Of Pestilence and Politics
I’m so glad you’ve written to me. It’s been a long time, and I know that both you and I have been distracted from our correspondence by the needs of the living and our own needs (and sometimes confusions). But friendships endure through long silences, and sitting together in deep leather chairs would allow those silences to bloom, because the best friendships are made of companionable silences.
All the superlatives about these times we are living through are overused. The plain truth is that we have always been living through history, that we all always do, and that this time is different because it is frightening, because it makes us overly aware of our own mortality, and, worse, the mortality of those we love. Writers, of course, always think about death and transience, but even when we’re pondering the human condition in our works, it’s a pondering almost from a safe distance. And now, as we socially distance, as we self-isolate, as we cocoon ourselves in the familiar, death becomes something tangible, and our days become shrouded in regret. The problem is, regret is a dangerous emotion, because it robs us of the appreciation of the small things that we could be enjoying, that we should be enjoying and appreciating. That there are poppies blooming on our compost heap. That the skies have been overwhelmingly blue over the last eight weeks, that M smiles at me whenever I say “beautiful lady” in a mock Italian accent (because one of the receptionist guys at the hotel in Mestre where we stayed in mid-February called her that and gave her a pizza cutter as a leaving gift – and that’s another one of those under-rated memories that regret shouldn’t be allowed to touch). I keep telling the kids not to regret that this summer won’t be a normal summer, and that we have to take the positives from it – we’re safe, we’re healthy, we have a sanctuary that we’ve built for ourselves (this felt like an unhappy house when we moved in, and now it feels like a home). Maybe I’m talking to myself about this regret, too, because I really mustn’t regret that I’m not playing cricket, that I miss it with every fibre of my being – there will be other times, there will be other memories. I have to, we have to, believe that.
You wonder how I am really. The truth is I’m exhausted most of the time. In my day job (I have to draw the distinction – I am a writer, but until people buy millions of my books, I need to earn a living) I talk to a lot of hospices and social care and health care charities every day. Covid-19 has been a huge blow to them, emotionally (many of their service users are dying) and financially (a lot of them generate well over 40% of their income from trading, and all the charity shops are closed). I’m privileged to get from them insights, every day, every hour of the day, on what it’s like on the ground, on what risks these carers are taking on the front line, how they are putting their lives on the line every time they go on duty. I’m basically living in a bubble with a 365-degree view of the world – and a lot of that world is in flames. I am working all hours to try to support these charities, and exhausted because of it (and not writing as much as I’d like to be – even if it’s only for therapy). But I’m NOT on the front line, I’m not risking my very existence by doing the job I do, the job I love. And my tiredness is emotional and physical. But it will pass. For many of those out there, this crisis will not pass. It will be their full stop. That puts my fear of my death into real perspective. So I walk, still, every day, at least 2 miles, to free my head.
You mention people’s political battles. In this country, in truth, to say the government has handled the crisis very very badly and caused the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people is no longer a political statement; it’s a statement of fact. Our death rate per million is higher than that of the US, and that’s saying something. It is beyond me, and beyond reason actually, that a country, any country, should be led by an unelected bureaucrat whose hand puppet is called the Prime Minister. And, in honesty, that’s a statement of fact, too. And it worries me.
I’m glad you are going to grow things. I am sure the trees will take root – dig square holes, not round ones, so the tree roots don’t curl in on themselves, but have the straight edges of the hole to burrow into. I’m sure there’s a moral to that principle of nature – a little resistance ensures a lot of progress. And then buy yourself a comfortable outdoor chair, too, so you can sit with your trees and plants, and talk with them. Or sit with them in that fruitful and fertile companionable silence of true friendships. And maybe one of these days, you and E, and M and I, can sit in your orchard and talk about how we survived the viruses of modern pestilence and politics.