“During the Second World War we were subjected to all sorts of things, but nothing like this coronavirus,” he says.
Globally, the pandemic crisis has upended society as brutally as war.
But at the same time, it has robbed us of close contact with the only people who can tell us what world war was actually like – the elderly.
Born in the shadow of the Spanish flu epidemic and the Great Depression, they lived through war and absorbed the kinds of hardships young Australians are beginning to glimpse.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison teared up this week as he reflected on his grandmother’s tales of Depression-era life.
How does this generation view the current crisis, and what can they teach us about how to survive it?
“I have a wave of feeling that comes over me,” says Anne Walsh, 87.
“The isolation, the lock-up, and the fear of what is about to happen. I compare it very closely to the feelings I had during that war period.”
Mrs Walsh, who now lives in Maroubra, Sydney, was a seven-year-old living in east Sydney with her family when the war began.
“All I knew was something terrible was happening out there, because everyone seemed so tense and worried.”
Her father, a warden, donned a helmet every night to check their Darlinghurst street was blacked out. There were food scarcities. Children were issued with a kit bag containing a piece of wood to “place between your teeth when the bombs fell so we didn’t break our teeth”.
When the Japanese invaded Sydney Harbour in 1942, Mrs Walsh remembers the ghostly white of her father’s face as the family sheltered under the kitchen table.
“The other similarity with now is the feeling of putting the television on every morning and seeing the bad news,” she says.
“Back then, when the paper would come, there was a section of notices with three columns: dead, injured, missing. People would buy it to look up if there was anyone close to them who died.”
Ros Collins, 90, was a nine-year-old living with her parents in Ilford, London, when Winston Churchill declared Britain was at war with Germany.
She survived the Blitz – dark hours in air raid shelters, and the red glow of the night sky when St Paul’s Cathedral was bombed.
Her family was Jewish, and Mrs Collins’ strongest memory of the war is her neighbour, an ex-Indian Army officer, visiting her parents and telling them he had heard about concentration camps in Europe.
“He said, ‘I want you to know, I still have my rifle from India and if the Germans invade’ – which we were certain they would – ‘I want you to know I will shoot you and not let you go to the camps’,” she recalls.
“For a 10-year-old, I thought that was pretty amazing.”
Mrs Collins, who migrated to Australia and now lives in Elwood, Melbourne, thinks today’s young people are in for a “dreadful shock”.
“Life will never be the same,” she says.
“We were coming out of the Depression and we were used to a much simpler way of life. They will have to adjust their thinking away from McMansions with four bathrooms.”
Phyllis McCaughan, 92, lives in Essendon, Melbourne.
She was 18 when the war finished. Her three brothers fought in it.
She remembers the rationing – petrol and butter were the most scarce. She remembers buying the Sun every day to check for her brothers’ names in the lists of war dead. She remembers local dances, empty of young men to dance with.
Of the current crisis, Mrs McCaughan says: “It’s just a hard time, and the world will never be the same again, of course.”
Mrs McCaughan believes people should “just do as they’re told” in response to the crisis.
Asked for his advice to young people, Mr Long says: “The younger generation have to learn to be tolerant, honest and kind to their fellow man.”
He breaks off to recite one of his poems.
“Show no restraint in laughter … ” the first line begins.
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Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards