This week I have been in a dessert. Or that’s how it felt.
There was a cartoon on FaceBook showing the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. One of them was carrying several toilet rolls under his arms: he’s been panic buying, like a large portion of the UK population. And I saw what we’ve become as humanity: there is no humanity, it’s each person for him/herself. H G Wells would love this: how a microscopic organism can lay waste to power. I’m not religious, but when God gave to Adam dominion over the animals and plants, wasn’t that about care as well as power? Didn’t God entrust paradise to humankind to look after it? Well, he got that wrong. In times of crisis, like say a pandemic involving a virus that none is immune to, shouldn’t we be protecting each other, down to the least vulnerable? Apparently not: we should look after ourselves, and sod the rest. So supermarket shelves are stripped of toilet paper, pasta, rice. Bread mixes? None. Milk? Oh-oh. Baked beans? All gone. How is toilet paper or pasta going to protect us from a virus that none is immune to? Breaking News: it isn’t! Well, we can look to our elected leaders for guidance in times of crisis, surely. We look in vain:
Wash your hands, keep calm and carry on. Old folk: don’t go on any cruises. Young folk: get yourselves to school and work, your economy needs you. Oh, and prepare yourselves that lots of your loved ones are going to die.
This isn’t leadership; this is ineptitude. A leader of people would have put the people first: truth, but with reassurance, is all. Our leaders worship the god Mamon: so economic wealth must come before people. Ordinary mortals are mere sacrifices to this powerful and uncaring god. More Breaking News: the god Mamon won’t save you in times of crisis either. I lay awake on Thursday night, reflecting on all this. I felt ill and desperate. My elected leaders did this to me, not the Covid 19. I already knew that was bad: I watch and read the news. I needed to know the Government had my back, would take decisive action to protect me and mine, as has happened in China, Italy, Germany, Spain: most countries that put their people before their wealth. But not here: go about your Business—the uppercase initial is intended—and prepare to die.
By 3.00 a.m. it was clear I wouldn’t be sleeping tonight. I decided to read, hide my thoughts behind someone else’s words. I found a ‘Vera’ novel on my Kindle: Vera has often pulled me through hard times and it was to Vera I turned in the small hours of Friday: anything to fill my head with words so I didn’t have to think my own thoughts.
To make matters worse, I got up on Friday to another urinary tract infection. I spent a stressful twenty minutes pressing that ‘call back’ button on my iPhone before I eventually got through to my doctors’ surgery: a recorded message warning me about the surgery’s policy re. Coronavirus. I would be asked to respond to questions from the receptionist about my ‘Coronavirus history’ and about the reason for my current call. This seemed preferable to the Government response: at least my GPs were caring for their vulnerable patients in a responsible way.
Receptionist: Do you have a fever, sore throat or chesty cough?
Me: No, I have a urine infection.
Receptionist: I must ask you just to answer these questions. Have you recently been to a country outside the UK that is a Coronavirus concern.
Receptionist: Have you been in contact with anyone who has Coronavirus. [You can probably see the weak point in this question, as I did.]
Me: Not as far as I’m aware.
Receptionist: Yes, there is that. What is your problem today?
And then we got down to discussing why I was contacting my doctors’ surgery this morning. I was allotted a time-slot for a telephone consultation with a GP. I have a history of UTI, so he sent a prescription for antibiotics to my nominated pharmacy and my problem was resolved without putting anyone else’s, or indeed my own, life at unnecessary risk: responsible action to protect the weakest in our society. Government, take note.
I spent the rest of the day hunkering down under a blanket, feeling sorry for myself. Thankfully, the antibiotics kicked in quickly and by bedtime I was feeling much better; and I slept better on Friday night. The thinking time I had on Thursday had allowed me to produce a loose plan of action. If I’m on my own in this, I’ll take action to protect me and those close to me as much as I can. I have decided to withdraw from unnecessary contact with society, adhere to a strict hygiene regime, face this crisis down. I’m not one for panic-buying, but I’ve been batch-cooking for weeks, before panic-buying was even a thing, and I have enough food in the freezer to make do for a while.
