Writing in the time of covid-19

A view from the window

A View From the Window

C. D. Rose

I crack open the window, noting how dusty it’s got, stick my head out of the narrow gap and look up and down the street I live on. To the left, there’s a late 70s low-rise industrial unit, steel mesh over its few windows, a corrugated plastic roof. A plume of white smoke still rises from the chimney and occasionally vans come and go so I assume they’re still working. Next to it, a handsome late Victorian workshop, three floors, redbrick, big arched windows. Anywhere else it’d probably have become apartments, creative studio spaces, or a bar and restaurant complex, but on the edge of the centre of the large city where I live, the place is falling down. A ‘For Sale’ sign has hung outside for more than a year now. To the right, there’s a flat-pack apartment block, early noughties plasterboard and scaffolding. It’s often quiet on this street, but now there’s no one but the gulls squawking, a crow hopping, and a magpie pecking at a bin bag.

As a child, I was much taken with the story of Eyam in Derbyshire. In 1665 this small Peak District mining village was touched by the plague and – so the story goes – its inhabitants self-quarantined, staying strictly in the parish bounds rather than risk spreading the contagion that had reached them. We were taken there on a school trip, I remember, to look at the Coolstone and Riley’s Graves, and we met a woman who told us she was a witch.

I’m tending to get up early these days, 7ish or before. I make tea and check my messages but not the news. I do some work. I like the silence. I go back to bed around 10 or 11 and sleep until 1 or later if I can: M stays up till 2 or 3 in the morning then sleeps right through, so we breakfast together at lunchtime. Time has become sludge.

This isn’t Mark Fisher and Bifo Berardi’s ‘slow cancellation of the future’ – for one, it’s happening too quickly for that – but it’s also taking the present, and the past.

I find myself looking out of the window obsessively now. It’s an uninspiring view but in search of distraction I have come to know each jogger and dog-walker, what times delivery vans and postal workers pass, the sweep of the light and how it picks out different details at each point of the day.

The plague arrived in Eyam via ‘a parcel of patterns’ – an itinerant tailor, George Viccars, had requested samples of cloth to be sent to him from London, then the epicentre. The samples were damp, and hung up to dry in the house where he had taken lodgings.

One moment I’m sprawled on the sofa in the afternoon sun, snoozily reading; the next I’m standing in the bathroom unable to piss straight with fear. I get up to put the kettle on and find a hot cup of tea on the table, one I’d made myself minutes earlier and had forgotten. Lapses and gaps make up the days whose names I have lost track of. I think back a week and it seems a lifetime. I think back a week and it seems yesterday.

In her essay Time Lived, Without Its Flow the poet Denise Riley describes the ‘a-chronicity,’ from whose ‘serene perspective you realise, to your astonishment, that to dwell inside a time that had owned the property of flowing was merely one of a range of possible temporal perceptions.’ Time does not always ‘flow’ she suggests, if indeed it ever did. ‘Your apprehension of sequence is halted. Where you have no impression of any succession in events, there is no linkage and no cause. Anything at all might follow on from any instant.’

Like many of us who teach writing, I’ve occasionally despaired about the number of students who’ve given themselves to dystopias during the past few years. But none of them, I think, none of them, emerging or established, could have imagined something as colossally fucked as this. A virus that makes us stand quite literally apart from each other, at a time when we need society and community and solidarity more than ever. A virus which stops us being close to our loved ones, knowing that we could be the very ones to contaminate them. A virus which can make adults afraid of children. A virus which sees many of us welcome a police-enforced lockdown and even consider letting our movements be tracked. A virus which lurks unseen for weeks, throwing time out of joint.

‘You can’t … take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity,’ writes Riley. ‘Describing would involve some notion of the passing of time. Narrating would imply at least a hint of and then and after that. Any written or spoken sentence would naturally lean forward towards its development and conclusion.’ And she’s right, and yet – difficult as it is – I find myself doing so nevertheless.

If you look more carefully the story of Eyam is far from what it seems. Apart from the terrible roll call of the parish register and a few letters written years after the fact by the Reverend William Mompesson, Eyam’s vicar, there is little of contemporary record. The tale becomes mostly known in the early Victorian era, an example of Christian self-sacrifice, stoicism and fortitude mixed with a good dose of Gothic contagion. Later, doubts were cast as it seems the vicar may have forbade anyone to leave (it was totalitarian), or everyone faced their own fates (it was existential), the villagers didn’t self-isolate but were forcibly stopped from entering any neighbouring village (it was fascism, racism.) The story has been retold many times, re-fashioned for its own age each time: as doomed romance, as agit-prop, as a metaphor for AIDS, as one for the destruction of working-class communities.

In a recent article for n+1 magazine, the Italian novelist Francesco Pacifico has warned against using metaphor for the current crisis. But what else do we have? I wonder what the story of Eyam means now. Nothing more than it ever did, if only we knew how to read it. One thing I think: how starkly clear this shows it all; my fury at those who would gladly put the lives of others in danger rather than risk losing a penny of their own.

I have the radio on but turn it off on the hour. I don’t read the headlines or look at the BBC website. The local Tesco Express reminds me of being in Eastern Europe in the early 90s: empty shelves with random appearances. (Yesterday there was no canned veg apart from two massive cases of off-brand butter beans. I bought some, anyway.) The streets are empty, and save for the seagulls, the sky too. This is eerie in the sense invoked by Mark Fisher: there is nothing where there should be something. There is no time where there should be time.

I worry I am stuck in the stopped time of this, already trying to read it from its end. I worry I have too much time, and connect everything with everything and overload and collapse. With no end, clocks and calendars feel useless.

Like many of us who teach writing, I encourage the writers I work with to try to record the textures of life as intimately and minutely as possible, and I try the same. But in these times, I cannot. Time has stopped around me and it is too close. We won’t know what this looks like until some twenty or thirty years in the future, when we will have our Defoe (who wrote his Journal of the Plague Year fifty years after the fact), someone to tell us what we lived through, what happened, and what it felt like.

In her book Black Sun the critic Julia Kristeva writes: ‘Massive, weighty, doubtless traumatic because laden with too much sorrow or too much joy, a moment blocks the horizon of depressive temporality or rather removes any horizon, any perspective.’ This, now, is such a moment.

I do not want to make this moment, this now always. Other things are happening out there, other things have happened and will continue to happen. This is not the only story.

M. shuffles out of the bedroom to make tea and the light catches her hair. I stick my head out of the window again, as far as I can, and right now, the new-warmed March breeze and the late afternoon
sun feel beautiful.


This piece was oroginally comissioned by Andrew Galix for 3AM magazine. http://www.3ammagazine.com

C. D. Rose was born in Manchester and is the author of ‘Dictionary of Literary Faillure’ and ‘Who’s who When Everyone is Someone Else’. He is an award-winning short story writer whose work has appeared in various anthologies and magazines.




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