A Journal of the Plague Year, 2020

Week 2

Friday March 27th 2020

Closure of hairdressers begins to bite..

It keeps getting stranger and stranger. It was bad enough when Johnson announced the stay indoors advice and immediately worse when some unseasonable warm sunny weather brought out crowds to parks, beaches and wild remote locations like Snowdonia where rumour has it that the national park is going to introduce those 2 metre apart chevrons up the mountainside, Waitrose style. If you can read this sign, you’re too close, matey. Ah, the great wilderness. At present, it’s more remote in Oxford Circus.

Then came the military state style clampdown. This seems to have had a real effect on people. I went on one of my allowed shopping trips the other day to Marks and Spencer. It was the middle of the afternoon, but it was eerily empty and those people that were there were extremely wary. Amongst polite shoppers a new etiquette has emerged whereby people are very watchful, calculating when they can turn into a new aisle without getting too close to anyone. If you break that procedure and catch someone unawares, they freeze or jump a mile. This tends to be accompanied either by a withering scowl or a conspiratorial, shy smile. Those that are most unforgiving tend to be those in full survival kit: face mask, gloves, sharp pointed stick two metres long.

I also experienced a new version of an old paranoia, the irrepressible urge to cough. In more innocent times, this would usually happen in the National Theatre, or a cinema and I would, without fail, be sitting right in the middle of the row. A few “controlled” coughs would occur, followed by discreet but frantic scrambling around for tissues and cough sweets. The terror of having to get up to leave the auditorium, from the middle of a row of outsize people, would induce more tickling in the back of the throat. A vicious cycle, I believe it’s known as. This new manifestation clearly has more sinister overtones, however. A coughing fit in a supermarket would lead to a citizen’s arrest, a general shunning and name calling of me as a social pariah, or in branches of Lidl or Aldi, a ritual public beating up and being left in the supermarket car park, tarred and feathered, with a hand written misspelt sign around my neck saying, “Go back to China, unclean foreigner”. I did manage to suppress it, but not before several people had backed away making the sign of the cross and brandishing their garlic bulbs in my direction.

Still it’s hard to be too harsh, when every day more people have died, of all ages now, seemingly, and we are continually told that soon the NHS will be overwhelmed. It’s a frightening time, so one must take one’s pleasures as they now come. The crisis has provided plenty of opportunities for Johnson and his motley crew to do what they do best: Lie, lie and lie again. Lots of statistics to misuse and misrepresent. Lots of straight questions that Tory spokespeople can blatantly not answer. Lots of promises that can be blithely made secure in the knowledge that they will never come to pass and can be instantly rebutted if and when some pathetic reminder of the promise is made by the feeble representatives of the main stream media. They are absolutely shameless, continuing to say that there are plenty of ventilators in hospitals now, fabulous contracts agreed with captains of Brexit supporting industry (Dyson, Wetherspoon, Branson et al), PPE overflowing, tests of all kinds up and running and ready to use. They say this after hearing in the same studio from NHS front line staff and independent scientists that there is nothing. This is who we voted for.

But we are all in this together, at least that’s something. The virus is no respecter of status, wealth or position. After all, Price Charles is the latest celebrity victim. That will cheer the nation up, eh? And it’s typical of that damn Megan Markle and ginger traitor Harry to scuttle off to America leaving Blighty at its time of need. Or at least that’s what I read in the Daily Moron. Well, the virus may be no respecter of status , wealth, power and influence, but access to a test certainly is. And having a gated and guarded ancestral pile is handy when it comes to social distancing, something that the royals have generations of training in, after all.

I started this blog by observing that the whole thing is getting stranger and stranger. And proof positive of that is the fact that since I started writing this, Johnson, Hancock, and now Whitty have contracted the virus. The chilling sight of Michael Gove taking the press conference today immediately provoked the most elaborate of conspiracy theories: that the whole thing is a Govian plot to stab Johnson in the back again (its positively Shakespearean, the whole thing) and be the last person standing, so he will have to be the supreme ruler, even if he is a little strange and unpalatable, like a mouthful of Brylcreem. My confident prediction is that Gove will be the only member of Parliament and the Westminster crew not to get the virus, because he is an alien, or a replicant. Or something. And it will be revealed, in the final chapter, that he can only be killed by pouring water over him.

Apart from the fear of Gove and all things Govian, the other dimension of this crisis that has been exercising me of late has been the terrible impact on my personal grooming regime. Unfortunately, the clampdown occurred just at the moment when I needed to make a visit to a barber. It won’t be long before bushy eyebrows and long unkempt straggly hair and beard become the norm and social distancing will no longer be a problem, as ordinary men and women in the street will stampede to cross the road to avoid getting near mad beardy man.

The rampaging, out of control,  hair-growing surges of my body will be strangely mirrored by the beautiful, manicured and carefully clipped progress of my garden, after years of neglect. It will be like a weird version of the portrait of Dorian Gray. As my garden gets ever more sculpted, controlled and designed, I will get wilder, more hirsute and baggy. Eventually, my feet will take root in one of the ornamental borders, and I will explode into growth exponentially.

