at some time in the not too distant future – and we will pick up with life where we left off. It’s a narrative of hope, of wishfulness, that manages to skip over the lonely choking deaths, the mass graves, the funerals where nobody is allowed to be present except the rabbi, or the minister (and the camera). It’s a story without the civil unrest which may yet emerge, or society’s underlying toxic divisiveness. It’s a story of solidarity, of generosity, of the better angels of our nature; of community support, of collective belief that care and compassion and mutual support will triumph over selfishness and greed and fear.
And maybe it will. Maybe crisis will bring out the best in the human spirit. There are wonderful examples of it all around. But I’m not holding my breath – to use a phrase which has taken a darker turn in recent weeks – that this benign, uplifting spirit of support and co-operation will prevail as events turn more deadly.
Even in so-called ‘normal’ times, fear generates aggression in us. But when the fear we feel is fear of death – what happens then? Ten days ago, when ‘social distancing’ had first been advocated – and I prefer to describe this health practice as ‘social spacing’, because to survive this collective crisis we need an ethic of closeness not distance – I was in the supermarket and as I went to pay at the till I brushed momentarily against the arm of a man’s coat. I would have thought nothing of it – but he leapt back (literally, not metaphorically) several metres with a look of complete panic and horror on his face. As if he’d seen the devil. Which I guess he had, from his perspective.
In ages past, I thought to myself, was this how a leper was treated? Was this how ‘the Jew’ was seen? (That’s an archaic, atavistic thought). But I felt I was the bearer of something that threatened life itself. Or rather: I felt as if I was being experienced as someone who threatened life itself. And I have been wondering since then: was this just an aberration, someone perhaps already suffering from some kind of social phobia, or paranoia? Or was it a straw in the wind?
The next day, wandering with my wife on a beautifully sunny spring morning through a thinly-wooded open space in a country park, where the paths had disappeared and there was just a leafy covering on the ground, but plenty of room to wander wherever one wanted, a woman with dogs approached from behind a tree, saw us about 10 metres away and, pulling her scarf rapidly round her mouth, shouted angrily “Why can’t people keep a distance?”. Another straw in the wind?
Fear corrodes the soul. Fear is the acid in which solidarity dissolves. Fear grips our hearts and attacks our compassion and generosity of spirit.
Those of us alive today, of whatever age, have never experienced anything like this invisible, deadly ‘plague’. To orientate myself I find that I search for narratives of those who have lived through plague times in years gone by. Such descriptions are – and are not – useful. What can I learn, for example, from Daniel Defoe’s narrative of the plague that ravaged England in 1665? Written at the time but not published for nearly 40 years it takes us back, inevitably, to a world very far from our own – and yet disconcertingly familiar. Let me share a few paragraphs of it with you, and conclude this blog with some reflections on it:
Great were the confusions at that time…when people began to be convinced that the infection was received in this surprising manner from persons apparently well, they began to be exceeding shy and jealous of every one that came near them. Once, on a public day, whether a Sabbath-day or not I do not remember, in Aldgate Church, in a pew full of people, on a sudden one fancied she smelt an ill smell. Immediately she fancies the plague was in the pew, whispers her notion or suspicion to the next, then rises and goes out of the pew. It immediately took with the next, and so to them all; and every one of them, and of the two or three adjoining pews, got up and went out of the church, nobody knowing what it was offended them, or from whom.
This immediately filled everybody's mouths with one preparation or other…some perhaps as physicians directed, in order to prevent infection by the breath of others; insomuch that if we came to go into a church when it was anything full of people, there would be such a mixture of smells at the entrance that it was much more strong, though perhaps not so wholesome, than if you were going into an apothecary's or druggist's shop…
Yet I observed that after people were possessed, as I have said, with the belief, or rather assurance, of the infection being thus carried on by persons apparently in health, the churches and meeting-houses were much thinner of people than at other times before that they used to be. For this is to be said of the people of London, that during the whole time of the pestilence the churches or meetings were never wholly shut up, nor did the people decline coming out to the public worship of God, except only in some parishes when the violence of the distemper was more particularly in that parish at that time, and even then no longer than it continued to be so.
Indeed nothing was more strange than to see with what courage the people went to the public service of God, even at that time when they were afraid to stir out of their own houses upon any other occasion... This was a proof of the exceeding populousness of the city at the time of the infection, notwithstanding the great numbers that were gone into the country at the first alarm, and that fled out into the forests and woods when they were further terrified with the extraordinary increase of it. For when we came to see the crowds and throngs of people which appeared on the Sabbath-days at the churches, and especially in those parts of the town where the plague was abated, or where it was not yet come to its height, it was amazing…
[Full text is available at : https://www.gutenberg.org/files/376/376-h/376-h.htm]
There’s the self-imposed ‘social distancing’; the fear of contamination; the wish to “prevent infection by the breath of others”, even those who appeared healthy; the flight to the countryside by those who can. The most obvious difference though is in the need for religious folk to continue to meet with their co-religionists. Or is it so different? In the current crisis many synagogues and churches are continuing with technological solutions to the problems of self-isolation by streaming services and activities through a variety of platforms. Perhaps in these times now when real contact is impossible, mediated community contact becomes even more important for many.
(Questions about God, and prayer, I will leave for a future blog – in’shallah)
In decades to come – for the rest of the 21st century - we will be judged by how we responded to this crisis: will it lead to a re-evaluation of what really matters – interconnectedness of societies, peoples and nations; care of the marginal and vulnerable; preserving the quality of the air we breathe and the environment that all humanity shares; global economies focused on the highest standards of health care and education and justice – or will it lead to a descent into selfishness (personal and national) and the squandering of the greatest opportunity for transforming the fundamental values of civilisation that modernity has ever been presented with?
I hope you and your loved ones keep well in these perilous times.