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A Hundred Days of Solitude. Blog 8

Blog Number 8 [Saturday 4 April]

M and I start off every day with music. It’s supposed to lift our spirits. Today [Saturday] we listened to two Purcell songs, Plainte: O, Let Me Weep and Dido’s Lament. Not exactly jolly little numbers. Spirits not greatly raised to be honest. I imagined Dido’s evocative cry Remember me! echoing through the locked down houses of the country. Depressing news yesterday of two young nurses catching Covid-19 and dying. The mood has turned against the government. The rolling out of tests has been a complete shambles. We no longer watch the daily 3-podium’s briefings where the minister and advisers play an inverted form of pass-the-parcel hoping not to be landed with answering the question when the music stops.

Yesterday was delivery day. We awaited the Waitrose guy with his bags of goodies. He arrived early, dropped the bags on the step and drove off whistling cheerfully to the next cocooned household. We had potentially contaminated bags with potentially contaminated goods inside. M though has a strategy: don plastic gloves, pick up bags, take into house, dump on the floor, take items out one by one, wipe them down with diluted bleach, put them away, take all bags down to the cellar, discard gloves, wash hands thoroughly. Overkill? Who knows? Kill or be killed, I say. Incidentally, who sings ‘Happy Birthday’ twice while washing their hands? What a naff choice that is. I prefer ‘Auld Lang Syne’ though, like most people at New Year’s Eve, I can only get as far as the first chorus. That’s long enough. I link my superclean hands with the rest of the world. Symbolically, that is, in case you are wondering. 

Beech Croft Road came out in force again for the clap-along on Thursday night though Dot didn’t march down the street in a yellow tutu playing the accordion this time. We can be thankful for small mercies. Everybody smiled and looked happily around. But will we still do so three months down the line? 

Trump trumps himself each time he opens his mouth. This time, urging every American going outside to wear a mask, Batman or Joker if you can’t get a proper safe one [my words, not his], he declared he wasn’t going to wear one himself. After all, how could he greet “presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens” in the Oval Office while wearing one? Surprised that “dictators” were not first on the list. It’s voluntary, he said, which means, he explained for the simple [himself], you don’t have to do it. And he wasn’t going to. Mixed messages doesn’t quite cover it.


Catching up on last Saturday’s Review section of the Guardian. I came across this wonderful put-down of Harold Pinter. It concerned his poetry of which he seemed to be in need of reassurance.

“Every time it [a poem] appeared in the Observer he would buy a bundle of copies and send them to friends who were expected to tell him how great they found the verse. On one occasion, Pinter send a two-line poem to the playwright Simon Gray. (“I saw Len Hutton in his prime/Another time, another time.”) Not getting any reply, he rang Gray and asked him if he’d received the poem. And then: “Did you read it?” “I am only halfway through it,” Gray replied.”

This appeared in Sudekhu Sandhu’s review of Conclusions, a memoir by the film director, John Boorman, he of Deliverance fame, a film I would not hesitate never to watch again. 

There’s an art to the put-down. Dorothy Parker was renowned for them. Of Katherine Hepburn, she once said “Come, let’s all go to see Miss Hepburn and hear her run the gamut of emotions from A to B!”[i] Ouch! And Evelyn Waugh. On hearing that doctors had removed a benign tumour from Randolph Churchill, Waugh noted, “A typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it.”

Spring is here

Yesterday morning M and I took our essential exercise and walked to our old stomping ground, the University Parks. The good weather brought people out, but one jogger apart, all kept a respectful 2 metre distance. It seems very English somehow this idea of friendliness at a distance. In the old days – I mean the really, really old days, 50-60 years ago – when you met people, you didn’t actually touch them. Not even shaking hands, which was seen as a strange continental import or used only to seal a business deal, preferably spitting on your hand first. 

Somewhere along the line that changed and touching became the norm. Shaking hands when you meet people, then, with friends, there was the ‘moue-moue’ air kiss, something that failed to take off in parts of the UK. Northern Ireland comes to mind. Paddy will no doubt tell me why, possibly because kissing is seen as a terribly Catholic thing. Like worshipping icons and genuflecting. I speak from ignorance as you might have gathered. Then came the man hug. The technique is to hug from the chest up – you certainly don’t want contact lower than that! – and maybe a quick pat on the back. Politicians are a different matter. Here touching is a power game. Shake hands firmly then clamp your other hand on the other guy’s shoulder and manoeuvre him into Downing Street or wherever. Bill Clinton had it down to an art form. Does this bring to mind that awful video of Teresa May – remember her? – and Trump? How he clasped her tiny hand in his tiny hand as they strolled out for the cameras, like uncomfortable would-be lovers in a school play. It must have been the most embarrassing moment in May’s brief premiership. And there were many to choose from. I’ll just say, Dancing Queen.

