Memories all jumbled in one common box

A lot of poorly written diaries will be published about the 19-20 corona pandemic, this is mine.

Two months ago the outbreak in Wuhan was a news story happening in a far away country. Asia had experienced SARS outbreaks in the past and it had never spread far, just another news story. Tough break for the people over there. Just something else understood in terms of oh dear-ism.

One month ago I was on holiday in France, I caught a cold the day I arrived and joked with everyone, definitely coronavirus, definitely going to die. Because it couldn’t be coronavirus and I definitely wasn’t going to die this seemed humorously over the top as a reaction. It was still very much not real and happening to other people, there-in the unfunny joke lay.

In the airport flying to my next work engagement abroad I was struck by how many people were wearing masks, but that’s often cultural, no cause for concern there, it wasn’t uncommon to sometimes see people wearing face masks. Just something common in one part of the world that sometimes carried on over here. They were paranoid, we had nothing to worry about. We all joked about our coughs and colds, we washed our hands but only a little more than usual.

For the first time I google what the reproduction rate of a virus is when one of my colleagues asked how they grow. I find myself cack handedly trying to explain exponential growth, he asks how it ever stops and I mumble something vaguely Malthusian about it either wiping out its host or everyone becoming immune. The last night of the trip I listen alone in my cabin to the radio, half of PM was given over to the coronavirus story. It’s still just a story, just a bigger one than it was.

When I finally got back my cold still hasn’t cleared up, I get sinusitis most winters when I’m run down. There were posters at the airport asking you to ring 111 if you’d returned from other places, places I hadn’t recently been. I ring my doctor’s surgery for a telephone appointment, not because of the travel but just the lingering cold. But I still mention the travel, the dates, the locations, the onset and types of symptoms, nothing to worry about. We spent most of the conversation talking about the French slopes, they’d just been skiing, I snowboard. They give me antibiotics and it mostly clears up.

As the symptoms recede the news stories grow, it’s hard from memory to honestly pin point where and how. There start to be deaths in this country, British people quarantined on cruise ships but its framed as happening to older people or ill people or people far away, sad but still for other people, far away and containable, almost unavoidable. It’s not a threat to people like us. But wash your hands, it’s now important to properly wash your hands with soap and water while singing the national anthem. I see my therapist and we sit in the same room for ninety minutes and talk about life’s anxieties never mentioning viruses except to joke that my vanishing sniffle is corona, I drop the “definitely” because the tasteless joke no longer requires it, it’s funny because it’s still dramatic, a wildly over the top statement made with the intention of humour.

A week ago a friend’s birthday comes and it seems a real shame to miss it, but after the news stories and the increasing posts shared by online armchair epidemiologists for the first time I question the wisdom of being in a crowd of people. We all wash our hands and make ourselves stickers saying “back off” or “hug me” depending on our preference. Most of them say “back off” but after a couple of drinks nothing matters and many of us sit close together in the smoking room. Something’s already started to shift though, there are news stories about Italy going under lock down. There’s a shared sense that this might be the last party for a while, but it won’t really be like that here, will it? It’s just free floating anxiety.

Then things start to change fast, like Mike Campbell’s bankruptcy a pandemic happens “Two ways, gradually then suddenly”. Our mop haired Prime Minister, more suited to panel comedy shows than press briefings says that the deaths here won’t stop. He says that many more families will lose loved ones before their time. That we should work from home if we can. If we got a cough or a fever we should isolate ourselves for a week. There’s a briefing about “herd immunity” that makes me thing about women’s hour, MMR vaccines and cows. Their policy is that there’s now no stopping it, just mitigating it but that’s ok because the outcome in the long term will be “herd immunity”. Once we’ve had it we can’t have it again, but online no one’s too sure about that. The old people and vulnerable can shelter in place for three months and once the rest have herd immunity everyone will be safe, the virus will have no one left to carry it to the vulnerable.

The only problem is anyone whose watched the news with a calculator can run the percentages and still conservatively arrive at a quarter of a million deaths, not far away deaths now, British deaths for British people. People do run those numbers, respectable people, pillars in their field without an ideological axe to grind against the government and they complain loudly online asking to see the model, the data and assumptions, why are we adopting a policy so different to the rest of the world? Our nearest neighbours in France and the Republic have closed their schools, offices and public spaces but we’re still open, everything here is normal but it’s not. A friend gets the last flight from France to Heathrow and immediately phones his wife and asks why the shops here are still open.

