New Journal of the Plague Year
As lockdown was imposed, Welsh writer Nigel Jarrett began, at his home in Abergavenny, what he’s calling his ‘Covidiary’. Here’s the journey to the start of this month…
‘On this they called a new council, and now the towns had no need to be afraid they should settle near them; but, on the contrary, several families of the poorer sort of the inhabitants quitted their houses and built huts in the forest after the same manner as they had done. But it was observed that several of these poor people that had so removed had the sickness even in their huts and booths; the reason of which was plain, namely, not because they removed into the air, but, (1) because they did not remove time enough; that is to say, not till, by openly conversing with the other people their neighbours, they had the distemper upon them, or (as may be said) among them, and so carried it about them whither they went. Or (2) because they were not careful enough, after they were safely removed out of the towns, not to come in again and mingle with the diseased people.’
DANIEL DEFOE, A Journal of The Plague Year (1722)
March 18: We are bruised, dazed and off-kilter, battered daily by The Invisible Man.
It’s now about 13 weeks since Coronavirus was a ‘downpage’ story, a remote event in a remote Chinese place.
The remote never concerns us because of its very remoteness. It’s always been the same in newspapers, and even a TV report only ever makes us wince. Perhaps we should wince more at the media’s juxtapositions: the film of homeless refugees, or our own homeless, followed immediately without time for reflection by Love Island or an advert for Ferrero-Rocher. Without reflection, we forget. John Berger was the first to draw attention to it: he saw that the early Sunday Times magazine catered for liberal concerns as well as refined (and expensive) tastes, often in the turn of a page. In our millions we watch Martin Bell asking us to denote £6 to feed a starving African child but most of us never reach for our wallets. Well, Lewis is up next.
Early Spring has become a proclamation without an audience. But there’s a paradox: more than usually you notice the details of its awakening. Blackthorn comes first, a bit like a corrupting rash; then snowdrops, followed by primroses, stuttering fields of rape, and magnolias. But we have other concerns.
March 19: Boris Johnson* is never more ineffective and uninspiring than when he’s dealing with a topic that defies flippancy, though he’s reported to have made a joke about the lack of ventilators for victims wheeled into intensive care: he called for a ‘last gasp’ effort to provide them. It was probably unintentional, a case of his levity refusing to be suppressed by seriousness. It could, of course, be a social media lie. It’s so easy these days to Tweet, for example, that Jacob Rees-Mogg is encouraging everyone to dip into the interest from their Blue Chip investments in order to see them through the crisis, any crisis. Many will believe it’s true. Social media has become the vehicle for easy mendacity. In the end we shall trust no-one.
But we are all victims. When Covid-19 first appeared in graphic terms as a red blob on the map of China, it was assumed that this was when it first appeared. Common-sense and Chinese dilatoriness tell us that it must have been moving around before it was identified, maybe to far-flung places outside China. Coronavirus as a collective body of nasties was already known. Deaths must have been occurring, particularly among the elderly with chronic ailments, in which the symptoms were not sufficiently different from pneumonia-like ones. When the latest version first appeared in Italy, I went down with symptoms that at one point in recent weeks I would have ascribed to possible Covid-19. My belief was bolstered this week by someone who did not have the full list of ‘official’ symptoms yet still tested positive. The government, hampered by lack of testing, estimates that the ‘official’ number of cases in hundreds could well be in thousands. Deaths, too, one assumes, for at least before the point at which deaths were officially ascribed to Covid-19.
Last week, at Keswick’s Words By The Water Festival, the Guardian’s John Crace explained Johnson’s prime ministerial buffoonery in terms of a distinction between his wishing to assume office and the fulfilment of having done so -viz., the former gave him the greater buzz. Interesting. Cumbrians, by the way, seemed little interested in social distancing. On the fells, they are used to it. But it’s early days.
March 20: Reading Andrew Turnbull’s 1962 biography of Scott Fitzgerald. It seems authoritative and it acknowledges sources. Today someone posted on Facebook a letter written by SF from the South of France in 1920 during the Spanish ‘flu pandemic. As is often the way with social media, someone takes issue with the details, pointing out that the letter was written after the pandemic was over. No doubt someone else will say that it returned several times in virus-ey gusts and that it was in one of those that the letter was written. I’m also sure that somewhere Turnbull’s book is denigrated.
