:: Buzzwords Archive: May 2020. Click here for the latest posts.

3:AM in Lockdown 67: Nicholas Royle (published 25/05/2020)

Lockdown Alphabet
By Nicholas Royle.

My symptoms included anosmia — loss of sense of smell — along with headache, dry cough and temporary mild fever. The man on the other end of the 111 phone line, in the first week of March, wasn’t impressed, being more interested in whether I’d been to northern Italy in the past fortnight. It wasn’t his fault. When you’re working from a script, the script needs to be right. He didn’t think I had the virus, so neither did I. There was nothing anywhere about anosmia being linked to Covid-19. Not a word. And then there was. My wife found a single page online about anosmia being widespread in Iran. It still took weeks for it to be acknowledged as a symptom anywhere else, and then only anecdotally. The UK government didn’t add it to the list of officially recognised symptoms until the third week of May.

While everyone one else on my Instagram feed was baking their own sourdough bread, we were freezing sliced loaves, in case we needed to self-isolate, since we still thought we probably hadn’t had the virus. This meant I could resume collecting bread ties from supermarket loaves, a practice suspended when I had started regularly dropping three or four quid on sourdough loaves from artisan bakers.

Boxes of the Belgian-owned Mexican lager have been piled high in Aldi, right by the multipacks of Peach Coke, more knockdown than lockdown. On my daily walk, I came across a box in a skip. The skip was full of books, maps, photographs and a medium-sized cardboard box bearing the legend ‘Corona’. A label indicated it had and might still contain negatives, but equally I wondered if it might not also somehow contain the virus. The wet markets of Wuhan were a smokescreen; the virus orginated in a semi in Heaton Mersey, cooked up, perhaps, by the late owner, a retired teacher. I took some books, maps and photographs, but I left the box marked ‘Corona’.

Dominic Cummings
On 27 March, Boris Johnson’s chief strategist Dominic Cummings was filmed running from Downing Street following the Prime Minister’s diagnosis with Coronavirus. I thought, I can do that, and handed my phone to my wife.

Edward St Aubyn
My friend and colleague Rachel Genn recommended the Patrick Melrose novels to me. I’d been aware of them, and the TV adaptation, but I hadn’t dipped in. Now, I know that Edward St Aubyn should really appear in this alphabet under S, just as Dominic Cummings is more C-word than D-list, but Never Mind, which just happens to be the title of the first Melrose novel, and there it was in the RSPCA shop for a quid a few days before lockdown, so I thought I’d give it a go. He writes brilliantly at the level of simile and metaphor, but, oh my God, the point of view. It’s all over the place. No more Patrick Melrose for me.

Fondant Fancy Roulette
Maximum number of players: eight. Take one box of fondant fancies. While everybody closes their eyes, open the box and take one fondant fancy per player. All players may now open their eyes and see who has won (drawn either pink or yellow) and lost (drawn brown). I’ve heard yellow described as lemon, but pink is no more raspberry than brown is chocolate. They are, in our house, and will always be, yellow, pink and brown.

Giles Gordon
The novelist, short story writer, poet, anthologist and agent would have been 80 on 23 May. As a long-time fan of his work, I decided to spend the month of May reading — in some cases rereading — all of his novels and short story collections. So far, by the date of Gordon’s eightieth birthday, I have reread his first two collections and his first three novels. I have just started reading the fourth novel, a sequel to the second novel. This means, once I have finished the fourth novel, I will be left with two novels, neither of which I have read before, and the third collection, which I am looking forward to rereading. Then I have a piece to write about Gordon for the Brixton Review of Books with a deadline of the first week of June. I should really be writing that rather than this.

Apparently some people have had an issue with lockdown and being unable to visit the hairdresser.

Second track on Joy Division’s second album, Closer, released 40 years ago this year. I didn’t use quotation when I assembled a short story, ‘Disorder’, out of the lyrics to Joy Division’s first album, Unknown Pleasures, and I’m not going to start now. But the opening line to ‘Isolation’ perfectly describes the emotional state of many people since mid-March. See ‘Joy Division’ below.

Joy Division
Appropriate lockdown listening. See ‘Isolation’ above. The fortieth anniversary of the death of singer and lyricist Ian Curtis fell on 18 May.

It was late in the evening when K realised he hadn’t changed out of his pyjamas all day.

Normally I spend part of my time with my wife at her place in London. Not since 23 March…

… during which period we’ve been locked down at my place in Manchester.

A lot of publishers have been negatively affected by lockdown. Some may not survive. My small press, Nightjar, has been OK. We publish short stories as signed, numbered, limited-edition chapbooks and sell them direct from the website. There’s no issue with profits being down, because there are no profits. To reduce losses, during lockdown and before (and after, if there is an ‘after’), I hand-deliver orders within what I consider to be walking distance, which has increased during lockdown.

One-way system
My local Tesco has become home to a piece of site-specific immersive theatre. After spraying your basket with disinfectant you follow the one-way system, trying not to enter any 2m box while being mindful of any queue building up behind you. When you reach the end of the store you find that aisles 14 (Nappies & Wipes) and 15 (Health & Beauty) are both north to south, so that, if you go down 14, it is impossible to enter 15 without breaking the rules and incurring wrathful glares from actors playing self-righteous shoppers. However, even if you decide to go without the paracetamol or moisturising cream that is all you really came in for, you still have to enter 15 to join the queue for the tills. What to do?

Phil Neville
I walked to Altrincham, to deliver a Nightjar order, a (long way) round trip of some 18 miles. Approaching, on the other side of the road, when I got to Hale Barns, home of footballers, was a runner. Black top, orange shorts, tanned legs, white socks, black trainers. Looks a bit like Phil Neville, I thought. It was Phil Neville.

I remember seeing a photo online, back in early March, of people queuing for a bus or to enter a supermarket in Finland. They were standing two metres apart. How ridiculous, I thought, how utterly bizarre. Now, if I walk straight into a supermarket without waiting in a queue two metres behind the person in front, that’s bizarre.

Golfers stopped playing golf and golf courses returned to the people. I’ve enjoyed walking where I’m not normally permitted to walk. I found a hidden pond surrounded by trees in a corner of a local golf course where, in just ten minutes, I saw goldfinch, robin, blackbird, blackcap, goldcrest, chaffinch, blue tit and wren.

We’ve watched The Sopranos from season one to season six. It’s a strangely unsettling experience to believe in and grow close to certain characters and follow their various stories and, every so often, be reminded that their way of life is founded on brutal violence and murder.

Tits and other small birds have finally started visiting the bird feeder we hung from a tree about three weeks into lockdown. The first device we got, a cheap thing from a local hardware shop, should have been sold as a squirrel feeder. Everything about it seemed designed to encourage and provide sustenance to squirrels. They emptied it in about half an hour, ultimately by turning it upside down. We replaced that with something resembling an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that we bought off the dark web. The squirrels soon worked out they couldn’t get anywhere near it and it hung disconsolately for a couple of weeks until a robin paid a brief visit, followed by a blue tit. Since then there have been a couple of sparrows. We’re playing a long game.

At Manchester Metropolitan University we’ve been teaching distance-learners online for years, so had a bit of a head start.

Vanishing Point
I read Antonio Tabucchi’s short novel Vanishing Point while walking from Didsbury to Denton and back on the Fallowfield Loop delivering another Nightjar order. An existentialist mystery story, beautifully translated by Tim Parks, it’s full of lines like ‘Faldini has the face of someone who has spent his entire life addressing letters to distant countries while looking out across a landscape of derricks and containers.’

Wild garlic
I picked so much it’s a wonder there was any left for anybody else. I made soup, pesto, salad and risotto, and they were all, if I say so myself, delicious.

The only story idea I’ve had during lockdown is one that will work best told in the second person. Always disconcerting, second-person narratives are well suited to these ‘strange times’. Is the author writing about you, or about some imagined third person whom he or she is addressing and into whose world you are granted a privileged perspective? Or about an everyman or everywoman figure that could be you but could be anyone? The use of the second person is just one of the puzzling elements in Giles Gordon’s experimental crime novel Girl with Red Hair (1974) and Ron Butlin uses the device to make the reader empathise with his protagonist at the same time as creating distance between you and him in The Sound of My Voice (1987), while Alison Moore uses it almost as dazzle or distraction in her short story ‘Sometimes You Think You Are Alone’, in which she’s equally interested in the identity of the owner of the voice that addresses the ‘you’ of the story.

I’d taken part in a number of Zoom calls, meetings and events before someone — one of the guests on David Collard’s excellent A Leap in the Dark — explained that as well as choosing between gallery view and speaker view, you can also choose to ‘pin’ the video of anyone attending, which means you can watch them, in close-up, even when they are not speaking. It’s a voyeur’s paradise. When you should really worry is when you realise you’ve pinned your own video and are watching yourself. See ‘You’ above.


3:AM in Lockdown 66: Des Barry (published 23/05/2020)

Wagtails and Minuets
By Des Barry.


At this time of year in Australia, the position of sunrise from our balcony window drifts north-east as winter approaches. Before the sun appears through the sparser branches of the trees above the rooftop horizon, it lights up the sky in pale pinks, in orange and blue. I tend to wake up around 5.30am so I usually see the dawn. This early, the path along Port Philip Bay and the low grassy area beside it, aren’t so crowded with runners and dog walkers. If I can get in a walk, and the weather’s calm, I can breathe in the watery space and stillness; or if it’s stormy, I can breathe in sea spray and wind. Doing the same walk every day, makes me appreciate the changes in light, in temperature, the air on my skin. The presence of Covid-19 in the world makes the enjoyment even more acute especially when, at the age of sixty-five, I’m just about in the demographic that seems to have less chance of surviving the virus should I get an acute case of it. I’ve been in lockdown since March 3rd.

