Will there also be singing in the dark times? Bertolt Brecht, the great German poet and playwright, once asked the question.
We all know the answer: “You bet it will be there, Mister Brecht. There is singing from our windows, from our balconies and from the roofs. There will also be written, including texting and emailing and Skyping and Zooming and YouTubing, and applause. And dancing on the street when we can when it’s all over. ‘
We’ve been here before, in times even darker than this. We must remember that. But not in my memory and not in much of yours. Our parents and grandparents knew such times, and worse. And they sang their way through and out of their dark times. In the music hall days of World War I, there was a dazzling song, the chorus of which began as follows: ‘Are we depressed? No! Then let your voice ring and sing completely! Are we depressed? No!’
People in Woodford Green, London, join national applause for the NHS from their homes
Singing chases the demons of gloom and discouragement, makes us feel like we’re not alone, that we get through it. We do too, but what are we getting through? For the world as it was before? I do not think so. I hope not.
So let’s think about how each of us thinks about where we are, how we got here, and how and where we could go.
The story of this pandemic is of course worldwide, but also personal.
I don’t think I really began to understand the severity of the coronavirus, what happened, and its consequences, until I looked out my cottage window early an early morning a few weeks ago.
I saw a dozen schoolchildren in rain boots walking down the path with bags over their shoulders to feed the sheep, as they had been almost every morning for the past 45 years.
I knew this was the last morning that I would see this. Normally I enjoyed seeing them at work on the farm, it cheered my heart.
Employees outside of St James’s University Hospital in Leeds wave at people applauding their work
Hundred thousand city children had been there for them, farmers for a week of their young life. That morning I felt so overwhelmed with grief that I had to look away.
I also had a very strong feeling of deja vu. It took me a while to remember. In 2001, the charity that my wife Clare and I started in Nethercott, near Iddesleigh in deepest Devon, Farms For City Children, had to be closed. Another epidemic was the stalking of the land: foot-and-mouth disease. The countryside fell silent. Visitors were not allowed on farms. And that also applies to our children from the cities.
Strange that this thought gave me hope. Because that epidemic was a dark time for so many rural communities like ours. Memories came back, of the massacre, the black smoke of burning cattle roaming the valley, of peasant friends living through hell. Yet this terrible epidemic ended. It seemed like it would never happen, but it did. Hope springs forever, and rightly so. Hope and science and dedication put an end to that epidemic just as they will end it.
There were two hopes during my life: the late 1940s and 1960s.
Clare and I were children in the late 1940s and 1950s: the Education Act of 1944, a National Health Service, a new young queen, the Festival of Britain, Tenzing and Hillary climbing Everest, Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile – the fog of post-war the gloom is slowly rising, with rationing perhaps, and bomb locations all around us, but with hopes of a brave new world ahead.
And by the 1960s, we could believe that it really happened, that we were part of a special time, that times really changed. We can help make this possible.
People clap for the NHS from their balconies in Bristol at 26:00 on March 26
In the excitement of this optimism, no doubt committed and naive, and seeing the world “with feeling” as we did, we launched, with some close friends and farmers, Farms for City Children to enrich the lives of our urban children.
And so all these years they came to the farm, 35 at the same time, soon to two other farms, because the demand from schools was so great. They plant and harvest, care for cows and sheep and pigs and horses and poultry, work with real farmers and live in the countryside. They would stomp through the mud, shake leaves, break the ice in the puddles, hear buzzards meow high in the air, see a gleaming heron rise from the river, watch swallows skim over the meadows, give birth to sheep and cows.
And in the evening I read them stories by a fireplace and they listened, hot chocolate in hand. This was our life, Clare’s and mine. This was our dream.
And now I was looking at my window at the last city kids back on the track, the last we’d see for months because who knows how long.
Then I realized that thousands and thousands of companies – which are people of course – and individuals and charities across the country are going through the same dark times, the same trauma, the same deep sadness, the same uncertainty about employment and money, fear of ourselves and everyone we knowing and loving from the infection, while the epidemic is spreading relentlessly. And I think, as many of us are, will this ever end?
Can our doctors and nurses and hospital staff and caregivers continue? Can they, can we get through somehow? How can we get through this and get out the other side? And what does the other side look like? Is it okay with grandma and grandpa? When will we see family and friends again? When will we hug them again?
Medical personnel imagined that an 18-year-old coronavirus patient was rushed by a hospital
Baffled by all these unanswerable questions, I remember two more: will there be singing too? Are we depressed? Yes, until the first. No, until the second.
I often sing in the shower. Not a pretty sight, not a pretty sound. But in my resonant bathroom, I can believe I sound like Pavarotti. And because I sang, I thought of positive thoughts in my shower. I’ll share them for what they’re worth.
Despite all the terrible consequences, I have learned wonderful lessons from this cruel pandemic. Were the skies and streets quieter? Do the birds seem to no longer sing? Isn’t the air cleaner to breathe? Do we no longer feel kinship with neighbors, with everyone around us, because we are really all in this together, prince and prime minister, working or unemployed, prisoner or sleeper?
Can’t we see our friends and relationships, don’t we think about them anymore? Are we not going to take everyone for granted, those who work to feed and care for us? Have we not forgotten how good and kind and generous we can be, those who endanger themselves to help those who are less able to help themselves?
Do we not discover so much in ourselves and in others that we may have forgotten? And this doesn’t give us hope and a fierce determination that after this monster is finally destroyed, and he will be, he will be, we can create a new world where everyone matters, and a world and a life and a sense of community who are more precious to us because we no longer take them for granted?
See, Mister Brecht? Your question should have been. “Does the dark also sing in the shower?” Yes, Mr. Brecht. Oh yeah.