Towards the start of 2020, COVID-19 swept across Europe. Within a few weeks, the continent was declared the epicentre of the disease. In many countries, people were confined to their homes – with exceptions for essential journeys – for months. In countries like France and Spain, where just under half of all properties are flats, this was an especially hard time. But it also led to something which really surprised me.
People got out their pots and pans.
I can’t say how the phenomenon spread to other European countries, but in the UK, it started with a particular movement – the Clap For NHS. Every Thursday at the height of the pandemic, people were encouraged to stand on their doorsteps and applaud the efforts of NHS staff and other key workers for putting themselves at risk to keep others safe. The idea? To make as much noise as possible.
Nowadays, we have things like car horns that can make an awful lot of noise, but for thousands of years, the loudest noise a person could reasonably make was by banging a pot. It’s surprisingly loud! For many people at home, who suddenly needed to make a lot of spontaneous noise, they reached for their pots and pans.
This astounds me. There’s no way anyone around today is especially used to banging their pots for any purpose, ritual or not. But people did, and a very old custom came back for a moment.
Making noise at rituals is an ancient human custom – probably one of our oldest. In the UK, the Anglo-Saxons would bang pots and pans to mark all kinds of ritual occasions. In some parts of the UK, people still practice wassail, an old English pagan custom where the participants go and bang pots and pans. It’s very rare, though, so there aren’t more than a few dozen people at an event. Back in the day, though, it’s easy to imagine loads of people turning out with their cookware to mark special holidays.
But with everyone stuck in their high-rise housing blocks, suddenly you had an opportunity for hundreds of people to come together and bang their pots and pans. That noise you hear is one of our oldest sounds of celebration, and it’s one that probably hasn’t been heard that loudly in the UK for hundreds of years.
I’m so glad we have a spontaneous sound recording of it now, so we know what that very, very old noise sounded like.