When news of the seriousness and extent of the Corona virus broke—travelling the world quicker than you could say Globalisation—and it became apparent that some sort of lockdown might be enforced, the Twittersphere was liberally littered with comments that suggested now was the time to write that novel, take up painting, learn to play the ukulele, speak Mandarin. This dark cloud’s silver lining was going to be the gift of time to do all of those things you knew you could do if only your life wasn’t governed by the daily slog. Yet a fortnight on, those time-free enthusiasms have dimmed like house lights before the overture. And there doesn’t seem to be any overture.
The time has been filled by a sense of dread, rising like the sourdough loaves that have started to appear like landmines on my Twitter timeline. Baking is seemingly the one thing that has staged a comeback, powered by a nostalgia for simpler times, empty shelves in Sainsburys and an endless stream of Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding yelling ‘Bake!’ on repeat. They are the Thinkpol of Orwellian dreams now.
People are finding that rather than uncovering a shiny new streak of creativity, what really lies beneath is a notion of futility. Why write the novel if there’ll be no one left to read it? What if the only tune left to play on your battered old uke is Chopin’s death march? Understandably, accompanying personal dread is a side-serving of daily anxiety about loved ones, elderly parents or grandparents we can no longer visit but instead are left to phone so frequently it starts to feel weird for all concerned. The news that my niece had remotely taught my 86 year old father to both download and use WhatsApp and had joined him to the family group chat was greeted as if they’d shared the award of a Nobel prize.
And yet within the pathology of it all there is hope. I’d noticed a few people echoing my own thoughts, suggesting that such was the disruption caused by the virus that when a vaccine is found, when things inevitably turn outwards again—for nothing lasts forever, not even rampant disease—perhaps here was the chance to Reinvent that we’d been abstractly pondering. Nodding along to columns that bemoaned the callousness of a few billionaires while continuing behaviours that had enabled them to become billionaires in the first place wasn’t ever going to cut it.
Slowly there are signs. Footage on phones of wildlife returning to reclaim the street, the mountain goats of Llandudno, the wild boars in Bergamo. Sightings of stars in the night sky over densely populated cities as daily pollution levels fall off the charts.
And then came Arundhati Roy and The Financial Times. In an article for the FT, Roy wrote that this pandemic “is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” I’ve loved that woman since hearing an audiobook of The God of Small Things on a long car journey back in nineteen ninety-something and here she was like some god of somewhat bigger things, too.
What’s more, the FT then surpassed itself. Looking to what will be needed post-Corona, the FT championed “Radical reforms—reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades—will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the wealthy and elderly in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”
The FT. Not The Morning Star, not even The Guardian. The FT. Something is definitely afoot here.
And then I received a poem from a dear writer friend. She hadn’t seen the Arundhati Roy piece. Hadn’t read the FT. Yet her new words were a searing call to accept what’s happening with dismay but also with grace, and to start planning for a future in which the change that we forever promise ourselves we’ll make, to be kinder, to live more sensibly within the context of limited resources but also more freely, with a greater sense of generosity, to shuck off the teachings of the past fifty years and see them merely as part of an evolutionary process that we need to leave behind like some dried out exoskeleton, becomes enacted.
There is the opportunity. You might not write a novel, paint a masterpiece, become fluent in another language. Perhaps that won’t matter in the long run. But not seizing this new opportunity to live a life that is materially more simple but intellectually enriched surely will.