The Irish national broadcaster RTÉ is carrying a story from Norwich, the city in East Anglia where a man dressed as a Seventeenth Century plague doctor is walking around scaring people. Extraordinarily, a quick Google search revealed that such costumes are readily available online, long black cloaks with a beak-like mask. The numerous purchase options suggest that there must be an extensive demand for the outfits, that there are hundreds of people who wish to present themselves as the terrifying figure. Why though? Why would anyone buy such a costume? Apart from wandering around the suburbs of Norwich, upsetting the residents, where would you go dressed as a plague doctor?
Perhaps the plague doctor is a re-emergence of the 2016 clown phenomenon. There were sightings in numerous English towns of people dressed as circus clowns, The people would suddenly appear to unsuspecting strangers in the street, bringing terror to those who encountered them, giving wide currency to the word “coulrophobia,” an irrational fear of clowns. Perhaps the plague doctor of Norwich will bring forth similar plague doctors in other towns across the country, perhaps there is a Latin name for an irrational fear of people dressed as plague doctors.
Perhaps the plague doctor is a consequence of the lockdown which is putting many people under strain. There are strange behaviours, irrational decisions to do things which seem inexplicable to onlookers. Shopping for essentials has revealed that people have strange ideas about what the word “essential” means.
Taking the hour of exercise permitted by Michael Gove, there are odd exchanges with people in the street. Conversations would be a generous description of words that sometimes seem not to make sense. One man, sitting on a bench, looked at me and said, as I passed, “it’s not happened.”
What had not happened? Was he speaking to me? There was no-one else around. Was he talking about something in his own life? Was he reflecting on the Covid-19 crisis? Was he trying to somehow reorder reality so that the world with which he felt familiar, the world in which he felt secure, might be restored?
Not knowing what to answer. I nodded and walked on.
One Friday afternoon in the Noughties, I was walking down a road when I met a consultant psychiatrist whom I knew. I inquired how he was. He replied, “I have just spent the afternoon with a woman who is bonkers.”
“Is that the clinical term?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but it’s true.”
The lockdown is breaking people’s connections with others and with reality, it weakening the tentative hold on rational thought that some possess. Plague doctors are only one sign of a deeper malaise.