The Burial of the Dead

When churches fall completely out of use

What we shall turn them into

-Philip Larkin, “Church Going”, 1954

 

 

I woke up this morning thinking

T.S. Eliot had no clue

but (truth be told)

he must have known a thing or two.

 

Larkin, he must have done so too.

 

As we turned the corner

we were confronted

by more rows of coffins”

 

Everyone dies alone

new rules regarding the handling of the dead

 

April Fool, like every year

The Waste Land comes to mind

(I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.)

had there been a month

as cruel as this,  just about to start?

 

“For those who die at home,

the bureaucratic process is lengthier

as deaths need to be certified by two doctors.”

 

Cities like unused film sets

videographed by drones

What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

each in his prison

Thinking of the key

 

I read everything there is

I keep count of every dead,

every body who’s recovered,

every voice who’s lived to tell the tale.

 

I step inside, quoth the poet-

letting the door thud shut.

 

 

“In a sickly time”: Reading Pepys in 2020

Samuel Pepys, Image via Wikipedia. Image file by John Hayls - Walthamstow Weekender (file), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=210769

 

I have a little bookcase where I have books about London, short story collections and other brief volumes (such as Penguin’s Little Black Classics) thinking of visitors who might want a quick read. Lately this bookcase has been my go-to resource when I can’t sleep.

Last night, unable to go to bed early worrying about everything that’s happening in the world, at work and at home, nearby and faraway, I grabbed one of those Penguins, number 47, “The Great Fire of London”, containing entries from The Diary of Samuel Pepys dated May 1st to June 31st, 1665, and September 2nd to 15th, 1666.

It’s common-place now to think of Pepys as a 17th century protoblogger. I have, in the past, many a time recurred to the Diary in a second-hand two-volume Everyman edition I treasure. I like dipping in and out from it at random.

 

My copy of The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol I., Everyman's Classics

The first half of the little Penguin volume, May 1st to June 31st, 1665, contains many references to the plague. What’s striking to me is how contemporary the account feels- though Pepys was noticeably concerned about the “encrease” of the plague, he also continued his daily life as socially active as ever, kissing people’s hands and all.

Pepys keeps count of the increasing fatalities, and the safety he feels being in the “City” relatively diminishes as the plague gets very close home:

10 June 1665

In the evening home to supper, and there to my great trouble hear that the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City); but where should it begin but in my good friend and neighbour’s, Dr Burnett in Fanchurch-street – which in both points troubles me mightily.

15 June 1665

The town grows very sickly, and people to be afeared of it – there dying this last week of the plague 112, from 43 the week before – whereof, one in Fanchurch-street and one in Broadstreete by the Treasurer’s office.

26 June 1665

The plague encreases mightily- I this day, seeing a house, at a bittmakers over against St Clements church in the open street, shut up; which is a sad sight.

The last entry from 1665 in the Penguin edition I read last night is from 30 June, where Pepys writes:

Myself and family in good health, consisting of myself and wife – Mercer, her woman – Mary, Alice and Su, our maids; and Tom, my boy. In a sickly time, of the plague growing on.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys is online at https://www.pepysdiary.com/and selections from entries mentioning the plague can be found at http://www.pepys.info/1665/plague.html.

 

The Plague

We should have known it well

it thrives. indeed, on being human

our touching each other; hands on face

speak out loud, droplets & breath

hold on to the handrail

move down the carriage,

use all available space

it’s proximity & closeness

shaking hands, kissing once or twice,

(don’t stand so/don’t stand so close to me)

the embrace, the popping in,

the cup of tea, the walk together,

y’alright mate,

saying cheers, give me five,

would you like a top-up,

anytime, here for you.

And they thought we could raise fences

 

 

“Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will”: Empathy and Solidarity in the Times of COVID-19

 

 

As expected I have been too busy to sit down and make another video. I made an extra video for my students instead.

Last night a friend shared this. The news arrives at a time in which I have been taking action to support in any way that I can students and colleagues online. Personally, I have also been trying to support those businesses that have been now closed due to coronavirus and who will surely struggle, such as bookshops, record shops, indie bands and musicians, newspapers and magazines that I like. For the time being, while I can, I am happy to make an extra financial effort that hopefully sends a small message of appreciation and support.

This led to me reflect out loud, as one does, on a Twitter thread today. I have reused some of that writing below, expanding on some related ideas.

I’m not a political economist but I find it sadly ironic that a system that eminently depends on the circulation of capital simultaneously would be so efficient at making participants so disconnected/alienated from the economic responsibilities and consequences of our actions.

The student petition covered by the BBC in the link above made me write in the thread that in the case of higher education it’s clear its marketisation is embedded in a system that depends on social polarisation; the dehumanisation of universities and their staff, seen by some stakeholders as semi-automated service providers.

I do think we had not experienced in our lifetimes such a paradigmatic moment where the consequences of fostering market competition through rankings, metrics, funding allocation, student fees will demonstrate its most acutely negative consequences. Where the educational experience has been transformed into an experience that can be bought and satisfaction measured (like one books, say, a package holiday or a cruise) we can’t be surprised solidarity and empathy between competing providers and their consumers will be scarce.

It is now more than ever that we urgently require solidarity between everyone who is part of society (and that is everyone); this is essential if we want any resemblance of an optimistic present and future to take place. The system of exchange we have all embraced has disconnected consumption from production and has made consumers believe they are always right and in a position to get what they want when they want it how they want it, irrespective of context.

Attitudes to Higher Education do not exist in a vacuum. In the context of immigration, health care and welfare we see a similar phenomenon too, where those ‘unskilled’ workers that a hostile environment has made its best to exclude are very likely to be the ones keeping society running at the moment. One wonders how many deaths could have been and be avoided if only the NHS, welfare, education, equality and societal cohesion had been priority instead of the sustained campaign against it in recent years, fueled by the bigotry of those who favour ‘the market’ over human rights.

Though it’s easy to focus on what seems negative or pessimistic about the ideas above, I’d like to emphasise that what I seek is to communicate the urgent need for greater empathy and solidarity. It is possible for an apparently optimistic stand point, that focuses on individual, family unit or organisational self-care to fit within the structures of alienation/disconnect that have enabled inequality in our societies.

Any optimistic or ‘positive’ approaches to the coronavirus pandemic should, in my opinion, be framed and motivated by an awareness of the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. In order for us to be well others need to be well too, and others will be well only if we are well too. It goes both ways- and this wellness is also dependent on the circulation of capital, and this depends on people’s ability to earn a living. The pandemic affects everyone- and this means it affects everything we humans do.

Finding the balance between critically engaging with what is happening and trying to maintain a semblance of normality is important, but not easy. Gramsci’s motto, “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will”  calls for this ongoing interrogation of what happens whilst having trust in our ability to stand up to challenges pragmatically and strategically. There cannot be solidarity and empathy unless there is awareness of difference, and this implies an awareness of privilege, and of the fragility of that privilege.

In a time in which nearly everyone has the ability to broadcast publicly aspects of their private lives, and when many -but definitely not all- will be at home, some of which will be working from home- it’s to me essential that we try to reflect on the interconnectedness of everything- home, until recently the quintaessential ‘private’ space, does not exist outside society, even if we never physically leave it.

When we make a complaint or ask for our money back, when we buy all the possible loo roll packets we can afford at once- let’s think carefully about the consequences those actions have on others and on ourselves. This is not a time to treat others, including organisations or services, as mere means to an end- but as key interconnected points in the wide network of society- all playing a role, and forced to play many other roles whilst under these exceptional circumstances.