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16 June 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 11:58am

Douglas Kennedy’s Diary: The orchestra’s return, US abortion wars, and how to be a traveller in the time of Covid

Since last summer I have loitered with intent in Switzerland, Sicily and Greece. Am I a modern-day Typhoid Mary? 

By Douglas Kennedy

I had my 11th PCR coronavirus test on the eve of my recent departure to Paris. I thought back on the previous tests as I awaited this newest one. Most of them were mildly unpleasant nasal incursions, but two, in which the doctor seemed determined to touch an eyeball with his probe, were out of the Marquis de Sade playbook. The nurse in Maine administering the most recent one was a model of no-nonsense New England flintiness. When I winced she said: “The price of travel.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Since the first lockdown eased last summer I’ve loitered with intent in Switzerland, Sicily, Greece, Germany, France – and then fled to Sweden when Macron announced a new confinement in late October 2020.

My friends at home in the US often asked how I was getting away with an ongoing peripatetic life amid the madness of Covid-19. My answer: an Irish passport (I’m a dual citizen), and the rigorous use of the mask whenever in a public situation. My two doses of the vaccine (I am now properly post-Moderna) added to the veneer of security. But certain people accused me of dangerous behaviour by moving around so much, as if I was a modern Typhoid Mary.

This time of global hibernation and viral paranoia has truly helped us define our personal relationship to risk. I’ve known Covid-phobes who have hardly left their place of residence for more than 15 months. Then there are idiots like myself who did a winter road trip through such hardcore Republican states as Wyoming and Montana, and even North Dakota – where the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention-approved face-covering is considered a public declaration of emasculation.

But every time I await the result of a Covid test there is always that existential worry: what if this time I get a positive verdict? When the recent one came back negative all I could think was: 11 times lucky.

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Indeed, I feel like a gambler – but one who is still wearing a damn mask.

[See also: My lockdown nostalgia]

The end of Roe vs Wade?

I noted with dismay a news feed informing me that the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, recently “agreed to consider a major curb on nearly 50 years of abortion rights in the United States, saying it will decide whether states can ban abortions before a fetus can survive outside the womb”.

My new novel, Afraid of the Light, is about an Uber driver in Los Angeles who finds himself driving into the toxic epicentre of the entire American abortion miasma. I remember very well my lapsed Catholic father telling me, after the Roe vs Wade decision was handed down in 1973, that this was an important moment because it would end so many women having to find backstreet abortionists to terminate their pregnancies. By the 1980s, when the Republican Party started realising that the evangelical Christian vote was key to its new electoral strategy, it also discovered that being “pro-life” (to use that curious anti-abortion tag-line) was a vote-getter in the Bible and Corn belts. Since then abortion has become one of the most overheated issues in American life. With a six-to-three conservative power margin on the current Supreme Court, the death knell for Roe vs Wade is nigh. And social regression continues to define the American horizon.

Civilising influence

I got into France without any questions or threats of quarantine. I showed the officer at Charles de Gaulle Airport my European passport and PCR test. I was waved through. Back in the tenth arrondissement – where I have had a pied-à-terre for 11 years – I walked over to my outer office: the Hôtel du Nord, an early-20th-century café-restaurant facing the Canal Saint-Martin. It was late afternoon. The terrace outside was packed. I found a table. The patron sauntered over and we bumped elbows.

“You’re back, Douglas!”

“So are you,” I said, surveying the crowd inside and out, knowing that the Hôtel du Nord had been closed for more than a year. He told me that during the past year of lockdown, he had longed for “the simple sight of people on a terrace having a drink and talking. That is civilisation, n’est-ce pas?”

To which I could only think: all those quotidian realities we once took for granted – like sitting in a café – should now be revered.

On which note: I ordered un pastis.

The medicine of music

Another civilised pleasure that had been denied to us for months was being able to watch a live orchestra in full throttle in a concert hall. After stopping by the Hôtel du Nord for un apéro I jumped on Ligne 5 of the Métro up to the Philharmonie de Paris.

The concert was given by the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse – a first-rate ensemble, with a dynamic music director, Tugan Sokhiev (whom I’ve heard guest-conducting the Berlin Philharmonic). Yes, all the seating was socially distanced. And yes, the concert was performed without an interval and started at the seriously early hour of 7pm (as this was the last night of the 9pm curfew in Paris). I was hardly complaining, as the last time I’d heard an orchestra live was in Stockholm in November 2020, right before the Swedish authorities stopped all public concerts.

The programme at the Philharmonie concluded with a galvanising reading of Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony. As the symphony’s famous central theme reverberated around the concert hall, I found my eyes welling up. A Nietzschean epigram (he wrote a few) came to mind: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” To which I could add: especially during a pandemic.

Douglas Kennedy’s new novel, “Afraid of the Light”, is published by Hutchinson on 8 July

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This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web