I’d flown back to Australia from the UK on February 28th. In London, there had been talk about Coronavirus in Wuhan but nobody seemed that worried about it. I’d been in London for about six weeks. I’d also been in Madrid for a week or so: to the Prado for the Goya exhibition; to the Thyssen-Bornomisza Museum to revisit the Expressionists; a day in Toledo on a pilgrimage to all the El Greco sites. Nobody was worried about Coronavirus. My friend Diego said, ‘One day a virus will wipe out humanity. But not this one’. We laughed about it. I felt fit, and even surprised, that I hadn’t been sick for even one day. On the previous year’s winter visit to Europe, I’d had flu for about three weeks. In Britain, I heard that for most people, the illness was like a mild version of the flu.

As a resident returning to Australia, I was waved through immigration and customs. Apparently, travellers from China and South Korea were being tested for Covid-19 but nobody from anywhere else. Back in Melbourne, getting over jetlag, I got a haircut, went to the dentist, caught up with friends. Then my throat became sore. I thought nothing of it at first. I went to an event with about four hundred and fifty people. By the next day I could hardly talk. I developed a persistent dry cough. I still felt fine but by now the general social anxiety level was rising. I thought I should call the government Department of Health hotline… mainly for reassurance. The nurse asked me where I’d travelled and a lot about my symptoms. Some of the symptoms she asked me about sounded terrifying. I didn’t have them. At the end of this long interview, she said that it I didn’t need a test. I should just stay at home, take paracetamol and drink plenty of water. I thought, yeah, I’m right. It’s just laryngitis.

A week later the government of Victoria mandated tests for any traveller who’d returned to Australia from anywhere in the previous fourteen days. I called the local hospital hotline at 4pm. I was at the hospital by 5pm. I was met at the testing center by triage nurses who took my temperature, checked my heart rate, and sent me for the swab test. There weren’t many people in front of me. The doctor asked me questions about my symptoms. She gave me the swab test — deep in the nose and the back of the throat. She told me I’d get the results in 48 hours. On the way out, the nurse who took my final form said it might take 72 hours to get the result. I was out of the hospital by 6pm.

Back home, I checked the government website. Because the labs were busy, it might take five days. I was now concerned that if I had the disease that I might have spread it without knowing. I wasn’t worried for myself because I still felt relatively well. It was a relief when I got a text message five days later to say that the test was negative and I didn’t need to self-isolate any more. Mostly I felt relief that I couldn’t have infected anybody in those early blasé days. Now I became aware that, when I tested negative, it meant I could still get the virus. And that I’m still in a relatively high-risk age group.

Now, when I do those daily walks on the sea shore, I’m acutely aware of each small change in the everyday routine: a wagtail that dips and bobs around my feet for about twenty meters along the shrub-line; the social distancing minuets; the mindlessness of the huffing macho joggers; a woman runner in a tense state of high anxiety, her eyes fixed on the screen in her outstretched hand; the man who lives in a camper in the car park who calls a good morning to me. Back in the apartment, I have to look at the Internet. I worry about my friends in Britain.

It took me two hours to get tested in Australia and I’m a civilian. I’m horrified at the complacency and sheer fucking cruelty of the British government that still refuses to test frontline medical staff. That there isn’t enough PPE for them. I’m horrified at the media’s sycophancy and lack of responsibility. I’m horrified that the British public feels the government is doing a good job. I’m horrified that so many of the people clapping for nurses and doctors voted for the party that cut the NHS for ten years, a government that continues with its clusterfuck of incompetence. Or worse, in its thrall to a right-wing accelerationist and its own disaster capitalists who are already making billions of pounds as they prey on failed businesses. From this distance, a vast number of imbeciles in Britain seem to be revelling in a dance of death that’s like a version of Dad’s Army painted by Hieronymous Bosch… comically hideous… and dangerous to my sane friends and family, to thousands of innocent people of all ages.

To keep my own sanity, I buy groceries once a week, I cook good food, I eat with my partner. Because I can. I’ve lost five kilos by healthy eating. For the past four weeks we’ve been watching one episode a night from the suitably gothic seven series of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: the Jeremy Brett version. I’m still having trouble deciding what to read. Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller was the last novel I read and I’m reading Homo Faber slowly so slowly. But a breakthrough came this week in being able to write again: a full first draft of a short story. I hadn’t written any fiction in ages.

