From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Pandemics and Plots

Albert Camus, by Cartier Bresson

October 18. Covid-19, and earlier outbreaks of bubonic plague and influenza, are undoubted facts.  They are material events that cause death, suffering and widespread dislocation of ways of living.  Yet the two most influential and widely-read accounts of pandemics in the west are works of fiction.  

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year features an invented document written by an imagined individual about an event which took place when the author was four or five years old.  Albert Camus’s La Peste, or The Plague, which uses a line from Defoe as its epigraph, is a novel about an outbreak that never occurred at all.   Yet if you were to introduce a new reader to all the complexities and truths of living through an epidemic, these remain the key texts.

There are of course good histories of the major outbreaks.  Paul Slack’s Plague.  A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2010) is a particularly useful introduction to the field.  But none of these works, nor the scholarship which they build upon, lodge in the memory in same way as the classic fictional accounts.

The conventional form of the novel, which Defoe had a hand in creating, allows the writer to focus on the central question of the relation of individual to social experience.  However much evidence the historian accumulates about deaths and behaviours, the moral dilemma of how to subsume personal interest to collective wellbeing remains difficult to bring into focus.  A pandemic presents choices which define the possibilities of human action in the face of suffering.  Novelists find it easier to move between the registers of conduct and to draw larger conclusions from them.

Freed from the tyranny of footnotes, such writers can deploy their imaginations to illuminate the complexities of emotion and calculation.  They both depend upon and transcend even the best histories.  We see this process at work in Hilary Mantel’s successful Wolf Hall trilogy.  She fully respects the framework of historical fact, earning the respect, amongst others, of the foremost historian of Thomas Cromwell, Diarmaid MacCulloch.  But she clothes that scaffolding with explorations of motive, belief and behaviour at a convincing level of detail only attainable by an outstanding writer who has spent decades refining her craft.

Further, novelists readily work with plots.  Whilst pandemics have effects which last decades for polities, economies and societies, and for some part of a subsequent lifetime for individual survivors, they are for the most part framed events.  Other great threats of our age, such as poverty, racial injustice, climate change, have no clear beginnings and no timetable for their completion.  Covid-19, like the bubonic plague and the Spanish flu, arrived at a certain moment, and will depart, at least for the time being (as it already appears to have done in China).  What is happening now is that all the players, from Trump upwards, are seeking to narrate plots whose final chapter keeps retreating before them.  When, as was reported in the press yesterday, politicians demand “an exit strategy” from the renewed lockdown restrictions, they are just trying to organise the event into a manageable narrative, which like the novels of Defoe and Camus, reaches an end in the closing pages.

And like the best works of imagination, there is always room for a sequel.  These are the last lines of The Plague:

“Indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy that rose above the town, Rieux recalled that this joy was always under threat.  He knew that this happy crowd was unaware of something that one can read in books, which is that the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it can remain dormant for dozens of years in furniture or clothing, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and perhaps the day will come when, for the instruction or misfortune of mankind, the plague will rouse its rats and send them to die in some well-contented city.” (Penguin 2013, pp. 237-8)

In that regard, I noted in my previous post that there was an outbreak of bubonic plague around the River Orwell in Suffolk early in the twentieth century.  I subsequently discover that public health officials were still testing rats in the area for Yersinia pestis as late as the 1970s.  Vigilance cannot be relaxed.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction and fact

September 9th

Most of my time is currently being divided between painstakingly working through the page proofs of a novel scheduled for publication at the end of November, and trying to ensure that members of our York U3A who are venturing cautiously out of their homes to involve themselves once again in their widely differing interest groups are going to be as safe from Covid-19 as we can make them.

Were I ever to venture an application to become a Mastermind contestant, my specialist subject would not be either Risk Management or Health and Safety.  But the basics are relatively straightforward as long as the parameters within which one is working are clear and relatively constant.   We pressed the starter button on indoor meetings last week with a ream of cleaning, access and other requirements in place, only to find our selves suddenly subject to the Boris & Matt ‘Rule of Six’ Act.  Having been heavily, and justifiably, criticised for increasingly confused messaging for the past few months, Matt Hancock declared that the time had come for the message to be ‘absolutely clear’, which inevitably meant that for some people it is anything but clear.  The rule precludes ‘social gatherings’ of more than six people, but is not applicable in educational and business settings.   Our language classes, for example – German, French, Italian and Latin – are unquestionably educational, but the Friends Meeting House where we rent rooms is not an ‘educational setting’ – or is it, given our educational activities there?  It is a ‘business setting’ in that it rents the rooms to us, but would the government regard it as such?  It is undoubtedly a ‘religious’ setting, but we aren’t using it for religious purposes.  We are still waiting for absolute clarity, as is the Third Age Trust to whom we look for guidance (and insurance cover).

Proof reading wouldn’t be my specialist subject either.  Last time around I sent back 84 out of 440 pages that needed minor corrections – typos, the odd word left out, punctuation (mainly misplaced or absent commas), and so on – and felt it was a job pretty well done.  That was until the proofs came back for checking and I decided not just to check that the corrections had been made, but to proofread the whole lot again.  That time I sent back 90 pages.   I also try to be alert to plausibility where the minor details are concerned as I go along.  Could a protest march from the assembly point to the City Hall in Sheffield, for example, really be completed in the time I allowed?  By the time it gets to the proof reading stage it is much too late to start asking oneself whether the major points on which the plot depends are plausible.   But that, like Covid-19 risk management, is time-dependent too.

