Saturday, March 14, 2020


Yesterday I posted some jokes and memes about the coronavirus emergency, now upgraded by the World Health Organisation to a pandemic. In the last few days there have been some extraordinary effects and measures as each country seeks to contain the virus.  It is probably like trying to stop a flooded river that started off as a trickle. 

I have been persistently reminded of two stories . . . 

The first relates to our attempts in my office to try to minimise risk. We have brainstormed what we will do if we have to undergo a 14 day social isolation. We have configured computers to be able to work from home and stay in touch with each other, divert phones and so on. On the preventative side we have put protocols in place for constant sterilisation of hands, surfaces etc; no contact, especially handshaking; hand sanitising bottles for clients and staff at various places. At home we have curtailed out-of-home travel and attendances. Meanwhile life goes on, we turn up at work, go home and watch Netflix, go to the shops to get the basics, cook meals. 

In the novel, films and musical versions of War of the Worlds, the Martians leave their dying world to settle Earth. Gradually more and more of the cylinders arrive, complete with the terrible tripod machines. According to the Journalist, who is the narrator of the tale, “It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind.” With the Earth desolated and covered in red Martian weed and with only pockets of humanity surviving, the Martians suddenly begin dying. In the words of the Jeff Wayne musical version:
“. . . scattered about it, in their overturned machines, were the Martians - dead... slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things upon the Earth, Bacteria. Minute, invisible, bacteria! Directly the Invaders arrived and drank and fed, our microscopic allies attacked them. From that moment - they were doomed!” 
My point in mentioning it is not that the present situation is a reverse of that in War of the Worlds where the bacteria were the saviours but to mention that when the first cylinder landed on Horsell Common, the locals and the curious gathered to look. According to the Journalist: 
It seems totally incredible to me now, that everyone spent that evening as though it were just like any other. From the railway station came the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance. It all seemed so safe and tranquil. 
Are we in that situation now? 

Are we going on with our lives in the face of something potentially dreadful, ignorant of what is still to come?

Which brings me to the second literary reference. 

The Masque of the Red Death is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe that was published in 1842. 

Those who wish to read the story can do so by clicking on the following link: 

A plague known as the Red Death, so called because of the profuse bleeding associated with it, which causes those exposed to die within thirty minutes, is sweeping the domain of Prince Prospero. To escape, he gathers about him 1,000 of the knights and ladies of his court, taking refuge in an abbey with strong walls and iron gates which are then welded shut. There they intend to see out the plague in luxury and safety, indifferent to the sufferings of the population at large. After 6 months, Prospero holds a masquerade ball in seven of the abbey’s rooms, each decorated and illuminated in a different colour: blue, purple, green, orange, white, and violet. The last room is decorated in black and is illuminated by a scarlet light, "a deep blood colour" cast from its stained glass windows. Because of this chilling pairing of colours, very few guests are brave enough to venture into the seventh room. A large ebony clock stands in this room and ominously chimes each hour, upon which everyone stops talking or dancing and the orchestra stops playing. Once the chiming stops, everyone immediately resumes the masquerade. 

At the chiming of midnight, the revellers and Prospero notice a figure in a dark, blood-splattered robe resembling a funeral shroud. The figure's mask resembles the rigid face of a corpse and exhibits the traits of the Red Death. 

Gravely insulted, Prospero demands to know the identity of the mysterious guest so they can hang him. The guests, too afraid to approach the figure, instead let him pass through the six chambers. The Prince pursues him with a drawn dagger and corners the guest in the seventh room. When the figure turns to face him, the Prince lets out a sharp cry and falls dead. The enraged and terrified revellers surge into the black room and forcibly remove the mask and robe, only to find to their horror that there is nothing underneath. Only then do they realize the costume was empty. 

The final paragraph of the story: 
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all. 
So why am I drawn to this story at present? Because as we go through the motions of protecting ourselves from the virus, minimising the risks in whatever ways possible and planning contingencies, is Covid-19 in fact already amongst us as the Red Death was at Prospero’s masquerade? 

By the way . . . 

The Phantom on Phantom of the Opera is disguised as the Red Death at the masquerade ball.

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