When my wife and I rented a London flat last year, we were quickly made to understand that it was a no-frills affair. But I noticed one small nod to the comfort of guests. On an otherwise bare row of pegs near the front door, a single umbrella hung, poised for the next shower. In London, they seemed to arrive every day.
That lone umbrella conveyed a message that struck me as quintessentially British: Luck changes. Prepare to adapt.
What no one could have known, as my wife and I returned to the States, was how quickly the world’s luck would change. Within months, millions were in lockdown in response to COVID-19.
Isolated at home, many readers found comfort in “The Splendid and the Vile,” Erik Larson’s bestseller about how citizens in World War II weathered the German bombing of London.
They got through the Nazi assault, as Larson’s book makes clear, with the usual British genius for adaptability. Because she could no longer play safely at night, pianist Myra Hess staged concerts at lunchtime in London’s National Gallery. “The hall filled to capacity,” Larson writes, “many attendees sitting on the floor, gas masks in hand, just in case.”
Phyllis Warner was surprised at the depth of resolve among her fellow Londoners. “Finding we can take it is a great relief to most of us,” she wrote in her diary. “I think that each of us was secretly afraid that he wouldn’t be able to.”
Earlier this year, for a magazine story, I spoke with Larson about the popularity of "The Splendid and the Vile."
"People came to it as a political elixir," he told me. "People seem to be coming to the book for comfort."
Maybe readers have also enjoyed the book because it has reminded them of the possibility of their own resilience.
Comparisons between the blitz of London and the ongoing pandemic can be overstated. Being asked to stay home and watch Netflix to control a contagion is far different from wondering if an aerial bomb will blow you to bits.
Even so, what I will treasure most from this bitter year is the quiet resolve I saw in so many Louisianians as they coped with an enemy they couldn’t see.
I’ll remember the curbside wait staff at neighborhood restaurants who brought out food in the rain — and did so with a smile. I’ll think of the teachers who improvised online lessons overnight, and the students who shifted gears and survived — even thrived — while learning on laptops. And I will think of my neighbor, a COVID-19 nurse, who left her family each day and risked her life, apparently without question.
Maybe the bitter gift of 2020 has been its revelation of what the best of us are made of. Their example has challenged me, in a season of New Year’s resolutions, to be better, too.