Time to look forward (The Show Must Go On)

What a bloody year it’s been. I expect you’ve noticed…the UK’s barmy Brexit brinksmanship, the excruciating US election, the brutal killing of George Floyd, the Australian bushfires, the climate-change deniers, the relentless rise of rampant populism, the worldwide economic meltdown. And then, of course, there’s Covid.

I could go on but you’re probably depressed enough already, so I’ll leave it there. I’m sure you get the point.

From a personal point of view it’s not been great either. It’s true we’ve avoided Covid, and I’m very grateful for that, but otherwise 2020 feels like The Lost Year. It’s the first time since Mrs P and I married over 35 years ago that we’ve spent every single night under our own roof. Planned breaks in various parts of the country had to be cancelled, and the best we’ve managed has been some local birdwatching and a few daytrips to places close to home.

Although phone calls and the internet helped us stay in touch, we’ve spent almost no time with family or friends since March. We managed to “attend” a few folk music gigs on YouTube and Zoom, but it ain’t like the real thing, is it? Worse still, we’ve not been to a restaurant for over nine months, and although we both enjoy cooking, we’re sick of it right now. A man can cook – and eat – too many curries, and this man has.

Time to look forward

And when, we wonder, will we ever be able to safely visit a coffee house again for a sweet, steaming mocha and an enormous slab of chocolate cake?

* * *

About ten days ago Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television to announce tougher restrictions aimed at halting the spread of a new, more virulent strain of Covid-19. The festive plans of millions of Brits were ruined. At a stroke BoJo had come close to cancelling Christmas, and people were in shock.

Later that evening we settled down in front of the television to watch the final of Strictly Come Dancing (for anyone reading this in North America, that’s the UK’s version of Dancing with the Stars). Eventual winner Bill Bailey danced his Showdance to The Show Must Go On, a classic number by Queen [click here for the poignant lyrics, and magical archive footage of Freddie Mercury leading the vocals] . Answering a question from host Claudia Winkelman directly after his dance, a panting Bill Bailey agreed that his routine was a “rallying call.” He said:

……the restrictions are going to be harder [following the Prime Minister’s announcement] and people are going to be isolated at Christmas…it’s not just a song about the arts, this is an anthem about not giving up, keeping hope, getting through this…the show must go on. It’s about being strong and getting through all of this.

Bill Bailey, speaking on BBC Strictly Come Dancing live broadcast on 19/12/2020 and subsequently reported by Digital Spy. Retrieved 24/12/2020

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s been a rotten year, but the show must go on. We must learn from what’s happened, but refuse to be crushed by the tragedy of it. Now is the time to consciously embrace positivity, to look forward with hope and expectation, to take comfort in the belief that – if we all pull together and do the right thing – 2021 can be better than the wretched year that’s about to end

The lyrics to Queen’s song include the following lines. The words were written nearly 30 years ago but have never been more relevant than they are today, as we prepare to step forward into the new year:

I’ll face it with a grin
I’m never giving in
On with the show

The show must go on.

Eyam: A 17th century experiment in self-isolation and social distancing

My last post lamented that a minority of my fellow citizens have refused to comply with the social distancing rules brought in to help control the spread of COVID-19, preferring instead to party. Regrettably one of the examples of such behaviour that made the national headlines was in my local area, just a few miles from Platypus Towers.

However it’s not all bad news around here, and I’m pleased to report that one of the most remarkable, selfless acts of social distancing also took place right here in my home county of Derbyshire. Not yesterday, not last week or even last month. No, this extraordinary act of self-sacrifice took place in the picturesque village of Eyam in 1666, an incredible 354 years ago!

Eyam

PHOTO CREDIT: “Eyam” by jodastephen is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The story began in London, in 1665, when the city was ravaged by bubonic plague. The epidemic lasted for 18 months, during which time it’s estimated that 100,000 people – one quarter of London’s population – lost their lives.

The traditional narrative of the so-called Great Plague tells us that the disease was transmitted by bites from infected fleas of the Black Rat. However, modern scholars question this, and argue instead that the bacterial infection was spread by human body lice or, perhaps, human fleas. Contact with excrement from those exoparasites may also have contributed to transmission.

