Tag Archives: pandemic

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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Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry by Margaret Kennedy

I have a long-standing interest in the history of the war years, especially of the home front. I guess it is because, being of the ‘boomer’ generation and born after the war, it influenced so much of my formative years. Yet we knew so little of what our parents had done. Many of us had mothers who were silent about their experiences, which we sometimes later discovered had been rather racy; our fathers in the armed or reserved services were hard to imagine. My own father hid behind the Official Secrets Act if we asked him about his war years.

And there is the added interest of our current troubles, the pandemic, which has many parallels with the war. One overwhelming difference is that our ‘enemy’ is a microscopic virus, while in the Second World War it was Hitler and his followers and their malign beliefs. The reactions of the home population during the war have many similarities to our thoughts today, which I find comforting, not least the belief that we will get through it.

Margaret Kennedy’s memoir of the summer of 1940 is therefore a boon to people with my interests. It was published in America in 1941, and has been made available to us today, reissued in a handsome edition by Handheld Press in March 2021. (My thanks to Handheld Press for a copy of this book.)

Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry

She writes about the people she meets, friends she corresponds with, the decisions she makes and how the war progresses over the next six months. The immediate fear was of invasion, but also bombardment of the kind seen in Guernica in Spain in April 1937. By September 1940, when the Blitz was well under way, it seemed unlikely that an invasion was imminent.

My story begins at six o’clock on an evening in May 1940 when the BBC announcer told the British people that the situation of our army in Flanders was one of ‘ever-increasing gravity’.

Those three words banished for ever the comfortable delusion that we were ‘certain to win’. And from that moment, the war took on a new character in our minds. (10)

During those months ‘we in this country were living through a supreme experience’, she wrote.

Many of us were more frightened than we ever expected to be. Many, before the year was out, found themselves being braver than they had ever expected to be. We discovered unsuspected passions and loyalties. We realised which things we valued most. […] The story of last summer is the story of forty million people, each one of them taking that journey. Each had to find his own path back to faith and sanity, each had his own unuttered fears, each found his own source of courage. (3-4)

In our own case, the pandemic brought similar experiences of fear, unsuspected bravery, passions and loyalties. And we have each needed to find our own resources to deal with what the pandemic has thrown at us.

Margaret Kennedy writes about the fall of Belgium that occurred soon after that BBC announcement. The situation was indeed increasingly grave. The British army became trapped at Dunkirk and was rescued, France was invaded and capitulated, and Paris was occupied. A German invasion was expected every day.

During that time she and her husband had to make decisions about where to live: she moved with the children from Surrey to ‘Porthmerryn’ – St Ives, Cornwall, where she had spent much of her childhood;  her husband stayed in London as an air raid warden. Later they decided not to send the children to Canada for the duration. This decision was partly motivated by egalitarian principles. Instead they helped with the hundreds of evacuee children who were sent west to Cornwall. 

The children went to Cornwall by train and saw another train full of soldiers rescued from Dunkirk.

While they were waiting on the platform a train full of soldiers came in. The men were filthy and ragged and unshaven, many of them wounded and hastily bandaged up, They were shouting and cheering wildly, and all the people on the platform were cheering and rushing forward with coffee and rolls and fruit and cigarettes. A huge, north-country giant jumped down on the platform and kissed Lucy; pressing a Belgian franc into her hand. (32)

Later as she followed them the writer met a train full of French soldiers, who were much less cheerful for they were going into exile.

Margaret Kennedy’s skill as a writer is in evidence throughout this memoir. I enjoyed her sketches of people, such as the woman who posts pro-German leaflets (like an antivaxxer on social media); the refugee couple from Vienna who have seen terrible things; her friend who denies that anything bad is happening.

For another example, she goes into the garden to find Cotter, the gardener, after that BBC news announcement.

He too had heard the six o’clock news and he looked perturbed but not flabbergasted. But it would take the last trump to dismay Cotter, and even then he would probably appoint himself an usher and marshal us to our places before the mercy seat. He runs the entire village, the British Legion, the Cricket Club, and the Parish Council. It’s my belief that he was born giving instructions to the midwife. (15)

She comments upon class issues, pouring scorn upon the ‘Gluebottoms’ who arrive seeking safety and expecting service they had enjoyed before. They do not muck in. The attitude to the evacuee children is not always generous. We read of the general suspicion of the French, the preparations for invasion and bombardment; rumours that spread and get distorted, and reactions to the first alert.

There are some interesting and amusing details. There are no boats in the Porthmerryn harbour when they arrive because they have not yet returned from Dunkirk. They go for a walk on the seemingly unprotected cliffs and are surprised by hidden soldiers. There is Lucy’s postcard to a school friend:

The waw is getting very bad and we are lerning to nit.

If you think of it as the waw it does not seem so frightening somehow. (32) 

She is exceptional for presenting, along with her own thoughts, the variety of attitudes, arguments, dogmatisms about Belgium, France, the US, bombing, evacuating children to Canada and so on.

By the end of the summer, like us, she and the British public have learned to live normally in an abnormal situation; to keep the children safe and educated, to keep in touch with friends. She repeats the general admiration for the RAF, reminding me of the admiration we feel for the staff of the NHS. She believes that the British will carry on, and even create a better world after it’s over, although the fight is likely to be long and bloody. It lasted for another four and a half years. Let us hope our ‘duration’ is nothing like as long.

Margaret Kennedy

Margaret Kennedy, Smithsonian Institute via WikiCommons

Born in 1896 Margaret Kennedy attended Cheltenham Ladies College and then shared her time at Somerville, where she read history, with Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Hilda Reid and Naomi Mitchison among others. Her first book was a history book and she went on to write 15 novels. Her brother was killed in Palestine in 1918. She died in 1967.

The presentation of this memoir in this new edition is excellent. There is a useful and interesting introduction by Faye Hammill. 

The title comes from a poem, My Soul there is a Country, by Henry Vaughn.

My soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a wingèd sentry 
All skilful in the wars: (set to music by Parry, in Songs of Farewell, during the First World War)

Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry by Margaret Kennedy first published in 1941 but only in the US, reissued by Handheld Press in March 2021. 201pp

Related posts on Bookword

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy (1924) from April 2018

Maidens’ Trip: A wartime adventure on the Grand Union Canal by Emma Smith (1948) from January 2020

Themed review: novels from the Home Front in WW2 from November 2019

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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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