Susan D in Ottawa, Canada: Isolation

17 July 2020

The solitude of my initial isolation was quite pleasant as I prepared the rental house for our granddaughters, and ranged through a too large selection of books culled from the many not-read options in my library.  In the end, I read When We Were Orphans by Kasuro Ishiguro (acquired from the sale of books at our local library), The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (bought because I wanted to know whether I agreed with the award of a Pulitzer prize) and Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think, by the wonderful Swede, Hans Rosling.  The first I found a beautifully written story.  The second I found a gripping page turner, much to my surprise.  And the last I loved; I had truly saved the best for last.  I bought the book when it was released after Rosling died, but being quite familiar with his work I had never read it.  Our current worldwide situation, made it rather attractive: the title promised a more optimistic reading and thinking than current events, and it more than fulfilled the promise.

I came upon the work of Hans Rosling while working at the Paris based UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (better known as IIEP).  He used software called Gapminder to graphically convey his messages about the state of the world over time.  In those days when graphics were not so well used as now, I found it very powerful and potentially interesting for the educational planners studying at IIEP.  Rosling himself was a very powerful and entertaining communicator.  As a youngster he had wanted to become a circus artist – his parents preferred that he get an education and so he became a medical doctor and eventually professor of international health at the Svenska Institute in Sweden.  There he set himself the task of sharing and explaining a worldview gained from analysis of large data sets – that things are getting better in the world – even though we tend to think they are getting worse.  Through his many presentations and TED Talks he energetically shared this vision, and occasionally gave a sword swallowing performance at the end.  Before he died, he worked along with his son and daughter-in-law to put his messages in a book.  His heartfelt address to the reader is on the fly leaf, and concludes thus:

This book is my last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance …Previously I armed myself with huge data sets, eye-opening software and energetic lecturing style, and a Swedish bayonet for sword swallowing.  It wasn’t enough.  But I hope this book will be. *

Then two weeks ago, our granddaughters finally arrived in Ottawa from Florida.  Heart could be removed from mouth and put back where it belonged.  As pre-arranged, they phoned when they had crossed the US/Canada border that is currently closed to all non-essential travel and there was relief for everyone watching the progress of their three-day journey north.  They were very well prepared for the border crossing with a folder of documentation, including negative test results.  The official just stuck to a series of questions, and satisfied with their answers he sent them on their way with the specifics of the required fourteen-day self-isolation.  They were directed to stay in the house or in the garden.  No one could come on the property except for deliveries.  And they were contacted by telephone to ensure they were complying with the rules. They have worked, gardened, cooked and today their period of self-isolation ended. We are celebrating with dinner together in our garden.

And to conclude, I would not be a Canadian if there was no mention of our foe, the weather.  We have been having extremely long heat spells, even the mornings and evenings, that keep us indoors most of the time.  Even with a spacious home, this additional restriction weighs on one, and is yet another unpleasant indicator of advancing years.  Heat that was once bearable, now saps all energy and turns me into a limp, lethargic lump.  Nonetheless, I am continually heartened to see the smiling faces of our granddaughters across the street, safe from the rising numbers of COVID cases in Florida.

* Hans Rosling. February 2017

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK : Whydunnit

Maigret – in his latest television manifestation

July 13. In my entry of June 22 I speculated on the fate of reading books in the lockdown.  Now the bookshops have opened and the books sales monitor Nielsen has started to generate data on sales and reading habits.

I turn out to be at once atypical and absolutely on trend.

I wrote then that for all the extra time forced upon those in lockdown, I was not reading much more for pleasure.  I was still spending too much of my working day wrestling with print, and it was rather my garden that was gaining from my additional leisure.

Not so with the wider public.  The increase in hours spent with a book has been dramatic. Before the lockdown, UK adults averaged 3.4 hours a week reading.  By the beginning of May that had increased to 6.1. hours.   This must be the largest single growth in functional literacy ever recorded in so short a period.  It has since declined marginally, but in spite of the gradual relaxation in competing recreations, it is still running at 5.9 hours. 

The extra reading has been reflected in the business of the bookshops which reopened on 15 June.  Although the high street has in general reported significantly lower demand than the same time last year, Waterstones and its competitors have seen sales rise by a healthy 19% over the same period. 

