From the black shed
David E, East Norfolk
I’ve been thinking about my friends in Nepal. I’ve spent many years trekking in Nepal, travelling usually in the remote eastern part of the country where westerners seldom go. Nepal has so far reported less than a hundred cases of covid-19 and only about twenty deaths, all occurring in workers abroad. Around four million Nepalese work abroad, mainly in agriculture and construction, in order to bring in much needed family finances. Now that Nepal’s borders are closed those workers wishing to return home are stranded either in camps in the middle east or at the border in India, existing on meagre savings. The pandemic will have a severe impact on the economy as countries impose travel and border restrictions, coupled with the lack of income from trekking and mountaineering. The risk of spreading the virus in the villages is probably quite low and because they are mainly a young population they may escape the worst of what Europe has seen. It remains to be seen whether the monsoon will wash it all away in June.
I had no plans to go to Nepal this year, rather I have been dreaming of all the other places I might go. The only firm plan was to meet with friends in Snowdonia for a few days in April but obviously that couldn’t happen. I’m now thinking about how to resurrect that event and how best to avoid the crowds of other outdoor types who will be wanting to do the same thing. Actually, apart from Snowdon itself, it’s easy to find great walks where fewer people go and because of the unpronounceable names of the features of the countryside it’s easy to feel you are in a foreign land! I can see there may be a problem with social distancing on the “snowdon sherpa” bus route but I’m sure we’ll find a way.
Apart form N Wales I’m itching to get back to Perthshire. We were due to go in the first week of the lockdown and as soon as travel restrictions are lifted we’ll be off. Munros beckon!
View from Snowden © Snowden Mountain Railway
In a Canary Plantation
Amanda White, Canary Islands
I, like so many of us lately, have lost count of the days we've been in lockdown mode.
"What day is it today?" is a question I'm very familiar with from my dementia-struck mother. But worryingly it's one of mine now. And since catastrophically dropping my wristwatch it's likely to be "What time is it?" too.
It all adds to this dreamlike condition of lockdown lethargy. In a vain attempt to counter this state I jokingly began asking my daughters in energetic tone, "So, what are your plans today?" which was a common enough question back in normal times. The usual reponse was a snort. A few days ago however (don't ask how many or when) I got a stunning reply: "Going for a run".
Hallelujah! The Spanish lockdown is beginning to lift!
People are being allowed out at long last, albeit in a staggered (or in my case staggering) way. The government rules are complicated, convoluted and confusing, with allocated slots according to whether you're young, old, or none of the above. The result here seems to have been a rush to the beaches while in other parts of Spain, notably the cities of Madrid and Barcelona, photos on the first day of release showed overcrowded streets and ramblas, stoking fears of a second lockdown if things get out of hand.
Meanwhile, our habitual silence down in the plantation has been rudely broken for the last week by the continual deep rumble of our neighbour's bright blue tractor systematically bulldozing the banana plants (damaged during a hurricane-like storm just before lockdown), chopping them and ploughing them back into the soil. Watching from a safe distance are our cats. Their body language tells me they are completely and utterly incandescent.
Paul Lowden, Malaysia
Artists instinctively know the value
Of blurring; suggestion, not knowingness
Ambiguity of shape, what’s not said;
A line that conceals as much as reveals,
That hints not shouts. Forms emerge slowly as
Imagination engages, the might,
The perhaps, the maybe, the could, teasing
Uncertainty, the unfocused, the nudged.
The eye only part of the immersion
Required, drawing in, a re-creation.
Shadows, intimations, that light playing
Tricks, nuances teasing and weaving the
Mind, fulfilling a notion that life too
Is blurred, and better for it. Turner’s bold
evocation Rain, Steam and Speed might seem
Just surreal and yet it reveals a hare,
A farmer, mystic figures on the bank
As well as the thundering train, the distorting rain,
That suggestion of power and passing lives.
It’s the what’s not there that fuels and drives.
But now all must, it seems, be black and
White, no blurring’s allowed, no ifs or buts
The delightful distortions, murmuring
Shades banished for the blinding light of right
And wrong. Stark relief not Monet’s glorious
Swimming of colours is what’s demanded.
No wonder, vision, possibility
That uncertainty’s good; diplomacy,
The to-ing and fro-ing in life’s daily
Pictures replaced: a single framed portrait.
