Saturday, 4 April 2020


Strange times. Nearly four weeks of isolation and inactivity - apart from a daily walk - but lots of time for other things: for playing card games and doing jigsaws; for sitting in the garden and watching old episodes of Star Wars in the middle of the afternoon; for listening to music and to podcasts. (And if you only listen to one, Elizabeth Day's 'How to Fail' episode with Alain de Botton is the best dose of clarity and consolation I've heard all week.)

Childhood favourites
The first few days of captivity I spent (inexpertly) recording Moon's Travelling Circus, the middle grade novel that didn't ever find a publisher, and which I now plan to make available to any child who might enjoy the adventures of a magical circus travelling through African time and space. It made me feel vaguely useful - one of the harder things about being classed as vulnerable is that you feel so useless. Anyway, I enjoyed doing it so much that I've gone back to writing the sequel.

The daily conversations and online interaction with distant family and friends is hugely cheering - as was a SCWBI meet-up with writer friends, and an online wine tasting with my son. (We may have found ourselves short of paracetamol and disinfectant, but we were never going to get caught out with an empty wine rack...) So, what with all the FaceTimes, Skypes and Zooms, it's more a question of fitting everything in than trying to fill the hours.                                                                               

And then, of course, there are the books. There's the pile of most-recently-bought adult novels, the dozens of others books I've always meant to re-read, and - greatest comfort of all -  the children's classics. Who could be unhappy in the company of William, Pippi, the Moomins and the Borrowers? Nesbit, Farjeon, Lofting, Lynch - I could go on and on - and most of them lovely old illustrated copies I've been collecting all my life.

There are some writers you can read at any age, and some you can't. Sorry, Sally Rooney (she's a good writer, the fault is mine, not hers) but I couldn't really connect with the characters in 'Normal People', so I moved on to Benjamin Black's 'The Silver Swan'. I'm a fan of Black (and his alter ego, John Banville - 'Mrs Osmond' is in the waiting pile) and I have a particularly soft spot for his weary pathologist, Quirke. And having suggested to Gloom that he might enjoy Anthony Powell's wonderfully dense and civilised 12-volume 'Dance to the Music of Time' - he is onto the second already - I'm now planning to re-read them all myself.

But first off the shelves was Patrick Leigh Fermor and 'The Violins of St Jacques'. He is my all-time favourite travel writer and this was his only novel, I think, but it's written in his usual glorious prose and deals, strangely enough, with a great natural disaster. Now I'm reading Maggie O'Farrell's  'The Distance Between Us' and from the first page her characters have grabbed me by the throat. Intriguing, complex, and hard to put down.

A Beardsley Venus
Hilary Mantel's final volume in her Cromwell trilogy, 'The Mirror and the Light', has just been beautifully read on Radio 4 by Anton Lesser, and there was a fascinating TV programme on the deeply peculiar and talented Aubrey Beardsley, which reminded me that somewhere I had a copy of 'Under the Hill', published by the Olympia Press back in the 60s. It was, when I finally located it, a genuine curiosity and every bit as bizarre as I'd remembered - but perhaps not the sort of thing you'd want to read aloud to Aunt Edna.

A long time ago, in another country, I lived through times of great upheaval and fear. Then, my greatest worry was that I would die and leave my children without their mother. Now that I'm old, and have no fear of death, I still worry about my children and my grandchildren. But one of the benefits of this enforced isolation (apart from the random acts of kindness by friends and neighbours: the unexpected present, the newspaper or plate of scones left on the doorstep) has been the chance to catch my breath, to go through books and papers, and rediscover things - like a commonplace book that I kept in that earlier, uncertain time. Quite a few entries deal with death, but I find them as apt, and as comforting, now as I did then. This from Kahlil Gibran:

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and melt into the sun....
....And when the earth shall claim my limbs, then shall I truly dance.

Either way, when this is all over, I intend to dance.

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