Lockdown happens so fast. One moment we’re rushing about stockpiling toilet roll and tinned foods, the next we are vanished, scurrying indoors like terrified mice, party to a silent consensus to disappear.
I think of Italo Calvino’s Baucis in Invisible Cities—a city raised high above the Earth on stilts and home to the planet’s evacuated humans. Its inhabitants, grown entranced by their own absence, spend all day peering through spyglasses to examine every untouched leaf and stone. I think of Marx, observing how on the snap of a revolutionary turn everything changes in an instant and "All that is solid melts into air." Which begs the question of how solid everything is to begin with. Covid-19 raises an additional question; namely, if we ourselves can simply evaporate at will, disappearing from civic space and social contract as if by some wave of the wand, then, ultimately, how solid are we?
In these early days it is difficult not to feel floaty and insubstantial, mistaking the dream-like quality of the world outside for the unreality of one’s corporeal self. To guard against melting away into air, I cast about for anchors. Family meals, now reinvested with proper ritual significance, help. Daily routines help. Sleep helps.
I set up a pop-up blog (“Pop-up”, because I never intend it to go on) as a space where I can think aloud about the pandemic and the oddities. I write an initial post the day Britain goes into lockdown, then issue an open invitation to other writers to respond in whatever form beckons: poems, reflections, observations, provocations, fancies, elegies, dream diaries. It quickly takes off. It turns out what I longed for was a shared space to make up for the one we’d lost.
Contributions begin arriving immediately. Poems and prose from Portugal, Australia, Italy, India, Ireland, Germany and France, offering comparative snapshots of lockdown life elsewhere. Essays from award-winning writers and newly graduated writers; white writers, black writers and brown writers. More than 40 in all. Suddenly it is an inclusive, collaborative, one-pointed but many-pronged project. And curating it feels like a lockdown privilege, rare as having a private garden.
It is often said that writers are good at having time on their hands, that self-isolation is necessary to their work. But the enforced passivity of lockdown is different, infantilising. Furloughed from our working lives, banned from caring for family and friends beyond our immediate households, debarred from public service, we sink into a kind of collective funk. It is difficult to know where meaning resides, let alone find motivation to work. As the poet Cherry Smyth puts it: “I am my own ghost.”
At first, writers file pieces about their dread of the long vacant days, and about climbing the walls with anxiety. They wonder at the strangeness of shopping in supermarkets and policing our own boundaries. They write of the fear and hostility they encounter on the streets; the ins and outs of Zoom religious feasts and funerals; their refuge in expeditionary walks and gardening. Later, they reflect with bitter regret on our neglectfulness and corner-cutting: the systemic inequalities we’ve nurtured; the steady degradation of our environment; our enslavement by capitalism and its too-high costs.
If we felt powerless to do anything about these ills before, we’re properly handicapped now, our lives held on pause while disaster unfolds in the guise of staggering body counts and rampant contagion. Trapped inside our houses, the temperature is turned up too high—a feeling nicely captured by Amlanjyoti Goswami, whose poem Diary gets inside the fevered head of a man reduced to pacing his house day by day, measuring the small distances he’s tracked, wondering which foot should go first, and fussing over disturbances in the air as he traces a line from dining table to bedroom door.
There are darker moments too, when it feels as if the only question worth asking is where we are in the sequence of seemingly pre-scripted events that leads to our final denouement.
As lockdown becomes more prolonged, the writings I receive grow more introspective. Greg Klerkx likens the inward turn to the experience of playing at submarines as a child. Now, he writes, “I am once again a submariner: hatches spun shut, periscope up, the world outside contaminated and dangerous. The enemy is implacable, invisible, all-surrounding, so we dive deep, into ourselves and each other, relying on our wits and the materials to hand in order to survive.” Sally Davies, forced to call off her planned civil ceremony celebration in March, takes us back to the height of the Aids epidemic as a reminder both “that intimacy has been under pathogenic assault before,” and that the morality of maintaining it is something we have to fight for: while social distancing may be necessary, we cannot let it posture as virtue.
What is the cumulative value of these impressions, assembled haphazardly, as blogs tend to be? Beyond the patterns I’ve identified, how do these writings cohere? Might they have any use as future archaeology, like a time capsule? Or even an unground worth, as raw testimony that might give the lie to whatever official line we’re asked to swallow?
Writing in New York Times Magazine, the novelist and critic Teju Cole recently argued that if journalism was history’s first draft, then perhaps journaling might qualify as literature’s first draft. But why not make the case for the provisional—for the way blogs, journals and diaries record things in real time? Like thermometers or barometers, they attempt to gauge the measure of things.
In time to come, the story of this extraordinary time will be told backwards. There will be an official version of events. Mistakes will be erased, behind-the-scenes-decisions exposed. We may always remember how community groups sewed face masks for the local hospice out of spare bed sheets and that food banks ran out of food, but we will forget things too: the smell of the air once the pollution dissipated, or that fizzing feeling of being the sole human on a mile-long stretch of beach. So there is an intrinsic value to scratchboard impressions like this one, generated in the lived moment, and that rise to the challenge to take the new world on its own terms: to believe it is real and absorb its slap. When readers meet this book it might well offer them the satisfying tingle of emotional recognition.