We explore more similarities and differences between the coronavirus of 2020 and the plague of 17th century London. City lockdown, silence and noise in the streets, wild rumours and pandemic inequality.
A city in lockdown is an unnatural place. Its vitality is mothballed. Its spirit is shrouded with white dust sheets. Glasgow is silent. Not just is silent, feels silent. Of course it will be back but cities are strange places at the moment. Is there anything more bizarre or ironic these days than those hoardings advertising their shiny consumerist worlds? An empty bus lumbers to the point of expiry up the road, carrying an advert for a film that is no longer showing anywhere. Remember cinemas? The glazers have moved in and boarded up bars and restaurants. Remember bars? You presume the insurance brokers are demanding that. Are they anticipating social disorder?
The city centre is empty. A homeless man begs from a space once filled with bustling crowds. His company is a gathering of pigeons looking worried, asking where are the humans to drop their crumbs for their food?
Polite, socially distanced queues form outside the food shops. Masked figures stride by with purpose to get home. Traffic lights control empty roads. I cycle through streets enjoying the clean air and spring sunshine. It has the atmosphere of a somnolent dystopian reality. It’s an endless loop of New Year Days, the quietest of Sundays. You think everyone has gone until the weekly Thursday evening clap for the frontline. Then, for a few minutes, the streets are full of noise as everyone hangs out of their windows or comes to their doors to clap, bang a saucepan or play an instrument.
It’s a cruel thing this pandemic. Insidious and invisible as it potentially lurks on any surface. It strikes at the very core of who we are. It inflicts terrible solitude. It stops us gathering. It isolates us from we do. It prevents warmth and love at a time when it is craved. Intimacy is dangerous. You can’t embrace your friends. Our impulse to help can be dangerous to others. All the random wonders and annoyances of living in a city, they’re gone.
And yet for most of us, this crisis, so far, has been one of an impact on liberty and livelihood. There is a struggle, unseen by most of us, on hospital wards and in the homes of the stricken. This is not to be complacent about the potential damage to our lives, our jobs and our businesses or our mental health. But we are not enduring war or famine, or living in death zones or fearing obliteration from the skies, or facing the kind of collapse where society has stopped functioning and the only thing left to do is survive and the odds are not in your favour.
The streets: silence and noise
Nor are we experiencing the sheer visceral desolate horror of London’s plague streets in 1665. Today’s pandemic has emptied and silenced cities, we rarely hear the noises of today’s crisis. In 1665, London’s streets seem to be filled with the roars, cries and screams of those tormented by their delirium, fear, madness and pain. Defoe’s journal frequently recounts the noise from the streets, as if the very streets and alleyways reflected the suffering of their people.
Today we fear dry cough, fevers and the loss of taste. During the Great Plague, it was the tokens, or swellings on the body that were feared. The tokens “grew hard and would not break, grew so painful that it was equal to the most exquisite torture”. There were the sounds of “people in the rage of their distemper…raving and distracted…throwing themselves out at their windows, shooting themselves, mothers murthering their own children, in their lunacy, some dying of mere grief as a passion.” You could hear the roars as surgeons tried to cut or burn the swellings, the pain often driving their patients to madness and death. Driven mad by the mad, some broke out of their houses and threw themselves in the river.
There’s the rumbling of the death carts and the mournful cries of “bring out your dead”. A mother discovers tokens on her daughter’s body and, understandably loses her mind, screaming in the street. By the time she regains her senses, her daughter has already died so quick was she overcome by the distemper.
The journal narrates “the miserable lamentations of dying creatures, calling out for ministers to comfort them…calling out for God for pardon and mercy, and confessing aloud their sins.” There were the warnings of penitents not to put off their repentance.
One night, passing through Token House Yard (which still exists), a woman threw open a window, screamed and then cried out “Oh! Death, death, death” in a tone that chilled the bone of the narrator. The true horror of this incident was not her cries, or what they must mean, but the way that no other window opened, no-one replied, no-one was curious anymore, no-one could help anymore. The narrator walked on.
This is a society that has broken down. We rightly congratulate ourselves on the good of our society during the Cordvid-19, the neighbourhood mutual aid groups that have sprung-up, the solidarity, the claps. But we should not get too smug. Is that a sign that we’ve not truly been tested?
Still, the similarities down the centuries are striking. Shopkeepers in 17th century London traders washed coins in vinegar just like we use sanitiser and avoid coins by using contactless payments. There are the same debates as to whether lockdown, or shutting people in houses to die, is actually effective.
Then there are the urban myths and rumour mills. Someone on social media had it on undisputable authority that people were dying in the corridors of English hospitals and the news was not reporting it, which was clearly nonsense considering the mortality were small at the time. Defoe’s narrator talks about the unsubstantiated rumours of nurses and watchmen murdering their helpless, weak charges.
People using coronavirus coughing as a weapon of social assault, much like the 17th century tales of those delirious or malign with illness, walking round deliberately infecting people, wanting in their agony, to take the world down with them.
Pandemic and the poor
Both plagues affect the poor more. In the 17th century, servants are abandoned by their families to their fate, just like some of today’s companies with large cash reserves furlough their workers.
Defoe’s poor went about their work with a sort of “brutal courage” that was “founded neither on religion or prudence”. Some fled, but many remained as the horrors of the plague raged around them. Nurses, clergy, undertakers, sexton, market traders, butchers kept going. Maybe they had little choice. Maybe they didn’t know what else to do. Maybe they showed extraordinary courage just like our medical staff, some of whom are vulnerable to Corvid-19, going in without safety equipment to do a job that could kill them.
Our frontline includes not just medical staff but ranks of supermarket staff, cleaners, delivery workers – all keeping the show going, all more exposed. In 1665, the poor of London did not enough money to lay in provisions, they had no choice but to go to the market on a daily basis and often they brought home food and death.
If nothing else, pandemics expose our lies and delusions that we are all in this together, even if the UK Prime Minister does lie in hospital. An unseen virus is brutally exposing the faults of our society – its inequality, our complacencies and delusions, the consequences of our political decisions, what really matters when it all gets stripped down to basics.
But it’s also displaying what can be great about us – our solidarity, our sense of community, our creativity and innovation in the face of a crisis, our humour and our kindness.