It is a natural inclination to look at history for clues and answers to the current circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. Though I am not a subscriber to the notion behind the French idiom: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, neither do I believe that the past is another country. What I’d suggest our situation requires is a synthesis of the fundamentals that these two aphorisms represent. Over the last days, a couple of articles in The Times stood out for me not only as well-argued contributions to the raging debates, but also because their starting points derived from the above opposing poles. Daniel Finkelstein’s article has as its starting point the smallpox epidemic that played a part in Cortes’s conquest of Mexico, whereas Ben Macintyre’s is entirely future-focused. (See below for reprints)
I have now posted five times on The Pandemic
1. Coronavirus (5/3) suggested that an over-strong response could be counter-intuitive to longer term outcomes.
2. 31st December 2020 (15/3) hoped that the world would adopt positive post-Pandemic changes
3. Hearts & Minds (28/3) tried to pick a path between idealism & pragmatism
4. Post Pandemic Probabilities (8/4) looked at how the public mood would affect post-Pandemic government policies
5. A Grim Calculus (13/4) pointed to the potential existential choices facing many of us.
In all of these, I have segued between the clues afforded us by history and potential future paradigm shifts. In my first post I mentioned that I was reading The Plague (Camus), which still lies half-read on the coffee table next to me. I do intend to finish it, but I found the sense of being trapped within the cordon-sanitaire of the plague-stricken town too unbearable. I think I got the messages – the grim toll of death, the absurdity of administrative response, the powerlessness of the individual and so on – but by the point, at which I put the book aside, I had had enough. I don’t know about you, but during this period I’m doing the same with the news; I am reading the headlines but avoiding the substance of much of it.
My current book club choice Magnus (John Mackay Brown) proved to be a more enjoyable, and possibly pertinent, read. I highly recommend it and – just in case you follow my suggestion – I won’t go too far into it, so as not to be a spoiler. However, I will reveal – assuming that you haven’t read it already – that the author wrote the novel at a time of his adoption of the Roman Catholic faith and that the story is framed by the times (9th century) when Norway dominated much of the North of The British Isles. From this very brief description, if you surmise that the novel’s pulse beats to the universality of the human condition and the release afforded to it by spirituality, you wouldn’t be far wrong! I commend it to you as great Covid-reading for the calm beauty of its prose and the light it illuminates, despite the brutality of the times of which it is written.
Another book I have thoroughly enjoyed is May 1940: Five Days in London from John Lukacs. This academic, but eminently readable, study covers the discussions and considerations of Churchill’s War Cabinet from May 24 to May 28; the days surrounding the Dunkirk evacuation, which ultimately determined the course of WW2. The book was a recommendation made a few months ago by a member of a discussion group that I attend, (now remotely). Given my ongoing interest in International Relations, my university major, the book and its historical context appealed to me in itself. However, especially during the current crisis, it is a fascinating close account of how personalities, disposition & egos are as much a factor in top-level government decision-making takes place as are the ‘facts’ themselves. In fact, (sic!), in a previously unknown and developing situation, it is pertinent to question what are ‘facts; and when do they become such? The book suggests to me that facts are what individuals make them out to be and that facts become facts often by dint of individual positions held and persuasion. One of the critical factors in the decisions taken, in those fateful times, was Churchill’s refusal to countenance surrender on the back of his unbreakable conviction that the UK could not be conquered, due to his belief in the ‘fact’ of Britain’s superior air power. Fast forward to 2020 and the question of which convictions are being held by our currentpolitical leaders in their present decision-making on our behalf? We can only guess, but a future forensic study will be most interesting. (Inshallah, that we all have the opportunity to read it!). Another interesting element of May 1940 is its tracking of public opinion by dint of nuances contained not just within the newspapers of those time but from ongoing public opinion research exercise, started by 2 academics in 1937 called Mass Observation, who “recruited a nationwide panel of observers to participate in a study of everyday life”. In May 1940 they began sharing their findings with the Ministry of Information; such information as:
“Deeply concerned people are keeping up a good deal of optimism today, though all observers agree in finding that face and tone often belie the words…”
“People haven’t begun to consider that we might be actually beaten. It just hasn’t occurred to them that we can be beaten. The old complacency has been shaken but it persists, If suddenly shattered, there will be a morale explosion.”
Lukacs, also delves into the diaries of Churchill’s political colleagues & adversaries and comes to the conclusion that Churchill was widely regarded as a political opportunist:
“Churchill was widely believed to be not really a gentleman at all. On the contrary, he was often described as a highly gifted, but undeniable ‘cad’ …For most of his career, there hung around him an unsavoury air of disreputability and unseemliness.”
So, at our Darkest Hour, it could be said that we were a country in a state of psychological self-denial, with a bluffing bounder at the political helm. Hmmm.
Recourse to the past will only get you so far and one has to factor in how much we have learnt and changed over time; or have not. Nevertheless, to take a beat from ‘The Bounder’ – who went on to become, for many, this country’s Greatest Statesman – I suggest that at this stage of the Pandemic-proceedings:
Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.