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3:AM in Lockdown 67: Nicholas Royle

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.


First posted: Monday, May 25th, 2020.

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