Tag Archives: Covid-19

Politics on the Edge by Rory Stewart

It is distressing and sad that the world seems to be in such a poor state, and that Climate Change and possible disaster loom over us. I lament the wars that seem to drag on in Ukraine, Sudan and the Middle East. I am shocked by the corruption that appears to have put our government ‘in the pocket of fossil fuel companies’ [Al Gore]. And I am horrified by the damage done to our water systems, rivers, seas and the bills we pay to subsidise the dividends to water company shareholders; I am appalled by the physical state of schools and the quality of the education we provide for the children of our nation and around the world; I am in despair about the state of prisons and the conditions in which prisoners are obliged to live; and the official attitude to refugees appals me. And … and … How did it get to this? Since Covid I have been reading more non-fiction alongside my usual diet in an attempt to understand all this.

Politics on the Edge

I enjoy reading books that help me understand how we got here. I am interested, in particular, in why politics and politicians are not working towards answers at this time. What is the context that has created so many areas of dysfunction? What should we expect and hope from our political system and from our politicians? It does seem to me that the fallout from both Brexit and Covid-19 and earlier from the unresolved banking crisis of 2007-8 has meant that different rules, different norms new and lower standards have crept in. Once the banking crisis no longer threatened the viability of the western economic system, the bankers who drove the crisis, were not required to accept responsibility or to atone for their mistakes. Indeed, I am not aware that anyone, any person, any banking group paid any penalties for what happened. Crisis over, move on.

The referendum and the negotiations for a Brexit deal ushered in a new era of untruths, lies, misdirection and political skulduggery. The Conservative party was deliberately cleansed of those who proposed alternative solutions to the complexities of Brexit negotiations. Consequently, the Brexit-at-any-cost brigade could ignore dissent and the processes by which negotiations and legislation are improved: argument and discussion.

And Covid seems to have challenged most of the population and all our politicians. The Covid Enquiry is revealing that government, in particular decision-making and procurement, were out of control. It was far worse than we suspected.

Rory Stewart is an interesting man and his backstory is not typical of a man who went into parliament as a Conservative Party MP and into government for all that he attended Eton. He had experience of the army and the diplomatic service in Indonesia, the Balkans and Afghanistan. He also had experience of running charities in Afghanistan. Additionally he is a long-distance walker and learned more about Pakistan and Afghanistan through walking. He later did the same in his constituency in Cumbria as an MP. 

In short, his life suggests that he is a man who wishes to make a difference to people’s lives. His experience forms the background to this book, which is focused on his political career.

He takes us through his attempts to be selected to stand for a seat in parliament, competing with others who have often done long years of service as local councillors, or as SPADs (special advisors). He was selected eventually to fight the 2010 election in Penrith and the Border, a huge constituency, far away from Westminster. He attributed his selection to the clear-out of sitting members following the expenses scandal. Having won he entered parliament, only to discover that the power and influence of a Conservative backbencher is to serve as lobby fodder: to vote in the divisions, to attend committees, occasionally to make a speech in the chamber, to expect nothing much for the constituency who elected you. 

Those who made decisions about deploying MPs appear to have ignored his expertise, experience and enthusiasms that were rooted in his pre-parliamentary activities. This continued even when he was given posts within the government. He watched as ministers who knew Afghanistan from a few days’ visit made decision about the deployment of troops and the assistance.

The constituency work was hard, but despite the distance from the House of Commons, he made himself known to the people of Cumbria and tried to improve their lives in practical ways. 

He was appointed to the Ministry of the Environment under Liz Truss. His account of his first day at the job is hilarious and shocking. The Civil Servants were careful to the point of obstruction and his boss required news points but no grounded action. And so it went on. He had positions in International Development, the Foreign Office, in Prisons and Probation. Ministers are moved around with such frequency that it is hard for them achieve anything productive.

 

The gates of HMP Dartmoor

My admiration for his work as prison minister is great. There are no votes in prisons, literally, but he was shocked by the state of many of them and set about trying to help the governors and officers improve conditions and work towards their purpose of rehabilitation. 

And then Boris Johnson, for whom he reserves his most searing criticism, and his circle prevented Teresa May’s Brexit deal and there was a leadership election. Rory Stewart challenged Boris Johnson and made a creditable fist of it. But following his defeat, he left the party along with many others who in various ways challenged the new leadership. The Conservative Party in parliament lost a great deal of talent at that time.

As he relates this political journey, his disillusion becomes ours, the time serving, the lack of power, the need to temper ambition and intentions, the moving ministries to suit political purposes, and finally his ejection through challenging Boris Johnson. His characterisation of Boris as a liar, interested only in himself, is now familiar. As a result of reading this account I was depressed by the inability of the political system to used people of talent, to resist corruption, and failing to achieve much, including in local areas. It has continued under two further prime ministers. Such high hopes, so resolutely defeated.

