Isolating (seriously)

 Jean, Melbourne Australia

Now in week 4 of serious isolation, and the novelty of finessing how to order the groceries on-line, disinfect the deliveries and set up Zoom teleconferences with family and friends is over. The bookshelves have been dusted, the sourdough bread is shaping up nicely and now a kind of lethargy has set in. Being in the doldrums though has allowed me to realise something. As a restless type I now see I have NEVER really enjoyed 'being at home' that much. No, the best thing was actually leaving home, going out the door, to work, on a trip, or just to a cafe!  Stepping out the door meant moving into one's unknown but thrilling future. Oddly, in the cafe you could be 'out of the house' but still feel at home, acknowledged, welcomed, and with space to be whoever you were.

So this is a homage to some of my favorites AND the countless hours spent in them drinking coffee, reading, people watching and simply staring out the window at the world: Dominic's (across from the Law Quad, Ann Arbor); Cafe Valerie (when there was only one in Soho); Cafe Fabrique (best cinnamon buns, Covent Garden); Hot Numbers (off Mill Road, Cambridge); and Pelligrinis and Mario's (two of Melbourne's finest institutions!). I miss them and the experience they offered, of being out in the world while sitting in company with others, strangers or friends.

This is what I'm looking forward to - AFTER!


Tropical thoughts

Paul Lowden, Malaysia

I'm a fan of Heaney; who couldn't be? In the the idle time now surrounding us things previously forgotten float back into view and the odd cell resonates somewhere in the back of the mind that this or that has an echo. So it was that I recalled a colleague lecturing a group of [largely unresponsive] teenagers about Heaney's use of the word 'omphalos' and its etymology. Admittedly the repair of the washing machine was not an obvious starting point for such philosophising and as I sweated away in 35+ degrees the poetic nature of the endeavour was not foremost. [Why is it that every work box has many tools except for the one that actually, genuinely, fits the screw head?]  I had also recently been directing some Shakespeare and I wondered what he might make of it all. "This is I, Hamlet the plumber!" [Wild cheering from the entire court surely!] Perhaps in Macbeth's "Tomorrow" he was really waiting for the electrician and decided to "have a go" himself! [Not a recommended answer for GCSE] 


So if after all this nonsense is over you come across an interesting touring production of 'Hamlet the Handyman: Prince of Plumbing' or 'Macbeth: King Plug" you might want to pop in and say hello! 



The washing machine is on the blink so 

I have to hand wash in the sink. A chore.

Keen to get to the heart of things I thought

I’d repair it myself what with the ‘order’

And all. I did the filter [obviously] 

And checked the hose: two coins, a hair grip and God knows

A lot of ‘gunge’; still no joy. The panel 

Came off, eventually, and its guts 

Were exposed, like a patient. What a piece 

Of work is Samsung, how infinite its lights

And wires, drums and cords. And there at its core

The little pump, its omphalos, no more.

Two wires connect it and three screws, a clip,

[Signifying nothing] restored some life to it.


A benefit of the current times is the ability just to observe; imagine the guilt free pleasure of not having to justify doing anything or nothing. To just sit and watch is a reward in itself and perhaps an art we have squandered in our busyness previously.  


The butterfly Patience

The butterfly Patience lands gently

Take care lest you scare her away,

The butterfly Patience loves silence

Provide her a safe place to stay.


The butterfly Patience has wings

Allow them to shimmer and glow,

The butterfly Patience is selfless

Around her your solace can grow.


The butterfly Patience lives softly

And cares not for parts, but the whole,

The butterfly Patience sits lightly

And cleanses the dust from your soul.


I loved the little detail in the article from Maya about learning to ride with 'no hands'. What an absolute triumph! The joy, freedom, sense of success and sheer fun of it all were transparent in her musings. Here I spotted a similarly miraculous sight and as a symbol of what might be needed if we are to emerge whole from all of this it seemed a pretty good one; the ability to be nimble, flexible and to juggle what comes our way-oh, and to smile! 


