This quarantine suits my general propensity towards modularity. Pre-crisis and not liking coagulous sauce,s I espoused modulariry in cooking: a raw carrot followed by a piece of fish followed by cheese and crackers followed by a pudding. Now modularity is universal. We separate our shopping from our run in the park; we have a segment on the computer before we have to hand it over to the next person and we have an hour of reading. I have even broken my books down into units. I have a night book and a day book. The night book I read in bed. It is Thomas Bernhard’s autobiography in five small volumes, much of the action aptly taking place in quarantine hospitals. My day book is ‘Les Meteores’by Michel Tournier. My plan is to move onto ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ as the next night book in (I estimate) ten days time. Not sure about my next day book. When you break your marathon down into periods of time, or laps, it becomes manageable. If you want to write a novel start by breaking it up into twenty chapters. Yesterday we acquired a new set of four toilet rolls, which we will move onto in about five days time. Each new toilet roll will last two weeks. So will we count the quarantine away. When our final toilet roll dribbles out we hope the hard days will be past. We are all measuring our life out in toilet roll sheets now.
Teenagers and others are confused. What you must not do is anything. What you must do is nothing. They have suddenly been let out of existential prison. As for the grown-ups? All the rushing around on public transport or in cars; the saving of one earth minute by pushing into a crowded tube train; the nipping out to Pret-a-Manger for that tasteless sandwich; the stops-off for coffee in plastic cups; that way of walking in the street with a goblet out in front of you like some beast of burden, a boastful participation in the consumerist edifice; the endless whirr of office machinery; . It is all starting to look like mauvaise foi, self-deception, the key notion of the existentialist, just so much stuff to tell yourself you’re alive, though you aren’t really. Now, the new dynasty. Personal projects that were meant to never happen can now take place. Reading. Dominoes. It only takes a week for our world to look like a distant and random memory. Dominoes have more reality than an Excel spread sheet. I suppose we will continue to refer to the world of complex human relations in our reading and conversation, though that world has now been squared-off from us. We have retreated into a cloister to consider what once was. When we come out of our cloister will we look again at that world of ours and not believe it so much anymore?
When you are in lock-down food comes to the fore. Yesterday we had pie. Chicken and leek pie was the one we put our virus faith into. In recent weeks I have seen much super market action concerning leeks. A man with a basket full of leeks seeing the queue at the checkout furiously throwing the basket down and storming out. I saw whole bucketsfull of leeks in our local little shop but when I went to buy them they had vanished, snapped up. Soup is important in these hard times. Whole cloves of garlic melted into the liquid to sustain the struggling human mechanism. Suddenly no-one is interested in the weather. From it being my favourite programme, it is now irelevant. Weather was always the most relevant of shows. My betrayal is total. I turn off the weather. For me, this is a first. Normally I dash from channel to channel, looking for the various forms of non-committal pronouncement. Now I can’t be bothered. What was this love affair I had with weather forecasts and will it ever return.
At the start of the First World War in 1914 the French government gave a reading and writing test to all conscripts. 70% were deemed to be unable to read more than a few words. In 2020 we can all read, more or less, though poor literacy is more common than you might think. I suppose that screen culture has in many ways helped. Kids are attracted to social media, texting and games, which all include a degree of reading, but the ability of many children to read a page of writing is poor. When I am teaching I find the only way for many of the kids to follow a text is if I read it out loud. I tell them to follow in the text but when I look up their eyes are looking round the room. Concentration dips. Malebranche, the 17th Century French thinker, noted tha la concentation est la piete de l’ame (Concentration is the piety of the soul). Concentration, then, was viewed as an almost religious quality. It may be that our period of genuine literacy is no more than a brief moment of sunlight in an otherwise cloudy day. The ability to be alone is a skill that we all need to acquire in these days.
I think I have the coronavirus but I’m not sure. It would make sense.My significant other has it. We spent the week together. She is not here at the moment, so I am alone, self-isolating. I am lucky. I am strong with no underlying medical issues. I have not stocked up on food, so I will have to either pop out or get someone to drop stuff outside my door. I fancy some fish and, fortunately, I managed to pick up a last tin of mushy peas from a supermarket on Sunday. As you see, not easy to think ahead when you are used to thinking in small steps. A number of people I have spoken to are not sure whether they have had the coronavirus or not. As basic healthy people, was it just a bit of under-the-weatherness? And, by the way, how is the common cold dealing with sudden coronavirus celebrity? And the basic common-or-garden flu? I imagine the two of them furious with recent developments.
If working from home beckons (could be on the cards) a number of issues emerge. The main one is how I present my domestic context. What will be the backdrop to my happy talking face? The classic one is a wallfull of shelves filled with learned tomes, leather bound, oeuvres completes, an index to the seriousness of the skyper, but maybe a little pompous. How then do I present myself? Playfully, I think. I have a little wooden horse ornament on the mantlepiece. Perhaps I could shift the angle of my computer to catch fleeting and enigmatic clues to my normally occluded personality: the horse; the corner of a wine rack; the edge of a chess board; the artfully angled Persian rug. What I will not be exposing is the Game of Thrones box set, my empty packet of chocolate biscuits, my various dirty underwares, the sink of unwashed dishes.
I remember as a thirteen year old the first time I read Macbeth. This was as a revelation to me. The language and the syntax were so thick and involved. They were like bracken soaked in tar. Trying to decode the complications was like cutting open a large insect and examining its insides, seeing how the various parts fitted together, some of them exuding black liquid matter. The rhythms were like witch chant. You could see why this was a dangerous set of words, a text that was damned.
You do not often get texts like that. Or maybe it is only at rare times that you are receptive to that kind of experience.
Then I made it into a play with little puppets and my little sisters helping me out. I think we did almost the entire play, unexpurgated, longer than most staged verions, for my mum and dad. My mum and dad had to sit through it. After a bit my mum started reading the paper and my dad fell asleep. We just kept going for a couple of hours. The three witches; Lady Macbeth; Banquo’s ghost; Birnam Wood; the lot. We read all the parts from behind the stage and moved the little puppets around. My sisters, aged ten and eight, were exhausted but I was a hard taskmaster. I was like the Cecil B demille of number 1 Woodbank Ave. I suppose I was possessed. Decades later I still have Macbeth in my head more than any other block of writing. It is the backbeat to all my things.
In French they have the word ‘baluchon’ for that little pack of belongings on a stick that Dick Whittington had when he arrived in London with his cat. We all have a baluchon of anxieties that we lug around with us. Whether there is anything to worry about or not, we have a specific amount of anxiety that we spread around to whatever is available. If you have nothing else to worry about you worry about your breakfast cereal. The important thing is that you use all the contents of your baluchon. We also have a baluchon of power.Whether we have any power or not, each person has their alloted amount they must use. If you are somebody with no prestige and power you might use your baluchon-worth by bullying your partner for scratching their ear, or, if you are Dick Whittington, you may use it on the cat. The baluchon, your particular and individual baluchon, has to be used up every day. If there is some anxiety or power left in your baluchon at the end of the day, they turn their forces onto you and gnaw you from the inside.