One simply doesn’t know what to do – about evaluating written testimonies as much as avoiding lethal viruses. On social media, as we know, things ‘go viral’. No need to pick up online ubiquity after today: we are virtually in ‘lockdown’, with all pubs, restaurants, theatres and similar places closed until further notice, and most of us being paid wages and running costs by the government. It’s all on the telly and everyone’s watching.
Weird, coincidental serendipity at my local library. I can take out an ominous 14 books (closure on the way?) and I discover in the ‘for sale’ section for £1 volume three of the Bodley Head Scott Fitzgerald edition, one I’ve been looking for. Either with good grace or for ease of transaction, the librarian lets me have the SF book for nothing when I tell her I have no money on me. I feel for her predicament as sundry borrowers descend on her at less than two metres, the recommended ‘social distance’. Cash has become infected.
March 21: Much talk, possibly contextual, of how I and my contemporaries are the ‘golden’ generation. We’ve fought in no wars (at least not as volunteers or conscripts), availed ourselves of a free education, and paid nothing for medical treatment. We’ve also seen parts of the world that our grandparents, and our parents in most cases, knew only as places on a map, names in the newspapers, or locations where killing an enemy trumped sightseeing. And if we are rising eighty and this thing continues, we may be closer to the end than we think. It’s a sobering thought while we are cooped up and planning to venture out only for exercise or to shop. ‘Venture out’ embodies an element of trepidation. It’s sunny, so we go for a walk.
Maybe it’s the moment we’re living in, but I ‘m more grumpy and disapproving than ever. In Castle Meadows, a greyhound craps inelegantly as its owner walks away unconcerned and more interested in continuing his phone conversation. I felt like shouting at him in the same way that I was tempted to ‘accidentally’ overturn a shopping trolley at Aldi’s overflowing with toilet rolls. I don’t need others to tell me that I’m becoming like my father was in his old age, perhaps making up for years of not complaining when I should have. But then, what appeared to be a panic-buyer may simply have been a public-spirited individual, shopping for a group of elderly neighbours who couldn’t get out.
Monmouthshire has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in Wales. I wonder why. News from Italy terrible. It has now recorded more deaths than any other country, surpassing even China, which says it has the epidemic under control. If it’s on the news, we believe it; we have to.
March 22: The real world, as we often refer to it without knowing precisely what we mean, has been transferred to the telly. It’s where people congregate, attend football matches, plan holidays, frolic at Centre Parcs, and lunge like a phalanx into John Lewis’s when the sales start. There is no social distancing on repeats of Friends. That was in former times. We have become the under-privileged and deprived. This is what it feels like, except that what we are watching is what has happened, not what is happening. To use the popular parlance, we don’t yet have an exit strategy, nor do we know what terrain we shall be exiting on to – blasted heaths, maybe.
The government imposes more and more draconian measures, seemingly always to be in the trail of the pandemic, not anticipating it. It needs to anticipate the tendency of fools to ignore social distancing. There are a lot of them. They must think that distancing ourselves from normality is some kind of holiday in which they can do vacational things, such as going to the seaside in large numbers, thereby eroding the distance. It’s a misanthrope’s heaven. But we must not allow government to tarnish the many with the actions of the reckless few, for that’s the route to tyranny.
March 23: The sun stays out and temperatures rise. The sky is free of vapour trails. No aircraft save for a light trainer, lonely as an albatross. It’s what it must have been like when the lone survivor of a dogfight over France in the Great War spluttered back to base.
March 24: To town for medicines and food. It’s now that we know who the important people are in society among those we take for granted: shop assistants now assisting at a distance, dispensers of essentials, unseen NHS workers daily going into battle. All of them placing themselves in situations where the likelihood of contracting the virus is increased.
The government’s skewed response to what’s happening based on scenarios in other parts of the world is illustrated by our own experience. In Keswick we attended six events at a packed theatre. There was little ‘social distancing’ in town. The incubation period for Covid-19 is five to fourteen days. As they say now, ‘Do the maths’.
