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22 July 2020updated 23 Jul 2020 7:48pm

How we live now

Deborah Levy, Ben Okri, Ahdaf Soueif and more explore how their lives have changed since the beginning of the pandemic.

By New Statesman

Deborah Levy: Sick mood at noon

During the peak of the pandemic I bought my vegetables from a Turkish grocery store in north London. The staff were wearing masks before any of the other local shop staff got their hands on one. The handsome son of the store owner leaned against a barrel of walnuts in his sky-blue mask, directing people into the shop, two at a time. His brother was cutting the ends off leeks, while his sister, about 16, her education on hold in the lockdown, was busy stocking the fridge with many brands of the same sort of yogurt. Plump London pigeons strutted outside the shop as if they now owned the street. There were no planes in the sky and their feathers had become glossy.

It took a long time to get to the till. It seemed that each customer had time travelled to a rural village in the 1950s and wanted to talk endlessly to the charming, flirtatious store owner. When it was my turn he reached for the fruit in my basket and tenderly held a golden, freckled pear in his palm, as if it were a breast. “This one is perfect,” he assured me. Did I know he had a good stock of flour in now? Yes, I did. And what about yeast, did I need some?

No. I was bored with baking and couldn’t wait to buy a Cornish pasty at a railway station.

“You’re a beautiful lady,” he murmured behind his mask.

My hair had grown wild, my eyes were pink and itchy with hay fever. ‘Thank you,” I replied. “It’s true that everyone wants a piece of me.” We both laughed under our surgical masks in the sunlight. When a pigeon flew into the shop, his daughter, bored with yogurt stacking, threw a giant onion at its head. Someone in the queue suggested she throw an apricot, instead. It was hard to read people’s expressions with masks on. Our voices were disembodied, snuffly, our lips and teeth erased.

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I unlocked my bicycle and started to pedal home. What with the cycle helmet and my black mask I looked like a bank robber, apart from the leek poking out of my bag. An ambulance drove by. There was a lot of pollen in the air and I started to sneeze. Another ambulance approached from the opposite direction. It did not have its siren on but the blue lights were flashing. In a way it felt more ominous to signify an emergency with silence rather than noise.

There was not much other traffic on the road. Everyone who was not keeping the infrastructure of the country from collapsing was living in a digital square on Zoom.

A few joggers were trying to dodge the walkers on the pavement. They looked like zombies fleeing the apocalypse.

The problem with the frantic jogging rhythm was that it inflamed the nervous system of the walkers who were trying to keep calm and not scream out loud. Yet, the anguished expression on the faces of the panting, groaning joggers, resembled the very scream the walkers were trying to repress. Before Munch painted The Scream, he painted Sick Mood at Sunset. As I cycled through the Sick Mood at Noon, time had congealed. It did not matter if it was Monday or Friday.

Later, when the peak of the pandemic had flattened, I switched football teams to support Manchester United, in honour of Marcus Rashford. It is a tribute to his mother that she raised a son who could so eloquently articulate the reality of her life and of his childhood. Despite the masks we are currently obliged to wear, the contempt, or perhaps just plain lack of respect from well-fed Etonians for the valuable minds and shamefully hungry bodies of our nation’s poorest children, has been unmasked. This is the major mood in which we now live.

Ahdaf Soueif: A planet in extremis

The bright zigzag flung itself crackling across the sky and the world flickered, through the cracks the thunder growled and rushed and burst so close overhead that we ducked, and then the deluge. All night long sharp sheets of grey rain lashed the drugged, drowsy river.

In the morning the rain had stopped but the river was glinting and flowing fast; rafts of uprooted vegetation swirled their way to the Mediterranean, the egrets that would normally be riding them watching warily from the bank. The water was the highest we’d seen it for decades – since the Sixties when the High Dam went up at Aswan. By its side the jasmine and hibiscus had flowered overnight and the peaches had ripened.

