Freezing All News Intake During A Pandemic

Monday October 19th was a day like no other. Similar you could say, but uniquely different. As the morning news filtered onto the interfaces lighting up the screens and dinging the notifications, the nation roused itself to smell the coffee.

Covid vaccines were forecast for the end of the year. Trump’s health was improving. Michael Gove had declared the door to the Brexit trade deal ‘ajar’, and Britney had set pulses racing with a sexy dance on instagram in a red halter top.

In the shower around 7.19am, I made the decision to stop watching listening or clicking on any news for a month. The Stoic deprivation thing was part of it. But it was more that I was going mad. My life had become a metronomic clickfest of newsfeed incontinence relieved by snatches of sleeping and eating.

BBC News Guardian FT BBC Sport ESPN Grazia YouTube BBC News Guardian FT Heat BBC Spo… Refresh consume excrete refresh consume excrete.

It was another thing too. The day before, I’d gone online and noticed every one of the two dozen articles on the homepage I was blinking at was about something terrible. Death, crime, poverty, scandal, corruption, racism, climate catastrophe, deadly virus.

Hand an extraterrestrial the morning paper and it’d be like these cats have fucked this place up good I’m out. It was the grimness of the headlines more than anything that made me stop to wonder if this relentless checking and informing and updating was doing my mood any favours at all.

In his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker writes how contrary to what the media would have us believe, progress throughout the world in the last 150 years has been close to miraculous. Deaths in war have plummeted, extreme poverty has halved in three decades, the world has seen a mass decrease in starvation, domestic violence and child abuse are down, life expectancy is way up, there is 90% global literacy rate in under 25’s, and the world is a safer place.

But journalism tends to cover what goes wrong rather than what goes right, what happens rather than what doesn’t. Bad things, Pinker points out, are sudden and dramatic and occur on an idle Tuesday in May. An attack, a riot, a bomb blast. Good things are things that don’t happen, such as children not starving, terrorism not taking place, nations not being at war.

Knowing full well that humans are evolutionarily tilted towards negative information, the mainstream media goes fishing. So in ignorance of all the good in the world, we read of Sarin gas attacks and police brutality, spiralling infection rates and Kim Kardashian’s butt-reduction, now brought to us in real-time by a new army of video journalists, basically anyone with a smartphone.

I stepped out of the shower, somewhat purified, and got busy. I deleted the news apps on my tablet and set up some site blockers on my computer. Not owning a smartphone meant time in the street was free from temptation.

Leaving the flat that morning I felt the lightness that comes with the instinct of being kind to oneself. Outside all was as it had been. The traffic lurched and gargled, the last leaves trembled, the lollypop man on the crossing by the school smiled.

My first encounters were positive. Friends nodded in understanding, said they’d thought of doing the same, the lady at the checkout gave a look of earnest commiseration. It’s all the same so dreary day after day yer doin a good thing.

But mid-morning at my desk when the site-blockers barred my way I was taken aback. What the hell was I supposed to do, how was I going to know things. The infection-rate. Had London gone into Tier 3. Was Donald on the mend. Keeping up to speed could be deemed more critical now, than say, on Jubilee Weekend.

What if I emerged from my flat 28 days later and the streets were empty, the shops boarded up, just a harsh wind beneath a birdless sky, and the world was unrecognisbale. What if we were top of the league with two games in hand.

I began to sniff out clues for signs of the pandemic, the sirens in the air, the number of masks, the degree of crestfallen countenances. I glimpsed a news board one night cycling through central with the words Isis in Vienna written large on it. In the back of a taxi I heard something muffled about Macron addressing his people. From the bowels of my laptop a video emerged of a concerned-looking Boris behind his wooden lectern and I closed it down immeditely.

I perfected an appropriate level of concern facial expression, a grin and bear it brow-furrow, and a shrug of humorous resignation, hoping that would cover all the bases. So if I got chatting to a stranger they wouldn’t clock I had absolutely no fucking idea what they were on about.

The churning news cycle was a conversation I had been left out of and I felt dumber for it. But also calmer, like I was the guardian of my own secret, of the things going on around me. Instead of drawing in on myself, I felt pushed outward. Like a great gulp of mountain air.

I noticed time more, there were now pauses between things. I could break from a task without going all bbcsporguardiayoutubeholebleughh, I would sit there, stare in the fridge, do some jigsaw. My brain began to refocus, my attention span spread its wings.

Outside there were sounds, strange shifts in air currents, winter’s creep, the harsh brick of St John’s against my hand. I found allies in the things headlines meant nothing to, the building cat, the enormous planes of London fields, the wide-eyes staring out from prams. I began to feel a little as they were always, present in my surroundings.

On the off-chance I might leave the house one day and get tased and airlifted to a bunker by the World Police, I told my mother to text if Boris and his stooges went full-Wuhan. I forgot about the US election entirely. I was on a roll. What else could I give up that required being on my own in the flat with decent wifi.

Two and a half weeks in, the country went into nationwide lockdown. The same day the election results came in. I’d gone down to Devon with a friend, a US politics obsessive. As he relayed the headlines from his smartphone in real-time, I heard an exotic language that needed careful enunciating back to me. Jow-Bye-Dun you say. But a short sharp hit of news was thrilling. I felt part of the crew again.

Was it unethical, was it my duty to keep informed. If news and politics were part of the culture I lived in and I wasn’t engaging in that culture, was I abusing the freedom I took for granted to live in a democracy. What about the men and women affected by job losses and insufficient furloughs, was my no-news experiment mocking them. 

When every government decision had a direct impact on mortgage payments, covering rent and buying food, was taking time off from the headlines nothing more than proof of privilege. Or would the world spin on regardless, whether I kept up to date or not.

With all the fun happening the other side of some forcefield, I began to relish my separation. It wasn’t that I’d found something new, more that I’d got back something I’d lost. I was a 90s kid with a pre-internet brain and I was unlearning habits that were so normalised I’d stopped noticing how unbelievably weird they were. 

It turned out that this compulsion that had swallowed up two hours of my day, easy, I didn’t miss at all. The moments that filled me up I still had access to, an autumn walk, a book’s depth, a talk with a friend. I literally felt cleaner, and understood what the word detox implied. The removal of some poison.

With only the world in front of my face for company, I decided to write my own headlines. I smiled at everyone like a moron, even through a mask, held-up supermarket checkouts with platitudes, sprained my elbow holding doors open, fist-bumped the lollypop man, left a tin of biscuits for the dry-cleaner, engaged in pretty much every tiny human interaction I could, and saw goodness come my way.

Eventually it came around.

Twenty seven days in, on the eve of my reinitiation, I felt twitchy. Had Trump died. Were Tottenham top of the league. Was the pandemic now a scamdemic, was everything still a mess. I deactivated the site blockers and began to click and refresh and click some more, and somehow nothing had changed at all.

A new president, the pandemic still there or thereabouts, Spurs second on goal difference. But nothing much had happened. Not really. Just ever-changing details in an unrelenting cycle destined to endlessly repeat itself. 

I’d been here before. I found myself very aware of how this was merely the latest iteration of a sequence which would change tomorrow and the day after and if I checked now or next week it wouldn’t change the core of me. I didn’t have to know. I had stepped off the edge of something.

Straight away the headlines brought a sinking feeling, and I picked up a book, ashamed of my denial, dimly aware it would be impossible to keep ignoring the news, and wary of the slow-spiral that would inevitably lead me back to where I’d started, a lump of media-gorged non-attention.

Sitting with my feet up one night watching The Fellowship Of The Ring, an answer came. Exhausted and emotional, Frodo looks into the foreboding dark of Moria and sighs. I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened. Turning, Gandalf fixes his eyes kindly on the little hobbit and murmurs. So do all who live to see such times. 

But that is not for us to decide.

The news cycle was the stark evidence of a suffering world. 2020 was a year like no other. I wish none of this had happened. So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for us to decide. The news was going to keep happening whether I read about it or not. Pretending it didn’t exist wasn’t the answer, and relentlessly checking it wasn’t either. 

There was another news cycle going on all around me that the media couldn’t report on, tiny miracles beyond the pixelated glare bouncing off my retina that required my attention. The myriad pockets of time in my day, the little windows of pause. How would I spend them, what would I make of them. How would I remember them. All I had to decide was what to do with the time that was given to me.

Love in The Time of Corona IV

Was that a pivotal historical moment we just went stumbling past.


Easter Monday

Jesus is back in the building. To howls of delight the eggs placed around the garden have been found. Mary is in the throes of a sugar comedown. A strong easter wind blows stray leaves across the valley like the pre-amble to a gun fight.

What else is happening.

Tuesday 14th April

The author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari is not so afraid of the virus as of the inner demons of humanity coming out. The biggest danger we face is people reacting to this crisis with hatred and with greed, he says. I spy the last two easter eggs in the fridge and leave one.

Like batman coming through the skylight the huge beech beside the clock tower finally joins the party. What an entrance. Funny such a big old tree should sprout such delicate little leaves, that it should take a man thirty six years to pay attention to spring.

On Sunday the death count in the UK passed 10,000. By the end of the week 5,000 more will have died. Until it affects you directly it’s just a number, some guy writes in a comment under a YouTube video.

Thursday 16th April

As I paint the window in the yard I listen to a recording of an old therapy session. Apparently I yield too much emotional ground to my father, I yell to my mother as she walks past. Yes you do! she shouts back.

A 99yr old veteran of the war who six days earlier began to walk laps of his garden to raise money for the NHS has reached 6 million quid. His daughter sets up his twitter account and tells him he has lots of new followers and he looks concerned and asks where they are.

Three more weeks of the lockdown are announced. The government of Belarus advises drinking vodka and visiting the sauna twice a week. The two days of spring that Hockney spoke of when everything seems doused in champagne bubbles have come and gone and the dregs of the bottle coat the floor like snow.

Give me something to grasp. Give me your beautiful crumbling heart.


Saturday 18th April

In the space just beneath the tasks of the everyday a guilt has taken up residence in me and preys on my pauses and taps on my shoulder and I cannot shake it. While I look out of the window somewhere someone is gasping for air and failing, or closed up in a flat climbing the walls, has lost all their income, is scared out of their skin. No change there, the world whispers.

Why do you care so much now.

I jiggle the bottle and remove the foil and sniff and my nose crinkles. Herd immunity. R0 values. Cytokine storms. The guilt bubbles up. Will you take the weight of the world on your shoulders.

For five nights I fight sleep. Wide awake at 3am I tread the corridor to the bathroom and through the window leering from the darkness Mary’s bike scares the shit out of me.

My mother has spent almost every day of the last three weeks tying to secure a shipment of PPE from a Chinese source for Bucks County Council. I tell her to leave it and she glares at me and says, can’t you see it’s my duty.

We make some banging anchovy and mozzarella flatbreads and toast the doubling of my cooking repertoire. My mother takes a bite and concedes she could be in downtown Bologna. A 99yr old lady from Stockport becomes the oldest person to beat coronavirus and credits marmalade for her survival.

No evidence the lockdown reduces the risk of infection.

The economy is in the gutter. 2.4 billion lost each day. An insider says the cabinet is deeply split. He may know Latin but we know the truth! rails a Boris basher. Sweden go it alone. In Guayaquil, Ecuadorian authorities distribute cardboard coffins. A teacher walks around Walthamstow labelling the trees, writing their names in chalk on the pavement below.

16,060 deaths.

Monday 20th April

Yesterday on a morning of white sunshine, we walked down the hill to the pond in the wood named after my uncle and stood at the edge of the water. Miguel and I read things we had written when he died and my mother spoke for a little while. Then she took Adrian’s ashes from the little plastic bag and flung them up and out, and the wind caught them and they flew together across the water and sparkled in the sun and we smiled.