While Australia is getting this epidemic under control, Camus’ The Plague comes to mind, inevitably, to keep things in perspective. When the plague is just about over, Dr Rieux’s friend, Jean Tarrou, gets sick and dies. I’m aware something like this can happen to anyone. Can happen to me. We live in extraordinary times, present to the cruelty and compassion of this incredible world we live in. Faced with the real possibility of my own imminent death, I reflect on a life that I’m happy to have led: people, places, fuck-ups, books written and read. I’d quite like it to go on. Lockdown is fine.


3:AM in Lockdown 65: Charles Leitner (published 22/05/2020)

So Fondly Do They Sing
By Charles Leitner.


What do you think of the ship Pequod, the ship of the soul of an American?
Many races, many people, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes. Beaten with many stripes.
Seeing stars sometimes.
– D.H. Lawrence

The city is quiet and the nights seem to have been returned to the rats and rabbits. The train cars are all but empty. Except for a handful of passengers, they roll along mostly on their own. Steady. And like the factories still churning, they are a good reminder that modern civilization in some form still continues.

Near the hospital, there is a man returning to his shift. He looks tiresome and worried. He holds a cup of coffee in his hand and trudges solemnly through the entrance revolving door. There are drives waiting along the streets. Patiently sitting idle, scrolling through the endless confines of the internet.

A man on the subway wears what appears to be a mosquito repellent mask. He grows nervous each time someone boards. After only a few stops, he departs.

There are postings on churches, bars, and restaurants, saying they’ve closed for now, but the construction still continues. The great machine is still ticking. The noise from this division of labor has become a fitting alarm for those who now work from home.

The nights have gone and turned to wonder, the mornings just the same. The daylights creeping fingers are welcomed by the birds. They don’t seem to mind the change. At the waking hours of the day they can be heard singing back to one another. They call out:

I am here.

You are there.

We are near.

So fondly do they sing. To know that we are still among the living is such a beautiful and bitter thing.

The sun has come and it seems now spring comes with it. February’s winds have gone away and now grows our desire to crawl out from the bleak confines of winter’s hollow. As the weather warms a deep anxiety awakens. We want to go out. We want to spend the first days of spring in the parks and bars listening to music in our sundresses and warm weather attire.

I am able to chat briefly with my neighbor. We talk with one another from our balconies. He is below. I am above. After a moment we decide it is ok and he joins me on my own. The city is beyond us and the lights still glimmer in the dark. We drink beer and talk quietly, trying in our own right to make sense of something which makes little sense at all. Something beyond any layman’s control. It appears we have both acquired a touch of angst, but we are trying to withhold it. What a terrible grim uncertainty brings.

He makes a joke about him and his girlfriend considering their options. He wonders half-heartedly if they’re going to need to buy guns and I make a lame reference to Warren Zevon. We both try to divert from the topic.

He is from Turkey and lives with his girlfriend. He moved here nearly five years ago with his mother and father and has been working a job in IT at Harvard. He is lucky. At least for now, he is still able to work.

A few nights ago, I am able to sleep with the windows open. The air was even and damp from a few days of rain and I felt a bit more at ease listening to the soft churning of the world. A night lark called from a distance and I could hear it as it fluttered across the moonlit sky. Though I could not see her, it is an accompanying sound in a world gone somber and quiet.

The nights are still. There are a few clouds which streak across the sky and cover what little light the moon provides. The hotels have gone dark. Only a few rooms are lit. An oasis in the blackness of their façade.

In the morning, children play in a sprinkler. Their laughter has livened the corner of the world I have found myself in. Where construction cranes swoon against the sky and the cars, barely a whisper along the highway, pass in ever dwindling numbers.

Spring showers have arrived. Lightning and the rolling thunder. It is starting to feel more and more like the days of old. When there was nothing but hemlock groves. When everything at night is silent except for the chatter of the natural world. The thunder booms and across the sky mist has turned to fog and the long building spires are now masked in an abundance of molecules.

I think to myself, this is not so bad, but then I walk past the hospital again. An ambulance driver takes a break for a smoke. A gurney rests vacant outside his van. There is no rush to put it back in again. That means more patients. That means more pressure. That means more bodies.

There are several television crews waiting down street. The producers stay warm in their cars as cameramen set up a shot with the hospital entrance framed in the background. An anchorwoman applies makeup in her rearview mirror. She’s in her mid-thirties and pretty. This could be her big break. This might make her career.

Outside a nearby clinic, the congregation of bums has not dwindled. The destitute are in bright spirits. They are happy just to have made it through another day. They seem to mock the other walking dead. They seem to think, hell, what took ya’ll so long. Welcome to the damned party.

My mother and father are in lockdown like the rest. “Can I tell you a good story?” she asks him.

“Sure,” my father says.

“Ok,” she begins. “So just the other day, there’s this man…”

“Is this a true story?”

“Yes. It was a woman’s birthday on his street. She’s ninety. Everyone is on lockdown and because of her age she mustn’t go outside. She can’t do anything.”