There have been gains in various genres, including contributions to the Black Lives Matter debate.  But the largest growth has been in crime novels, up 120,000 for the last two weeks of June over the same period last year.

So with my own reading.  I have been buying the works of the American writers James Lee Burke (New Orleans) and Michael Connolly  (Hollywood) and re-encountering Simenon, some in collections I have had for years, some the excellent re-translated novels Penguin have just finished publishing.

It would be tempting but facile to suppose that this increased interest in murder reflects the tensions caused in families forced to endure each other’s company over several months, without escape to the office or the schoolroom or other company.  In fact, as a range of national and international agencies have reported, such tensions, where they exist, have been reflected not in literary habits but actual domestic violence, particularly involving men unable to escape their demons and women unable to escape the threat they pose.

The pleasure in crime fiction answers a different need.  The genre is wide, and the detail of homicide varies.  For the most part the focus is not on the act of murder, but on the solution to the mystery.  This is particularly the case with Simenon’s policeman.  In most of the novels the drama is not whodunnit but why. Take, for instance, Maigret and the Tall Woman, which I have just finished reading in a new translation.  Maigret is contacted by the wife of a hapless safe-breaker – the tall woman of the title whom Maigret had first encountered when she was earning a living on the streets of Paris.  Her husband has disappeared after finding a body in a house he was burgling.  It takes little time to locate the house, identify the victim, and determine that her husband, a prosperous dentist, either himself in or conjunction with his controlling mother, had murdered her.  Much of the rest of the book is taken up with an epic interrogation of the dentist as Maigret establishes not so much the fact of guilt as an explanation of the psychological tensions within the dentist’s household which had resulted in the fatal shooting.

So with our current crisis.  What we need above all is to narrativize a drama which has broken all the rules of expected behaviour.  Already the stories are being written about the fateful early weeks of the pandemic, incomplete and contested though the evidence is.  In the meantime we find some solace in a literary form where the crime is stated and, in the last chapter, an explanation is found.

Whether the culprits will go to jail is another question.  Maigret, famously, lost interest when the charge was brought.  He had done his job once he understood how the event had happened and how people had behaved in the way they did.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Reading and Solitude.

The LRB – improve your solitude …

June 22 The London Review of Books (LRB) sends me a digital advertisement: “Improve Your Solitude. Engage with the world’s best thinkers and writers, with Europe’s largest literary magazine.”

In a practical sense the advert is wasted on me. I have been a subscriber since the happy day ten years ago when I retired from university management and swapped my subscription to the Time Higher Education Supplement for the LRB in the mistaken assumption that I would now have more time for reading books and reviews.

Since then the LRB has been a mixed blessing. Most issues contain a piece that interests and informs, but not all. A great literary magazine makes you think you are a little smarter, a little better-read than you actually are. The LRB generally has the reverse effect.

Nonetheless its advert contained a basic truth. For those of us who are locked down without other responsibilities, there ought to be more time for reading. At the least it gives us a chance to replenish the shelves that we want to display behind our heads in ZOOM meetings (the prize for the politician for what clearly is the least-read, and smallest, background bookshelf goes to Iain Duncan Smith. No surprise there).

Books occupy empty hours. But they have never simply been the handmaiden of solitude. It took centuries after the invention of printing for the act of reading silently to yourself to become the standard practice. In the eighteenth-century women in particular read to each other as they worked at a household task, and one in a family read to the rest in the evenings. Increasing literacy and falling book prices in the Victorian era promoted private consumption of the printed word, but demand for books still outstripped the capacity to own them individually, and amongst the newly literate, children read to their less-educated parents and their parents to grandparents. In crowded households with unheated and unlit bedrooms, those who did read to themselves frequently had to do so amidst company. Books were less often the solace of complete isolation, and more the facilitator of abstracted solitude, the practice of withdrawing from others whilst still physically in their midst.

It is too early to take a final view of reading in the lockdown. Bookshops were shut until last week in the UK, book launches cancelled (including my own), as were book festivals. My wife and I were at the Dalkey Literary Festival in Dublin this time last year, and had planned a return visit.

https://www.dalkeybookfestival.org/

On the other hand, the online trade was already well-established, and unlike food, and (for the most part) clothing, it is always possible to re-use what was purchased years ago. It is reported that sales of thrillers have risen, and also books about pandemics. My expectation is that the overall change will not be that great. For every household with more time on its hands, there will be several more in which the adults at least have lost every minute of solitary recreation.