Like we’re gonna buckle underneath the trouble.

Like any minute now the struggle’s going to finish us.


Wednesday 22nd April

Today is Matilda’s birthday. We get drunk on the terrace in the sun and even in the company of this strange new family she looks happy. I wake up with a rash and shooting pains down my right arm and the doctor diagnoses shingles.

What kind of loser gets shingles in a Coronavirus pandemic.

During the Black Death of the 1300s nobody had any idea why people were dying and the Institute of Medicine in Paris concluded it was down to the astrological positioning of the stars. Matilda starts calling me shingleybooboo, nullifying the effect of my antivirals.

Weekend of 24th – 25th

I’m not eating a fucking eighteen year old ball of mozzarella.

I yell across the kitchen.

It’s from the freezer darling. Are you joking this says 05-10-02My mother and I have been warring for weeks about sell by dates. As I remove the mozzarella ball from the bag it begins to pulsate and she concedes defeat. Earlier she wipes down six bags worth of click & collect with window cleaner, she is having a bad day.

An ocean and a hemisphere away my father looks out across the Pampa with a glass of Torrontés in one hand and a skull in the other. Just think, says Matilda in bed one night. Right this second all those miles away your father is somewhere, sitting in a chair alone thinking of something.

Tuesday 27th April

My brother orders a curry from Aylesbury for the fam and the first bite makes every yard of the fourteen mile round trip for the driver worth it. My shingles are killing me. Trump champions the injecting of disinfectant and his detractors go wild. Out in space an asteroid a mile wide passes within 3.9m miles of this world, silent as a shadow.

Thursday 29th April

Earlier in the week we sat in the kitchen over dinner watching a film called Eternity’s Gate about Van Gogh. Using a passage taken from one of his letters, he turns at one point to the man he is painting and says an angel is never far from those who are sad.

And illness can sometimes heal us.

When Argentina won the world cup in ’86 I was barely three and all I remember is going outside to throw loo-roll off the balcony down into the ecstatic streets of Buenos Aires. Plumes of white trailing away from my fingertips into an abyss. It was my first memory.

Tonight at eight o’clock as we beat on pans I wondered if Mary would remember these days too, hazily, like me without really understanding, when for a few months life as we knew it dropped to its knees, and wondered if the strange goings-on of 2020 would have an indelible effect on the world she was to grow up in.

Somewhere down the line for the better, perhaps.

If illness can sometimes heal.


Last year Kate Tempest made an album called The Book Of Traps and Lessons and played a special secret show down at the Broadway Theatre in Catford to kick it all off. I got wind of it and cycled down with a sign saying I’d buy any spares that were going.

That night she played the whole album through from start to finish, and ended with a song called People’s Faces, the high point of the album. For most of that year I’d been in the grips of a long and unrelenting episode, but magically that week of June the shackles finally came loose, the concert and that tune was a symbol of my coming back to life. That night I cycled home in the pouring rain feeling like a mountain.

Facebook just used People’s Faces for this.

Friday 1st May

So here we are, dancing in the rumbling dark.

27,000 deaths.

Yesterday evening this country got over its peak.

A new month, another new morning in a strange old dream.

Love in the Time of Corona III

With exhaustion painted on his face the Italian nurse looks into the camera and shrugs.

It has taught me to remember again.

The little things I took for granted… to live, to breathe, to go for a walk, to hug someone.


Out of the firing line the world goes on.

We wake with the alarm, a wood pigeon outside the window belting out its morning aria. Almost three weeks away from London now. An hour and a half in the car was a two week delay on the spread of the disease but a world away from its clutches.

Here Covid-19 isn’t on the other side of the front door, or in the silence of empty roads and shuttered shopfronts. It isn’t written on the faces of strangers. I hear birds around me and sirens on the news and don’t know what to think.