My mother is in the middle of making surgical masks out of my father’s old T-shirts. The iron is steaming and as she tells her story, she waves the thing around and small puffs of water vapor spout into the ceiling like smoke signals. They reach the ceiling, scuttle about, stretch, and dissipate.

“So this man decides it might be nice to give this woman a proper celebration. Proper in today’s sense, that is. So with white chalk he draws a handful of circles on the street outside of this woman’s window. The circles are each six feet apart. After he is finished, he calls on a number of neighbors to occupy the spaces he has drawn and they sing to her happy birthday.”

She goes back to work ironing the cloth on the table. Her hands move slow and the iron snorts as it runs over ripples in the white linen.

“Isn’t that just lovely?” she asks.

“Yes it is.”

My mother watches as I wrestle with their dog. She is still busy making her masks. “When I am that old, will you care for me like you do that dog?”

“Not a chance,” I say joking.

My mother and father have just entered the twilight of their lives and are soon approaching the point where we dip beyond the horizon, like falling suns, towards whatever lies behind the great beyond. They would rather enjoy their time with friends and family. Of course, they are thankfully with each other, but there is little to discuss. Like most everyone, they would rather speak about far different topics. Like sport, film, literature, art, or poetry. They are not reclusive creatures like the writer they had borne. They yearn to be among one another laughing all about, surrounded by those they’ve gone and made close.

We are starting to hear more frequent sirens. Even in a city, the blaring sound seems to come more and more. Sometimes two or three begin to call at once and you can tell by the way the sound reverberates across the cities concrete, that they are moving in opposite directions. They are signaling the growing panic. Panic which seems now to cling to us like lice to a stricken mutt. We can’t seem to shake it and it grows stronger by the hour.

There is not much anyone can do. Although there are still some of us out working in the fray, most are feeling helpless and afraid. There is little we can do except wait for the passing of the storm.

There are words flowing forth from other places in the world. Endless reports of news and rumors of what it is like elsewhere. News of bodies being burned in the streets of Ecuador. Buzzards flying overhead. Graves amass once more at Potter’s Field. Coins of Judas still being paid. Rumors from China of apartment doors having been welded shut with their tenants still inside. They are left there, imprisoned in the tiny worlds of their own creations, left to wait for this all to pass.

Here in America it is much different. This Great American Machine cannot be burdened to a halt because of such terrible death. It seems to have been this way for some time. Today’s American mind wishes not to be hindered by the dead and dying. Death comes still, barely, like a whisper. Murmurings of a friend who has succumbed to this disease. A son, a daughter, a mother or father. A husband, a wife, a neighbor or colleague. The dead seem to disappear and fade like a silent breeze through springtime leaves. Their names go along as well and soon become lost in the bowels of the ether, and in the growing sections of the paper’s obituaries.

It is late now and time for me to go home. Along the bridge which extends over the River Charles, a string of subway cars rolls by. There is not a single soul inside. It appears the train has ferried its final worker bee, that diligent nine to fiver, over to the other side. As I bike back to my apartment I think to myself, after all this I wonder if those chalk circles will make it through all the rain.


3:AM in Lockdown 64: Monique Roffey (published 21/05/2020)

By Monique Roffey.

As I write this, the UK is coming up to the end of its fifth week in lockdown. I will be fifty-five tomorrow, 24th April. At high risk, with asthma and a rare autoimmune illness, Churg Strauss Syndrome, I’m glad I made it to this age. However, in these times the subject of age has a much edgier significance. Thank God, I’m not nearer 60, is a quiet thought. Better odds. At least I’m blood type O, etc, etc. All these selfish and self-shoring up thoughts have come and gone, and come and gone, and I’m not necessarily proud of them. In short, what are my chances of survival? From the outset, I knew what catching Covid-19 could mean. I’ve seen what my NHS medical files look like, huge stuffed tomes wider than a hand’s grasp. I know how weak my chest is, how, daily, I rely on my inhalers to get by. When, mid-March, news of lockdown was imminent, I acted fast and bought myself a nebuliser. When it arrived from Amazon weeks later, I felt a little more secure. Now, they are impossible to get hold of. Asthmatics, worldwide, know that Covid-19 is a perilous threat.

However, early March, I came down with a cold. It seemed to slip inside me in a dream one Sunday night. I dreamt my cold. It didn’t arrive like normal colds, in my throat, lots of sneezing and then a clotted head for days; sodden tissues and bleary eyes. I was conscious of its arrival, during slumber, a strange and magical experience. No sneezing. Days later, I experienced a cloying sore throat. Worried, I cancelled a reading at Essex Lit-fest. They understood. I dialed 111 but I was told unless I’d been in direct contact with someone from Italy or China, I had no chance of getting this virus. That was March 5th. Ho ho. It’s usual for me to not shake off a cold. This one lasted a month. I had bouts of fatigue, too. I catch almost anything going around. So I’ve been trapped in a double bind: wondering if I’ve already had the virus, mildly, and living in mortal dread of catching it. Actually, the mortal dread has worn off. You can’t live at such a high pitch of fear for weeks. Something like acceptance has replaced this, a letting go. Also, hope. The longer I don’t get this, the more likely I will receive good NHS care; early on there was talk of ‘triage’. A friend had blithely said, “Mon, if you get this and end up in hospital, they’ll take one look at your notes, and bump you off”.


