This article is adapted from a letter to my team at Brilliant Noise last week. It has a special resonance on the eve of the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
Dear Brilliant People
They are beginning to ease the lockdown in Italy. And other places too. It looks like we’re past the peak in deaths in the UK. The first wave may be passing.
Coronavirus is a slow-motion natural disaster. It’s invisible and slow compared to an earthquake but it manages to reach across the whole world.
In a previous century’s pandemic, artists imagined the disease as an archer firing invisible arrows – because no one could see the cause, but they could see the damage, the people falling ill and dying all around them. Maybe we can imagine the results of coronavirus as invisible bombs falling from the sky.
We’re not living through the Blitz, but this ain’t nothing. Around 32,000 people died in the Blitz across the UK, and we’re just passing 20,000 coronavirus deaths right now and some estimates put the real total at 50% higher overall. [At the time of publishing this on LinkedIn, UK coronavirus deaths are over 30,000.]
It’s embarrassing sometimes when people draw parallels between our current crisis and the Second World War experience on the Home Front. They are invoking folk stories, memories of memories that risk being oversimplifying, misleading or horribly nationalistic.
The “Blitz Spirit” wasn’t some kind of British superpower –apart from anything, London and other big cities were stuffed full of Poles, West Indians, Jews and Irish, French governments in exile, and a throng of different nationalities. London’s an international city, always has been. The Blitz brought out a lot of kindness, mutual help and gritty determination, but it still left a bunch of grieving people and undiagnosed PTSD cases. As well as volunteers manning soup kitchens and forming human chains to dig people out from the rubble there were looters, black-marketeers, profiteers, busybodies, rich people fleeing the cities to countryside boltholes and fake news gossip-merchants galore. Londoners, Brummies, Liverpudlians and people in cities across the country were just like us today: they endured because they had to – and made the best of it, or the worst, depending on their character and choices.
In 1942, a year after the Blitz, my Grandmother was living with her three young sons in one of the great pre-welfare state social housing Peabody Estates, at the top of the Fulham Palace Road in Hammersmith. My Grandfather was operating an anti-aircraft gun on the south coast, so they didn’t see him for long stretches. One of her brothers was fighting in Africa and another was dying slowly in a prisoner of war camp in southeast Asia.
One night a bomb took the roof off the block they lived in and they had to leave. They didn’t know it, but they were lucky. A council map of bomb sites in West London shows their home was later destroyed completely by a V2, one of the first long range missiles. Homeless and without anyone around likely to help, she set off with the boys in tow to look for somewhere to live.
Image: The Peabody Estate in Hammersmith after a V2 attack in 1944.
In nearby Chancellors Road, she found a terraced house that had been abandoned. It was at a slight angle, as the whole terrace listed slightly toward a bomb crater three doors down. She persuaded a carpenter to change the locks and claimed the house. My family ended up renting it all the way up to 1989, not long before the Berlin Wall fell. My Mum was born in that house in the early fifties, had her wedding reception there and I was brought back to it from hospital when I was born a few months later. I lived there on and off with my Mum until I was seventeen. The house was still wonky – if you put a ball on the floor it would roll all the way to the wall.
My Grandmother was from Wexford in Ireland. She came to England in the twenties because an invisible bomb called Spanish Flu (which actually originated in Kansas during the First World War) killed her Dad and his poultry business, pushing her whole family into some very hard times.
So, I was born to the daughter of an immigrant who had herself come to London fleeing post-pandemic poverty. My first home was a house that my family claimed with squatters rights in the middle of a war-zone.
I’ve never thought of it like that.
Now I sit here with nothing apparently happening outside in comfort that would astonish my Grandmother. Despite the invisible bombs falling, and the struggle to save lives going on in care homes and hospitals around me, there is peace and time to reflect.
All these stories. Memories come up unbidden in lockdown. I’ve heard its quite common. A side effect of the sometime–stillness. Novels will be written about it, I’m sure.
Thank for reading this very personal letter. Like I said – they are a box of chocolates and this is the one that came out this morning.
I’m going to shake the remembering out of my head and get on with this week.
This article is adapted from a daily letter from me to my colleagues at Brilliant Noise. I’ve been writing one each morning since we went into lockdown. My colleagues edited some of the first months’ into another article, called “Time Goes Weird in Lockdown”, and I have previously shared two more here: “What Colour is Your Mood Today?” and “Putting Humanity at the heart of business”.