May 20. Yesterday, the Today programme included a meditation by the novelist Ian McEwan on the coronavirus pandemic as ‘an experiment in subjective time.’ For those not engaged in vital work, or managing the minutely structured task of teaching unschooled children, the experience, he argued, has altered our perception of time: ‘Bleached of events, one day like another, time compresses and collapses in on itself.’ The consequence has been ‘an exponential growth in introspection, day- dreaming, mental drifting, especially about the past.’ We find ourselves ‘tumbling backwards through time’, achieving a new understanding of our selves as we embrace without guilt a stillness in the midst of our days.
All of which is both eloquent and true. Those who have erased their diaries for months ahead have to learn for the first time in their long lives new ways of justifying the use of time. There are different kinds of choices in its management, and, above all, the choice of not managing it all. As anxiety about the unfilled hour recedes, so we can, as McEwan argues, form a calmer sense of who we have become and what matters to us.
And yet. There are contradictions lurking in McEwan’s eloquent prose.
In the first case, the form contradicts the content. This was an exactly timed slot in the country’s premier current affairs radio programme. It lasted precisely five minutes, sandwiched between an item on Brexit and another on government financing of industry. The studio manager will have controlled the event with a stopwatch as the programme headed towards its nine a.m. conclusion. McEwan will have been given the task of turning his prose into time – 150 words a minute is the BBC norm – and by pre-recording the talk, the programme presenter was relieved of the task of disciplining the speaker. Nothing can have been more time-infused than this disquisition on its absence.
And then there is McEwan himself. His experience of time may have changed with the lockdown, but he remains a professional writer. Unlike those who earn their living in more structured contexts, he has a lifetime’s experience of controlling the use of the unforgiving hour. Finishing novel after novel requires, in P. G. Wodehouse’s famous dictum, ‘the application of seat of pants to seat of chair.’ You do not wander through the day, jotting down the odd sentence, waiting for inspiration to strike. You devise a timetable that suits your temperament and circumstances, and stick to it all the more rigidly in the absence of external compulsion. I don’t suppose for a moment that McEwan has stopped doing this, just because he can’t see people at present. He will still be setting his clock, starting at his desk, just as he has always done.
I am myself a writer, of stories with footnotes. Three books published in the last five years. I start relatively early in the morning, and work in 75 minute-blocks, stopping for a coffee and then starting again. I did this before the pandemic and I am doing it now. So, four minutes before the next break, this entry ends.