A new relationship with death?

Highgate © Andrew Gustar on flickr.com

Years ago, when my other half was working there for several months, I spent a week in Malawi, in southern Africa. The visit was thrilling and challenging in equal measure: in my short time in the country, I was bombarded with new experiences, new foods, and assumptions and ways of living that were very different from my own.

There was too much to take in and process properly. One thing that struck and stayed with me, however, was the much closer proximity of death to everyday life. In this country of patchy healthcare provision, where an ambulance may or may not come if it is called and simple treatments are beyond the means of many, a lot of people had a very different relationship with risk.

Things that I was used to thinking of as carrying minimal danger could be life-threatening. Cuts and splinters, minor complications in pregnancy, common maladies – all these could spell disaster, even for fit, young adults. If you were unlucky, everyday pastimes could prove fatal.

When coronavirus arrived in the UK and social-distancing measures were introduced in March, I found myself thinking again about that Malawi trip. For the first time that I could remember, that sense of risk lurking in quotidian activities – going to the supermarket, passing someone in the street, running your hand along a metal railing in a park – was folded into British life. Looking out of my window, the empty streets assumed an eerie, menacing air, riddled with threat.

Of course, my previous perception of the safety of everyday life was part illusory. Death has always lurked in the background here. The wonders of modern medicine and the National Health Service notwithstanding, people continue to have a nasty habit of dying now and again. Although many of the maladies that ravaged previous generations can be vaccinated against or treated easily, heart attacks and strokes still swoop in to claim victims, cancer can still strike down a seemingly healthy person in a matter of weeks, suicide is a perennial issue, and there is always the chance that the number 37 bus might knock you down.

All the same, in recent decades, it has been possible for many people in the UK to live well into adulthood without experiencing the loss of someone close to them.

Coronavirus is starting to change that. I don’t yet know anyone personally who has died from it, but the awareness hangs over me like a Damoclean sword that it may well be only a matter of time. For others, there have already been multiple, devastating losses.

And we are among the lucky ones: although the UK death toll is already alarmingly high (and probably conservative, given the problems there have been registering Covid-19 deaths), most young, fit people in this country can be confident that they will receive the best treatment available to give them every chance of beating the disease should they fall seriously ill.

We do not face the desperate situation in places like Nicaragua, where the president disappeared for a month, having claimed the virus was virtually non-existent in the country. Or Belarus, where people have been forced to crowdfund to fight Covid-19 in the face of government denial. Or, indeed, Malawi, where there are fears 50,000 could die because a lockdown is still not in place.

Nevertheless, those of us who live through this crisis will probably be changed by it. It is hard to imagine the blitheness (in regard to matters of health at least) of the early-21st century returning any time soon. It is hard to imagine the somewhat naive societal approach to death persisting once – if – Covid-19 is brought under control. This may not be a bad thing: there were no doubt unhealthy, immature aspects to the British relationship with mortality. Even so, this knowledge will have come at a high cost.

 

A virtual book launch

A little while ago, I wrote a post wondering how the publishing industry might change as a result of Covid-19. Yesterday, I believe I got a glimpse of part of the answer.

You see, I went to a book launch last night with around 80 other people. I didn’t break the UK lockdown rules, however; this wasn’t one of the hundreds of illegal parties that police have so far broken up during the pandemic. In fact, I didn’t even leave my home.

The book launch – for Maggie Brookes’s The Prisoner’s Wife, which tells the extraordinary, true-life story of a Czech woman who lived disguised as a British soldier in a prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War – took place online.

In the past, my general experience of attending book launches has been this. I get on the train or in my car and travel for at least an hour (usually to London). Once at the venue, I stand around making polite small-talk with strangers about how they know the author or else huddling with fellow writers and tame publishing-industry bods, sipping warm white wine and waiting for the speeches to begin. I then listen, applaud, raise toasts, buy a book, burble congratulations at the author while they sign it and make my way home.

Last night was rather different. Instead of the wait and the warm white wine, the speeches kicked off a couple of minutes after I logged into the Zoom meeting – the ice in my glass hadn’t even begun to melt as Selina Walker, publisher at Century and Arrow, began her account of what had made her fall in love with the book.

With everyone else’s microphones muted remotely by the event host, she was able to talk undisturbed for several minutes before passing the baton, not to Maggie Brookes as would usually be the case at a physical book launch, but to Kate Seaver, executive editor at US publisher Berkley, who was also in attendance (along with representatives from publishers in several other countries).

There then followed a talk and a reading from the author, and a short Q&A led by Selina Walker, exploring some of the themes and painstaking research that went into the book. It was all done within 45 minutes, allowing me to nip downstairs and kiss my daughter goodnight before she went to sleep. Throughout that time, we attendees were taken off mute only twice: once to applaud Maggie Brookes’ reading and at the end to raise a final toast.

It was a strange but rather lovely experience. While I felt for Maggie losing out on the launches she had planned at Harbour Books in Whitstable and Daunt Books in London, there was something quite magical about seeing her reading the prologue of her newly published novel in the home where she had worked so hard on it. It was also rather charming and intriguing to catch glimpses of the domestic life of other participants – from Selina Walker’s beautiful sash windows to the cat that stalked back and forth across the screen of one of the other attendees.

The minimal audience participation meant that there was little opportunity for interaction (Selina Walker did ask those of us who had contributed blurbs for the book to make ourselves known when she read out our names, but I would have felt a bit of an idiot raising my hand and am not sure if anyone else did so). It was also, of course, not possible to buy a signed copy of the novel – although we were strongly encouraged to purchase it online. However, the virtual nature of the event meant people anywhere in the world could attend, including a number who would never have been able to make the trip.

All in all, it was a great success and struck me as very much the shape of things to come. While I have no doubt that physical book launches will resume once social-distancing restrictions are eased, I expect that many may incorporate a digital or virtual element, particularly as some festivals and literary events were already tending that way before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Who knows, I may even invite you to a virtual party for my next novel!

 

What does essential really mean?

King Lear and the Fool © Anthony Topper on flickr.com

There’s a Shakespeare quote that’s been on my mind a lot lately. It comes from Act II, scene 4 of the tragedy King Lear, at the point where the title hero, having been asked by his calculating, cruel daughter Regan why he still needs knights and servants, explodes:

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.[…]

The question of what counts as essential to daily life is a common topic for discussion these days. With one of the four reasons that people are allowed to leave their houses under the UK Covid-19 lockdown being to shop for necessities, question marks have arisen over what should be considered reasonable purchases.

At times, the issue has prompted extreme reactions. Several regional police forces have come under fire for claiming that they might set up road-blocks to search people’s shopping or monitor aisles of non-essential items in the supermarkets. (These threats have since been retracted.)

However, it’s not just the police who seem to have homed in on this question of what counts as essential. I find myself doing it too, watching disapprovingly as other shoppers unload packs of cakes and sweet treats at the checkout or tutting at the sign in the frozen foods aisle that states that ice-cream and other desserts are limited to three purchases per shopper as a result of the run on these items since the start of social distancing.

There are several things going on in my head when I do this. The first has to do with the odd siege mentality that has taken root in recent weeks – one that does not so much concern food and water as rights. If other people flout the government guidelines around going out and only buying what you need, the thought process goes, my freedoms might be even further curtailed. It’s as though there’s a sulky schoolchild in my head, stamping its foot and screaming, ‘They’re spoiling it for everybody else!’

There’s also snobbery and prejudice at work. I tend to get most judgmental when I see people buying types and quantities of food that I would never consume. All the in-built societal biases around body image highlighted by fat activists such as Danish stand-up comedian Sofie Hagen come to the fore, awakening some extremely unkind impulses.

And there is a large helping of hypocrisy in the mix too: I make these judgments while my own trolley is full of Easter eggs and smoked hummus and lamb’s lettuce and all kinds of other indulgent superfluities.

The truth is, of course, that most of what is available to the average shopper in this affluent country goes far beyond basic need. Those of us lucky enough to be able to afford them have an extraordinary choice of products and food stuffs from around the world, many of which are available in a range of forms and brands.

If it were intent on restricting us to buying what we needed in order to keep us alive, the government could have tried to force through a stripped-back, spartan offering of foods that would provide the required nutrition. It could have reintroduced rationing. More, it could have scrambled to mass-produce packets of astronaut food that could be delivered to each household, eliminating the need for food-shopping trips altogether.

No. Most of what we buy in the supermarkets in the UK is not strictly necessary to our survival. But is it essential? Well, I suppose that depends on how you think about that word.

