Bumpy landing on the south coast
Yesterday I spotted my first poppy of the year. I was moseying along through a churchyard which belongs to the area’s ancient (12th C, Caen stone) parish and civic church, which in turn sits on the slope of the stream emanating from the spring which I discovered a week or two ago. My eye was caught by the sudden bright stab of red of the single poppy amongst the greys and greens of headstones and grass, but after a pause I walked on.
Today, in less clement weather, I photographed some other poppies, crowding together in the park, almost as though against today’s wind and rain. Again, I was struck by the burst of dazzling red in the green foliage and blue mist. But I couldn’t shake off the memory of yesterday’s first, solitary, flower, so I went back to the church and photographed it: it looked a little less proud in this weather but nonetheless colourful and steadfast.
I think at some level I was taken by it because it seemed symbolic of resurrection, amongst death and destruction. I shall hang on to the mental image of that poppy as one of hope.
Looking forward to meeting you all again in a week’s time.
David Horovitch, Twickenham
I remember recording in my first entry that I had an odd feeling of serenity, as though all my Christmases had come at once and that, being a fundamentally lazy person who was good at being on my own, reading and watching TV, lockdown would suit me. Although these feelings persisted for a while and have resurfaced from time to time, it's not been as easy as I thought. I've run the gamut over the last few weeks - emptiness, rage, boredom, loneliness, exhilaration, almost joy, exhaustion, an occasional manic energy that didn't know where to put itself, and a torpid lethargy when I could barely reach out from the sofa for the remote control. Sometimes it's been as though I have been forced to conduct a controlled experiment on myself - watching myself - asking myself how I was getting on, trying to look after myself, sometimes being solicitous but often chastising myself cruelly. At first I thought I would be good at it, establishing routines that would be ineradicable - a walk in the early morning, watching the sunrise over Richmond Hill, hearing the woodpeckers in Marble Hill Park, then the crossword, write in the blog, tell you what, I'm going to learn Shakespeare's sonnets , always cook for yourself, no takeaways, no ready meals, I'll be all right, keep disciplined, maintain control, you'll be all right Dave, you'll be all right. But then I wasn't - I lost my motivation for the early morning walks, not doing so well now old son, can't sleep, it's so fucking quiet with all the offices downstairs on furlough, can't sleep, beginning to think at about 4pm whether I'd sleep that night, was I so anxious that I'd have to take a pill, eke them out Dave so you're not addicted, why what happens if you are? you get Alzheimer's, you're kidding?, you go blind, you go mad, you turn into a zebra, you are kidding aren't you?, I know people who drink a bottle of wine every night and three gin and tonics and no-one's on their case, just go easy on the sleepers Dave will you, they have side effects.
SO - I thought I was doing well and then I thought I was doing badly and the best times are when I don't give a shit how I'm doing, don't think there is a doing well or badly thing, there's just muddling through and being kind to myself and others. It's not about achieving anything - ‘What did you do in the Great Lockdown Daddy’ - ‘I had a good lockdown. I got a DSM and bar for sitting quietly on my arse watching Come Dine With Me.’ It got easier when I started seeing friends and especially my son and then I began to take that for granted and it got worse again except when I was seeing them when it felt like a treat.
I've had the feeling all along that I wasn't doing it quite right - I should have gardened more, baked more, learned fewer sonnets, why learn sonnets anyway? because I think there's a new way of speaking them that's only achievable if you know them: it's conversational, as if they are one half of a dialogue, only the interlocutor is too polite to interrupt - I mean you wouldn't want him to answer when Will says 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? ' would you? but he's there. So I learn them painstakingly and with the utmost regard for accuracy and rhythm and, in a low key way, I perform them into my mobile phone. It's endlessly fascinating but no more or less enjoyable exactly than it must have been for him to write them. Peter Scupham told me that writing a poem is like having an illness. So is learning one.
But not THE illness, not the reason why we're all baking and gardening and listening to opera and learning sonnets. It's still here but then so are we and that's some cause for gratitude if not celebration exactly. I salute everyone whose writing has given me such pleasure over the last twelve weeks of weirdness and hope to see you on the other side.
