What would Pepys say?

Enduring values, progress and hope. Opinion piece Newham Recorder 22.4.20.

Londoner Samuel Pepys chronicles the terrifying ‘Great Plague’ of 1665-6 in his celebrated diaries. They help put the hardship and tragedy we face today in perspective.

Pepys’s zest for life and endless curiosity are key to his lasting appeal.  His London was already a city of great diversity.  On 14 October 1663 Pepys describes a visit to a synagogue. At Easter 1666, having failed to get into a crowded Anglican church, Pepys tried a Catholic service. He describes being pleasantly surprised, given what had been said about them. He also frequented Turkish coffee shops in the City and later reports being impressed by a mosque he visited in Tangiers.

Pepys’s interest in exploring other beliefs is remarkable for a time when religious dogma and strife were rampant and heresy a capital offence.  Pepys himself was a sceptic. This helps explain his curiosity about alternative world views. He attended church, more or less a must then for someone in his position. But he was scathing of the hypocrisy he witnessed and describes falling asleep in sermons. What would he make of today’s London?

Pepys was fascinated by discoveries, inventions and ideas.  He would have been bowled over by advances in science. Not least genetics, evolution and microbiology, and their natural explanation for the cause and spread of bubonic plague then and Coronavirus now. He could only marvel at the man-made medical advances that have transformed our life-chances.

An estimated quarter of Londoners died of bubonic plague.  In 1666, in a double whammy, the ’Great Fire’ gutted the medieval City and destroyed over 13000 homes. Yet out of this misery and mayhem today’s glorious city eventually emerged.  Cars, mobile phones and TV would be completely alien to Pepys. But he would easily recognize in today’s Londoners the enduring human qualities which, at our best, enable us to rub along together, overcome disaster and thrive.

It’s good to note that just three years later, on 20 April 1669, Pepys records a pleasant afternoon trip to Stratford by carriage, then a short hop for Londoners wishing to enjoy the countryside.

Paul Kaufman
Chair East London Humanists

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