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08 April 2020

Quomodo sedet sola civitas



“Quomodo sedet sola civitas”: so wailed Jeremiah in the Book of Lamentations, as he surveyed the city of Jerusalem besieged by the forces of Babylon in 587BC.  The quotation - the best English translation of which is probably “How lonely sits the city” - came to mind as I leafed through newspaper pictures of deserted streets in Europe’s major cities, under the attack of coronavirus. Truly, the city sits lonely, its citizens hidden out of sight as they isolate themselves in an attempt to stop the march of the virus. The citizens of Jerusalem were not lucky; their city was destroyed by the invader, and they were taken off to captivity in Babylon, or at least some of them were. Verdi took their enslavement as the background for ‘Nabucco’, with the spine-tingling ‘Va, pensiero’ (aka the song of the Hebrew slaves).

Well, the Hebrews escaped captivity in the end - I have to confess that there is a kind of blurriness round my remembrance of Biblical history these days, so I don’t quite remember the details - and Jerusalem was rebuilt.

But how will our cities come out of this period of enforced isolation? Or, perhaps more pertinently since the cities in this case have suffered no physical damage, how will the people emerge? Will the world simply return to how it was, or will it change in significant ways? On a micro, LME level, last week Martin Hayes considered the question of the Ring. How long will it take of purely electronic price discovery before the open outcry is seen as redundant? If it’s a matter of weeks, or a small number of months, maybe the status quo ante will survive. More than that short period, though, and I strongly suspect that the industry will look at the additional costs involved in Ring trading and conclude that it has had its day.

There are, though, more existential questions than the fate of an open outcry market. Where does this enforced pause for introspection leave organised religion? What can the monotheistic religions have to say about such a curse on humanity? It is, of course, worth noting that they have survived pestilence in the past, and indeed come out arguably stronger. But in the west, anyway, organised religion has been a declining force in the face of materialism for some time; can it survive this kind of onslaught, where an up-to-now comfortable materialistic society is suddenly faced with a threat of such an unexpected style?

Indeed, the UK seems at times almost to be on the verge of a new religion. The beatification of the National Health Service is almost complete, and perhaps the thursday evening clap (unfortunate name, that one) is shaping to to become the new sunday morning mass. I hope not; the history of Christianity in Europe may be blood-soaked, but I can accept that past in return for the art, the music and the architecture that gives so much pleasure. No A&E or ICU will ever make the spirit soar like the music of Monteverdi, the art of Titian or the architecture of the great gothic cathedrals. If that change happens, I guess I’ll just be following the old ways, a heretic huddled in the corner, burning my candles and secretly listening to madrigals.

One serious question that this period will pose, though, is about the way we have of working. Electronic interconnectedness will surely spell the end of the daily mass movement of large elements of the workforce from home to office. We will have grown accustomed to and familiar with home working by the time normality returns, and thus be able to look with fresh eyes at the dead time occupied by all that daily commuting. Maybe this is in the end the way to escape atmospheric pollution.

Anyway, just one last recommendation for those confined or locked down; a couple of things to raise your spirits and morale. The quote with which I began this article is used in a chant in the service of Tenebrae, topical in this Holy Week. Find a recording and listen to it - it’s a beautiful piece. And then the same quotation occurs three times in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited’. If you haven’t read it, do. It’s one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, written by one of the great stylists of the English language. It will unquestionably brighten your tedious days of lockdown.  

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