Friday, 3 April 2020

The plagues of Britain: the Black Death



The Black Death has the dubious distinction of being in all likelihood the worst disaster in British history. Probably a lethal cocktail of bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic plague (though not all historians agree), it carried off perhaps a third of the population after coming to England from the East in 1348.

Spread by fleas carried on the black rat, and perhaps originating in Central Asia, it was first noticed in the West Country, and may have arrived at Melcombe Regis, now effectively part of Weymouth. Across the country, so many priests died that there were not enough to hear people’s final confessions, so the church said people about to die could unburden themselves to a lay person, and in extremis, ‘even to a woman’.

One of the consequences of the appalling mortality was a dramatic decline in respect for authority – particularly that of the church. The clergy often banged on about how the plague was God’s punishment for people’s bad behaviour, but the line did not go down very well, and at Yeovil, for example, the local bishop found himself besieged in his church by an angry crowd armed with bows and arrows.

London was by far the biggest city in the country, and there, as in other places, the numbers of dead overwhelmed the authorities, and many bodies were just shovelled into mass graves. Food supplies started to dry up as carters refused to come to the city, and Londoners had to go out into the countryside to search for supplies. This lack of social distancing helped spread the pestilence.

For more, see my book A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press).

Friday, 27 March 2020

Coronavirus's ancestors: the plagues of Ancient Britain



Many epidemics must have afflicted Ancient Britain without leaving any mark on history. Perhaps the first that any historians speak of with any confidence came in AD 166 when Roman Britain, particularly London, may have been attacked by the Plague of Galen (named after the physician who described it), brought back by soldiers who had been fighting in the East.

It could have been smallpox or measles. No one is sure, but some historians believe it played a part in a major decline in London’s population, exacerbated by a great fire or a series of fires.

Nearly six centuries later, the ‘father of English history’, the Venerable Bede (pictured above), a monk in Jarrow, recorded a number of epidemics. Were they bubonic plague or some other disease? Again no one really knows.

Bede wrote of a sudden ‘severe plague’ falling on the Britons in 426-7. It ‘destroyed such numbers of them, that the living were scarcely sufficient to bury the dead.’ In 664, he says that ‘a sudden pestilence…..depopulated the southern coasts of Britain’ and then spread right up to Northumbria where it ‘ravaged the country far and near, and destroyed a great multitude of men.’

This was such a shock, according to Bede, that it helped to revive heathenism, as many ‘forsook the mysteries of the Christian faith and turned apostate’. The next year, pestilence ravaged Essex, and in 681, a ‘grievous mortality ran through many provinces of Britain’.

For more, see my book, A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press).


Sunday, 22 March 2020

Coronavirus: a lesson from history



‘The plague,’ wrote Samuel Pepys, ‘made us as cruel as dogs one to another.’ The famous diarist lived through the Great Plague of 1665 which killed perhaps 100,000 in London, a fifth of the population. It also raged outside the capital. More than a sixth of the inhabitants of Cambridge are said to have died, a quarter in Norwich, between a quarter and a third in Dover, a third in Newark and some claimed it was one person in two in Southampton.

I have just come back to the UK from a short time abroad, and Pepys’ words leapt into my mind as I traipsed around a series of supermarkets looking at empty shelves. No pasta, no rice, no canned foods, no chicken, precious little fruit and veg. Even items like lentils, buckwheat and quinoa, which do not normally appear to be in great demand, had been cleaned out.

Back in 1665, the elite often got out of the cities. In Southampton, the deputy mayor and 16 other local officials were fined for deserting their posts. Infected people and their families were locked up in their houses. The authorities were supposed to provide food for them, but the money ran out, and as those being incarcerated began resisting, sometimes violently, the practice had to be abandoned.

Carts collected corpses with cries of ‘bring out your dead’ and as coffins and even shrouds got scarce, bodies were flung naked into plague pits. If you want to know more about the Great Plague, see my books London’s Disasters and A Disastrous History of Britain (The History Press).