Some of you – to date, only Jini actually – are sending in clips to be used an Antidote. I will get to them though what you find funny, others [i.e. me] may not. Remember The Book of Mormon, Bahram? You laughed like a drain whereas I did not. And as for the NT’s One Man Two Guvnors M and I watched in stony silence and switched off before the interval. Alright, before you write in, it may be me. I have never been a fan of farce. Why Brian Rix dropping his trousers should be funny escapes me? [For the younger ones amongst you Brian Rix was an actor who played at the Windmill Theatre in London, a place that put on farces, and also nude shows]. Sadly, my brother and I never could persuade our parents to take us to a nude show despite appealing to their liberal views on education. 

Antidote No. 8

Pete and Dud’s one-legged Tarzan audition sketch. A classic

[i] Works better in American English where Z is pronounced ‘zee.’

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Another day, another…what? Certainly not ‘dollar’ as the number of people working has plummeted. M and I watched Monday’s Panorama yesterday. The lockdown is producing heart-breaking stories, a single parent suddenly without income and two kids to feed. Universal benefit? Impossible to get through online or on phone. I admired her forbearance. She was made redundant and won’t come under the new Government guidelines as they apply only to those in work. If her employer takes her back…but what chance of that? An independent Belfast supermarket desperate for supplies and wondering how long he can survive. A pharmacist propping up his business with his own money in the hope that there will be some relief from the Government. Panorama is only 30 minutes. It used to be an hour and it should be again. We needed expert analysis to accompany these stories. 

The word ‘expert’ takes me back to Michael Gove who famously dissed all experts when Education Secretary. Not doing that now, Michael, are you? In fact, you would have no idea about reagents needed for safe testing without experts to tell you, would you? This government, winging it at the best of times, is panicking. They have belatedly realised that testing is the key, to making front line staff safe, to monitoring the spread of the virus, to getting people back to work quickly, and to establishing those who have antibodies and are free of the illness. South Korea provided the example. Germany is well ahead of us. We are now scrambling around for test kits and finding – surprise, surprise – they are hard to get. As with the chance to buy more ventilators that was so cavalierly ignored – we don’t need help from anyone else – now we are behind on testing. Not to mention protective equipment for NHS staff and volunteers.


The media is full of advice on how to structure your day in lockdown, from deep clean your kitchen cabinets – that sounds fun – to organise and minimise your email inbox – another fun task, hooray! The Independent suggests you clean your car – why? – and, rather sweetly, suggests writing thank you notes to friends and posting them, claiming the recipients will be “thrilled to open some real mail.” Really? Would you be? I mean I have jettisoned the tongs and paper knife that I improvised to pick up and open letters – I kept dropping the envelopes, contaminating more surfaces, and stabbed my hand once rather painfully – but I don’t need more stuff coming in. My scientist friend, Bill, dismisses contamination on paper and cardboard as “very unlikely.” Not good enough, Bill. I need to hear “it will never happen, ever.” For some reason scientists don’t want to say that.

The truth is you don’t need to take on tons of new tasks. It will only make you tense. Like if you try to find that box of old slides you meant to convert to digital. I am speaking from experience. M told me, wrongly, that I had the slides in my study when all along they were sitting a foot away from her in her own desk! Mind you, I am a magnanimous person and didn’t complain, well not much. The truth is I found all sorts of stuff in the search of my study that I never knew I had. I spent a pleasant hour going through the treasure trove I had unearthed, mostly wondering why I had stored the things and occasionally wondering what on earth an item was. M came up to see what I was doing. I showed her my finds. Bin them, she said. What? Why would you keep this bit of black metal? She held up a square black disk with a ratchet attached to it. Anyway, what is it? I don’t know. So bin it. It might be a vital part of something.So vital that you have done without it for three decades? I couldn’t think of a reply to that. She left. I surreptitiously put the metal thingy into a cupboard behind some box files full of old psychology articles I will never read again. Just in case.

Culinary matters

4-0 to us. You know what I mean.

Before the apocalypse food was, well, just food. You bought stuff, cooked it, ate it and, if you are M, froze half of it for later [good idea that as it turned out]. Now we spend a lot of time thinking about food. Up top amongst our thoughts is, what shall we have for dinner? A typical conversation goes:

Pasta tonight, maybe carbonara?

We had pasta yesterday.

No, that was the day before.

Are you sure? What day is it today?

Er, Monday? Tuesday? 

[Checks iPhone] Wednesday

So we had pasta…when was it? 

And so on. I’d like to tell you that the conversation over the actual dinner in the Marzillier household is much more sophisticated. Unfortunately I can’t as we are both generally reading or watching the news. 


