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The COVID-19 crisis lends itself more to catastrophe fiction than war writing

A legion of aspiring novelists may have written it. But who is going to read the fiction of the lockdown? It is painful. It is personal. And, we have all lived it. Will we want to read about it, wonders Oxford Literature Professor Marina Mackay? It may be a very long time, she says, before we want to read about the pandemic – or before the definitive work is written.

But the stuffed inboxes of literary agents stand testament to a creative surge among the population, as thousands of aspiring writers have eschewed learning a language or practising the piano during lockdown, in favour of writing literature. In the last few weeks, agents report, a tsunami of long-neglected manuscripts has fallen on a stunned publishing industry, which weakly predicts a second wave in the autumn, as ‘great coronavirus novels’ are completed.

In the last few weeks, agents report, a tsunami of long-neglected manuscripts has fallen on a stunned publishing industry, which weakly predicts a second wave in the autumn, as ‘great coronavirus novels’ are completed

A few new writers, maybe even some literary stars, could emerge from the pandemic, having had the time to write. But it is a notoriously fickle field, with the chances of a first time novel being published traditionally ‘very slim’.

Wilfred's Owens poems, written during the First World War

A pantheon of poets, including Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, emerged from the First World War, speaking of the senseless sacrifice of a generation and of something bigger than themselves. There could be parallels with under-protected NHS staff. But while much of the language around COVID-19 has been of war – particularly, the Second World War, Professor Mackay says, in terms of literature, the current pandemic has more potential links to catastrophe stories, rather than traditional war fiction.

War writing is usually set against the background of conflict – energy and action are central to the experience and there is often a question lingering as to whether someone had a ‘good war’. Frequently, there is also a focus on whether the Government is handling the war well, whether they could do something different to make it all go away. In the case of COVID-19, although different measures could and have been taken in different countries, the pervading sense of powerlessness in the face of a pandemic, lends itself more to catastrophe fiction.

In terms of literature the current pandemic has more potential links to catastrophe stories, rather than traditional war fiction

The Forgotten Highlander by Alistair Urquhart, published 2011

Previously, it has also taken decades for classic war novels and memoirs to emerge. And war literature often comes from a sideways angle, says Professor Mackay. The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene was published in 1943, but was set against the background of the war, rather than being a personal account. Memoirs of harrowing events often come decades later. Some, such as The Forgotten Highlander, Alastair Urquhart tale of the Far Eastern war, were published 70 years later.                                                    

Graham Greene's classic novel, set against the background of wartime LondonThere is always a lag with a novel,’ says Professor Mackay. While the First World War is renowned for poetry, it took many years before what we think of as the definitive fiction appeared. It was a decade before All Quiet on the Western Front, by Eric Remarque, was published, detailing the impact of the Great war on German soldiers. 

It is not just the time it takes to write a book, though. ‘After World War II, people didn’t want to read about it,’ says Professor Mackay.

And, for most people, the pandemic has been a time of inaction, ‘The drama has taken place behind closed doors,’ she says. ‘There have been personal tragedies, but they have been hidden away.’

There have been absurdities, says the professor, wondering what sort of fiction could emerge from this, but, ‘For the most part, for most people, it has been monotonous but not necessarily literary.’

There are precedents of writing of wearisome experience. Published in 1947, The Plague by Albert Camus, is a fictional account of an epidemic, which can also be taken as a symbol for the German occupation of France, ‘The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was none the less a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence.’

There are precedents of writing of wearisome experience...The Plague by Albert Camus is a fictional account of an epidemic, which can also be taken as a symbol for the German occupation of France

The Plague, by Albert Camus

Professor Mackay speculates that there could be stories ‘framed against the altruism and selfishness’ that has been exposed by the pandemic. But she says, ‘This will be unlike classic war writing...there is an unreality and an absurdity out there.’

‘There have been moments of bathos,’ according to Professor Mackay. ‘At the beginning we had the hoarding of loo rolls, then we heard about trips to Barnard Castle....We failed in all sorts of ways. It has not been our finest hour.’

