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Green & Peasant Land

Clapping for the NHS

We’ve seen some strange things over the last few months. One of the oddest was the weekly nationwide clapping and banging of pots and pans on doorsteps during the early part of the ‘lockdown’. It resembled nothing more than the rituals that took place in pagan times to chase away evil spirits from a village, to protect them against some epidemic, or to expel demons from the fields before the sowing of crops or before harvest. On a certain day, the whole community was expected to turn out to make as much noise as possible, shouting, blowing horns, ringing bells, clattering pots and pans and parading through the streets to make what the Irish call a hullabaloo. This was a common ritual in many societies across the world. The noise was believed to frighten off the evil spirits and protect the community.

It struck me that the banging and clapping was a remarkable revival of this practice, taking us right back to pagan times. The nation had been terrified by the government into believing that hundreds of thousands of people were going to die from an evil spirit, a plague the like of which we hadn’t seen since the Spanish flu a century earlier. Hundreds of thousands were destined to die. Then someone suggested we come out to ‘clap for the NHS’ which is the nearest thing we have to a deity in modern Britain. The clapping was then accompanied by banging pots and pans, exactly the thing our pagan ancestors did to chase away demons that might do them harm. People came out in their droves all across the country and those failing to appear on their doorstep in solidarity with their neighbours were subject to public disapproval, just as they were in pagan times.

It was a remarkable demonstration of a pagan practice we might have thought we had grown out of, but that lives on, just below the surface of our modern world, ever ready to resurge.

By Philip Walling

Having been a farmer and practised as a barrister, I am now a writer with two books published so far: Counting Sheep (2014) and Till the Cows Come Home (2018).

I am interested in everything to do with the countryside, rural history, humanity and the way we live now.

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