There’s a tweet I remember seeing but never managed to find again. It was from late 2020, perhaps early 2021, and it went something like this: “Can we all agree, right now, that we will not make pandemic movies or books or art? This has been enough of a pain to live through, I don’t want to hear about it ever again.”
I retweeted it, as did thousands of others. That day, whenever it was, we collectively decided that what was done was done. Walk forwards; don’t look back.
Nearly two years have passed since the worst of the lockdowns and, until last week, I was standing by that old statement. I didn’t watch This England, the show about No 10’s handling of the pandemic, and made no effort to read anything on the topic.
Instead, it caught me by surprise. I picked up Journal de Nage by Chantal Thomas, in a charity shop. The slim non-fiction book sold itself as the diary of a famous French writer, focusing on the times she went swimming in the sea in the summer of 2021. It sounded charming and only cost a pound. I started reading it on the Tube home. The introduction, it turned out, focused entirely on the lockdowns. Thomas lives alone in Paris and over the first few pages she wrote about the loneliness and the odd dreams and the tedium of going for the same walks day after day after day.
I nearly missed my stop. It felt like someone was reaching out from the book and grabbing my heart and throat. I was upset but couldn’t stop reading. I hated it when the introduction finished and Thomas moved on to the swimming, the core of the book. I wanted more. I finished the book in the end but, to my disappointment, the pandemic was not mentioned again.
As it happens, I wasn’t the only one reckoning with my unfinished business that week. Some miles away from south London, an eclectic mix of footballers, singers and politicians entered a camp in Australia. Though I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! isn’t usually required viewing for political anoraks, few wanted to miss out on the opportunity to watch Matt Hancock eat exotic genitalia.
In the end, however, the scenes that stuck from the first few episodes had little to do with the reality TV show’s trials. The clips that went viral on social media involved fellow contestants taking the former health secretary to task over the government’s handling of the pandemic. Hancock’s contrite smarm irritated many but, really, the most striking part of these exchanges were the raw emotions of the people challenging him. There was fury, of course, but also grief and sadness, and a sense that a culprit can and should be found for all the suffering we endured.
A discussion could be had about whether Hancock expected this reaction, or the extent to which he is personally responsible for that suffering. But in this context, the question I find more interesting is: did these contestants expect to get this upset at Matt Hancock? Were they taken aback by the strength of their feelings? Many of the events they brought up happened over two years ago; did they know they would discuss them with a ferocity that made them sound more recent?
We cannot know for certain, but the scenes definitely struck a chord with viewers. After all, the pandemic is a thing we all went through. It was horrible but it was communal. We haven’t really found ways to talk about it collectively yet. Should we try to?
That is the conclusion I cautiously ended up reaching after my week of high- and low-brow entertainment. It is normal to want to run away from a traumatic event the moment we escape from it, but we cannot do so for ever, lest it end up defining us.
I loathed the idea of lockdown novels and pandemic movies for a long time but, reluctantly, I have come to see them as necessary. If art can’t help us process the great and awful things that have happened to us, what is it for?
Far from being an end in itself, culture can act as a catalyst, provoking conversations that people want to have or should be having but never quite know how to begin. In its own tragicomic way, this is what I’m a Celeb is achieving. I just feel that we, as a society, deserve something a bit better as a springboard than kangaroo anuses.