From the South Downs
Today we went to Petersfield shopping for my sister. On the way, we heard a former student of ours on the Brain of Britain quarter-final, which we found very thrilling. We cheered whenever he scored the right answer. I last encountered Jon at the Midhurst Big Pub Quiz down at the Ruins on a stormy night last August, when his team came first and ours came second. The pub quiz is a huge event under a marquee and includes a ploughman's lunch, and is run like a military operation by Julian and Diane. Usually, it's an idyllic summer evening, but this time, the marquee pitched and creaked, the chandelier swayed from its tent pole and the many teams were squeezed together under the shelter of canvas, while the rain stormed down. I doubt this summer's event will see so much cheerful proximity, if it happens at all.
In Waitrose I enjoyed talking to the checkout assistant, who was a third year student studying Physics and Philosophy at Leeds, but now back home in Hampshire finishing her degree online. She was so bright and lively, had read Carlo Rovelli and 'lots more like that'. I commiserated over end of degree parties she would miss. But she seemed quite happy as she said, 'Only three essays to go.' I've felt quite happy in some ways being isolated but hearing Jon and talking to the Leeds student reminded me how rewarding it is to chat to younger people and how I've spent most of my life with them. Also I was grateful to her for asking, 'How has lockdown been for you?' which instigated our chat.
Then to my sister's garden to deliver the shopping and to mow and cut brambles. Keeping that garden down is a task. It was my parents' house. I was born there. To grow up in Selborne was to be intimately acquainted with the idea of keeping a journal of everyday life as Gilbert White did and to understand that observation is powerful food for the imagination. I sometimes think I should keep a nature journal in a similar way, specifically recording my sister's garden. Over the years of striving to contain the wilderness, I've met a deer, sloworms, adders, caterpillars, redwings, wrens, blackbirds, robins, mistle thrushes, hedgehogs, a fox, frogs and toads, to name but a few creatures. My most strange encounter was with some transparent frogs, some of which I accidentally mowed down. I've searched websites and natural history books but can find no reference to transparent frogs except in Japan. They looked as if they were made of glass as they leapt through the grass.
I've brought home a little bunch of lilies of the valley, originally planted by my mother more than fifty years ago - and her favourite scent. I wish I'd spent more time with my mother. We had quite an easy going relationship, and she was very live-and-let-live, which was something I liked about her. She taught me to knit, crochet, sew, garden and cook - though I'm not much cop at any of them. Although the Selborne garden is so overgrown, I still get to see the plants she put in, although she died twenty-two years ago now. She would have been very anxious about corona virus, but would have kept going.
Hilary Q, North Norfolk
I have found myself starting to sit at a table like a student reading and making notes from books read long ago and now destined to a box ready for their next journey. It’s wonderful. I thought I had forgotten how to do it! This morning, Hermione Lee ‘Body Parts’... citing Virginia Woolf ‘On Being Ill’... the latter astonished at the vibrant activity of the sky seen from a horizontal position... amazed that, most of the time, we allow the sky to play unnoticed as though to an empty cinema! Not now, we don’t! This dystopian moment of the world ‘being ill’ is like Proust’s ‘Time Regained’ or liturgical music by Arvo Part... the clock spring wound so tightly that it snaps and suddenly unwinds... harmony in discord! Whatever next!!
Clarissa Upchurch, Wymondham
Plague Doctor sighting
I was amused to read in the local news online - better than the rest of the gloomy news the BBC churns out - that a person dressed as a 17th Century Plague Doctor is walking around ‘terrifying children’ and amusing adults. An image of this person was captured by another walker (walking is permitted) and, looking at it online, I note that he is wearing a long black cloak, large dark heavy trainers and a battered hat with a clumsy birdlike mask attached. Not at all like the elegant but sinister images of 17th Century doctors I have seen in paintings, those with a beak long enough to store lots of herbs to stifle the smells and act as a filter against infection. Apparently it didn’t help as germs came though the nostrils in the masks.
I imagine the boy (maybe he is a budding Goth) coming across the plague doctors during long boring hours of surfing the web when he should have been doing his online lessons. It is suggested in the news report that ‘he’ is likely to be a teenager playing a prank. He has been walking as ‘Plague Doctor’ for several weeks now. The police say they would like to find him and give the prankster some ‘words of advice’. Local people have been saying things like “Scared the life out of my missus. My kids are terrified” and “I admit he is a bit weird but what harm is he doing? Gave me a giggle”.
It is good to see someone with the imagination to dress up when going for a walk. Most of the population is slumming it in their pyjamas all day, not bothering to get dressed properly as if every day were a lazy weekend. I have heard people say days run into each other and all are like a Sunday at the moment. Sunday as it used to be: no shops open, very little entertainment, hours to fill. One had to make one’s own fun and Plague Doctor boy is doing just that. The image of him in the news item reminds me of a beast called ‘The Black Shuck’, I don’t know why, something to do with a large black ambling form. A teenage Shuck maybe?