Are you bored? Who answers ‘yes’ to that? It’s almost a sin to be bored. You have got to fill your time with useful activities, or useless ones as long as they’re actual activities. M and I reminisce – we do talk to each other sometimes – about the dull boring Sundays when we were kids. Nothing on TV until the evening and then only 2 channels. Or none if you didn’t have a TV for a long time like M’s family. That was when ‘streaming’ meant your nose running with hayfever and not trawling Netflix for something funny to watch. Strange how many funny programmes turn out not be. I thought a Coogan/Brydon clip from their ‘The Trip’ series might be a good Antidote. I watched four or five clips, including their impressions ones, and I didn’t chuckle once. Have they changed or I? Or perhaps, under the shadow of Covid-19 and the ever increasing death toll, two celebrities whiling away their time in sunny Greece and Italy, eating fantastic food and exchanging banter, seems simply wrong. Lovely Italian humour instead.

Antidote No. 7

The Italian way of handwashing, with thanks to Miles Roddis,

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Those fortunate to live in Beech Croft Road received an email from the Residents’ Association congratulating us on surviving a week of lockdown. That’s presuming everyone did survive. Difficult to tell from behind closed doors. It’s definitely more than a week, M said at our morning agenda setting meeting. Depends when you started counting, I said. From the beginning, she said. [The ‘Duh’ was silent though I detected it]. Yes, but what constitutes the beginning [Silent ‘Duh’ in response]. This led to a fruitless 15 minutes of argument about the beginning of [a] the virus in the UK, [b] the lockdown advice from what we laughingly call the Government and [c] life, the universe and everything. We even forgot the most important matter: what to have for dinner. [BTW those desperate for news of our battle with the breadmaker you will be pleased to know we are 3-0 up. Mind you, I’m worried about complacency. The machine has infinite patience].

Philosophical Musings

Time. We have lots of it though is that possible? Is time a commodity like prunes or bread flour, things that seem to loom large in my mind these days? I recall that several months ago I bought a slim paperback called The Order of Timeby Carlo Rovelli. I dig it out from under the to-be-continued reading pile. A bookmark tells me I got to p.37, possibly put off by the next section heading, ‘Now’ Means Nothing

Digression: I am reminded of my Philosophy Finals for which I was, shall we say, woefully underprepared. I confronted the question: Is it possible that there should have been nothing? Three possible answers popped into my head: yes, no, and it depends what you mean by ‘nothing’. None seemed satisfactory. I wrote some waffle on Spinoza and only later realised I had meant Leibniz. When the marks came in, I got  b+?+ on that paper. I have always wondered if I hadn’t got that how my life might have been different.

Back to time. Rovelli opens Chapter 1 with “Let’s begin with a simple fact: Time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.” Really? Yes, really. That seems a bit unfair. So time will pass more quickly for those on lockdown in the Cairngorms than us poor folk in Oxford. Two pages on and we are into Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and I’m struggling to hold on. I find I have underlined a comment: “But there are not just two times. Times are legion: a different one for every point in space. There is not one single time; there is a vast multitude of them.” I am immersed in a multitude of times, it seems, only I don’t know it. Rather like Moliere’s bourgeois gentilhomme discovering he’s been speaking prose all along. What I really want to know is why when I have an infinite amount of time, or even infinite amount of times given there’s a multitude of them, I never seem to have enough time for the things I want to do. I mention this to M who says try getting a Waitrose order.  

Passing the time

So what are others doing? Apart from posting jokey stuff found on the internet that everybody is doing. Most of them involve Trump but then there’s scarcely a dearth of material. Sometimes a person is called a mass of contradictions, indicating a complex personality. In Trump’s case he’s entirely made of contradictions and nothing else. No complexity there. Simplicity of the infantile kind. Charitably, one might say that it’s his poor memory; he can’t remember what he says from one tweet to another. But ‘charity’ and ‘Trump’ should not be in the same sentence. 

Many friends are discovering the delights of virtual communication using one of several Apps, Zoom, House Party [which sounds like a rave], or Google Hangover [which sounds like the consequence of House Partying]. Inspired by our natural leader, Bahram, the pub group met at the usual time [6 pm, Saturday] and conversed over Zoom. Some brought beer and pistachios. One of our number was knocking back a bottle of white wine at a great rate [no names…]. Bahram wore a skirt, which he claimed was a dhoti, though looked like a skirt. Perhaps forced isolation has made him come out as pangender, to use the word my MP, the delightful Layla, chose to identify her sexuality. Good word that. You can truly be all things to all men and all women. One good thing the virus has done, I mean in addition to kicking Brexit into touch, is curtail the endless discussion of who should use the woman’s loo. This comes under the label of ‘trans’ for some reason. Please don’t enlighten me. 