I’ve worked mostly from home the past twenty years, writing novels, editing and teaching online, so I had, at first, thought lockdown would be okay, psychologically and emotionally. I assumed I’d cope better than most. But the enormity of what this new virus means, its existential scope, has meant that lockdown hasn’t been at all easy. I’ve been constantly distracted, unable to focus much. I’ve slept erratically. There have been mood swings. Most of my friends have reported the same. I live without a television, but the news has been so compelling, especially in the early weeks, I found myself listening to BBC Radio 4 on the hour. I’ve been constantly searching the Internet for more than what we are being fed, trying to see if a long shot view is possible, trying to read what science is available for the lay reader, and trying to work out who to trust.

Since those early days of lockdown, I’ve also made a will. I’ve decided who gets what, should this virus take me. I’m single and childfree. I reckon if not now, when? This is the time to do this. I also wrote down what kind of ‘after party’ I’d like after my cremation. I’m a Buddhist, so no church please. Only now do I realise how important this is. Imagine being buried in a coffin and having a service in a church! I needed to tell people; no, certain procedures would really not be appropriate. Not for me. Please. Burn me and celebrate my life. No one wear black. I even chose who would officiate the party and where. Sadly, none of this will count, should I end up sick enough to die from this virus. I’ve watched nurses on Channel 4 clips talk of the end of death conversations they’ve had with those in ICU. Covid-19 deaths are heartbreakingly lonely. So are Covid-19 funerals. As a high-risk person, facing possible death has been ‘the thing’ of lockdown, or maybe mostly the early weeks. @HighRiskCovid19 is a hashtag I’ve used a lot, and I was part of a short film for Huff Post. Like all the other high riskers, I’m already ill. I live a more or less normal life, given essential and ongoing medication. When I finally received ‘the letter’ from my GP, I had to sit down. Go away. I went for a very long walk in the spring sunshine. Can you refuse to die? I think that’s how I’ll beat it. Utter denial. I watched Covid-19 survivor Pink, also an asthmatic, on Ellen, say that she’d done many mad bad things in her life, and “to go like this?” I get that too.

Actually, I have found some solace. Pandemic, a Netflix docu-series is outstanding. It puts the average person, the non-virologist, in the picture with what we are dealing with. Filmed in 2019, it follows several teams of scientists around the world, as they search for a way to stop what has now happened. I now follow some of these scientists on Twitter. They’ve been the few credible voices I now want in my life: Dr Jacob Glanville (@CurlyJungleJake) and Sarah Ives (@sives54), as well as pathogen preparedness expert Dr Syra Madad (@syramadad) currently overseeing New York’s response to the disease. These three scientists have been my go-to people in these weeks. They upload data and papers I feel I should read.

Like many, I’ve been watching the Tories have the rug pulled from under them; “profit is less important than life” says Zoe Williams in today’s Guardian. The Conservatives, as a group ideology, are having such an obvious failure in terms of human principle. It’s taken this, a frigging global pandemic, to hurt them. Capitalists need workers, but how can they capitalise if all the workers are either ill, dying, or locked indoors? Covid-19 is a leveller. The Tory press have even turned rogue. Murdoch has slayed Boris in the Sunday Times and his shoddy approach to the virus early on. Piers Morgan has also turned leftie, savaging Hancock and co, on live breakfast time TV. A friend of Trump, he’s laid into Trump too. The NHS, limping and barely standing, is now a cherished pillar of our society. The first Thursday we all clapped I was brought to tears. Middle class, living in the East End, my neighborhood is edgy at the best of times. These days, I feel more bonded with my neighbours. To date, £28 million was raised by an ex army Captain Tom Moore, walking laps of his garden, great except that the NHS isn’t a charity.

However, these shifts in POV high up are what has kept me hopeful in all of this. Surely Boris has been somewhat humbled, what with being saved from the jaws of death by the NHS, being tended to so tenderly by two immigrants? In his speech to the nation after he left hospital, he mentioned the word ‘love’ twice. But no one believes he might have softened. As a co-founder of XRWritersRebel, I hope, post Covid-19, we will see a new green deal and a substantial change towards how mankind cares for the planet. But for now, lockdown is best managed one day at a time. We face many more weeks of it, and, for those of us who are high risk, maybe many months. Tomorrow will be a good day. I will turn fifty-five.