How are we meant to feel. Do we carry this new world with us all the time, fill our heads with the most recent numbers, with flattening curves, malign government U-turns as we sing to the health service, mourn the dead, deride fiscal stimuli, taking each day as it comes to step out into it blindly, thinking about only as much as we can to stay sane.

For how long.

Nous sommes en guerre, Macron told his people two weeks ago.

Monday 30th March

1,408 deaths.

Matilda picks primroses to make Victoria a birthday garland and a little one for Mary. From a distance of two metres we cut chocolate cake and raise our glasses and sing to Victoria. The weather turns. Lionel Richie filters through the drizzle.

The NHS pause volunteer subscriptions to process the mass of signups while the government makes plans to harness the tide of goodwill. For four days I am melancholy without knowing it. In the afternoons I only feel like sleeping.

Wednesday 1st April

The previous night I lie awake for an hour, sat on the side of my bed in the dark. The same as the night before. For the second time I have woken myself up coughing and am convinced I am infected. Turns out I’m far more afraid of death than I thought. I do some more thinking and come round to death, what I fear more is living each hour afraid.

During the siege of Leningrad Shostakovich wrote a symphony that became a symbol of hope for the war while in the streets people were so hungry they boiled their boots for food. 642 marks the biggest daily rise in deaths, I gaze out of the window and wonder what good words can do.

A cut appears on my knuckle from all the scrubbing and gets deep enough to use as a crosshair. I line up my hand with a distant object the other side of it and squint til it appears in the V. My cough has evaporated and I think less of myself for my midnight quandary.

Thursday 2nd

We would begin to love life now.

Wrote Proust of an imaginary end of the world looming. Life would seem all of a sudden wonderful to us, he said, and we would begin to live. How many projects, travels, love affairs, studies our life hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which certain of a future delays them incessantly.

A plane threads a line of silk between two clouds. Across the country a huge operation tries to house the homeless. What if it is Jesus, says Matilda half-smiling. The governor of Kansas declares his state safe due to its low number of Chinese residents. At 8pm we clap and hoot and the noises sound around the village and the birds flip out.

Fuck Corona! yells my brother from a window across the yard.

Weekend 4th – 5th April

Some guy in the book I’m reading goes to the library and I wonder how the hell he got away with it and I realise he is not in quarantine. Write, says Matilda. When you don’t write for three days you fall off the edge of the world. 4,934 deaths.

The horse chestnut is playing a blinder. From the bud four lots of five leaves and a little baubled Christmas tree explode outward. Like a chef’s kiss, says Miguel. On YouTube David Hockney says there are two days in spring when everything looks like it has been doused in champagne bubbles.

A man enters Jerusalem on a donkey and the people lay down their clothes and wave palm branches in the air. Who is this? the people of the city ask. This is Jesus, prophet from Nazareth of Galilee. 786 more lose their lives.

Monday 6th

More government bashing and doom-mongering from the Guardian. A pair of French authors get panned for elegiac accounts of spring from their second homes. You can’t see the sky from my window, writes one critic. The building opposite is dirty, the empty streets fill me with roaring anxieties.

Supply chains have been cut. Food banks face record demand, supermarket shelves lie empty, farmers dispose of fresh milk and plow vegetable back into the dirt. At 2am a paramedic friend of Matilda fields 250 covid-19 calls. Now more than ever we need art, clamours a piece in the FT.

Mary and I chase a bumblebee round the garden.

Wednesday 8th

Arrow-tailed great tits play at Statues, on the long lilted limb.

Miguel writes a poem called County Lines. The previous evening a discussion about quarantining and protecting our mother gets heated. You fucking gaslighting bastard he shouts through the dusk.

I lie in the bath with a Camden Pale and a rosemary and parmesan crisp.

Thursday 9th

No end to the lockdown in sight says the news. Deaths up by 938. Boris spends his third night in intensive care. Before the church bells rang, now only the sirens I hear, an old teacher in an Italian village recalls the past. We will meet again, says the Queen.

