Notes on the pandemic

pandemic (adj): — definition: of diseases, “incident to a whole people or region,” 1660s, from Late Latin pandemus, from Greek pandemos “pertaining to all people; public, common,” from pan- “all” + dēmos “people”. OED reports that it is “Distinguished from epidemic, which may connote limitation to a smaller area.” The noun, “a pandemic disease,” is recorded by 1853.

novel (n): — definition: “fictitious prose narrative,” 1560s, from Italian novella “short story,” originally “new story, news,” from Latin novella “new things” (source of French nouvelle), of novellus “new, young, recent”.

I am a novelist. And even though being published last year was a bit like digging a hole and dropping my book into it, I know that my pandemic experience has been a fortunate one.

I was not on the frontline. I was not set apart from my job. My words were not furloughed or put in a box, out of reach. I was not told I might only come back to them at some unspecified time in the future – and then only perhaps.

furlough (n): — definition: from the 1620s from the Dutch vorloffe – permission – and proto-Germanic: leubh ‘to care, desire, love’.

Over the year I continued to write. Finished my third book. Sketched out a fourth. Found only kindness and support in readers.

Novelists are often solitary, work at home creatures, suited in many ways to lockdown life. Talk to people? Truth be told, most of the time I struggle to answer the phone. Send me an email. I’ll craft you an erratically punctuated response. But, as archives and libraries shut, and we each took steps to avoid one another in supermarkets and on the pavement, came the realisation that so much of what I had taken for granted in my old life could easily be closed off; and the vast interconnected constellation of relationships and encounters that is the world had somehow been made ever more brutally visible – simply by dint of its absence and loss. This world of ours, built of concrete flyovers, steel girders, vast slabs of Portland stone, had seemed so robust. In fact, it was quite the opposite.  The pandemic held the modern world up to the light and exposed the fractures that riddled it. Our cathedrals, museums and theatres stand in glorious testament to our vision and ambition, like the pyramids before. But what are they without us? Stone given over in silence to the elements.

It was a terrible year to publish a book. And I’ll admit to a kind of self-pitying grief accompanying that second book of mine. The book in the hole I began these thoughts with. No book asks to be cried over, to be thought of with despair. With the future closed off, it is hard sometimes to see what is there before us: our resilience; and what — despite every hurt, harm and injury the pandemic inflicts — stubbornly persists and endures in spite of it all.

As bookshops shut their doors, it was like a large cloth being shaken out and let drop over my life and with it came the real worry that booksellers would not survive. But then, something unexpectedly affirming – and in large part realised through the tenacious effort of those booksellers – book sales rose as people turned to novels as a means of escape.

escape (v): — definition: c. 1300, “free oneself from confinement; extricate oneself from trouble; get away safely by flight (from battle, an enemy, etc.),” from Old North French escaper, Old French eschaper; from Vulgar Latin *excappare, literally “get out of one’s cape, leave a pursuer with just one’s cape,” from Latin ex- “out of” + Late Latin cappa “mantle”.

My book hadn’t vanished. It was still there with all the others, under the cloth, waiting patiently for it to be lifted again.

This terrible year has marked each of us, and in ways we likely won’t fully understand for some time. We must allow ourselves time to recover and nor should we rush from that. So many people lost to this, so many others grieving; jobs lost, ambitions thwarted, journeys cancelled, loved ones kept apart from us for months on end; even as we wish for a return to normality, many have seen their lives change beyond recognition. Whatever the new normal is, it won’t be the same. All kinds of loss now stand in place of what ought to have been and our spontaneous hoped for perhaps or maybe. As each day passes I tell my daughter, it’s one day nearer to seeing each other again. We’ll get through this, I tell her. Some days, I’m like a wind-up mannequin; that bit of hope that remains wedged in me, somehow resistant to deeper doubts. The trick, I am learning, is never to hope for too much, never to look too far ahead.

book (n): — definition: Old English boc “book, writing, written document,” generally referred (despite phonetic difficulties) to Proto-Germanic *bōk(ō)-, from *bokiz “beech” (source also of German Buch “book” Buche “beech”), the notion being of beechwood tablets on which runes were inscribed; but it may be from the tree itself (people still carve initials in them). Latin and Sanskrit also have words for “writing” that are based on tree names (“birch” and “ash,” respectively). And compare French livre “book,” from Latin librum, originally “the inner bark of trees”.

It’s spring 2021 and I was given the gift of a pear tree. As I heeled it in, for the first time in a long time, my thoughts turned to the future. I thought: what is at the end of this? And though spring brings hope, I am guarded still.

But, in a year or two, there will be pears, if nothing else. And maybe a story about them.

Writing. Reading. It connects us.

Our futures depend on each other.

Then again, wasn’t that always true?

word etymologies from Online Etymology Dictionary

words written for Covid Dreams — an installation at Tithe Barn, Landbeach, forthcoming, June 2021.

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