By now the news story has overtaken everything else, it feels glib when other news stories get a mention, it’s the only story. Even the sports section of the Today programme is about the virus cancelling everything. But it’s not a story anymore it’s a lived reality. I’m washing my hands assiduously when I enter any building and they’re starting to dry out. I’ve swapped the national anthem for happy birthday twice only I can’t decide whose birthday it is so in my head I sing it slowly like Marilyn Monroe did for JFK, lingering longest on the words “Mr President” while calmly scrubbing. The panic buying happens before I notice it, one day it’s another part of the story the next day I can’t find toilet roll, pasta or tinned goods anywhere. I buy cat food and cat litter. I start buying a little more food than I need each day, which is odd for me, I normally shop daily for what I need that day just to get me out of the house. I bank that the Asian supermarkets will be the last to still have big bags of rice and lentils and am proved right, outside in the street I overhear people talking about the story.

A couple of years ago I became fascinated by nuclear holocaust fiction, speculative what if scenarios played out partly for public education partly as cathartic tragedies to put our real lives back in balance. As I watch and experience the panic buying and the arguments on what closing the schools will mean for people’s jobs my mind keeps bringing back the opening lines of the most haunting film I’ve ever seen, Threads.

“In an urban society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”

The writer had talked to scientists and sent himself on the same nuclear preparedness training courses as the civil service, he came to the grim conclusion that in the event of a real bombing our infrastructure would collapse. I notice my house has mice skittering in the cavity above the ceiling and on one of the trips to my studio I think about Eddie Izzard reading from Robert Burns “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley”.

The next day the government’s story changes, herd immunity isn’t the goal it’s just a by product of the plan. Apparently the evidence has changed and now the plan is now to slow the spread of the disease and stop it overwhelming our health system by greater “social distancing” but it’s not clear how that will work if everything just carry’s on as we are. The schools are still open, the pubs, gyms and restaurants are still trading as normal though the advice is to stay away. It all feels non-sensical, if the advice to stave off potentially thousands of deaths is to stay away then why have them open at all? Pundits on radio and TV talk of the danger of crashing the economy while simultaneously worldwide the economy is actually crashing.

I work as an artist, only every gallery by now is closed indefinitely, at first they say three months then they say twelve or maybe eighteen on and off. I read the new report that the government is now using to guide its policy. Sometimes things will close and we’ll live in our houses coming out only for exercise and food when we’re well and always stand at least two metres apart, never meeting our friends or embracing until it’s over. Other times… we’ll embrace? Unless we’re ill with it in which case we always have to live inside for up to two weeks depending on if we live alone or as a unit who will also isolate with us but apart from the ill. Every gig is cancelled. My Facebook feed starts to fill with friends now jobless asking for advice on how to navigate and apply to our now byzantine benefits system. I feel lucky that my commercial clients don’t cancel, I even get offers of new work but I furiously ring around them getting invoices due paid in quickly before things slide and people can’t pay.

Reasoning about the government’s briefings and the questioning of balancing its response against the economy in my head I keep recalling the scene in Alien where Ripley sits down in front of the ship’s computer Mother and asks what’s going on. The screen tells her the first priority is to capture the alien, all other priorities rescinded and that the crew are expendable. Ash the robot sits next to her and murmurs that “there is an explanation for all this you know” and Ripley angrily starts to cry that she doesn’t want an explanation as she starts to hit him. I start packing everything of value or benefit in staving off boredom into carts and wheel them the forty minute walk from my studio while damning myself for never learning to drive.

Work carry’s on, as a technician I prepare the sound recordings of children’s poems for a public art installation, the curator comes in to my house to pick up the SD cards. She is the last visitor to my house and already it feels strange to let my friend in. My dentist rings me to check if I’m still coming to my appointment and I’m surprised it’s still going ahead. I wonder if it’s responsible, for either of us, is it really just a sniffle, who else have they seen? The next day I walk through an only slightly quieter than normal street on my way in and past the poetry jukebox. I press the button not with my finger but with the edge of my jacket and as I walk away the child’s voice carries a little further against the dulled traffic. After I’ve sanitised my hands at the dentist the receptionist tells me all appointments are cancelled.

I move my Radiohead collection back from my laptop to my phone. The rolling bassline and frantic trumpets of the other, catchier, live version of the national anthem powers my hoarding trips into the studio. Thom Yorke singing “we’re not scaremongering, this is really happening” takes on a new power. A commonly observed side effect of having once lived with chronic anxiety is a curious sense of feeling calmest in a crisis.

