Thoughts from the Suffolk coast
Harris G, Between Aldeburgh and Southwold
Yesterday, while on the milk run, I saw a group of four or five pheasants gathered in the road. As I got nearer I saw that one of them had been hit by a car and was dead. The gathering dispersed as I drew close but, after I had gone by, I saw in my rear view mirror that they returned to cluster again. Their expressionless faces did not say they were in mourning or even in shock but I think the death was very recent. I thought again of the families who have been denied closeness at the time of death because of this virus... the final goodbyes, the comfort of being there. The awful sadness of this essential estrangement.
“Doing the milk run” is a phrase I read somewhere but it suits my occasional excursions into the now pared-down world of the local supermarket... where I go for bread and milk and other things. I feel almost guilty about doing these short road trips. I mostly drive which seems slightly sinful - like I am a naughty pollutant in our otherwise green world. I assume the good people must hear my gate clicking open and my car driving off - however quiet the engine. I have walked a couple of times too but it’s a very, very long and less pleasant walk than others that I choose to make and I get grumpy carrying cumbersome bottles or I squash the bread...
The supermarket seems sterile. There are pumped-up security guards at the doors with arms folded across their chests and they wear black epaulettes on their shoulders so we know they are bonafide. There are defined entrance and exit pathways that have been marked out and labelled with warning signs. There are yellow scene-of-crime tape strips across the floor to denote two metre spaces. There are screens at the checkouts that are sprayed regularly with antibacterial mists and then wiped with disposable blue paper that is then discarded. The number of people in store is monitored. I rarely see more than eight other trolley-pushers.
I listen to snippets of news. My understandings are probably all out of context. Death rates are levelling off. A surge of deaths in care homes. Masks are going to be essential. Many people have been discharged from hospitals. Austria is relaxing some of its lockdown rules. Florida beaches are packed full of people. There will be initial vaccine tests in Oxford on Thursday. Boris will be doing something. Many people are not going to hospital because of fear. Families of people in care homes will get PPE. Darling, your breakfast is waiting...
From a very small Island
Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight
I woke early this morning and I have since been considering the issue of creativity and the virus. I think I will write a bit about this and see afterwards if it makes any sense.
So, it seems to me that all people need to be creative in ways. By this I don’t think artistic creativity as a separate domain from any other. Now, my artistic friends may be annoyed by this, but I don’t see deliberately artistic creativity as essentially different from any other form. Okay, so what do I think I am noticing in myself and other people during these plague days!
It seems to me that people, and definitely myself, are finding a freedom from their usual constraints at this time - even when physical freedom is limited by regulation. Looking inwards, I find that being a ‘hermit’ gives me a lot of metaphorical room to move. Nobody else is actively or directly applying constraints on much of what I have enough time and energy with which to engage. As I have written in my first posting in the journal, timetables have simply gone away. So, I have time, energy, and sometimes the motivation for creative activity and I include writing these very words as part of that. I’m also free to play music, 5-string banjo stuff as well as streamed, as often as I like so long as it doesn’t disturb my neighbours. Well, that’s me briefly dealt with, what have I noticed in others I wonder!
Truly there seems to be a blossoming, which is being worked out in all sorts of ways. Friends and neighbours are gardening and cleaning a lot and both activities in my opinion can be seen as creative. My darling partner tells over the phone a great tale of using her pressure washer - comedy, mostly slapstick, as she describes it! One of my neighbours is now engaged in the production of a range of most fetching face masks - I’ve ordered some of those. People seem to be offering and becoming involved in online art and writing courses. Community engagement is booming, at least around here, in a way I have not really noticed in the past. People of all ages are helping one another, and that is quite a revelation to me. There is friendliness, and dare I say love, in the air so to speak, and what a delight that is. My contention, and I could be wrong, is that all of this is part of an awakening of awareness, and is thus both creation and creativity. Philosophers are free to disagree of course!
