What is normal, what is not

Some historical perspective, always a useful thing, from my friend Claire Berlinski’s excellent newsletter, aptly named Claire’s Invariably Interesting Thoughts.

The Principal of Somerville, one of Oxford University’s 38 colleges, recently sent a message to Somerville alumni, asking them to share with each other their reflections on the pandemic—our strange new human predicament—and offer each other their support.

In response, my dear friend, Gaby Charing, wrote the following. I asked her for permission to share her thoughts with you, which she graciously offered.

London

March 22, 2020

I already have my death booked. After living for seven years with bowel cancer, I’m no longer having treatment. An end-of-life care package is a phone call away. I’m just stopped at the lights.

Death doesn’t frighten me. I’m past all that. Truly.

You, by contrast, weren’t expecting this. Yes, anyone can be cut down in their prime, but that isn’t what’s happening here. You’re all, understandably, scared out of your wits, afraid that, in spite of being, maybe, in rude health, you will catch the virus and die. This is not normal. It isn’t normal for an entire nation to feel that way.

The last time the entire population of the United Kingdom felt so afraid was during World War 2. I agree with those who say it is the best analogy. Contrasts are already being drawn: “WW2 brought people together; this is driving us apart”. Don’t go so fast. Was the Blitz Spirit really so wonderful? Is the separation now really so bad? Time, and human ingenuity, will tell.

Since this thing kicked off, I’ve had something going through my head like a video loop. Many people know that during World War 2, the Special Operations Executive recruited British people who could pass as French to operate in France behind enemy lines. These were ordinary people from all walks of life who just happened to have excellent French. It was desperately dangerous work, and some of them ended up in Buchenwald.

I watched an interview with one, who’d come to London after the War. He and a friend encountered a funeral procession. They looked at each other and said, “Only one body?” This is not normal.

In her book Natural Goodness, my philosophy tutor, Philippa Foot, writes about the young Germans who refused to serve in the Wehrmacht during WW2. Their “choice” was to serve or be executed. She was making an argument about the irrelevance of maximising human happiness as an aim in such a situation. My point is simply that to put young people on the cusp of adulthood in that position is not normal.

June 1940: the fall of France. My mother and her British family were living in Arcachon. Her brother and my father appeared, rushed them from the beach to a car, drove as fast as they could to Bordeaux, and managed to get them all on a boat headed for England. It had to go as far out as the Azores to avoid German bombing and torpedoes. After five days they finally arrived at Falmouth in Cornwall, where the WRVS gave them Cornish pasties and mugs of tea. My mother said it was the best meal she ever had. This is not normal.

A few months earlier, a family member was part of the September 1939 intake to officer training at Sandhurst. The course was truncated from nine months to six. They were sent to their units and straight off to fight, many of them entirely ill-equipped to lead men into battle, which is what they were learning to do.

On arrival at Sandhurst, their first task was to deal with the horses. Horses were ridden all the time, for ceremonial purposes and because these were horsy young men, many of whom would become cavalry officers. But it was recognised that in what was to come, the horses wouldn’t be much use; so the order was given to shoot them and bury them in pits.

Eighteen-year-old boys obliged to do that to animals they loved. It is not normal.

We know that sustained pressure can cause normal people to behave abnormally. The Nazi camps provide examples of the most exalted and the most depraved behaviour. Some of the things that were done by prisoners to other prisoners defy belief.

You must not allow that to happen here because that is not who you—we—are.

But it isn’t who those people were either. Honestly, truly, it was not. So I think you potentially have a serious problem on your hands.

I’d say that’s putting it quite mildly indeed. And the virus problem itself ain’t the worst of ’em, either.

If you’re interested in subscribing to Claire’s monthly newsletter yourself—and you should be—here’s where you can sign up.

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