When does a war myth serve a pandemic?

The exhortation to channel our ‘Blitz Spirit’ during the outbreak of Covid-19 falls short of contemporary needs. It is right to criticise this myth each and every time it is invoked, not least in a pandemic. Contemporary reaction to the establishment’s tenor of plucky stoicism indicates that society is jaded by the predictability of ‘Blitz Spirit’. There is a twenty-first century reluctance to buy into politicians’ co-opted fantasies and victories. Nevertheless, as Political historian Steven Fielding writes, ‘All myths contain an element of truth or they cannot be sustained’: myths have form, function and purpose. Herein lies an opportunity to complicate easy, lazy wartime analogies and encourage unity between those enduring a twenty-first century pandemic rather than those re-living a cliché.

I started thinking about this at work over a week ago as I watched a senior executive sail cheerily into our office clutching a fluorescent yellow bottle of bleach and a pair of rubber gloves. No doubt, this man could not locate a jiffy cloth in a line-up of fabrics. Here was the sight of an operations chief preparing to launch his Covid-19 response. An obsession with the entrance door handle ensued, which, he wrote on a personally worded advisory, posed ‘the greatest threat to the office in terms of the danger introducing the Coronavirus’. We were reminded to use kitchen towel not tea towels to dry our hands after heeding the revolutionary guidance to wash them. Tea towels being ‘in any event meant for glasses and crockery’. Of course, there were other dangers to the health of the office. A lack of guidance on Statutory Sick Pay, for example, which led me to continue going to work despite having a bad cold; the fact that we were all travelling to work on London Transport; the fact that it was too soon to tell what ‘the greatest threat’ really was in spreading the disease.

A few days later, the same satisfied executive passed by cuddling a multi-pack of Imperial Leather. His war effort was progressing efficiently. Despite most of us being able to work from home if directed, it was announced that the office was staying open. Just last week, many British people were exercising more than a hint of our favourite Second World War anachronism, ‘keep calm and carry on’. Contrasting starkly with images of the real national front liners – nurses, doctors, social workers, public health advisors – this ‘business as usual’ attitude smacked of failure and tragedy. The paternalistic reminder to wash our hands was correct, of course, but reflected a deep naivety about the depth of the crisis and its impact on people much worse off than ourselves. It was disrespectful to those in occupations where this ‘war’ was real, such as the Lewisham cleaning staff who walked out over pay and conditions, despite being the people most critical in keeping-up Covid-19 prevention efforts.

Anyhow, ‘keep calm and carry on’ was patently ineffective, so we moved onto another old favourite, ‘doing our bit’. This myth is a useful one; it is no fiction. We can all dramatically slow the spread of contagion by following simple public health advice. There is truth in this. And, in a highly individualised era, this effort is accessible and very ‘now’; some may even be excited by newfound opportunities to bake homemade bread, grow herbs and learn to crochet – nothing wrong with that. But, the true parallel between Covid-19 and the Second World War is not necessarily in the sacrifices made by individuals, it is in the unprecedented mobilisation of employment sectors we have either been under-appreciating or have never even recognised .

This more useful Second World War tale illustrates how government can re-frame skills and specialisms, reorder the social and economic status of labour and completely reconfigure workforce expectations of employers and workplace legislation. While wartime dictats did not destroy the class system or eradicate pay inequalities, from 1940 onward, by orchestrating a mammoth policy shift on holidays, working hours, occupational health, nutrition, access to medical care, etc., Ernest Bevin, Minister for Labour, challenged government, the private sector and ordinary people to reconsider the value of various occupations. Now, those of us without the expertise to stop the spread of Covid-19 or support communities to overcome its effects should be re-evaluating which social groups we view with esteem and respect. Indeed, as the Lancet editorial recently stated, “It is vital that governments see workers not simply as pawns to be deployed, but as human individuals. In the global response, the safety of health-care workers must be ensured.” I would extend this wish to the cleaners, delivery drivers, catering staff, pharmacists, shelf-stackers, nursery workers, teachers, who are maintaining the human dignity of our health and social services.

‘Blitz Spirit’ is not an entirely fabricated story, individuals made local decisions to support and protect their communities in ways that complemented and reflected the culture of the time. From religiously cleaning a door handle to making cups of tea for off duty air wardens, ‘Blitz Spirit’ describes common sense courage and kindness, the likes of which most of us would expect in an emergency. It is not necessarily a change in behaviour; it is an elevation of existing behavioural standards. But, individual behaviour alone did not win the war, nor would it ‘win’ against coronavirus. The adage that we all must ‘do our bit’ is as true as it is misleading. Of course, the unity and collective endeavour it takes to distance, isolate, change food choices, alter hygiene practices and concede to the curtailment of freedoms is an inspiring national venture against pandemic. Yet such ‘spirit’, so to speak, would be nothing if it were not also an opportunity for permanent structural change and reconfigured employment policies fit for a dignified and equalised society.








Building resilience is nothing like training your pelvic floor

The notion of ‘resilience’ is now widely applied to anything from brand strategy to toiletries.[1] It means an ability to adapt to and recover from hardship. In April this year, the then Minister for Education, Damian Hinds MP, launched the Department for Education’s ‘five foundations’ for character and resilience education. The fruits of his labour were published in the DfE’s Character Education framework guidance this month.

It is unfortunate, reading the full speech, to note Hinds’ own deficit of personality.

In his words, character and resilience are, ‘the qualities and inner resources that we call on to get us through the frustrations and setbacks that are part and parcel of life.’