I also learn a great deal by listening to the Podcast: The Rest is Politics with Rory Stewart and Alistair Campbell.

Politics on the Edge: a memoir from Within by Rory Stewart, published in 2023 by Penguin Random House. 454pp 

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Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout 

This is the fourth novel about Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. In her most recent novels, Elizabeth Strout has frequently revisited the characters she has created, filling in their back story or taking them into their future. This novel features Lucy Barton but includes references to Olive Kitteridge. At times she has used multiple short stories to create a different form for a novel, as in Olive Kitteridge and in Anything is Possible. This enables a wider view of the characters, but in Lucy by the Sea she keeps close to Lucy, so close that it is narrated in the first person.

Lucy by the Sea

Elizabeth Strout has great skills as a writer: in Lucy by the Sea she captures Lucy’s bewilderment at the advance of the coronavirus and the precautions people around her are taking. At a time when the incidence of Covid appears to be increasing again it all feels drearily similar. But in this novel, we are cast back to that time when it all seemed so unbelievable, so swift and so doom-laden.

The novel opens with a reprise of the events of Oh William, concerned especially with a trip to Maine that Lucy made with her former husband, William. They returned to their separate lives in New York. At the start of Lucy by the Sea it is the winter of 2019-2020. Lucy has just published a book and in the autumn did a promotional tour in the States.

I was also scheduled to go to Italy and Germany in the beginning of March, but in early December – it was kind of odd – I just decided I was not going to go to those places. I never cancel book tours and the publishers were not happy, but I was not going to go. As March approached someone said, “Good thing you didn’t go to Italy, they’re having that virus.” And that’s when I noticed it. I think it was the first time. I did not really think about it ever coming to New York.
But William did. (6-7)

William tries to persuade Lucy to leave New York. She continues to downplay the dangers of the virus, until people in her social circle begin to fall ill.

It’s odd how the mind does not take in anything until it can. (7)

She continues to resist William’s increasingly determined efforts to get her to move out, until the first deaths take place. Together they travel to a house he has rented for them in Maine, on the shore. At first Lucy thinks they will be there for just a couple of weeks, but the weeks extend into months as the pandemic persists.

Now Lucy must learn everything new: new friendships, new forms of exercise, new household routines, new ways to spend her day, a more distanced perspective on political events, and new worries about the two daughters. While everything has changed, the lives of her two daughters do not stay still either, and she is forced to take a more distant role in their lives than she would choose. She also with William thinks about passing time, about memory and about ageing. 

The narrative follows the first year of the pandemic, with all its mysteries, unexpected turns and reflection. William and Lucy make adaptations, find ways to deal with frustrations, and continue to stay safe in Maine. As her daughters go through difficulties, and her relationship with William changes, she also has to come to terms with the political situation.

On January sixth, as I came in from my afternoon walk to the cove, the television was on and William said, “Lucy, come here now and watch this.” I sat down still wearing my coat and I saw people attacking the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and I watched the news as though it was the first days of the pandemic in New York, I mean that I kept looking at the floor and had the strange sense again that my mind – or body – was trying to move away. All I can remember now is watching a man smashing a window again and again, people pushing up against one another as they got into the building while the policemen tried to hold them back. Many different colors swam before me as I saw people climbing up walls, all moving together. (233)

Later she has some insight into people who feel poorly about themselves, who had fun made of their religion and their guns, and who are looked at with disdain. But then she has clarity.

I sat for a long time on the couch in the dark; there was a half moon that shone over the ocean. And then I thought, No, those were Nazis and racists at the Capitol. And so my understanding – my imagining of the breaking of the windows – stopped there. (239)

After a year of the pandemic Lucy has experienced many challenges and has developed into a much more sympathetic person towards the people she meets and knows. She also sees more clearly the problems in her country.

I felt that this novel had put me back in touch with those early months of the pandemic, with all the fears and uncertainties, the disbelief, and the ineptitudes of our governments, and all the adjustments we made. 

I was unsure about the references to Olive Kitteridge, in a local care home, in this novel. I did not feel I needed an update on her or her love of birds.

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout, published in 2022 by Viking. 288pp 

Thanks to Anne for the present of this book.

Related Posts

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Bookword, May 2022)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

Also

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (June 2016)

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (August 2020)

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Blitz Spirit edited by Becky Brown

Was there such a thing as the Blitz or the Dunkirk spirit? How were people feeling during the war? Did people pull together, willingly make sacrifices and submit to detailed rules and regulations? During Lockdown we were invited to believe they did as we ate our scones, drank our tea, and waved our union flags to celebrate the 75th anniversary of VE Day, all while socially distanced. And in some ways the Lockdowns felt like war, against an unknown, new, and powerful enemy. 

