Fearful Unknowings

By Timothy Jacobson


Air Observer in Britain (1940)

Epidemics belong to the natural order and have a way about them. They begin, and they always end. One of the cliches sure to arise from our current predicament will be along the lines of: “We’re in unknown territory now.” It is a cliché with obvious truth in it but not the whole truth. Better I think to change the angle, from handwringing for the future, which does not yet exist, to remembering the past, which is real. I am now seventy-one and indeed have known nothing like this in my lifetime: not 9/11, not the Cuban missile crisis, not the recurrent polio scares that finally ended with a safe vaccine in 1955. Virtually no one now lives to remember the great epidemic that followed on the heels of World War I. Some still do live however who can remember another more recent time, in a specific place—that is, a particular historical circumstance—that equates in some degree with our own moment of fearful unknowing. The time and place would be Britain in the summer of 1940, after the fall of France and Dunkirk. Two knowns: 1) Britain stood alone and would not sue for peace; 2) a frightful [German actually has the better word here: schrecklich] fury was certain to be turned upon her. Multiple unknowns: What? From where? In what form? To what degree? For how long? (In retrospect, we know the answers: threat of invasion; the air Battle of Britain; the Blitz and so forth.) I asked a dear friend, an Englishman now in his nineties who grew up in rural Oxfordshire, to confirm or deny my speculation. He paused a bit before answering to say, first, “Well you know when you’re still a boy (he was fourteen that summer), about all you can see is where you are every day, which of course was school and family. The masters never said anything about politics, just kept pounding on Latin and math that I wasn’t very good at . . . . I was too young to go to the pub where the men talked after work; my own father had been through the Somme in the first war and lost his first wife and child in the Great Influenza and said very little; my mother was very pessimistic about the future; my aunt on the other hand who came down from the North to look after Granny was very optimistic. We had an instinctive confidence in the Royal Navy. We all listened to the news bulletins [short bulletins, not long programs] on the wireless at 6:00; Churchill’s ‘We shall fight on the beaches and in the streets . . .’ moved us all. All the schoolboys did war work in the summer on local farms. We were ‘spud-pullers.’ And, privately, with my two best friends and our rifles, we were pretty good poachers for rabbit, squirrels, whatever might go into the pot at home, on nearby big estates. We loved ‘aeroplanes’ in any form, theirs or ours; some days you could watch overhead what was the developing Battle of Britain.” So, the first “what,” to them at the moment, was the Battle of Britain. The “Where” was way up there. “To what degree” was almost but not quite overwhelming. The RAF prevailed by a hair, but it meant there would be no invasion. Then came the bombing, all in that order. “America came in after Pearl Harbor, but it didn’t register much to us. We didn’t really see much hope for two years, until El Alamein in the summer of 1942. That was when we believed we could actually beat them.” That was two full years of fearful unknowing, with moments no doubt of carefree unknowing tossed in, for there is only so much worry one can bear. My friend was raised “chapel” and became in adulthood a stubborn old agnostic though I believe our Lord is making inroads in that department, which is as it may be. He did not know “church,” which was posh, though his shopkeeper father, John Betjeman-like, cycled him around to countless parish churches in those years, just to look. (Note here: Larkin’s “Churchgoing”). Something else that continued that summer of unknowing was the life of the cathedrals.         “I remember hearing the bombers overhead on the night they got Coventry.”         Yet church doors remained open. The Eucharist was offered, the beauties of choral Matins and Evensong, if with sometimes thinned ranks, carried on . . . Others before us have been down this road. Faithful and faithless alike, our Lord held them all. Beware Lewis’s chronological snobbery: these are certainly not the best nor probably the worst of times; sometimes we must look back to see ahead. This day alone lies before us, and He commands us to be cheerful and useful in it.


Timothy Jacobson lives in Fort Defiance, VA and attends All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA.