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Coronavirus: The Blitz mentality inspired by music

by Nik Gowing

Filed under Coronavirus

Thinking the Unthinkable is regularly posting personal stories and leadership insights on the Coronavirus pandemic so that everyone can benefit from the experiences of others. Please share your stories either by adding your comment below or email us at contact@thinkunthink.org

This posting is one of a series from TtU Founder and Director Nik Gowing.

Three hours after the latest doom-laden Downing Street Covid-19 briefing there was a Blitz mentality in our south London community. The life we take for granted was being shut down.

Hitler’s doodlebugs weren’t overhead. The unseen enemy of coronavirus was stalking us all. No one knew with who or where.

Almost defiantly, 150 of us gathered in St Mary’s Church Barnes. Suddenly this would be the last performance of the Barnes Music Festival halfway through its planned two week programme. It was a stunning evening of music none of us will forget in the grim weeks ahead.

It reminded me of the stubborn and heroic cellist of Sarajevo Vedran Smailovic. During the siege of Sarajevo in the early 90s he defied snipers and mortars to play in public spaces. He often wore a bow tie. Sometimes he was in white tie and tails.

Yes: none of us will forget. Violinist Henry Chandler and pianist John Paul Ekins were inspirational and brilliant. The defiance added edge to their extraordinary performances of Beethoven, Schubert and Cesar Franck.

John spoke at the start: only when you start to lose things and they disappear do you realise how much you value them. Like almost everyone there, his diary was now empty. That meant no more playing, and no fee income indefinitely. But he and Henry were still determined to bring us joy in adversity. And wow! Did they do that!

The unspoken issues among us all: first, who in the church would become infected? Second, how many in this well-off community would start running out of money, how fast and when? “When we grew up we had a rainy day fund,” confided a close friend. “These days no one ever thinks of that, especially the NextGen: people assume that things will always be good and positive.” Not now.

Spending power will drain from our community as fast as the Thames flood waters nearby. How fast would our economy implode and the charmed lives of many vaporise? No one is immune, whether the well-off or those whose lives are always a struggle. Who will even have a job and source of income to pay the basics 2-3 weeks from now?

Henry and John did not want to end the concert. Like a good rock gig, they kept playing with an encore. The applause was even louder.

And then the coda. “That’s it,” said John standing by his keyboard. No more live playing in public. But they had an idea. Two things will happen. “No work now. If you can’t come to concerts, we will try to come to you.” Somehow John and Henry’s music friends will come together digitally “and we will play music for you”. Yet more loud applause, even if the way that will happen is unclear.

The Blitz spirit was here in Barnes. I had already heard Dame Joan Bakewell, now 86, telling various TV and radio outlets from self isolation in her North London home that she remembers the Blitz.

I return home to watch the news. Professor Neil Ferguson the epidemiologist from Imperial College reveals the new “catastrophic” modelling that predicts 250,000 possible deaths in the UK. Health Minister Helen Whatley makes clear “we are asking people to make big changes to their lives”. But John Kay in Bristol meets remaining pub and restaurant goers. One is “not scared, more annoyed”. Another says “I do not think anyone gets we have to change and the impact on our lives”.

In Rome Mark Lowen interviews via FaceTime the daughter of her 85-year-old mother, a covid-19 victim who had to be buried without a funeral. “In a war you can see the enemy. This is worse,” says the daughter as she wipes her tears. Across the Atlantic Nick Bryant describes an atmosphere in New York that is “Apocalyptic. Not real”. In the usual “cross roads” of Times Square “now no one wants to meet there any more”.

“We have not faced this kind of public health threat since 1918,” is the stark message from Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust on Newsnight.

Is any one out there not yet getting this message? They will when suddenly – like tens of thousands working for airlines - they have no job, no income, no money and huge numbers of friends and colleagues are no longer in public circulation. I am stunned this morning when a leading professional in the finance world phones and tells me “this is all being overdone”.

A day earlier we planted a prunus cherry tree in our garden. We want to have the possibilities for bright colours even if the prospects for us all are grey and colourless. We wait for the blossom. We bought the sapling after we visited a pharmacy. We saw three staff wearing both face masks and visors “to ensure we can keep our service going”. These images and experiences ram home the societal horror and upset that now threatens. It is not a blip.

Today after Henry and John’s uplifting concert we turn to how to make our community stronger. Even at two metres distance or on the phone and WhatsApp we must connect with our neighbours in ways many of us have never done. My wife has delivered the notes. The replies of gratitude and relief are already coming in.

But the inspired concert from Henry’s violin and John’s piano has given us heart, with sounds and images to keep us going for whatever war time Coronavirus has now inflicted upon us.

Thank you.

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