3:AM in Lockdown 63: Russell Williams (published 19/05/2020)

The Novels of Self-Isolation
By Russell Williams.

Xavier de Maistre, Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794)


What books should we be turning to in our present moment of crisis? As we deepen our breathing, steel ourselves for trips to the supermarket and prepare for lengthy periods of collective self-isolation, what novels might help us unlock, or at least try to think through our historical moment? Some titles have been getting a great deal of attention in recent days. Foremost amongst them is Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century Decameron — a series of stories acting as what scholar Martin Marafioti memorably describes as “narrative prophylaxis”, telling tales to help fend off the Black Death, which might provide some kind of inspiration. Closer to living memory, and apparently flying out of bookstores in France, at least before they were forced to close, is Albert Camus’ La Peste (1947), a novel that speaks of plague, but that I was always told was, actually, an allegory about the rise of the Nazis. Either way, it carries an inspirational message of human solidarity in tough times.

Both of those novels are in their own way, profound considerations of how humans experience and respond to disasters. Our current moment is also, though, acutely mundane: withdrawal, retreat and staying in — as we’ve all been discovering — can be deeply boring. Alongside the Boccaccio and the Camus, there is a body of work which dramatizes characters who shut themselves away, encouraging us to reflect on the odd emotional texture of social distancing, particularly in contrast to a normalness which champions sociability, visibility and putting yourself out there. In France, Huysmans’s Against Nature is a cult classic of decadence, its plot summarized by Andy Miller in The Happy Reader: “jaded aesthete secludes himself in provinces, unsuccessfully”. Thoreau’s iconic Walden, is well-meaning but lightly nauseating autobiography: man drops out of the rat race to sit in a hut by a pond. Not all of us, however, have the resources to lavish themselves in opulence in the company of a gilded and bejeweled tortoise, or eco-responsibly commune with nature. There is a less well-known body of work that deals with, articulates and shares a more quotidian experience of self-isolation, one that just might tell us something about what it means to hide ourselves away in 2020.

The most contemporary of these is Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), which stages experiments with human hibernation, centered around a protagonist who bases her retreat on the recuperative potential of sleep. This novel actually plays with two forms of withdrawal. The first is a prescription drug-inspired drift into the security of unemployment benefit, a blank confinement set in a pre-Netflix age where the only colour is provided by the faded tapes of the tired VHS movies she spools again and again, watching Harrison and Whoopi in a fuggy med-inspired haze. When her machine wheezes to a standstill, the disaster is experienced in a higher magnitude than the 9/11 which closes the novel.
Moshfegh’s character’s second hibernation is when things get serious, a hardcore three months of druggy sleep under lock and key once our narrator realises the Infermiterol she’s been taking has actually been causing her to sleepwalk, venture outside and party. She teams up with conceptual artist Ping Xi to turn herself into a piece of performance video art. A tablet every three days, the door locked from the outside.

What’s the outcome? Well, she succeeds in sustaining a complete, committed even impressive, form of social distancing. She sort of makes it, attaining if not an epiphany, but a moment of, apparently sincere clarity. After the end of her confinement, she sits in a park and watches, “a bee circle the heads of a flock of passing teenagers. There was majesty and grace in the swaying branches of the willows. There was kindness. Pain is not the touchstone for growth, I said to myself. My sleep had worked. I was soft and calm and felt things. This was good” (p. 288). Moshfegh’s novel excels more in its characterization and in its portrayal of her friendship with Reva, about working through her relationship with her parents (hey, her mum liked to sleep too), than about staying in. Despite herself, and in her own perverse way, Moshfegh has actually written a feel-good novel whose resolution feels a little too neat, too harmonious.

In many ways, Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator presents a textbook, Romantic notion of the kind of self-development that those hope temporary withdrawal can bring about. This is neatly summarized in psychiatrist Anthony Storr’s Solitude (1989), “removing oneself voluntarily from one’s habitual environment promotes self-understanding and contact with those inner depths of being which elude one in the hurly-burly of day-to-day life” (34-35). This may or may not be the case, but it too feels a little bit over-optimistic, a little simplistic, not least in an age of social media, where such removal is always a little tricky as we seek to undermine our tranquility by scrolling through Twitter feeds exposing ourselves to the mental stress that online panic brings with it. Some kind of contact is inevitable.

Perhaps a more realistic assessment of the positive possibilities of isolation comes from the seventeenth-century mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal who witheringly noted in his Pensées (1670), “when I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber”, and highlighting “the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely”.

In terms of the literature of self-isolation, some of the most interesting creative work gets to grips with Pascal’s conclusion. Much of it also comes from the French speaking world. Most eccentrically, the Belgian Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom starts with a protagonist who initially refuses to leave his bathroom, but Pascal’s restless itch sees him seeking out a range of different opportunities to stay in: he relocates to Venice where he rescues a copy of the Pensées, discarded by a tourist and spends too much time hanging around his hotel, before checking himself into hospital; he’s lucky enough not to have to share his double room.