This collection from the wartime diaries, collected at the time by Mass Observation, reveal a variety of views and beliefs. The diarists wrote about every topic: rumours, Churchill, invasion, uncivilised world, funny stories, outrage, fatigue, food and rationing, rules and regulations, V1s and V2s, class divisions and ‘after the war’.

Born in the aftermath of that war, I am fascinated by how people responded to the conditions of the time. What was changed, what was preserved, how were the post-war years and children shaped by those long six years? Many of us have experienced the silence of our parents on the topic, and most of that generation have since died. But the war seems to me to have had a profound influence on my childhood, so I seek to understand it, in literature, in films, in photographs and in diaries and to see some parallels with our responses to Covid-19.

Blitz Spirit

Many people will be familiar with Nella Last’s War, and the film Housewife 49 which Victoria Wood made memorable. There were many such personal records in the form of diaries sent regularly to Mass Observation. From these archives Blitz Spirit has been made.

In 1940 the phoney war came to an end, during which extensive arrangements had been made, including for refugees and evacuees. Some responded to the plight of others with generosity, others did not.

Diarist 5378. F. Writer and Artist. Tadworth, Surrey. 17/05/40
V. has been going around billeting refugees. I asked her if she had had much luck. ‘Oh rather,’ she replied enthusiastically. ‘I think people have been marvellous. One man said they had no spare room but they would put up a bed in their lounge. I only came across one woman who was difficult. She was very sniffy and said she thought we had enough troubles of our own without worrying about other people’s – silly creature couldn’t see that other people’s troubles in this case are our own.’ (50)

The Blitz itself began in the Autumn and tested the population to the limit. Enduring the Blitz on London and other areas was a most difficult experience. One diarist resented the official upbeat response.

Diarist 5205. M. Shop Assistant. Great Baddow, Essex. 10/09/40
The ‘Daily Sketch’ today: ‘Six hundred enemy aircraft came and made heroes of our Londoners … on Saturday. How the fact of being bombed makers anyone a hero I fail to understand. The nonsensical emotionalism which some papers are now printing is annoying and disturbing. (75)

Rationing of food was a frequent topic in the entries.

Diarist 5364. F. Secretary. Kingussie, Inverness. 28/07/41
Oh for pounds & pounds of fresh, cream butter again. (I’ve no direct war comment today. All I can think of is delicious or varies meals!) (115)

Bombing raids and fire watching were also frequent topics although as the war progressed the dangers receded until the final year.

Photo Credit: Wiki Commons Children of an eastern suburb of London, who have been made homeless by the random bombs of the Nazi night raiders, waiting outside the wreckage of what was their home. September 1940. New Times Paris Bureau Collection. (USIA) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #: 306-NT-3163V WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1009

The war dragged on for six years, with little to celebrate for the first three. One response was to use humour.

Diarist 5412. F. Teacher. Beckenham, Kent. 06/02/43
Placard reported from Manchester Fish Shop

WE HAVE PLENTY
OF PAPER
PLEASE BRING
YOUR 
OWN
FISH (195)

And some diarist reported some very frightening events:

Diarist 5004. M. ARP Worker and Food Packing Manager. Belmont, Surrey. 02/11/44
With my wife we were exercising the dog on the Downs in the late afternoon, and whilst I was telling her of my impressions about an ‘unknown missile’ which fell near me in London today, there was suddenly a terrific flash and an explosion which is indescribable. […] Rather shaken we got up, and the sky overhead was covered in black smoke reaching up to about 2,000 feet. Yes, of course, it was a V2. The bomb had fallen about 200/300 yards away. (274)

And eventually people began to dream about not just ‘the end of the war’ but even ‘after the war’. The Beveridge Report had led to some policy proposals, which eventually led to the setting up of the NHS, and the Welfare State. Not everyone was happy about peacetime prospects.

Diarist 5358. F. ATS Clerk. Grays, Essex. 06/02/45
The gratuities to be awarded to the forces on demobilisation have been announced. […] Once again however, the old distinction creeps in – A.T.S are to receive two-thirds as much as the men. I am not a feminist, but I do like to see equal pay for equal work. At the Headquarters where I work in London, A.T.S work side by side with soldiers unfit for overseas service, doing exactly the same work and duties. Why should these men receive half as much again as the girls? (287)

(ATS stands for Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the Army.)

I have quoted some examples from this very dense book. After I had got over the awkwardness of checking the diarist’s number, gender, occupation, location and date I found much to absorb me here. The entries range from very short (two or three lines) to a page. They come from all over the country, from all walks of life, and as far as can be ascertained all ages. Some of this felt familiar, from Nella Last and Jean Lacey Pratt (see below). Some challenged the notion of Blitz Spirit as we have been encouraged to think of it: grumpy, mean, outraged at neighbours or those who deliberately flouted the spirit and even the letter of regulations. 

When the experiences of Covid-19 pandemic become more distant and have been subjected to more reflection, and when the varieties of opinions and experiences have been gathered, perhaps we will see ourselves much as the people are revealed in this book.

Related Posts

A Notable Woman: the romantic diaries of Jean Lucey Pratt (Bookword Blog January 2017)

Mass Observation and the writer (Bookword Blog August 2017)

Blitz Spirit: voices of Britain living through crisis 1939-1945 edited by Becky Brown, with the Mass Observation Archive. Published by Hodder in 2020. 312pp

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Ghost Signs by Stu Hennigan

It starts out being an account of delivering food parcels to people in Leeds during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020. But as this book goes on, it becomes about poverty in the UK. The reader must conclude that this poverty will have been made worse by the pandemic and today has become ‘a cost of living crisis’. I believe this phrase, so beloved of politicians and the press, is a synonym for ‘even more poverty’. 

I had already thought of this book as the equivalent today of Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell (published in 1937) which exposed the dreadful living conditions in the industrial northern towns just before the Second World War. I have since discovered that others have made the same connection. 

Like many readers, despite the warning of the subtitle – poverty and the pandemic – I was shocked by this account of Leeds in the pandemic. Shocked and moved, for Stu Hennigan is a very sympathetic writer. He has succeeded in putting human faces to some of the more general descriptions of Covid. 

Ghost Signs: poverty and the pandemic

In April 2020 Leeds Council recruited volunteer drivers to deliver food parcels from the Food Distribution Centre that had been set up to provide for people in difficulties in the lockdown. Unable to work at his usual job as a librarian because of the lockdown, and stuck at home, Stu Hennigan decided to volunteer. 

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw during those months. I took on the driving role thinking it would simply be a useful way of spending lockdown – delivering parcels and having a chat with whoever I met along the way. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was an emotionally draining experience, stressful and bruising at times, unutterably sad at other, always tiring, and with an intermittent threat of violence that took me completely by surprise. I saw some things that will stay with me forever, plenty of which I hope to never see again. (4) 

After a couple of weeks, the drivers were also required to collect and deliver prescriptions for people who could not get out. The book is the detailed account of his first 9 weeks as a delivery driver. This was the first day.

Friday 10th April
Leeds is like a scene from a sci-fi movie. Across the Eastgate roundabout I can see the bus station, empty and silent as the tomb of Christ on this Easter weekend. In the middle distance there’s the brand new John Lewis and Victoria Gate shopping centre with its multi-storey car park, built on the site of the old Millgarth nick, which was bulldozed to make way for it a few years ago as part of the plan to modernise the city centre. […]
It’s like aliens have come down in a spaceship and removed all the people; I’ve lived in this city for thirteen years and been a visitor here for most of my life, but I’ve never seen it like this before; it’s freaking me out already. The stillness, the silence, the complete lack of sound or motion from anything but my own car, the feeling that we’re in the midst of something completely unique and epochal, wondering where the fuck all this is going to end up – it’s a real head trip and I haven’t even started the job yet. (6-7)

Reading this passage, describing a scene from 30 months ago I realise how quickly we forget. Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to revisit the fears and strangeness of that first encounter with the Coronavirus and the mandatory social isolation. But it was strange, even in the middle of the countryside it was strange and frightening.

Driving and delivery food and medicines around Leeds, the author soon comes to see that there was a huge amount of poverty in Leeds even before the pandemic. Many people had nothing, no furniture, no food, no decent clothes, no decent roof over their head, no-one to help and instead a huge suspicion of authorities and officials. Very quickly he understood that people could not afford food, were starving in some cases, and everywhere the social and economic outcomes of poverty and drug abuse had pulled down lives.

He meets gratitude from people, especially when they understand that the service and the food is free. Also, indifference and resentment. And terrifying dogs or hostility when he searches for an address for a delivery. Many people are on the very edge, and some need much more assistance than is being supplied, like Leslie who has collapsed in pain, needing her morphine. Stu Hennigan brings her food parcels, but he is required to do so much more for her as she is quite unable to help herself. Help arrives from within the community, and eventually from paramedics too. It’s a shocking episode, poverty, ill-health, inappropriate housing dependence upon services that are not forthcoming in the pandemic and perhaps not even in normal times. It is with the episode when he helped Leslie that Stu Hennigan chooses to end his narrative.

We have met countless people in dressing gowns or ‘trackie’ bottoms, sick and gaunt from drug abuse, lonely, helpless, resentful, and apparently abandoned. He has cheery, grateful conversations with a few. Being thanked is rare and always affects him.

And what I asked as a reader is – will all of this improve at the end of lockdowns? Of course it has not. Poverty was widespread before Covid-19, and the infrastructure to provide for the needy was already failing. 

