I live a short walk from Folkestone Harbour station. One of the world’s earliest international rail hubs, it played a key role in World War One, when some 10 million troops and auxiliary personnel passed through the town on their way to the frontline. Now closed and restored as a public park, it serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices of many young people for whom this turned out to be the last glimpse of home.
Much has changed in the hundred years since then. And yet I suspect some of the rhetoric that has been knocking around these past few days would be familiar to the ‘Your Country Needs You’ generation.
As the restrictions on movement have tightened as part of the efforts to limit the spread of Covid-19, we have heard many stirring injunctions about pulling together. On Thursday, the Queen issued a message urging the country to ‘work as one’. Meanwhile, the daily government briefings are studded with rousing exhortations about everyone doing their bit to send the virus packing, couched in precisely the sort of jingoistic, old-fashioned vocabulary that evokes rose-tinted images of British steeliness during the Great War and, later, the Blitz.
Of course, there are parallels. For the first time in most people’s memory, we are united in confronting a threat that could cost us our lives and loved ones, and shred the fabric of our society. Today, everyone faces the prospect that many of the things we have come to take for granted may never be the same again. How we respond will define our era.
However, there is a danger in leaning too heavily on wartime rhetoric. For one thing, the stirring evocations of Blitz spirit are incomplete. We shouldn’t forget that while many demonstrated great courage and altruism during the wars, there were plenty of instances of callousness and selfishness (the plundering of the corpses of those killed in bombing raids, for example, was a known problem during the Blitz). You can only beguile people with two-dimensional representations for so long – sooner or later, they are liable to punch through the image and be outraged at the grubby complexity beyond.
In addition, such jingoistic references can legitimise some of the less noble aspects of wartime thinking. Already, I have seen and heard chilling comments about the need to stop considering individuals and to sacrifice the vulnerable in the interests of safeguarding the general population. ‘This will just clear away people who’ve had their time. You can’t look at it on a personal level. In the war, the government didn’t tell Coventry it was going to be bombed, did it?’ one writer reported having overheard a relative say.
Another problem with likening the Covid-19 pandemic to a world war is that it is not a perfect comparison. This is not a battle of ideologies, a struggle for political power or a fight against oppression. Our enemy is not a human force but a micro-organism.
What’s more – with the exception of medical staff and certain other key workers – the sacrifices that are being required of the general population are not active but passive. Instead of drafting us into new and dangerous callings, this crisis requires us to reduce what we do. To stay in. To lie low. To refrain from social contact. Active though the verbs carrying these instructions might be, there is little that can be done to disguise the fact that most of us are effectively being rendered redundant for the coming months.
Of course, there are things that people can do to use the time well. They can think of vulnerable neighbours. They can volunteer their services for online initiatives. They can read, blog(!), exercise, spend time with their families, and keep up with friends and colleagues (through one of the many of the video apps now experiencing a boom). They can learn new skills. They can even take part in a global art project to create a virtual coronaquilt.
For some, this time will be a welcome break from a punishing routine. For others, it may provide the impetus they need to make meaningful changes in their lives.
For many, however, the absence of occupation will weigh increasingly heavily as the weeks go by. I suspect it won’t be long before the rhetoric wears thin: dress it up how you like, there is very little heroic about killing time.
For a lot of people, the biggest challenge may turn out to be confronting not the virus but their own existence once a lot of the noise and busyness is stripped away. Perhaps the major war we will have to fight will turn out to be with ourselves.