Thoughts from the Top of the Hill
Linzy, Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire
Feeling a big bereft, as this is the last daily issue of the journal, which has been such a joy both to read and to participate in. Thanks to everyone, Margaret, Sheila and everyone who writes, especially my friend Nicky from Vermont, who introduced me. Still, I am looking forward with great anticipation to the weekly edition. I wonder if I will actually write a piece early in the week, or wait until 2.15 pm on Friday to start, as is my habit. I have taken note, Margaret, that we are not to produce novels or novellas. I will do my best. I find it quite hard to edit my pieces down and the more I revise them the longer they get. Only once did I ask Richard to comment before I posted and he got me to remove the whole of the first paragraph as he found it boring, so I haven't asked him again, as you can see.
Thanks to Paul for the lovely contents page. Thanks to Surin for reminding me to be grateful, to John for wonderful thoughts on bookbinding and Chris for witty perspectives on the daily news.
David, I particularly empathise with your description of feeling unqualified to have opinions. At the moment I am going through the same process. What do I think about what's going on? One minute I swing towards wanting to go out and march, the next I am worrying about the destruction of our entire culture in order to avoid offending anyone. Basil Fawlty is a case in point. His "don't mention the war" sketch is the most perfect illustration of bigotry I have seen but it does not promote racism, in fact, it does the opposite, so why censor it? Why erase Baden-Powell from the collective unconscious when so many old ladies are grateful that they were helped to cross the road during bob-a-job week? Where will this end? Will we burn all books by Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe? While I am shocked to learn that the confederate flag is still flown in the southern states, I am fearful for the society that will result from all this nit-picking of the past. You can't erase prejudice by pulling down statues and burning books.
Lastly, thanks to the inventor of the Internet, to whom we are all very grateful, If I try to go to Google to look up his name I will no doubt lose my entire piece and have to start again, so let us just raise a glass to him, wherever he may be. This morning I came down to find 108 emails in my inbox. 101 of them were Freecycle notifications and I thought the members must have had a busy night. It turned out they were largely old deleted messages, which is very disappointing for anyone looking for a ton of hardcore, an upright piano or some removal boxes today.
I have supplied a photo of myself stroking a bearded dragon. My daughter captured this rare image as she was surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience.
See you all soon. Stay safe and keep writing for one another.
Clarissa Upchurch, Wymondham
Sometimes it is hard to believe that 12 weeks have gone by (13 weeks in our case as we locked down before 23rd March) and for many others too, so I hear and read, the time has gone more quickly than one imagined as being stuck at home would no doubt become boring and tedious. No diversions or outings to break up the endless weeks, only the diary to remind one of events that were supposed to happen, like a checkup appointment at the dentist or the boiler having its annual service. Some of our diary entries did happen thanks to the internet, by Zoom or Skype and it will probably become the only way of ‘attending’ a poetry reading or poetry workshop for a long time.
News from the backyard! Mrs Blackbird has settled on her third brood in one of the other vacant nests, one that is a high rise dwelling for it nestles in an alcove 7 feet up in our back wall. The alcove used to house an extractor fan during the time our house was a restaurant in the 1980’s. Mrs B is making sure that nature takes back control during this pandemic by producing more bird life. Meanwhile Mr Blackbird is running around feeding the fledglings from the previous brood that are now in our neighbour’s garden where there is more space and ground cover.
The climbing roses are blown over and bedraggled. This year they have been magnificent.
I looked out some small scarves for ‘face covering’ now the shops will be open. The British are known for their orderly queuing so we will see if this remains the case after a few weeks. Personally I don’t like queuing but now I have online food shopping set up I will be carrying on with it, and choosing the least busy times to do any other shopping locally. Wymondham Council have decided to make the main Market Street a pedestrian area soon. This will give people more room to pass each other. It is a good idea because we have had to move out into the road if several people were taking up space on both sides of the street. The closure will not please the businesses in town.
Today Market Street was busy! The open air market was there with the stalls setting out ‘distancing’ measures with traffic cones and striped tape. It felt very safe. It is good to see life returning to normal.
