These are extraordinary times…

This article was originally written on Monday 30th March 2020, seven days after the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told the country to stay at home.

We live in exceptional times. A fact noted by many journalists in recent days.

In The Times of London, in the Daily Telegraph, and on Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, the topic was addressed with varying degrees of seriousness. The weekly newspaper the Economist on March 21st 2020 said on page 29,

“When the British are confronted with a national crisis they default to talking about the second world war…”


“Britain already has a wartime feel. People listen to the prime ministerial announcements and BBC news bulletins with the same anxious seriousness that they did back in 1940.”

On Monday 23 March, 27.1 million people watched Boris Johnson’s ministerial address. And the Economist said, on p. 24 of that same edition,

“The BBC’s doughty schedule of emergency programming is a rebuke to its opponents.”

Indeed, as the BBC’s Jon Kelly remarked, the month of March had been full of exceptional events. Such was also the case in the first few weeks of World War Two.

In the autumn of 1939 the BBC quickly increased the number of news bulletins and summaries each day. Instead of waiting until six o’clock in the evening they began at seven in the morning to catch breakfast listeners. The BBC Local Radio ‘Make a Difference’ social action bulletins began in the second week of March 2020 and broadcast every half an hour in addition to regular hourly news updates They were a similar reaction to the needs of listeners for information during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020.

During the war years there was a thirst for information and often the public gathered around radio sets in factories, canteens, pubs and army barracks. (Not advised or allowed in 2020.) It meant that the radio offered the ‘public sphere’ into the ‘private sphere’ and created a sense of belonging in a vivid way which newspapers could not. The historian Eric Hobsbawn observed that radio,

…though essentially centred on individual and family, created its own public sphere. For the first time in history people unknown to each other who met knew what each had in all probability heard…[…] …the night before: the big game, the favourite comedy show, Winston Churchill’s speech, the contents of a news bulletin. (1994, Age of Extremes, 1994, p. 196)

Radio news also became somewhat more character-led between 1939 and 1945. For the duration of the war the BBC newsreaders introduced themselves by name so the listeners could confirm they were listening to the Corporation and not a foreign propaganda broadcast. Meanwhile, the staff of the BBC more than doubled over the course of the war, from around 4,900 in 1939 to about 11,500 in 1945. The nine o’clock evening news had an estimated audience of between 43 and 50% of the population.

George Buchanan (1904-1989) was a Fleet Street journalist, born in the north of Ireland. He joined the RAF shortly after the beginning of World War Two. He understood the role of radio news during the war, and in mid-September 1939 wrote that, “In the first days of the war the radio bulletins became a focal point in millions of homes” and,

“You can walk down a street and hear the same voice busy in every house. Thus radio news is community news: it is a united gesture of a society listening at the same time. We have a sense of undergoing the same situation together.” (The Spectator, 15 Sept 1939, p.16).

Mass Observation was a social research organisation started in 1937, which continued working until the mid-1960s. It is now based in a public archive in Brighton. From sometime around the first few weeks of the war, an unmarried female civil servant in her early twenties, told the Mass Observation team,

“I had the set running as a diversion. It was, I suppose, about Wednesday that the first programme of comedy was broadcast. Again my intelligence rebelled – I did not want to be coaxed into a good humour because I felt like crying or committing a murder. Nevertheless I listened and it seemed to brighten up the awful gloom of the black-out. Gradually laughter seemed less sacrilegious and I have listened for some similar programmes every evening since. I think that the influence of these programmes has been very great.”

The Listener, of 29 September 1939, on page 606, in an article called ‘The Fortress of the Spirit’, said,

“Here, obviously, is one of broadcasting’s most important functions in time of war. By radiating great music – and not only great music but great drama, great poetry – it can provide us with this form of escape which is so much more than escape: a fortress into which the downcast spirit can withdraw for a time to rally and recuperate.”

Substitute the word “pandemic” for “war” and this quote is still relevant for 2020.
Elsewhere, and then – as today – we are trying to find humour in the midst of these unusual events. Perhaps by compiling a list of pop songs, movies or even of books published during the last two hundred years to read…

The Last Man, 1826, by Mary Shelley
The Fatal Eggs (Russian: Роковые яйца), 1925, by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Plague (French: La Peste) by Albert Camus, published in French in 1947 and in English in 1948
One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad) by Gabriel García Márquez (Spanish 1967, English in 1970)
Love in the Time of Cholera (El amor en los tiempos del cólera) by Gabriel García Márquez. (1985 in Spanish, 1988 in English)
Blindness (Ensaio sobre a cegueira) by José Saramago, published in Portuguese in 1995 and in English in 1997
Station Eleven, 2014, by Emily St. John Mandel