Riding a bike with a brolly

There’s a girl in the close 

Rides a bike with a brolly,

Perfectly balanced she pedals along.

Perching quite simply

She sweeps past serenely

A shaded vision in flowing sarong.


And sitting quite stilly

Protected from sunshine

A child clasps the crossbar, and grins at the street.

The coolness and calmness

The lightness and pleasure

Heighten the joy at the circus act feat.


She then later returns

All seesawing with bags,

Brolly still upright and humming a song.

The child looks quite sleepy

Or pondering deeply,

May the cycle continue, may life roll along.


Where I am is in one of several rather swish estates that are all separated from the surrounding areas by high fences... not that there is much of a surrounding area other than the next swish estate. Still, each has numerous cctv stations, permanent security folk who patrol on little old scooters, a local police force and the real police. Inside this luxury one is, I suppose, meant to embrace the exclusivity if it all; to be grateful one is not 'out there' beyond the fence where the badlands begin; to sip a cocktail safe in the knowledge that no one will steal your ice cubes. It is all rather strange and it is hard, having spent a lifetime reading dystopian novels and the like, not to see the dysfunctionality of it all. A bit like 'fun run' being an oxymoron so too I thought is 'Gated Community'. Hamlet again rears his head...


Gated Community

The premise seems to be that life inside 

Is better and “keeping out” a virtue

Saved exclusively for the likes of you.

Crisp guard’s salute matches the lifting barrier’s

Arm and inside all is peace, tranquillity, calm.

An eerie stillness. Outside I can hear 

Occasionally a disruptive car,

A shout, a burst of music, the imam;

Here scattering leaves cause offense, pebbles 

Click, grass yawns noisily, birds chatter, taps

Drip and that’s it: the oxymoronic fib

That less means more [or is it fewer now?]

From inside it seems better not to be

A mown, chlorinated community.


Isolating in Great Chishill

Angela Mary Patrick, Cambs

Today we discovered we have another 3 weeks added to the 3 weeks we have already had in lockdown, the confinement behind our own front doors and widespread social isolation.


So today the the gauge being used by our government is apparently encouraging, the figures aren’t completely accurate however, but there is growing concern for the economy, so there is a push for returns to work. Somehow though this isn’t happening soon even though it’s a great desire for us all. There has been talk of opening schools again but the teaching unions are concerned that a return must ensure safety for all staff and pupils. The big debate now is isolating or the economy. I’m in the vulnerable adults group and would rather the lockdown continues in order to preserve mine and my husbands health. We are content to stay at home and protect ourselves and the workers at the NHS, even though it’s tough not seeing family and friends


The NHS is getting a great deal of well deserved praise, the practice of clapping for them at 8 pm continues. Our village were out there this evening making a suitable amount of noise to show their appreciation - I keep my tambourine by the door to add to the tumult.


Our wine circle chief has sent an email to us all encouraging us to leave notices on our letter boxes to show admiration for our amazing postman Andrew who always goes above the call of duty in delivering our mail, finding clever ways to leave parcels for us to find. I left an Easter card for him to find and I know others are leaving messages for him, my friend is leaving chocolate in her mail box, he likes chocolate apparently.


From the black shed

David E, East Norfolk

Social distancing etiquette

The main thoroughfare of the woodland walks goes past our house. The paths are popular with dog walkers and families with young children at weekends and in the school holidays. The clientele has subtly changed in these days. The dog walkers still come and now we see children every day. There are more cyclists than before, singly or in twos who may look disdainfully at mere walkers!


There is a new cadre, the single walker, male or female, marching steadfastly through the woods to achieve their daily exercise. Unlike the regulars, these are unknown to us, they keep their gaze straight ahead and often seem reluctant to acknowledge anyone they meet, except perhaps for a barely detectable nod. Face masks have been seen.


The paths through the woods are rarely as much as two metres wide so upon meeting walkers travelling in the opposite direction decisions have to be made about achieving adequate social distancing. The additional decision to be made is whether or not to engage in conversation. 


