We got this! This could be cool!
t, Rural Norfolk
I found some old packets of Basildon Bond airmail envelopes. Remember those? My son had no idea that airmail paper and envelopes were even a thing. I can remember sending ten page letters to friends or family overseas and being enchanted by the impressive bulk and texture of so many lightweight sheets covered in biro. How fortunate we all are to have email and messaging apps to be able to check in with loved ones instantaneously, as often as we like, almost everywhere in the world. Except I will admit, I still send packages now and then, because I find complete reliance on digital contact, or even the telephone, comes to feel too distant without some physical connection, even by proxy.
I think, after this is over, people will rush to be with each other, to make up for lost time. I’m sure our politicians are pondering that too as they try to work out how best to ease this lockdown without undermining it within 24 hours. I do not know how they can work that out without an extension, because we are all so very human, and that is what makes us beautiful, and difficult to manage, all at the same time.
Meanwhile, I am painting on the old envelopes, because that seems apt, and I have needed a new way to focus. It is such a treat, though, to be in the studio with the doors open wide. Another glorious day. My heart goes out to all those without any outside space, but especially those with young children. I watched a time lapse video of a lady I know doing her work. She did not move from her project for the entirety of the film as her two little ones bounced, leapt, jumped and boogied around her like hyperactive phantoms!
Time for lunch, and time to raise the teen…
Then and Now
Silence is a good commodity, which comes in many different brands. Let me trail my coat for it. Since we live in the country, we are not surrounded by incessant noise, but silence has never been an unwelcome visitor for me. I think I grew up as a child with various forms of silence which, internally, I am now habituated to. A principal one was, to most people, a horror. I came from a music-free home. My father had been thrown out of his school choir by the head, who simply murmured to him: “Frog in a drainpipe, frog in a drainpipe”; my mother had a piano and a music-stool full of Chopin, which she never touched in my memory — arthritis had set in early. They never wound up their gramophone, and “Music While You Work” or a little Victor Sylvester was the nearest we got to a musical High Culture. My parents preferred giving instructions to having conversations, so what was not to like ? So I have never read or worked to music and the decades of rock have left me unmoved and uninterested. I will confess an attraction to Fatswaller and an undying hatred to music in restaurants or behind spoken word drama. Of course human beings are not like solitary bees, which my cat Timmy used to crunch up as they came out of their garden holes, but I have never cared to be immersed in what, in my callow years, I once called “lukewarm bathwater drip-tap conversation”.. I think of Lady Bracknell’s remark about people at the end of the season having said what they had to say, “which in most cases was not much !” And I prefer a conversation to a party. As an afficionado of ghosts I like to think of those places where the past was once deafening, urgent and insistent, but is now inhabited by the quieter voices of wind, rain and the languages of bird and beast.
One noticeable likeness between then and now is the absence of traffic. In the village years for me — and a pretty threadbare village — between 1942 and 1947, the only vehicles about were the Doctor’s Rover, the Fishman’s Morris Van and assorted army lorries and ambulances. The only time I saw any vehicles together was when I stood outside The Old English Gentleman in Harston watching with amazement the endless column going south for D Day in 1944. If any good comes out of our present situation — and the scenes inside the Intensive Care Unit shown on television stun one with the care, solicitude and shared risk those working in the NHS are showing — it is the increased possibility of listening and watching, as the roar and bark of our mechanical world and the frenetic insistence of the fun-and-games media withdraw a little. My friend Lawrence Sail, the poet, once, I believe, took up a residency in silence. Alone in a boat, alone on a hill, alone. I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his “inscape” and “instress’. At a simple level, instress is the unique quality of something — a branch, a flower — which gives it its unique quality; “instress” is the power that holds it to its unique quality. And Hopkins wrote once that he was “walking with a friend, so instress would not come”.
As he wrote in ‘The Habit of Perfection’:
Elected silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
From Twickenham - David Horovitch, Twickenham
My son Francis and I had been thinking that perhaps we could bend the rules and he could come over from Forest Hill on his motor bike and we could go for a walk together two metres apart. But on Sunday we sadly agreed it was not a good idea. Instead we had our evening phone call on FaceTime yesterday.In my fuddy-duddy way, I'd been resistant to this - "I mean, a phone call's a phone call and a meeting's a meeting. Facetime's a monstrous hybrid.' but I'd forgotten how my world lights up when I see him smile. Always has done. Thank God for FaceTime. And my son.
And for this journal.I've kept a diary for over 30 years but it's quite different because I'm not expecting anyone to read it. Is it more honest? It's certainly more boring. A friend of mine told me that the only honest published diary entry he'd ever read was by Cyril Connoly's wife ( Which one?). It read 'I wonder if Cyril and I fart so much because we're bored.' Perfect. I can't help trying to amuse in this journal and sometimes, as in that quotation I'll do anything for a cheap laugh. I do think laughter, not necessarily jokes , is deeply serious and fosters a sense of unity in our enforced separation; I'm obviously not alone in this - witness the proliferation of hilarious, inventive, sometimes uplifting memes that are doing the rounds. .I expect most people reading this in the UK will have seen the gorgeous Les Mis family meme. It really lifted my spirits and I watched it again and again as did all my friends. Now I learn that it's been pulled because of a copyright dispute. Mean-spirited or what? The same family are planning a similar treatment of West Side Story- I just hope Bernstein's estate or Stephen Sondheim's agent or whoever, has a bit more of a sense of humour and a bit less greed.