Zoom –  I can’t speak for the other communication Apps – allows you to project everyone onto the screen at the same time in what’s called a gallery. This is not a good thing. Not only are you faced with a full-on view of your friends, who – let’s be frank – don’t look exactly film star material, but you also see yourself. Horreur! And there are what I will call issues. What’s the etiquette on who’s to speak and when? One of our members claims expertise in Zoom although I am distrustful of Paddy claiming expertise in anything other the politics of Northern Ireland. If you are not speaking, he counsels, put the mute on. What? We are here to chat not to listen respectfully to our friends. You can’t chat, Paddy, if you are on mute. Mind you…sorry, perish the thought. Chris decides that anyone who wants to speak should put up their hands and then proceeds to ignore his own suggestion by cavalierly interrupting all the time. Richard, who by three-quarters of the way through had not yet spoken, put up his hand and then by the time we’d got to him, he’d forgotten what he wanted to say. Easy to prompt though: West Brom. Then there are the inadvertent aspects. Keith, if you are going off to take that private important phone call, put Zoom on mute. We can all hear. Yes, I’m sure it was your daughter, Kate. Anyway, time passed whichever of the multitude of times we were in, and then how do you leave? Obviously, you press the Leave the Meeting button on the screen. But who goes first? Easy. Tim does. I have had enough of you lot, he says, and he’s gone, leaving a black screen in his place. Tim tells it as it is.

Going out

I confess. M and I went out for a walk yesterday. It was only round the block. We could describe it as ‘essential exercise’ but in truth there was not much in the way of exercise. We were just desperate to go out. Those who did go out yesterday, most people of our age judging from our friends’ stories, will know that it was freezing cold and there was a howling gale. We were glad to get back inside. Will we all develop agoraphobia, do you think? This was our daughter, Kate’s question as we zoomed each other. That would be ironic. M and I cut our psychologist teeth treating agoraphobics, taking them out for walks on Denmark Hill and around Camberwell Green in the heyday of behaviour therapy. This seemed to work pretty well until I met the redoubtable Mrs Hewittson on the Peckham Estate. I tell the story in my memoir, The Gossamer Thread. My Life as a Psychotherapist. It reads like fiction although it is the unvarnished truth. A resounding defeat for the therapist in three bruising rounds. I would like to tell you it changed my life. It certainly didn’t Mrs Hewittson’s.

Antidote No. 6

The delicate playing by Vikingur Ólafsson of Rameau’s The Arts and the Hours from his new CD, Debussy-Rameau

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We are so busy! We are confined to the house and garden and yet rush around doing stuff. What did I do before? How did I have time? Oh yes, I remember, going out for coffee. I miss that. Shopping. I don’t miss that. Jogging, well, walking in my case. Fairly fast [okay not that fast]. I do miss my walks along the canal and in Wytham Woods. During the 8 pm clap-a-long last night, reminiscent of the Christmas truce in WW1, as we tentatively shouted to neighbours across no man’s land [the street], John Boardman told me that even Otmoor RSPB reserve is closed. Ridiculous, he said, I ignored it. There was no one there. Well, I thought, that’s because it was closed. Still I see his point. 

Widespread TV footage, taken from a drone, of an elderly couple walking harmlessly in the Peak District, not another person in sight. Amazingly, it is used to shame them. Who is sending out drones over our National Parks? Looking for what? Drug dealers? Hardened criminals? Leadership contenders for the Labour Party? How is that irresponsible when a certain Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and his cabinet of cronies continue to sit cheek-by-jowl on the front benches? What a surprise! The PM has the virus. And the Health Minister. And, probably, the Chief Medical Officer. But not Pritti Patel, which goes to show the virus is truly undiscriminating, for in my book, and most others in the Bodleian library, she is the most useless of the useless, a Home Secretary who doesn’t know the difference between terrorism and counterterrorism. Still, it’s not all bad. We don’t have Trump.

Culinary matters

M and I meet in the morning to set an agenda for the day, of which the main item is what we should eat for dinner. M a bit touchy about food since she read my last blog. The dialogue was a complete invention, she maintains. What does she expect? I am a writer. I write fiction. I wrote a memoir. Anyway, she goes on, checking the best-by-dates is only good sense. We are eating not for preference but by date, are we? You will thank me, she says, when we are down to our last avocado. I said I definitely would though she’s the one who eats the avocados. 

Saunsbury’s downgraded us. We are no longer privileged. We are just old. And that’s not enough for Mr Sainsbury and his staff, it seems. M switches to Waitrose. A different story: we are given a slot for an online order to be delivered on Thursday. Clearly, the really privileged people know to shop at the right places. Might try Harrods next. Or Fortnum and Mason. We discover Gatineau, the delicious French bakery in Summertown for those who are unfortunate not to live in North Oxford, are delivering! Phew. Thought we might have to do without almond croissants. That would be real hardship.

