Day 35 and I’ve been noticing all the writers who are busy in the time of coronavirus. Some are writing journals, some are writing letters and still more are writing thought provoking essays. Novelist Deborah Levy from London, notes in her diary of lockdown that the water has cleared in the canals of Venice and ‘swans and cormorants are diving for fish.’ I love hearing that. She has also been writing about her mother who died five years ago. ‘I have written extensively about her and continue do so. I wish I had thanked her for holding our family together when she was alive.’
Margaret Atwood the author of novels that have eerily anticipated the time of the coronavirus, or the plague as she calls it although the lockdown measures enforced in our societies are not yet as bleak as the scenarios in 'The Handmaid’s Tale.' At least I don’t think they are. The news of Trump denying Coronavirus relief payments to people married to immigrants without social security numbers is shocking. In her lockdown diary Margaret Atwood strikes a different tone which is interesting. She shares light tips for a national emergency including instructions on how to make firelighters from dryer lint, candle wax and the individual cavities of egg cartons. Perhaps she feels now is not the time for bleak.
Here in New Zealand, the Spinoff has commissioned five of our writers, Renee, Morgan Godfery, Fiona Farrell, Glenn Colquhoun, and Ashleigh Young, to produce a series of lockdown letters. At random I found the following selections.
Renee, in lockdown letter 23 notes how in an ever-changing world, the one thing that remains constant for her is the writing. I warm to her stoical stance, the honest account of her physical vulnerability. “Writing has kept me sane through two bouts of cancer and a diagnosis of macular degeneration which means that eventually I’ll only be able to see ghostly shapes. Sitting down at the computer is my normal.
But then she considers the word ‘normal’ and what it means and her perspective is sobering. “Everyone’s normal is different. The woman who heads a large finance company and is taking a 20% wage cut will have a different normal from the woman who exists on the benefit, doesn’t know if she’ll have enough for food plus electricity and doesn’t want to tell anyone in case the state comes and takes her kids away.”
Morgan Godfery in Lockdown Letter 7 addresses the inequality in our society as well, commenting that some New Zealanders are lucky to have wealth and family support to fall back on. But. “What about the people who lack it? For essential services workers and for the poor the lockdown isn’t a lovely four-week holiday in a warm, dry mansion.”
Fiona Farrell in Lockdown Letter 25 remembers back to the Christchurch quakes and the lessons learned. “That was one lesson taught by the Christchurch quakes, along with humility before the power of natural forces, patience, adaptability. The quakes made some allowance for escape… And they allowed for sociability. The backyard winter meal with friends, the jazz concert in the one occupied house on a dark deserted hillside suburb.” She reflects that a pandemic in contrast is a quieter, more isolated place.
Glenn Colquhoun in lockdown Letter 4 adopts the epistolary form and cleverly addresses poet Hone Tuwhare in his inimical style. It has the feeling of Hone speaking through Glenn.
“It’s all a bit of a shitstorm here. We’re locked up tight. The whole world. A bug so small you can’t see it, barking like a dog at the front gate. Yappity-yap-yap. But what a bite brother. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. What can I say? I’m sentenced to a landscape e hoa. Doing time in the big sky. I love it you know. I can’t be contained. I’ve got the Tasman in front of me. The Tararuas out the back. This creamy driftwood edge between them to walk on. And all you buggers shuffling past. The silence is teeming. Things have never been so social. I write. I cook. I talk to my patients on the phone. I love my daughter. Ruapehu to the North. Taranaki to the East. Mountains and men all blur together. Somewhere inside of us is the same iron, the same magnet. Who could argue with that?
Ashleigh Young by letter number reveals she is suffering writer’s block. And there is that challenge in keeping up a commentary day after day after day. It exercises the mind.
“I’m afraid that soon I’m going to write about bread. I can’t hold it much longer. This is a lockdown diary, I’m running out of thoughts, and the bread is coming – I feel it. Each of the fragments below can be read as a desperate parrying motion as the loaves slowly but surely make their way towards us. I told a friend I was struggling to think of anything new, and that I was at the bottom of the barrel, and he suggested I write from the perspective of both the barrel and the barrel-maker. So maybe that’s what this is.”
Finally I crossed again to London and to Penguin and their commissioned series of Covid-19 essays. There I came upon this absolutely breath-taking roar from Philip Pullman:
“It’s all got to change. If we come out of this crisis with all the rickety, fly-blown, worm-eaten old structures still intact, the same vain and indolent public schoolboys in charge, the same hedge fund managers stuffing their overloaded pockets with greasy fingers, our descendants will not forgive us. Nor should they. We must burn out the old corruption and establish a better way of living together.”