I'm not re-reading Proust, and perhaps I never will though I'll probably dip into favourite bits now and then - the rotten trick that Francoise plays on the maid who is allergic to asparagus, beloved Grandma being taken ill in the park with young Marcel, Swann imagining he's looking yearningly up at Odette in that window and then discovering it's an old man - all rather imperfectly remembered I'm afraid but then I'm lucky if I can remember where I've put my glasses these days. Hwas quite a joker himself though, Proust. But no., I've come to P.G. Wodehouse rather late in life and, now that I've finished reading Elizabeth Bowen's little-known first novel, I'm breezing through 'Uncle Fred in the Springtime' which is as effervescent as it sounds.
Slept better last night than for ages but woke dreading turning the radio on. I find I desperately want our prime minister to recover. And soon.
Rosemary, Rodborough Common
On this day, two hundred and fifty years ago, William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in the Lake District.
Reading Wordsworth’s familiar line “I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills” holds an added poignancy today as we enter into our third week of ‘lockdown’.
The last of the late daffodils are enjoying a final flourish before taking their leave until next year.
Natures restorative moments are all around for us to enjoy and appreciate
Currently life does feel like being trapped in a dark place with no light to be seen, but we must all slowly move forward. Soon we will reach the light and be in a better place.
Hello from Eastbourne
The Dawn Chorus, by Marli Rose Macrae
This morning was an unusual morning. I say morning but you’d probably say it was still night time because it was still dark. It was 4.15am though. I woke up crying as I had a bad dream. It was about…actually I don’t want to say what it was about as it will get me thinking about it.
Nobody came at first because my door was shut as I can’t sleep with even a small amount of electric light, so I close my door. I don’t mind a ray of moonlight though. It was Franklin who heard me first, his bedroom is right next to mine. He got up and was running to my room and he collided with mummy in the hallway. Mummy opened my window and jumped into my bed. She told me about the dawn chorus. It is called the dawn chorus because at the crack of dawn, when the first ray of sunlight has been dropped onto England, the birds wake up and start singing. I listened to the cheep cheep twitter twitter made by chicks and other small birds like robins and blue tits. There was some caw caw caw caw” from the seagulls.
Franklin then jumped into the bed with us. All three of us listened to the high pitched cries and the small, friendly chirps. One of the birds seemed to be the leader. He or she sang and the others copied. Not the seagulls though, they cackled like demons amongst themselves. I wondered what they were nattering and chattering about. A few days ago I was sitting on the garden wall and there were robins everywhere! Some landed on the washing line and one even landed on mummy’s garden fork! It was like in a Beatrix Potter picture, a robin landing on Mr MacGregor’s fork! They were flying as fast as fireworks.
Mummy told us that on the Downs the Dawn Chorus is even more wonderful, the chatter of the birds is even noisier and there are eagles and rabbits out. She said we will go when Lockdown is over. Franklin and mum went back to their own beds. I lay there with my eyes tight shut and I wondered if birds ever get sore throats, especially the seagulls as they screech and screech. I’m sure they do. I opened my eyes and looked across to the Easter bluebird, Skye and I wondered if she even wanted to join in with the dawn chorus. You’d probably say “ Of course she doesn’t, she’s a decoration, made from polystyrene and blue feathers” but I know it is true that all toys and decorations are alive, they just can’t show it. I fell asleep and we had a lie in because we were so tired.
We did some maths in the morning and at lunchtime daddy made bacon sandwiches on the barbeque. We ate alfresco again. This is the bit I enjoy about Lockdown and I heard the Dawn Chorus for the first time.
A Fever of Mantarays, by Franklin Lewis Macrae
Today we were all woken up by my sister screaming, she had a nightmare. I ran to see what was going on and I bumped into my mum in the hallway. Mum got into bed with Marli and because I couldn’t get back to sleep, I got in too. Marli won’t tell me what the bad dream was about, she only told mum. We lay there and listened to the birds waking up. This is called the Dawn Chorus and it was the first time I had listened as I have never been awake that early before. On May 3rd it is International Dawn Chorus Day and mum said we can get up very early to listen to it in the garden. The only thing I like about quarantine is that is better for the environment as there are not as many cars and planes in use. I also inked up my mantaray lino cut, I am proud of it. The collective noun for mantarays is a fever, a fever of mantarays. Mum said that I use the words very, also and then too much in my writing and she has banned me from using them.