Spring is here [almost]

This spell of fine weather, the hopeful harbinger of spring, reminds me of when we moved to Oxford nearly 40 years ago. I took the month of April off between jobs, a gap month you might say. In glorious weather we explored Oxford and the surrounding countryside. And now the sun is shining and I have endless time and nowhere to go. Not Wytham, not Otmoor unless I am prepared to risk the wrath of the police, no doubt crouched behind bushes waiting for would-be transgressors. Or maybe they are just sending up drones. Portmeadow is open. Hard to see how it could be closed. No doubt it is packed with people who are social distancing and their dogs who are not. Can dogs carry the virus? A Pomeranian – a dog for those who don’t know – tested for the virus according to the FT. In the same piece, Dr Ho, a microbiologist from Hong Kong University, said not to worry. “Even if dogs coughed droplets [of the virus], they would not go too far.” Tell that to the happily salivating dog bounding up to you. Or better, their owner. Before I get too many emails from the dog lovers amongst you [I’m thinking Bob, Anne, Max and my sister], I think dogs are a delight except for the yappy small ones that just make too much noise. More likely that we humans infect our pets than vice versa, it seems. Anyway, we’re not even allowed to walk anywhere now that Johnson has succumbed. He posted a chippy little video in which he said he’s not too bad and he’s working from home. No sign of Carrie though. Then she posted a video where she’s smiling happily and cuddling the dog. Anyone like to guess why she’s so happy? Wonderful video of Cummings running away from 10 Downing Street like a bat out of hell. Keep going, Dom-boy! The further away you are from government, or indeed everyone, the better.

Just discovered that if BJ succumbs, Dominic Raab is in line for the stand-in PM. God help us. Another Dominic. What is it about Dominics? Google has the answer. Dominic is a name common among Roman Catholics and other Latin-Romans as a boy’s name. Originally from the late Roman-Italic name “Dominicus”, its translation means “Lordly”, “Belonging to God” or “of the Master”. For the moment we’ll pass over the ‘other Latin-Romans’ whoever they may be. If you have a name that means Lordly, Belonging to God or of the Master, might that make you feel a little self-important? [Apologies in advance to all the lovely Dominics who have been trying all their lives to live down their name]. 

Antidote No. 5

You may not have heard of ‘Spaced,’ the Channel 4 comedy written by Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynde [Stevenson as she was then] or think it’s not aimed at you [it wasn’t] but I challenge you not to laugh at this clip,

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A Hundred Days of Solitude. Blog 4

Wytham Woods in lockdown! So much for my planned solitary walks. Blenheim is an option. Not the same though. A different form of landscape beauty. Enlightenment rationality to pagan wildness. 

In the 1960s I once broke into Blenheim. Well, not on my own. A group of us decided to gatecrash the Conservatives Ball there. Peter Mackenzie Smith was going out with the daughter of the Head of Security. She knew of a back door that had to be kept open for safety reasons. James Pitt, a local, knew where we could scale the wall. A madlong dash across the grounds, in through the back door and, composing ourselves to look like Tories, we walked along a corridor, turned the corner and ran into the Head of Security! He paused, looked at us, looked at his daughter and passed us by without a word. I don’t know if his daughter got into trouble afterwards. BTW the Ball was pretty crap. At least we didn’t pay 15 guineas – yes, tickets sold in guineas then – to get in.

Opinion is divided about our PM’s broadcasts to the nation. Some think he’s been pretty bad. Others that he’s been truly awful. The view from abroad has not been – how do I put it delicately? – favourable. The Italian mayor of Bergamo, the city hardest hit by the virus, flew his daughters back from England, thinking they would be safer in plague-ravaged Italy. A Greek newspaper declared Johnson was “more dangerous than coronavirus.” Macron, he of the wagging finger of admonition, threatened to close the border with the UK unless the UK pulled its finger out [fond of fingers, M. Macron]. 

After days of shilly-shallying, BJ went for the full Churchill, or as full as he can make it, which in truth is just below the level of a bad Churchill tribute band. “You will fight it in your homes by, er, staying home, you will fight it in the parks by, er, staying home, you will fight it in the cities by, er, staying home, you will fight it in your jobs, by, er, staying home.” Frantic attempts to look properly prime ministerial were undermined by the ruffled mop of flaxen hair, by the haunted look in his recessed dark eyes, and by the white knuckles on his fists closed hard on the desk to prevent them from any gesticulations, V signs, for example, might be misinterpreted. 

Breadmaking and other culinary matters

The second loaf a success! We think we have mastered the machine. It is unperturbed. It knows we will fail at some point. It bides its time.

M is given ‘privileged access’ to Sainsburys and makes an online order. Funny, before the apocalypse, any idea of ‘Sainsburys’ and ‘privilege’ being in the same sentence would have raised an eyebrow a la Roger Moore. Waitrose, now that’s a different matter. We add a quart of milk and a pack of wholemeal sliced bread for the unprivileged Kate, which is probably not allowed but, hey, how can they know? In case you are thinking, we were not being mean. Our home-baked bread was into its second day and there was only the crust left and that went to the birds. M is very keen we eat up every little morsel. 

  • ‘Fruit for dessert? There’s an apple we can share.’[M]                                                            
  • ‘It’s tiny! What about the Sainsbury’s Taste the Same, Basic Apple Crumble that was just delivered?’ [Me]                                                                                                                                   
  • ‘It’s got a long date’. [M]                                                                                                              
  • ‘But how long have we got? And there’s lots of cream left and…’ moment of triumph… ‘it’s on its last date today.’ [Me]                                                                                                            
  • ‘OK.’ [M]                                                                                                                                  
  • Phew!

Did anyone watch the BBC programme on the rise and rise of Vladimir Putin? From KGB minder of the stonkingly corrupt Mayor of St Petersburg to President without a trace of politics. Worth it to see Boris Yeltsin again. He of the drunken stumbles and crazy leer. What is it about politicians called Boris? Do you remember the airplane incident? In September 1994 he failed to get out of his plane at Shannon Airport to meet the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds. It was supposed he was drunk or ill or both. The next day the Irish Times ran a cartoon on its front page which depicted a bottle of vodka bouncing down the plane steps while an onlooker states “At last a message from President Yeltsin.” It was Boris who backed the virtually unknown Putin to be his successor. When Putin is crowned President, a film crew records the happy Boris, surrounded by excited friends and family. “Time to call Vladimir,” someone suggests. Boris smiles, stands up unsteadily and picks up the phone. He asks to be put through to Vladimir. They all wait with bated breath. Silence. Eventually Boris puts down the phone and says, “He is busy. He will call back in an hour.” Of course he never does.  

Antidote No. 4

Wonderful ‘lockdown version’ of Ode to Joy [Thanks to Gabrielle Townsend for the link].

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A Hundred Days of Solitude Continued

Blog Number 3 [Saturday 21 March]

‘How many days have we been on lockdown?’ [Me]

‘Five, I think. Maybe 6.’ [M]

‘It feels like a month.’ [Me]

‘Yes, I know.’[M]

And what will a month feel like? I thought but didn’t say. A year?

We have bread!

First the important news. M and I tackled the breadmaker. It is not as formidable as it pretends to be. Out of the 22 bread recipes we chose the basic wholemeal, measured the ingredients, dropped them in, switched it on and left it to its own devices for 5 hours. Occasionally, one of us of would go over and check it, which was frankly superfluous but somehow essential. Finally, the moment of truth came and M carefully lifted out the baked bread. Oh, manna from heaven, so to speak! It was perfect. Well, truth be told it was a little misshapen, a slight dent at one end. No matter. Impatiently we waited until it had rested after its exertions and then cut a slice. As Tim would put it, it was the best wholemeal loaf we had ever eaten. Now I know the true breadmakers amongst you, like Bahram and Frances, who eschew all machines and get their hands dirty kneading away, well, not literally dirty, at least I hope not, will scoff at us starry-eyed novices. But we felt truly blessed and had we been of the persuasion would have blessed the bread itself.

Escape to the woods

On Saturday morning we snuck out of the house and drove to Wytham Woods. Our first outing. It was 8.30 when we arrived. Just one other car in the car park. We stuck to the main ride as M is not keen on mud. Difficult to walk in Wytham without getting muddy. We met just one person. A brief greeting at a safe distance. Otherwise, it was blissfully bereft of other humans. I love Wytham whatever the weather, the silent cohorts of trees, the sunlight filtering through the canopy, the twittering of birds, and at this time of year, the green shoots bringing promise. The snowdrops are now over. Clusters of pale yellow primroses line the ride and, amongst them, tiny purple violets peeping out. Beneath the trees the earth is swathed in varieties of green, small shoots pushing up in hope. Wild garlic and bluebells will be here in a few weeks. I first came here in 1982 shortly after we moved to Oxford. I can still recall the exact place I saw a doe and faun, resting in a slight depression, staying still rather than fleeing. I tiptoed past. And a few years later, the place among the beech trees where a fox, unaware of my presence, was trying to flush out squirrels. Or the hill down which a badger was waddling, out early in the fading daylight. Memories. Even if I see nothing of note, Wytham always has me under its spell.

An hour later the car park was filling up. As we drove down the hill three more cars came up. In the late afternoon, the car park was choc-a-bloc, said Bahram, so that he and Jean were forced to go back. Selfishly, I hope that this is just a first flush of weekend escapees and that during the week, I will find Wytham quiet again. 