Well, I never did get a dog (Lily cat would never forgive me) to be a consolation during lockdown. I know of four friends who did, posting loads of adorable puppy photos on social media. It makes sense to buy one when there is plenty of time to train them. Labrador Retrievers and Cockapoos seem to be the most popular dogs.
Some may remember the dog trainer, Barbara Woodhouse who was a formidable person, often preferring dogs to humans. She said dogs were easier to train.
I shall leave you with another of her quotes:
‘The dog has an enviable mind; it remembers the nice things in life and quickly blots out the nasty.’
John Underwood, Norfolk
Odd behaviour. Odd behaviour.
What has happened? It is Friday again. Where did the week go ? And not only the past week, but the past dozen or so. I just know that next week’s journal deadline will come and it will be a huge shock. Note to self, write down the date in the diary.
I have been working fitfully on a two volume set of Dryden’s collected works - the first collected edition in fact. I have had the books for ages, variously in boxes, in a cupboard, and only recently on a bookshelf in order to prompt myself to do something with them. I have no idea where or when I bought them, or why for that matter. A mistake, probably, as the work involved is tedious and the potential financial reward rather small. The books are in such a poor state that they need completely taking apart, folded section by folded section. Each of those sections consists of two folded leaves, giving four leaves in the book, or eight pages. The outer leaves of each fold needs repair, and this cannot be skimped because the sections will need sewing back through the folds, and they need to be secure. Ally and I have broken down one of the volumes and I have started on the repairs. Another volume awaits our attentions. It is the sort of tedious job that I would undertake whilst listening to the cricket on Test Match Special, but because there has been no live cricket, I have been “forced” to listen to repeats of matches - the Cricket World Cup, The Ashes etc. Alison cannot understand this. “but you know what happened!” she shrieked. When live cricket is on, I would probably have a radio on in the bindery, and another in the kitchen. I have to move between the two rooms fairly frequently, and I don’t want to miss a ball. This drives Alison mad, and I can see that if cricket doesn’t interest you, it must be… annoying. Even more so as one radio is a digital radio, and another is tuned to Long Wave. The Long Wave radio broadcast has the shipping forecast which I rather enjoy but which interrupts the cricket commentary, sometimes at crucial moments, so I can rush to the digital radio if I need to. The two formats are broadcast at slightly different times, with a lag of a few seconds, so that the one is the echo of the other. I can walk from the bindery to the kitchen and hear the same commentary again. Actually, writing this down has made me realise that my behaviour is somewhat aberrant and intolerable. Do other households have two non-simultaneous cricket commentaries going on at the same time? Oh dear.
I never played cricket, and never used to listen to it but about thirty years ago, in a previous house, we were building a small barn (which became a bindery), and the Roofer who was helping at the time threatened to down tools if he couldn’t listen to the cricket. So it started then. I got hooked. And now listen to repeats of cricket, and now listen to repeats of cricket, on two different radios, on two different radios, in two different rooms, in two different rooms, to the great annoyance of my wife, to the great annoyance of my wife.
I suspect that there will be a new normal in the Underwood household when the cricket starts again.
From St Just
Jane G, St Just, Cornwall
By way of apology for my rather cantankerous contribution yesterday, a cheering vignette: one of my students has just returned to Oxford and has moved into a room in a friend's rented house. Earlier this week they had a tutorial together. I kept looking for the little dividing bar between them, and it wasn't there: they really were sitting at the same desk using a single computer. Apparently there are now six of them in the house, up from two, and they are taking dinner each night very seriously indeed.
One of the things they and - I think - a lot of people have found most strange has been conducting an entire term pretty much as normal when nothing was normal at all: the two things collateral and incompatible. It's been a feat of willpower as well as of Zoom - though one great benefit was having the Atlantic over my left shoulder during tutorials, and another very great one was discovering that it's possible to get on with some sewing during remote meetings (except tutorials) and still contribute very effectively. The thing to remember is not to absent-mindedly bite off a thread.
