My prize possession is an old grandfather clock which has been passed down through my family. It dates from about 1800. There are four little pictures on its face- Winter, Spring….. Waterloo and Trafalgar. (Summer and Autumn were overpainted in memory of those two great British victories.) So for 220 years it has tick tocked away on the kitchen wall of various Gray family farmhouses. Its been doing it for 80,300 days; it has struck the hour on 1,927,200 occasions. That’s a total of 12,526,800 individual ‘Bongs.’
It’s 50 years older than Big Ben; it’s lived through 8 monarchs; it’s seen off the Industrial Revolution, the two world wars, the Great Depression and so much more. Through all of that, morning, noon and night it just tick tocks away. Reliable, comforting, unchanging. Undramatic and unglamorous; workmanlike and practical.
The Queen’s inspiring and comforting broadcast had many of the same qualities. It symbolises ‘unchanging changelessness’ in the worlds of the Prayer Book. It was about concern for all; steadfastness; determination to see it through. Her own remarkable reign, and the way she reminisced about her first ever broadcast some 80 years ago was of itself hugely comforting. Together we will get through it.
People have been going through a very tough time in so many ways, and there is more to come. Physically it’s an appalling disease, as we witness watching Boris Johnson. (And no matter what your political views may be, I hope that you will join me in wishing him well. I am extremely glad he is now out of Intensive Care.) There are terrible economic hardships already, and more to come. Some people have been having a thoroughly miserable time cooped up in their flats and houses; intra family stresses and strains no doubt showing up from time to time. It’s been a pretty awful few weeks, and we are not out of it yet.
So the tough, determined optimism of the Queen’s broadcast (and after all she has seen some pretty terrible times in her 93 years, both personally and nationally) is just what we all needed. The old clock’s reliability over 220 years in all weathers, and no matter what was happening in the wider world may have a lesson for us all. We can get through all this. We will get through it. But we have to hold together, do what is right, and look forward to better times to come.
Easter is about that too. An appalling crime, a catastrophe, the inhumane wickedness of the Crucifixion on Good Friday, saw the murder of the Messiah. Or so Herod hoped and thought. But only two days later the joy of Easter Morning is that he rose from the dead, and proved the naysayers wrong. Easter is all about hope triumphing over despair, defeating wickedness.
And in modern terms the spring weather, the lambs frolicking, the first swallows returning, the green grass growing, the cows turned out for the first time; these are all signs of hope for the future.
So wherever you are, whatever you may be experiencing or facing, I wish you a very Happy Easter, and confidence of better times to come.
We will look back on these terrible days for the rest of our lives. We will recount tales of the privations, the sadness, the challenges and the warmth we experience during the great Plague of 2020, which the history books will record just as surely as that which afflicted the Israelis under Moses, the Black Death of 1348 and the Great Plague and Fire of London in 1666.
We will remember the terrifying speed with which the virus came from nowhere; the appalling deaths, especially in Spain, Italy and the United States, and perhaps to come here in the UK too. We will think of the agonising illness from which many of us will suffer; we will be grateful perhaps that that the four riders of the apocalypse passed our house by, and congratulate ourselves on our successful self-isolation. We will be critical of some things the Government have done, or not done; but overall we will conclude that they made a pretty good a fist of it under horrifically difficult circumstances. We will record our huge admiration and gratitude to those in the NHS and the care system who put the needs of others ahead of their own, some of them paying for their heroism with their lives. Perhaps above all we will remember the sense of community which has sprung up in the arid ground of self-interest. It is truly wonderful to see how many people are volunteering, helping out, looking out for each other. That is the best aspect of the British psyche, and we should rejoice in it.
The first couple of weeks of self-isolation has, I hope, not been too bad. The decent weather and the onset of Spring must have helped. (Imagine if this had been mid-October with the dark nights and miserable weather approaching.) We are fortunate in an area like this, many of us to have gardens, or access to open spaces; reasonable fresh air, and generally a decent living space. Just think what it must be like to have a family of small children shut inside a small flat in a tower block in some inner city. Their Dunkirk spirit must be wearing a bit thin already.
I hope that we are all finding useful and memorable things to do. Sort out the drawers and wardrobes we have been meaning to do for ages, perhaps do a bit of DIY. I am sure that The TV and its myriad channels, social media and the rest of it helps a great deal to keep us in touch. But I hope that people will also rediscover some long-forgotten board games; keep a diary of these momentous events, revive some ancient skill - piano paying or chess. Pick up the phone and ring as many friends and acquaintances as you can. It will be appreciated. There will be stresses and strains on families, but I hope that there will also be some great benefits of time allowing families to get together in a way they cannot usually do. There have been some great videos circulating of families putting together silly songs, for example. Let’s all eat together, round a table, enjoy each other’s company; but also keep out of each other’s hair as much as we can.