So, there is an acknowledged awakening in nature, attributable to the effect of the virus. There is also, I think, an awakening in people that paradoxically comes with disaster. I cannot welcome or forget the terrible worldwide suffering as I sit in the smug little world I inhabit. Concomitant with disaster I see a wide creation of community spirit, art, utility, and even motor mechanics. We surely must all welcome this with open arms.
Oh - I do write like a preacher don’t I! It is a lovely day!
The Daughter has never eaten a hot cross bun - she has always turned up her little ski-slope nose and refused.
On my way home this morning I bought Brioche hot cross buns and brioche is her favourite. She was conflicted, to say the least. She took one and ate it in her room - she didn't want me to watch her try it (who claims to understand the mind of a 13 yr old?) and returned triumphant - she loved it.
However, she had peeled off the cross and left it on the plate, when I asked as to why her reply was:
"I just really don't like liquorice."
I have no idea where this notion came from. And neither has she.
David Horovitch, Twickenham
I'm not just living with the avuncular Irish bloke who praises me whenever I tie me feckin' shoelaces. (I mentioned him the other day and, if you can't remember, then you just weren't paying attention.) I didn't mention, though, the tosser who screams at me at four in the morning that I'm a useless piece of shit. Freud would have called him my Super Ego but that's just Latin for Right Bastard and I wish he'd let me get back to sleep. Oh, he pre-dates the lockdown by many years but I think he's become more strident in the last few weeks.
I'm emboldened to write about him by two pieces I've read in the journal for which I'm particularly grateful - one was the chap who said he hadn't been able to write here for a while because he'd been so depressed and the other was Catherine who asked whether it was only her who wasn't blissfully pottering about in her garden and baking cakes. I'm not always brave enough to say how frightened, anxious, lonely and old I'm feeling and I think it takes a particular kind of courage to do so. When I'm having a downer it feels absolute, not provisional - I may say -'Oh, it'll change,' but I don't really believe it. But it does (italics) change (almost hour to hour sometimes) - and sometimes writing about it can effect that change. And it helps me to read about the unhappiness of others although I hope they're feeling better now. Maybe if I name and shame my Superrightbastardego he'll fuck off. I could so do with a good night's sleep. Sometimes I take a pill but I try not to because they're addictive and have side effects. But I am tired most of the time. Hard to be open - there's a stigma around unhappiness as if it's another virus, but even at the best of times, which these aren't, I know it's a part of me and it may be, although I'm reluctant to admit it, that I need my predawn tormentor as much I need the Irish chap.
I got up at 6 and walked up Richmond Hill and had the view that Turner painted out to The West, the sun rising behind me. Then I crossed back over the river and along the towpath on my side and home, via Tesco's. There's something about the river that makes me live in the present and not think so much about the pains of the past and the uncertainties of the future. It's always just there, moving but changeless. Indifferent. Like this beautiful spring. And this horrible virus.
Gratefully Sheltering - James Oglethorpe, Virginia, USA
I don’t need no dead, attenuated
microorganisms in my veins,
no needles, for Jesus inoculates me,
He gives me that immunity.
Not sinful science, but prayer
kills the devil’s virus festering
in the hearts of non-believers.
Armed with a just rifle,
bullets of blind certainty
in the magazine of faith,
I fear no evil, ‘cos Jesus will pull the trigger
when those virus critters come for me.
Lo, The Lord commanded me and saith:
“fear not, break the lockdown.
Thou shall walk a sunny valley
with no viral load in your lungs.”
Breath is normal. It can’t hurt no one.
With Him on my side I don’t need no mask.
I talk openly with liberated folk. We agree,
social distancing is just a liberal strike,
aimed at taking my Trump away.
Faith is greater than knowledge
and on this divine sunny day
God is bigger, stronger than a tiny virus.
Jesus is my vaccine.
In His righteous name I pray
He will take my sore throat away.
