GABY CHARING, LONDON
The last time the entire population of the United Kingdom felt so afraid was during World War 2. It isn’t normal for an entire nation to feel this way. A reflection on abnormal times in human history.
I already have my death booked. After living for seven years with bowel cancer, I’m no longer having treatment. An end-of-life care package is a phone call away. I’m just stopped at the lights.
Death doesn’t frighten me. I’m past all that. Truly.
You, by contrast, weren’t expecting this. Yes, anyone can be cut down in their prime, but that isn’t what’s happening here. You’re all, understandably, scared out of your wits, afraid that, in spite of being, maybe, in rude health, you will catch the virus and die. This is not normal. It isn’t normal for an entire nation to feel that way.
The last time the entire population of the United Kingdom felt so afraid was during World War 2. I agree with those who say it is the best analogy. Contrasts are already being drawn: “WW2 brought people together; this is driving us apart”. Don’t go so fast. Was the Blitz Spirit really so wonderful? Is the separation now really so bad? Time, and human ingenuity, will tell.
I first realised things were not normal when the government started briefing the press about matters that belonged in the public domain. Briefing occurs when a journalist is taken aside and offered information they can present to their readers as some kind of exclusive story. These briefings over a couple of days concerned arrangements for quarantining the over 70s. It appeared we were to be taken to care homes.
The story was ridiculous. I needed only to look at emails from a former work colleague, deriding the whole idea. She isn’t someone you would easily herd.
But I’m dying and I’m vulnerable. I conceived the idea that there might be an attempt to drag me from my death bed to a home. They were going to try and take over my death. I wasn’t going to let them.
I began to think about what I might do if it happened. I wouldn’t readily thump someone who would probably be an Uber driver. I started to think that in those circumstances I might end my own life.
I cannot tell you how ridiculous this was. In seven years of illness, it has never once occurred to me I might do such a thing. Not until my government started presenting me with absurd scenarios, leaked out to favoured journalists.
I’m so angry about this that I can’t put my feelings into words. And no, it is not normal.
NORMAL PEOPLE IN ABNORMAL SITUATIONS
Since this thing kicked off, I’ve had something going through my head like a video loop. Many people know that during World War 2, the Special Operations Executive recruited British people who could pass as French to operate in France behind enemy lines. These were ordinary people from all walks of life who just happened to have excellent French. It was desperately dangerous work, and some of them ended up in Buchenwald.
I watched an interview with one, who’d come to London after the War. He and a friend encountered a funeral procession. They looked at each other and said, “Only one body?” This is not normal.
In her book Natural Goodness, my philosophy tutor, Philippa Foot, writes about the young Germans who refused to serve in the Wehrmacht during WW2. Their “choice” was to serve or be executed. She was making an argument about the irrelevance of maximising human happiness as an aim in such a situation. My point is simply that to put young people on the cusp of adulthood in that position is not normal.
TWO ANECDOTES FROM MY FAMILY
June 1940: the fall of France. My mother and her British family were living in Arcachon. Her brother and my father appeared, rushed them from the beach to a car, drove as fast as they could to Bordeaux, and managed to get them all on a boat headed for England. It had to go as far out as the Azores to avoid German bombing and torpedoes. After five days they finally arrived at Falmouth in Cornwall, where the WRVS gave them Cornish pasties and mugs of tea. My mother said it was the best meal she ever had. This is not normal.
A few months earlier, a family member was part of the September 1939 intake to officer training at Sandhurst. The course was truncated from nine months to six. They were sent to their units and straight off to fight, many of them entirely ill-equipped to lead men into battle, which is what they were learning to do.
On arrival at Sandhurst, their first task was to deal with the horses. Horses were ridden all the time, for ceremonial purposes and because these were horsy young men, many of whom would become cavalry officers. But it was recognised that in what was to come, the horses wouldn’t be much use; so the order was given to shoot them and bury them in pits.
Eighteen-year-old boys obliged to do that to animals they loved. It is not normal
Do we still encourage children to read that terrifying novel, Lord of the Flies, by William Golding? It concerns some English choirboys thrown together on an island in the Pacific after being shot down during WW2. Power struggles begin immediately, and it does not end well: they descend into complete barbarism. Having read that, a child with any sensitivity would spend three months cowering under the bedclothes. The state of affairs described in that book is not normal.
We know that sustained pressure can cause normal people to behave abnormally. The Nazi camps provide examples of the most exalted and the most depraved behaviour. Some of the things that were done by prisoners to other prisoners defy belief.
You must not allow that to happen here because that is not who you—we—are.
But it isn’t who those people were either. Honestly, truly, it was not. So I think you potentially have a serious problem on your hands.
I can’t offer you any advice. I can’t focus on any of this. I can feel myself gradually withdrawing from the world, cognitively and emotionally. I am desperately concerned and frightened for my beloved partner, Liz, and other people I love and care about. I’m just as frightened as you are. But I can’t engage with the wider issues, such as people’s absurd and irresponsible behaviour, or government policy on the virus. You deal with it. I’ve done my bit of living. I’m off.
I have no religious faith and I don’t believe in an Afterlife. I believe when I’m gone, I’m gone.
If it turns out I’m wrong, I’ll make sure that when you arrive, I’ve got the kettle on.
Gaby Charing, who lived in London, died shortly after the publication of this article.