Single in the time of coronavirus: I pinch this shamelessly from my friend and fellow hack Y—, who has been dumped. I can’t think why, as he’s very funny, half my age and has a head of thick, dark hair. (I find myself, during conversations, staring at young men’s hair. “Look at all that… hair,” I say to myself. Not in any homoerotic way, I just wonder if they appreciate it and know that it won’t always be like that.)
Anyway, this whole self-isolation thing: I’ve really got that locked down. I have seen a steady trickle of ha-ha-I’m-a-freelance-writer-here-are-some-tips-about-working-in-your-jim-jams pieces. But I think I have the expert’s eye on this one. Plenty of books, plenty of booze, plenty of whatever else takes your fancy, don’t get out of bed until the afternoon is well advanced, and there you are.
It is important to have several books on the go at once. Nothing contemporary if you can help it. I’m on an Iris Murdoch/Graham Greene jag at the moment. Sometimes something will leap out at you. From The Honorary Consul: “I used to pray in the police station. I prayed I would have a girl in bed with me again. You are not going to tell me that was not a real prayer.” No, Aquino, I’m not.
But sometimes you can pick up something that might not be contemporary but has contemporary resonance. A couple of years ago, when I was last living here, I bought, for no reason that I could think of at the time, a copy of The Plague by Camus. I can’t find my copy here; I must have left it in Scotland. But I do remember making lots of notes on the inside cover, and I’m kicking myself now, because I could have used those notes to say something superficially clever about the current situation.
Right now I’m racking my brains to remember: a) what happened in the book and b) what I said about it. Of course the plague that the city of Oran suffers is a metaphorical one – everyone is pretty much agreed it’s about fascism, but it isn’t an act of hopeless literalism to see the book as being about an actual plague too.
The odd thing about the current situation is that – for the time being at least – the reaction seems to be out of proportion with the number of cases and the seriousness of the disease. Plagues tend to involve buboes and horrible, inevitable deaths; here we seem to be talking about something that kills only a fraction more than the number of people who are killed by flu.
But I’m no epidemiologist, and so cannot say whether everyone has gone mad or whether the precautions that are being taken are sensible. I suppose, by definition, a precaution is sensible. Also, a useful rule in life is to generally do the opposite of whatever Donald Trump advises. Since his position on the subject was that everything is fine (although the US’s new travel restrictions do somewhat contradict that stance), then perhaps a little panic might not be a bad thing.
As it happens, as of today, I do have a dry cough (if no other symptoms, unless extreme lassitude is a symptom rather than a state of mind) so I am glad I did all my stocking up yesterday. I spent £21, which is the most I have spent on any shopping that didn’t have alcohol in it. I have been so affected by the national mood that I even bought a cauliflower. I am trying to remember the last time I bought a cauliflower. I think I may have bought one in Scotland but I can’t be sure.
But, as I said, if anyone’s prepared for self-isolation, it’s me. When you’re on a budget of £10 a day, even going to the pub becomes an unrealisable fantasy and the main thing to do is to spend as much time in bed as possible. Until the afternoon, did I say above? No: the thing to do is stay in bed until the evening.
I did go stir-crazy some months ago, but that was because I was acutely conscious of the way that everyone else was living a normal, sociable life. If the rest of the country is in lockdown – and how the Italians are coping I can’t even begin to imagine – that’s different. (“It’s like living in a Ballard story,” says my friend D— from Milan when I ask him, and presumably not one of those happy-go-lucky, finish-with-a-smile-on-your-face Ballard stories, but one of the grimmer ones in which people end up eating their dogs.) The other day I thought to myself: I know what, I’ll pretend I’m in prison, and use the time to write a novel. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Meanwhile, Y— writes to me asking if he can stay for a couple of days. That, I assure him, would be a delight. And we can pretend we’re rewriting the Decameron, and tell each other dirty stories while civilisation collapses around us.
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning