It’s a shock when the whole world is forced to hold its breath, reflect, take a good look at our standards and our lifestyle. We are so addicted to busyness that we cannot allow ourselves a moment of nothing to do and nowhere to go. Now we are forbidden to do most things and prohibited from going anywhere, many of us, who are not key workers or who do not have caring and parenting responsibilities, have that precious element we have forgotten to value: time to think.
One of the paradoxes of the age we live in is that despite all our advances in knowledge, especially in science and technology, we have never surpassed the geniuses of the past. Nobody has ever out-written Shakespeare. No one has ever outdone the discoveries of Isaac Newton. How did they achieve so much? What we do know is that there were moments in their lives, too, when they had to self-isolate in quarantine, and in their enforced idleness they had time to think.
The bubonic plague was grim, but we may owe it a huge debt. Because in the summer and autumn of 1606 the plague struck London, closing the Globe and all the other theatres, and killing Shakespeare’s landlady. During that year Shakespeare himself was in lockdown, and the result? The towering tragedy, King Lear, was written and first performed that year.
In 1666 the plague returned, and Isaac Newton, a student in Cambridge, did what many do today: escaped the city for his country home, Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire. There he came up with his major discoveries in calculus, optics and of course, watching the apple fall from the tree, gravity. He said at the time that it was his annus mirabilis, “For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since.” Freed from the schedules and agendas of a Cambridge student, his mind had time to roam free.
Watching over Skype as my grandsons are being home schooled made me realise how much creativity is being released with self-isolation. We may not all have the capacity to write King Lear or discover gravity, but something good may come out of it. Especially if we all write diaries. When Samuel Pepys gives us the most vivid description of the fire of London in 1666 that put a stop to the plague, we relive it with him. So we all, as we sit imprisoned in our home should be writing our life stories, our school experiences, our first days at work, the moments that bring history to life.
We may not all have the capacity to write King Lear or discover gravity, but something good may come out of it.
The hoarders among us have the perfect opportunity to collect the heaps of photographs that clutter our shelves and put them in order for posterity, label them on the back, and stick them in albums, our legacy to Antiques Roadshow of the future. Musicians have the time to write their greatest symphony. Artists may not be allowed to paint their favourite model — being a muse is not perhaps regarded as an essential occupation — but they can go out and paint their surroundings as a record of this especially glorious spring.
While we still have a postal service, we could reinvent the skill of letter writing, try to remember how to use a pen and paper, and post thoughts and good wishes to friends across the globe. A noted philanthropist I know is learning to use his hoover and his washing machine, and is thinking of cooking his own birthday cake. He is an entrepreneur of great distinction and originality: perhaps he will use this new experience in his life to invent a new way of creating recipes or cleaning clothes.
We have become accustomed to thinking along tramlines, stuffing our brains with information, working at high speed with emails and tweets. Now is the time to think creatively, laterally, and reflectively. I have a linen cupboard filled with fraying elderly sheets. Is there a way I can use this fabric without consigning it to landfill? In the lane, there are rooks discussing life together in their windswept nests, occasionally quarrelling hoarsely and flying away in indignation. Maybe I can use this time on the internet to study ornithology, and become a rook expert in my 80th year.
Perhaps this experience will also teach the scriptwriters of apocalyptic books and dramas how wrong they have been. They have never described what we are living through: the gorgeous background to our scenes of panic and despair; the natural world left alone to be reborn and flourish; the open spaces shining in the sunlight; the skies relieved of their veil of smoke. For the first time in my life I can open my windows to silence and bird song, instead of the pounding of petrol engines. I have come to recognise that while nature is vital to humanity, we as a species are not vital to the planet.
Our mistake is hubris. Since the age of reason we have come to the conclusion that human intellect is so powerful we can understand and control everything. A bumpy road? Tarmac it. A long journey? Fly there. Billions of mouths to feed? Industrialise farming, feed herds with antibiotics, spread chemical fertilisers over the ground. We don’t seem to have noticed that overpopulation and our globally connected industry mean that while we profit from the huge markets we inevitably catch each others’ infections. We do not understand everything. We are not in control. This virus is teaching us humility.
So let’s assume that there may be an apocalypse to come. Not this time, since so many of us are mercifully recovering from the virus, but perhaps quite soon. Right now, we should definitely use this time to create something precious to leave behind. So get writing, get painting, put together a legacy for the next species to wonder at. The dinosaurs only left us their bones. Humanity must do better than that. Let’s do it now, while, perhaps against our will, we have at last been given time to think.
Esther Rantzen is the founder and president of Childline and The Silver Line