Turning and turning in the widening gyre

I have a distinct memory from nearly two decades ago. I was eleven years old, I had just started secondary school, and it was a Tuesday - about quarter to four in the afternoon. With lessons over, I left the building and climbed into my mother's car. As I was doing up my seat belt, my mum asked if I'd had a good day. Replying that I had, I looked up at her and she said, with a grave face and an admirable flair for the dramatic, "Well that's good, because it's been a bad day for the world."

The attacks on September 11th 2001 are the first time I can remember feeling like something historic was happening. It felt - and was - unprecedented. Of course, my short lifespan so far had seen other world-shaking events: I was born the week the Berlin wall fell; the horrific genocide in Rwanda took place as I was toddling around my nursery school; and when the Good Friday agreement was signed I was eagerly anticipating chocolate eggs across the Irish Sea.

This one was different. Just as my generation were entering adolescence, something subtle shifted in the air and for the first time, we wondered if anything would ever be the same again. It turned out that the answer was yes. And, in a way, no. But life carried on as normal for me, a little girl in a country far away from where it happened, who knew nobody directly affected.

I went to school and I learned about history and literature. I read about the darkest moments of the century we had just left behind, happy to assume that the longer human life went on the better we were getting at it.

I went to university and spent three years studying the civilisations which formed the foundations of the world I live in. I saw their proud buildings still gleaming from mountaintops, heard their words cascade from our mouths and pens — never stopping too long to contemplate their all-powerful gods fading into fanciful stories, their expansive empires dissolving to nothing at all.


Waking up on the morning after the EU referendum to a BBC News alert on my phone was - and remains - one of the worst moments of my life. In some measurable, distinct way, the world I lived in, the country I lived in, was going to change. It felt like a loss, as sudden and unexpected as a bereavement. The sting of that morning clarified into a combination of rage and numbness. When the United States elected Donald Trump as president a few months later, it was like someone pressing on a bruise. It hurt, but I'd been hurt before.

That June morning, with loud, wet sobs bursting out of my still sleep-blurry face, stands out among all the other mornings of my life because that moment was the beginning of it all. I am not an expert in politics or socioeconomics or anything really, and I'm sure there are plenty of reasons why this isn't correct, but it felt like the beginning of the end: the day we started to think it was all over for us.

Looking back now, from this moment we are in, it's hard to believe the events of the last four years. It's hard to believe the events of the last four weeks. There have been so many moments since that Tuesday in 2001 that have felt apocalyptic, but I can't think of any that felt quite this apocalyptic. We have weathered unimaginable election results, the threat of nuclear war with various countries, the loss of millions of animals in fires ravaging Australia, scientists largely agreeing on the fact that we have maybe a decade to maintain our planet as habitable for human life, and now we are looking at a deadly plague rapidly spreading across the entire world, with only the woefully inadequate leaders we chose to save us.

I can't tell whether the fact that we have so many examples from history of people facing moments like this should be a salve or a warning. For some reason, in this time of uncertainty and surrealism, my mind is drawn to some poetry I read at school. The first, 'Abbey Tomb' by Patricia Beer, is a poem about monks hiding in silence as Viking raiders prowled through the darkness and the fog to kill them. Their deaths were frightening and melodramatic and now their bones lie forgotten under the feet of sheep and tourists. I suppose it doesn't take much analysis to work out why that one might have come to mind.

The second poem, 'The Second Coming' by W. B. Yeats, was written 101 years ago, as a devastating pandemic swept through Europe, a continent already brought to its knees by a World War that had killed millions of people. The current relevance of this poem has been noted by many writers over the last few years. In fact, according to the New York Times it "was quoted more in 2016 than in any other year in three decades as commentators — worried about terror attacks, Brexit and the American presidential election — repeatedly invoked its lines."

This month, this week, this evening, have been terrifying. I am going to bed tonight with no knowledge of where I will be sleeping this time next week. I might be waking up in this bed next summer excited to travel to Wembley Stadium to watch the postponed finals of Euro 2020, or I might sleep here for the last time ever tomorrow night. I truly have no idea. I don't know which of my loved ones will be here in a year. I don't know if I will be.

This is all very bleak, but I find a strange comfort in the idea that one hundred years ago, things felt equally hopeless and out of control. In the century since W. B. Yeats wrote 'The Second Coming' we have had enough time to recover, collapse, collapse again, and get to a point where the vast majority of people alive today cannot even imagine the difficulties we may be about to face.

It's impossible, but it's been impossible before.

And here we are.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

W. B. Yeats