By placing individual people, including his own family, in his account of lockdown he brings home the immediate effects, but raises questions about the long-term effects of lockdown, especially on young people.

Ghost Signs: poverty and the pandemic by Stu Henniganpublished in 2022 by Bluemoose Books. 208pp

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“Better than Whitewashing.” The Wind in the Willows and Covid.

Back at the end of last year, as we finished our second Lockdown and almost immediately began the third, I gave in and decided to banish the worst effects of continued incarceration and got out a jigsaw puzzle. And after a few days I had finished it, with a little help from a grandson. 

While I had submitted to that curious addiction that jigsaws create in me (just one more piece, just that piece that goes there) I thought a lot about the opening scene of The Wind in the Willows. The Mole is spring cleaning his house, when he gets fed up with it and, with ‘an aching back and weary arms’, he decides to do something else.

It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. (3)

I longed for the moment when we could leave our homes, not worried by Covid and masks and 2 metre rules, and escape into spring. It seemed like it was not far away, for were all going to be vaccinated and this long trial would soon be over.

And as the jigsaw progressed and I searched among all those shapes with small dabs of green for the right one, I promised myself I would read The Wind in the Willows and enjoy again the adventures of the Mole, his friend the Rat, the wild Toad, and severe Mr Badger. 

(There was another book that appealed to me for a similar reason: One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes. I had been told this novel was about the moment, a year after VE Day, when Laura could say that the war was over and they could start afresh. I reviewed that book in July. You can find the post here.)

If you know The Wind in the Willows, you will be aware that for the Mole it was not easy to emerge into the sunlight by the river.

So he scraped and he scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow. (3)

And so it has been for us, despite the vaccine, and despite the ending of restrictions, I still feel we are scrooging and sometimes still scrabbling. 

The Mole is a fine fellow, and he quickly strikes up a strong friendship with the Rat, a water rat, who is never so happy as when he is messing about in boats. He is also something of a writer:

During his short day he sometimes scribbled poetry or did other small domestic jobs about the house (28)

Off they go in the Rat’s boat, for the first of many picnics, and to enjoy an idyllic Edwardian summer, until the Toad spoils everything. 

The Toad is a boastful, talkative, self-satisfied animal, prone to passions about boats, then caravans and so on until his interest is taken elsewhere. But it is in motorcars that he has to face his lack of responsibility, and he is imprisoned following yet another smash-up, placed ‘in the remotest dungeon of the best-guarded keep of the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England’. (76).

It takes the combined forces, ingenuity and manipulation of Mr Badger (forever speaking in the voice of Michael Hordern), the Rat and the Mole to get the Toad to see sense, and to win back Toad Hall for him. 

The character of the Toad is compelling. He is very tricksy and resilient. Here he is as he wakes up the morning after he has made his escape from the castle, dressed as a washerwoman.

He shook himself and combed the dry leaves out of his hair with his fingers; and, his toilet complete, marched forth into the comfortable morning sun, cold but confident, hungry but hopeful, all nervous terrors of yesterday dispelled by rest and sleep and frank and heartening sunshine. (114)

Yes, I know that toads don’t have hair, but if they did it would be rather wild and straw-coloured.

His homecoming is delayed as the friends have to see off the weasels and stoats from the Wild Wood who have occupied Toad Hall during his absence. They do this thanks to the Mole’s subterfuge. Mr Badger insists that they prepare a banquet. The Rat has to persuade the Toad that at the banquet he will not make a single speech or sing a single song. Not even a little one.

“It’s no good, Toady; you know well that your songs are all conceit and boasting and vanity; and your speeches are all self-praise and – and – well, gross exaggeration and – and –“
“And gas,” put in the Badger in his common way. (153-4) 

So here we are now, the pandemic is not over yet, not here and not in the whole world outside either. There is no banquet for us yet. But I enjoyed re-acquainting myself with this book, even though all the main characters are male, and refer to people as ‘fellows’. 

And I have checked online and found that there are many more jigsaw puzzles available on the theme of The Wind in the Willows.

 

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, first published in 1908. I used the Penguin Threads edition published in 2012. 

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In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo

We all remember those other worldly images of people in Hazmat suits treating victims of Ebola in West Africa between 2014 and 2016. There were also images of people waiting in compounds; others stricken with grief but unable to touch their dead; and teams with sprays, and hastily created burial grounds with bodies wrapped in plastic. It was terrible, but how relieved we were that it was happening in West Africa, far away from us. 

And perhaps we now wish we had taken more notice, for some of the worst hit areas by our current pandemic seem to be as chaotic and dreadful as those. We should have heeded the warnings of experts and history: pandemics happen. There was the Spanish flu of 1918, HIV/Aids, SARs, MERs and Ebola. 

