The coronavirus pandemic has been a global and a national crisis, but London has experienced its effects in particular ways. One has been about timing – the capital has repeatedly peaked or troughed at different stages from the rest of the nation. It has been difficult to tell if it is ahead, behind, or simply different. But there is an emerging consensus that London is past the peak of this particular wave and entering a new phase of the pandemic – perhaps even the end.
There is renewed talk of “living with the virus” and some of ending free mass testing. The old favourite about getting back to the office to kickstart the economy is so familiar as to be almost comforting, though once stuck in your head it gets a bit irritating. We have been here before, of course. Here’s hoping we are now finally heading for sunlit uplands, but who really knows? What is clear is that the capital has been through a substantial, in many cases devastating, period of upheaval and tragedy.
I read Professor Jerry White’s masterful Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War, published in 2014, with that in mind. It is rammed full of insights about how Londoners experienced that particular intense, terrifying period, just over a century ago. The pandemic is absolutely not a war and the analogies can be tedious. But reading White’s excellent book, I couldn’t help compare and contrast the London of 1914-18 with the London of the 2020s.
The most obvious point of similarity is the cessation of everyday normality for most (though not all) Londoners, and the continual, haunting presence of widespread loss of life hanging over the capital. White paints a vivid portrait of a London simultaneously remote from the theatre of war and an engine room for – perhaps even an extension of – the Western Front.
Wounded soldiers flooded back via the capital’s great railway stations to be treated in the city’s hospitals, and the sight of ambulances transporting wounded and disfigured men was commonplace. Rolls of honour and other tributes to the war dead emerged, as did daily news of further casualties at key points in the conflict. Air raids, initially from Zeppelin airships and later from aeroplanes, added to the death toll, killing 668 Londoners, wounding nearly 2,000 and making city life anxious and distressing for millions.
Miserable Christmases and muted New Year celebrations are a shared theme of the London of just over 100 years ago and the London of the last couple of years. So too are quiet streets: night-time blackouts left the roads dangerous and the streets almost empty, a phenomenon usually associated with World War II and the Blitz. In 2020, of course, eerily empty streets in famously bustling central districts became a feature of the daytime.
White’s description of the draconian measures and restrictions on everyday life brought in under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) also rang a bell. The repurposing of industrial facilities for war uses is fairly widely known, and there are echoes of it now. I was more surprised to read of the donation of expensive private properties to provide extra hospital beds for injured officers, and the repurposing of playing fields and empty land to grow food.
There was panic buying at the start of the war, as with the start of the pandemic, although it too soon calmed down. In the war’s later stages food shortages saw widespread queuing for margarine, meat or tea on London’s streets. An early form of limited rationing addressed this issue – another expansion of the role of the state requiring huge a bureaucratic effort. But while the Londoners of the 2020s have experienced long queues for supermarkets and, more recently, for petrol, we have not seen formal rationing (even if some shops admirably introduced and enforced their own informal toilet paper quotas).
I was surprised to learn that hospitality sector suffered somewhat during the World War I, albeit for different reasons. A slightly condescending puritanism cited workers’ alcohol consumption as holding back the war effort. Minister for munitions David Lloyd George claimed the nation was fighting three enemies: Germany, Austria and drink. Beer was weakened, liquor controls introduced and pub opening hours severely restricted. I was amused to see that a half-hour of extra “drinking up’ time after the 9:00 pm alcohol curfew was extended to diners at the Reform Club, provided they were also eating – a distant ancestor of the “substantial meal” clause reprised in pubs across the land to great acclaim and success during Covid.
In an age where information travelled mainly by newspaper, wireless and word of mouth it is perhaps unsurprising that rumours and hearsay swirling around the city constantly. Some whispered that Zeppelins would never bomb the capital on a full moon; others said they would never visit at all, as the Kaiser had family in London. Then, when they did arrive, there was word that they were dropping poisoned sweets in the hope that young Londoners would eat them. One “hysterical Sunday” in March 1917 saw panic on London’s streets following rumours of German forces landing on the east coast. Today, Londoners have much more information at their fingertips, so word-of-mouth rumours can be instantly dispelled – the issue now is discerning between legitimate and illegitimate sources.
The city’s natural propensity to rumour and gossip hardly lessened by the bizarre decision of those in power not to provide Londoners with advance warnings about air raids. Whilst select institutions were informed by Scotland Yard when Zeppelins and, later, bomber planes were spied by the Admiralty arriving at the coast, Londoners en masse were deliberately not informed. It was thought panic would ensue or that too many false alarms would prove disruptive to work and life. White argues powerfully that “the authorities were hidebound by a mistrust of the loyalty, goodwill and common sense of the Londoners that had much of class fear and contempt about it”. Perhaps comparisons with recent events here are best left to the reader.
White’s summary of the war’s legacy is particularly interesting. Anti-German (and wider anti-“alien”) sentiment manifested in a number of unpleasant ways during wartime, leaving London a more insular, less diverse city at its end. But the war brought a huge and lasting step forward in working class living standards and the rights of female Londoners. There was also a great deal of pushback against those accused of “profiteering” from the war: an “excess war profits tax” on entrepreneurs was introduced in 1915. By 1918 London was a much more equal place in terms of opportunities and outcomes for those who remained. I am not sure that the same will be said of the pandemic.
Of course, the jubilation and peace did not last very long. I’m about to get started on White’s The Battle of London, which deals with the capital in the World War II. It’s a reminder, perhaps, not to get ahead of ourselves with celebrating the end of this particular crisis – but also, if you are a glass-half-full person, that London has been through many past crises and survived.
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