Thankfully, most of the rational world is of the same frame of mind. Several poetry events I was looking forward to have been cancelled or postponed. The launch of Jean Sprackland’s latest collection, These Silent Mansions, rescheduled for April 2nd after its initial postponement, was cancelled; Carol Ann Duffy and Friends at the Royal Exchange Theatre on 23rd March, was cancelled. I had a lovely email from Peter Sansom asking if I felt he should cancel the Poetry Business Writing Day at the Manchester Art Gallery on Saturday: you’re a doctor now, he said, you’ll know what to do. I know that was a joke, but as my doctorate is of philosophy, I agreed that cancellation was the ‘philosophical’ thing to do. Bless him, he notified all those who had signed up for the event, and to compensate he placed writing activities on his website so that folk don’t miss out completely. Humanity and care: Government take note. The Poets&Players committee had a long e-conversation about cancellation of our up-coming events. In the end we decided that cancellation was the responsible course of action. Our March and April events are cancelled; later events will be decided as the Coronavirus crisis develops. Lastly, this week Hilary and I joined a writing feedback group in Mytholmroyd, on the invitation of a fellow graduate from MMU’s writing school. Our first meeting with the group was scheduled for Sunday, this evening. I sent off my poem for the workshop in the middle of the week. But in the light of my new resolution to avoid social gatherings, I pulled out of the group. So did most of the other members. We’ll probably end up offering on-line or email feedback instead. Sporting events up and down the country have been put on hold. And lo, our Government is now taking its lead from its people and will announce plans in the coming days to restrict social gatherings. A classic case of leading by following.
In one short week, my life as a poet has been decimated. I’m in self-imposed isolation; or almost. Amie and I went out to walk the dogs yesterday. We called into a café for coffee, but we sat al fresco, in a corner of the outdoor space away from other customers. So not total isolation; but responsible isolation, keeping myself and those I love as safe as I can. In times of crisis, that’s the most we can do.
As the Persian adage has it, this too shall pass and we’ll come through. I’ll probably not be blogging for a while: not because I think it will affect the vulnerable or pass on the virus: I’m not that daft; but because, with all my poetry life on hold, I’ll have nothing interesting to blog about. I cooked something, I washed up, I watched the telly, doesn’t really pass as huge interest to anyone but the doer, does it? When my life resumes normality, when I have something to say, I’ll say it. I’ll be back then. I hope to see you all on the other side.
I’ll leave you with this poem that I wrote some time ago. It was inspired by Wallace Steven’s famous poem, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.’ It was fun to write. Perhaps we should all write some ‘Thirteen ways…’ poems to get us through the current crisis. It’s a great way to concentrate the mind.
Adieu, à bientôt, and look after yourselves.
13 Ways of Looking at the Moon
after Wallace Stevens
Among a million zillion stars
the man in the moon
is another breathing being.
I am pensive
like the moon reflecting in
a pool of standing water.
The moon is a mint imperial
sucked by the eternal tongue.
A man and a woman
and the moon: don’t believe it
Which is more trustworthy,
the sliver of truth that is the new moon or
the moon in all the fulfilment of its promise?
is one giant leap
O you ladies at the Court of King Caractacus,
raise your eyes to the infinite heavens and behold
your image in the waning moon.
All inescapable rhythm and cyclical
loss is the fault of a pull on the string
anchoring the moon to the ocean’s toe
When the moon casts her shadow over the sun,
leaders will be born, achieve greatness, be deposed,
In the light of the full moon,
an orphan wolf silently
laments his mother.
the moon is an illegal drug
in the sky with Lucy
The moon is moving
the stars are moving
the Earth is still
It was night all day
and the moon held sway
over heaven and earth,
an inconstant constant.