In summer 1665 a consignment of cloth was despatched from London was to the remote village of Eyam in the Derbyshire Peak District, a journey north of around 160 miles taking perhaps 10 days. The cloth arrived damp, and tailor Alexander Hadfield instructed his assistant George Viccars to sort through and dry it. A few days later Viccars was the first Eyam resident to succumb to the plague, on 7 September 1665.

Recent studies suggest that in heat of summer human body lice and fleas could survive 10 days without feeding, particularly in the humidity of a damp bolt of cloth. Infected human parasites may therefore have passed on the plague to Viccars; alternatively he could have caught the disease from their excrement when sorting through the cloth. Either way, exposure to the bacteria was to prove fatal.

The plague had gained a foothold in Eyam and as time passed more villagers took ill and died, presumably via Viccars’ own body lice or fleas. By the end of 1665 over forty plague deaths had been recorded and the following year, as winter turned to spring, many villagers considered fleeing to somewhere – anywhere – else where they might be safe from the disease.

One of the “Plague Cottages” in use at the time of the epidemic

At this point local clergyman William Mompesson intervened. Recognising that if the villagers fled they could spread the contagion to the nearby towns of Manchester, Sheffield and Bakewell, he determined that the village should isolate itself from the rest of the country. And with that, social distancing and self-isolation – 1666 style – came to Eyam.

The rules of (dis)engagement that Mompesson persuaded villagers to accept were deceptively simple:

  • nobody was to enter or leave the village, for any reason
  • food supplies would be delivered to drop-off points at the village boundary. Here villagers would leave coins soaked in vinegar to pay for the food delivered by the Earl of Devonshire’s men and others.
  • church services would be held outdoors
  • the churchyard was to be closed, and the dead buried in fields at the edge of the village
  • families would bury their own dead

In effect, the people of Eyam locked themselves away from the rest of the world, and let the disease run its natural course. Without any scientific understanding the plague’s modus operandi, Mompesson had stumbled across a way of containing it and probably saved countless lives in towns and villages surrounding Eyam.

By the time the restrictions were lifted, some 260 villagers had died. The size of the village population before the plague arrived is unclear, but it’s likely that at least a third of its inhabitants – and perhaps a much bigger proportion – died during the lockdown. Sadly, rector Mompesson’s wife was one of the victims.

At the height of the outbreak – in August 1666 – a total of 78 people died. That month Elizabeth Hancock buried her husband and six of her seven children over a period of eight days. The spot where she interred them – in an unremarkable field on a hill some way out of the village – remains a poignant reminder of a time of unimaginable hardship for the people of Eyam.

The historical record is such that we can go beyond mere numbers, and understand the human cost of Eyam’s decision to isolate itself. The death of Mompesson’s wife and the tragedy of Elizabeth Hancock’s family are two examples. A third is the story 22-year-old Emmott Sydall, who was engaged to marry a lad from the next village.

A “Plague Grave,” dating from just before the closure of the churchyard

When the restrictions were imposed Emmot was no longer permitted to get up close and personal with her fiancĂ©. Instead the two star-crossed lovers had to content themselves with rendezvousing at an agreed spot at the edge of the village, to stare lovingly into one another’s eyes from a safe distance. But one day the ritual ceased abruptly, and Emmott never went there again. The plague had taken her.

*

Mompesson lost his wife, but achieved his goal. Although Eyam was ravaged and achieved notoriety – even today it is known as the Plague Village – the outbreak did not spread beyond its boundaries to surrounding settlements. From the broader perspectives of history and epidemiology, Mompesson’s 17th experiment in social distancing can therefore be regarded as a success.

I doubt, however, that Elizabeth Hancock or Emmott Sydall’s fiancĂ© saw it that way. There are losers, as well as winners, in any experiment with social distancing and self-isolation.

Every August, on the last Sunday of the month, Eyam holds a memorial service to recognise the sacrifices of those who died in 1666 so that others might continue living. They call it Plague Sunday.

I wonder how we, as a society, will remember those who have lost their lives in the fight against COVID-19?