The theatres are dark. The galleries are closed. No lights twinkle from within the pubs, cafes and restaurants that once brimmed with life…
Those out walking their dogs have a brief respite: an excuse to take to the streets. But police are out in force issuing fines to anyone who dares to drive out of their area to the countryside for a stroll, or meet for a coffee in a park, in a draconian measure to keep us all indoors in this grim battle against Covid-19.
Welcome to the New Dark Ages: a time of chronic bleakness in what is already one of the gloomiest periods of the year.
The days are growing shorter and there is not one, but a host of vaccines people pray will help defeat this invisible enemy which hovers like a toxic cloud over every breath we take.
As I write Britain has experienced a new record of 1,325 daily deaths and London Mayor Sadiq Khan has suggested every city dweller wears a mask – even outdoors.
But it is more than the physical restraints we now endure which suggest to me that we have entered a dark new period. (The Dark Ages was a phrase first coined in the 1330s by Italian scholar Petrarch who regarded the post-Roman centuries as lacking in hope and light. The concept came to characterise the entire Middle Ages as a time of intellectual darkness in Europe though this has since been revisited by some modern historians). It is our humanity which is imperilled.
It’s not that the world is a worse place today than it has been at other times in history. There have always been wars, plagues and impoverished populations living under tyranny and in fear, robbed and bullied by leaders elected to protect them.
But where do we look today to find the ‘light’? The pandemic has occurred at a time when we have had the maniacal Donald Trump, propagating his plague of lies, from the seat of the world’s only remaining Super Power, inciting division and hatred; a rise in the political far right across eastern Europe playing on people’s fear of immigration and anyone different from themselves. Across the world Governments seem increasingly eager to restrict individual freedoms.
You might argue that it has ever been thus. What is different now, however, is the pandemic and the way it has engendered fear and tribalism amongst people who are looking for someone to blame.
Nothing drives them – or the politicians eager to assert new controls – so greatly as an invisible plague. Suddenly they’re in charge of a population which wants to be told precisely what to do.
We have the Covid deniers – or as one friend put it ‘I’ll believe it’s truly terrible when we have plague wagons and people on the streets calling ‘bring out your dead’. (It may yet come to that.)
But in times of economic peril or plagues and disease the greatest threat comes from within ourselves: the overwhelming human impulses of violence, greed, corruption, nationalism, racism and religious intolerance that spring like a poisoned well to the surface.
Even Barack Obama, ever hopeful of the best in human nature, writes in his autobiography ‘A Promised Land’: ‘…I found myself asking…whether the all-too-human desire to beat back our own uncertainty and mortality and sense of insignificance by subordinating others – were too strong for any democracy to permanently contain.’
The threat of this New Dark Age can be vanquished. We are not on an irrevocable road to hell. But we should beware of allowing the pandemic to lure us into forsaking all our freedoms, our choices, and sleepwalking into it.
Several hundred years ago Petrarch (he who invented the term Dark Ages) neatly sums up our own current dilemma, and he was also not without hope. In the conclusion to his epic book Africa he writes: ‘My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.’
The world had to wait a while. But ultimately there came The Enlightenment; a rebirth of culture, art, and intellectual curiosity.
Perhaps it is true that it’s darkest before the dawn. Perhaps at the end of our current trials there’ll be a glorious renaissance of all we hold dear, and a new appreciation of how precious are all the freedoms most of us in this country have so long taken for granted.
Take a deep breath and hold on to that thought. It makes it easier to get out of bed and face the world in the morning.