In the Company of Men was the choice for February of the Asymptote Book Club.

In the Company of Men

Ebola began when infected bushmeat was consumed in the forests of West Africa. The Ebola virus spread quickly through contact, helped by ignorance. And also by lack of knowledge and resources to confront the rapid spread of infections. The illness seemed excruciatingly disgusting, melting the internal organs of the infected body. 

Véronique Tadjo explores the sense to be made of the outbreak. The figures seem low to us, now faced with Covid-19: 28,646 cases and 11,323 dead. But it caused mayhem, destroying lives, beliefs, economies and confidence. The author uses the possibilities of the novel to look at the impacts and experiences of many of its victims, including the Ebola virus itself.

 So each of the short chapters are related by people or other living creatures affected by the outbreak. There are the medical teams who had so little to fight with and could only ease a patient through the illness to recoveryor death by hydrating them, providing painkillers and trying to alleviate anxiety. Stuffed inside their protective gear, sweating in the African heat, dealing with victims who were often terrified, their working conditions were terrible.

There are the survivors, still viewed with suspicion; the foster carer for an Ebola orphan; the volunteers who built the Ebola centres; the other staff whose job it was to bury the dead in conditions that transgressed against the cultural customs of their families; and the outreach teams who had to go into villages to ensure restrictions and behaviours were in accordance with preventative measures, but against all customs. 

A leader of an outreach team explains some of the difficulties.

The outreach team have to exercise patience. They need to find the right words. Because when people are afraid, they will act irrationally. The contradictory claims and rumors going around about Ebola create a lot of uncertainty in peoples’ minds. The rate at which it spreads, its virulence, that’s all too much to grasp, and very hard to accept. Sometimes it’s just easier to lie to yourself. It’s easier simply to disbelieve the evidence before your eyes, in your own village, in your own neighborhood. Despite the public notices, many prefer to hide the sick, or even, if the threat becomes real, to die with them. What’s the point, they say, it was a losing game right from the start. The most vulnerable members of society, women and children, have to bow to the decrees of the elders. They’re excluded from the discussions, and thus have no inkling of the dangers waiting for them. (80-81)

She writes from the perspective of the virus, and from the bat that had been its host. The bat suggests that humans are not facing up to the situation, instead pursuing their empty dream of purity and perfection, in the Ebola epidemic to find a scientific solution to its eradication. The bat suggests that this dream of perfection is not the way forward, because it is aggressive and destructive.

[Humans say] ‘We save more lives than we kill. We discover medicines that cure and vaccines that protect. Our advanced technologies will provide solutions for our problems and innovations will alleviate global hunger and warfare.’ … 
But I know none of this will actually happen unless they learn to share with one another, and with us, and with every creature yet to be born. …
Humans need to recognize that they’re part of the world, that there’s a close bond between them and all other living creatures, great and small. Instead of trying to rise above their earthly origins. Instead of wanting to conceal the presence of death by dint of ever-more-sophisticated invention.(132-3)

The use of multiple voices by Véronique Tadjo extends to quoting from songs and poems that circulated at the time or were already well-known in the countries affected.

So the reader finishes this short novel with the sense that we need to see the Ebola outbreak not as an aberration, but absorb its history and how to confront it into our understanding of the world. The bat has already said that, the virus is more critical of human capacity to destroy, but the Baobab tree echoes the more positive note.

These ancient and revered trees are often the meeting place for a village and are seen as trees that hold knowledge and understanding of the world. ‘I am Baobab, the first tree, the everlasting tree, the totem tree.’ When the outbreak is finally over, the tree welcomes back the activity of humans. It has the final word:

And the destiny of Man will become one with ours. (141)

Everything that I read in In the Company of Men applies to Covid-19. The scale is larger, but the ability of literature to show us the familiar in new ways is reflected in this book.

Véronique Tadjo

Véronique Tadjo is a poet, novelist academic and artist from Côte d’Ivoire with an interest in many African countries.

In the Company of Men by Véronique Tadjo first published in French in 2017, and the English translation by Other Press in 2021. Translated from the French by the author in collaboration with John Cullen. 147pp

Related Posts

Reviewed on Heavenali’s blog in April

Asymptote Book Club

Picture credit

Véronique Tadjo at the Salon du Livre 2011 in Geneva by Rama: through Wiki Commons

Baobab Tree by Rod Waddington on Visualhunt.com

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Missing my writing group

I miss my writing group. We have not met in person since March, six months ago. The Coronavirus pandemic has postponed or cancelled some of the good things planned for this year, including an away day to work together on writing.

