A Journal Of The Plague Year
A Journal of the Plague Year
I, Daniel Defoe, who chronicled the Great Plague of London of 1665, have found myself a witness to t he latest pestilence to blight humanity. I present my account of it for the curiosity of the public in the hope it might explain how the pandemic of 2020 took so strong a hold of people’s bodies, and of their minds.
I, among the rest of my neighbours, read from my screen that a plague of sorts had started in Cathay and was very violent there, particularly in the city of Wuhan and the surrounding province of Hubei.
Walking abroad on business through the streets of London, and venturing into divers inns and taverns for refreshment, I heard people swapping views on the matter, saying things like: “That’s all right, then. Other side of the world, isn’t it? Let them deal with it, poor sods.”
However, officials in Cathay – which nowadays they called China – had spent a month covering up the extent of the infection in their country, and claiming it could not pass from human to human, meaning the pestilence had all the freedom it needed to spread this way and that across the world entirely unchecked.
And then we all read on our screens that holidaymakers had brought the plague back to English shores. Some said they had contracted it sexually from timeshare salesmen and similar characters on the Costa Brava; others said it was spread through après-ski parties in the Alps. It mattered not from whence it came; all agreed it was come into this country.
Now, in their entertainments in divers taverns and alehouses in London, people blamed the Chinese for all of this, because of their taste for eating bats.
“That’s right, bats,” the drinkers said, after taking deep draughts from their tankards. “They buy them live in the markets and put them in soup. And them bats are what has this corona inside. And I thought it was just dogs them people ate.”
To my giant-size grocery store in Richmond-on-Thames where, in the course of buying pre-packed mutton, I was near suffocated by a throng of people jostling and fighting each other in their quest to buy toilet paper.
How did people’s minds leap from hearing about a disease which causes fatal shortness of breath to worrying about the cleanliness of their nether regions?
And no pasta left on the shelves. Why?
In 1665, I recall that people made up for their feelings of helplessness against the plague by resorting to magic, astrological conjurations, dreams and old wives’ tales.
Similarly, in the present age, people invented new myths to try and survive.
In the American colonies, which have become their own nation since last I walked this earth, the populace eschewed Corona beer thinking it might contain the virus. Others disdained Chinese food, for the same reason.
The leader of the new American nation, who has emerged as the comic diversion of these times, came to fancy he had found the miracle cure for the pestilence and told physicians to inject their patients with bleach.
I had lately purchased a new-improved screen to ease the tedium of my self-isolation and after some time struggling with it I set up a Zoom conference with my fellow travellers, Robert Hooke and Ricardo Malthus. Hooke had been looking through the latest version of the microscope, he having long been enraptured by this instrument. He said he had found cells in human bodies which had gained immunity from the coronavirus. That gave him hope, for if one could discover how those cells achieved their immunity, he said, a vaccine might presently be engineered.
Malthus asked why he was bothering. The virus was nature’s pruning fork, he said, cutting back the overgrown ranks of the elderly. Never before had mankind been called upon to support so many millions of them.
This virus, he declared, promised to be the great reset for the human race, yet what were governments doing? Perversely, they were sinking billions of pounds of tax money into protecting the old, so keeping Mother Nature from doing her beneficent work.
Hooke replied that were Master Malthus to be granted his wish, Mother Nature would unleash a plague which would carry off the entire human race, meaning we need not worry about spending a single farthing on it ever again.
Hooke broke off the Zoom connection in a rage and Malthus did likewise. So ended my one piece of social discourse for the week.
Today, the death rate from the novel coronavirus reached seven hundred and the government issued strict orders to people to keep themselves two yards distant, one from another.
To think that until so very recently, we had blithely brushed past fellow-shoppers and stood cheek-by-jowl with fellow-travellers. And to think that until a few days ago we had unthinkingly entered shops or coffee houses or taverns. No more! They are all now locked and shuttered.
All has changed; changed utterly. A terrible dullness has been born.
Unable to endure the solitude of my rooms in Richmond, I dared venture downstream to Kensington to call on Mister Thomas Hobbes. I had heard that in his house was also Dr John Locke, who had been visiting the libraries in London and could not return to his college at Oxford, all travel having been forbidden which was not for urgent purposes.