Black Shuck (Old Shuck, old Shock etc.) that legendary Hound of the Baskervilles East Anglian variety is never far away (Cambridgeshire, Essex and Suffolk have their own version). He is said to be a ghost dog, an omen of doom or portent of evil, sometimes a symbol of death. It is hard to get away from the spectre of the dying patients as the rate of deaths from Covid 19 is sadly just over 32,000 today. The UK is on track to have the highest number of deaths in the whole of Europe.
Black Shuck sightings continue into modern times with reports of a large spectral black dog running along side motorists doing 60 miles an hour on a particular stretch of the A10 in Cambridgeshire.
A shuck is a dog, a big back dog, that slopes
And thunders down the path at night.
Its eyes are burning flames, its teeth are ice,
Its breath is the last thing you want to feel
At the back of your neck. It is a ghost of sorts
And you don’t want to see it. You don’t. You don’t.
from ‘Shuck Tale’ by George Szirtes
David Horovitch, Twickenham
All the talk now is of an imminent easing of the lockdown and I find myself a little apprehensive about the future. Nothing new there really - an actor's life is all uncertainty - but, seeing a nocturnal shot of London's sleek and gleaming skyline, a sight with which I am very familiar, the Great Wen seemed a strange and forbidding place. How quickly I seem to have built new routines that centre around this journal, Shakespeare's sonnets, walks by the river, long phone conversations with my son and others, hot cross buns at teatime, the ritual of the evening meal begun at about 5.30. Weather permitting, friends come and sit in the little courtyard outside my front door and drink tea or wine, on Thursday at 8 I go out and bang a saucepan lid with a rolling pin in tribute to The NHS and salute my neighbour who is doing the same with a ladle and a colander and who I've now discovered is called Liz. My tastes in TV have become increasingly bland, rediscovering the joys of The Antiques Roadshow, of The Great British Sewing Bee, of Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer going fishing. Last night I sat down to watch, for the first time, the original Mary Poppins though, to be honest, I did lose patience with it after an hour.
Only a few days before we all isolated, I went, with a group of about ten other actors, to present a petition to No 10, Downing Street, concerning funding for the theatre. We talked about the coming Plague with a frivolity that seems inconceivable to me now. Afterwards we adjourned to The Silver Cross in Whitehall, standing hugger-mugger in a crowded corner where, with one notable and sensible exception who shrieked 'Don't touch me', we hugged and kissed with defiant thespian abandon. Although we had all seen the pictures from Italy did we imagine that our little island would be spared or that actors, not being quite real people, would be granted immunity?
For a while after lockdown, it felt a little like a holiday, an excuse to be lazy, to watch too much television. And there was a fascination, almost an excitement, in watching the story unfold globally, like living history, something objectified and, even as the death toll mounted, something that it was not too hard to detach from. What does a pangolin look like? What the hell's happening in Russia? Why are Sweden pursuing a different policy from the other Scandinavian countries? Is it working? I don't care much for Boris Johnson but at least he's not Donald Trump. Or Jeremy Corbyn, come to that. But then the cameras went inside hospitals, the statistics became people, the bereaved talked about the wretchedness of mourning alone and eventually I turned away from the news and towards Mary Poppins. 'Humankind cannot bear very much Reality.'
All this retrospection feels valedictory and that's not appropriate as it ain't over yet. I'm not sure if it's even what Churchill called 'the end of the beginning.' But I feel the need to ask, with Hamlet, 'How stand I then?' The fact is I haven't got a clue and it's that that makes me apprehensive. Will I ever work in the theatre again ? Do I care ? In the daytime I don't but I'm dreaming about it at night. Will I ever dare to go into The Great Wen again? Best just to exist for the time being, from one hot cross bun to the next.
I have an immense sense of gratitude for having been part of this Journal and being allowed to share the experiences of such a diverse bunch of people. I have felt a growing sense of kinship with people from all over the world as I have seen my changing moods reflected in, or contradicted by theirs. Something that I thought would be a minor diversion has come to occupy a central and perhaps healing role in my life and I want to thank Margaret and Sheila, first for the brilliance of the idea and then for their dedication and hard work in carrying it through.
John Mole, St.Albans
So many faces
on so many screens
gazing at themselves
and at the chosen
company they keep.
of nervous gestures;
Will it work?
We’ve not done this before.
Is that your living room?
You’ve kept it tidy.
Manage the lighting
then adjust the sound.
of such intimacy,
the echoing reach
From Rural New York
Sandy Connors, USA
The light is so lovely at dusk ~ long shadows and a peaceful quiet descends on everything ~ end of another day spent here on this earth.