Forty days in isolation and counting. It has become quite eerie, but not without a sense of calm in which to get on with the work we freelancers would do at home anyway. Sometimes the hours hang heavy, so lots of us are devising ways to enjoy the time we suddenly have on our hands. One of them is the Poetry Exchange: a chain email in which we each post a poem to whoever comes top of our list. I’ve had a good number already, almost all from total strangers. I’ve received a parody of Browning – “And after April, May and dismay follows/And the death toll builds, and all the sorrows” – and “The Duty of Trees” by Connie Bensley, a delightful, gentle piece. Blake, Heaney, Betjeman all feature; there’s even a poem translated from the French-Canadian. There are many ways of kindling a love of poetry and this must be one of the most oblique and satisfactory.
In this strange life we’re living, some things unexpectedly join up with others. I am co-chair on the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, and fulfil for non-religious prisoners the role of chaplain (all prisoners have the legal right to pastoral care of their beliefs). I sent one of the poems I received from the Poetry Exchange on to National Prison Radio. Myself and others made audio clips of poetry to provide comfort and human contact to prisoners at Easter, many of whom no longer have gym and educational facilities because the virus has created staff shortages. Alf Dubs, AC Grayling, Andrew Copson and Christina Patterson have each made recordings. My poem was by Spike Milligan “Smiling is infectious/You catch it like the flu/When someone smiled at me today/I started smiling too.” How timely.
The broadcasts are proving so successful that the prison radio service is asking for more – yet humanists are still refused a Thought for the Day slot on the Radio 4 Today programme. Some arcane ruling within the annals of the BBC decided long ago that humanism was not a bona fide world-view. The world has moved on since somebody made that decision: humanists now even have authorisation to conduct weddings and funerals. In both Scotland and Northern Ireland, they have legal authority to do so (and in England and Wales, it can only be a matter of time).
Meanwhile, humanist celebrants – who are trained to devise personalised ceremonies rather than follow traditional text – have been conducting funeral services online. In one case, I’m told, the chief mourners joined the ceremony via Zoom and it was live-streamed to more than 100 other attendees through Facebook.
With no coffin there, a lighted candle was placed symbolically in the foreground with the celebrant. Poems, tributes and letters were read out with chosen music, and then, at the point of what would have been the committal, the candle was blown out. People were comforted and astonished at how it achieved the sense of a “real” funeral.
Routines that once seemed inevitable are giving way to imaginative and comforting forms of contact. Let’s hope some of this generosity of spirit survives.
Trouble for television
I was one of 100 signatories on a letter to the government concerning the two million jobs in the creative industries. Seventy per cent of those working in music, writing, performing and the visual arts are self-employed. Although the Chancellor’s package will help small businesses, including lots of arts venues, many individuals depend on one-off bookings or are on zero hours contracts, with only the very celebrated performers in constant work.
A new report published on 14 April highlights problems specific to the television industry: a mere 17 per cent of freelancers surveyed were in work and 54 per cent had their jobs cancelled. Two thirds are not eligible for government support. The situation is dire. Where will all the entertainment we depend on in these dark days actually come from?
Art for all
I’m lucky: I have a day’s work ahead. On 26 April, Sky Arts will be going live online with an adapted version of the series Artist of the Year, which I co-present with Stephen Mangan. Plans for the March recording of the next series had to be postponed. This time we will each be in our homes and on our laptops, including the celebrity sitter, the three judges and the competing artists. The programme will be transmitted in real time, as the painting proceeds.
The novelty, of course, is that the viewing public will be able to join in, not just watching but also painting in their own homes. The Sky series has a loyal television following and on each of the landscape episodes we have to turn away many who apply. In the new format they can all join in and have a go at portrait painting.
Many of us are enjoying our gardens. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are full of blossom and spring flowers; growing things offer comfort. But garden centres, for whom this should be a bumper time, are being forced to close. With no customers, many are simply junking their stock of growing plants.
This is so sad. Is there nothing to be done? Why not distribute them, leaving pots and seedlings on people’s doorsteps, or even send bunches of flowers to hospitals and care homes. NHS staff might be surprised and pleased. We’d all be glad to see a smile on their faces; none deserve it more.
This article appears in the 22 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The coronavirus timebomb