Don’t mention the war

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.

© Kit Ballantyne

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.

Socially distanced children

Child walking alone © JosephB on flickr.com

And so it begins: schools closed; theatres and concert halls dark; pubs, bars, restaurants, cafes, gyms and leisure centres shut until further notice.

As a parent, my thoughts turn to how all this is going to affect children. I’m lucky: my daughter is still very young and relatively easily amused. Even so, I’m sure that weeks without much contact with other people will have an impact on her and take a toll on her development.

For older children, the challenge could be even greater. Much has been said about the effect that the closures and exam cancellations could have on the prospects of teenagers, as well as on vulnerable kids, for whom school may be the only refuge from neglect or abuse.

But there are also those who were never lucky enough to be in the  formal education system to consider. Recently, in my capacity as a fellow of the Royal Literary Fund, I’ve started running a story group at the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN) centre, a short walk from my house in Folkestone.

The teenagers I’ve been working with there all arrived in the UK without their parents, having fled horrors and, in many cases, spent months in camps like the notorious Calais Jungle. The three hours of Learning for Life sessions (of which my story group is a part) that KRAN provides for them four days a week are often the only regular activities to which these extremely vulnerable young people have access.

Despite this, the kids remain remarkably sparky, hopeful and enthusiastic. (The first session I ran for them focused on the story of Dick Whittington. At the end, I asked whether they, like Dick, had been disillusioned when they arrived in the UK and found the streets weren’t paved with gold, expecting that the sullen reality of this town – where racism and deprivation are rife – would have proved a disappointment. Not at all, they told me. The UK was everything they dreamed of. There was safety here, and law and order, and respect for human rights. They thought it was amazing.)

Now, with the centre closed for all but urgent casework, the KRAN young people have little to do but sit alone in their accommodation and wait. If I were a teenager, I don’t think I’d be able to put up with it for long.

Already, many people their age are defying the advice to stay home. Yesterday, just before the tighter restrictions kicked in, my other half went out to the shops. The centre of town was pretty deserted, he said, but there were groups of teenagers hanging around, looking bored. Possibly coincidentally, in the last couple of days, a window of a closed shop on the old high street has been smashed.

With nothing to do and few other people around, kids like these in small towns like this may find that social distancing permanently changes their behaviour and interpersonal codes in ways that we will all come to regret profoundly.

What restrictions mean

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A murky day here on the south coast. From my writing-room window, the white cliffs look drab and unimpressed with the world. 

As well they might. It’s been a week of profound change in the UK: yesterday the prime minister announced that schools will close indefinitely from tomorrow afternoon as part of the efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus.

For some people, the immediate future has already altered drastically. In addition to the more than 100 families that have so far lost people to the disease, numerous freelance workers have had months of bookings cancelled. Some are facing extreme hardship. 

Meanwhile, many of those in permanent employment are living with the possibility of losing their jobs or being forced to take unpaid leave.

I am one of the lucky ones. As most of my work is either self-generated or home-based, things, so far, remain fairly normal for me. I continue to write my next novel, compose articles, mentor authors by phone and online, edit texts, answer emails and read as widely as I can. Were it not for the absence of meetings, speaking events and social engagements in my diary for the next two months, it would be possible to believe nothing has changed at all.

While my health and the restrictions allow, I’m still also able to get out to exercise. My usual running route along the seafront, early in the morning or in the middle of the day, rarely brings me into contact with many people.

Yesterday, however, I saw something that brought me up short. Running through the village of Sandgate at around 1pm, I glanced through the windows of a café.

The place was busy. Most of the tables were full of people drinking coffee or eating lunch, much as usual. 

I’m not about to get into the rights and wrongs of hospitality businesses staying open or of people patronising them. 

Nevertheless, the sight of the bustling eatery sparked an interesting reaction in me: surprise and uneasiness, mingled with a strange relief. If all these people were out and about, doing something as ordinary as ordering a sandwich in a café, I found myself thinking, things couldn’t be that bad.

I think I’d been holding onto something similar in regard to schools being open. If it was judged acceptable for children to gather in their hundreds, then the risk must not be too great. The decision yesterday shifted that for me.

It also made me wonder about the effect of rules and restrictions on the way we human beings think.

As mentioned above, my normal life is fairly cloistered. Much as I enjoy a lot of people’s company, self-isolation-lite is my default setting. If, however, I were a more outgoing person with a job that regularly brought me into contact with many others, I might easily have been lulled into continuing my patterns as normal by the fact that schools were operating on a business-as-usual basis.

Laws, rules and restrictions, it turns out, have implications for more than the specific issues for which they are designed to legislate. They make statements about the kind of society we are. They tell us what is reasonable. They provide templates that we automatically apply to other situations and use to justify our choices.