In my last meeting with my therapist I’d joked how I’d pick a crisis over the everyday because in a crisis it was always clearest what to do, there’s no time for agonising over choices, only decision and action. My girlfriend asks me on the phone what I’m doing for my mental health and I testily explain to her that I’m fine, I’ve seen real paranoid psychosis up close and that getting expensive gear out of a studio in a building that could soon be empty for months is only prudent. She reminds me that it is but that you can’t sustain a fight or flight response indefinitely. I buy weights and try to sleep better by turning the radio off. I don’t own a TV.

By Thursday I’ve pulled out everything of value from my studio, there’s a video meeting I have to make it home for only I can’t find one stupid thing. One stupid thing that if losing was the worst thing that happened this month would still represent a major victory. I search the building and run out of time to pull my equipment the near hour long journey home. For the first time all week some panic starts to set in. I set the alarm but forget the lights and have to return inside the building. Now I’m thinking about Ripley again, piling oxygen aboard the escape capsule as sirens blare not realising the enemy was already in there, invisible.

I decide to try and run home with the two trolleys to make the video meeting in thirty minutes. My cases make it as far as the second curb before they trip causing my studio computer to fall out of the crudely taped together heap in my cart and scatter across the floor. I call a taxi, the driver patiently helps me load my heaviest case into the boot and as we simultaneously reach for its handle I’m hyperaware of not letting my hand touch his. Instead of sitting in the front like normal I sit in the back, diagonally as far away as possible. I can smell his brand of soap as I breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth counting the minutes on his clock to my home, waiting for either of us to cough.

Online I’d continued to post as normal, an almost completely light hearted ironic parody of myself, everything’s a joke, just a joke like on Top Gear, either an exaggerated perceived truth or a contrary position overstated for comedic effect. Except the quarter of a million deaths if we do nothing, I posted about that. But I read other’s posts, in Italy they are triaging patients by age and being forced to let the over sixties die alone in corridors or outside the hospital. There are pictures of people the same age as my parents with plastic bubbles around their heads force feeding them oxygen while they clutch their chests. In Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Roy Bland says to Smiley while walking in a park that “An artist is a bloke who can hold two fundamentally opposing views and still function.”

I read the about the virus, before becoming an artist I’d trained as a theoretical physicist and was still numerate enough to understand the explosive nature of exponentials and philosophically the differences between models and reality. I could still multiply together odds, 60 to 80 per cent forecast to become ill over the year, call it 0.7 and of those 10 per cent likely hospitalised, call it 0.1. A seven per cent chance of ending up in one of those wards. I didn’t multiply in the final statistic, I didn’t want to know. I think about the role playing games I’d played as a teenager, you’d be happy to take the chance of rolling under 93, but you’d see it go the other way – occasionally. I start to think about the first time I was quoted odds on a lethal outcome when my mother got cancer, they were far better than the 0.5-1% I was bringing myself not to stare at. She had to roll a 60 or under and she’d make it, and she had. But I remembered how uncomfortable it had made me. Why not be 99.99% positive of an outcome like the percentage of germs killed by the disinfectant I now wiped down my phone with, I liked those odds much better.

On Saturday the pubs, bars and restaurants finally close. It’s a week since my friend’s birthday party and I text him to double check it’s really only been that long. Neither of us can believe it and considering our actions that night now the past really is a foreign country, they do things differently there. We talk of a second party to bookend this whole experience which is hopeful.

It’s not just Radiohead, Alien, Threads, Marilyn Monroe, stand up comedians, poetry, viruses, mice and dice that have rolled around my head all last week. Loudest of all came the last stanza of my favourite poem by W. H. Auden, Domesday Song also known as Jumbled in the Common Box that I first came across thirteen years ago set brilliantly to music.

“Jumbled in one common box…”
W.H. Auden

Jumbled in one common box
Of their dark stupidity,
Orchid, swan, and Caesar lie;
Time that tires of everyone
Has corroded all the locks
Thrown away the key for fun.

In its cleft a torrent mocks
Prophets who in days gone by
Made a profit on each cry,
Persona grata now with none;
And a jackass language shocks
Poets who can only pun.

Silence settles on the clocks;
Nursing mothers point a sly
Index finger at a sky,
Crimson with the setting sun;
In the valley of the fox
Gleams the barrel of a gun.

Once we could have made the docks,
Now it is too late to fly;
Once too often you and I
Did what should not have done;
Round the rampant rugged rocks
Rude and ragged rascals run.

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