Anyone else getting tetchy? I just had a huge argument with myself, and I think I lost. I can only imagine what it’s like for those of you who have to live with people. There are, essentially, two ways of being cooped up: on your own, or not. As even casual readers of this column will know, I am very much on my own. Little for me, essentially, has changed. The difference is one of mood, or the pitch of my anxiety. But how people are coping with other people around them all the time is beyond me. The Estranged Wife took the departure of the children badly, suffering acutely from empty nest syndrome, but now they’re all back. I mentioned this to the Moose and he replied, laconically: “Monkey’s paw.” I wonder how many others are in the same position, of perhaps thinking of being a bit more careful about what they wish for.
At least the children are all, technically, adults. I have a few friends who are parents of much younger infants and they – the mothers, mostly – are doing their nuts. My friend H— is semi-seriously wondering if she could report herself to social services so that her child can be taken into care.
I have been known to have a moan or two about things, on occasion, believe it or not, but if there is one thing I can’t complain about it’s the timing of my birth. Just old enough to be dimly aware of the Beatles when they were still together, old enough to get into punk rock when it was vibrant, just young enough to get into the rave scene, and old enough to escape being in lockdown with three children and a disintegrating marriage. And, as my daughter said when contemplating being confined indoors for the foreseeable future, “All my life I’ve been preparing for this.” I like to think I’ve set an example. The guilt I used to have when I stayed in all day has evaporated, and replaced by one of – what is this unfamiliar feeling? – virtue. Can this be possible?
I could be acting more virtuously, though – delivering food packages to lonely pensioners – but I’m in an at-risk group (dodgy lungs: a spot of pulmonary fibrosis, and asthma). Whether this puts me at high risk I don’t know: I gather the NHS will be texting me on Sunday (by the time you’re reading this, a previous Sunday) to inform me.
One thing I can do right now, from the safety of my laptop, is give advice. Yes, I know people are throwing out advice like it’s going out of style, and you’re all sick to the teeth of advice, but then, like my daughter, I have been preparing for this all my life. (NB this advice only applies to people on their own. If you’re stuck with any number of children and a partner whose flaws and drawbacks as a human being are being thrown into ever-sharper relief with each passing hour, then all I can say to you is “good luck”.)
The most important thing to do is stay in bed. Stay in bed all day. Never mind not leaving your home except for the most essential matters: don’t get out of bed, except to go to the loo and make yourself a nice cup of tea at some point. Not coffee: you need to sleep this one out as much as possible. But what, I hear you cry, about breakfast? About lunch? Look, I gave up on these meals a long time ago. They are bourgeois constructs. You don’t need them. You’re going to be sleeping a lot, and won’t be using that much energy.
You will, though, find that you can’t sleep all day long. You will need to read. Lots. And as you will find that your attention span has atrophied you will need to have lots of books on the go, so you can flit from one to another every few pages. Make them big, fat books, if you can. I found a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes knocking around and that’s doing me nicely. Ditto The Lord of the Rings, with which one can revisit one’s childhood. (Believe me, before this whole business is over, you’ll be reading the appendices.) I mentioned À rebours last week: I strongly recommend this, and Des Esseintes’s self-imposed predicament of misanthropic withdrawal can give you some ideas.
But my favourite has been Beckett. For some reason I started pining for him, the way pregnant women crave very particular foodstuffs, as if the body is saying, for its own good, “You need this stuff now.” So a saint in human form has sent me a copy each of Watt, Molloy and Malone Dies, and those should keep me going for a bit. The last one of these is particularly suited to the times. “I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all,” it begins. “Perhaps next month. Then it will be the month of April or of May. For the year is young, a thousand little signs tell me so.” Come on, what could be cheerier, or more appropriate, than that? Next week: what to do once you’ve finally got out of bed.
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special