A personal history of a pandemic
I never in my wildest dreams thought I would involve myself in such an all-consuming project as this and still think that I stumbled into it, rather than it was some great design.
This is how it all began.
I like the drive to wherever I go paragliding. It’s usually a run between just under an hour to over three, much of it along motorways and major highways. On the way there I always feel a sense of anticipation and excitement. I still get butterflies in my stomach. Even though I have flown countless times that sense of nervous expectation has never left me.
On the return journey it’s always different. Whatever I needed to get out of my system by getting my boots off the ground has been got out. I’m usually pretty mellow and chilled about things in general and there’s no pressure to get home. I always find myself driving more slowly and in the liminal space of the car I often find myself thinking and can’t help but do so if I’m listening to talk radio, like LBC.
More and more I found myself thinking about what was happening with the coronavirus. Not least how it would change our lives.
The pandemic had certainly been a mental presence for quite a while. My first clear memory of the spectre of the coronavirus was when my wife, Vicky and I had been to a Shen Yun Chinese theatre performance at the Hammersmith Apollo on January 22nd. I remember being aware of coughing in the audience and saying to each other that we hoped it wasn’t because someone in the audience was infected with the coronavirus. It turned out that no one was, but it’s the first time the threat of the virus memorably entered our consciousness. For the most part it was a distant plague in a city we didn’t know the name of before all this happened.
Then as the news progressed it was clear a deadly virus was spreading. There were alarming stories coming from Italy and cruise liners especially, and despite the complacency shown by a Johnson government, whose focus was on leaving the EU on January 31st, it was coming our way.
The grimness of it all deepened when on the 11th March the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 to be a global pandemic. It would still be twelve more days before Britain would lock down, but the seriousness of an imminent threat was emerging in people’s minds.
It was two days later, on 13th March, driving back home after flying at Dunstable Downs I started thinking about what was increasingly looking like a public health catastrophe in the making. If it turned out in any way as serious as I imagined it to be it was going to change the world on the same scale as world wars had done in the last century. It wasn’t just that technology would have moved on, but the way in which we saw the world would have moved on too. There would be a pre-covid and post-covid era and they would be different from each other. There would be paradigm shifts. The world wasn’t going to be the same again.
To be honest, I didn’t know what those changes would be, their extent, or the way they would change all our lives. But in a nebulous way I knew something would happen. And it would be big.
So I decided I would keep a diary of every day, both of my domestic and personal life. I would be honest about the mundane and banal and I would contrast it with my online newsfeeds. I had this mental picture of Raymond Briggs’ “Where the Wind Blows,” of an ageing couple beset by world events. More manically, I had a similar image in my head of Richard Condie’s, “Big Snit,” a short animation on the same theme, only more edgy and a lot funnier. Check it out on You Tube. At the very least you can figure out if you share my sense of humour.
As time passed I convinced myself that big events like this needed recording and to do that it needed record-keepers. If I did nothing more than that then it was a task worth taking on.
Then it occurred to me that there was no point in recording events if I wasn’t going to share them. That’s quite daunting. Who on earth was I in the first place to do this? I’m not famous. I’m no more interesting than anyone reading this. I’m probably in the dullest demographic around – an ageing white, middle-class male, way past the time of grasping out and clutching a rising star. Hardly an established journalist or professor of history either.
But then I reassured myself that my sheer ordinariness, my unexceptionalism was a qualification in itself. I wasn’t going to be on the frontline or at the forefront of research and decision-making. My life wasn’t going to be turned upside down by events any more than most others, maybe less. But what I could do is be an observer while trying as best I can to avoid as much of the drama as possible.
And anyway, dramatic events are bad for keeping up with a diary. They tend to devour time and energy.
Then there was the problem about how to communicate the record I’d kept. It seemed futile simply to keep a record and doing nothing about sharing it.
I could, I suppose, try to publish it as a book. But a lot of time could go by, by which time the world may well have veered into its next crisis. There are going to be a lot of books, and a pecking order about whose book would get published first, celebrities, well known writers, authoritative historians. And anyway, I’ve written are far too many words and having spent a lot of time writing I really don’t want to spend a lot more editing.
So I went for my third option. I’d post my lockdown diary, my Covid Chronicle online, a day at a time. To start with it would be every day exactly a year on, although taking more than a day to write about each day it would take five or six weeks. An old schoolfriend and writer, Chris Crowcroft, suggested that I should try and make sense of each day, as far as I could, so after the daily diary entry each day starts with an essay of sorts about the stories of the day that stood out most strongly, followed by headlines, local stories and the experiences of people as they faced the plague of the century.
I’d post links on social media, and hope readers will drop by and take part of sharing this story.
It’s not a research study. Just an attempt by a little-known person to make sense of what he sees on a daily basis, both personally and limited, and through the newsfeeds that came his way from well over a hundred sources describing a global phenomenon, the likes of which I can only hope we have the wisdom and collective learning experience not to experience again.
The Covid Chronicle has turned out to be travelogue, even if I did stay put and the world did all the moving. I know that all of you reading this made your own journey too. I hope, at least some things will resonate.
The story begins tomorrow.
14th March 2021