I was going to write this column about how, if Michael Crichton is the novelist of my adult years, Michael Morpurgo was surely the novelist of my childhood. I was going to reminisce that none of the Baileys can quite remember when or how we first came to read Kensuke’s Kingdom, though it came out in 1999, when I was seven, so it was probably around then. It swiftly became a family favourite, cemented by our listening to the audiobook in the car on holiday (it might have been in Derbyshire, or perhaps Yorkshire; my parents are divided), and discovering that my father’s phonetic reading of Kensuke – Ken-sook – was in fact wrong: it’s Ken-ski. Much of the rest of the holiday was spent doing bad impressions of Ken-ski as read by Derek Jacobi.
Kensuke’s Kingdom is narrated by 11-year-old Michael, who sails around the world with his parents (who have both been made redundant from the local brickworks) and their faithful sheepdog, Stella Artois. No doubt I did not properly appreciate the name at the time. Then Michael and Stella fall overboard one night and awake on a small Pacific island, inhabited only by gibbons, orang-utans and a tiny old man who hardly speaks any English, Kensuke. Slowly, he, Michael and Stella come to build an unconventional family together on the island, Kensuke providing for Michael and Michael teaching him English in return. We learn that Kensuke’s Japanese navy ship was wrecked on the island during the war, and that his wife and child lived in Nagasaki… No doubt I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of that name, either.
And then I was going to tell you about the London Film Festival screening of an animated adaptation of the book, written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and voiced by Cillian Murphy, Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe. About how life-affirming, I imagined, it would be.
Except I caught Covid, and so I stayed at home. I had somehow made it this far, three years since the start of the pandemic, without once testing positive. But my growing belief that I had superhuman immunity that might be worthy of scientific study has proved unfounded.
While physically I do not feel too bad – I was far more ill with a cold a few weeks ago – it is unsettling to be transported back to the mental states of lockdown, which I spent many months chronicling in this column. The lines of personal and collective responsibility may have been redrawn, but they remain just as morally complex to tread. The government today essentially tells you not to test: if you have Covid symptoms, you are free to go about your normal life if you feel well enough to do so. If you are foolish enough to leave this state of blissful ignorance, on your head be it: test positive, and it’s five days’ house arrest for you. Of course, none of this is a legal requirement, nor is it in any way logical. My knowing whether or not I have Covid makes no difference to my biological ability to spread the disease – why, then, should I not just plead ignorance and follow the first, far easier course of action? I tie myself in knots once again about the best thing to do, about what everyone else would do in my situation, about what everyone else thinks about what I am doing… It all feels rather retro.
To view Covid as no more significant than the common cold after years of fearing it and sacrificing so much to hold it at bay requires a kind of consenting amnesia, a mental somersault I am not capable of. It reminds me of my history teacher, after five years of being “Mr Chick”, rocking up to my first sixth-form lesson and saying: “Call me Brian.” I can’t, Sir.
Another best-laid plan gone awry: I was due this week to attend the Royal Albert Hall for a live show of the podcast Off Menu, in which the comedians James Acaster and Ed Gamble invite their celebrity guest to share the menu of their dream meal. M— booked our tickets in April – rather optimistically, given we had then only been dating three months. “He must be confident it’s going well,” I said to friends at the time, reassured. Still, we made it to October, even if we don’t make it to the Royal Albert Hall.
The podcast played a role in our first date as, on discovering we were both listeners, we discussed our own dream meals. His involved his dad’s bhajis – not a euphemism – the sampling of which I have made a condition of our first meeting later this month. I repeat: not a euphemism.
This article appears in the 11 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War Without Limits