The virus of anxiety

The virus infects in more ways than one. It invades the mind and sets off cascading waves of anxiety. Or so I found when I read a paper Angela Coulter sent round that showed the so-called mitigation strategy was completely wrong. My opinion of the calm, authoritative Sir Patrick has changed. WTF was he thinking? Herd immunity? Not remotely right. Or was he pressurised? It was Cummings, it seems [from a Times article, again sent by Angela] and now he’s had a ‘Domoscene’ conversion [typical journo cleverness that] and wants the whole country closed down. Like in India it seems where a BBC video shows eerily empty streets. By Presidential decree though for just 14 hours. Is that sensible? Is that question sensible in these senseless times? 

I used to be a psychologist. I knew all about anxiety. Didn’t stop me spiralling into panic mode. I calmed down with the help of M and some yoga. We have a choice as I see it. We can follow all the twists and turns via emails, twitter, blogs and websites, or we can get on with our lives, restricted as they are. I prefer the latter. Just in case you want to write and tell me there’s a middle way, I’ll just say ‘Tony Blair’. 

Don’t stop sending me stuff, Tim, Angela and all the rest of you. I will file them away for future reference. That is, assuming there is a future. 

Imaginal CBT

Therapist: John, do you detect any negative thoughts in that last remark? Anything that might be a wee bit OTT? Overgeneralised? Irrational? Unhelpful?

Me (in defensive mode) No.

Therapist: Hmm.

Antidote No. 3

The simple pleasure of listening to Mozart. Daniel Barenboim playing Sonata No. 11 in A Major K331.

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A Hundred Days of Solitude

Blog Number 2 

Thank you to those who encouraged me to continue the blog. A minority I admit but others remained silent and I will follow the maxim, qui tacit consentit. Particular credit to Pete Cotton for the suggested change of title. Sarah, you can have yours back now. 

Fantasy and reality

A curious state of mind as I start the third day. In one part of my mind I know that I am confined here for months but in another I think at any moment I could walk out of the door to my favourite café [currently, Branca on Walton Street if you want to know]. A similar mentality when my dear friend Donnie died last year. I know it’s impossible that we will meet again but I also think it’s impossible that we won’t. 

The breadmaker arrived. Hooray! Impressive machine in shiny black and grey. Mary and I managed to assemble it without killing each other. There are 22 recipes for bread, not to mention other exotic foods. Viennese swirls, for example. Now it squats on the table, waiting with an air of impatience. We hesitate. M said she needs to be really alert to try it. I don’t think I’m ever really alert these days. We overlooked it this morning in favour of a loaf that Kate brought us with the Waitrose shopping last night. Our own lovely Deliveroo girl [sorry, woman].

Passing the time

Projects, that’s what we need I thought. I spoke on the phone to my friend, Peter Adamson. He has had a head start on social isolation as he had an ankle fusion done just before the barrier came down on elective operations. He cannot put any weight on his foot for several weeks and cannot have visitors since his wife Lesley has respiratory and auto-immune problems. I have enough projects to keep me going for several years, he said with a chuckle. Send me some, I said. I started a list. Top was continuing the transfer of our old slides to the computer, something we began in 2013 to “fill the long winter evenings” though somehow they got filled with other important things, TV for example. I mentioned it to M who groaned. No excuses, I said primly, though inwardly I groaned too. 

Yesterday M told me that 78% of couples released from Hubei after the lockdown was lifted filed for divorce. That’s what I thought she told me. No, 78 not 78%! Out of how many? She didn’t know. So it could be 0.0001%, I said. Her look suggested that we might be joining them. 

The Guardian, bless it, published a list of games for those confined to barracks under the optimistic heading ‘Fun for all the family’. One was called ‘Pandemic.’ Another ‘Exit: the Game’ where players uncover clues to break out of a sealed room. ‘It tests your powers of logic, observation and lateral thinking in all sorts of inventive ways’ chirruped the blurb. If I had any of those powers once, they have long since deserted me. Mind you, what’s the point of breaking out when the virus is waiting to pounce?

Books. Of course. Along with millions I bought Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light. It’s practically the thickness of the breadmaker. That will keep me going for several weeks as long as I ration it. On the shelf I have a Folio Society Edition of War and Peace, two volumes in impressive blue leather, pages uncut I suspect. Philip Hensher once told me – how’s that for name dropping? Actually, he told everyone in the audience – that War and Peace starts with an awfully boring account of Napoleon’s battle strategies and ends with a tedious disquisition by Tolstoy on his philosophy of life, but the bit in between is not bad, he said. Did you know that War and Peace is the book most chosen by people who travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway? The triumph of hope over experience. Years ago, Richard Greenhall and I, along with two of his old school chums, took the Trans-Siberian though we turned south at Irkutsk to go through Mongolia and China ending up in Beijing. Difficult to read even a Ladybird book when you are in a constant fug of alcohol. I had hoped that hour after hour of staring at birch trees would cast me into a zen state of mind. It didn’t. Birch trees are rather samey when you have seen thousands. One other curious fact about the Trans-Siberian was that smoking – and one of our number was a heavy smoker – was allowed only in two places, in the swaying, clanking bit between the carriages, and the restaurant car. 