If you understand it to mean ‘vital’ or ‘crucial’, then, no: most of these things are not essential. But if you look at it in terms of one of the other definitions provided by my battered Oxford English Reference Dictionary – ‘constituting the essence of a person or thing’ – the cards start to fall differently.

The truth is that, wherever we are in the world and however much or little is available to us, we human beings are given to excess, to creativity, to complication. As Lear explains, it is part of what we are to want ‘more than nature needs’.

This is one of our shames and our tragedies – the driving force behind many of the environmental and humanitarian issues facing the world today. But it is also one of our glories. It is the source of art, literature, music and fun. This striving for more than we need is what gives richness and beauty to human life. And allowing it in others is a manifestation of generosity, friendship and love.

Are pots of smoked hummus essential? Are deep-filled jam donuts essential? Are pre-boiled quail eggs encrusted with sea salt and topped with a sprinkling of saffron essential?

I imagine King Lear would argue that they are.

Easter music

I grew up in a church choir and throughout my twenties and early thirties I sang in various professional ensembles in London. Apart from the Christmas period, this time of the year was always the busiest, with churches packed for the Holy Week and Easter services and some of the most sumptuous music of the religious calendar on offer.

This year, for the first time in more than eight centuries, UK churches are shut at Easter. Instead, the Archbishop of Canterbury will be leading the first national digital service from his kitchen.

When social distancing came into force, many musicians I know, working in both religious and secular venues, lost all their work overnight. A number of them were among the first to answer the recruitment call when supermarkets set out to hire thousands of extra staff shortly before the lockdown came into force.

Yet, while the choir stalls and concert stages are empty, musicians’ ingenuity is by no means spent. It has been a joy to hear of and from many people engaged in wonderful music-making during this time of self-isolation. And so, in solidarity with all those who will miss performing and hearing live music this Easter, I’m sharing five of my favourite musical lockdown moments.

 

1. Virtual Bach

Shortly after the lockdown came into force, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, was supposed to be leaving for a tour of the Netherlands. Instead, however, the university had been shut and everyone sent home. To mark this, the choir recorded and released a virtual performance of one of the movements of JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which they would have been performing on Palm Sunday. It is a testament to the musicianship of these young people and their wonderful director, Graham Ross, (as well as the wizardry of modern technology) that they managed to deliver such a moving and beautiful performance from home.

 

2. #UriPosteJukeBox: 3+ Little Birds

Celebrated musical duo pianist Tom Poster and violinist Elena Urioste (who happen to be married) have been making the most of their time self-isolating together to create daily arrangements of tunes requested by their followers. This marvellous rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ features seven other famous musical birds hidden in the music – how many can you spot?

 

3. Virtual recordings during Quarantine: Befreit, Op 39. No. 4 – R. Strauss

Part of a series of recordings made by musicians working together remotely, this video features award-winning pianist and conductor William Vann and coloratura soprano Julia Sitkovetsky performing Strauss’s exquisite art song. Quite a feat when you’re in the same room, let alone in different streets!

 

4. The Choir of St Mary’s Hendon, Orlando Gibbons ‘Drop, Drop Slow Tears’

A bit of a personal one here. This is the choir I grew up in (directed then, as now, by music critic Richard Morrison) singing at the last practice they held before lockdown, when social distancing guidelines were already in place, obliging them to stand 2m apart.

 

5. MNEK ‘Quarantine’, Coronavirus EP

Perhaps the purest form of lockdown music, this series has been created by British recording artist and producer MNEK, working alone to loop his voice. Funny, beautiful and ingenious, these songs capture a lot about what it’s like to live now.

The gender politics of social distancing

Social Distancing © Russ Alison Loar on flickr.com

One of the last events to take place in Folkestone before social-distancing restrictions were introduced to prevent the spread of Covid-19 was the Take Up Space Festival. The latest in a series of extravagnazas held in the town every March to mark International Women’s Day, it encouraged those who attended to think about what it means for women to take up space in the world.

At the time, few could have known how prescient the theme would turn out to be. Only a handful of days later, all of us – women and men alike – would be required to pay careful attention to the space we occupy in order to keep our (2m) distance from one another.

