I have been poorly lately: it might be the coronavirus but it might also be despair

It was one of those poorlinesses that leaves one all dizzy and confused,

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I am getting a little sick of hearing about coronavirus. Of course, I write this a week before you read it, and by the first week of March the country may be full of the dying. But somehow I doubt it. The statistics so far show that not many people get it, and not many people who get it die from it. As someone with an existing respiratory condition, I am on the at-risk list, so I’m allowed to be cavalier. It’ll get me before it gets you. And Brighton can be proud to have had one of the first super-spreaders in the country, if not the first.

It’s funny, though, seeing people wearing face masks. I saw a couple walking up the hill in a near-gale; far, I would have thought, from the kind of humid enclosed spaces that viruses thrive on. I saw a young person in the Co-op with a very serious-looking mask and also, as if for added protection, the hood of her parka pulled as far over her face as it could go. I could only make a guess at her gender, but I’m going with “her” because her eyes looked to be lightly rimmed with kohl.

The Imp of Perversity entered my soul as we squeezed past each other in the cold meats aisle, and I considered faking a full-blown coughing fit; but then I thought the better of it. Although when I found myself behind her in the queue, I couldn’t resist just doing two little coughs, coughettes – nothing that couldn’t be heard in any Co-op queue at any day of the week, at any time of year – and she turned round slowly to look at me. Then looked away. Then looked at me again. This happened three times; I’ve never been looked at like that before. But because I could only see the eyes, her expression was unreadable. I feel a bit bad about this now.

But I am insouciant. I have been to London; I have been to the pub. I even went upstairs, to the unventilated and packed room where bands perform, to check out who was playing (they weren’t very good and were wearing cowboy hats). In London I went to the British Library, where always, but especially in winter, you can hear a steady continuo of coughs, sneezes and sniffles. I travelled there on the tube, and that really is Infection City. I plan to be going there next Tuesday as well, and the Moose is coming on Thursday to Brighton where he will buy me lunch at a Chinese restaurant. (I have just read in the Guardian that “a multi-academy trust has closed its three schools in Wolverhampton, Stokes Poges and London ‘because our schools have some students of Italian origin’”.)

Actually, last week I was poorly, but it was one of those poorlinesses that leaves one all dizzy and confused, and makes you wonder how much of it is actually illness and how much is despair. The past two weeks have been spent under conditions of the strictest austerity, what with people not paying me, and my bank account going further and further into the red even though I haven’t been spending any money, and my phone company turning a £40 bill into a £175 bill.

I’ve been on a budget of a tenner a day, which is pretty tough to maintain when you have to either meet your son at the pub, or take the train to London, or drink at least a bottle and a half of wine before you feel anything. Here is my tip: get a bottle of the Signal Post Shiraz, which is absolutely disgusting, but is on offer at only a fiver a  bottle at the Co-op. You will only be able to drink half a bottle in one sitting.

The other tip is to just stay in bed, reading. This is something I do quite well, if I say so myself. With no prospect in sight of anyone actually sharing it, the bed itself becomes a library, and there are about a dozen books in various stages of having been read, or, in some cases, reread. One of them I’m even being paid to read, which means that I will need a pencil to makes notes in it. Luckily, I bought a pencil from the British Library for this very purpose. British Library pencils tend to come with some rubbishy inspirational quote from someone you’ve never heard of about how great books are. This pencil is no exception.

“Today a reader – tomorrow a leader,” it says, attributing the words to one Margaret Fuller, of whom I had not heard. According to Wikipedia, she was the first American female book reviewer, so I salute her from across the centuries, but that quote… Well, it’s not her fault, I suppose. How was she to know? 

I entertain a brief and bitter reverie in which the world is actually run like that. I am President of the United States of America, and Donald Trump is sitting in a basement flat in Brighton, wondering where it all went wrong. And, now I come to think of it, feeling a ticklish feeling in the lungs and wondering if he was right to laugh at people wearing face masks. Cough, cough. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 06 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10

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