Although there has been tragedy, a majority of people have not been heroic and have had no adventures, inside their own homes. And it is unlikely there will be an appetite to read about how someone feels about being locked-down, when we are relishing new freedoms. Professor Mackay, who has written extensively about war fiction, points out that, in catastrophe writing, people feel powerless in the face of ‘impending doom’.                 

      John Wyndham's terrifying Day of the Triffids. Many books of the 1950s and 60s were framed against such a background, as the world lived through the nuclear build-up and the Cold War. It led to a whole genre, including The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham and, although HG Wells’s War of the Worlds was written in the 19th century, it was made into a radio play, a film and even inspired a musical in the second half of the 20th century, as expressions of powerlessness.

Maybe there will be a three-part mini-series about SAGE? Or, perhaps, we will return to cinemas to see the Rock find out Who caused Coronavirus? or Coronavirus: The Movie?

Catastrophe stories are very much in vogue. Recent years have seen numerous disaster movies, from Independence Day in 1996 to Contagion in 2011 and Geostorm in 2017.  

Personal experience of the pandemic, written in these early days, may not be the stuff of literary agents’ dreams or Hollywood blockbusters. But agency and plot could be found in the search for a vaccine or in the political intrigue or scientific arguments and disputes. Maybe there will be a three-part mini-series about SAGE? Or, perhaps, we will return to cinemas to see the Rock find out Who caused Coronavirus? or maybe we will watch Coronavirus: The Movie?

Contagion, the 2011 film, is the story of a deadly international virus

Professor Mackay is the author of several books on war writing, most recently, Modernism, War and Violence and Ian Watt: The novel and the wartime critic.

Antisemitism in Europe

Racial and class-based divisions, economic strife and extreme politics have all followed pandemics in history, as suffering populations and authorities have sought answers and scapegoats for their plight. Whatever tensions or problems existed, epidemics have found them, sharpened them and they have come into the open as the illness receded - from the Black Death in 1348 to the plague of 1665 from the 19th century cholera epidemics and the 1918 flu to HIV/AIDS. Many large-scale outbreaks of disease have resulted in scapegoating of minorities and been followed by prolonged civil unrest.

But Oxford Professor of Medical History, Mark Harrison says, ‘When there has been extremism and tensions [following an epidemic], they have already existed....Epidemics in themselves don’t cause tensions, they expose them....The lesson of history is that epidemics accentuate problems and bring them into the open.’

When there has been extremism and tensions [following an epidemic], they have already existed....Epidemics in themselves don’t cause tensions, they expose them

The effects can be dramatic, as evident in even recent years: in 1986, the Duvalier family, which had ruled Haiti for nearly three decades, was swept from power after the country's economy was brought to its knees  in the midst of the AIDs crisis. Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, who took power after his father's death in 1971, had previously enjoyed overseas backing for his regime. But panic around the condition was widespread in the mid-1980s and the Haitians were made a 'special risk factor group'.  The impact of that decision on the Haitian population and on 'Baby Doc' was enormous. The nation's travel industry collapsed virtually overnight and with it went the precarious economy.  Haitians are perceived to have been doubly victimised: first by the import of HIV/AIDS from the US and then by the stigmatisation of Haitians.  But the link with AIDs, and the action taken of naming the nation, saw the unpopular Haitian regime driven from power after nearly 30 years in charge and 'Baby Doc' leave for exile. 


In earlier centuries, there have been a variety of responses to pandemics and epidemics - some have been extreme, even heinous, others have followed as a consequence of the illness and the loss of life. Six centuries before the Duvaliers were forced out of Haiti, the Black Death of 1348 saw anything from one third to a half of Europe's population wiped out, as plague raged across the Continent. The enormous magnitude of the crisis, saw a complete change in the social landscape and, in the aftermath, there were horrific anti-Semitic attacks across Europe. Rumours and wild accusations led to populations and their rulers looking for scapegoats - and to cancel debts and seize Jewish property - and there are records of appalling attacks on whole communities.

Scapegoating of communities or individuals, has followed in the wake of other pandemics, as people have sought answers or simply to punish those they hold responsible. But reports from 1349, also show that a penitent movement, the flagellants, developed, comprising survivors of the pandemic. They moved from country to country flogging themselves in public, to atone for their sins - which, it was feared, had caused the Black Death.

 The Black Death of 1348 saw anything from one third to one half of Europe's population wiped out...and, in the aftermath of the plague, horrific anti-Semitic attacks across Europe

Long term impacts

After the initial horror, the Black Death had a long-term impact on the social fabric of Europe. With so many peasants losing their lives,  the epidemic was followed by a labour shortage and wage inflation. Since the lower classes were able to command greater rewards for their work, the days of peasants being tied to a master's land were largely gone.  It effectively proved to be the end to serfdom in England, with peasants, who were previously unable to leave their master's lands, seeking better opportunities and more money in towns. For those who survived the pandemic, it meant the possibility of mobility and a better standard of living. There was such concern among the ruling class, about the increase in wages and peasants roaming the country searching for better job opportunities, that the 1350 Statute of Labourers' Act was enacted. This made it illegal to receive higher wages than had been offered in 1346, ‘the twentieth year of our reign of King Edward III’. 

There is also evidence, says Professor Harrison and fellow medical historian Dr Claas Kirchhelle, that suffering and epidemics bring communities together, across cultural and class divides, as they combine to fight illness and prevent outbreaks.  Responses to the same pandemic have also differed in different countries, with some looking to blame while other populations reacted with cooperation. The Spanish were not held responsible for the Spanish Flu, which had not originated in the Iberian peninsula anyway. And, according to Dr Kirchhelle, 'The third plague pandemic saw different faiths and ethnicities in the cosmopolitan Egyptian city of Alexandria come together to take communal health action.'

Around the world, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has manifested in populations spontaneously coming together in song or in support of healthcare workers. In countries, such as Germany, where there was an effective initial response to the pandemic, recent opinion polls indicate a rise of trust in government parties and a decline in support for opposition parties and the far right - despite individual acts of militancy.  But, in the US, some groups have been demanding the lifting of restrictions, in the face of lockdowns, and at the same time there has been criticism of the handling of the epidemic and inequalities.  


According to Professor Harrison, much depends on how the pandemic is handled by governments and whether this is seen to be fair or furthering inequality. We are yet to see the aftermath of COVID-19 but, Professor Harrison says, there is already evidence of a ‘backlash’ with many attacks on 5G installations and online conspiracy theories receiving more-than-usual attention and support. He maintains, ’In some previous cases [in history], governments have inflamed tensions. [In other cases] it has been economic effects or class or racial/ethnic tensions.’ 

Professor Harrison adds, ‘The 5G attacks aren't simply based on conspiracy theories, but have been conducted by people who appear to see the communications infrastructure as a form of oppression and want to hinder a return to normality.’

The 5G attacks aren't simply based on conspiracy theories but have been conducted by people who appear to see the communications infrastructure as a form of oppression and want to hinder a return to normality

Throughout history, populations have sometimes responded dramatically to the problems faced by illness within their society. In London of 1665, which was riven by plague, there were riots and attacks on the authorities. People flouted restrictions on movement and deep social divisions were exposed as the wealthy classes fled, leaving poorer people in the plague-ridden capital. But, once the danger was over, people flocked back to London. According to Samuel Pepys, ‘Now the plague is abated almost to nothing… to our great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to be open again’.  

‘Inequality became an issue in 1665,’ says Professor Harrison. ‘And the cholera epidemics of the 19th century exacerbated tensions between the working class and governments in Paris and Moscow.’ 

But what causes huge upheaval in one country, will not necessarily be reflected in others. According to Dr Kirchhelle, the cholera pandemics also inspired significant collective action for public health. While initial British responses to cholera were unstructured, the period between the 1850s and 1890s saw different cities, local authorities, and successive national governments decide to construct large-scale affordable water, sanitation, and hygiene systems throughout Britain. Financed by cheap credit and local taxation, citizens took great pride in their collectively-built and owned health infrastructure.

Responses and reactions

Ultimately, Professor Harrison maintains, ‘Situations in different countries, lead to different outcomes....What should concern us about the present pandemic is the longer term impact, the economic impact.’  

He says, ‘Class and ethnicity can become an issue, if there is perceived to be an unequal impact of a disease and the way it is handled...If poor people are seen to be more at risk and if the lockdown is felt more by them, then it can lead to tensions.'

Key to the likely response, will be the measures brought in to deal with easing the restrictions. Sensitive ‘policing coupled with targeted aid for vulnerable communities becomes really important’

 While public support of collective symbols such as the National Health Service is at an all-time high, we are already seeing significant concerns about the disproportionate effects of the pandemic in poorer urban areas and British Asian and Middle Eastern communities, says Dr Kirchhelle.

‘There could also be a perception of a generational divide, (which is already there in our society) and those most likely to break measures are youths and young adults,’ Professor Harrison maintains. ‘They already resent the lockdown and the economic measures. It is a toxic mixture.’

Key to the likely response, says Professor Harrison, will be the measures brought in to deal with easing the restrictions. Sensitive ‘policing coupled with targeted aid for vulnerable communities becomes really important’. 

Rumours and theories are often rife in times of epidemics, more so now because of the easy international methods of communication. According to Professor Harrison, ‘In previous epidemics, rumours have expressed a social truth of marginalisation...and they can become a focus for action.’

He has concerns about potential for scapegoating communities, ‘There is disinformation on all sides at the moment...but in previous epidemics, countries have become concerned about other countries who were seen to be taking advantage of the situation.’

Professor Harrison says, ‘In the 1890s, the European powers imposed heavy quarantines and embargoes [because of cholera] against their competitors. But these became untenable over time. Their economies were interconnected and they had to work together....And it led to the first international sanitary agreements.’

Both academics hope for a similar response to the COVID-19 crisis, with the best way out of the current and future pandemics lying in rapid, transparent, and collective international action to coordinate public health interventions, develop effective diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics, and protect vulnerable communities. According to Professor Harrison, ‘This probably will come about because of shared economic interests, but it won't happen immediately in all sectors.’

Humanities Cultural Programme at the Ashmolean

What can history teach us about tackling pandemics? How can they shape our response to climate change? These questions are being explored in a new series of live, virtual events from the Humanities Cultural Programme.

While physical events are not be possible in Oxford this term, the ‘Big Tent! Live Events!’ series will bring together Oxford academics, leading figures in the arts and even pop stars like Jamelia. They will discuss the biggest questions of our day through the lens of research.

Events will be streamed live at 5pm every Thursday, and the recording will be made available online shortly afterwards.

Dr Victoria McGuinness, Head of Cultural Programming, said: "Although it is disappointing not to be able to bring people together for these events, moving to digital actually lets us reach bigger and more global audiences than would otherwise be possible."

Thousands of people from around the world took part in the first events, and we invite everyone to tune in, listen and type out your thoughts and questions for our speakers every week from 5pm.”

Some of the events so far have been very relevant for our present circumstances. Last month, Professor Sally Shuttleworth (English Faculty) and Professor Erica Charters (History Faculty) explored the treatment of health and disease in the past, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries when invalids were actively encouraged to travel.

Earlier this month, Professor Abigail Williams explained her research into the history of reading aloud and performance at home in the 18th century. Back then, drawing rooms regularly hosted book groups, tea parties, amateur dramatics and singing. In discussion with Giles Lewin, she gave her thoughts on the revival of domestic entertainment while we have been in lockdown.