This has felt like an extremely long fortnight in which nothing happened but a lot got done. But one resolution I made at the beginning of lockdown and haven't contrived yet is to learn to drill sea-glass. Like Smokey heading for the the top gate, I'll do it before we go.
From Rural New York
Sandy Connors, USA
On this last day of the daily journal I want to tell everyone how much it has meant sharing your world, the experiences, your humor and clever poetry, thoughtful concerns and the simple day to day ways you have all gotten through the first three months of our quarantine, whether in the UK, France, Spain, Canada, the US, Australia etc.
At first I felt I was well equipped to deal with being restricted to home feeling content with my dogs and cats, retired from active work, enjoying my engraving, gardens, reading, knitting or sewing which is how I usually spend my days now, but I found that the isolation and lack of physical contact with friends and family, added to the increasing worries about getting sick began to take a toll. Wondering what it was all about ~ all the everyday things I did, did they matter one bit anymore?
The state of leadership here in the US and the UK, which has so many people angry and concerned has begun to erode one’s confidence that all will be well in time. Then the devastating antiracism which never seems to go away ~ all that anger and pain ~ one cannot turn away from any longer. Let us hope that enough people have been shocked into awareness that we all have a responsibility to address racism in our lives.
I normally don’t write about such things, but these have been such disturbing times ~ it has been a comfort to look to each of you in your own way, reassuring me that we all have gotten this far ~ and hopefully our futures will be safe, our world a kinder and saner place than we have seen for many months.
I wish you could see this lovely rose in person for it is so much lovelier than I am able to capture with my phone ~ but here she is, the Alchemist Rose ~ thank you everyone. See you again on Sundays ~ now another reason for Sunday to be my favorite day of the week!
Mary’s Projects Mostly
Mary Hildyard, Bristol
Well, this is what 84 days look like when counted in paper rings. The last red ring will be added after our walk today which will follow our zoom play reading at 4.30. Twelve very memorable weeks filled with numerous adjustments, disappointments, and reconfigurations to our lives.
What have we lost? So many things. I have missed, more than I could have imagined, seeing and hugging my grandchildren. Whats App calls have not been enough. I was very sorry that my March trip to America for “Four Sisters Week” had to be cancelled as well as the return visits planned for this Summer from two of those sisters and their husbands. I was very sorry to cancel the shibori dyeing week planned with Dianne and Jeremy in Devon. I missed being in London and was depressed at the loss of much anticipated theatre trips.
Another quite different loss has left me thoughtful and forewarned : the loss of independence. I have found it very difficult being wholly dependent, having to rely on others. But, it is an adjustment I have come to realise could figure largely in my life in the years to come even when the virus recedes. So, this has been a chance to try to find ways to make the loss of independence bearable.
Have there been any gains? What has delighted me and must be regarded as a gain is finding that Simon and I can live amicably together under one roof, on our own, for such an extended period. We have been together for thirty one years, the last three of those years married, but we have always kept separate households. We could be called a LAT - the trendy acronym for Living Apart Together. I am glad to find that actually living together for more than the usual few weeks is also a possibility, as I imagine the need and desire for mutual assistance will only increase with age.
Then and Now
As an Ancient of Days, probably the most years-encumbered contributor to the Journal, I have plenty of time to consider who I am, if such a consideration has any merit. But I think today I shall write about doubles, for I am certainly not the boy I was, though he is my double, my ‘semblable, hypocrite lecteur’. In a way, I write for him.
Who is it mooning about in his half-lit room,
Sharing my name, the set of my bones: a boy
Hung in my chains of words . . .
My father, in his last weeks was much puzzled by identity, and whether the self has any stability. For working purposes I am what I am, or seem to be. But what are working purposes? Since I have set myself out in the journal to be a man of then as much as now, let me introduce you to my father’s double, or doppelgänger.
It is the night of the Coventry raid. My father, in the A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) is firewatching from the roof of Bemrose School, Derby, watching Coventry blaze on the horizon. I am dozing and playing under the table in the living room. There are rats in the forsythia; there are sandbags piled high against the French Windows. Ann, my sister, nicknamed Bobbin sings in her cot. It is a noisy night. We identify the German bombers by the wavering quality of their engines; we wait for the steady shrilling of the All Clear. Late that night my father comes back, reassures my mother, who offers him a cup of tea. In the morning she thanks him again for his comfort on “the worst night of all” and for his extraordinary night-time visit.
