It’s hard to escape the wartime metaphors. Britain is waging war against coronavirus, COVID-19. Health workers are on the front line, their health and lives at risk in a fight to protect us all.
Meanwhile, a Conservative government is about to commit mind-blowing sums to save businesses and jobs – rightly so. We’ve seen nothing like it since the second world war. Only the state can find the extraordinary sums needed to get us through the next six months.
We in Britain are facing the fact we won’t be travelling to so many places we love – Italy, France, Spain and beyond – for some time. My mind went back to my father’s generation, who found themselves cut off from the continent when war broke out in 1939. (Although they didn’t have the chance to travel as far and as often as we have become used to.)
The British journalist James Cameron gave a radio talk on the BBC in January 1941 that spoke eloquently of the sense of loss in being separated from the continent and precious places and people. He told listeners:
“The thing that troubled me most … was that I wouldn’t be able to go to France. I insist on thinking of Armege, and the dusty white road south, and a barrel of cider coming over the pavé on a wooden cart. There will be no more river-fish cooked in the Hotel du Cerf Blanc – but we shall have it again, somewhere, sometime.”
So said James Cameron almost 80 years ago. And so say all of us in 2020, as we live with a hidden enemy that has closed down everyday life in Britain even more than the human enemies of the past. We shall return to the banks of Liffey, the hills of Tuscany and the dusty roads of la France profonde.
Postscript: historian AJP Taylor told in his autobiography how he left his car in France in 1939 in the rush to get home on the outbreak of war. He went back a week later to collect it. It was the Nazi invasion of the Low Countries and then France from 10 May onwards that cut Great Britain off.