Last month, Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, marked the Bard’s birthday in a discussion with Erica Whyman OBE, Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Shakespeare, it turned out, did some of his writing while in quarantine to avoid the plague.

In the first event to be held, anthropologists Dr Elizabeth Ewart and JC Niala discussed human relationship to cities, and JC Niala’s doctoral research into 'guerrilla gardeners' who operate in cities such as London and Oxford.

Future events will include a discussion of the world after Covid-19 on 18 June. This will be a conversation between Professor Ngaire Woods (Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government) and Professor Peter Frankopan (History Faculty), who will bring together complementary expertise in present day governance and lessons from history.

On 7 May, Professor Philip Bullock (Modern and Medieval Languages) and Dr Leah Broad (Music Faculty) celebrated the 180th anniversary of the birth of Tchaikovsky with a discussion of how the Russian composer became such a revered figure.

The full list of past and upcoming events can be found here:


The Humanities Cultural Programme is part of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. It will benefit from state-of-the-art facilities including a 500-seat auditorium, when the building the opens, which is schedule for the academic year 2024/25.

Signed, first edition copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy

Robert Burton was a scholar at the University of Oxford 400 years ago. He drew on the collections of the Bodleian Library and Christ Church, where he was himself Librarian, to seek to understand the human condition, in its full emotional range.

But his declared subject was 'melancholy'. The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, is an extraordinary and enormous attempt to grapple with the causes, symptoms, and treatments of that universal human experience. 

Four hundred years later, when clinical depression is stated to be the leading cause of global disability, and there are many challenges to our mental health, a new radio series for BBC Radio 4 is asking: how far have we come? And is there anything we can learn from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy to help us today?

Amy Liptrot and Kathryn Murphy at the Bodleian LibraryAmy Liptrot and Kathryn Murphy at the Bodleian Library
Writer Amy Liptrot has been digging into Robert Burton's massive 400-year-old text to uncover its riches and begins her journey at the Bodleian where she meets Dr Kathryn Murphy from Oxford’s Faculty of English, an expert on Burton’s Anatomy. Together they look at books Burton owned where you can see his hand-scribbled notes, and reflect on Burton as a person and an Oxford scholar who devoted himself lifelong to the task of anatomizing melancholy.

With Burton as a guide, the series hears from leading experts in mental health research today, and from those who manage their struggles with sadness and depression in a variety of ways - including the gardener and broadcaster, Monty Don, pioneering cell biologist and author of Malignant Sadness: the anatomy of depression, Lewis Wolpert, and a young survivor from the Manchester Arena attack.

Professor John Geddes, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University, meets Amy at Christ Church Cathedral, beneath the bust of Burton, and speculates about the range of mood in The Anatomy. His own specialism in mood disorders and research into the use of wearables as a means of monitoring and managing mood has special relevance in the context of Burton who himself suffered from depression and mood instability.

Each episode takes on a different theme from Burton's Anatomy, covering causes such as: genetics ('an hereditary cause'), inflammation ('inflammations of the head'), inequality ('poverty and want'), trauma ('terrors in the night') and possible 'cures' such as nature, 'merry company', ‘divine music’, sleep, friends, exercise. 

Bust of Robert Burton at Christ Church CathedralBust of Robert Burton at Christ Church Cathedral
The presenter, Amy Liptrot, who has written about her recovery from alcoholism in her 20s and the impact of her dad's bipolar disorder, says: ‘In making this series, it's been fascinating to compare the cutting edge of today's psychiatry and people's 21st century experiences with depression, with the ideas of Robert Burton. It's often amazing how relevant and prescient he was, writing 400 years ago. 

‘We've explored the part of melancholy in the human condition, how it can be alleviated and lived with - and the unique voice of Burton has been a brilliant guide though it all.’

The series shines a light on common experiences and connections over time and the ways in which science is catching up with the intuitions and understanding from 400 years ago and beyond.

