The third and final instalment exploring today’s coronavirus crisis and comparing it with the historical documentary fiction of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year.
“…the funerals became so many, that people could not toll the bell, mourn, or weep, or wear black for one another as they did before.”
Defoe, Journal of a Plague Year
“Everyone in lockdown should spend the time thinking about a fucking revolution!”
“Bring out your dead”
It could be a dark comedy scene in a horror film.
One day in 17th century London, during the plague, a piper passed out from drinking in the pubs around Cripplegate. He was laid out on top of a market stall to sleep it off. The people in the nearby alley heard the approaching bell of a cart making its rounds to collect the dead. They brought out a body and, thinking the Piper had died, laid it next to him for collection.
When the cart workers came across the piper and the dead person, they threw them onto the cart. They continued their work picking up more dead bodies and almost burying the piper alive, who continued to sleep soundly. It was only when the cart stopped next to the plague pit that the piper finally woke, struggled to push his head through the dead bodies and gave everyone around a terrible fright.
The rumbling cart. The mournful cry of “bring out your dead”. The red crosses on the door signifying death, a plague house of despair. The rainbows on our windows are of hope and gratitude, although in some parts of the world these are seen as a subversive attempt to make children gay.
But it’s the plague pits that are the thing. They’re still there, buried deep beneath the layers of London’s history. There used to be a myth that when they were building underground lines they curved round the pits to avoid disturbing them. I remember a patch of grass near my house, a green space, an oasis for the office workers sitting and eating their lunches in the sunshine. Few of them seemed aware they were sitting on top of a plague pit.
This is the horror of the plague. Bodies lying in houses were so ‘corrupted’ that it was difficult to take them away through alleys too narrow for carts. Babies discovered suckling the breasts of their dead mothers. A man watched his entire family being thrown into a plague pit like rubbish and collapsed in despair. The plague spread with irresistible fury, with such violence that the “people sat still looking at one another and see’d quite abandoned to despair.”
Our modern day horror is taking place out of sight, instead of plague pits it’s the care homes that are bearing the brunt. Our oldest people are horribly exposed in care homes while their war is appropriated and lionised by armchair donkeys* who have never been near one. For the Thursday evening clap for carers, the media loves the massed ranks of staff in scrubs, flashing blue lights, pipers, pleasant streets with front gardens, workers clapping on army bases and oilrigs. Occasionally they remember to include a care home.
Drifting through east Glasgow
The high rises and motorway interchange near the Infirmary are post-apocalyptic silence. We just need the lockdown professional classes to start trashing shopping centres and we’ll be in peak Ballard world.
Outside a homeless hostel, three men stand in statuesque silence. No social distancing here. They look puzzled, asking a question of how the city has become so sad and silent? Have they just emerged from a drinking binge or a coma, like Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later? The normally busy Gallowgate Road is silent in its answer. So are the furloughed pubs along the way. The Barras market empty and quiet. No dodgy goods have been shifted for a while now. A playground is taped up to prevent anyone using it.
In 17th century London, houses became tombs and streets became a necropolis. Whole streets were desolated and abandoned. Doors open, windows swinging in their breeze. Cycling around parts of east Glasgow doesn’t feel that different. To be honest, it doesn’t feel that different at the best of times. A beer can clatters in a gust of wind round an empty parking lot. An abandoned block of flats haunts the edge of a new flat development. The only sign of life is when someone twitches their curtain to monitor me. Human CCTV eyes behind the blinds.
Abandoned baths, wild patches of empty space. Celtic football stadium, also known as Paradise, has the forlorn melancholy of a seaside town in winter. It’s always like that when there’s no football match and no crowds. Considering that’s 98% of the time, it’s quite a lot for an area to bear.
Towards the end of lockdown? Revolution time
The days pass. The streets are starting to get busy again. Traffic is increasing. The posters for mutual aid groups hang on dusty café windows. The local bus stops have ‘brandalised’, their adverts replaced with posters bearing politically loaded questions. Imagine a new future they say. No going back they demand. Another world is possible, mutters the walls. Revolution, demands the stencilled marks on the pavement. And that was before Dominic Cummings.
Is something happening here? Are these the tentative signs of our redemption?
Dear reader, probably not. Humanity will stagger on as it always does, sometimes in the right direction.
*Apologies to donkeys, those noble and intelligent creatures unfairly dragged into a human slur.