On my way along the Thames towpath, I saw constables of the watch busily keeping folks socially distanced. They ordered people who had sat on benches to rest, or to look at their screens, to keep moving or to return indoors – on pain of being summoned before the magistrates.
One constable blocked my way and demanded why I was outside my doors. It was banned, he said, save for an hour of exercise or for taking physick to an ailing relative.
“It is to exercise, then,” I say.
“It better had be,” replied the constable, eyeing me suspiciously. “Don’t think you’re not being watched. We’re getting people to inform on neighbours who go out more than once a day.”
Arriving without Mr Hobbes’ house I was ushered inside quickly by his manservant, for it had been made unlawful to congregate with anyone but immediate family. I was taken upstairs to his drawing room.
On the wall was a giant version of the screens everyone now lives their lives through. It showed the prime minister burbling merrily about launching a fightback. However, he was looking very wan. The skin on his cheeks seemed to me to be as white and as roughed-up as the flaxen, unkept locks on his head.
In two opposite corners of the room sat Mr Hobbes and Dr Locke.
“He may not survive this distemper,” remarked Hobbes. “But he has done the state some service; he has gained new extents to its power. Ultimately, it does not matter whether he or someone else wields that power. What matters is that there is someone in the state to wield it, and that the people obey.”
“It may set a bad precedent,” said Locke, “if the government learns from this that it can easily curtail the liberty of subjects. What pretexts might it choose in future? And what if the subjects so readily submit?”
“Subjects look to their rulers as their fathers and protectors,” replied Hobbes. “This is natural law, as decreed by God. He sets a ruler up to be a giant amongst his fellow men, such as the fabled Leviathan.”
“And what if that father-protector cannot protect his subjects?” asked Locke. “What if he demands obedience in the form of mass confinement yet cannot organise trials to see who is healthy and who is sick? What if he cannot organise the hospitals properly, or provide garments to protect the physicians and nurses who work within them? And if the ruler cannot protect his subjects, why should subjects not use their own good sense in deciding how to protect themselves?”
Hobbes replied Locke was fondly mistaken if he believed our fellow subjects had sense enough to see themselves through such a crisis without instruction and coercion. He said he would start forthwith to write a treatise on the matter.
Locke, scowling, vowed to do the same.
Today I fashioned a face on a pumpkin and called my creation Man Friday, hoping that its company might save me from losing my reason whilst alone in confinement.
Master Friday and I watched images on my screen which modern folk call memes. Some were of so-called dank doggos; some were of kittens. All of them, however, featured crazed musick and head-splitting shrieks of laughter from those recording the antics of their pets. I learnt little from these spectacles, yet could not resist trawling for more and more of the same.
Alarmed, I used my screen to call upon Mister Samuel Pepys and asked whether he was also gorging on the same vacuous diet of pap. Did he also fear it was turning his mind to mush?
“Tempora mutantur, Defoe,” he replied. “Henceforth, I will be foregoing my diary and instead I will be writing the Blog of Samuel Pepys. I will fill it with pictures of Victoria sponges I have baked and cute clips of kittens. Methinks it will show future historians the heights of intelligent discourse to which Britain soared in the twenty-first century.
“Like me on Insta, Danny! Ciao!”
The death toll now threatens to surpass 30,000 in Britain. However, the Secretaries of State insist that they are carrying out close on 100,000 trials a day to separate the clean from the infected. If true, that would mean that within a matter of some months, or even some weeks, the lockdown might be lifted for the able-bodied.
I contacted Pepys again on my screen and asked whether the government was, perchance, getting things organised.
Pepys revealed that he was, at that moment, within a brothel in Paddington.
“Do you know why I am here?” he asked.
I said that I could guess.
“Well,” he replied, “Let me tell you that our government is so incompetent that it couldn’t even organise the self-same, primal act I myself have just performed.”
No sooner had Mr Pepys said this than I heard the sound of a door being broken in, the shrieks of young women and, presently, a gruff voice saying: “Get your pants on, sonny. You’re nicked.”
To the magistrates at Paddington Green to pay Pepys’ £60 fine for flouting lockdown rules. That scofflaw emerged from the courtroom with his clothing stained, his wig askew and generally looking exceeding seedy.