Which he never made. He is amazed, moved, deeply puzzled. They will talk about it for the rest of their lives. I wrote a poem about it to celebrate
“. . . that night when Love and Duty had his name
So clearly down upon their different rosters.
Martial says ‘Dream of yourself, or stay awake’.
She says that he came back; he still denies it.
I was asleep. What I saw I will not tell you.
But, what I will tell you, was that after his death, the verses he wrote at the time about that occasion turned up, years after I had written my poem. Well, as Kingsley Amis once wrote: “In love and war, despatched from the front are all”. So here is part of my father’s despatch from the front. In that poem, the oddity is added to by the fact that we used, at times, the same images. Here are his last four verses:
The dawn came chill as the sirens blew all-clear
And I started my tired climb to the crest of the hill,
And there you were at the garden gate to greet me -
“Last night was the worst night yet; I can hear them still,
But I wasn’t afraid when once I heard your footstep
And knew that somehow you’d managed to slip away
For a word, for a kiss, for a hurried ‘God be with you’,
Though I knew of course that you couldn’t have long to stay”.
Time after time you have told your children’s children
How that worst of nights it was I who stood by your side;
No woman’s fancy, born of the night’s confusion,
No dream, but a presence never to be denied.
What bond held firm, what strength was ours not given,
We shall never know, who walk by faith, not sight,
Yet know that the comfort one should have of the other
Was your that autumn night.
And when and if this current beastliness is over, will it seem that it happened to our ghosts, our doubles? By the way, the Coventry Blitz was code-named by the Germans: MOONLIGHT SONATA.
From the Editor
I think back to the middle of that night, March 16/17 when I couldn’t sleep, and had that first idea about starting an online Plague Journal. The next morning I almost dismissed it (who on earth would want to join in?), then took up the phone, and called Sheila. Six days later, thanks to her skills and technical ingenuity, and the enthusiasm of friends and fellow Instagrammers, Plague20 Journal was online.
I mention in the background page of our website, that Forster’s words, ‘only connect’, drove my thoughts. And we have certainly done that. It’s been a pleasure watching the entries drop in each day, and, gradually, the cross currents of remarks, questions, remarks flowing between contributors. The obvious interest you take in each other has emerged.
Sheila and I started with old friends and fellow instagrammers as contributors, then many friends of friends and some unknowns (readers?) joined in. Some have fallen off (I hope they are still readers) some write occasional pieces, but we have a strong core of regular writers. I counted the other day that we’d had 50 different contributors in the week prior to that. I must count up the total for the twelve weeks. I write down the entries for each day in longhand in a now scruffy ledger, so I have a record for each day of the journal. The cat, Bertie, gets very jealous of this book, if I’m writing in it while he requires my attention. He attacks the book. So it’s scruffy.
But back to all you contributors. From all parts of the U.K., from all parts of the world. Like Instagram, it’s armchair travel for me reading them. What other way is there to travel any distance at the moment? And we do connect. At the click of a mouse. Magic.
I thank you all. It will be lonelier without your daily emails pinging in... and I hope some of you will continue email conversations with me as well as writing your weekly pieces. (I can’t wait till Sunday to hear what you are all up to!) You can email me through the journal or ask me that way for my email address... many of you have it already.
Marie Christine asks me to tell you all that if any of you get to the Loire, she and Rob would love to see you. Just ask me for her contact details. Susan Bull in Australia says the same, and advises Autumn as the best month to visit there. And we always keep Open House here in Norfolk (or Open Garden at the moment!).
Tonight Sheila and I should be toasting each other with Prosecco and cake in her garden or mine to celebrate achieving twelve weeks of the Journal, and to look ahead to Plague20 Weekly. But she’s on painkillers still, so no alcohol, and Peter and I are still not venturing out. He and I will raise a glass to you all this evening, and to a continuing correspondence and friendship. Thank you.