I’m voluntarily self-isolating at home, in Cairo, by the river. With the lockdown the lights went out in the rowing clubs across the water, the scratchy blare and neon of the pleasure-boats vanished, the noise of the street was stilled. Everything melted into silence, and through it the birds came. Families of swallows flitted and hid and chased each other through the trees. Kingfishers dived near the garden wall. A variety of storks played at statues on walls and moored boats. Crows hopped and eyed and cawed. Pairs of green mallards lifted off from the water in parallel – just like their ancestors on temple walls.

The blue Nile: “with the lockdown… everything melted into silence, and through it the birds came”. Credit: Glen Pearson/Millenium Images

My grandson and his parents are isolating with me and I watch a small human take on the world and make it his own. At two and a half he spins on a rope swing, counts steps, squeezes oranges, climbs ladders, draws circles, polishes tables, demands music – and names e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. He is mischievous and merry and loves gags. Now that he knows there’s an order to things his big joke is to threaten to disrupt it. At every bath-time he cracks himself up as he pretends he’ll throw his used T-shirt into the bin and his used nappy into the laundry basket. He counts one, two, three and his eyes shine as he prepares to throw a seven in where it doesn’t belong. He’s not amused when one of his adults does it. Reality has to be solid enough to make its denial a joke. Disruption is amusing only if there’s an established order; an order tolerant of disruption.

Beyond our railings the pandemic comes closer. We now know people who know people who’ve died. Covid-19 has also provided the regime with a new crime: spreading false rumours regarding Covid-19 – and a new opportunity to increase the isolation of our 60,000 political prisoners and the slowness of a justice system gone awry. New arrests are among those closest to us. In Sinai a low-level war simmers. To the south a giant dam might finally stop the flow of the river running at our feet. Above, below, surrounding it all a planet in extremis.

As the lightning broke open the sky I took comfort in the show of nature’s force; in a world made simple. As simple as it becomes when the little one puts his hand in mine and demands to be lifted into his swing. He leans back in the big tyre and contemplates the canopy of palm and mango above him. “Big,” he says quietly, to himself, “b-i-g.”

Kathleen Jamie: A bag! Remember those?

Once the first fear wore off, and the sense of transgression that accompanied every venture outdoors, it became my habit to take the dog up on to the hill. If it’s clear – and we’ve had some stunningly clear and silent days – you can see a long way upriver.

Though I’ve lived here, beside the River Tay, for a long time, I soon realised that I didn’t know the names of the more distant hills that form the north-western horizon. The highest, an unremarkable lump around 30 miles away, has kept a patch of snow on its flank. Since I noticed the snow patch, it’s become a talisman. Over the weeks of lockdown, as the spring flowers have come and gone, I’ve been keeping a weather eye on it, checking it through binoculars, watching it shrink. Would it last till the solstice? Will it last until the end of this strange hiatus? When it disappears, will it mean all this is over?

But what days. They’ve taken on a lapidary feel, so much light. Also a convalescent feel, even for one who hasn’t been ill. Don’t do too much. Less of the busy-ness. Each day feels somehow encapsulated, brightly bound within itself like a raindrop, almost hallowed, with no spilling out of the present into the future beyond. There has been no planning. I now realise how much of every present day is usually spent planning the future, for myself, for the family, for students; organising work and leisure, booking this and arranging that, then travelling by car or bus or train or plane towards it. God, traffic. I love the lack of traffic.

So, I am forgetting the future. It has gone distant and hazy, a shrinking snow patch. But without all that forward momentum, a mental space has opened and into it, memory has arrived. On these walks, I’ve found myself remembering my girlhood – certain days of promise and no responsibilities and not-unpleasant boredom. I’ve also recalled the lonely years of my young womanhood, of not knowing what my life was for. A succession of days into a shrinking future.

And a feeling of sadness. Grief for it all.

Last week we watched the latest series of Line of Duty. At one point the detective leapt from her chair, grabbed her bag and raced off to confront violence, corruption, murder, thrill. A bag! I thought. I used to have one of those. I used to need one.

