What exactly does one read during a pandemic?!

I had hoped to restore a bit of humour to Bronte’s Page Turners, given my recent focus on subjects as heartening as depression and immortality, but then BOOM: along comes a pandemic like Covid-19, and like most people I am navigating an ever-present readiness to sob and howl What. The. Actual. Fudge.

Yesterday evening, as I engineered our Daily State Allocated Exercise past our boy’s Pre School, I realised it wasn’t the constant worry about my loved ones, the pressure on society’s most vulnerable, and the prospect of complete economic collapse that was making my chin wobble. These ‘what ifs’ are so gargantuan and traumatic that my brain seems conveniently trained to push them aside as we craft rainbows, clatter saucepans for key workers on a Thursday evening, and wave manically at every bus driver we see in a desperate attempt to thank those who are truckin’ us through this calamity.

What has been rumbling quietly on, though, is a sombre nostalgia for our simple day to day routines, and this week I felt as if that quiet rumbling became a heavy-metal-esque babel, noisier than those Thursday evening neighbourly saucepan bands:  during our daily walks, every closed school, shop and pub screamed ‘the world is in crisis! Complete crisis!’ and there I was, battling not to sob again. Yes, I miss the big stuff – Lee Chesire’s London In Paint served as a virtual tour around a city I pine for (see you soon Mother Thames – mine’s a pint of London Pride and whatever those keyworkers are having) and the British Museum’s  Masterpieces of Classical Art temporarily sated my need for some Old Important Things. But most of all I crave the micro-experiences of living in our little south London (#itsnotKentfxckers) estate-agent-designated urban ‘village’: waving to my hairdresser as I rush Rufus to Pre School, circumventing the geezers congregating outside our local will-there-be-a-barney-won’t-there-ooh-drama pub as we progess to the establishment that sells decent ales, laughing with the very accommodating owners of the electrical and pet supplies shops as Rufus gazes lovingly at the hoovers or seeks to buy treats for our imaginary pet. Jason and I became unreasonably emotional when we spotted ‘our’ chip shop lady yesterday – I love a good saveloy as much as the next person, but surely this is a sign of how much we are mourning the simple joys in a past life that we never really fully appreciated, and are not sure when we will enjoy again. (And how much relative strangers can mean to us. I LOVE YOU, CHIP SHOP LADY.)

So we take each day as it comes. Clemency Burton-Hill’s Year of Wonder introduces a daily dose of classical music and thus provides a few minutes of mindfulness and, together with Anna Beer’s tales of female composers in  Sounds and Sweet Airs, has remedied a Turner Cultural Blindspot (my other being films, since –  according to some sources – Home Alone is not the greatest film ever made). Even if I still feel that our estate-agent-termed (such a creative profession!) ‘courtyard garden’ just spells ‘concreted high head injury risk for a crazy toddler’, looking for worms with my son and debating which plants are weeds or not and pulling up most of them anyway is a sterling way to distract one’s mind from impending apocalypse, and Everyman’s Garden Poems connects me to others who have appreciated the privilege of personal garden space. While I mope for socially-distanced family members, William Pryor’s Virginia Woolf and the Raverats reminds me that if Woolf and her artist friends Jacques and Gwen Raverat could sustain a friendship for years via the humble letter, then I should be able to manage for the next few weeks with our modern flashery, even if I occasionally have to endure my parents joining video calls in fancy dress (the things I have seen. My eyes). And when it all gets too much, I have been retreating to the loo to read snippets of the devourable-in-short-chapters Romantic Journals of Jean Lucy Pratt (a bookseller whose WW2 Mass Observation diaries indicate the historic value of writing a diary at a time as crazy as this) and The Slits’ Viv Albertine’s Clothes Music Boys – very different ladies; both kick the proverbial ass.

