It is difficult to know what to write in times like these. When Covid hit my part of the world there was all this talk of the supposed stillness that was about to descend on us, but the noise, to my ears, has been deafening. The streets may have become quieter (though building works have continued all around where I live), but people are still yapping away through every available outlet, in fact lots of people seem to have even more time to yap than before.
I don’t really want to add to the din. Besides, I’m not on the frontline, I am very far away from it and I’m old-fashioned enough to think you should count your blessings in private. I’ve not sewn face masks (though I can, so if it turns out they really work I will get my Bernina running). I’ve not run for charity (few would pay for my daily jumping jacks). My sourdough is nothing to write home about and I don’t fancy broadcasting the painting of my toe nails. I haved stayed home, looked after my family, dealt with the perennial challenge of combining household and business in one place, and I just pray that what I write when I write will be of some use somehow.
It’s also not the first time I haven’t travelled outside a radius of a few miles for weeks at a time. Some years ago I house-sat for a couple of honeymooning friends at their country cottage, a rickety idyll built against a dyke on a river bed (historically a poor man’s location because always at risk of flooding, but with the benefit of extra fertile soil). It was a cold and long winter and as the house was unheated except for an oil stove at each extremity I lived mostly in the parlour and lit the stove at the other end once a week to keep disaster at bay. I cooked wearing my coat and hat, wrote wearing old fur-lined boots and a sheepskin vest over a gigantic sweater, I slept on the sofa and I got my social kicks on trips to the supermarket. By the end of it I was very ready for company, but also pickier than ever before. Well, life tends to repeat itself.
Much has already been said about writers having it relatively easy at the moment, because we are used to spending so much time on our own and we need it, even have to fight for isolation normally. Some have been openly smug about their comfort (along with the virtue peddlers who “buy in bulk anyway”). Lucky are those who got their work out before corona and now have some money in the bank. Still, I’d rather hear from writers currently promoting new publications, i.e. books not postponed as the surefire bestsellers were. There is an art to drawing attention to your work without oversharing or getting annoying, not to mention navigating the dreaded ocean of podcasts. Some, like Charlotte Philby, have done it very well.
But I’ve been finding life noisy and apart from small increments of intelligent news and a chat with loved ones, I find that all I really want to break my quiet for now is live performance. More than ever, I rejoice in people managing to put on proper shows, like the Stephen Sondheim tribute organised by Raúl Esparza or the US-UK Remote Read project, for which every actor, musician, conductor, stage manager works from their home while brilliant technicians sync and livestream them at top quality to wherever you are. To me, they are shining examples of how you can travel beyond limitations to breathe life into the world’s soul. Needless to say, they have also been generous – many have worked for free and proceeds have gone to charities. Please watch and pay them well; you will need them when the shit next hits the fan.
As for myself, unless I can do something similar to these artists, I don’t want to put much out there. Blather not. Or, as my father says, sit still when you’re being shorn. Who needs endless repetitions of questions no one has real answers to? “Will it change anything (apart from saddling our kids and grandkids with even more debt)?” “In five hundred years’ time, will anyone look back and say: hey, that’s when they finally woke up?” Having just seen a man wearing a face mask pissing in a public bicycle park and a crowd of people lining up outside a reopened sneaker store, I have my doubts. But I also doubt if it will help to stand around shouting about how stupid we are.
So until I can do better, I will leave the floor to those wrestling our crooked governments and markets with proper know-how and tenacity, and try to join the rearguard reminding us that we are a collective moving as one. I will write my fairy tales. Trust me, I’ve been sharpening my knives. Meanwhile, may I offer the gentle suggestion that you protect whatever quiet you may have recently found and use it wisely? We may not know if we’re in the new normal, returning to the normal normal or nearing the end of the world, but now seems an especially bad time to waste a breath.