We spend the afternoon up the scaffold sanding and plastering the window frame and it is thirsty work. I ask my mother for a cold beer. I think a man working outdoors feels more like a man, if he can have a bottle of suds. That’s only my opinion, I say. We sit and drink with the sun on our shoulders and feel like free men, the Lords of all creation.

Friday 10th

Love one another as I have loved you. 7,000 miles away my father will be emotional. Has he found the Stations of the Cross on his computer, will he walk to the Virgin by the wood and pray to her. He isn’t speaking to me.

I watch for the champagne bubbles on the trees. The bluebell wood my mother planted twenty years ago is finally coming out and she is happy. Another day comes and goes. If you can’t be important things become simpler. Your insignificance dissolves, you submit. What might have been and what has been point to one end, which is always present.

In the valley plumes of blue wash hang from the clouds like strokes from a broad brush. The fading light catches the wall and moves down the corridor at the top of the house.

A hundred years from now someone I will never meet will stand here and see this too.

Love in The Time of Corona II

Weekend 21st – 22nd March

The whites of the doctor’s eyes double in size as he says:

You need to get out of this room right now.

I grab my rucksack and bolt out of the surgery. A minute earlier while assuring him it was nothing like the dry Corona cough I’d read about, I mention all the symptoms of a common cold have been afflicting me for a fortnight. Once outside on the street he calls me. We still don’t know what the exact symptoms of this virus are. You could easily be carrying it without knowing. My shame surprises me.

Over the weekend the streets in central are quiet but not ghostly. It is brilliantly sunny and strange for it. As if with everything going on you can’t enjoy it as much, but also savour it more than ever. As if you always took the world for granted and now it’s off and you’re stealing a last look.

Sores are appearing on my right hand from all the scrubbing. We spend most of the day in the flat. Getting outside restores us but inside we are safe and out there is where the virus lives, so we are tentative. Matilda and I walk along the canal in the fading light. The sun is low and the temperature drops fast, an eeriness marks the evening.

My mother keeps texting, encouraging us to come up to the countryside. My father emails to say it is not ridiculous that we have abandoned him in the Pampa… it is a sin. We decide to leave London the following day by bicycle. Nothing exposes a 36 year old without a driving license more than a pandemic.

Monday 23rd March

335 deaths. Another sun-blanched day. A doctor friend of Matilda’s says if we’re careful it isn’t so dangerous so we decide on a taxi. Matilda is terrified of infecting my mother. At midday I run around the marshes and stop by the honeysuckle bush, a single flower from last June is still hanging on giving off its faint sweetness.

I make sure to wipe the sweat from my brow with my sleeve, then with a different part of my sleeve, until I run out of sleeve, then with my top, and stop, a sweaty mass of uncertainty, still not understanding if I can infect myself or if I’m being a tool. I leg it home.

We pack bags with what we might need for who knows how long. I worry my plants will die. Away from the city we fly. As we cross into the Vale of Aylesbury Boris enforces the lockdown.

Tuesday 24th

The red kite hovers on the wind outside the window, the daffodils dance, for the first time we hear no sirens in the night. Yesterday feels like 72 hours ago says the radio woman. Each morning brings a tsunami of media. I’ve had enough of it, says my mother. But she is happy to have us. She explains some house rules from 2 metres away as we walk in the garden.

I shout to my brother out of a window from across the yard, where he and Victoria and Mary are living. We have a family kick about and I do 43 kick ups. In London it stared us in the face every day but out here it is easier to forget somehow, which feels funny but not haha funny.

On the radio the man’s voice cracks, his dog-walking business is all but lost. An author says he has been self-isolating for 28 years and can’t tell the difference. Trump bellows out a tweet. WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. I wonder what it is we will be cured of. A celestial thumb holds down the command key and hits R.

Wednesday 25th

465 deaths.

In the afternoon I run the circuit.

