As readers and listeners and viewers know, for a fortnight or so I've been tracking the death toll of the Chinese coronavirus in Italy: When I first mentioned it on television, just over a week ago, the cumulative fatalities were about 1,200. Now it's near 5,000, and the daily deaths have accelerated - 200 per diem, 250, 350, 475... Today, the grim toll of the last 24 hours hit a new record of just under 800. A national tragedy is befalling Italy.
As I said on yesterday's Clubland Q&A, we are going to try to walk a delicate balance in the weeks ahead: We'll bring you up to speed on what's happening on the Kung Flu fighting, but we'll also continue to provide some welcome escapism from the wretched headlines, such as Kathy Shaidle on The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Carol, Russell and the band with a rollicking freewheeling Song of the Week.
I'm not sure whether this next offering falls into the wretched headline or escapist entertainment category - probably a foot in both camps - but it's the thirty-fifth audio adventure in our popular series Tales for Our Time, and this tale couldn't be timelier. Daniel Defoe is best known as the author of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722), but between those two enduring bestsellers he wrote a third classic: A Journal of the Plague Year - as in the Great Plague of London:
It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland...
We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now. But it seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumour died off again, and people began to forget it as a thing we were very little concerned in, and that we hoped was not true; till the latter end of November or the beginning of December 1664 when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Long Acre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane.
The family they were in endeavoured to conceal it as much as possible, but as it had gotten some vent in the discourse of the neighbourhood, the Secretaries of State got knowledge of it; and concerning themselves to inquire about it, in order to be certain of the truth, two physicians and a surgeon were ordered to go to the house and make inspection. This they did; and finding evident tokens of the sickness upon both the bodies that were dead, they gave their opinions publicly that they died of the plague. Whereupon it was given in to the parish clerk, and he also returned them to the Hall; and it was printed in the weekly bill of mortality in the usual manner, thus—
Parishes infected, 1.
And so it begins. As I say in my introduction, A Journal of the Plague Year is a reminder that not much has changed in the three and a half centuries between their contagion and ours. The remedies are the same - "social distancing" and self-quarantine. The emergency measures are also similar: In 2020 no March Madness; in 1665 no bear-baiting. The one great imponderable for the difficult months ahead is whether the disposition of the people is as it was.
At any rate, if you're sick of watching Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law et al in Contagion for the umpteenth time, and you're minded to take a longer view of the topic, this is a unique literary tour de force that retains its power even after three centuries. To hear A Journal of the Plague Year, prefaced by my own introduction to Daniel Defoe's tale, Mark Steyn Club members should please click here and log-in.
If the charms of 24-hour quarantine with premium cable are already beginning to chafe, we're pleased to offer an alternative: well over two years' worth of my audio adaptations of classic fiction starting with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's cracking tale of an early conflict between jihadists and westerners in The Tragedy of the Korosko. To access them all, please see our easy-to-navigate Netflix-style Tales for Our Time home page. We've introduced a similar tile format for my Sunday Poems and also for our audio and video music specials.
We launched The Mark Steyn Club over two-and-a-half years ago, and I'm overwhelmed by all those members across the globe who've signed up to be a part of it - from Fargo to Fiji, Vancouver to Vanuatu, Cook County to the Cook Islands, West Virginia to the West Midlands. As I said at the time, membership isn't for everyone, but it is a way of ensuring that all our content remains available for everyone.
That said, we are offering our Club members a few extras, including our monthly audio adventures by Dickens, Conrad, Kafka, Gogol, H G Wells, Baroness Orczy, Jack London, Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Louis Stevenson - plus a piece of non-classic fiction by yours truly. You can find them all here. We're very pleased by the response to our Tales - and we even do them live on our annual Mark Steyn Cruise, and sometimes with special guests. In the event we survive the present zombie apocalypse, we'll be presenting another Tale for Our Time along with live editions of The Mark Steyn Show and much more on our third annual cruise.
I'm truly thrilled that one of the most popular of our Steyn Club extras these last two years has been our nightly radio serials. If you've enjoyed them and you're looking for a present for a fellow fan of classic fiction, I hope you'll consider our special Club Gift Membership. Aside from Tales for Our Time, The Mark Steyn Club does come with other benefits:
~Exclusive Steyn Store member pricing on over 40 books, mugs, T-shirts, and other products;
~The chance to engage in live Clubland Q&A sessions with yours truly (such as yesterday's);
~Transcript and audio versions of The Mark Steyn Show, Mark's Mailbox, and our other video content;
~My video series of classic poetry;
~Booking for special members-only events, such as The Mark Steyn Christmas Show;
~Priority booking for the above-mentioned Third Annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise from Rome to Gibraltar, Barcelona, Monte Carlo and more (once our own Plague Year is concluded) with Michele Bachmann, Conrad Black, Douglas Murray and my other guests;
~Advance booking for my live appearances around the world (assuming "live appearances" become a thing once more);
~Customized email alerts for new content in your areas of interest;
~and the opportunity to support our print, audio and video ventures as they wing their way around the planet.
To become a member of The Mark Steyn Club, please click here - and don't forget that special Gift Membership. As soon as you join, you'll get access not only to A Journal of the Plague Year but to all the other yarns gathered together at the Tales for Our Time home page.
One other benefit to membership is our Comment Club privileges. So don't self-isolate from giving us a pox-free thumbs up or a dripping pustule of a thumbs down, according to taste. And do join us tomorrow for Part Two of A Journal of the Plague Year.