The Writing Group

I have been in this writing group since it started 7 years ago. The librarian called together some local writers and we formed our group. We have retained the library connection because we want people to be able to join in, as freely as they visit a library. It’s open to all. We only have one rule: don’t put yourself or your writing down. (None of this ‘it’s very rough really and I think you’ll hate it,’ or ‘I’m not sure about this, I’m not as experienced as the rest of you,’ and so on. It’s surprising how hard it is to wean people off this way of introducing their writing.)

Over the years we have achieved some rewarding things. We produced an anthology of our writing called Gallimaufry. We sold it to the public for £5 a copy, using the marketing ploy that it was an excellent Christmas present. We put our oldest and whitest haired members to the front and stood in the library entrance and sold them. 

It was a good experience. We learned a fair bit about producing a book and although it did not raise any funds for the group we were proud of our efforts.

Then there was the evening when brave members performed their work. We celebrated our 4th birthday with a brilliant bookish cake. We were not quite brave enough to open this to the public, but the event was attended by tolerant and appreciative friends and relations. 

Emboldened by all this, and wanting to try new aspects of sharing our work in the community, we decided to host a one day writing festival. None of us had realised what a step up that would be. It tested our organisational skills and rather got in the way of writing for the committee members. 

But in September 2019 we hosted about 100 local people to attend 12 workshops, some readings, a school’s writing display, a sale of books, and a poetry slam. It was a great success 

The feedback was positive. No we wouldn’t be doing this annually. We might repeat some of the activities. We needed to recover. We got ourselves sorted to use our funds for various activities, all aimed to support writing by people in the community and –

Covid-19 locked us down.

Writing in a pandemic

It’s been hard, writing in this pandemic, or rather not writing. Like many people I wrote a lockdown diary. I stopped after 4 months because I felt that my life was being prescribed by the virus. I began to feel that I should make my life be about more than Covid-19, that I would take account of the pandemic of course, but not be more defined by it than necessary. 

I have continued with my Morning Pages. I follow a modified version of the recommendation in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I start every day with Morning Pages. It helps me reflect on my writing and my reading and other activities important for my mental health. 

And I have continued to post on this blog every 5 days. Bookword was launched in December 2012, and I have since posted 613 times. Most of those posts are about books, but a fair number are about writing and publishing. I have no plans to stop soon.

Recently I felt frustrated by my lack of writing. I stopped wondering why I wasn’t getting on with my short story. They always take me a long time, but this one was largely conceived in November 2019. I have written perhaps two thousand words, some of it very poor and written just to get something down. So I decided that I would write 500 words a day. That’s roughly two handwritten sides of A4. I have been doing that since the beginning of September and enjoyed it. Some of it is memoir. Some of it is comment on what’s happening. Some is more like an exercise, a description or a response to a prompt.

And I have decided to take advantage of some on-line writing courses. I love writing courses, although I did feel at one point that I was a course junky and that attending courses was replacing or displacing my writing activities.

And in the last two or three months the writing group has been meeting on zoom. Or rather a few of us have been meeting on zoom. Usually one of us volunteers to offer a prompt and then we write together and read the results of our efforts. There is always laughter and always lots of praise and encouragement. We were just thinking that we might meet in person in a suitably distanced way when the rule about meeting in groups of six as a maximum was introduced. 

We are at the point of thinking about some variations in the way we use the zoom facility to share our work on the chat or screen share facility, using the audio and visual possibilities and so on.

So now I know

So now I know that my writing group, in person, round a table, with people who I know only as writers (often nothing more about them, their families, jobs, where they live etc etc) is important for my writing and that I will want us to operate again as we did when this is over.

What I like about the group is the stimulus, the laughter, the audience, the critique and above all the community.

Tell us what do you need from a writing group?

Related posts

Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop (January 2016)

A Writing Festival – why would you organise one?

A Birthday for Our Writing Group

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What I did during Lockdown

One thing I have been doing in the Lockdown is keeping a daily diary, a journal of my experience of avoiding Covid-19. I have written something every day since Sunday 15th March, when I decided to isolate myself. At the time of writing I have done nearly 100 days.

So what is this diary for? 

Why did I start it? 

Why haven’t I stopped writing it? 

What does it contain? 

What have I learned from it?

My Covid Diary – thank you Sarah

What is this diary for? 

Here’s how it starts.

Sunday 15th March (Day 1)
Today the rumours began that people over 70 would soon be forced into self-isolation for 4 months.I find myself trembling with fear. It seems that there is some truth to these stories. And I wonder – with loneliness known to be the biggest killer of older people – how can this be contemplated.

Later that day I record that there were NO plans to ask over-70s to completely isolate themselves, only to reduce social contact. And I decide to limit my contacts from that day.

Monday 16th March (Day 2)
The Finnish PM – a woman- says we should not speak of social distancing/isolation but of physical distance/isolation. We must insure that social connections are kept.
New cases 330 Deaths 35

It is a record, a historical record. I hope we are not in for repeated lockdowns, although I fear that is a possibility. But this is our first and many things are strange and unusual. I planned to record some of them.

I note the announcement of the Lockdown.

Tuesday 24th March (Day 10)
New restrictions announced last night – for 3 weeks at least. Everyone to stay at home, only go out for exercise and with one member of your household. Cases 6650 Deaths 335

As it goes on I note what I observe about things closing, (GPs’ surgeries, schools, pubs, gyms, and so on) and how Michel Barnier, EU chief Brexit negotiator, had the virus, two news stories collide. I note too that it gets hard to remember what day it is, the need to keep exercising, the figures rising, how I long for a haircut and the UN’s 4 key qualities: being kind, generous, empathetic and sharing solidarity.

I make a note of bad nights, the events being cancelled, and the friends with whom I talk on the phone. At first it feels as if we are in some kind of hiatus, life suspended, frozen in time.

From the first day I record the figures of cases and deaths (once a researcher, always a researcher), although we now know that the totals were much higher because statistics we were given were only from those people who had been tested. 

As  historian I know that looking back at something has a different flavour from a record of reactions at the time, before one knows the outcomes. For example, war diaries are interesting, because they do not have hindsight, they were written before the outcome of hostilities was known.

I recorded many of the contradictions and tensions in the situation

Monday 30th March (Day 16)
Contradictions:Reassurances – it’s not that bad for 4 out of 5 people but terrible for those who suffer.The virus is global – we live locally and in very restricted waysWe are all in it together – but we must stay 2m apart. Cases 22,141 Deaths 1408

We are isolated physically but better connected than ever. (Day 43)

We are all in this together but some of the established fault-lines are visible: gender (men appear to die more than women), age (older people are 60% of the victims, ethnicity (BAME people are suffering more deaths). I expect there are class differences as it is harder to observe lockdown in a small overcrowded flat with children and no garden (Day 44)

And I had an obscure idea that if I was going to find the lockdown as difficult as I feared, then writing would be helpful in avoiding depression. It may have helped, it may still help. 

Sunday 12th April (Day 28)
Something must change. I don’t want to mope about anymore. More contact. More writing. First rule of lockdown life – be nice to yourself – food, activities, and above all no running yourself down.2nd rule – find and enjoy the small things. Cases 78,991 Deaths, 9895

A change of mood comes when I speak with friends. An important change came on Day 42. I decided that I needed to stop seeing Lockdown as a hiatus, and accept that this is life now and it still needs to be lived.

Friday 1st May (Day 47)
Are we nearly there yet? Cases 177,454 Deaths 27,510

I noted all the things we currently count: deaths, deaths of the over 60s, deaths of men vs women, cases, tests, days in lockdown. And that my friends were making fewer phone calls. And that Kier Starmer was asking – how has it come to this? VE Day, the new slogan Stay Alert replacing Stay Home, WHO warning that Covid-19 may never go away, the horror of the care home infections and deaths.

Sunday 17th May (Day 63 – 9 weeks)
I am a little haunted by two things. Is death by Covid-19 horrible? I imagine a kind of drowning as lungs fail, or suffocation as oxygen doesn’t reach the parts that need it. No-one has said.And what will the ‘new normal’ be like? For a start I imagine it will not be new, just emergent from what we have now. And normal – hardly. I look at my 8 friends on the Writers Group [zoom] meeting, and I wonder if we will ever be in the same room again, whether we can ever be together as we used to be. Cases 233,151 Deaths 34,636

And a few days later I note that the over 70s are being condescended to again, patronised, and that the advances since the late C20th against ageism are being rolled back and an intensification of ageism is emerging.

And then the mood everywhere changed with the Cummings debacle and then again with Black Lives Matter.

Monday 8th June (Day 85)
Shocking news that many people died at home, alone, often not found for 2 weeks. Possibly 700 in London. Cases 287,399 Deaths 40,599 No deaths in London or Scotland todsay

What have I learned from my diary?

One thing I learn is that reality is not the same as fears. I still think it is crazy to refer to social rather than physical distancing, but rarely make that point now. The purpose, to reduce contact, is most important. 

I learned that once I knew I would not run short of food, or even toilet paper, I could manage. I also needed contact with key people in my life, preferably when I can see them. But I still have bad nights.

I am horrified by the failures of the government in so many things, and that they spin their record to claim pride in it. They deny faults and hide the truth.

And some fairly random things: I prefer doing Pilates in the morning; I don’t have a good recipe for banana bread; I can live a boring life and survive; there are more adders around this year; too many government contracts have gone to private companies without due process; some grapes are pretty tasteless and not the first symptoms of the virus.

I’ll continue with my diary until I stop physically distancing myself. I don’t expect much to be ‘normal’ again, whatever that was.

How was your lockdown?

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