It is calm. I feel half the world away. The knuckles on my right hand are parched from the soap and two are bloodied. I run along North Marston road past the copse of trees on the outskirts of the village where all those years ago the man stopped me.

He waved me over with his hand and put his finger to his lips. From far above came the repetitive thud of something against the wood. I built a house for it once. It came back, he whispered. For a few minutes we stood there together in silence with our necks craned up, listening to the sound echo through the trees. The man didn’t look at me once. When I finally said goodbye he said nothing, just remained stock still, staring up through the branches. As if I had never been there.

Thursday 26th

578 deaths. The Oving village newsletter quotes Maya Angelou: A bird does not sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. At 8pm the nation beat on frying pans and hoot and clap together in song to the Health Service.

In the house we shout to one another through closed doors and adhere to specific time-slots in the kitchen. Every appliance and surface and salt shaker is wiped down. To my mother’s chagrin Victoria hits up the local butcher which means another fortnight before she can hold Mary.

In the Pampa my father resigns himself to sit out the quarantine alone. But an ocean is no match for papa, from 7,000 miles away he makes his presence felt. Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner as he loves to say. I suppose he feels alone and trapped and has a strange way of showing it.

Friday 27th

At some point this week Italy becomes the global centre of the pandemic. At some point this week the numbers become too strange to fathom. Deer wander through the subway of a Japanese city. Mallorcan police serenade the public with guitars. For five days England is in the stranglehold of uncut sunshine. Mary doesn’t understand why I won’t play Velcroball with her. This morning in Oving for the first time an ambulance siren pierces the birdsong.


I oscillate over the weekend between dread and unknowing and fight with the point of writing. I worry about not seeing my father again. The clocks go forward. My friend Greg sends me a Wendell Berry poem called The Plan and I think it is the best thing I read all week.

Love in The Time of Corona I

Week beginning Monday 9th March

Are you actually worried about it though?


So came the text from my friend Sam as I sat watching Tottenham get dumped out of the Champions League on Tuesday night. He forwarded me a bunch of screen grabs tweeted from hospitals in Lombardy and it became clear this was way more serious than I had understood.

For two days the country seemed in denial. Some rang radio stations calling it no worse than flu. Loo-roll was in stock. I barraged my mother with messages. That evening she joked down the phone to my father about my newfound hysteria.

I began isolating too early. On Wednesday morning I bought three packets of pasta two blocks of cheddar and four cans of baked beans and ordered some beers online from a local brewery while making a vow to improve my cooking skills. On Thursday evening Boris told the nation the biggest health scare in a generation meant families were going to lose loved ones before their time. That day on Waterloo Bridge the Sun interviewed passers-by and nobody seemed bothered at all.

I kept the radio on all weekend. At that point 0.008% of the population had the virus so I was probably safe I thought, scanning the supermarket isles. My mother was more concerned about me than herself, I kept telling her to be careful, but she thinks she knows everything. She thinks I think I know everything.

My girlfriend was on the phone to her mother too, arguing about high risk. Her school was refusing to close, her and her classmates were upset. We FaceTimed and talked things over. The football was cancelled. Footfall in the capital’s restaurants and bars dropped by 24%.

Monday 16th

I’m listening to the news and I can’t stop. I can’t get on with anything else. My father emails from Argentina. He is quite happy alone in the middle of the Pampa, the news is worrying he admits, but he feels calm.

A family issue had called my mother back for two weeks. But Argentina is closing its borders, it looks like she won’t be able to fly back out. Papa is stoic, sat there in the middle of his vast desert of grassland. I tell him to make friends with the trees. He says they are his only friends.

In Hackney it is a day of brilliant orange sun.

I put my music in and walk to the shops and today the sounds in my ear feel like a small miracle. The school kids in grey uniforms shout and throw a plastic bottle around. The florist is cheerful, business is good he says, people want house plants for the coming quarantine. All is orange, nothing is different but everything is, what will this roundabout look like in a few weeks time.