Does one pause before meeting with “good morning” then negotiate a mutually agreeable bypass? Does one move to the side, off the path if necessary, to allow easy passage for others to pass? Does one keep to the path waiting for the other party to take avoiding action?  Upon seeing walkers in the distance does one turn to take an alternative route (of which there are several)? Decisions decisions!


From Twickenham

David Horovitch, Twickenham

Feeling washed out and a bit depressed. My son's birthday tomorrow and I can't see him or buy him any presents and he'll be alone and so will I, fuck it. Very first world problem I know in the light of the life and death struggle in which we're all engaged but there you go. I think I'm pushing myself a bit hard, to distract myself - just been for longish walk before anyone's around and recorded an oddly resonant Chekhov story - TYPHUS - for Once upon a Time in Quarantine website Fed up with being alone. just a mood. It'll pass.


Now here's something that reads like a fairy tale but every word of it is true.

On Wednesday night in my shower, I discovered I had a lump in my groin. I'd been feeling a bit sore down there for a day or two but wasn't expecting to find something the size of a small bird's egg. It was soft, bright red and raw looking. I went to bed but couldn't sleep. My worst thought from the outset of this whole thing was being taken seriously ill, with something non-corona-related. At 12.30, I looked up 'swellings in groin' on my computer. 'If it's soft,' it said 'it's not cancer.'  There it was, in black and white and I was reassured enough to get to sleep. In the morning though I was anxious as hell . Should I call my my very nice and thorough  G. P., send her an intimate photo, call 111, use my private insurance?. The phone rang- it was 8.30, no-one calls me at 8.30 - NO CALLER ID - don't you just hate them.? 'Hello' said a female voice with an Asian accent, 'this is Dr  (I didn't catch her name) from St George's Hospital. I'm ringing with some good news. You no longer have to come in and have your routine bowel- screening every three years. We've reviewed your history and there's no need.'

I was struck by how pleasant and cheerful she sounded. I thanked her for taking the trouble to call me in the circumstances and then she said, as if she had all the time in the world, 'How are you anyway ?'... so of course, I told her about the lump. 'Oh, she said, it's a lymph node. Nothing to worry about. Eat well. Don't go out. And above all, don't go near any hospitals..' Then I launched into an embarrassingly fulsome eulogy of the NHS - I told her she was heroic and that I was very glad to have the chance to talk to a doctor and thank her from the bottom of my heart. When I hung up, I thought - 'That was no doctor. That was an angel.'


Home Thoughts

Hilary Q, North Norfolk

I recently read ‘the reader lives a thousand lives before he dies ... the man who never reads lives only one’.


I wonder how many lives, both fictional and real, I can squeeze into the next three weeks of lockdown! Last night I started to read ‘The Life of Bryan’ a celebration of Bryan Robertson, Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, who brought the first exhibitions of Pollock and Rothko to London. In his 1961 catalogue to the Rothko exhibition, he wrote ‘above all there is space ... there is no sign of the artist searching for himself in the execution, no evidence of strain or struggle’. After the exhibition opened, Robertson wrote ‘I thought at the time that the physical effect of the paintings on people was not unlike the way in which men and women move more easily and naturally, decisively even, in great squares than in narrow alleys and mean streets’ and, he added ‘Rothko preferred people to encounter his paintings, one by one, in as much ‘separateness’ as could be contrived.’


Right now, the world outside has become a series of great empty squares and it is possible to project the ennobling power of space which Robertson observed. Similarly, we are all beginning to create and appreciate that separateness and focus which isolation and distance gives to each object. Thank you Mark Rothko for the calm and steady pulse of your paintings which I yearn to revisit. Thank you Bryan Robertson for your vision and insight. And thank you Andrew Lambirth for your 384 pages through which I am being gifted other lives.