March 25: As Britain closes down in the hope of making the under-funded NHS look as though it can cope with a crisis, I reach the point in Turnbull’s Scott Fitzgerald biography at which the subject is cracking up, or undergoing his own shutdown. It was a faltering process, halted at intervals by a capacity for revival and a belief that his talent was indestructible.
Lockdown comes with its own vocabulary, which includes ‘lockdown’. What circumstances was it applied to before? We are self-isolating, socially distancing, ramping up, flattening (the curve of rising numbers of infections and deaths), exponential (in our numerical growth as victims) and, if we are employers, ‘furloughing’ our workforce. There’ll be more.
At the start of the book, Fitzgerald’s father as a nine-year-old is reported as having watched in the distance the long line of General Jubal Early’s Confederate battalions marching towards a last offensive against Washington. From such inconsequential anecdotes do poems begin.
March 26: At 7.38pm precisely and in a clear sky between Mars and Venus, the International Space Station heads north-west. It’s like the smallest of glittering diamonds pushed across velvet by an unseen hand. What do the crew of nine – Russian, American, Arab – in the supreme example of isolation, think as they look across at us, locked down on our celestial orb?
March 27: We meet a friend on our daily walk in Castle Meadows, keeping the prescribed distance. It feels like something out of a Science Fiction story, filmed by Truffaut. The gap, another we have to mind, is the bank of our former conviviality. When shall we be able to redeem our deposits?
March 28: Camus’s La Peste (The Plague) is not the only book that’s worth re-reading at present. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring from 1962 was a warning to the world about the devastating use of pesticides on wildlife. Carson in other books prophesised loss as a result of neglect, and would have been a climate change activist today. The evocative title Silent Spring describes a world without birdsong, of which I’m reminded by the sound of a single Green Woodpecker hammering away across a deserted car park. It’s always one, of course, the harbinger appearance that masks the reality of all the other woodpeckering.
Carson was a marine biologist writing at a time when science-denial would have horrified most rational beings. Neo-con suspicion of expertise, hitherto ridiculing the idea of global warming and other disasters of human povenance, is now being swamped by the realisation that our fate is in the hands of experts; so much so, that what one hopes are remnants of the irrational figure only briefly in newscasts: rednecks queuing in the US to buy rifles and ammo in lieu of civil unrest; protests by the religious that pestilence is the will of whatever god they believe in; and Trump’s idea that because Covid-19 began in China it could be ascribed to the nation that dares declare trade war and, because the US would always win such a war, any threat from such a country could be minimised.
March 29: We are waking from the illusion of independence. Painted rainbows appear randomly in windows, chalked ones on walls and pavements. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are setting aside ancient enmities. We are smiling at each other more. This morning, back from my daily exercise, I perform a strange ritual-type dance with the person walking towards me on the pavement as we decide who should step into the road to make way. Despite imposed civil quietude, civility survives.
British Summer Time begins, with the natural world’s equivalent of a yawn.
March 30: At 5pm the town is almost deserted. I cough an ordinary, non-Covid cough, and it echoes along the high street. We have been locked down with our routines. What day is it?
March 31: Deaths in Italy, Spain, and France being reported daily in the hundreds. We are catching up.
Life-drawing class should be held this evening but it’s been cancelled for the last fortnight. Amusing to think how our socially-distanced circle of amateur hopefuls ponder each week the vulnerability of the human form, catatonic for two, or five, or ten minutes at its centre. This is what I am, the model seems to say: naked, without sartorial predicates. Yet we struggle even to describe external appearance. Is this the difference between good and bad art, the success or failure of deep mining and revelation? The truth is there before us in all its blank solemnity. Can we divine it? Without those statuesque forms in front of us, there would be no pandemic: coronavirus needs a host, a hellish host. We’re in it together, artist and model.
* Since this diary was started, the Prime Minister has entered hospital with Covid-19. I would not wish this disease on anyone, and I trust he will make a full recovery.
Nigel Jarrett is a freelance journalist and music critic. He’s written poetry, essays and short stories for such journals as the Observer magazine, London Magazine, Planet, Agenda, Poetry Wales, Poetry Ireland, and many others. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction, and the inaugural Templar Shorts Award. A collection of his stories, Funderland, was published by Parthian to widespread acclaim. Parthian also brought out his first poetry collection,Miners At The Quarry Pool. His story pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy, appeared last year from Templar.