Ben Okri: Death hovers over us all

For the first time in living memory I am alone with myself. I don’t have to go out. I don’t have to show off. I don’t have to spend money. I don’t have to dress up. I don’t have to keep up appearances. For the first time everyone is almost in the same condition as me. The rich are locked in their houses and the poor are locked in their council estates; our situations are different, but our condition is the same, because death hovers over us all. It’s true that the poor and the blacks and health workers are dying more than the others, but the others are dying too. We’re all afraid of this death that hovers outside, in the air, but we are all afraid differently.

It’s as if nature is compelling us to be still, as if it were enforcing Pascal’s maxim that the cause of all human unhappiness is the inability to sit still in our rooms. Some still can’t sit still of course. There are those who must tell others how to sit still, those false Hollywood gurus who can’t restrain themselves from teaching others how to live.

It seems to me like we all need to learn how to live right now. And solitude seems a good place to start.

Our whole culture teaches us to run away from ourselves, to run outward into the world, to parties, meetings, work, travel. Everything in society distracts us, as if we were children. Adverts fill us with desires we don’t have. We work at other people’s dreams. Rarely our own. We work to make other people rich. Rarely ourselves.

Now death is making us think. Making us think by shutting down the world. Keeping us inside. In isolation. For the first time we see the possibility that death can come from the other, and that our salvation is in being by ourselves. The pandemic is proving to be quite a church. Did you know that not even priests are allowed to go to their churches and pray? We are now all forced to pray, if we pray at all, inside and alone. Our homes are to be our churches. We are to conduct mass within our spirit.

I wonder how the engine of the world still runs. I wonder about those health workers who risk their lives to save others. So many of them have died. I see their faces, their beautiful young faces on my phone, online. We clapped for the health workers every Thursday evening at 8pm. It was the one act of public solidarity. We stuck our heads out of our windows and clapped and beat on drums and sounded the bagpipes for them. But is that enough? Not that long ago there were plans to sell off the health service and turn it into its dire, inefficient and inadequate American model, where if you have no money you will perish; a model designed not for all the citizens, for the health of all, but only for the health of those who can pay. In our age, a health service that is not universal, paid for by all of our taxes, is nothing short of barbaric. Good health ought to be a basic human right.

Sorry, I got carried away there. But this pandemic has come along and changed the fabric of our lives. It has become clear that we can’t return to how things were. It has made things clear that were confused before. We need society. We need one another. We need international cooperation. There are some things that only the state can do, things such as looking after people when a disaster like this happens. Only the state can do that. We can’t trust companies or conglomerates to do it and to do it selflessly, for the benefit of all. If the state can shut down society and pay the wages of people who can’t go to work, then there are a lot more things the state can do that it wasn’t doing before. Many urgent questions come to the fore.

Because of this lockdown the air is cleaner, wildlife is returning, the sound of birds is clearer in the cities. Have you seen the skies this clear and blue before? It is now obvious that with a little will the nations of the world can end the climate catastrophe hanging over us. Not only can we change. We have all changed overnight. It has happened. The pausing of society is the rejuvenation of nature. How did it come about that we lived our lives to the immediate and disastrous detriment of nature?

And all because we can’t sit still in our own homes.

But it is over eight weeks now of lockdown and we are all, in our isolation, beginning to climb up the wall.

I have never stared at my bookshelves so much. Suddenly people I haven’t spoken to for a long time come to mind. My sleep is broken and strange. I am having the most vivid and the strangest dreams I have had in my life. Food tastes different. I go out for my one walk of the day and the air looks weird. I realise it is clean and magical to the eye. Less fumes in the air. The world looks pristine. I read differently from before. Why? Time has become strange. It is both longer and shorter. It is longer because there is more of it, shorter because there is more of me.

Maybe the real thing about this lockdown is that we are meant to confront ourselves as never before. For some this is a nightmare. For others it is a revelation. Quite a few people I know say that for the first time their own thoughts can rise within them. Their minds are suddenly clearer. Many are surprised at who they have become. It as if they have become a stranger to themselves and are meeting themselves for the first time properly. Wordsworth said somewhere that the world is too much with us. Perhaps we are too much with the world. Perhaps we need to be more with ourselves.

Absence from ourselves is perhaps why there is so much anomie in the world. Loneliness is not really about being alone. It is about not being at home with oneself. Being deprived of ourselves makes us flail and flounder. And because we forget who we are, we also perhaps forget what we want, or how we want to be, or how we want to contribute to the world.

It could be said in a sense that death has given us back to ourselves. Nothing else could have forced this mass solitude, this mass self-encounter. It was only through the pause of the mechanism of society that the magic of the self might be experienced.

Why is this important? Because the world is made by us, whether we realise it or not. We are part of what makes the world what it is, for good or ill. Perhaps we have been too little aware of our place in it, our contribution to it, or our lack of contribution to it. Perhaps this pause gives us a chance to examine ourselves, to ask what kind of society we want to be part of, what kind of world we want. It’s only in the confrontation with ourselves that we can ask this question in a personal way and answer it. We needed this period to go back to the new normal of the world and chose the kind of world we want to be part of. There is no going back to how things were. There is only a going forward. A new going forward.

A new going forward awareness. A new awareness of where we are.

It’s time to practise freedom, rehearse our liberty. Ask awkward questions.

We all ought to be less passive, more sceptical, and more alive. I feel we are in a new time and new responses are needed.

A new going forward awareness.

This piece is performed by the actor Lucian Msamati on the “Go on” podcast

Douglas Kennedy: The sound of separation

One by one the emails arrived. Konzert abgesagtConcert annulé… Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic this concert has been cancelled.

One by one I began to cope with this mounting feast of losses. Missing Kirill Petrenko conduct a concert version of Beet-hoven’s Fidelio with the Berlin Philharmonic. Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées. The entire Beethoven symphonic cycle with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique at the Barbican under the ever-revelatory John Eliot Gardiner. And my beloved London Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle with a truly remarkable programme: Wynton Marsalis’s Symphony No 4 with the combined forces of the LSO and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

From the age of ten onwards – when I was brought to one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic – I have carried on a long, passionate love affair with orchestras. Music is my High Church. I may not believe in God but I do believe in Johann Sebastian Bach. And given that my work as a novelist (and having grown children) allows me considerable geographic mobility I spend a significant part of the year travelling to hear music.

An orchestra can be used as a metaphor for so many facets of the human experience. It’s one of the few platforms where we experience the societal importance of playing as one. There’s the paradox of a talented individual voice finding expression in a communal sound. To watch a conductor at work is to bear witness to the way that we collectively allow an individual to shape a narrative. And then, of course, there is the sonic power of even a middling orchestra. To hear a great orchestra in full expressive flight is, for me, always a moment of transcendence amid the mess of life.

Cancelled culture: “to hear a great orchestra in full flight is always a moment of transcendence”

Lockdown meant that live orchestral music came to an abrupt halt everywhere. I was en route back from Manhattan to Paris when the wheels came off the global bus. I retreated with my daughter to my house in Maine. And I have been here ever since.

Our digital age may have killed off all vestiges of privacy and reinforced the surveillance state… but it also allows you immediate access to BBC Radio 3 anywhere there is wi-fi. So my writing studio in Maine has become my concert hall. Especially every day at 7:30pm GMT (2:30pm in New England) when I sit down to listen to Radio 3 in Concert. I could spend several paragraphs explaining why Radio 3 remains the pre-eminent classical music broadcaster. Just as I could detail the manifold pleasures of putting the world aside for two hours and immersing myself in the evening concert.