Then and Now
Sleeplessness... Insomnia... As Housman wrote:
Spectres and fears, the nightmare and her foal
Drown in the golden deluge of the morn.
And how do you get to sleep when sleep is still hiding round a dark corner, and the events of the day have not yet composed themselves into the mad tapestry of dream. Well, Housman had another goodish remark: “Think no more; ‘tis only thinking, Lays lads underground”. I have never been an insomniac, but if I can’t get to sleep I revisit my grandparents’ house and garden and fit the bits slowly together in my head, conjuring chairs and curtains, bowls of flowers and the toy chest out of the dark - it never seems to fail. “No ideas but in things” said William Carlos Williams, the Imagist poet. Enough quotations. I never seemed to need charms to keep the dark away when I was a child.
The Greek Gods of Tanglewood Tales seemed too sunlit for me. I’m Norse by nature, as my surname suggests. Give me the dwarves underground beating gold to a net for Sif, her hair cut off by the mischief-maker, Loki. A dark place and a shining gold net. And if I revisit ‘Then’, much of it is a series of interconnected but not linear pools of darkness, lit by occasional light: the wavering pencils of searchlights - I remember standing by a searchlight battery watching a host of moths dancing in the first few feet of the silvery beam - the frizz of the filament of a dying torch-battery under the sheets, the soft sheen of Christmas-tree baubles in a darkened room, with velvet curtains and blackout blinds or cloth-filled wooden frames. And going to bed like de la Mare’s poor tired Tim - “up to bed with his candle to creep”, clutching the tin holder, past the gas-lamp making a pool of light on the stair, to the safe room with a nightlight floating in a saucer. I have not the Mediterranean habit of sunlight; deep down I think it’s dark, broken by interruptions of scattered but oh-so-important light. I am in love with stars and candles, the stained-glass window in the cold and shadowy church, the firework, the shooting-star...
Which does not mean that I was free from dreams: cauchemar, the nightmare. The two recurrent dreams which set me upright in bed trembling were simply a pile of matchsticks which began to dance, faster and faster and a pair of French windows which slowly opened wider and wider. These were more terrifying than any German bomber. Oh, and to please myself on the edge of sleep, I used to rub my eyes till there seemed to be a host of silky, shining Christmas ornaments floating in the darkness. A private, surreal slide-show.
In Lincolnshire we were ringed by Bomber Stations: Coningsby, Waddington, Binbrook, Scampton... but the throbbing of Lancasters which often woke me was part of being friends with the night. To bring darkness, war, and light together I must take you back to Christmas Eve 1944, when the Germans launched a fleet of Flying Bombs, the notorious V1 pilotless planes, from ships, crossing Lincolnshire on their way to Liverpool. I woke, heard this banging and puddering overhead, lit a paraffin lamp, made my way to the backstairs and fell headlong into the door at the stair’s foot into the kitchen, hurling the flaming lamp into the wall as I fell. (My mother had fallen down the same stairs as a girl and broke her nose doing so.) I can still see the kitchen-faces that thought their last moment had come.
Sweet dreams, and remember all those lights which shine in the uncomprehending dark.
I hang upon the last note of the siren,
Feel the last bomber snoring into silence
Till only my blood sings on its one pure note
Though I hold the room to my ear like a cold shell.
The Runaway Diaries
Your father shaved his beard off and suddenly our isolation has been invaded by a familiar stranger who has all of your dad’s characteristics but looks nothing like him at all!
We have been liberated by our isolation and the rudimentary accommodation - showers are only possible outside (and in the sunshine), clothes are washed by hand, so we are living basically and facial hair maintenance doesn’t seem to fit with this new regime.
The neighbours don’t seem to mind; the yellow bellied wagtails still greet us every morning and the bats tip their wings to us in the evening, even if we are wearing the same clothes we wore yesterday, but they do keep a social distance.
The mice, on the other hand, who we hear in the walls and scrabbling about the ceiling have got bolder, we saw one in the kitchen, our scones got nibbled. I am not a fan of these neighbours and we’ve been discussing eviction techniques.