What does he learn from his experiences in retreat from Storr’s “hurly-burly”? Not a great deal, if truth be known. Above all, he discovers that he really does like staying inside, and all of Toussaint’s characters, throughout all his novels, are probably best off when they do. If there is any pay-off in terms of solace or comfort in The Bathroom, it seems to be primarily aesthetic. Toussaint’s novel is presented in 170 exquisitely crafted and numbered minimalist paragraphs, each of them a perfect, independent exercice de style. Apparently — too — there is a Pythagorean logic at work in the triangular structure of the novel, split into three parts with the middle section described as its ‘hypotenuse’. Toussaint has, it seems, turned staying in into a productive literary constraint.

A more extreme example than the Toussaint, perhaps more explicitly Pascalian, is George Perec’s A Man Asleep (1967) (filmed by Perec and Bernard Queysanne in 1974). A young Parisian student, suffering from what sounds distinctly like a severe dose of depression, opts to ignore his friends, flunk his university exams and instead spend his days staring at the ceiling in his chambre de bonne, detailing minutely his shelving units, his ceiling, his breakfast crockery. He eventually makes the decision to wander the streets, maintaining a state of carefully-studied indifference to those he encounters in the dark Paris streets, arrogantly casting himself the “maître anonyme du monde” — the anonymous master of the world.

At the close of the novel, narrated in the accusatory second person, however, he realises it’s all been a bit of a waste of time. He hasn’t been able to sit quietly in his own chamber, but neither has his nocturnal flânerie done anything other than darken his mood:

You learned nothing, except that solitude teaches you nothing, that indifference teaches you nothing: it was a distraction, a fascinating yet flawed illusion. …[Y]our refusal is useless, your neutrality means nothing. Your inertia is as vain as your rage.

So, what’s the point?

Like Perec, the notorious contemporary provocateur Michel Houellebecq is probably not to be recommended if we are looking for an inspirational, uplifting message at the present time since he recognises, even celebrates, such futility. The majority of his protagonists all perversely insist on shutting themselves away, opting to wallow in precisely this form of self-despair. One character in Atomised (1998) spends weeks in his bedroom staring at the radiator. Another character in Submission (2015) checks himself into a monastery. The protagonist of Serotonin (2019), his most recent novel, chooses to disappear, checking out of his unhappy relationship by checking into a succession of mid-range hotels and stewing there in his misery, after finding a way to deactivate the smoke detector, since the only thing worse than self-isolation is a self-isolation where you aren’t allowed to smoke.

So far, then, so bleak. Perhaps the rare glimmer of hope in the field of the literature of self-isolation is a novel that Houellebecq once described to me, through a haze of early-afternoon rosé, as his “favourite book”; Eugène Ionesco’s little-read The Hermit (1972). I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that The Hermit acts as a model for Houellebecq, too, one that has influenced his themes, ambiguous pessimism, and even his literary style. It recounts the tale of a young, unremarkable office worker who, out of the blue, receives an inheritance windfall from a forgotten American uncle. Rather than any grand gestures, a trip around the world or (urgh) playing the stock markets, our narrator opts to quietly retire from life. He acquires a modest apartment in a sleepy arrondissement, and settles gently into a life of gentle routine, perusing the newspaper, losing himself in philosophical abstractions and contemplating the sacks of food and cases of wine his housekeeper has had the foresight to order in. Ionesco’s novel, the playwright’s only experiment with long form fiction, was written against the backdrop of the May 1968 protests, and violent insurrection becomes increasingly prominent as the novel proceeds. Our narrator, however, really isn’t interested in revolutionary politics, instead preferring to peer bemusedly out of his window, or dining — at the same time every day — in his local bistrot, boozing heavily as the structures, and the buildings, of contemporary society collapse around his hideout. He eventually opts to definitively barricade himself inside with his Burgundy and his Bordeaux.

Ionesco’s narrator, perhaps in a similar way to Moshfegh’s, casts doubts on the firmness of Pascal’s conclusions, as staying in his chamber doesn’t really pose too much of a problem, although admittedly the fine wine and the companionship of the bistrot waitress helps. Eventually, after weeks, months, perhaps even years — he’s not quite sure, the hermit toys with the idea of emerging from his hibernation and the novel closes on a note of oddly ambiguous optimism. One morning, our hero is “awakened by the chirping of birds”, glancing out of the window, he notes “an all-white tree in full flower” which has emerged through the piles of garbage in his courtyard. He reaches out and plucks “three immaculate flowers” (167). The tree soon vanishes, yet the flowers remain. It returns later that day, with the vision of a meadow and a hovering silver ladder, prompting novels final words, “I took that for a sign”. Of what, we never discover.