When I listened to prime minister Boris Johnson announcing the start of the UK lockdown on 23 March, many thoughts went through my mind. One of them was to do with safety. I wondered how it might feel for me to go out exercising in much quieter streets. As has already been highlighted by those campaigning to allow abuse victims to leave their houses and seek help during the lockdown, the restrictions had potentially devastating implications for some of society’s most vulnerable women. Might they also affect the safety of women generally?

In practice, this hasn’t been an issue for me. At the times I run – usually first thing or in the middle of the day – there are always a fair number of other runners and walkers out. I have not felt threatened; if anything, the requirement for people to keep their distance has made me less likely to question the motivations of those I encounter.

What has been interesting, however, has been observing the new etiquette that seems to be springing up around keeping 2m apart, particularly concerning who gives way to whom. I have only my non-scientific, personal observations to consider, but the impression I have is as follows: if the person approaching me is a woman, she is marginally (although by no means universally) more likely to make efforts to give me space than the men I pass.

I’m not sure of the reasons for this. It could be that women – socialised as we are to be good girls – are in general more compliant with restrictions or perhaps more given to worrying about catching coronavirus. It may be that patriarchal mores have embedded an expectation in the heads of some of the men I encounter that I ought to make space for them. Or it could be that, having been conditioned to defer to men, I subconsciously exhibit a readiness to give way in these situations.

From what I have observed, this gender divide around social distancing is relatively slight. I have seen plenty of examples of women striding aggressively close to other people and numerous instances of men stepping aside to accommodate me.

Indeed, the most striking behavioural distinction I have encountered so far has been dictated not by gender but by whether those I meet on the sea front are walking alone or in a couple. Almost without exception, those in company do not step aside on the narrow walkway to allow someone to pass 2m from them – so much so that, wherever possible, I have taken to running out onto the shingle whenever I see a pair of people approaching, even though there would be space for us to pass safely on the walkway if they were to walk in single file.

I don’t think this selfishness is deliberate in most cases. Rather, it displays a human trait: when our attention is focused on a companion, we have less capacity to consider those around us or to remember regulations, regardless of our gender.

How coronavirus is infecting our language

A few days ago, a friend sent me a message:

There’s a whole vocabulary that has come to the fore because of the events, words which you never think will apply to you: infection. Ventilator. ICU. Mild to moderate. Asymptomatic. Heavy droplets. And also some weird calls to action: stay at home, wash your hands, save lives, practise social distancing, self isolate, flatten the curve, clap for our carers. All fair enough but also quite shocking in a way, the kind of things you might expect to see on a Soviet propaganda poster but not here and now.

As a writer, I’m fascinated by the way that language changes constantly, and the way these changes reflect societies’ preoccupations and prevailing beliefs.

Broadly, these alterations tend to take two forms. There are the vocabulary-focused shifts, such as the ones my friend highlights above. Although these can occur by a sort of unspoken common consensus (as with the shift of the word ‘mortify’ from meaning ’embarrassed’ to ‘horrified’ in everyday discourse) they often arise in response to specific events or developments.

In recent decades, the internet has provided the most obvious example. Since the information superhighway (remember that?) opened for business in the 1990s, a whole raft of new terms have moved into, and sometimes out of, the lexicon: broadband, bandwidth, website and dongle among them. Some words from previous eras have also been dusted off and repurposed. (I imagine a timetraveller from the 1930s might be rather perplexed by our interpretation of the word ‘wireless’.)

The second category of changes has more to with the nuts and bolts of language: grammar. These are the sorts of shifts that you sometimes see people writing furious rants about, bewailing those who misuse Oxford commas, for example, or those who don’t understand the finer points of the subjunctive.

While I can sympathise with how jarring it can feel to see a rule broken, I tend to regard such pedantry as pointless. Language has never been static and where grammatical shifts become widespread, they are usually indicative of a need that the previous structures weren’t answering.

In the first two decades of the 21st century, during which, until a few weeks ago, life seemed to be speeding up, the primary need was for efficiency. With a huge percentage of the world’s communications being typed with thumbs (in 2018, humankind was sending around 65bn WhatsApp messages a day), few of us have had the patience for cumbersome formulations when quicker – albeit less elegant – alternatives are available. So, we have seen the proliferation of split infinitives, sentence fragments and hanging modifiers. While these are still generally regarded as wrong in formal English, I suspect some will creep into accepted usage over time.