Of all the remarkable performances I have heard during these long months, one convulsed me with a true sense of loss: Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) at the 2011 Aldeburgh Festival in Olivier Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Messiaen’s 1964 composition is a memorial to the dead of the two world wars; a work of high modernism, scored without strings, that speaks deeply to all the unanswered metaphysical questions of the human condition. Rattle’s galvanic reading – with the CBSO’s woodwinds, brass and percussion on impeccable form – had me in tears. Because, like all great art, it grapples with the intangibility of temporal life and that profound need to seek some form of consolation (sacred or otherwise) in a pitiless world.

At a juncture when the future of live musical performance is under threat, this remotely experienced concert also served as a reminder: orchestras are not elitist constructs. Rather they are an essential cultural cornerstone – and, for me, truly reflect the mighty and reassertive noise we must continue to create together.

Johny Pitts: On mediocrity

When the world went into lockdown, I was in Amsterdam working on a podcast, and had a series of exciting events lined up across the summer: an adaptation of my book Afropean: Notes from Black Europe as a performance at the Southbank Centre in March, a holiday in Japan with my family in April, a spot at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, an invitation to the National Geographic Explorer’s Festival in Washington, DC in June… it was all booked and paid for. Instead, I found myself relocating with my pregnant partner and our four-year-old daughter to my mum’s terraced house in Sheffield, making the most of the extra support and the only place I have access to that has a garden.

For the first couple of weeks I carried the frantic – almost manic – energy from the previous few months of my life into this new reality. I was suddenly time-rich, but planned to fill the freshly acquired freedom with new self-imposed pressures. I’d cross the threshold of fluency in French, get in great shape, read dozens of serious books, work on a photo essay about my childhood home, radically reorganise my digital workflow system, and finish the proposal for my next book. As time went on, however, a gentler pace of life started to creep in and atmospheres I hadn’t experienced for years, maybe not in this century, began to emerge.

When was the last time I was laid on my mum’s sofa on a Sunday morning, watching dust particles float in sunbeams spilling through venetian blinds? In 1998, perhaps, just before Football Italia and The Waltons? Yes, I remember this; this stillness, this slowness, this reduction of information, the outside world that stays outside. I get a strange little thrill every time my daughter complains of boredom and five minutes later is entertaining herself drawing, dreaming up baddies for “Star School Amaze” – a new series of bedtime stories we’ve developed with its own universe, in which Célia and all the friends she’s missing are superheroes. Célia, who always wanted her mum to put her to bed, now demands that I do it!

I’ve become unproductive and procrastinatory, my energies refocusing instead on the beautiful everyday. I natter about nothing to my mum’s next door neighbour Mohammad, who I grew up with. I am putting together a family scrapbook and making frequent trips with my partner to care for her dying father. As the world crumbles perhaps all this seems a bit oblivious, and yet never before have I felt I’ve been as much in service to others. Yes, OK, we’d like to think our toil and art is a service to humanity, but wouldn’t the world be better if we took more time to nurture and support those around us, instead of this constant pressure to power up capitalist structures?

My life in lockdown has been a life lived in the present. My body has settled into a circadian rhythm my freelance life usually denies me. I’ve had to work, of course, but the surrounding energies have been reduced – fewer bullshit meetings, and when a Zoom call is inevitable I can do it while drinking a rum and coke disguised in a coffee mug if I feel like it. All in all my lockdown life has been thoroughly mediocre. Or what I’ve now termed “Mediocre-Amaze”.

Simran Hans: Education and the everyday

How I live now is with a permanently clenched jaw. I’ve spent the past five months with a knot in my stomach, shoulders tight, tension headache. “Melt your shoulders down and draw them away from your ears,” I hear my yoga instructor’s voice telling me, as I sit hunched over my phone. I spend weeks stewing in silence. Nobody notices, or if they do, they don’t say anything. I open WhatsApp and hover over the words “Exit Group”. I click, and adrenaline floods my body.

