Varignano lazaretto, La Spezia, cholera epidemic, Italy, engraving from a drawing by Alberto della Valle, from L'Illustrazione Italiana, No 36, September 7, 1884.

A plague on lazarettos

Buildings born of plagues do have a life as something other than problematic ruins

In the May issue I wrote: “There is bugger all to celebrate (in confinement). So create a rich ripe vocabulary of despondency, loneliness, circumscription and sexual equality as potent as that of World War 2 and share it as it is made.”

That mild proposal seems to have fallen on deaf ears in anglophone countries. Germany, however, has coined a few words which have crossed the Rhine and enjoy currency in France. Coronaspeck is the pick of the bunch: it signifies weight gained by overeating in confinement. It is based on Kummerspeck which means weight gained eating one’s way out of depression, which furthers that depression. Speck is lard.

1955, boxer Don Cockell is pictured after a training session (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

An American boxing commentator described the hapless Don Cockell as “a bladder of lard” which was reckoned by the British commentators on his pasting by Rocky Marciano to have been unnecessarily cruel and sizeist (as no one said in 1955): plump or big or the glorious big-boned would have been more acceptable in that previous age of euphemism.

The construction using speck is more felicitous than Coronabacon (the French for lard is, confusingly, bacon). The English Coronalard would cut the mustard, as they say, but it is unquestionably sizeist and would no doubt offend the Obsesity Community, qualification for which I am gamely munching my way towards. Hamsterkauf is a delightful construction in German but clumsy in English. Buying like a hamster, hamster greed, hamster hunger, hamster shop — no. The French lundimanche, mardimanche, mercredimanche is a suave means of suggesting that under confinement every day is just like its predecessor and its successor.

Will any of 2020’s neologisms endure? Are the circumstances that provoked them too specific? Can they survive the shift to civvy street after the second or third wave of the virus ? Will they have the longevity of gone for a Burton or prang?
Such expressions are remembrances of the actuality of a grubby struggle rather than the cleansed and compromised monuments of official piety. The French bof, for instance, stands for beurre, oeufs, fromage. It signifies both the black market and a black marketeer, possibly a collaborator. Such people did not, of course, exist according to de Gaulle’s risible lies-after-the-event pretence that the populace was composed exclusively of résistants with ration books.

Plagues, no matter what our midget political masters may tell us, are not wars. Wars demand the construction of a specifically belligerent infrastructure: fortresses, gun emplacements, bunkers, blockhouses, roads, runways, anti tank obstacles, Czech hedgehogs, chevaux de frise, etc. An evident peculiarity of these is that the majority is appropriate for no other role. It is as though war is abnormal: it isn’t, man’s inhumanity to the other tribe is perpetual. There’s always a conflict somewhere you’ve never heard of.

There are exceptions. Dragon’s teeth — truncated pyramids sloping across fields in Hainaut and Namur — resemble and indeed presage land art of the mutest sort, should that count as a purpose. Here and there the Todt Organisation’s mighty flak towers and U-boat pens have been converted into studios, clubs and interactive displays of their squalid history.
Pirate radio stations hijacked WW2 fortresses in the Thames estuary.The Spithead fortresses have been converted into hotels and homes for the helicopter-owning classes. Palmerston’s other Vaubanesque follies on the Gosport peninsula and Portsdown Hill have fared less richly: an artillery collection, activity centres, fire service training centres, combat games centres (plastic pellets only), equestrian centres, centres centres.

Some years ago I attended a conference of bunkerologists. There were many curators of lumps of pillbox buried in dunes, of the threateningly sculptural defences on Guernsey and labyrinthine underground passages. There were more conventional museum wallahs, historians, filmmakers, photographers, writers, droning cultural commissars and prolix arts politicians.
Ought de facto monuments to a genocidal tyranny even be preserved? Should they be allowed to rot, to return to sand and aggregate? Is reconstituting them tantamount to honouring that tyranny? How much instruction should school parties be given about the wickedness or necessity of bombing civilian targets, und so weiter? I absented myself in order to find the best labskaus in Emden, a furiously defended town on the German-Dutch border which is a showground of bellicose concrete.

In contrast, plagues bequeath a limited structural legacy. The number of building types is small. But they do have a life as something other than problematic ruins. They are more than souvenirs of bad times, they go beyond being reminders of pestilence. Lazarettos were hospitals and shelters. Some still are.

Lepers were virtual prisoners. Disease was crime. Incarceration was brutal

In what might be called the social hierarchy of disease, leprosy, to this day, still comes near the top though the number of cases notified is only a fraction of those of 50 years ago. Nonetheless a stigma is still attached to it and to the places where sufferers were forcibly excluded from a life alongside the apparently healthy. Lepers were virtual prisoners. Disease was crime. Incarceration was brutal. Britain never managed a lazaretto on land.

A circular chunk of land in the Medway estuary was separated from its surroundings by a convict-navvied canal. The lazaretto at Chetney Hill (which isn’t a hill) was doomed. The building was designed by James Wyatt, known as The Destroyer for his vandalism at Salisbury and Lichfield cathedrals. Wyatt had lived in Venice for two years and was familiar with that city’s lazaretto. The site had long before been selected by the Board Of Works because of its proximity to creeks where quarantine ships were held.

The marshy ground at Chetney could not support the foundations. Building work was abandoned in 1803 less than three years after it had begun. The unfortunate would be consigned to hulks, over-the-hill men o’war, unseaworthy vessels for decades to come. What the building looked like is unknown: plans and elevations were lost in two fires — the Custom House in 1814 and the Houses of Parliament 20 years later. In very hot weather, the site of the foundations of the lazaretto that-never-was still manifests itself, a ghost posing as map.

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