Over fame, riches and happiness, who now would not choose a drunken night out with a gang of friends? I’d go anywhere for a good dinner party, even south of the river, and oh for just one pompous gallery launch where the wine is even worse than the art.
How can one think of parties at a time like this, as the ambulances queue up and businesses wince at their balance sheets? How can one not? The mind springs to what has been denied: the piety of lockdown makes us pray for the opposite.
Indulgent as it sounds now, a good shot of partying may eventually also be part of the cure. Not of Covid itself — leave that to the scientists — but dressing up in fine clothes and going out to flirt with the city again. To move on from this dark winter, we are going to need to forget it. And some strong cocktails might help.
Had we, humanity, already gone through this communal forgetting once before? It occurred to me in mid-December when reading a tweet that had gone viral: “It has become very clear to me, why the 1918 pandemic was followed by the roaring 20s & why people were dressing up to go just about anywhere,” wrote @JenniDigital. From where we are standing now, this rings true. And the idea that there might be a post-pandemic boom out of sheer relief has kicked around all year.
Had the historians of the 1920s missed something? Book after book will ascribe that hedonistic decade to the influx of cheap credit after the war, the arrival of the car and radio stations, the illicit thrill of Prohibition moonshine and the un-girdling of women. London went wild for the Bright Young Things and the Gargoyle Club; Berlin partied like it knew what was coming next.
But not often will you find a mention of their pandemic as the trigger for the decadence that followed. The Spanish flu, which made its way through a third of the world’s population, killed more than five times as many US citizens as the Great War and in 1918 outpaced the artillery in its destructive power.
Was it too difficult to gauge the scale then? The stats weren’t up to much, the press was censored, there was no World Health Organization. Or was the flu was too abstract an enemy? Unlike a war effort, influenza had no propaganda machine to tell of its victories. It just went from town to town.
It may have just been too mundane to write about. As Virginia Woolf would note in her 1926 essay “On Being Ill”: “Practically speaking, the public would say that a novel devoted to influenza lacked plot.”
What went down in legend instead was the aftermath: the jazz clubs, the moonshine and high times on Wall Street. In a cruel irony of timing, as midnight of 2021’s New Year struck, there were no fireworks but F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby did come out of copyright. The mansion doors of his West Egg mansion were flung open to the public, invited to one of the great fictional parties with yellow cocktail music and lines of cordials and the swell of laughing and flirtatious voices, which we can now read for free from the confines of our Tier 4 sofa.
In our current state of suspension between disease and vaccine, the question is: what next? Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have visions for the economic recovery, in their hope for a surge of post-pandemic spending. There will also be the pent-up energy of boredom and loneliness that rips through the bars — the alcoholic recovery. They might want to factor that in, even encourage it in moderation.
For we will need some haze to forget a year not just of the disease but of the bitterness created by its inequities on money, jobs and our freedoms.
For nearly a year, life has been defined by grim-faced officials reading out the death stats. We’ve been made to think about our every move, of everything and everyone we touch.
Real living is not that conscious space preached by yoga teachers and mindfulness apps. Who now needs any more time to think? As lockdown has shown us, what we yearn for is not inner peace but to live unselfconsciously and in company. If the journey back to that is through the semi-consciousness of a libertine era, so be it.
Nicholas Christakis, sociologist at Yale, has recently published a book on Covid and its effects on society, called Apollo’s Arrow. It is quite telling how one tabloid interpreted his learned work. The New York Post ran a story on his book under the headline: “Sex-crazed ‘roaring ’20s’ awaits post-pandemic: Yale prof.”
Was it to shock its readers? No. It was a message of hope.
Follow Joy on Twitter @joy_lo_dico
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