A week later I open an email from my friend Jemma, who has been running a weekly teach-in on Zoom. She’s sent a link to a YouTube video titled “Fred Moten on figuring it out”. The African-American poet and scholar has written extensively about the unacknowledged methods of learning that take place within institutions between black people. The idea of the “refusal of the academy of misery” derives from black studies, as per Moten’s 2013 text The Undercommons. Still, his point, that intellectual work can take place in everyday life, is something we all might find useful. An education can occur in joyful, informal, unstructured group activities – and not just by accident. Work, life, love and leisure can serve a scholarly purpose.

Lockdown has restructured our days. Without punishing commutes or relentless social commitments, time has appeared to open up. Perhaps there has been extra space to think. Yet this surplus of time and space hasn’t given way to rest. In fact, it’s created the conditions for the opposite. It’s no coincidence that the pandemic has collided with global uprisings calling for black liberation. Radical learning. Unrest.

“Let’s get together to see how we can get out of this,” says Moten in the YouTube clip. “We’re interested in the moment at which this weird inkling or transformation might begin to occur,” he explains.

The past months have been characterised by a strange, shifting energy. My own energy has recalibrated itself, too. In leaving that WhatsApp group, I have extricated myself from a “we” who couldn’t help me figure things out. What you pay attention to grows, writes Adrienne Maree Brown. In turning my attention elsewhere, I have felt the seed of transformation begin to flower.

Kitty Drake My mother’s house

I’ve started sleeping in my mother’s bed. She is 63; I am 28. I moved in with her because we both had the virus, but that was March and I’m still here. Sometimes I wake up in the night and her eyes are slightly open, like a shark. She likes to keep at least two inches between us, but once she’s asleep I creep my hand over and rest it lightly on her patch of duvet. We have new rituals: by day, my mother has taken to wearing a sailor’s cap, and eating all her meals with a spoon. When I question her about these things she eyes me slyly: “You’re obsessed with me.” I worry about this being true.

When she was ill, sleeping like this felt precious. My mother has never liked to be touched but in that first month, she began to let me touch her. At one point, there was a corona-induced shortage of her anti-depressants, and for the second time in my life, she allowed me to see her cry – which she said stung her skin, because her face is so old. The next morning we ate biscuits together wearing matching aprons, hoicked up under our chins like big bibs.

It is only relatively recently that human beings started living alone. Before the 20th century, only 5 per cent of households in the world were made up of one person. Multiple generations of the same family lived together. Being this physically close to your mother was the norm. I used to feel guilty about how much I needed her. I set a lot of store by the idea of becoming my own person – but now I’m not sure that sort of stable personhood is even possible. We are a number of different selves, with different people. When you live this closely with someone you also live through them.

But sometimes in the night I look over at her and she seems very far away, and mysterious to me. I am aware of wanting something of hers – her stillness, and her solidity – and feel frightened that she can’t give it to me, and that I can’t seem to find it in myself.

I move out mid-July, at my mother’s request.

Simon Armitage: Life through the windowpane

Like Robinson Crusoe, I’m currently living a life that is both a dream and a nightmare. In hectic periods in my life I’ve fantasised about spending more time at home in Yorkshire, revelling in solitariness, writing, reading, thinking, goofing off as the Americans say, and generally catching up on tasks both literary and domestic. But I miss the encounters and the experiences. No matter how unusual this situation is, the day-to-day reality is very predictable and entirely familiar. Dystopia was always more exciting than this in the films and books. On top of which it’s sad and worrying – a lot of loss, anxiety, and only a vague glow of light on the horizon.

As a consequence I’ve become a kind of writer-in-residence in my own house, and super-conscious of my study as a “place of work”. Although as Laureate I’ve been writing about the pandemic and attempting to address topical matters head on, in more introspective hours (of which there are a great many) the creative process itself has come under scrutiny, especially when I’m sitting under the Velux window over my desk. The confrontation between thought and blank page has escalated dramatically for me during lockdown, and the two poems here are negotiated settlements of a kind, attempts at resolving the daily stand-off. 

Read Simon Armitage’s poems “Velux 1” and “Velux 2” here.

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This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special