I inadvertently chose ‘Plague’

The next topic for my writing group is ‘Plague’; I confess, I inadvertently chose it – as we were packing up to leave our last get-together, as usual we realised we had no topic for next time we met. As usual we cast around for inspiration – which is why in the past we have ended up with driftwood (piece artistically mounted on the wall of the café where we met) binmen – several of us had been delayed by the refuse collectors as we came to the meeting, Revo (the name of the new place where we’ve been meeting.) People were saying, doom, gloom, disaster, and I just casually mentioned plague which seemed to fit, and it was alighted on and deemed right to write about.

It’s a tricky topic, tricky to be original, especially since there are so many plague based stories, from Defoe’s ‘A Journal of the Plague Year‘ to Camus’s ‘La Peste‘; Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Year of the Flood‘ and of course, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera‘ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – and so many more in every genre you could imagine – so how to be original, how to be brief and contain a narrative within 1000 words?! My first thoughts were of the plagues which devastated these islands; there must have been epidemics over as many centuries as people have lived settled lives in close proximity to each other, but the first plague I thought of was the Black Death, the bubonic plague which caused the death of millions of people. In fact no-one is quite sure of the number of deaths between 1348 when it first arrived in this country and ravaged the population for five hundred days. There were maybe six million inhabitants when the plague reached this country in the June of 1348, and historians have estimated between 40-60% of those six million died, but no-one will ever know for sure. The plague continued to have minor incursions into the people of England, but the other major outbreak of this awful disease was in London in 1665, and it’s thought that though a disaster, the Fire of London was what broke its hold.

There have been other plagues across the whole world, with three main forms, bubonic, septicaemic and pneumonic, but of course the word plague has come to mean much more than just the deadly infectious disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Any dreadful mass event which befalls a town, city, country could be called a plague – there’s a plague of mice in Australia right now, a plague of locusts which has befallen Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and India from 2019 to the present, and on a less disastrous scale, a plague of ladybirds here in Weston-super-Mare in 1976.

So there are plenty of real events, fictional events, historical events to base my writing on, but I’m afraid I’m struggling. What I don’t want to write about is the terrible global affliction we are now suffering, which might be described as a plague. I’m an escapist, I prefer reading and writing fiction. One idea which has been plaguing me (terrible joke, I know) is the events which occurred in the small Derbyshire village of Eyam which I’ve visited many times. It’s a small place in the middle of Peak District, with a long history of inhabitation, and had a brief period of Roman industrial activity when the mined for lead nearby. Eyam has become world famous for what occurred in 1665 when the plague was brought to the village in a bale of cloth for a local tailor. There were fleas concealed in the bundle and the fleas had the plague virus which they soon transferred to the local humans. It was decided by the villagers, led by their vicar, that they should isolate themselves and contain the dreadful disease in the village and avoid spreading it to their neighbours. The whole village was in quarantine, or s we would say now, lockdown. The facts and figures are disputed, but it’s thought that 260 villagers died and only 83 survived from the original pre-plague population of 350. What is a fact is that the church, St Lawrence’s Church, which still stands in Eyam, has a record of 273 people who died from the plague.

So many stories, novels, plays, films have been about the sacrifice of the ordinary folk who lived in this small place, but could I write something set there for the writing group? Maybe I could.

By the way, we used to have pet rats who were the most intelligent and delightful pets – not pests.

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