I have been working hard from home with a vast number of emails and phone calls, trying my best together with my great team also working remotely, to help as many constituents as I possibly can. I have also been finishing off a collection of these Columns (heavily edited I hasten to add), stretching back over 25 years, which my publisher tells me he will publish in time for the Christmas market if I can find 350 buyers up front. So if you think it’s a good idea (£15, dedication signature free of charge), perhaps you would just let me know informally, so that I can give the publisher some idea of the market!
Here in Wiltshire, it’s all going as well as can be expected, with relatively few cases and a handful of sad deaths. I know that it may well get worse before it gets better. So we must keep our spirits up; keep busy; and generally brace ourselves for what may be to come.
One thing we Brits are rather good at is volunteering at a time of crisis. We normally stare at the floor in the Underground; but the moment that something goes wrong, we magically start speaking to each other and working together for the common good. That was demonstrated in spades in the Second World War, and now is another time just like it.
All the reports indicate that we are facing some very tough times indeed (although let’s hope that its less bad in the event.) Very large numbers of seriously sick people, sadly a significant number of deaths. It’s said that the over 70s are going to have to stay at home for a long period of time; even that sooner or later the whole Nation may be ‘shut down.’
Now, if even part of all of that is true, there are going to be all sorts of personal crises at a family, local and community level. People are going to need help with shopping; they may need help with transport to and from hospital; they may just need a little chat down the phone to stop them getting lonely. People on their own, especially old people may well need all sorts of help and support. And, without increasing risks in any way, its you and I who can help.
This is going to be a National crisis. The authorities will do what they can; but there is only so much they can do. And ordinary people in their everyday lives can volunteer to fill some of those gaps. So how do we go about it?
Well there are well established organisations who are gearing up. The St John Ambulance, or Order of St John as it is more properly known, are in the lead. They are mainly working with the NHS. They have 10,000 medically trained volunteers and a very large number of untrained. I have been in touch with them at a senior level to see how I can help and know that they would always want to hear of either problems; or of volunteers.
Then the Red Cross are actively recruiting Community Reserve Volunteers. Whereas the Order of St John are in the lead on the medical side, the Red Cross are in the lead on the social care side of things. You can easily sign up at https://reserves.redcross.org.uk. (Philippa and I have both signed up, dodgy hip permitting.) I know that Wiltshire Council are doing what they can to coordinate volunteer efforts locally; and organisations like the Scouts and Guides; the Reserve Army and others will all be chipping in where they are needed.
But more than any of that: if the 10,000 or so people who get this email on a weekly basis were to jot down the names and numbers of six or ten friends and relatives who may need some help, and then systematically sit down and ring them- that alone would mean up to 100,000 people contacted and helped. Those of us who can do so must do so. Your Country, but more importantly your friends and family and local community NEED YOU.
Whose heart would not swell with pride at the 450,000 people who have volunteered their time, their energy and to a degree their safety, by signing up to become NHS volunteers. There is just something very British about it. We are not going to be cowed by this monster. We will all do our little bit- whether driving medicines for patients, phoning up the lonely or vulnerable, or helping in a thousand little ways- we will beat this great black vulture-like vampire which is hovering over us. Philippa and I have signed up, although I think she will be of more use than me. Having seen our great NHS at first hand last week, when I must have been one of the very last to squeak in with an ‘elective’ hip operation in Bath, I have seen first-hand what a superb Health Service we have. What dedication our NHS people have; what skills, what scientific and medical knowledge; and what superb medicines and equipment. The NHS is the finest healthcare system in the World, and we will not allow it to be overwhelmed in the way which is threatened in the next week or two.
I am recuperating (and not doing my exercises as well as I ought), and who would not recognise the attractions of a Cotswold farmhouse in the Spring sunshine as a great place to self-isolate over the Easter Recess? But we won’t be lounging around. I was on my feet (sort of) the morning after the operation. I have a fully operational office next door to my house, from where I am flat out dealing with Coronavirus-related issues and problems. If a bloke with a dodgy but recently mended hip is any use to the NHS volunteers, then I hope they will make maximum use of us.
Coronavirus is producing a range of symptomatic human reactions, ranging from those who think ‘it’s all a load of tosh’, through the conspiracy theorists who ascribe it to aggressive national attack from China, to the engineers who rejoice in proposing a range of initiatives and solutions, very few of which are workable; to those who demand extreme and calamitous action from the authorities. (‘Any group larger than two caught sunbathing will get a mandatory 20 years hard labour’ - you know the kind of thing I mean) There are those -rightly- very concerned about our front-line staff, about Protective Equipment; there are the outraged, the miserable, the Dunkirk spirited. But the only ones who really count are those ready to volunteer, who put their own well-being aside in favour of caring for the old or infirm.
All of those reactions will be amplified and exaggerated over the next three weeks or so as the virus moves to its fatal crisis point, and as all sorts of people forced into close proximity with one another come to realise how hard it all is. Children will be finding it all quite amusing this week- in a few weeks’ time, they will be going ‘stir crazy’; their parents will be tearing their hair out. People are quite rightly terrified about the economic consequences for them and their families; we are all facing an unknown future with a mix of trepidation, resignation, perturbation and irritation. And that will only get worse.
We will start to hear from the catastrophic gloomsayers, those predicting cataclysm, Armageddon and the end of the World. The moment that we do start to hear from them is precisely the moment at which things will turn for the better. We have been here before. The Black Death in 1348 caused at least 50% mortality, and led to widespread poverty, starvation and civic unrest culminating in the Peasants Revolt of 1381.The Wars of the Roses, decline of the aristocracy and feudal England, followed. But then so did Reformation and Renaissance and the beginnings of modern times. And all of that came from the flea on the back of the black rat which came ashore in Folkestone in June 1348. “Ring a Ring of Roses, a pocket full of posies. Atishoo, atishoo; we all fall down,” is the gloomy Nursery rhyme which commemorates it. (Roses and posies refer to the buboes and rashes which were symptoms of Bubonic Plague.)
There were plenty of Millennials throughout that time predicting universal death and destruction. They will appear over the next few weeks too. Yet I am much encouraged by Mother Julian of Norwich, writing from that plague infested City: “God did not say ‘You will not be troubled; You will not be laboured; You will not be disquieted; But God said ‘You will not be overcome.’” Perhaps we should bear that in mind as we face what will without doubt be a very vexing few weeks to come- both personally and nationally. We will get through it. We must do what the Government tells us; we must self-isolate, hunker down, keep steady. We must volunteer. Do our own little bit.
Probably the most obscure figure from the Peasants Revolt in 1381 was an innkeeper in Melford Green in Suffolk, where John Wraw, the rebel, stopped off for a ‘pipe of red wine’ for which he was charged 7 marks, 3 shillings and four pence. The Innkeeper was called Enewene the Taverner, presumably because of his diminutive size. Seven centuries later we remember him just because he served a pipe of red wine to some passing revolutionaries.
The world will not end; but there may well be great changes to come, some of them (Renaissance and Reformation) perhaps greatly for the good of the world. We just need to remember three people: the flea who started it all off; Enewene the Taverner, whose name is with us 700 years later for some small bit part in history (the little things we may do and say over the next few weeks may be with us for a very long time).
But above all, remember Mother Julian of Norwich: “You will not be overcome.”
There can be no doubt about the seriousness of the crisis facing us all - across the Globe. Hundreds of thousands of us, quite possibly millions will catch the disease and it will have a greater or lesser effect on us. For many it will be not much worse than a spot of ‘flu; for others - especially the elderly and vulnerable, it may well be a great deal more serious than that. It has already had a huge effect on our way of life: on international travel; on the Stock Exchange and money markets. Its worldwide effects are already similar to great events of recent years - 9/11; 7/7; Iraq; Afghanistan; the banking collapse; the death of Princess Diana. These are all huge milestones in world history, as will be COVID-19.
I remain, however, of the view that either of two currently popular reactions (both of which are well represented in my postbag) are misplaced. To those who ‘pooh pooh’ it as “a bit of a cold”, I would just say that you are demonstrably wrong. This thing is deadly serious. Yet to those who advocate panic reactions of all kinds, I would urge caution. An over-reaction now could well make it all worse rather than better. Unless you seriously are proposing that we should all go back to our homes and sit there for three or four months doing nothing at all, which would be unsustainable, and boring in equal measure, then we need to find a route by which some kind of normal life continues, yet with suitable precautions in place.
The course of the epidemic here is about 4 weeks behind that of Italy. All of the predictions seem to be of a peak in April or perhaps May. If we were therefore to ban travel, close offices and schools, close Britain down in the way they did in China and now Italy, we would be doing so too soon. The virus would still take its course, but we would have run out of mechanisms to try to contain it. Do we really want our children at home for 3 months? Do we really want to cancel exams, close businesses, ruin lives, when such extreme action would be to go against the careful advice of the scientific and medical experts?
So it seems to me that the Government has got the balance just right in their response. They have attempted to make the public aware of the health risks, without causing mass panic. Common sense advice about personal hygiene, and about self-isolation if you have symptoms, seem to me to be pragmatic good sense. The key to our behaviour should not be ‘How do I avoid getting it?’; but ‘Imagining that I may now have it, what do I do to avoid passing it on to other people, including my own friends and family?’
All of this will change as the course of the epidemic develops. It may well be that in April or May closing schools, universities, sports matches, public gatherings of all kinds may be advised by the health and scientific professionals. They are assessing their response on a daily basis and will take the necessary action at the appropriate time.
Keep Calm and Carry On was good advice in the Blitz. It’s a very British way of doing things, but it just may be appropriate now.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.