Friday, December 24, 2010
Musings on the Plague at Christmas
The definition of Sod's Law is this. I was smugly boasting to my boss about how I have taken no sick days in 2010, last week.
On Monday when I woke up I felt like somebody had placed an anvil in my head; not a big, old dirty one from a backsmith's but a bijou designer anvil. It still hurt.
Add to the pounding headache, an itchy throbbing nose, watery eyes, a hacking cough and a regular need to sneeze and you get the picture.
I was also incredibly irritable. My wife didn't pick up on any change.
I made it to work but only so as I could drone into the phone at people who replied: "Sorry, I don't understand you."
Getting Tuesday off work wasn't a problem because I still had a year's allowance of sick days. But I like to make a cast iron case by groaning loudly and limping (did I tell you flu also gives me a limp?) and then playing the nuclear option which involves a performance of one's most runny and contagious sounding sneeze close to one's boss.
This normally prompts the response: "Maybe you should have tomorrow off," as she wipes off her keyboard.
Illnesses of the most basic kind serve to remind us how fragile we really are as humans. They are also good at securing sufferers a space on a crowded public transportation system, as I found out in London.
But when people who are laid up with an illness tell you they have "the Plague" it's always a good idea to indulge in some improptu re-education. I would suggest finding the nearest imposing piece of headgear, a top hat or the like, grabbing a copy of Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year and addressing them in a booming voice along the lines of: "You most certainly do not, Sir (or Madame, if the malingerer happens to be a lady)."
A quick reading of the biography of Defoe suggests he fitted more into a short-ish 17th and 18th Century life than any 100-year-old you care to hunt down at one's nearest nursing home (admittedly not a traditional Christmas activity). Defoe wrote countless works, was involved in numerous controversies and managed to father eight kids of which six survived.
He also wrote the puncy sounding work: "A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal the Next Day after her Death to One Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury the 8th of September, 1705."
He failed on a number of occasions to land a job as a headline writer on a tabloid newspaper.
In A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe recounts the horror of plague afflicted London in 1665 when the bubonic plague struck brought over, like most of the ills of modern society, from the Netherlands.
in one vignette, he describes a victim who took matters into his own hands. "But after I have told you, as I have above, that one man, being tied in his bed, and finding no other way to deliver himself, set the bed on fire with his candle, which unhappily stood within his reach, and burnt himself in his bed; and how another, by the insufferable torment he bore, danced and sung naked in the streets, not knowing one ecstasy from another; I say, after I have mentioned these things, what can be added more?"
"What can be said to represent the misery of these times more lively to the reader, or to give him a more perfect idea of a complicated distress?"
Not very much. Defoe succeeded admirably in his grim task, although his account is a fictional one based on the diaries of his nephew.
Defoe describes a chuchyard in Aldgate, curiously a place I have driven past, quiet and half forgotten about now, but the ground zero of the plague in 1665.
Makeshift pits had been dug in the cemetery but with 200-400 bodies being thrown in in the course of a week, the pits were inadequate. In the end the authorities instead dug what Defoe describes as a "dreadful gulf" for the dead.
At the site of a great pit in open fields in Finsbury "some came and threw themselves in, and expired there, before they threw any earth on them; and that when they came to bury others, and found them there, they were quite dead, though not cold."
The Great Plague killed about 100,000 people, 20 percent of London's population, although it was on a far smaller scale than the Black Death pandemic of the 14th Century.
Happy Christmas everybody.