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Corona Diaries: three more weeks – national resilience and cultural DNA

April 17, 2020

Three more weeks! What the hell are we going to do? Three more weeks of po-faced politicians and sanctimonious scientists repeating the same bloody slogans, and saying “today I can announce…” followed by yet another target that will never be achieved.

Three more weeks of videos – silly, heart-warming and heart-breaking. Of watching the news on telly every night. Of narcissistic celebs posting pictures of themselves at 20. Of tut-tutting at neighbours who don’t come out from behind their hedges to applaud the NHS. Of cooking bizarre sauces never previously known to man, usually with olives.

Three more weeks of domestic projects – painting woodwork, vacuuming crannies undisturbed since the fall of Troy, plotting evil things against the squirrels in the loft.

Time for a Captain Tom-style challenge perhaps. Three reruns of the entire Sopranos canon in a week while exercising on the cross-trainer? Memorising the entire script of The Life of Brian, with accents? Replying to every tweet from Donald Trump with an entirely new species of insults not seen before on the social media? Or perhaps a set of photos showing the progress of paint drying, taken every minute for three hours and posted on Facebook.

I fear that none of these worthy activities will raise £12 million for the NHS, but they might be fun in a grim kind of way. Better than emulating polar bears that bang their heads against walls in zoos.

No doubt we will knuckle down, just like the French, the Italians and the Spanish. By the way, I never thought that stoicism would emerge as part of the Italian character. From all the reports I’ve seen, the people of that beautiful country are responding to disaster with grace, dignity and resignation. Not so many people are singing from balconies, but they do have Andrea Bocelli, and they’re hanging in there.

Not so, it seems, in certain parts of America. In Ohio and Michigan there have been flag-decked cavalcades of cars, their drivers hooting horns in misery at not being allowed to visit the hairdressers and buy plant seeds. “My gaad, the only place we can shop is Walmart!”. On that score, I can understand their frustration.

Then there are the usual troupes of gun-toting extras from Planet of the Apes posing on the steps of civic buildings, brandishing their AR-14s atop bellies straining to break through their hunting jackets.

Now here’s a thought. New York is the city that’s suffering most in the US. As far as I’m aware the Big Apple has seen no such outbursts of libertarian exuberance. New Yorkers are behaving much as we Europeans are in London, Paris, Milan and Barcelona. Why should this be?

I do have an explanation, or rather a theory. Of all the cities in the continental United States, New York is the only one that in recent memory has suffered the trauma of burning buildings and bodies falling in the streets. 9/11 happened not so long ago, so there are plenty of people with vivid memories of that dreadful event. Have those memories conditioned their response to this crisis, and given them a resilience that other American cities lack?

And what of our cities? Most of us don’t remember the East End of London burning and the destruction of Coventry in the Second World War. Likewise, few of the people of Barcelona living today witnessed the Spanish Civil War. But it’s pretty clear to me that memories passed on through generations have re-written our cultural DNA, so that even without a well of personal experience we seem to be showing the same resilience in the face of an invisible threat as our forebears did as they coped with the all-too-obvious danger of incendiaries and high explosives.

Some of us in each of the four European countries most affected by the coronavirus have more recently experienced the fruits of terrorism, but nothing on the scale of the war that people like Captain Tom witnessed.

If the effect of cultural DNA stretches back that far, you would also expect the people of Richmond, Atlanta and Charleston, cities that suffered grievously in the American Civil War, to show the same qualities of stoicism and resilience as New York. But perhaps not every part of America, especially cities and states that might have lost their sons in foreign wars but have been untouched by tangible disaster on their doorsteps.

The idea of cultural DNA is not mine, I should point out. A few years ago, a chap called Gurnek Bains wrote a stimulating book on the subject. I reviewed it here, in case you’re interested. It’s quite a long post, but it gets to the point eventually.

I might be maligning the good people of Ohio and Michigan, by the way. Reports on the protests have suggested that they’ve been inspired by right-wing pressure groups funded by various billionaires. Which ones I can’t say, because I haven’t delved into the story deeply enough. But it could be that the honking cavalcades and loping gunmen have nothing to do with the resilience of the population and everything to do with polarising influence directly or indirectly inspired by you know who.

Fortunately, at the risk of sounding complacent, deeply divided as we British are politically, there’s nothing the political fringes can exploit that’s likely to bring us out on the streets. Over the past few years, the usual stuff about inequality, incompetent government and how it’s all the EU’s fault has left us too exhausted at this point to stream out of our homes in anger and risk PC Plod’s retribution.

We also have secret weapons that keep us relatively calm. We have loo rolls from Tesco. We have a highly-developed sense of humour. And if we don’t exactly share a sense of national unity, we can and do unite in admiration for all the steadfast people who, despite their fear for their own personal safety, are keeping us fed, getting us to work and saving our lives.

That focus on people who have it worse than most of us will probably be enough to see us through the next few weeks and beyond. The lack of hairdressers? Not a problem for me, I’m glad to say.

From → History, Politics, Social, UK, USA

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