There’s a piece of mythology does the rounds, that the Great Plague of London was terminated by the Great Fire of London, which broke out on Monday, September 2nd, 1666. The idea is that Pudding Lane and environs were essentially autoclaved. I say mythology, because just because A precedes B (A here denoting fire and B denoting cessation of plague) doesn’t mean that A causes B. In fact plague was ravaging other areas of England at the time, but plague receded in the provinces, as it did in London, spontaneously and without the benefit of a conflagration. And nobody really knows why.
This concatenation of circumstances has its echo in our own time, notwithstanding that there is a role reversal: to wit, plague has stopped fire. It’s only a few months ago that the climate change activist Greta Thunberg was comparing the climate emergency to a fire. Our house, she said, is on fire! Why aren’t we panicking? She was, and as far as I know remains, highly critical of the international response to global warming. She thought that the world leaders were merely paying lip service to the idea that we needed to change our way of life, while under the auspices of the combined forces of the great Movers and Shakers of the world, everything was proceeding as before. As recently as two weeks ago I was aware that things were proceeding as before, while boarding an Airbus A380 in Dubai. We left the terminal building and boarded a bus which for thirty minutes took us round the periphery of a vast airport. I observed countless A380s stacked up at the gates. Just as I was beginning to suspect we were destined to undertake the whole journey back to Scotland on the surface, we reached the holding point.
And paused for a further thirty minutes. I watched one after another A380 take off. I thought, we can’t go on like this! I hope and trust I’m not being sanctimonious about this. I, sitting secluded in my business class pod, am as guilty as anybody else. Of course I had a very specific and very important reason to travel blah blah blah.
Suddenly – yes suddenly, with remarkable rapidity, the world’s airline industries have ground (sic) to a halt. The reason has nothing to do with climate change, but is rather because people realise that aeroplanes have become extremely efficient vectors for the spread of Covid-19, and thus countries are sequentially and rapidly closing their borders. In short, people are panicking. If you hadn’t heard of coronavirus, you would not have predicted in a thousand years that Greta’s plea that we panic would have been answered.
So, despite all the gloom and doom, maybe there is a glimmer of hope. Not only are we flying less, we are driving less. I heard that in Beijing, for the first time in an age, people have observed blue sky. Perhaps we should think of the current crisis as an opportunity, an opportunity to reassess our priorities and consider what aspects of life really matter to us. Last Wednesday morning I left my West Stirlingshire house at 7.30 am and walked down to Flanders Moss. I never met a soul. In a neighbouring field I saw a farmer train his astute collie dog in mustering the woolly flock. Then I said hello to the horses, and the alpaca, and witnessed a skein of wild geese, performing a remarkably choreographed murmuration entirely for my benefit. I circumvented the grimpen quag, and ascended the observation point for a view of the highland boundary fault line, still glistening with snow, from south west to north east – Ben Lomond, (Stob Binnein and Ben More in the distance), Ben Venue, Ben Ledi, Stuc a’Chroin, and Ben Vorlich – and so on, disappearing up to the north east and Stonehaven.
Pray God we’re not put under house arrest.
I have a suggestion. Think of the space we now inhabit as a gap year. I never took one after school. (I doubt if such a thing even existed then.) Did you? There are a lot of things we are not going to be able to do for quite some time. For myself, I doubt if the RSNO will play again this season, or if either the Edinburgh Festival or the BBC Proms will go ahead. But I think I can manage. I have a radio. I also happen to live in what is essentially a library. I doubt if I could read my way out of it this century. What else?
Time to start writing another tome.