My mother is 83. Her two sisters, Iris and Connie, are 86 and 91 respectively. They have all been widowed for many years but they are extremely lucid and generally in good health. Yet I have been inordinately worried about them as the coronavirus pandemic has deepened and accelerated: there are some days when I can’t decide whether we are living through an episode of the nightmarish BBC drama Years and Years, with its heightened sense of anxiety and constant background stream of apocalyptic rolling news headlines, or been transported into an early-to-mid period JG Ballard novel.
“It’s totally Ballard now, isn’t it?,” tweeted Suzanne Moore, commenting on the plight of those sun-loving tourists quarantined in a luxury Tenerife hotel. Remember that? Her remark made me smile at the time, but that was in February. It already feels like a very long time ago as we grapple with the lethal consequences of what President Emmanuel Macron has called the worst global public health crisis for a century, certainly since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20, the so-called pale rider that killed many millions. Every morning now I wake up and, once my thoughts clear, I experience an immediate, insistent sense of dread as I listen to the 7am news headlines: can this be happening?
I put this question, rhetorically, to my mother as I began my most recent conversation with her. I was surprised at how phlegmatic she was, much less anxious than me. I should not have been surprised. After all, she and her sisters experienced the depredations of wartime, food rationing and the Blitz – they grew up on the Essex/east London borderlands. My mother and Iris were also evacuees, an experience they disliked; my mother still speaks sorrowfully of being separated from her parents and of the strangeness and loneliness of the house in the Devon countryside where she and Iris were billeted.
When I called Connie one recent afternoon she too was as calm and stoical as my mother. Having lived through a world war the three sisters have few illusions: they are hopeful but never complacent, and they know what is possible – my mother especially despises anti-Semitism not least because she was alive during the Holocaust and remembers the liberation of the camps.
It’s at times like these, when I speak to my mother and her sisters about their experiences of the home front, that I am reminded of Albany’s lines at the end of King Lear, now more than ever perhaps: “The oldest hath borne most: we that are young/Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
A few days ago, we called some old friends in Mantua, northern Italy. They were well but confined to their house in an area in complete lockdown. They told us about what they were hearing from the local hospital, where doctors were having to decide who lived and who died because of the overwhelming numbers of the critically ill and a shortage of ventilators. They could not understand the British government’s initial high-risk response to the crisis. “What’s going on in your country?” they said. “Here in Italy we don’t understand it!”
What would JG Ballard, we keep asking ourselves in the office, have made of the coronavirus pandemic? He, too, surely would not have been surprised. “I’ve always thought that life was a kind of disaster area,” says Ransom, the narrator of his 1965 novel, The Drought. (Just consider that title or the title of his first novel, The Drowned World, if you ever have cause to doubt his prescience.)
I once interviewed (“Jim”) Ballard, who between the ages of 12 and 15 was detained in the Lunghua prison camp in Shanghai, about the experience of living under the brutal Japanese occupation. He recalled returning home to the city’s International Settlement, where his parents lived – he writes about this in Empire of the Sun – to find the houses eerily deserted. “It was like coming home to this street in Shepperton and finding everyone gone,” he told me.
We were in the sitting room of his modest semi-detached house on the Old Charlton Road and he looked out of the window that afternoon as if indeed he expected to find everyone gone. Those boyhood experiences left Ballard with a sense of natural injustice, of the provisional nature of things and of the arbitrariness of fate.
This was only reinforced when his wife died suddenly from pneumonia, in her thirties, during a family holiday in Spain. “A sense of dislocation can have a profound effect on a young imagination,” he told me. “It also leaves you with the sense that life is just a stage set: the whole cast and scenery can be cleared away at any moment. This gives a surrealist edge to existence, and leads you to think that there must be a truth to all of this.”
But where to find it?
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None of us will emerge unchanged from the present crisis, and those of us who are well should, if we can, look out for those among us who are vulnerable, or frightened, or isolated – something I know New Statesman readers would always do.
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning