We’re Skyping and singing, clapping and caring: MICHAEL MORPUGO writes that once this evil coronavirus is beaten we’ll be left with a kinder world…
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In the dark times, will there also be singing?’ Bertolt Brecht, the great German poet and playwright, once asked the question.
Well, we all know the answer: ‘You bet there will be, Mr Brecht. There’ll be singing from our windows, from our balconies and from the rooftops. There’ll be writing too, also texting and emailing and Skyping and Zooming and YouTubing, and clapping. And dancing in the streets, when we can, when it’s all over.’
We’ve been here before, through times even darker than these. We should remember that. Not in my memory, though, and not in many of yours. Our parents and grandparents knew such times, and worse. And they sang their way through and out of their dark times. In the music-hall days of the First World War, there was a rousing song whose chorus began like this: ‘Are we downhearted? No! Then let your voices ring and altogether sing! Are we downhearted? No!’
People in Woodford Green, London, join a national applause for the NHS from their homes
Singing chases away the demons of gloom and despondency, makes us feel we are not alone, that we’ll get through. We will too, but get through to what? To the world as it was before? I think not. I hope not.
So let’s reflect on how each of us feels about where we are, how we got here and how and where we could be going afterwards.
The story of this pandemic is worldwide, of course, but it is also personal.
I don’t think I really began to understand the seriousness of the coronavirus, of what was happening and its consequences, until I looked out of my cottage window one early morning a few weeks ago.
I saw a dozen or so schoolchildren in wellies, walking down the lane with sacks over their shoulders on their way to feed the sheep, as they had been nearly every morning for the past 45 years.
I knew this was the last morning I would be seeing this. Normally I loved to see them out at work on the farm, it cheered my heart.
Staff outside St James’s University Hospital in Leeds wave to people applauding their work
One hundred thousand city children had been there before them, farmers for a week of their young lives. That morning I felt so overwhelmed with sadness that I had to look away.
I also had a very strong sense of deja vu. It took me a while to remember. In 2001, the charity my wife Clare and I had begun at Nethercott, near Iddesleigh in deepest Devon, Farms For City Children, had to shut down. Another epidemic was stalking the land: foot-and-mouth. The countryside was closing down. No visitors were allowed on farms. And that included our children from the cities.
Strange then that this thought gave me hope. Because that epidemic was a dark time for so many rural communities like ours. Memories came back, of the mass slaughter, the black smoke from burning cattle drifting along the valley, of farming friends living through hell. Yet it ended, this terrible epidemic. It seemed as if it never would, but it did. Hope springs eternal, with good reason. Hope and science and dedication ended that epidemic, just as they will end this one.
There have been two spikes of hope in my lifetime: the late 1940s and the 1960s.
Clare and I were children in the late 1940s and the 1950s: the 1944 Education Act, a National Health Service, a new young Queen, the Festival of Britain, Tenzing and Hillary climbing Everest, Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile – the fog of postwar gloom lifting slowly, with rationing, maybe, and bomb sites all around us, but with hope of a brave new world ahead.
And by the 1960s we could believe it was really happening, that we were part of a special time, that the times they really were a-changing. We could help make it happen.
People clap for the NHS from their balconies in Bristol at 8pm on March 26
In the flush of this optimism, committed and naive no doubt, and seeing the world ‘feelingly’ as we did, we, with some good friends and farmers, launched Farms for City Children to enrich the lives of our urban children.
And so for all these years they came to the farm, 35 at a time, soon to two other farms as well, because demand from schools was so great. They’d be planting and harvesting, looking after cows and sheep and pigs and horses and poultry, working alongside real farmers, living the country life. They’d stomp through the mud, scuffle leaves, break the ice in the puddles, hear buzzards mewing high in the sky, glimpse a heron lifting off the river, see swallows skimming over the meadows, watch sheep and cows giving birth.
And in the evenings I’d read stories to them in front of a log fire, and they’d listen, hot chocolate in hand. This was our life, Clare’s and mine. This was our dream.
And now at my window I was watching the last city children walk up the lane again, the last we would be seeing for months, for who knows how long.
Then I realised that thousands upon thousands of businesses – which of course are people – and individuals and charities up and down the land are going through the same dark times, the same trauma, the same deep sadness, the same uncertainty about employment and money, anxiety about protecting ourselves and everyone we know and love from the infection, as the epidemic spreads remorselessly. And I’m thinking, as many of us are: will there ever be an end to this?
Can our doctors and nurses and hospital workers and carers keep going? Can they, can we, somehow get through it? How can we get through this and come out the other side? And what will the other side look like? Are granny and grandpa all right? When will we see family and friends again? When will we hug them again?
Medical staff pictured rushing an 18-year-old coronavirus patient through a hospital
Befuddled by all these unanswerable questions, I remember two others: will there also be singing? Are we downhearted? Yes, to the first. No, to the second.
I sing often in the shower. Not a pretty sight, not a pretty sound. But in my resonant bathroom I can believe I sound like Pavarotti. And because I was singing, I was thinking positive thoughts in my shower. I will share them, for what they are worth.
Out of this cruel pandemic, despite all its appalling consequences, I have learnt great lessons. Were the skies and streets ever quieter? Do the birds not seem to sing more? Is the air not cleaner to breathe? Do we not feel more kinship with neighbours, with everyone about us, because we really are all in this together, Prince and Prime Minister, employed or unemployed, prisoner or rough sleeper?
Unable to see our friends and relations, do we not think of them more? Do we not take everyone less for granted, those who work to keep us fed, and cared for? Did we not forget just how good and kind and generous we can be, those who put themselves in danger to help those less able to help themselves?
Are we not discovering in ourselves and in others so much that we might have forgotten? And does this not give us hope and a fierce determination that, after this monster has finally been destroyed, and he will be, he will be, we can create a new world in which everyone matters, and a world and a life and a sense of community that are more precious to us, because we no longer take them for granted?
See, Mr Brecht? Your question should have been. ‘In the dark times, will there also be singing in the shower?’ Yes, Mr Brecht. Oh, yes.
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