In Memory of Orwell

There are thoughts that, once they have made themselves known hitherto unbidden, decide to hunker down and stay awhile. 

Today’s interloper is How Have We Allowed This?

It’s probably a question that’s easy to answer, at least glibly. But of course it requires a more forensic, longer exploration for a true answer than can reasonably be expected to be forthcoming, outside of a year of doing nothing else and a bursary from one of the UK’s remaining excellent centres of learning.      

 I ponder the question while going about my “lockdown” (of which more shortly) business. I have written a lot during this stay-at-home period (day 57 for me, I just counted). Having finished and despatched a second novel to my agent (to sit alongside the first, which he is attempting to sell into a publishing market that appears reluctant as a toddler putting shoes on), and written a first draft adaptation of one of my own short stories into a 30 minute screenplay, I have also written a new script for a short film that I’m beginning work on alongside a multi-talented pal; I’ve got a new short story coming out soon and have written a new poem that is apparently due for imminent publication. Alongside the words, I try to exercise, increasing my previous three-times-a-week workout (45 minutes each time on an ageing static bike on which I—sometimes successfully—try to hit the 30km mark, followed by a short stretching and weights regime) to five times a week; I cook quite a lot, and am increasingly inspired by the writing of Nigella Lawson. Yes, that bit surprises me, too, having previously preferred Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy, although Nigella is way better at summoning the confidence with which to attempt homemade flatbreads, or escalope Milanese. 

Back to lockdown, a term that sums up where we are like few others, it being in essence a lie. We are no more in lockdown than we are under martial law, of course, free to wander daily, although preferably not too far from home. Last night my next door neighbour appeared to host a full on party, complete with twenty year old rock and assorted drunken whoops ghosting through the walls. I wasn’t invited, thankfully, and await the outbreak of something more serious than hangovers to inveigle next door. Will they paint a cross on their door to let us all know?

But it is this use of language that disturbs, this “tell us all it’s lockdown and we’ll all come to see it as such” without necessarily observing what might ordinarily be actions commensurate with the term. I read two excellent pieces today by the journalist Hardeep Matharu in which she eloquently and forensically compared the UK’s spread of COVID-19 to Chernobyl, and talked about the infantilisation of the public that has led to a complete absence in critical thinking. In turn, this allows politicians to lie unchallenged on a grand scale. But they’ve always lied! people cry. Maybe, but not necessarily without challenge or consequences. But the population, needing to ask what to do, what steps to take, who to trust, which celebrity’s got a new dress, whether to breathe in as well as out, laps up the part of the lie that it deems acceptable and ignores all else. 

This sounds like some old cynic having a whinge. And fair enough. Except in the last six weeks a minimum of 33,000 and possibly as many as 50,000 UK citizens have lost their lives to COVID-19. That’s like a town the size of Canterbury or Tunbridge Wells or Leamington Spa or Kings Lynn or Jarrow being wiped from the map. And still the papers talk about British Grit or some such idiocy, whip up whisked crap about returning to the pub, simply pretend that it doesn’t matter, that the deaths don’t really matter. Unless they’re nurses, for whom we should clap, or care workers (so appalling abandoned), for whom we should also stand on our doorsteps and show the same appreciation as we might to a batsman coming in for tea having made 100 runs, before returning to the sofa and watching The One Show presenters socially distance.

And now social argument surrounds whether children should return to school. At a time when Britain has indisputably the highest death toll in Europe, the second highest in the world after only poor, poor America, with no vaccine in the immediate vicinity and still only sketchy understanding of the science (remember when that word meant something) surrounding COVID-19, we demand, insist, shame, bully our teachers into opening schools so that children may return, and we do it in the name of The Economy. Because, the zealots tell us, the Economy is the lifeforce, the totem. the engine that drives all else. Never mind the science. What utter nonsense. However we have allowed this, we surely cannot allow it any longer. 

Writing a stream of almost-consciousness.

This like a diary in a time of COVID, of Corona, of so-called “Lockdown” and vapid bulletins that even the most generous may see as disingenuous at best. This time of hot environmental soup on the fringes of quantum physics. 

Sitting indoors, surrounded by Netflix and jigsaws, planning dinners like long-ago foreign excursions. Recipe books as maps. Tonight, we’ll explore the Amalfi Coast in linguini. The sounds of people talking too loud, bonhomie ringing down the road in booming, beery voices. Don’t they know there’s a war on? Hiding and the wildlife is crashing about outside. My Australian prison warder neighbour playing classic rock through the walls. Ruining Purple Rain forever. Slurping Stella from a tin and you can check out but you can never leave. My god he likes a scrap. 

Glomming inspiration from multiple things. The TV series Devs reminds that most of us will never understand that the future exists in the present. It’s beautiful. A documentary about the writer Joan Didion says that the past was a mystery too. Scrolling through art galleries on a screen two inches by four. All the music is wistful, lonesome, driven by winds and the sea. For the past few weeks I had a project to complete. A novel, version five, no less. Set myself the task of ensuring it became a finished thing as we hunkered down. Worked on it daily, sometimes for hours and hours. And then it was done. Sent it to a couple of trusted people. Talked to my agent about it. He wants to see it and maybe he will, when it’s settled and stopped moving about like a cat on a blanket. So now the project’s finished. Begin another, there are already notes. Realise it can’t be written to order. So write this instead, just to write something. Just to write.

Go Back to Normal

normal wasn’t working.

normal had become marooned in a blind sea

normal had a lilo. a jetski. a yacht.

normal put on new clothes and a wig

sunglasses.

normal went out in disguise.

normal told you what you wanted to hear like an abusive lover.

normal said it would never end.

normal set light to everything you held dear.

normal rewrote the rules, made you trust it.

normal was stone deaf, tone deaf, shown deaf

and proud of it.

normal was a killer. normal was a cult.

normal was a lottery with secret rules.

normal was a game of monopoly, normal would never allow you park lane for your single house, normal said it would let you have old kent road if you were lucky, normal never drew the card that said go directly to jail.

that wasn’t normal

normal was the banker with a secret stash.

normal wore the scent of burning fossil fuels 

normal said it was chanel number five. 

normal wasn’t working.

hadn’t worked

never worked

normal said that you could have it all too if you just 

worked a little

bit

harder.

normal wasn’t working.

Hope in a Time of COVID-19

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.