Like Dominic Cummings, I've been reading a lot about the 'Spanish' flu pandemic of 1918/19. My aunt recently reminded me that my great-grandmother caught it while pregnant with my maternal granny (both survived). There was no social distancing then, though an American public health poster I found online included uncannily familiar language and advice. David Lloyd George, the then Prime Minister, caught it, though unlike COVID-19 it generally targeted younger, healthier people. A superinfection resulting from poor hospital conditions killed even more – some 228,000 in the UK.
The Borough of Hackney, where I'm spending the lockdown, recommended that victims stay isolated, take to their beds the moment symptoms appeared, and gargle with potash (potassium) and salt. Letters to newspapers also criticised the then Liberal-Conservative Government's slowness to act. One correspondent in the Hackney Gazette of 8 November 1918 even complained that: 'Schemes for checking these terrible visitations need to be thought out and prepared beforehand'. History might not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.
It took scientists more than a decade to identify what had brought the virus to the UK. Following the invention of the electron microscope, in 1933 a team at the National Institute for Medical Research in London demonstrated that an extremely infectious virus (H1N1 A) caused influenza, and that droplets spread by coughing and sneezing transmitted it from person to person.
Weirdly, I found all of this quite reassuring. Although that flu pandemic, which probably wasn't Spanish at all, lasted for more than a year, subsiding by the summer of 1919, life – even following the carnage of the Great War – did get back to normal. Indeed, I'm struck by how many friends and colleagues had never heard of that century-old outbreak until commentators and scientists began drawing parallels a few weeks ago. I see that a couple of books about the pandemic are now Amazon bestsellers.
In week four of the London Lockdown, meanwhile, I've been finding pleasure in surprising places. At the weekend I did my first jigsaw puzzle in about three decades and found it incredibly absorbing. This one was 82 years old, issued as a memento of the 1938 Scottish Empire Exhibition. I'd bought it on eBay Before Coronavirus (BC) but hadn't gotten around to assembling it. Instinctively, I remembered my childhood technique: assemble the edges first and then group the remaining pieces by colour. My joy at discovering two pieces I assumed to be missing was out of all proportion to the task at hand.
Also Empire Exhibition-related was another project completed with the help of my incredibly resourceful brother. A while ago, I'd bought a wooden table lamp shaped like the Art Deco 'Tower of Empire' which dominated the exhibition, but it needed restoration. An Instagram friend in Ayrshire posted me some retro braided three-core cable, while I found a brass bayonet fitting and sympathetic lampshade online. Michael, my brother, then filled some redundant screw holes, painted the top, wired the Bakelite plug and attached the new fitting. Finding that it worked was thrilling.
Finally, there was a new bike. After my Brompton was stolen in week one of the lockdown, I panic-bought a grey Ridgeback Comet, not wanting to be without wheels while stuck at home. But I'd had my eye on a black Veloretti, a Dutch model, so I sold the Ridgeback on Gumtree to a grateful Hackneyite and ordered one online. Remarkably, this arrived from Amsterdam a few days later but required some assembling. The instructions were terrible and the required wrenches absent, but I got there in the end, making for another absurdly satisfying afternoon.
At the beginning of the lockdown, I appealed via Facebook for friends' favourite 'classic' movies which I might watch over the next few weeks or months. This turned out to be a popular thread, and within a couple of days I had dozens of suggestions, although I found the varying interpretation of 'classic' quite interesting. I had meant anything up to and including the demise of the old studio system in the 1970s, but a lot of people drew only on their lifetimes, naming films I could remember seeing when they were first released.
Anyway, over the past few weeks I've watched an Ealing comedy (The Titfield Thunderbolt
), a few Powell & Pressburgers I'd somehow missed (Ill Met By Moonlight
, mentioned in last week's diary, A Canterbury Tale
and the rather pedestrian Battle of the River Plate
), A Bridge Too Far
(my brother's suggestion) and a superb 1980s political-media thriller called Defence of the Realm
, which featured an astonishing array of predominantly Scottish actors all on fine form.
Something about this experience also reminded me of childhood pleasures. One Powell & Pressburger movie which I failed to find online, The Boy Who Turned Yellow
, turned out to be the sort of Children's Film Foundation production which once filled my Friday afternoons. My family came late to VCRs, so I'm old enough to remember when watching television was a very deliberate and carefully timed activity. I now quite enjoy watching television drama in real time, i.e. at the time of broadcast, and patiently waiting a week for the next instalment. Something tells me this habit won't endure when (or rather, if) everything gets back to normal.