I wrote about fictional plausibility in my entry for July 10 and chose, as an example of what wouldn’t be regarded as plausible in a novel, the appointment of Chris Grayling, ‘Failing Grayling’, to the Chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee – ironic as the ‘Intelligence’ bit would have been.  As it happens, Boris’s cunning plan was foiled and Grayling wasn’t appointed.   In July it would have been regarded as too wildly implausible to choose as an example of possible fictional implausibility the idea of a government Minister of any political complexion standing up in Parliament and brazenly acknowledging that the legislation our government was about to introduce would be a deliberate transgression of international law.   A Conservative Government of the United Kingdom deliberately reneging on a treaty it had willingly signed up to less than a year ago? Come off it!

More implausible still would be a Prime Minister boldly declaring that the international illegality he was embarking on was, in fact, to protect the one precious thing his actions seemed ineluctably bound to destroy.   There is no way the extraordinarily hard-won Peace Accord in Northern Ireland could survive the erection of physical check-points for customs and excise purposes along the border with Ireland, which Johnson is effectively daring the EU to set up to ensure the integrity of the European single market in the absence of the checks at the Northern Ireland ports which Johnson signed up to in the Withdrawal Agreement, but is now intent on ratting on.  On reflection, describing Johnson’s behaviour as ‘ratting’ is unfair to rodents that can’t be expected to abide by any moral code as they go about their business of eating, sleeping and breeding.   Boris Johnson isn’t stupid.  He way well have been, probably was, too lazy to read the detail of what it was he was signing up to, but its full implications will have been explained to him, and he is now, for once, refusing to make one of his regular U-turns.  He isn’t stupid, but he is deeply immoral, and the way he is behaving is as far out of bounds where fictional plausibility is concerned as it is when it comes to international law. But then one would only have to go back two or three years for it to have seemed wildly implausible that any dystopian writer could get away with imagining that a man like Boris Johnson could ever be appointed as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

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 Maughan Brown in York: Fiction and Reality

July 10th

Writing fiction has been one of the things I have tried my hand at since I retired in 2013.  I spent much of the first year writing a cathartic historical novel, subsequently published as Despite the Darkness, based in part on our experience during the apartheid years of being harassed by the South African Police’s Special Branch who objected to what I was writing and what their spies were reporting back to them about my lectures and speeches.  I then wasted three years going through the motions of getting a literary agent to take the novel on and try to sell it; getting tired of waiting for him to do so; and finally deciding to self-publish after all.  During the last of the three years I wrote a sequel that is currently with the publishers.  People have asked me whether I will be writing another one, to which the answer is ‘probably not’ – not just because I am too busy doing other things, even in lockdown, but because these days fiction has grave difficulty in staying ahead of reality.  In plotting the kind of fiction I write one always has to be asking oneself ‘is that plausible?’  With historical fiction the question becomes ‘could that really ever have happened?’   In recent times too much has happened which, had one been writing a novel, one would have had to discard as simply being far too implausible.

The enjoyment of literature usually depends to some extent on what Coleridge referred to as ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’.   How many people, to take a current example, would willingly suspend their disbelief when reading a political novel if the author were to cast Chris Grayling in the role of Chair of the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee?  The response would be likely to involve a heavy sigh, a ‘Get Real!’ (that’s the bowdlerised version), and the novel being put aside in favour of something less wildly implausible.  

It would be doing a disservice to the military to draw any parallel with the old saw which holds that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron.   Chris Grayling’s record as a cabinet minister could be deemed to have demonstrated the opposite of the Midas touch: everything he touched turned to dust, but it wasn’t gold dust.  Grayling is probably best known for awarding a £14 million contract to a start-up company, Seaborne Freight, to ship medical supplies to the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit.  The fact that the company had no ships and no port contract, and a set of legal terms and conditions that had been cut and pasted from a pizza delivery company, was not seen as any kind of hindrance to the award of the contract.  Nor, apparently, is his copy-book seen to have been blotted by the mere £33million that had to be paid out to Eurotunnel for the breach of public procurement rules that was involved in the award of that contract.

Grayling was transport secretary in 2018 when the railway timetable debacle took place, and was criticized by the rail regulator for not scrutinising plans for the change-over carefully enough.  His ideological compulsion towards shrinkage of the State led him to the disastrous part-privatisation of probation services that has recently had to be rescinded.  But his ministerial record is not one of consistently benign incompetence.  Some of his policies have been malign to the point of vindictiveness.  One of the nastier and stupider ones was his introduction, as Minister of Justice, of a ban on prisoners being allowed to receive books from friends and relatives, and his imposition of a limit on the number of books prisoners were allowed.  This was found to be unlawful by the high court in 2015.  I think I am right in saying  that every single one of Grayling’s major policy innovations has had to be reversed by his successors in the various departments unfortunate enough to have fallen into his clutches. The Guardian reported last year that decisions Grayling had made while heading those departments had had been estimated by Labour to have cost the taxpayer £2.7 billion.  Who would believe such hopeless incompetence if anyone were to put all that into a novel?

All this begs the question, of course, as to why on earth Boris Johnson (read Dominic Cummings) would want to nominate a man with a record like that to chair the UK’s parliamentary Intelligence and Security committee.  It isn’t as if, in the age of Novichok, Huawei and Russian interference in elections, intelligence and security aren’t important.  There seem to be two plausible reasons.  One would be that Johnson (read Cummings – always) wants a yes-man Brexiteer at the helm of a committee that has traditionally been independent and tried to avoid party political allegiances.  The other would be that as part of his strategy to disrupt the Westminster ‘establishment’ Cummings would like to discredit and undermine one of its key parliamentary committees.  You, quite literally, couldn’t make it up.  But, speaking for myself, and leaving ‘intelligence’ out of it for obvious reasons, I am certainly not going to feel that my security will be in any way enhanced by knowing that Chris Grayling will be chairing our national Intelligence and Security Committee.