So, is the coronavirus bringing people together?
Chantal, by email
Roll on, ye olde blitz spirit! We were promised that innately British pluck, the kind that had housewives chatting among the remains of their bombed-out houses as the Queen stopped by to give them tea, would get Britain through this plague. It was supposed to get us through the ravages of Brexit. (Remember that? Hilarious!) Yet the global plague superseded that, which is a bit like being mid-shark attack, only for you and the shark to be swallowed suddenly by a T rex.
Anyway – the blitz! Even the Queen referenced the second world war in her Sunday night address to the nation, because of course she did. Alas, it turns out this famous blitz spirit may have been as much of a myth as the benefits of Brexit, with some of the most famous photos from the blitz, such as the milkman doing his rounds through ruined houses, having long been exposed as fakes.
As for the reports of wartime British solidarity, these too have been greatly exaggerated. For example, there were reports of middle-class families in the countryside worrying that housing evacuated working-class children would result in “the spoliation of decent homes and furniture [or] the corruption of speech or moral standards of our own children”. Yay, blitz spirit!
Which brings us to Britain today. How is that famed blitz spirit holding up? Well, it seemed to me that, for the first week after the sort-of-kind-of-lockdown began, it was doing OK. Putting to one side the fear of death and the death of loved ones, there was a kind of national fascination that we were all going through such a collective event. Sporting successes are few and far between, so there was a novelty in all of us knowing where almost every person in the country was (in their sitting room) and that we were all experiencing the same emotions (anxiety to boredom and back again). And then, after a week, maybe even 10 days, things turned.
The signs were always there, with the early bursts of frantic stockpiling and – perhaps more telling, in retrospect – the furious tutting over said stockpiling. Because it seems to me – from my admittedly limited vantage point of reading the internet, Zooming with friends and daily 15-minute outings with the dog – that what was once a collective experience has now broken down into factions, each one snarling at the other.
There are those who insist that people need to stop going to the park and that a walk round the block should suffice for even the most hyperactive toddler. Then there are those who wonder how the other people have gone through life without ever meeting a toddler. There are the solo isolaters, bored and lonely. There are the stressed home-schooling parents, who would rip out their own hair for empty hours of solitude. There are the people with gardens who don’t understand why so many people insist on going for walks. There are the people without gardens who desperately need some vitamin D. There are the people who fearfully run off to their second homes versus those who think these people are immoral and selfish; the achievers who believe now is the time for them to write their King Lear versus the sloths who think the achievers are show-offs who should chill and watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine; and, of course, walkers versus joggers, which is the new cyclists versus drivers.
On top of everyone looking at others and thinking they all have it easier, as if they are somehow cheating physical distancing, there is the general collective tutting. The daily tutting photos on social media of crowded parks, taken by people who don’t understand that they are, in fact, part of the crowd. As a Dutch advert put it in 2010: “You are not in traffic. You are traffic.” Every time I hear shouts of laughter in the street outside my house, I see my neighbours rush to the window, determined to tut at some wrongdoers – and I see my neighbours doing this because I am doing it, too.
We are not living through the blitz, but we are fighting something unseeable and completely terrifying. So, in the absence of a concrete enemy, we vent our anger and anxiety on one another. It is understandable, even if it is not very nice. No matter what anyone says, this experience is not the same for all of us: some of us live in houses, some in flats, some are drowning in toddlers, some are not. But we are all pretty scared. So, even if the material details between us remain as unequal and unfair as ever, on an emotional level, this is a helluva leveller. And that is something to remember.