While many learned to bake or sew in lockdown, I have revelled in the beauty of isolation itself

Enforced isolation has brought less familiar pleasures, such as finally getting my bookshelves in order. 

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As I trace the daily circle of my suburban walk, I quite often encounter the poet Roger McGough wandering the circumference in the opposite direction. We nod silently, as men do, and I think of his poem “Isolation”, which captures the important appeal, for the likes of me, of lockdown: “I like my isolation/Within easy reach of other people’s”. As we glimpse the end of isolation through the miraculous vaccination programme, spare a thought for those of us who await our release with trepidation.

I am not blind to the suffering that lockdown has wrought. People less fortunate than me need to get their lives back and some of them need to be released from the people they are imprisoned with. I am very lucky in that the extended company of my family has been a bonus and a joy. Yet lockdown has brought less familiar pleasures too and, for those like me – those who, in Philip Larkin’s words, fear the sky might soon grow dark with invitation cards – there have been aspects to celebrate in enforced isolation.

I have not been one of those people who have filled their time with novel activity. My nail art is no better than it was and I have not learned to bake bread, embroider cushions or sketch with charcoals. The beauty of isolation for me has been the isolation. It has allowed me to do what I like doing, only more so.

We have been inordinately lucky that this pandemic struck in 2020 rather than, say, 1980. I have been able to call up, at the press of a button, a complete aural culture. Schubert said that Beethoven’s late quartets were music better than could be played and now I understand what he meant. I have discovered I still know all the words to every Paul Weller song up to and including “The Gift” and the albums that Sinatra made with Nelson Riddle in the 1950s are worth months at home on your own.

And that’s before we even turn the telly on. There was one day, three weeks ago, when I had three Test matches to watch and, as soon as stumps were drawn in Chennai, the first of three consecutive live Premier League football games kicked off. On the sofa reading Ben Pimlott’s biography of Harold Wilson and finding his childhood house in Huddersfield on Google Maps, will I ever see such times again?

Camus writes, in the great peroration in L’Étranger (The Outsider), that if a man in a prison cell could see the sky through a vent in the roof then he would have enough to occupy his thought for a hundred years. I now feel that way about compilation clips of Bob Mortimer on Would I Lie to You?

[see also: Gardening brings a momentum that is otherwise absent from my life right now]

I did set myself two lockdown projects. I have written a book, a style guide for people who want to avoid business waffle, that I began by accident one day when I was irritated by some cosmic guff from the boss of Microsoft. The second project, though, for which I still need a few months, is the work of a lifetime into which I shall one day dissolve. I have been trying to get my bookshelves in order.

Irritated that I could not find David Marquand’s The Progressive Dilemma, I decided this could not go on. As Harry Hill so wisely said, you’ve got to have a system. I contemplated shelving the books according to the colour of the spine. The library of Trinity College, Dublin ranks some of its books by size, which is tempting. Controversially perhaps, I decide to abandon all disciplines and shelve the lot alphabetically, by author. It is a mammoth undertaking and I fear the vaccination programme may have come too early for me.

I am doing quite well. Martin Amis is already back living with his father and Craig Brown is sitting next to Gordon. I’d love to know how John Gray is getting on with Spalding and Eddie. John Keane’s monumental book on the history of democracy is followed by Roy Keane’s second autobiography, which I am attributing to Roy even though the novelist Roddy Doyle wrote it really. As someone who refuses any hierarchical division in the arts, these juxtapositions please me. I am thrown off course a little by the always disconcerting experience of reading a superb book by a friend. I read Oliver Kamm’s Mending the Mind with all the loathing that admiration brings. I get my own back by filing him next to Peter Kay’s Saturday Night Peter.

Books furnish a room and measure a life. As I square them off on the shelf, order and beauty emerge together. My habit of noting, on the title page, where I bought the book brings back buried memories. There is a whole life in there, which I happily retrieve. Give me more lockdown time to explore the treasure within these covers. The shops being closed is such a good idea that I cannot believe we haven’t thought of it before. Think of all that wasteful capitalism avoided. It’s a left-wing paradise in which consumption is measured by need rather than desire.

I only half mean it, of course. The privations that others suffer vastly overwhelm the case of a pampered writer for whom lockdown is a welcome sabbatical from the endless acquaintances of life. We face a delicate task, we anti-social people, once lockdown is lifted. How do we resume valued friendships but avoid the diary filling up with the unwanted engagements we have been secretly delighted to do without?

The bookshelves, though, have a final jolt in store when they disclose that time is running out. When I bought that set of Dickens in the second-hand bookshop in Rye, I assumed that one day I would read them all. By now it has become more than likely that some of them are mere ornaments. There isn’t time to read them all. Unless we get another lockdown. Then I just might.

[see also: The novelty of idle time has worn off. Life in a pandemic is repetitive, and I am bored]

Philip Collins is a New Statesman columnist and contributing writer. 

This article appears in the 17 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth

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