I clearly need to stop writing this. None of this will happen. Instead, more people will get ill, and more people will die. Until next time, mes petits choux.

March 20th 2020

It seems like an awfully long time since I waved goodbye to my son at Heathrow, returning to his year abroad in New Orleans as part of his American Studies and History degree. I didn’t say anything at the time, but we were worried about his return because he was moving to a new apartment with new sharers, and they just happened to be Chinese. Who had just returned from China that same week. No matter that China is a huge country and I had no idea which part of China they were from, but I suppose it’s a parent’s job to worry irrationally. The story of Coronavirus had gradually crept up the news schedules during the Christmas holiday and by the time he was due to go back to the States, it was clearly a major issue. Funny looking back, how I thought it was going to be a major issue for him, in the US, rather than for us in London. But that was before it had started to sweep across the map of Europe, like a forest fire.

Two weeks ago we went to dinner at some friends’ house, and it was something of a joke when we arrived, how we all greeted each other. Gone were the hugs and air kisses, and we awkwardly elbow-bumped instead, not really knowing whether we were overreacting or being sensible. We dropped a couple back at their house on our way home, and a combination of drink and time made me forget the new protocols. I slipped straight back to the habits of a lifetime and gave one of them a big hug and a kiss goodbye, as usual. She jumped back like a scalded cat, generating a torrent of apologies from me. It was a stark reminder that things were about to change. We were all over sixty and some of us were immuno-compromised. Living dangerously had become something that was only for the young.

But it has crept up on us, stealthily at first, and then with whirlwind speed. Every day, it seems, brings news that a month ago would have been laughed at in the pub. Like not going to the pub, for example. I have not been able to buy toilet paper for the last two weeks. I’m not particularly concerned about that, to be honest. At last there’s a reason to buy The Sun. The great Bog Roll Riots of Tescos Elmers End suggest that not everybody shares my laissez-faire attitude to toilet routines. It seems that for many people, an inviolable marker of civilization is the right to pamper one’s rectum with unguent infused, fragrant, quilted, luxury bog roll. Bog roll that has denuded the rain forest, doubled the quantity of carbon in the atmos, and which ends up as a major constituent of the sewer fatbergs beloved of the tabloid press in the silly season. Bring back IZAL medicated. Absolutely nobody would be panic buying that. The only panic associated with IZAL is that induced by the prospect of using it. No football on the telly. Not even mindless chat about football. That has left a massive hole in my normal schedule and has left me either having a nap, reading a book or endlessly surfing the internet, dribbling. If my newspaper was suddenly not delivered, for some up till now not predicted contagion risk, then I would really feel that the fabric of society was crumbling.

Self-isolating and social distancing. That has been a bit of a challenge. At the beginning of that period my journey to work along the M25 was like going back fifteen years in time, with my journey time cut by a quarter. Going to the West End of London was also very pleasant, as were restaurants and theatre trips. How naïve we were back then, how innocent! Today I visited the local library and I was the only borrower there. There was an enormous notice telling me that I could borrow up to 25 books and all fines were waived for the foreseeable future. The thing is, nobody knows what the foreseeable future is. It’s unforeseeable, and therefore, rather unsettling.

Things came to a head last weekend when, justifiably panicked by travel restrictions all over the world, we frantically made arrangements for dearest son to fly back home. This has cost us thousands of pounds, none of which we will ever get back. It’s been a bit of a blighted year for holidays. Holiday in Venice cancelled for floods. Trip to New York cancelled for plague. Trip to Granada cancelled for plague. Trip to Italy in August probably going to be cancelled, probably because of the plague, but by then, it could be anything: earthquake, locusts, invasion of the bodysnatchers. It feels like the Earth’s revenge on us for not being satisfied with two weeks in a caravan in Redcar.

We picked him up, wearing his face mask and complaining of muscle cramps and fever. This provoked self-isolation for a week for the whole family. On the same day my daughter was told to work from home. Everyone started to feel ill, with a range of symptoms. Inhabiting the mindset of a true panic buyer, I was exultant when I managed to find a thermometer from Amazon. When it came, predictably we were all absolutely normal. Perhaps our symptoms had all been an extreme reaction to the lack of quilted toilet paper.

Then came the news of school closures and no exams. This has probably had the greatest effect on me. I’ve been an English teacher since 1982 and even through the giddy career heights of Deputy Head-dom, I’ve loved teaching English. I’d just about got used to the idea that in July I would probably finish my part time job and never teach English again. And now, having seen the schedule from school about teaching the key workers’ children, I think I’ve probably already taught my last lesson without knowing. Selfishly, I’m a little sadder about that than about anything else.

This is clearly going to go on for a long time and some people, too many people will die. I’m going to have a lot of time on my hands, with no football to watch. So,  I’m going to do this journal, to record the events as they happen. I wonder if Daniel Defoe had toilet paper issues?

Stay safe everyone.