As a historian of emotional and intellectual trends, the recent addition of resilience to our lexicon of self fascinates me. Not because I think it is wrong. But because to build resilience requires a complex impression of, and engagement with, contemporary social issues; experiences that are not necessarily ‘part and parcel of life’, experiences that might even undermine the type of character elevated in Hinds’ speech.

Resilience is not, as Hinds’ ‘five foundations’ suggest, exposure to emotional strengthening exercises: sport, creativity, performance, volunteering and work experience are essential elements of a well-rounded school education, but they cannot be relied on to instil resilience against a variety of trauma faced by pupils in UK schools.

Building resilience is not like training your pelvic floor.

I went to a primary school where I was called a bastard because I was born out of wedlock (it was Thatcher’s golden age of separate spheres and nuclear families, after all). I was accused of stealing another girl’s lunchbox because I was the only kid in the class anyone thought would steal (single parent, benefits, housing association).[2] We owned identical My Little Pony lunchboxes. When I did steal the same girl’s necklace because frankly, she had so many, I sort of proved the point. Speaking of character-building, primary school was an abrasive introduction to social inequality; it was a classic London mish-mash of hardship, challenge and opportunity.

The stolen necklace was returned sheepishly. Had I developed? Yes, I learnt there were reasons that supposedly respectable adults would be quick to judge me, would base their interactions with me on pre-formed expectations. I learnt that I could damage-limit or reinforce those expectations. Resilience involved being one step ahead of prejudice.

When an education framework is set out, without even a hint of admission that the baseline for adversity across UK schools swings wildly in both directions, I smell a rat; or a Goveian whiff of wet towels on cold skin in the showers, post-cross country run.

Indeed, Hinds’ strange reflection on ‘public school confidence’ hinted at the limited resources used to design this new schools resilience framework. The ‘have a go’ assertiveness produced in public school he said, was ‘clearly not something that should be the prerogative of those whose parents are able to give them an expensive education. All children should have it’. And, they could get it, he intoned, by ‘taking chances and seeing things work out… trying to do something… until you get it right… bravery, gumption’.

What if you are too hungry to be able, physically and mentally, to try something new?

What if you are one of the 7,000,000 recorded (and many more un-recorded) children as young as five caring for an adult and do not have time to take a chance?

What if your family can’t afford a school uniform so you are either too scared (of exclusion) or too embarrassed to go to school?

What if there is a culture of low aspiration where you live, a limited encouragement to be bright, interested and ambitious?

Hinds’ missed the point about public school confidence, and I’m inclined to think he did it purposefully, for it is common knowledge that an expensive education does not buy you a ‘have a go’ attitude, it buys you time, legitimacy, pride, and instils you with a sense of place and purpose. No amount of resilience training will do that without an honest discussion of social circumstances within schools.

In 2014, Public Health England commissioned research with UCL Institute of Health Equity on Building children and young people’s resilience in schools, in which researchers stated categorically that:

‘Resilience and adversity are distributed unequally across the population, and are related to broader socio-economic inequalities which have common causes – the inequities in power, money and resources that shape the conditions in which people live and their opportunities, experiences and relationships.’

Nothing the DfE promises with the launch of this character framework takes this into account: an audit of access to activities is not enough, an encouragement to business to provide work experience is not enough, ‘Character Awards’ are not enough.

The problem is that Hinds’ portrait of self-determination chimes effectively with the contemporary fashion for self-creation and introversion. Asking a ten-year-old what she thought resilience was, she replied, “It’s just believing in yourself, really, isn’t it?”. There is a danger in this kind of self-evangelising: it puts the adversity, the hardship and the failure on you when it goes catastrophically wrong. It undermines the realisation that success itself is to a large extent socially determined.

The only reason I managed to complete a master’s degree was because I broke down in front of my friends’ mum after realising that I could not simultaneously pay my tuition fees and my rent. I was one phone call away from dropping out of a well-earned and hard-fought place at London School of Economics. I lived with her for the first term of that degree and deferred half of the fees. Self-belief did nothing for me in that situation, a despondent awareness of my limitations and wider injustices made the difference.

Future historian me is fascinated by the fact that the notion of resilience entered our contemporary vocabulary only very recently – in security circles.  The first I heard of it was in 2011, during a brief segue in international development (a UN-internship part-funded by my friend’s dad, obviously). At that time, the now well-established idea that resilient environments strengthen security and prevent disaster was only emerging. Indeed, in the wake of the tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan in 2011, these authors took the opportunity to investigate the very meaning of resilience. They proposed that it had been created by community links and integrated priorities coordinated across the private and public spheres.

When applied to ourselves the term does not quite mirror the complexity of its application in security, it seems to have replaced other similarly problematic emotional treatise like grit, spirit, willpower, and keeping calm to carry on. Hinds is not the first MP to trial this new self-affirmative teaching framework in schools. Relatively recent attempts to improve resilience in schools have been less impressive than expected too.

Resilience is as grubby, humiliating and demoralising as it is confident and assertive. This is why I have never felt comfortable when congratulated on what I have achieved with resilience. ‘Success’ (and that would need another post to unpick) requires assistance, support and even handouts, experiences of which Hinds and the DfE are so clearly ignorant. Everyone can benefit from resilience ‘tools’ and there is no such thing as an undeserving experience. What is clear is how limited such tools can be if they are premised on the increasingly trendy and self-involved Tory falsehood that we make our own luck.





[1] This is not product placement but for £25.60 you can prep your pre-cleansed skin with Dr. Andrew Weil for Origins Mega-Mushroom™ Relief & Resilience Soothing Treatment Lotion.

[2] How could I know I was accused for that reason? Please just trust me – no-one even looked for it. Sometimes, you just know.