You may have heard of the Sealed Knot, the group of historical enthusiasts which dresses up in Civil War costumes and re-enacts battles from Cromwell’s time. But have you heard of the Sealed Flask, which re-enacts great plagues and epidemics from the past?
To see them in action is chillingly effective. Last week they took over a field near Pursley St John, a now deserted Wiltshire village which was wiped out by the Black Death, and portrayed the coming of the dreadful plague by standing stiffly erect and, one by one, keeling over during a period of about four hours. That’s all they did. About 300 people, dressed in period costume, standing silent and motionless, occasionally toppling forward and crumbling into a heap. It’s a bit like watching a nightmare Ingmar Bergman film. But why do they do it?
‘As a sort of corrective to the Sealed Knot, I suppose,’ says their leader, Professor Rodney Quirling. ‘They romanticise and dramatise war. We remind people of the parts of our history which had no relieving glamour at all. The great ‘flu epidemic of the end of the Great War carried away as many people as the fighting did, but do we ever see programmes of tribute to that? Do people who make the Monocled Mutineer ever think of doing The Coughing Civilian? I think not. That is where we step in.’
Last year they did a highly effective reappraisal of the Great Plague of 1665, in and around London’s East End, using piles of corpses and sending actors with barrows round the neighbourhood crying ‘Bring out your dead!’ So effective was it that, far from encountering the expected opposition on the grounds of taste, they actually were given three genuine dead bodies by various families who thought this was a new funeral service by the local council.
‘Our next big production is a re-enactment of an outbreak of cholera in eighteenth century Southampton,’ says the Professor, whose full-time job as a professor of surgery ensures the authenticity of the Sealed Flask’s work. ‘We always like to reproduce the actual effects of the epidemic, of course, by using as life-like eruptions or boils or bubos, as possible. The equivalent of wounds and blood with the Sealed Knot, I suppose. It certainly causes a bit of comment when, after a good plague, we all go into a pub together for a drink. I have seen landlords faint at the sight of us!’
To counter suggestions that the work of the Sealed Flask is fusty antiquarianism, the Professor has recently written to the BBC to suggest helping them mount a re-enactment of the recent outbreak of legionnaire’s disease at Broadcasting House, though he is sure that they will be very cool about the whole idea…
“Dear Sir,” (writes Dr Alan Savannah of Guilford) “I really must protest at the low level of taste shown by this article, which falls far below the normal standards of the excellence of The Independent. If Professor Quirling and his sick-minded cohorts really do get together to celebrate great epidemics of the past, I cannot help feeling that their motives are highly suspect, not to say diseased, and it ill behoves you to give them such free publicity. I am saddened by your fall from grace.
“Incidentally, your readers might like to know that I am a member of the Sealed Letter, an organisation which seeks to recreate historical styles of writing to newspapers. I, for instance, am re-enacting a stuffy Victorian gentleman of the 1890s, with phrases like “ill-behoving” and so on. Other members of the group write letters in the style of living people. One very active section does letters about nuclear war signed “Harold Pinter and Others” which very often get printed! If readers should be at all interested in helping with our work, they only have to get in touch with me. We shall be needing all the help we can get in the near future to write letters of protest about the production which the BBC is rumoured to be mounting, with the Sealed Flask, of the outbreak of Legionnaires disease at Broadcasting House. Anyway, thanks for letting me print this letter in your article. Yours, etc…”
STOP PRESS. An injunction has just been taken out against this article by the Sealed Fort, an organisation which exists to protect the memory and reputation of the Foreign Legion. They seek to prevent the use of the phrase “legionnaire’s disease” to describe something which is not suffered by legionnaires, only office workers in close proximity to defective water cooling systems. They aim to have the description legally changed to “sedentary worker’s disease”; meanwhile you should use the phrase “legionnaire’s disease” only to describe the impulse to rush into Algiers and get blind drunk. Until the injunction is lifted, therefore, this article may not be read in any shape or form. We ask you not to resist arrest when they come to get you. Thank you for your co-operation.
The Independent - Late 1980's