53 deaths in the UK. All underlying illnesses. Europe is going into shutdown. Boris holds the first of his daily press conferences at 5pm, both comforting and shocking. My brother sets up a facebook group for my mother. I’ve had a good innings, she says on the phone. What do you mean I ask her, are you facing up to your mortality. Well what do you think someone my age thinks about in the middle of the night when they can’t sleep.

Tuesday 17th

For two days I have a cough and phlegm stuck in my wind pipe that I can’t hock up. My steroid inhaler stands guard on my bedside table. The news for asthmatics is positive and not great depending on what you read. The market is in turmoil. Sex toy sales are surging. Liverpool fans are shell shocked.

The radio is full of pain. A chef has lost his job with immediate effect and fears homelessness. A father in tears describes rushing his two year old to hospital, having celebrated her all clear after 27 weeks of chemotherapy in December. A police woman is in self-isolation with a cough, beside herself with impatience describing the public servant guilt of those who need to help but can’t.

My father barks down the phone telling me to get Argentine nationality so I can fly out despite the border closures. It is ridiculous that I don’t have it. It is ridiculous that he has been abandoned by us all and left alone to die. I tell him that for some reason I can’t explain, it would hurt me less to lose them both to this than if everything were normal. This is also ridiculous. The final lesson at Matilda’s school is full of tears.

I ask her what right I have to write about any of this.

She says just write it and then see.

Wednesday 18th

It takes me ten seconds from waking to remember this is a different world. 104 deaths. Rumours of tanks mobilising. A historic bailout by the Chancellor. There is a 2km tailback for beach resorts in Argentina after the government mandates working from home. A sign in the capital reads These aren’t holidays, you asshole.

With every siren I think of a desperate pair of lungs overcome. Does crime go down in times like this. ‘Thieves offering to shop for the elderly are keeping the money’. Carbon emissions are plummeting. 50,000 deaths from pollution in Hubei province are being averted, which means a net gain of lives. Babies and children don’t seem to be affected. I look to the sky.

My mother pulls some strings with the embassy and arranges a flight home for my father. I worry about the airport and the aeroplane and his history of bugs. Your father’s illnesses are mostly psychological, she says.

I feel overcome with sadness about it all. Matilda comes back from Oxford and we fight. The Italians still find the heart to sing to one another from balconies. Will there be a before and after I wonder. I decide to keep my Mathmos mood lamp on around the clock.

Thursday 19th

I read once the rich think the world is about love while the poor know it is about money. Ten million in the UK are without savings. The last week has pulled the bowels of the earth up from underneath them, from underneath everyone. Scientists skip the animal testing phase. The vaccine race is on.

No new cases reported in China. Being with Matilda means less relentless news and more presence. We go to the shops. It doesn’t look like Hackney and social distancing are seeing eye to eye. That afternoon the press conference blares out from the cracked screen on the table. We are approaching the fast growth part of the upwards curve, says Boris flanked by his stooges.

The Walthamstow marshes are beautiful in the drizzle. The glow from the city sprays the edges of the darkness. I run and she cycles alongside me. All that we’ve got, reads the mural under the pylon by the path. We stop on the refurbished red metal bridge over the Lea and pray in the rain.

Friday 20th

My mother cancels my father’s flight. Why? He’s at the beach, she says. The British Museum has a surge of online visits. The top searches are Egypt, Virtual tour, Benin bronzes, and the Rosetta Stone. Continuing stories of prejudice against Asian people in New York. A critical-care nurse finishing a 48hr shift is flooded with donations after breaking down in a supermarket carpark having been left with nothing to buy.

144 deaths. Sirens outside the window. Social distancing could last a year. Half way through a new day in a strange new world. If things were back to normal we would live better. We would live like never before. I promise. Do you hear. And we would love better. With more fury.

177 deaths now. Today is the equinox. My mother wants my father back from Argentina before autumn and the slide into winter. Last night on the marshes the blossom was thick and wet in the darkness. All this new life around us amidst the fear and death. All the help we can get to fight this thing.