Violet's Birthday Party


It was my daughter’s 11th birthday a couple of days ago which I have always thought is about the most magical birthday of all. Of course this year her birthday was rather different from last year. There were still some presents and a cake. But there were no friends, no cousins, no uncles or aunts and certainly no grandparents. But they all joined us via House Party to sing Happy Birthday so modern technology does work on some levels. But of course they are not the same as playing with your friends or hugging your grandparents.

This had me thinking about this current age and this current crisis. We are all in this together and yet we are all inherently suspicious of each other. We are united, yet divided. We want reassurance and to reassure but this can only be verbal and not physical. There is no physical or metaphorical manifestation of an enemy to vilify and demonise – there is no sense of a united collective against a common enemy. We are united in looking out for ourselves.

What I also realised was that this crisis is in no way unique nor unusual. What is unusual is that we have not experienced it for certainly a couple of centuries.

The Summer of 1606 saw probably the greatest collection of plays ever to appear at the same time – Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear, Ben Jonson’s Volpone and Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. But they all confronted the same problem – Plague -  as soon as plague deaths reached 40 per week in London theatres were closed. August saw 120 deaths per week and even the last week of September the death rate was 90 per week.

James I, who had survived the Gunpowder Plot only 10 months earlier, was concerned that people were coming out of self isolation too soon and his Privy Council wrote to the Lord Mayor of London instructing him to enforce a more rigorous self isolation. His response is illuminating, he said that the red crosses painted on people’s doors was made from water based paint and people were washing the crosses off so from henceforth the paint would be oil based to stop this from happening. The plague slowly petered out but although it was terrifying and a hideous way to die people were in some ways used to it. On average Europe lost 20% of its population in each of the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries. Sometimes considerably more.

We have been here before. Although this time we may not be as mentally prepared as in times gone by we do have extraordinary advantages in terms of medicine and communication.

Desperate as it may seem at this moment, humanity will prevail and hopefully it will prevail in a way that makes us more prone to wonderful human conditions such as kindness and compassion. 

Luke Irwin


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