“I just felt in a rather deviant mood,” he told me, as we walked down the Edgware Road towards Tyburn. “I can pretty much stand the lockdown. What I cannot stand is everything around it. You know: everyone being so chipper; the tedious clips people send out showing the half-witted things they’re doing to pass the time. It’s the group-think: the rainbow drawings in every window and the weekly mass demonstrations in support of the National Health Service.
“It started to sap my will to live. I just thought that if the coronavirus wants to kill me, it can damned well take its place in the queue behind syphilis and gonorrhoea.”
He gripped me hard by the sleeves.
“Contact Newton! Tell him this is the stupidest possible age that he could have taken us all to in that time machine of his. I want go back to the seventeenth century. Plagues, fires, wars with the Dutch; I don’t care. I’ve had enough of modernity. I want to go back.’
Pepys and I made shift to the Kings Cross to travel on the new mechanical stagecoach to Cambridge, to seek out the Lucasian professor of Mathematics, Doctor Isaac Newton.
“We’re not meant to be taking public transport, Pepys,” I whispered once we were on board. “If anyone asks, just say we are doctors on our way to Sandringham to give exclusive coronavirus tests to junior members of the royal family.”
This mechanical stagecoach proved a might slower than the horse-drawn ones of the seventeenth century – the locomotive that pulled the modern version seemingly wanting to stop every two hundred yards to crop at the grass along the verge.
Pepys was at first passably quiet and demure on our journey until he spotted a young woman pushing the refreshments trolley through the carriages. At the sight of her, he leered most horribly and could not restrain himself from asking her for “a bit of leg-over and chips”, adding the request that she make it “a large portion”.
Thanks to Pepys’ sauciness, we were ejected by the guard at Newmarket and had to trudge by foot through the fens. It was near on nightfall that we arrived at the gates of Trinity College, Cambridge, and asked for Newton.
The porter told us that the plague having come to Cambridge, the professor had repaired to his family home in Woolsthorpe, in the adjoining county. It was dawn by the time Pepys and I got there, he having entertained me throughout the night with tawdry tales about his roisters with gerbils and divers other rodents, which made me feel exceeding sick to my stomach.
The morning was fine, and we espied Newton in a small orchard at the front of his house huddled alongside Mister Edmund Halley around a fiercely-flaming brazier. To one side of it he was carefully pouring some household bleach into a pewter ladle. This he this set atop the flame.
“He says,” said Halley, in a whisper, “that he seeks to turn base chemicals into vaccine. When this concoction of his has cooled, he means to make a trial of it on us all.”
Pepys’ eyes fell on a bucket which stood nearby. Waddling quickly to a nearby brook, he filled it with water and, huffing back, threw the contents across Newton’s brazier. Flinging the pail aside he flew at Newton and seized him by the collar.
“Take us away!” he shrieked. “Fire up that damned time machine of your invention and take us away from here! I want you to take us back to where we came from and then I want you to destroy that contraption so that we can never return, or get to find out how human history ended up at this hellish point.”
“And what if I don’t?” replied Newton, calmly detaching Halley’s fists from his lapels. “What’s in it for me?”
“A knighthood,” said Pepys, after a pause. He straightened Newton’s collar and fixed him with an ingratiating smile. “I’ll put in a good word for you at court and recommend you to run the Royal Mint. You can make all the money you want, Isaac, and keep as much as you like for yourself.”
“It’s tempting,” mused the great scientist, strolling around his orchard and stroking his chin. Then his eyes alighted on the tavern across the river. It was called the Isaac Newton and its sign showed a cartoon illustration of our comrade with an apple bouncing off the top of his head and a goofy grin on his face.
“Good food. Fine Wines,” the tavern beckoned. “Watch Sky Sports here.”
“But look at the media profile I have been given!” said Newton, swivelling back to us and clapping his hands in glee. “I can leverage it into celebrity endorsements, supermarket openings, after-dinner speeches. I can be an Instagram influencer. I tell you, friends, this century is the best-ever time to live in. You’ve just got to get cut-through and highball the optics.”
He grinned lasciviously at the surrounding company and slapped his thigh in excitement.
“Optics! That’s what I’ll be working on. Why did I never see matters in this light before?”