In my case, where not much has altered in my daily round, the problem is as it always has been, the reluctance to take a book off the shelf after an entire day at my desk, reading and writing words. I’d sooner dig my garden.

Add Mss (1). June 16. Bedtime Stories.  No bedtime stories at Styal Women’s Prison, where the stillbirth of a baby to a prisoner has been reported, the second in nine months. The medical staff failed to diagnose the pregnancy, and gave the prisoner paracetamol when she complained of severe stomach pains. Only twenty-three women across the system have been released under the scheme for pregnant prisoners and new mothers under the coronavirus pandemic (Guardian 19 6 20).

Susan D from Ottawa, Canada: COVID time – a reflection

14 June

I feel time is playing tricks, behaving like an elastic band.  Time seems to have stretched out: it feels like forever since we were enjoying ourselves in Paris.  Now each week dissolves, leaving hardly a trace.  I have finished my nightly meetings with Alec Guinness in his “positively final appearance”, but a bit from the December chapter stuck in my mind. “The days, they say, are drawing out. All that strikes me is that in spite of the slowing up of time, the weeks gallop apace; Sunday comes sharp on the heels of Sunday.”

At first, it seemed that enforced isolation would have one positive aspect.  Time without without socializing, shopping, travelling or hosting travelling friends would free up time to address some of those things one can always find a reason to leave for another day, month or year.  There is the basement, never sorted out after moving, and the perfect thing to do during the winter months of which Canada has so many.  Then there is the idea of learning and doing something new – writing a children’s book based upon a doll that belonged to my daughter.  When rescued from the garbage and cleaned up, he looked just fine as the main character for a story – perfect for spring creativity and increased energy.  Spring would also be a good time to address some landscaping at the front of the house, of which there is really none.  And then there are all those bookcases full of books, in fact, a whole library of unread books, good at any time of the year.  However, there is another side of COVID confinement – no cleaning help.  Now too much time is filled with cleaning a rather large house, and Monday comes sharp on the heels of Monday as the dust rolls down the halls and the cleaning cycle starts up again.  No new tasks get taken up.

Right at the moment, time seems to be collaborating with its colleague, the weather.  Early summer arrived with 30 degree days several weeks ago, but down jackets have been donned again, and tonight the temperature will descend to 6 degrees.  As Ontario has begun to open up further, although cases are still not falling consistently, the weather seems to be intimating that it is April or perhaps early May in COVID time, and too soon to be tossing aside so many precautionary measures.  I read a comment today that COVID is very young as a virus, mere months old, and we have hardly gotten to know it.  Nonetheless, the more than three months of self-isolating feel much longer: time is still playing its tricks.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: scavenging

May 1. Yesterday, the Zoom session was with my younger daughter and her two daughters aged two and five.  It began badly.  I asked the older child what she had been doing during the day.  It was now four in the afternoon so plenty had happened.  There was a long silence before she finally said, ‘we had lunch’.

I should have known, I do know, that children of that age do not go through a day narrativizing their activities.  Any parent greeting a child back from school soon gives up trying to find out what went on that day.  Interesting things do happen, and when the child is interested in talking about them, it will.  Until then, the point is what it is doing now, and might do next.

So we quickly moved on.  My wife read a story to the two girls which last she had read to their mother when she was at the same age (Sally’s Secret by Shirley Hughes).  Mother and children were equally pleased.  Then the five- year-old, who is rapidly mastering the skill, read us a school book, which featured a grandmother who bought blue shoes to see the Queen.  A heel broke and she was in despair until a kindly palace official produced a bag of spare blue shoes, and all was well.

Last week we played the well-known game of scavenging.  A list is sent of things to find in the house and garden, and the video session begins with a show-and-tell, which displays the energy and ingenuity of the finder.  The five-year-old is now old enough to reverse the game.  For the following session, the grandparents were sent a list of things to collect, and we were required to display them in front of two critical grandchildren.  The list was as follows:  we had to find something that was

  • really bouncy
  • has a strong smell
  • prickly
  • smooth
  • sticky
  • fluffy
  • a cone shape
  • multicoloured
  • made of rubber
  • very heavy
  • very light
  • has a switch

Good luck with this.  You can show and tell on Monday.  Enjoy the weekend.