Lucky for us, there’s been another stranger knocking about. We saw her when we first arrived over a month ago and she’s popped up a few times since, we bought cat food and have been trying to lure her on to the patio.
Today she joined us for lunch. She’s a fluffy ginger cat with a very human looking face and four white paws. We’ve heard that she lived at a recently abandoned farm up the road. She’s a stray but seems keen to be about people. And maybe she’ll frighten the mice. You have named her Peanut Butter Toast and take great delight at seeing her slinking about. Your dad is also very excited and wants to offer her anything he can off his plate, he is clearly craving more social interaction of any kind.
I’m wary of letting this stranger in to our isolating existence, we don’t know how long we will be hiding out here and I don’t want her to rely on our humble offerings, but at the same time, just her presence brings a homely and more sociable feel to our lives and makes us more at peace with being here.
We are certainly not leaving until your dad’s beard grows back so we’ve got a bit longer for you and Peanut Butter Toast to be friends.
A View from Crazy Town
Chris Dell, Washington, D.C.
The Crazy has (mostly) moved on
Gathering my courage and risking all, I ventured forth to the Heart of Crazy in downtown Washington yesterday, after promising our Dear Editor a live report. As it happens, my fears were for nought.
With Congress in recess until further notice, the only remaining hot spot for Crazy inside the Beltway was located at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the White House continues to put on a death-defying (or causing) performance in gobsmacking lunacy. To wit: I'm not a warehouse and states are on their own to find PPE and test kits! The Governor of Maryland (a Republican as it happens) doesn't know what he's doing and should learn something from me before obtaining 500,000 test kits on his own! Here are the guidelines for gradually relaxing the lockdown! The people protesting lockdowns are right to LIBERATE their states from Democratic governors!
As hinted by that last exchange (courtesy of Twitter) between the Chief Executive's ego and superego, the Crazy Parade has moved out of town. The good folks of Michigan, Ohio, Texas and elsewhere have decided enough is enough, it's time to take matters in their own hands. Gunning up and defying Big Guv'mint and Big Science guidance to maintain social distance and wear face masks, the citizenry are gathering in their hundreds to spit out their rage over the loss of their way of life. Proudly flaunting their MAGA hats, Confederate flags, and only the occasional fully automatic long gun, they are insisting on their freedoms - ain't no stinkin' veerus gunna take 'way mah guns, no suh - including, it seems, the right to infect others at will. Turns out that the Declaration of Independence got it wrong after all, and that among the inalienable rights with which we are endowed, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness always trump (yes, it's deliberate) Life. (Except in the case of abortion, where a woman's right to choose must definitely take a back seat to the Right to Life. Says so, right there in the Constitution and the Bible, our other two Founding Documents.)
But, Dear Reader, all is not lost and Washington may soon re-assert its control over Crazy. As part of a $2 trillion relief package designed to save a sinking economy, Congress approved (before it skedaddled to the relative safety of the Heartland - hah, little did they know) a $350 million loan program for small businesses. If these mom and pop firms kept paying their employees, up to 75% of the loan would be forgiven. But, ever watchful for the opportunity to demonstrate Crazy, Congress left lots of loopholes and the Treasury merrily opened the floodgates so that large restaurant and hotel chains (including those owned by You Know Who) could apply, as well as hedge funds and other gazillion dollar businesses, as long as they declared fewer than 500 employees. Thanks to the tireless efforts of J.P. Morgan and other investment banks, the funds have been exhausted and your Faithful Correspondent is pleased to report that, as Congress intended, the bulk of the money went to the rich who were at risk of losing the benefit of the massive tax cuts they'd been given in 2017. Thanks to this swift action, the Republic has been saved, we can get back to the really important business of banning immigrants and through the power of Magical Thinking this is all going to go away. So fast. It's a beautiful pandemic. Only the best pandemic. Lots of people tell me so.