Musings from self isolation

Billy Hearld, York

Today the weather here has been a little overcast and blustery, so we have yet to step outside save to restock the bird feeder. I have spent my morning hanging some pictures on my wall whilst my sister has spent her time devising a method of sliding down the stairs in a sleeping bag at great speed, much to the vexation of my mother whose work was disturbed by my sister bumping down the stairs. In the living room, my father has been playing his guitar but, otherwise, the house has been pleasantly quiet today. Reading the news, I am reminded, for the first time in a while, that there are many positives in this time. In particular, the money raised by Captain Tom has been incredibly uplifting to follow. Hearing that the lockdown was to continue for another three weeks was, if not surprising, a little daunting however it is soothingly to know that precautions are being taken to ensure the safety of the public.



John Underwood, Norfolk

That’s not Tibbles

I don’t tend to do a lot of binding work for customers. I am not very good at pricing work, and it is very stressful working on someone else’s precious book. I have written about binding a family Bible before, and today was delivery day. I had agreed to drop off the finished Bible to the customer, just a mile down the road from home. I usually warn customers that the book that I am about to do work on will come back to them changed, sometimes drastically so. I try and prepare people, and often say that having a book bound is rather akin to having your pet cat stuffed (post mortem, obvs…). On being presented with the said piece of taxidermy, the customer shrieks “that’s not Tibbles!”. It can be difficult returning a newly rebound book to a customer if they have been used to seeing it with the boards off, partially disbound, perhaps spattered with paint spots and in a tatty shoebox. This time, because of social distancing the book was left at the gate, and the customer did not see the book until I had left, so no feedback for me. Let’s hope she recognises Tibbles.


I wrote yesterday about some Victorian, (possibly Georgian?) manuscript parlour games. I thought that I might share one with you in more detail, as it is interesting to compare what amused people perhaps 170 years ago. The game consists of nine small cards, about half postcard sized. On the obverse is written “Gentleman!” “Lady!” or “Lady or Gentleman”, and a question. One card, for a Lady has the question “what do you most frequently think of? On the reverse, are 12 possible answers, and I think that a pair of dice or a teetotem might have been employed to decide upon the answer to the question, presumably leading to polite smiles, blushing, furious fan flapping and the like. Here are the possible answers to the question “What do you most frequently think of?” with my comments in brackets….


1)    Friends who are absent  [A safe, worthy choice. A woman with empathy]

2)    That you are admired  [Oh dear, vanity, vanity. We all know what SHE is like]

3)    Novel Reading  [Of course, the sort of novels SHE reads are most unsuitable]

4)    A favourite Gentleman  [Hussy]

5)    A new Dress  [See 2]

6)    A Red Coat  [Who DOES she think she is. Where DOES she think she is going?]

7)    If she shall be married  [Perhaps a suitable vicar can be found?]

8)    A Ball  [Flibbertygibbet]

9)    What you will do when married  [How shocking! I’m blushing, my fan, my fan]

10)   Your own sweet person  [Go on, do tell.]

11)    Improving your mind  [This card wasn’t intended for a lady was it not?]

12)   Economy  [You will make an admirable wife]


Another card for a Gentleman has the question “ What do you like best.”, with the following suggested answers.

1)    The company of ladies  [Strictly chaperoned of course]

2)    Gambling  [His father gambled away the family fortune which is why he is still unmarried]

3)    Gossiping  [Me, the 13 th Earl of Cholmondeley? ]

4)    Reading  [Improving works. Not that dreadful Mr Darwin ]

5)    To have your own way  [Naturally]

6)    Fishing  [A sportin’ Gentleman]

7)    Hunting  [Huntin’ d’ye mean?]

8)    Cherry Brandy  [Knowing glances behind the fans]

9)    A sincere friend  [His only friends are horses and hounds]

10)  Reflecting on the past  [We all know what happened to the Parlour  Maid]

11)   A Spirited argument  [Socialist! Tory! Socialist! etc, etc]

12)   Flirtation  [Miss Smith, those ribbons match your eyes…]


Perhaps someone could write a version for today’s rather different and more worrying  times, but I doubt that many families in lockdown would find it remotely amusing.

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