Audible books. I used to be a member of until I felt persecuted by having to choose a book every month and left. I still have several unheard in my digital library. One I have listened to is the Complete Sherlock Holmes Stories read by Stephen Fry. Fry is a great reader and gets Watson and Holmes brilliantly. In one story he decided to give the villain a thick Brummy accent, which I thought rather prejudiced. Also the Brummy accent is frankly awful. In another story the villain is described as squat and swarthy wearing an Astrakhan coat. Cue for Jew. Fry carefully avoided any vocal equivalent. Not surprising that Conan Doyle was guilty of latent antisemitism given the times. Not as bad as John Buchan though, one of my favourite writers when I was a child. I noticed nothing then being carried away by the sheer excitement of the chase in The 39 Steps

Keep your suggestions coming in for Things To Do Under House Arrest. 

Antidote No. 2

The wonderful Tom Lehrer, a song for our time, courtesy of Mike Barrett.   Or try for another cheery Lehrer take on a different global disaster.

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Love in the Time of Coronavirus.

This is day one of my blog, Love in the Time of Coronavirus. I confess I shamelessly stole this title from my daughter Sarah’s blog. Too good a title to resist and anyway it is a compliment, Sarah. Sort of. 

Don’t panic!

As the news filtered through this morning of more draconian measures from the government including house arrest for vulnerable groups, in particular the over 70s, i.e. us, Mary and I engaged in the frantic panic buying of a bread making machine. It seemed impossible we could live even a day without fresh bread. This trumped loo paper in our estimation. I know, I know, man cannot live by bread alone, but a warm loaf of Sourdough is something to die for. Well perhaps not. 

I got to the Coop in Summertown early with instructions to buy bread flour and dried yeast by the bucketload only to find these inessential items had been stripped from the shelves. A bit of a blow that. I bought the Guardian from my friend Sean, whose name is not actually Sean as he is from Iran. But it says that on his badge and he answers to it. He and I were both unshaven and rather haggard. I confessed to waking in the middle of night worrying. What about, he asked? The End of the World, I answered. A slight smile flitted briefly on his careworn face. I worry more about home, he said sadly. About Iran. I sympathised and told him about the bread maker and the absence of flour and yeast. I suspect he didn’t think they were quite of the same order but was too polite to say so. We parted wondering whether we would meet again in this life or the next. 

I returned home to find Mary about to confirm an online Waitrose delivery slot for the 5th April, the earliest she could get, when the site crashed. Too many people panic buying. Ridiculous. We were just being prudent. So, no flour or yeast from Waitrose. Or Ocado. Or Sainsburys. Or M & S. Or Tesco’s. Later, I phoned my sister, who is 86, has a broken collarbone, and lives on her own, not even a cat or a dog for company. She told me that her daughter-in-law, Emma, had been brilliant and got her fresh fruit and veg deliveries from Abel and Cole. I hurriedly conveyed this to Mary who got online [hooray!], chose a small basket of veg and fruit, placed it in the large basket so to speak but was then told that Abel or Cole or both that he, she or they could not for the moment register any new accounts. Maybe we should have gone for a larger basket, but I suspect that wasn’t the problem.

An email from my good friend, Bahram. He and Jean had been thwarted from driving to their lovely French house near Marmande – the tomato capital of Europe no less. I told him it was reckless to drive there but that was really because I envied him. Anyway, he was done over by M. Macron who forbade all inessential travel. Those who transgress will be punished. Nous sommes en guerre, Macron declared solemnly to camera. Shades of 1789 and Madame Guillotine. 

Opinions differ about our government’s strategy of letting the virus run its course among hoi polloi and protecting the vulnerable and the rich. For the few, not the many, you might say. Unfortunate that the Principal Scientific Advisor used the phrase ‘herd immunity’. The airwaves are rife with scientists arguing fiercely for and against this notion. Plus ça change. When do scientists ever agree? Never a good idea to compare the people with a herd of wildebeest though. I have nothing but admiration for the two advisors. Tall, besuited, ramrod straight, they stand like two legionnaires either side of our dishevelled, crumpled PM tightly gripping the rostrum, eyes shifting to and fro, wanting to be anywhere but where he finds himself. Being king of the world turns out not to be the fun job after all. He is more equipped for the Fool than Lear. 

My friend Angela and my son-in-law Howard sent me a link to an Imperial College paper on the modelling of different strategies for coping with the virus.[1] I have to read bits – paragraphs, sentences, words – more than once and even then I find the meaning slipping like water through my fingers. It vindicates the government’s strategy it seems though the truth is that nobody knows. So, we need distractions and here is my first antidote to despair.

Antidote No. 1

The Vessel with the Pestle. The incomparable Danny Kaye in The Court Jester. Watch the whole film. It is a joy.