Yes, it’s grim. And the British way with contagion has barely changed since 1665 | Marina Hyde

From ye olde panicke buying to quack cures, conspiracy theories and imbeciles with public platforms, the plague had it all

Having had a temperature and a dry cough for some days now – don’t worry, I’m not going to write That Column – I’ve been doing the reading equivalent of shopping in my closet. And, ever a sucker for a theme, this has turned out to be that rare occasion where I’ve ended up going: “Ooh, I must have some more Fruit & Nut and get Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year down off the shelves”. Forgive me; that was unclear. Fruit & Nut is a hugely frequent occurrence; a need for historical accounts of mass distemper less so.

Obviously I’m slightly put out to discover that what follows might not be the first review of the work. I understand Defoe’s fascinating account of the 1665-66 London plague season received very favourable notices when it came out (the year 1722). I myself found it a brilliant curiosity of a book when I read it first time round (the year 1995). But from the particular vantage point of the year 2020, I can only say: guys, it really is all there. Ye olde panicke buying, ye olde refusal to self-isolate – “they did not take the least care or make any scruple of infecting others” – ye olde wittering and twittering of conspiracy theories. “The error of the times,” as Defoe optimistically judges them.

Nor were our plague-plagued 17th-century forebears short of famous imbeciles with a public platform. Defoe’s narrator marvels at the pitiable foolishness of one noted idiot who spent his time going about the city spouting deranged pronouncements and doomy surmise, the occupation of breakfast television presenter not existing at the time. Nor, indeed, the occupation of former leader of the Brexit party.

There are suddenly familiar tales of the rich taking flight (in the 1665 version, to the countryside, as opposed to the sort of bunker complex where one might have to know Mark Zuckerberg socially). The narrator voices huge admiration for the poorest workers and those on the frontline of fighting the pestilence, who “went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage”. I thought of this when Jenny Vaughan of the Doctor’s Association told Thursday’s Channel 4 News: “We will lose our colleagues – we will be burying our colleagues.”.

Others in 1665 London behave absolutely appallingly, of course – worse even than you might see in the 2020 supermarket bog roll aisle. Then again, it’s still early days for us.

Speaking of shopping, it’s striking how 350 years of retail innovation don’t amount to a hill of beans. Like many of my friends right now, Defoe’s narrator is sufficiently disorganised to have very little stuff in, when the plague gets serious. “I was one of those thoughtless ones …” Thereafter, his stockpiling necessities are flour, malt to brew “as much beer as all the casks I had would hold”, salted butter and Cheshire cheese (the components of a much more agreeable supper than pasta, surely). Most ominous is his realisation that regular panic-buying sorties were likely the occasions on which many people ended up catching the distemper.

So everything changes, and nothing changes. Almost 50 years after the plague, Defoe comes to write the book in what he regards as a media explosion. Newspapers and periodicals and pamphlets were now everywhere, meaning that reports, accurate or otherwise, “spread instantly over the whole nation”. This is the only thing on which we might pull rank on Defoe, with a friendly “Dude: it gets SO much worse. Wait till they get school parents WhatsApp groups, and uncles on Facebook.”

And yet, it’s surely the 1722-ers who should be pulling rank on us. After all, you’d hope that in three and a half centuries of supposed progress, we might just have moved beyond virally disseminated quack cures and “hearing that the virus is a bioweapon invented by the US / China???” But we haven’t, presidents and politburo officials included. We remain, as Defoe put it, “addicted to prophecies and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives tales”.

Most resonantly for the contemporary UK, perhaps, the infectious disease Defoe is writing about comes to an already divided nation – barely five years after the Restoration, not a whole lot more after the civil war, and with ideological and religious arguments positively frothing. The narrator rather hopes it will end up uniting people. “Another plague year would reconcile all these differences,” he idealises. “A close conversing with death … would scum off the gall from our tempers, remove the animosities among us …”

Yup, well, SPOILERS: it doesn’t. “As the terror of the infection abated, those things all returned to their less desirable channel,” the narrator laments. “There did not cease the spirit of strife and contention, slander and reproach, which was really the great troubler of the nation’s peace before.” Likewise. Perhaps we’ll make a better fist of it.

For now, there is a distinct war-by-other-means to what we might euphemise as “the discourse” around coronavirus, on social media and beyond. People have been very used to entrenching on leave and remain lines; now we seem to have almost reflexively self-split into Panickers and Deniers. These two categories don’t mirror their immediate forerunners, of course – you can be a hard remainer and a hard panicker, for instance, or a hard leaver and a hard panicker and so on. Some people who’d had enough of this lot having had enough of experts have now had enough of this lot deferring to experts.

Still, we polarise about everything else – why not this? Maybe there is something of the comfort of the familiar in fighting pitched online battles about whether Boris Johnson is or isn’t telling the truth about a matter. It’s all we’ve known for years. It’s just the stakes are suddenly rather higher.

Wishing the prime minister anything but the absolute best in his stewardship of this crisis is psychopathic. But it does feel a little late in the day for Johnson to set himself against whipped-up hysteria and dodgy fake news. In an era of rumour and superstition, Defoe laments that the government of 1665 didn’t do more to clamp down on popular falsehoods, putting this down to their “being unwilling to exasperate the people”. Our current government seems markedly more willing to exasperate the people, with its coronavirus response atypically cavalier compared with that of so many other countries. This … might be a good thing? Then again it … might be up there with the very worst things? After four years which have upended so many of the certainties, it’s rather difficult to get any bearings. But wherever we really are, and whoever Boris Johnson really is, we finally are all in this together.

• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist


Marina Hyde

The GuardianTramp

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