Other changes have reflected shifts in attitudes. The rise of the singular pronoun ‘they’, for example, may indicate a better understanding of equality issues and the growing number of circumstances in which people prefer not to have to specify someone’s gender.

So what of Covid-19? How is this global pandemic infecting and reconfiguring our use of words?

Obviously, it’s too early to make definitive statements. However, here are a few things, in addition to the words and phrases my friend highlights above, that I’ve noticed in recent weeks:

  • The widespread deployment of active verbs to describe passive states. Examples include: ‘Stay safe’ and ‘keep well’. This is partly to do with the impulse to propagate the idea that we are all doing something heroic by staying in our houses so as to make us more compliant with government restrictions. But I think it also signifies the sense of impending disaster many of us feel. Faced with the prospect of losing friends and relatives to the disease, as well as the possibility that society may never be the same again, we no longer desire progress so much as stasis, the stopping of time and the maintenance of the status quo.
  • The increasingly paternalistic/schoolmasterly tone of government ministers. ‘I say this to the small minority of people who are breaking the rules or pushing the boundaries: you’re risking your own life and the lives of others and you’re making it harder for us all,’ health secretary Matt Hancock told us yesterday, sounding for all the world as though he were scolding a rabble of naughty children. This is a marked shift from the desperate slogans of the Brexit era, during which politicians with slim majorities bent and scraped, and did whatever they could to be seen to be honouring ‘the will of the people’.
  • The dusting off of wartime vocabulary. As mentioned in a previous post, there has been a rise in the use of phrases that recall the propaganda and speeches of the world wars. Again, the immediate reasons for this are obvious. It remains to be seen whether or not much of it will stick.

A notable exception to these observations, however, was the Queen’s rare address, broadcast last night. She avoided the schoolmasterly tone of many government communications and opted instead to thank her subjects. Rather than sticking to the present, she looked to the future: ‘better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again.’ And although there were war references – both in terms of her recollection of her first address to evacuees in 1940 and in her use of the phrase ‘We will meet again’, which recalls Vera Lynn’s famous Second World War hit (embedded at the top of this post) – these were personal and subtle, as opposed to bombastic. Indeed, she seemed at pains to keep nostalgia at arm’s length: ‘The pride in who we are is not part of our past, it defines our present and our future.’

In terms of its tone and the structures it employed, the speech might have been delivered at any point during the Queen’s reign. That is no doubt one of the reasons it has been warmly received in many quarters: in eschewing the words and fomulations that have embedded themselves into common discourse since the start of the pandemic, Her Majesty allowed those listening to feel a sense of timelessness and continuity. Strangely, for one so far removed from the daily life of average UK citizens, she spoke what felt like our language.

Clap for carers

Last night, for the second Thursday in a row, hundreds of thousands of people in the UK leaned out of their doors and windows at 8pm to applaud the medical staff and other key workers combatting Covid-19.

It was the first time I had heard clapping and cheering for this initiative in our part of town. Although I saw many reports from friends in London and other regions saying how moved they had been to see their neighbourhoods united in expressing their appreciation for the vital work of nurses, doctors and other medical staff, last week east Folkestone stayed quiet.

Yesterday, however, possibly reflecting the fact that Britain’s most popular newspaper, The Sun, has thrown its weight behind the movement, there was audible clapping, cheering and whooping in the streets around my house.

I didn’t join in. This is not because I disagree with the sentiment behind #Clapforcarers. Quite the opposite. Having grown up in a medical household, I have always been keenly aware of the sacrifices doctors make in normal times, let alone in the midst of a pandemic. We are lucky to have them.

I have also, for as long as I can remember, known how fortunate the UK is to have the National Health Service (NHS), a publicly funded healthcare system through which treatment is free at the point of need. In theory at least, everyone in this country has access to life-saving treatment without the fear that it could ruin them financially. That’s hugely valuable.

Indeed, one of the good things I hope may come out of this crisis is a renewed appreciation of the preciousness of the NHS and a fresh commitment to defend it from the creeping privatisation that has been threatening to destroy it for years.

Still, I did not join my neighbours in clapping. This was for a few reasons. Some them have to do with personal feelings about my own family situation. But it’s also because of an unease I’m having trouble shaking about this undoubtedly well-meant initiative.

I’ve always been suspicious of orchestrated, mass expressions of sentiment. This is because they often flatten and simplify complex issues and, if we’re not careful, risk masking some of the more problematic elements of the difficulties we humans face.

In the case of Clap for carers, I think there’s a danger of glorifying the inadequacies of the protection and support our health workers are getting. At the moment, huge numbers of nurses and doctors are obliged to do their work without access to testing and without appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Some have even been forced to use homemade visors and rely on donations of face masks from the construction industry. While we might very much want to applaud these people and the work they do, we surely don’t want to cheer the way society is failing them (a failing that also affects other key workers, as I described witnessing in an earlier post).

I’m clearly not the only one to have felt this: a politically engaged friend informed me that last night was meant to be about applauding but also demanding better for our NHS staff and other key workers. There was even a chant that people were supposed to shout demanding proper equipment. In east Folkestone, however, I heard only clapping, whoops and cheers.

Don’t get me wrong: I can see the good initiatives like this are doing. I can see the way they promote fellow feeling and teach children  – many of whom have made rainbow posters like the one above, which is up in a house a few streets away – about the importance of the caring professions. And I’m sure many medical workers, bin collectors and supermarket staff will have felt galvanised and enthused by this show of support.

Still, I hope that when those who were out clapping went back into their homes, they didn’t allow the euphoria of the moment to make them forget that much of the heroism we are demanding of our key workers is unnecessary: if the proper PPE were in place, there would be no need for many of these people to expose themselves to such appalling levels of risk that we see daily tributes to medical staff who have died as a result of the disease they are working to treat.

Yesterday, during the daily government briefing, Health Secretary Matt Hancock called the Covid-19 pandemic a ‘war in which all of humanity is on the same side’.

At the moment, we are sending our troops into battle dressed in protective equipment better suited to a heavy-duty session of washing up. I find that hard to applaud.

Why we’re not living in a dystopia (yet)

One of the things that’s been most shocking about the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic is the speed with which life has changed. Within a matter of days, millions of us have lost many of our freedoms and found ourselves confined to our homes, under pain of arrest if we flout the government’s instructions.

In some parts of the UK, people seem to be pursuing the enforcement of the restrictions with unsettling zeal, even reporting neighbours they suspect of going out for two runs in one day to the police. The police themselves have also come under criticism for the heavyhanded tactics some regional forces have used to stop people from venturing too far from their homes.

Small wonder, then, that many people have been reaching for comparisons with dystopian fiction and totalitarian societies. Faced with such a harsh adjustment to our rights (which, with hindsight, are looking more and more like privileges, particularly when you consider what people in some of the poorest parts of the world are dealing with under lockdown), it’s easy to feel that we have slipped into some nightmarish distortion of our reality – a modern-day Stasi Germany, perhaps, or a gender-blind version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which we must all meekly follow the rules under the watchful eyes of Aunt Lydia.

I have felt this myself. A few days ago, having kept our toddler at home for quite a stretch, we decided to take a family walk. Fancying a change of scene and judging that we were less likely to encounter people on a hill top than in the streets around our house, we got in the car and drove five minutes to a local footpath.

The weather was patchy and a squall blew in as we were parking, so we sat in the car in the deserted country lane to wait for the rain to pass. As we did so, I noticed a police car moving along the road on the far side of the neighbouring field. A couple of minutes later, it appeared, driving slowly towards us.

The anxiety I felt at its approach was extraordinary. Would the police believe that we were out for our daily walk? Would five minutes’ drive prove to be too much to conform with the requirement to keep exercise local?

‘They don’t know we haven’t got a dog in the back,’ said my husband as the police car glided past.

Suddenly, the absurdity of the situation hit me: here we were, muttering to each other like criminals, trying to look as if we might have a dog (as if that would make any difference), for the sake of being able to go for a walk. The whole thing was laughable.

It was a similar story a few days earlier, when I encountered a man in a wheel-chair and his carer (both of them wearing face masks) while out for a run. As the pavement was narrow, I stepped onto the road to enable them to pass the requisite 2m from me. As I did so, however, a car appeared, wanting to park in precisely the spot I was occupying.

We hesitated, the driver, the man and his carer, and I, all of us paralysed by competing imperatives: the need to keep our distance and the need to get where we wanted to go. Then, as one, we began to laugh. What ridiculous creatures we were caught in this bind! How ludicrous this must look from the outside.

It’s for this reason, for the time being at least, that I can’t wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that we are living in a dystopia. There is still space for perspective and fellow feeling. We can still laugh with strangers over how silly it all is. We can still make memes sending the whole thing up.

If we are living in a version of The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s one where Aunt Lydia farts and falls over now and again.

Terror in the supermarket

On Friday, for the first time since Covid-19 lockdown measures were announced in the UK, my daughter and I went shopping for food.

Although we arrived at the supermarket relatively early, the socially distanced queue already stretched down the side of the building and around the back of the neighbouring (closed) McDonald’s. As food shopping with a toddler can be a challenge at the best of times, I didn’t hold out great hopes of our getting through the experience in good spirits.

I was wrong, however, at least at first. The sun was shining and there was a jovial mood. The man standing a dutiful 2m in front of us cheerfully informed anyone who would listen that this outing was a treat for him – his first excursion in 14 days after his son visited him on his way back from Italy.

The queue moved surprisingly quickly and within 20 minutes, we were at the entrance. There, a good-humoured twenty-something directed shoppers into the store at regular intervals, according to instructions relayed to him by walkie-talkie. Now and then, when a frail customer only hoping to go in for a handful of items approached him, he let them jump the queue. Nobody seemed to mind.

A couple of the security guards wore scarves wrapped around their faces, but other than this and the sight of a few shoppers wearing gloves, there was little sign of anyone being concerned that this experience might put them at risk of infection. If anything, the flimsy cordons and 2m-marks hazard-taped onto the flagstones had a charming, homespun quality.

This was temporary, the implication seemed to be. We’d all get through this and soon everything would be back to normal so there was no point making the infrastructure of socially distanced shopping sturdy or aesthetically pleasing: we wouldn’t be needing it long.

Inside, Sainsbury’s looked much as I remembered. The only immediately obvious difference was that some of the aisles appeared to have been thinned out and widened, in order to make it easier for people to navigate them while keeping their distance from one another.

There were smaller changes I noticed as we went round: the sign up at the pharmacy counter saying that there were no stocks of paracetamol, face masks, Calpol or hand gel; a few gaps on the shelves, particularly in the toilet roll section. There was also a Tannoy announcement, delivered in a pleasant, female voice, that blared across the store every few minutes: ‘Sainsbury’s is doing everything possible to keep our staff and customers safe…’ it began before going on to trumpet many of the things the company was doing to ‘feed the nation’.

On the whole, everything went smoothly. People were, for the most part, considerate about giving one another space, and there was plenty of food on the shelves. I was able to get all but two of the items on my long and relatively adventurous list.

Just as I had when I went out for my first run under lockdown, I found myself thinking that, much as they went against my non-conformist sensibilities, the restrictions felt freeing. They were effectively enabling me to take sensible precautions to keep myself and those around me safe.

At the checkout, we encountered further changes. Instead of venturing straight to the conveyor belt and loading our items on while the customer ahead paid, we had to wait behind another hazard-taped line until the shopper in front had gone.

Inevitably, this made the process take much longer than normal. As it is rarely quick with a small person, I apologised to the cashier for keeping her waiting as I tried to engineer a speeded-up version of the game we normally play for getting things onto the conveyor.

But she said nothing and stared straight ahead, almost as if she hadn’t heard me, so I redoubled my efforts and hurried to the card-payment device.

‘Thank you for your patience,’ I said. ‘I hope you’re coping all right with all this.’

At that, something in the woman’s face cracked. ‘I’m terrified,’ she told me in a half-whisper. ‘I think most of the people in here are. But there’s nothing we can about it. We just have to not think about it.’

At that moment, I noticed another member of staff walking along the end of the checkouts holding a piece of paper over her nose and mouth. ‘Sainsbury’s is doing everything possible to keep our staff and customers safe…’ began the Tannoy once more.

But it wasn’t true. Although the aisles had been widened to enable customers to keep their distance, as far as I could see, no modifications had been made to the checkouts to protect the people sitting there for hours at a time.

With face masks in such short supply that even many frontline medical staff don’t have them, it was perhaps understandable that these had not been provided. But neither was there any antibacterial spray for wiping things down, handwash, gloves or a screen that might shield the worker from the breath of a customer who got too close.*

Instead, the cashiers, enclosed in their booths, had no option but to sit still and rely on the sensitivity and good sense of those streaming through the checkouts. It wasn’t surprising that the woman was so frightened she could hardly speak.

