Doreen Turner, née Duncan, was born in Harrow in 1932. She was eight when bombs first began to fall across the UK in the German aerial campaign that became known as the Blitz.
Fighting coronavirus is not like fighting the Second World War, despite what some world leaders and media figures might tell you, but a bit of Blitz Spirit might be what we all need right now.
Turner is my 88-year-old grandma and I spoke with her to find out what parallels we can usefully draw from that time to now.
“It’s as terrifying”, she tells me from her home in Oxfordshire, UK, near the rest of her family. “We were frightened for being bombed … but it wasn’t this kind of insidious unseen enemy.
“You don’t know who’s still going to be alive at the end of this.”
Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham, has argued that “the Blitz was far from the transformative collective experience of myth” and that, like the virus, it “was largely experienced privately or within families.”
Turner says that, for her, being physically separate from loved ones actually makes this worse. “You mustn’t touch each other”, she says, “it’s just weird.” Turner did recently celebrate her 88th birthday in the company of her three children. They sat in the garden, on chairs six feet apart but, she says, they still had a “wonderful” time.
Did everyone pull together? Fielding argues war-time altruism was “the enforced sort, through rationing of food and clothes”.
Right now, however, examples of this kind of behaviour are everywhere. “My neighbour thinks he’s got it,” Turner says, “and people like Clive [her son] are delivering food to him and then running away again.”
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“People are being very kind … it is similar in that respect.”
Global crises have the potential to “bring out the best in people” Turner says, “and the worst, of course”.
“Scams on the computer are totally new … but you did have spivs in those days. They used to get hold of stuff and sell it at blackmarket rates so people were taking advantage of the situation then as they are now.”
Although life was no longer “carefree”, Turner says they did “get used to it”.
Then, like now, schools were closed and they read to pass the time, but she is thankful we can now keep in touch through technology. “In those days, we couldn’t. We only had the radio … I’m watching Neighbours avidly because they’re not talking about the virus at all,” she laughs.
As Fielding says, the Blitz Spirit might be more myth than material but it may help inspire people in times like these.
Turner recounts that when the war was over, there were street parties across Britain and Europe, something we will almost certainly be seeing here too when it’s finally safe to leave our isolation chambers.