Lots of people have asked me to recommend ‘plaguey books’, a phenomenon I struggle to comprehend. A few weeks ago, when I was in western denial about how some lurgy in China could impact my tidy world, I enjoyed E. Arnot Robertson‘s Four Frightened People (1931), where four strangers – including a terrific female lead with Love Issues and Plenty of Jolly Bravado – trek through the jungle to escape their cholera-ridden passenger ship, but am sure it would be an uncomfortable, less thrilling read now.  Suddenly plague references seem to appear in everything I read and carry new significance – the Luccan lockdown which prevented seventeenth-century Florentine composer Francesca Caccini from travelling home makes our current restrictions look positively tame (‘women and children under sixteen were forbidden to leave their homes, with just one person from the household permitted to go out for provisions, but only on Tuesdays and Fridays’); in Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, the Roman Emperor’s reflection that his terminal illness at least means he will not die of plague illustrates how far plague was a constant threat for our ancestors.  Perhaps we were arrogant to assume we could be spared this historical aspect of human existence. Despite all our modern capabilities, some of our leaders are certainly making a bat’s ear of our response. Good luck, and stay safe.

Postscript: Happy 100th birthday to the amazing Colonel Tom Moore who has raised over £30m for NHS charities. I struggle with the concept of 100 year old war veterans having to trek laps of gardens to fund an essential public service, but I salute you, sir.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Jan Hicks says:

    I’ve quite enjoyed a couple of dystopian books (not actually plaguey, more climate crisis-y) recently. There’s something about reading fictional accounts of how imaginary people deal with Everything Going to Hell in a Handcart that distracts from the present reality.

    I’m with you on the random emotional responses – I almost cried the other day when a man in a van rolled his window down to tell me the temporary lights I was sitting at (on my way to do our weekly shop) were on red both ways. It seemed too kind, and I couldn’t remember the last time a stranger took time to be kind, or I’d spoken to someone other than my husband or a work colleague over Teams. It’s a weird old time and no mistake.

    I’m also with you on Viv Albertine. She’s good value on Instagram and, if you want a film that isn’t Home Alone, she’s mesmeric in Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition with Liam Gillick. Added bonus of Tom Hiddlesbum playing an estate agent, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point about finding support through fictional accounts of the chaos – I hadn’t quite thought of it that way!

      Viv has been a revelation. I sort of knew about her in the margins but am surprised to only be making her acquaintance properly at this stage in life, given the sort of music I liked when I was younger and my general hankering for kick ass ladies! What I especially appreciated about her story is a) the fact she gives herself permission to create despite not being the best singer/guitar player – as if being creative is a basic human need and entitlement, rather than being confined to those who paint/write/play with finesse and b) the fact she revives that in middle age, after marriage/work/children etc. It’s massively inspiring. Oh, and – superficial point here, but since having to give up the skinny jeans I am on the New Style Hunt – I love how she dresses with aplomb and vigour. Legend.

      She talks about that film in the book – will definitely have to check it out in between watching reruns of The Thin Blue Line (I am so classy!)

      Wishing you all the best at this mad time Jan!

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      1. Jan Hicks says:

        Viv is an absolute inspiration. The things she has been through and how she hasn’t let them define her in particular. And style is never a superficial thing. I haven’t read her second memoir yet, but we went to hear her talk about it with Jeanette Winterson and I have never felt more of a fan girl than on that night!

        Best to you as well, Brontë.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh wow I saw that talk online – hugely jealous!! Stay safe 🙂

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  2. What DOES one read during a lockdown? To be honest, I have been reading less over the past six weeks rather than more. The restrictions have brought some other unexpected challenges. The main one is trying to come to terms with ordering groceries on line, something my wife would never do.
    However, I have just finshed reading ‘The Five’ by Halle Rubenhold, a social history charting the lives of the five women supposedly killed by Jack the Ripper. [I feel a review coming on.] And now I’m challenging myself to get to grips – for the second time – with ‘The Road to Reality’ by Roger Penrose – which, even for someone with a more than average schooling in mathematics is a REAL challenge, believe me.
    So wish me luck, and stay safe!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re not alone with reading less – it seems to be a common theme with most readers I speak to. I think I am quite unusual in that respect but I suspect I am using reading as a support mechanism. Those sound like interesting books – I’d be interested in your views on The Five as it’s on my list to read – will look out for your review if you do one! Good luck and stay safe!

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