Time travelling thinking

Time travelling thinking

The experience of this recent pandemic which we casually call COVID-19 puts a perspective on many things, both now in the present, but also comprehension of the past, or at least some small slices of it.

One example, very close to home, is that I have always known that my mother as a tiny infant had influenza and double pneumonia in 1918 and spent the better part of two years in hospital, and subsequently the tuberculosis returned and took her into infectious diseases hospitals at various points in my own childhood. Oh Mum had pneumonia, oh she was in hospital, yes I understand that. But as I now realise, I had almost no understanding of it at all, not of the enormity of what had happened to her and her other siblings and of course to many millions of other people as well.

Two other examples, central to the White Writing Whiteness research, also concern the years 1917 to 1920. The first is that, working on the Forbes diaries and letters, both Emilia and I had noticed that the date 1917 was mentioned in one or two documents as a death date for a number of family members. We had casually assumed this was a mistake, that numbers of them would not have occurred in the same short period, but now of course realised that the mistake was ours, and the Grim Reaper had indeed cut a swathe through the Forbes family over those years, the years of that earlier global pandemic that killed many millions of people world-wide. The second has been commented on in an earlier blog, and concerns the death in what is now Zimbabwe of Olive Schreiner’s nephew Elbert and his wife, first signalled by the later 1918 absence of letters, absent where the man concerned had always been punctilious in writing regularly. The pandemic had killed them in an extraordinarily short time period.

What this raises is how tenuous, how fragile, how shaky in its foundations, is the understanding we have of past events and the contexts these are embedded in. COVID-19 has opened eyes about many things, including about the past experience of what were global pandemics just as much as this present one has been. How extraordinary that the collective ‘we’ have not fully realised this until now. Listening to an interview I did with my mother in the year my father died, she talks eloquently with her experience at the end of the war, the lack of food, becoming ill, of being separated from parents and siblings, of being made to smoke to strengthen her lungs, of how the actuality and the fear of tuberculosis had dominated her life thereafter. Yes I listened to the words, but I had not really heard them.

Last updated:  3 June 2021