From the 20th of March 2020 BBC Radios 2, 4 and 5Live started sharing news bulletins. From Monday 23 March 5Live took the BBC World Service as its overnight sustaining service, whilst BBC Local Radio unanimously switched to emergency schedules, with four-hour single presenter shows from 0600 to 1800, then regional programmes from 1800 to 0100, and a sustaining service from BBC London between 0100 and 0600. Presenters and production staff worked from home, and Radio 1 simplified its schedule in a similar fashion from Monday 30th March, so that fewer presenters were coming in and out of the studios, and each one was on-air for longer.

In the spring of 2020 news was being devoured like never before in recent times. Many newspapers had, since the middle of March been offering free doorstep delivery both as a marketing ploy and as a service to people in their isolation. Almost all the national newspapers had a promotional masthead on their front page.

Newspaper deliveries

And live radio was seeing an uptick in popularity as people moved away from services like Spotify.

Others were adapting too. 21st century technology has help mollify the requirements of self-isolation in a time of pandemic. Church services were cancelled from Sunday 22 March. Instead the Church moved online. (Theologians pointed out that etymologically, ‘church’ denoted the congregation and not the building.) The Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a ‘virtual’ church service that was broadcast by BBC Local Radio stations on that Sunday.

Archbish And Facebook became its own broadcast facility. My own Church began, from Sunday 22 March, using Facebook for both Sunday services, daily morning Bible studies, and as a group communication and encouragement to the flock. Indeed, Churches around the world were gearing up for a digital transfer. A magazine, ‘Worship Musician’ from the USA published a free ‘Streaming Handbook’ to help places of worship connect with their church members. The technology of these times is a real blessing. Only fifteen years ago life in social isolation would probably have been unbearable, as the BBC’s Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones explained.

Other commentators were also looking for echoes from the past. Some lighted upon Martin Luther, the German monk who realised that salvation was by faith alone and not through any other means (for example the sale of Catholic ‘indulgences’ or penance). His publication of his thoughts about Christianity led eventually to the Protestant reformation.  He also translated the Bible and wrote hymns in his spare time. Martin Luther was born in 1483 and died in 1546. That was around a hundred and fifty years after the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague, ravaged much of Europe – between 1347 and 1350. Even after its peak, it continued to reoccur sporadically over the next six hundred years but never with the same level of devastation as in the 14th century. Health and personal safety were, however, enduring problems in the middle ages. In any case, in these times in 2020 some have picked up on one of Luther’s quotes. It was written almost a century and a half after the major European outbreak of the plague. He said,

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, He will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbour needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

Apart from the last comment about ‘going freely’ – which could be open to misinterpretation – it is similar to current advice during the Coronavirus pandemic.

In the original entrance lobby of the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London, on the central arch over the glass partition leading to the inner depths of the building, is a carved inscription in Latin. It translates,

“This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting in the year of our Lord 1931, Sir John Reith being Director-General. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.”

The academic and TV historian Mary Beard said that it’s

“…a still powerful ‘mission statement’ for the BBC: ‘that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.’ Taking away the whiff of 1930s piety, I could go along with that.”

From the earliest days the BBC – alongside the idealism of its first director general John Reith – had been the driving force behind the whole idea of public service broadcasting. In the process it placed itself by the late 1930s in an assured position in society. Ross McKibbin is an academic historian from the University of Oxford who has researched widely on the cultural and social history of Britain in the 20th century. Writing about the BBC between the 1920s and the 1940s, he said,

“The corporation from time to time (notoriously) kept its head down and was extremely sensitive to anything that would appear partisan, but it was never the government’s agent. Nor was it at the whim of advertisers as were the American networks. The BBC had a cultural freedom of manoeuvre almost unknown elsewhere.” (1998, Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951, Oxford University Press, p. 475).

These are extraordinary times in 2020. They are bringing the best out of the British – and the nation’s public service broadcasters too. I know of people who have turned to their local radio station – and found help, reassurance and comfort. But on a final note, consider how – perhaps – the masthead of the century was from the Financial Times of Monday 30th April 2020:

SIgn of the times - FT

Whether it was prophetic or merely descriptive, it was a bold thing to put on the front of such a newspaper. In days such as these do seek help where you can. In Britain the following links will be useful:

Medical help
Samaritans (emotional help)
Campaign Against Living Miserably (preventing male suicide)
MIND (mental health charity)
PAPYRUS (preventing youth suicide)
CRUSE (Bereavement support)

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