I wrote in an earlier post about the problems with the war comparisons that many people are reaching for to describe the national response to Covid-19. Here, however, a parallel hit me: a century on from the First World War, thousands of low-paid people were once more being put into a dangerous situation without adequate guidance or equipment in the national interest.

As I feared, I did not leave the supermarket in good spirits. I felt saddened and ashamed.

*Since writing this post, I have been told that checkout staff have gloves, spray and cloths available as standard. However, the main issue for the woman sitting at the checkout seemed to be the lack of protective screen and distancing measures.

What’s going to happen to publishing?

This week, I finished the first draft of what I hope will be my next novel. Normally when this happens, I treat myself to coffee and cake at Steep Street Coffee House, a delightful, book-lined café on the Old High Street.

With the country under lockdown as a result of Covid-19, however, this time I had to content myself with a cup of tea and a piece of homemade millionaire’s shortbread at the kitchen table.

This wasn’t the only thing that was different about the experience. Finishing a book draft is odd. On one hand, it feels like a big achievement – the culmination of months of effort. But it brings plenty of doubts with it too: you wonder if the novel will turn out to be any good when you return to edit it; you needle yourself with the possibility that no-one will want to publish it or, if they do, that readers will hate or, even worse, ignore it.

Never before, however, has it occurred to me to ask myself whether the publishing industry itself will still exist by the time my book is ready to sell. But this week, this thought has been playing on my mind.

When the coronavirus crisis began to hit the UK a few weeks back, it was clear that, along with many lives, the economy would be one of its casualties. There would be job losses and a slowing of growth that would probably lead to a recession; already, the Bank of England has cut interest rates to their lowest ever level.

The book world responded with its characteristic mix of wit and ingenuity. There were chipper tweets from literary agents claiming that, now they had no meetings and were working from home, it was a great time to submit manuscripts. Meanwhile, several generous organisations clubbed together to offer £330,000-worth of emergency grants for authors who would face hardship as a result of losing work and income during the pandemic.

The message seemed to be that we’d get through this. And we’d publish even more wonderful books on the other side.

In the short-term, the evidence seemed to support this idea. As lockdown approached and people faced the prospect of weeks at home, book-buying boomed. British bookshop chain Waterstones, which came under fire for keeping its stores open after initial restrictions were introduced, reported that its online sales were up 400 per cent, with readers focusing particularly on lengthy classics, including such quarantine-appropriate titles as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this initial surge of optimism will not turn out to be the full story. The truth is that the publishing industry was hardly in great shape before this crisis came along. Although audiobooks have experienced a boom in recent years and print sales rose modestly for the five years to 2018, traditional publishers have long been squeezed. With the rise of self-publishing and platforms such as Unbound, as well as competition from TV box sets and other forms of increasingly slick and accessible entertainment, there simply wasn’t the money flowing in that publishers in previous decades had enjoyed.

As a writer, this was obvious everywhere you looked. You saw it in small shifts, such as the fact that most authors now have to bear the cost of book launches if they choose to have them, through to long-term business decisions that mean it is now extremely rare for most mainstream publishers to invest in writers’ careers and retain authors with anything other than stellar sales for more than a couple of books. This situation hardly seems likely to improve in the economic slowdown ahead.

What’s more, I’m not sure that the Covid-19 pandemic will do much to increase the appetite for new, adventurous work. When you look at the titles that boomed in the pre-lockdown splurge, the pattern is clear: people were seeking comfort reads, tried-and-tested classics, and those contemporary big-hitters that had been stamped with the seal of approval by an award panel. They were already contending with enough uncertainty without taking a risk on a book as well.

Still, as someone who has witnessed the transformative power of storytelling – not least through my life-changing quest to read a book from every country – I have to believe that good work will out. We humans have always shared narratives, and used stories to organise and understand our experiences. And in the years ahead we may need that more than ever.

Trends come and go. Companies rise and fall. It is likely that there are tricky years ahead. But it may also be that, when the dust settles, this crisis forces the reimagining of some of the rather creaky processes by which we bring books out into the world.

I can’t control any of that, however. I’m just a writer. And so I’ll focus on what I can do. I’ll eat my cake and drink my tea, and I’ll do my research, and in a few weeks’ time, I’ll return to my first draft and try to make it the best book it can be.