A friend is mourning his mother, who has died of the coronavirus. He posts a photograph of her in her final days. She looks serene and slightly otherworldly, very beautiful, and with a faint twist of disdain on her lips as if she is saying, ‘This damn virus is not going to defeat me’.
But it did in the end and my friend is devastated and I felt oddly sad reading his words of heartbreak – even though I’d never met his mum and I haven’t seen him for years, I felt the acute melancholy of another great, adored spirit lost.
He said the thing which all of us say when another of the old people goes; he said that they don’t make them like that any more. And he’s right. They were such a generation. They’d known the war, and I think that made the difference to everything. They were familiar with terror and grief in ways that later generations can hardly imagine.
We moderns blithely talk about whether narcissistic, power-crazed politicians are a bit like Hitler; the old people actually had Hitler, just across the Channel, plotting their destruction. They would have heard his deranged voice on the wireless; they would have seen their fathers and uncles go off to try and stop him rolling his tanks across Europe like a monstrous metal wave; they would have peered anxiously up into the sky in fear that his stormtroopers were about to arrive by parachute.
It’s often forgotten how real the invasion scare was. People truly thought, in the early days of the war, that the Nazis were coming at any moment. All kinds of lunatic contingency plans were hatched. I can’t remember the precise details, but I think Churchill was to be whisked to America or Canada whilst the Special Auxiliary Units and the left-behind crews did as much damage as they could to slow the advance. These men merrily referred to their planned sabotage activities as ‘scallywagging’, appeared to accept without complaint that their life expectancy after the Germans landed would be twelve days and, when the invasion did not come, went on to join various branches of the Special Services. Along with the men, who would do the blowing up and the assassinating and the causing of general mayhem, women and children were recruited to act as runners and wireless operators and communications operatives between networks. They leave hardly a trace behind them.
I think: just stop for a moment and imagine that.
And then I think of now, and the strange cadre who say that the old people should just die. I know they are not really meaning it in the heartless way it sounds. I know they don’t really want the virus to rip through the population, culling the ancient and the weak as it goes. They are looking at numbers and calculating costs and thinking of the shattered dreams of the small businesses and the self-employed and the people who simply can’t work from home. I hope they are thinking that. I hope they are thinking about mental health and the crisis of loneliness. I do hope so. Because they sound so cold when they make their certain statements and disdain the rest of us who don’t think the same.
I can guarantee you that my friend would have given anything for a few more days with his mum. I would have given anything for a few more days with mine, who died, quite naturally, five years ago. I would give anything for one more story, for one more smile, for one more chance of making her laugh. (And I did make her laugh.)
I think of all the extraordinary life experience and accumulated wisdom that this last generation holds. I think of all the things they have seen and all the lessons they have learned. I think of the hard stoicism they had to teach themselves, because there really weren’t many shrinks in those days to help them through their losses and their traumas and their world turned upside down.
During the American election Joe Biden talked, rather movingly, about the empty chairs the pandemic has left; all those empty chairs round the kitchen table where people once sat and talked and laughed. The old generation had so many empty chairs. They couldn’t go and get therapy; there weren’t TED talks about resilience or a hundred self-help books available on Amazon. They simply had to get on with it, as rationing went on forever and the children picked their way through bombed-out houses as they made their way to school and nobody, let alone the Treasury, had any money. (Well, there were the few hard-faced men who did well out of the war, but mostly Britain was broke.)
And then, just as they were finding their feet again, there was the humiliation of Suez and the hotting up of the Cold War and, after that, the bitter violence of the IRA, so that even going to hear a band play on a sunny day in Regent’s Park was not safe.
But on they went, through it all, cracking jokes and hiding their sorrows and making the best of it.
They were brought up to make the best of it, and I think we younger ones can learn something from that.
I don’t think we should let the old people die, for the good of the herd, even if it could be proved that the herd would benefit. I think we should cherish them and protect them and keep them going for as long as we possibly can. I think we should ask them for one more story, because they have the best stories. They fought their way through a greater darkness than I shall ever know, and I’d love to know how they did that. I’d like to take a PhD in Making the Best of It, and that was their special subject.