I’ve got a new favourite song. It’s called I’m Gonna Get Lit Up When The Lights Go Up In London, and it dates from 1940. It’s about the London-wide street party that the song’s writer, the illustrious Hubert Gregg, was anticipating at the end of the Second World War and his intention to celebrate by getting so “lit up”, so “pickled”, so “canned” and so “stinking” that he would barely remember a thing.
According to an obituary of Gregg, the song didn’t go down entirely well at the top of British government. Winston Churchill’s enthusiasm for strong drink and his ability to read the public mood seem to have temporarily deserted him in his rather stiff response that the British people “shall celebrate in a manner befitting”, seemingly ruling out drunken oblivion.
But the song’s reputation experienced a bit of a turn around. It would be eventually be broadcast on the continent in 1944 as a radio signal to the resistance that D-Day was imminent.
Comparisons between the coronavirus outbreak and World War II have been plentiful and not always helpful. The language of war can be inappropriate for characterising illness – describing those that “beat” the invisible viral enemy as “fighters”, with the implication that those who weren’t as lucky were just not tough or committed enough, has obvious flaws.
But treating the virus like a national enemy can also be unifying, inspiring and effective. Rallying collective endeavour against something often works well with human beings. And the last war, which looms so large in our collective national memory even in normal times, is our go-to comparator for a time of national crisis.
There are similarities: the sudden, dramatic disruption to our daily lives; London and big cities being hit hardest; society divided into those at home and those on the front lines. But while the language of the crisis has been one of togetherness, this time we are required to experience it in isolation from one another – not forced together but kept apart.
And how we experience it varies hugely. Despite the Prime Minister’s illness prompting a surge in the easy line that “this virus does not discriminate”, it really does: directly, in terms of age, ethnicity and gender; indirectly, in terms of employment, region, neighbourhood, even the size and location of your family unit and its housing. But perhaps that was true also of wartime, if we’re honest with ourselves.
A notable difference has been the absence of serious rationing. For many, this has actually been a time of indulgence. Alcohol sales are notably up, with off licenses designated “essential” businesses. The ability to booze our loafs off at home, gazing into an increasingly fuzzy Zoom call, shouting incorrect quiz answers impotently at frozen family members over our stalling internet connections, is welcome. But, somehow, it’s not quite the same.
Will there be a Covid-19 “day zero”? A day where the enemy has been defeated, to be met with parties in the streets, friends and families reunited at once? This feels sadly improbable. The virus will not simply surrender when it becomes clear it is outnumbered. There will be no VE Day, rather some form of gradual, phased return to semi-normality.
So there will be no street parties, no dancing in the fountains. There will be no great liberation day on which London’s core is suddenly alive with joyous singing and revelry. There will certainly be no iconic image of strangers kissing amongst crowds. The mere thought of such proximity and the potential transfer of saliva sends a shudder down the spine.
It is entirely possible that by the time this is all over – and it will one day be over – we may feel differently anyway. The sales figures for supermarket booze do suggest that – to paraphrase the song – by the time this is all over, many of us will already have been “drunk for muns and muns and muns”. Perhaps nursing our collective hangovers in our parks, open spaces and great outdoors will be all we will feel up to by the time we are finally allowed out.
And it seems unlikely anyone will have much money to spend in the all-but-inevitable depression to follow. Perhaps we won’t feel much like celebrating anyway. Despite the language, this is not a war. It is a pandemic. It is a global tragedy.
So there will be no party. But there will be an end. The lights haven’t really gone out en masse in London this time round, except in the city’s core, where its most iconic attractions, squares and thoroughfares lie disconcertingly, unnaturally still. I can’t wait to see them again.
I love my neighbourhood and will fight to the death over its status as the best corner of our nation’s capital. But I miss the Strand. I miss Trafalgar Square. I even miss Piccadilly. And I am comforted by the thought that, one day, when enough time has passed, even if we have to keep our distance from one another, those of us who are able and so inclined will be lit up in London once again.
Jack Brown is a lecturer in London studies at King’s College and a Centre for London research manager. Follow Jack on Twitter.
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