John Underwood, Norfolk UK
“ I was the basest of readers. All I wanted was my own world, and myself in it, given back to me in artful shapes and accessible form” Ian McEwan, “Sweet Tooth” 2012
A DYSTOPIAN SHORT STORY
Everything has changed since the virus. We are no longer allowed out much of course, indeed we rather fear it. When we are allocated our walking morning, if we see other walkers, they are to be negotiated around, not greeted. One averts one’s eyes. We stay inside and try to create new daily rhythms around what we have to hand, or pick up previously discarded activities. We have exhausted all the box sets on TV. I had begun to look at my bookshelves anew, and to read books that I had kept because of affection and perhaps affectation. Books that had once meant something and marked a passage of my life back when there were passages to be marked. Even if they were now almost broken and unreadable I had kept my original familiar paperback copies.
A couple of weeks into the fifth major lockdown period , having just finished a cluster of books recommended by the Guardian online and bought on Amazon.gov.uk (delivered by drone if you can believe it!) I found a cuckoo in the nest, an interloper , an unread and unrecognised book. What is more, I had no idea how it had got there. It might have been one of half a dozen bought ages ago in a charity shop to read during a week in the caravan when we still had weekends away, and discarded in favour of something with brighter cover artwork. It might have made it to the shelves by a process of tidying, bypassing the reading pile. Over a scratch lunch of bread and whatever remained in the fridge, I began to read, and on subsequent visits began to enjoy the story, a well embedded spy novel, involving characters of my own age and background. At page 121 (I folded the page corner at the time) something small and silvery fluttered out of the fold of the book and landed on the floor. On bending to retrieve it, I was unsure what I held in my hand. It looked on first inspection to be a strip of thin aluminium foil like a tiny medicine blister pack with a tiny microchip or rather series of chips incorporated into it. I thought that it was perhaps one of those devices they use to trigger an alarm in a bookshop or library, but on looking more closely, I was bemused. It seemed somewhat …more expensive… than a mass produced theft device. There were a couple of tiny wires connecting to a miniature version of the sort of thing that I remembered from trying and failing to change the battery in an old mobile phone. It was small enough to tuck into the gutter margin of the book without being visible when the book was closed. I am a Luddite when it comes to electrical stuff- I can take pictures on an IPad and compress them and send them, but beyond that I’m in the dark, and default to Manuel in Fawlty Towers when asked about such things- I can do the accent, “ I know nuuthing”.
Thankfully, I know a man who does know something and phoned a friend ( we had to talk about a binding of the Rubaiyyat that I was working on) and after discussing what we needed to , I described the tiny device to him. He asked me to send an image, which I duly did. Barely five minutes had passed before he was on the phone to me. Cautiously at first, he asked me to tell him again where I had found the thing, was I sure, where did I get the book from again? I told him what I have told you, and he paused for a few seconds. “ The thing is” he said, “ well, I’m pretty sure at least, ….I have seen something like this on the dark web. It is very illegal. “ He was taking time to frame his words carefully I could tell. “ What you have there is a very sophisticated little listening device, which not only transmits everything that it hears to…whoever might be listening…but I’m pretty sure can also Bluetooth into a computer and read keystrokes and transmit them too”.
Now I’m not generally Paranoid, but this whole virus thing had made me think a little. I had become scared of people. I mentally raced through all the possible ways the book could have arrived on my shelf. The abandoned and forgotten charity shop purchase ? A visiting friend perhaps who had left a book behind in the earliest days when we were still allowed out, and which had been tidied away by my wife? No, -which had been tucked unobtrusively into the shelf by the friend. Ridiculous. We have no friends who …..now then, just a minute, we did have a lot of people, strangers, visiting the house…when we were showing people round when the house was for sale- right at the start of it all. In fact it was the virus that made us take it off the market.. Any one of them could have put the book into the shelf whilst we were giving them a few minutes on their own to have a wander about. That rather dour chap perhaps, or the bright posh tweedy couple who talked to me about books?
I thanked my friend , who was still on the line telling me to “ get rid of it I I were you, chuck it on the wood burner, you don’t want to have that hanging around, they could nick you for it, especially these days”.
I don’t talk anti-government politics with my wife I thought, and beyond some sharing of Labour Party posts and some rather shameful virtue signalling on Facebook- sorry, old habits die hard -Govbook, I don’t do much on the computer, just writing descriptions of books for the website and that plague blog really. And where is the harm in that?
The arrests happened a few weeks later. A front for sedition apparently, and poets all if you can credit it. An Oxford poetry Don, another poet with connections to the old Eastern Bloc, another, a much respected national treasure, as well as an old collaborator in a printing venture and all based around an ancient country house that ignorant folk compared to the Bloomsbury’s much to the owner’s annoyance. His wife and a friend the movers and shakers behind it all. Apparently designed to provoke criticism of the Government and their handling of the virus debacle , and bring them down. Many contributors including myself unwitting dupes, padding for the hard hitting polemic that was about to be launched. All of us being listened to and our online lives hacked, and guilty by association.
House arrest is no different to lockdown in many respects. I have carried on blogging, although of course, no one is reading it except you. Do you have release date for me?