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22 July 2020

We have to accept uncertainty, whether we like it or not. That, I realise, is the key to surviving

I have fallen in love with the new book by Michèle Roberts, which could not be more timely, even though it was written before anyone had heard of Covid-19.

By Tracey Thorn

This is the time of year I write a holiday column. I should be doing my annual restocking of the travel medical kit, buying too many books, and digging out those once-a-year clothes from the back of the wardrobe in preparation for spending a week in the sun. Although this year we were actually going to drive down to Cornwall.

We’ve had to cancel, as I knew we would. The limits of Ben’s shielding don’t expand to fit this kind of trip – a shared house with friends coming and going, a long car journey with many stops, or a long train journey. Even if we could get there, the pessimist in me pictured rainy days, and Ben sitting two metres away from the rest of us, doing a jigsaw puzzle. At that point I thought, “No”. We will stay at home and enjoy the rain here instead.

I always knew bad weather would make lockdown harder. One thing that has helped me in the past couple of weeks is that I’ve got back to reading, after finding it difficult at the beginning. And I have fallen in love with the new book by Michèle Roberts. It’s called Negative Capability: A Diary of Surviving, and it could not be more timely, even though it was written before anyone had heard of Covid-19.

It begins with a setback – the draft of her latest novel being poorly received by her publisher – and she opens with these straightforward words: “Yesterday ended in disaster. Very late at night, I decided to write down everything that had happened, the only way I could think of coping. So here goes.”

What follows is a very everyday diary, with a chapter for each month of the ensuing year, full of meals, and gardens, and friendships, and philosophy. Thoughts about books sit next to thoughts about families and lovers; sexual fantasies sit beside interpretations of dreams.

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She talks about female friends and ex-lovers, and they are of that generation who spent the Seventies and Eighties living communally, struggling with the status quo, looking for “an end to bourgeois possessiveness!” Now they struggle with Air BnBs, and phone apps, and feeling washed up, but always refusing to give in.

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As a fellow diary-keeper I understand her coping impulse; the way in which the recording of events can amount to an act of survival, a way of restoring order, gaining control, however illusory, over the events of our lives.

The mood of her diary is sometimes active and defiant: “I’ll survive this, just you wait and see. I’ll be rediscovered when I’m 90, you’ll call it a comeback but I’ll have been writing away all along, I refuse to give up so just fuck off and leave me alone!” At other times it is deflated, and a bit lost: “I still couldn’t face doing the washing-up, or any housework, so I went out into the back garden for a bit, just staring at it.” That aimless helplessness feels very familiar.

The meals are a delight, and chime with my feeling that food is a highlight of our empty days: “I made lunch, a Spanish-style dish of a few cod scraps gently cooked in olive oil with red peppers, sultanas, some leftover spinach, flavoured with garlic and paprika, served on a bed of chopped watercress.” On gloomy days she adds booze, as needed – “I drank two glasses of white wine, thinking: to hell with it.”

The book is about existing in a state of uncertainty. Will her novel be published? How will it be received; will it find a home, or love? And what might it all mean for her future as a writer, the survival of her creative identity? The title comes from a letter written by Keats in 1817, which describes the quality he most admires in writers, especially Shakespeare: “I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

She couldn’t have hit on a more pertinent subject. We must accept uncertainty, whether we like it or not. And her diary-keeping – which spins a story out of the confusion – proves that while it’s possible to create a sense of order, “Sometimes you needed the narrative and sometimes the timeless moment. You could enjoy both.”

I am reminded to keep on trying.