Flickering optimism


(Vera Brittain and her brother Edward, 1915: https://spartacus-educational.com/Jbrittain.htm )

‘Words of grief become almost meaningless in these days, they have to be used so frequently. But one does not feel any the less. Sorrows do not grow lighter because they are many.’[1] This is Vera Brittain, writing in June 1915, less than a year into the First World War, in which Brittain’s fiancé, younger brother and two close friends were all killed.

It’s a little over three months since the first death from Covid-19 was reported in the UK. We are 50,000–60,000 deaths further on from that now. A smallish island off the west coast of Europe which has seen the second highest total of Covid-19 deaths in the world. Second only to the United States, so little more needs to be said—except, perhaps, that this government’s domestic approval rating is the lowest in the world, nestling beside Mexico’s and below—below!—that of Donald Trump’s America.

There have been several notable shocks to the system in the last week or two – in this time of pretty constant shocks to the system. Perhaps the first was the Health Secretary claiming that the UK government did the right things at the right time – which surely took the breath away of any sentient being who had been paying attention. Secondly: the Prime Minister asserting that he was proud of the way this country and his government had dealt with the pandemic.

The third thing was an article in the New Statesman by Edward Docx—together with some of the responses to it on the letters page of the next week’s issue—about intensive care consultant Dr Jim Down and his colleagues dealing with the pandemic at its absolute peak of deaths from Covid-19 in hospitals, in harrowing and quite impossible conditions, with breathtaking and humbling courage, skill and devotion. It was a devastating article which should be – but, alas, won’t be – read by everybody.

New Statesman (29 May – 4 June 2020), 24-33.


(Raoul Peck, I Am Not Your Negro)

The fourth thing was watching again the superb Raoul Peck documentary centred on the remarkable James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, which blew me away the first time and—well, well—blew me away the second time too. I felt just as sickened as the first time around by the footage of racist cops beating Rodney King, and by that lonely walk of Dorothy Counts through a rabid mob of white folks brave enough to scream and spit at a fifteen-year-old girl. I found it worryingly difficult to distinguish recent footage of murderous racist violence from historic footage of murderous racist violence—and very hard to differentiate American police and armed militia.

The fifth thing was footage and stills of, and commentary on, the toppling and sinking of the statue of Edward Colston in my home city of Bristol. My initial doubt about the way in which it happened centred on whether too much had been given away to reactionary elements in this country and beyond. I think now that the positive responses and effects since then have clearly outweighed that consideration, helped by some lucid and insightful pieces by historians, notably David Olusoga:

Hannah Rose Woods has a good piece too:

So even now, in the midst of a pandemic, with our flailing government and with appalling scenes in the United States still streaming across our screens, it’s hard not to feel a flicker of optimism that something might finally be changing for the better, that George Floyd’s killing will not simply be remembered as yet one more police killing of a black individual – because enough people have decided that they will not allow that, and are acting on their decision.


[1] Entry for Thursday 10 June 1915, Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain’s War Diary 1913–1917, edited by Alan Bishop (London: Gollancz, 1981), 206.


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