Robert Burton talks about his own struggles with melancholy and reveals a personal vulnerability when he says: 'I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.' The series explores the potential of writing and reading to give purpose, better understand one's experiences and connect with others. Perhaps there has never been a better moment to pause and reflect on melancholy: ways to understand it, alleviate it and accept it.

The actor Simon Russell Beale narrates sections of Robert Burton’s text throughout the series.

Professor John Geddes is series consultant for The New Anatomy of Melancholy.

Dr Kathryn Murphy’s book Robert Burton: A Vital Melancholy will be published in 2021.

The Bodleian Library is curating an exhibition based around The Anatomy of Melancholy, due to open in the autumn, 2021.

The 10-part series The New Anatomy of Melancholy begins on BBC Radio 4, Monday 11 May 2020 at 1.45pm.

Listen here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000j1jq

EMPRES award

Research at Oxford has shown music brings people together and makes them feel better - and social distancing has provided overwhelming support for such academic music theories.

To celebrate music of the lockdown, Oxford’s music faculty is today inviting entries for a unique competition focusing on safe collaboration, networking and virtual collectivity

To celebrate music of the lockdown, Oxford’s music faculty is today inviting entries for a unique competition focusing on safe collaboration, networking and virtual collectivity. At the same time, Oxford music students are giving an online performance tonight [24 April] for the YoungDementia UK charity.

The EMPRES Award 2020 invites creative, collaborative responses to the global challenge, of making music and art during the Covid-19 pandemic. Entries can come from any member of the University of Oxford and their creative associates. This could include filmmakers, writers, visual artists, composers and musicians. 

Meanwhile, Oxford musicians became involved with the Oxfordshire-based charity as part of the Turtle Song project. The aims is to reach out to people with dementia and engage with them socially and creatively. Music is proven to be of great physical and emotional benefit to people living with dementia.

The work was cut short by the lockdown. But the whole group, include those living with dementia, came together by Zoom last Friday and hope to ‘meet’ regularly during this difficult time. According Turtle Song project director Carolyn von Stumm: ‘The joy at the group being reunited as we all sang and danced in our living rooms was palpable.  A wonderfully, uplifting, positive story with a very human perspective.’

Oxford music students are giving an online performance tonight [24 April] for the YoungDementia UK charity

Will Prior, an Oxford music student who has been involved with the project, says: ‘Volunteering...has been eye opening and inspirational in equal parts....it is a great shame that we were not able to meet as a group in person for the (final performance) we have found a way, through the wonder of Zoom, to connect with each other...Although the social dynamic is vastly altered...there’s something rather special about seeing a group of people...dancing round their living rooms without a care in the world whilst belting out...songs that you wrote together.’

The EMPRES competition is also aimed at engaging people with music during these challenging times. The Music faculty’s electronic music studio manager and EMPRES artistic director, Daniel Hulme, comments: 'We are living through times inconceivable just a few months ago, that will no doubt resonate for many years to come. This is both an extraordinary crisis, and potentially an extraordinary stimulus to do something remarkable.'

This is both an extraordinary crisis, and potentially an extraordinary stimulus to do something remarkable

 The deadline for submissions is Monday 15 June. There are two broad categories:

  •  Experimental Electronic Music and
  • Sound Art.

Submissions in both categories are welcomed from collaborations with other artists, researchers and disciplines. There will be prizes in both categories and online publication – with a live performance of selected works later in the year.  A key requirement is that the works are deliverable within the current UK guidelines around social distancing – and could include a digital experience or a web-based installation. And they must be no longer than eight minutes.

Submissions for the EMPRES, Electronic Music Research, competition should be sent via WeTransfer (or another web transfer service) in a single ZIP file to empres@music.ox.ac.uk.  For full details please see https://empres.music.ox.ac.uk/empres-award-2020

Turtle Song has run 28 projects throughout the UK over the last 11 years, involving 800 participants, 150 music students and 10 universities and music colleges.  You can see their performances at  https://www.turtlekeyarts.org.uk/turtle-song