I’ve started keeping a coronavirus diary to while away the hours under lockdown. Samuel Pepys it ain’t. There are no raucous ballads in taverns and vanishingly few extramarital assignations with pot-boys in back-alleys, or whatever the female version of Pepys’s escapades would be. Entries are rather more trivial, of the “Sasha texted” or “Call from Mum” variety.
Alongside signs of the virus’s advance – friends taken ill, lying awake to the blaring of ambulance sirens – there is the banality of life cooped up; procrastination, fruitless attempts to resist gorging on the block of Cheddar in the fridge through sheer boredom (though Pepys, who famously tried to shield a valuable Parmesan from the flames of the Great Fire by burying it in his back garden, might have empathised).
While my mundane musings are unlikely to fascinate future generations, something compelled me to document this moment. The adage “History never looks like history when you are living through it” isn’t true of coronavirus. Fraught though this period is, we are keenly aware that these are extraordinary times.
Perhaps this is why the virus demands historical comparisons. Many invoke the Spanish flu or the Plague, despite our superior hygiene, medicine and communications. For Pepys, the plague year was one of the happiest of his life. As the bodies piled up, he enjoyed a euphoric few months; he was elected to the Royal Society, acquired a 12ft telescope and revelled in his sexual encounters. But, like us, Pepys was constantly worried about the disease’s spread. He lost friends, and kept a nervous eye on death rates, tracking the disease’s progress towards London; “The plague is very hot still, and encreases among the Dutch”, he noted in 1664.
Pepys even echoes our own social taboos. I longed for those out drinking last week to heed the diarist’s advice on best practice during a pandemic. “The taverns are fair full of gadabouts making merry this eve,” he observed. “Though I may press my face against the window like an urchin at a confectioner’s, I am tempted not by the sweetmeats within. A dram in exchange for the pox is an ill bargain indeed.”
Others have likened the current pandemic to the Second World War. The trouble with this analogy is that “Blitz spirit” hinged on community, whereas the coronavirus has the unpleasant effect of destroying many of our social networks. And where’s the heroism? Save for those fighting the disease on the front line and keeping essential services and food supplies going, our patriotic duty (staying in) is inherently dull. It’s hard to channel Douglas Bader or Vera Lynn when you’re sitting around in your pyjamas.
Coronavirus, then, is its own beast. But one thing remains certain. Looking back at when history was made is always fascinating; just as living through it is always trying. Perhaps one day, my children will ask: “What did you do during the coronavirus, Mummy?” To which I will reply: “Well, darling, I rearranged my bookshelves and binge‑watched Netflix.” Give me a few months and the answer will be more Pepysian: “I developed gout for my country.”
But however pedestrian the day-to-day reality, we are living through a supreme test of our national and global mettle. Events like last week’s will be discussed in 100 years’ time, just as dates like 1665 or 1918 or 1941 remain the highlights of preceding centuries. Time will tell how history will judge us.