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Opinion Column

C W King 1918 750AT

Pandemics, past, present and future

Robert Ashton is coming to terms with a new way of worshipping, and recalls the impact a previous pandemic had on his ancestors.

In 1918, just over a century ago, my great-grandfather Sam King was one of more than 250,000 people who died as the flu pandemic swept across Britain. My grandfather Charlie, pictured above, then just 18 and recently conscripted into the army, was allowed to return from the front to comfort his mother. My grandparents never spoke about those days, choosing instead to put both the war and pandemic far behind them.
We find ourselves living through the 2020 pandemic alone, with nobody to ask who remembers what it was like last time. Yes there was swine flu in 2009, but that was relatively short-lived and few died. The current pandemic is unlike anything we or our parents will have experienced before. That makes it frightening, but it is far from a unique event. Sometime in the next few weeks or months it will pass and we will emerge from our homes into the sunshine and normal life will resume.
But I don’t think things will ever be quite the same again. I’m researching both an MA and my next book. University workshops and book interviews are being conducted over Zoom or Skype. I’ve now become as comfortable holding meetings online as I have meeting people face to face. In the past month, my car has covered just five miles. Why should I return to driving around the country to conduct interviews when they can just as easily be conducted online?
Online worship, to be honest, takes a little more getting used to. My Quaker Meeting now meets online for worship and some Friends have found this challenging. But in reality, that same sense of connection exists when everyone’s on my screen, as it does when we’re all sitting together in our Meeting House.
I guess it’s inevitable that in this time of trouble most of us will find ourselves reflecting on those big questions about life, God and why we are here. We have more time, fewer distractions and daily reminders that some are not surviving, so every opportunity to sit and think.
Back in 1918, going to the front and then returning because his father had died, must have made the world look very bleak to my late grandfather. But things did improve, he met my grandmother, married, had two children and lived a quiet but happy life in an Essex villlage.

I’m sure those experiences changed him, just as the current pandemic is changing us, but we too have much to look forward to. We just have to remain positive and be ready for the opportunities that will inevitably follow.
If you’d like to know more, or perhaps join Robert at an online Quaker meeting, email explore@norwichquakers.org.uk


Robert Ashton 640CF

Robert Ashton is an author, publisher, social entrepreneur and Quaker. He has recently published a book exploring the subject of homelessness, called Any Spare Change?: One man's quest to understand rough sleeping.

Visit www.robertashton.co.uk





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