As a self-confessed history geek, I have to admit that this blog prompt felt like a lightbulb moment for me. I loved history at school, and fondly remember the themes of ‘change’ and ‘continuity being imprinted on my mind as they arose time and time again.
There is no doubt that the period we fnd ourselves in has seen unprecedented change. We are constantly reminded in the media that this has never happened before. We are making history here, something that would be monumentally exciting and alive were it not for the inherent grimness of this situation. But, despite the death and devastation around us, we continue to live each locked-down day as well as we can and create moments that will be passed far down the generations. Yes, the Great Coronavirus Shutdown will be remembered for change unlike any other.
I’ve been reading (no surprises there) and indulging my love of history simultaneously. Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson is a heavy, slightly intimidating tome full of factual accounts of women’s lives and the change they encountered in the Second World War. I was drawn to it immediately: one of my favourite debates at A-level (and I’m sure it came up not only in History but in Sociology too) was how far the role of women changed during and as a result of the war. Equally, I am passionate about social history, the living and breathing stories of real lives and lived experiences.
It dawned on me in reading the prelude of this book that history really does have a habit of repeating itself. I don’t mean in the way that wars keep happening for more or less the same reasons, though they do, or that school shootings keep happening because the same decisions fail to be made, though they do too. The young women of this book’s prelude were all on the edge of something in 1939, be that adulthood, a career, or the time to grace society for a few seasons as a debutante before settling down to married adult life (thank goodness I managed to escape that particular slot in history!) I couldn’t help seeing similarities between myself and these women; at the outbreak of coronavirus I was on the edge of adulthood too, newly moved out of my parents’ home and taking tentative steps further into my career.
[Bear with me. I am not about to be so short-sighted and egotistical as to directly compare my experiences of lockdown to the immense sacrifices of the brave women of war.]
I oftetn feel as though coronavirus has stolen something from me, and I know from chatting with friends that I am not alone in this. We have lost time in education, in careers, in gap years. I complain regularly that I have lost precious moments with my first class, that I have missed out on so many ‘firsts’ and even the everyday mundanities that come with teaching Year One. A tongue poking from the corner of a mouth held rigid in concentration. An offer from one child to another to tie a shoelace. A quiet smile of pride for joining in a class game for the first time, and an absolute beam from the same child, the first time she won.
I wonder if the debutantes of the 1930s were bitter towards the outbreak of war for obstructing their chance of being introduced to ‘the one’? Did newly-qualified typists express frustration that their new independence had been interrupted to work for the war effort? By the time I finish the book, I hope I will know – but the wannabe novellist and regular imaginer in me want to believe that maybe there aren’t so many differences between these two very different wars, after all.
Both wars involve an invisible enemy. If fascism had been a physical being to capture an exterminate then perhaps the whole war could have ended much sooner and spared many lives. Likewise, if we could see coronavirus lurking on our hands, on our clothes, on out shopping trolleys, then maybe this would feel more like a battle we could win.
In both cases too, serious preparation came a little too late. Behind-the-scenes prep for World War 2 began in 1938, though the concrete evidence of this was largely scrapped when Chamberlain waved his Munich Agreement and declared “Peace for our time.” Ill-respected civilian drills and information were rolled out in early 1939, but people weren’t interested in role-plays of air raids because they simply could not imagine a world where the war would come to Britain. The conflict, if it came, would happen somewhere else, that was what always happened in war.
Fast-forward eighty years, and there were rumblings in the newspapers of a new virus in Wuhan that could be as deadly as SARS. It began to spread, but in January we couldn’t have imagined that Covid-19 would become a problem here. Our experiences of ‘pandemic’, that foul-tasting, unfamiliar word, drew on Ebola, Zika Virus and Swine Flu. Though serious, these had never caused a disruption to British life. Just as it was unthinkable to have an air raid on Coventry in the late 1930s, we never would have thought that coronavirus could escalate until upwards of seventy countries would be in some form of national lockdown.
I think most of us were guilty of thinking that coronavirus was far away. It was somebody else’s problem. Until, it wasn’t far away, and it was very much our problem.
Though even when it was here, it took over a month to reach lockdown. First came weeks of teaching my class to wash their hands properly, and reminding them that they should do it more often than usual, to stop the spread of coughs and colds. Then came the ‘unprecedented’ step by the government to tell us all in school exactly how often this hand washing should take place. ‘Unprecendented’ guidelines on self-isolation soon followed. By the time the goverment took the ‘unprecedented’ step to close all schools with near-immediate effect, unprecedented didn’t mean much anymore. Everything was new and unimaginable – the damage was done and the virus was everywhere. And then it came: lockdown. Much like Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement in 1939: it was the ‘unprecedented’ solution to the problem of fascism, until it turned out to only be the tip of the iceberg.
People might not have wanted air-raid drills in the 1930s – I would hazard a guess that teachers of the time had something to say, much like we all did about washing hands upwards of eight times a day! But there highlights a huge difference, an enormous change. Air raid drills show us that there was an expectation on some level that the war would come to Britain. Until it turned our lives upside-down we still scarcely believed that Covid-19 could be a problem. Not for us. Not here.
Change is inevitable, we know that. But we also know that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so maybe we should think about the kind of change we want/need to effect.
It can’t be overdramatic to compare coronavirus to a warfare situation, when the French president did it first. That said, I don’t mean to scaremonger nor be flippant about the atrocities of the Second World War. If I have come across as doing either, I sincerely apologise.
On a lighter note, the people of the 1930s were also prone to a spot of stockpiling… One woman recalls being sent by her mother to buy copious amounts of ‘kirby grips and elastic for knickers’ (Credit to Virginia Nicholson, 2011, Millions Like Us.) This makes toilet paper hoarding look almost sensible!