God bless us, everyone.
March 9, 2020 –
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
What a difference a month makes! From our preoccupations with Brexit and economic revival to the Coronavirus and world panic. Hetty has been reading a book about Henry VIII and came across the ‘sweating sickness’ which made periodic appearances
in England between 1485 and 1551. It was considerably more threatening than the present virus as far as we know. Something nagged in my mind about 1485. Then I remembered; it was the year in which Richard III, the last Plantagenet king met his death,
at the Battle of Bosworth Field probably not saying: ‘A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse.’
I mentioned this to Hetty. ‘William,’ she said, ‘you are such a scholar.’ I was rather startled. I learnt my kings and queens as a schoolboy and had been embarrassed how slowly it had come to me. ‘Do you have a theory? Do
you think it was punishment for Richard usurping the throne and killing the princes in the Tower?’ I said I thought probably not. I wished I had never mentioned it, as Hetty subsequently seemed to be telling everyone in Chambers. She has more
time on her hands now since employing a groom for her beloved horses.
It appeared my historical interests had reached the ears of Roderick Twist, one half of the trimming Twist brothers who could never reach any decision about anything without seeing which way the wind was blowing. He bearded me in my room clutching a sheaf
of papers. ‘Afternoon, William,’ he said. ‘I hear you are investigating mediaeval viruses.’ I gave him a long look. ‘I was tasked with drawing up a protocol to guide Chambers on containing any risk during the present
emergency,’ he said. ‘Tasked by whom?’ ‘The General Management Committee.’ ‘Don’t I chair it?’ I enquired. ‘We used the emergency procedure, William, to deal with a crisis. We didn’t want
to trouble you as it appeared you fitted the profile of someone particularly at risk due to age. Anyway, here is the fruit of our researches.’
I was left to peruse the master plan which seemed to involve everybody working from home especially if they were in a particular risk group. I began to wonder if this was a soft coup in which I was confined to my bedroom whilst the Twists assumed power.
Paddy Corkhill, whom I considered to be at far greater risk than I, took me to a nearby hostelry for what he termed a glass of disinfectant and which turned out to be an antiseptic-tasting malt whisky. ‘I mean you don’t have any symptoms
or anything like that do you? he asked. ‘No,’ I said, clearing my throat of the tickle I had just noticed.
It was almost a relief to go to court the next morning, where the judge conducted a masterly directions’ hearing and then had us all in her room for a cup of coffee. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘I didn’t mention the obvious. That
might delay the trial if …well, I am sure you see.’ We left her room, thinking we might have seen. The Bar Mess was considering whether barristers would be paid if trials were postponed, to encourage us to do the right thing. Several
younger barristers were working out how much court work could be conducted digitally from the comfort of our own homes. ‘Shhh!’ said a junior barrister of my vintage, ‘don’t give the government ideas or else they will make
it permanent, to save money.’
I returned quietly to Chambers and looked up some more information on the sweating sickness of 1485. Apparently, there is a chronicle that suggests it was the excuse Lord Stanley gave Richard III for not joining forces with him at Bosworth, a sort of
mediaeval self-isolating, although we know that like the Twists, he was really waiting to see who looked likely to win. I also discovered a body of opinion that did not think it was caused by divine punishment or foreign mercenaries brought over by
the future Henry VII but was in fact the result of anthrax in sheep. When I mentioned this to Hetty Briar-Pitt she went mad. ‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘Blame it on the poor animals!’
As I put my head on the pillow that night, I turned over in my mind all the uncertainties of our own predicament during this eerie calm before the storm and of what this thing might bring to us in many different ways and did something I had not done since
childhood. I said a little prayer for us all.