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Friday, 6 March 2020

Brexit and coronavirus



On the radio the other day, Edward Argar, a health minister in Boris Johnson’s government, said its approach to dealing with the coronavirus would be ‘evidence-based’. As distinct from its approach to Brexit which will be based on ignoring all evidence and ploughing on blindly to disaster.

Indeed, ignoring evidence is not nearly enough, and needs to be supplemented by suppressing evidence wherever possible by, for example, making sure the government does no proper assessment of what Brexit is going to cost you, and keeping the Russia Report under lock and key.

Evidence-based approach to coronavirus or not, Johnson has pulled the UK out of the EU’s pandemic warning system because it would ‘cross Brexit red lines’. Good job Brexiters are all immune from the virus, eh?

Pip! Pip!

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Brexitwatch: Margaret Thatcher - Boris Johnson's part in her downfall



When Brexiters and Johnsonites talk about Margaret Thatcher, they tend to speak in tones of hushed reverence, but thanks to some good work by the Guardian on newly released papers, we now know that our current prime minister and the person most to blame for Brexit played a crucial role in bringing her down.

It is not mentioned much these days, but for most of her career, Thatcher was unambiguously pro-European – campaigning enthusiastically for Remain in the 1975 referendum and then perhaps doing more than anyone else to create the Single Market.

But by 1990, she and her party were losing popularity and divisions over Europe among her colleagues were beginning to surface, so Thatcher decided to throw the anti-EU contingent a bit of red meat (sound familiar?)  

The supplier was the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent on what was then called the EC (European Community), one Boris Johnson, who was known for writing highly entertaining anti-Brussels stories, which often had the drawback of being made up.

Johnson had attacked the European Commission president, Jacques Delors (a favourite bĂȘte noire of the right-wing press - 'Up Yours, Delors!' etc) claiming that he was endangering our sovereignty. The Foreign Office drew the article to Thatcher’s attention with a warning that it wasn’t true.

But Thatcher used it as the basis of her famous: ‘No! No! No!’ speech, which alarmed her more sensible MPs and ministers. (Note for younger readers: in those days some leading figures in the Conservative Party actually cared about what was in the interests of the UK.) And within a month, Britain’s first woman prime minister was gone.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Brexitwatch: Waiting for the German Carmakers by Samuel Beckett



In what's being described as the literary sensation of the century, I have discovered a hitherto unpublished play by Samuel Beckett, the great Irish dramatist, who wrote in English and French. Entitled 'Waiting for the German Carmakers', its central characters are two tramps - Johnson and Davis.

Davis says he was also 'Secretary of State for (being unable to deliver) Brexit', while Johnson claims to be 'Prime Minister', though as his constant telling of ever more outrageous lies is a joke that runs through the play, it is not clear whether he is to be believed.

Because of the constrains of copyright, I can reproduce only the final scene of the play, which features one other character, a messenger boy named Farage, who says he's English, but has a French name and a German passport, and whose money (or at least the part we know about) all comes from Europe.

Davis and Johnson stand aimlessly by roadside. Enter Farage stage very far right. 

DAVIS: You have a message from the German carmakers?
FARAGE: Yes. They won't save you today.
DAVIS: But will they save us tomorrow?
FARAGE: Yes.
DAVIS: Without fail?
FARAGE: Yes

Farage exits even further far right. 

JOHNSON: Let's go and apply to rejoin the EU.
DAVIS: We can't.
JOHNSON: Why not?
DAVIS; Because we're waiting for the German carmakers! (Aside) And because Cummings would beat your head in.
JOHNSON: Ah, yes!

Davis and Johnson continue to stand aimlessly for a few moments. Then with sudden animation Johnson grabs Davis by the fraying lapels of his disintegrating jacket.

JOHNSON (shouting). Shut up about the German carmakers! They're not going to save us! But I don't care! I know I said we're going to have frictionless trade, but we're not! We're going to have trade with loads of friction! In fact, we won't have any trade at all! F**k business! I'm still the World King, and everyone has to obey me! Except Cummings, of course, oh and Putin, and Trump,

The curtain descends as Johnson continues to declaim his list with growing irritation as his voice fades into the distance

and Scotland, all right and Northern Ireland, Wales........