Sheila, Norfolk UK
The last ever Plague 20 Journal
When Margaret and I stared this Journal 2 years ago, I had no idea that it would become such an enormous part of my life. Nor could I envisage any of what has befallen our world in the intervening time. I sit here at my computer, designing our last edition, on the 11th day of suffering with Covid (Omicron) myself - my first, and hopefully only time of infection. Ironic that the pandemic that started this journal has finally caught up with me now.
Who knows how I would have been affected if I hadn't been able to have all the marvellous vaccinations that our scientists have developed and the NHS has so efficiently delivered. I have ‘merely’ the annoying symptoms of headache, chesty cough, fatigue, and body aches that perhaps during previous times would have proved more debilitating and even life threatening. I am hopeful that in a few weeks time I will have recovered fully and be able to enjoy the fantastic Summer months ahead of us.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the journal. I have loved getting to know you and glimpse your lives and frustrations, just a little. Your pictures have transported me to other distant places and I feel privileged to have been the one to record your stories for future generations to read.
I will leave you with a few photos of some trees we planted here recently (listed in my February piece). In the background there is a Wellingtonia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum) planted over a hundred years ago by a previous guardian of our property.
By the time our trees are fully grown I may not be alive, but like this journal, now being archived by the British Library, they will be a living legacy of these significant times. I have a picture in my head of how the mature trees will look and hope they will be even more glorious than in my imagination.
David Horovitch, Twickenham
On Tuesday to the Richmond Theatre with Wendy, a friend from drama school days, to hear a Ukrainian company, all resident in the UK , perform Madame Butterfly. The theatre was designed by Frank Matcham, who was responsible for the best of Britain's finest late nineteenth-century playhouses. It's all cream and gilt and red and, before the curtain rises, we try to decipher which of the Shakespeare plays are dreamily depicted on the ceiling - A Midsummer's Night'd Dream, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet. I'm no expert but I think the opera is finely sung and, despite the rudimentary set and banal surtitles and everybody being the wrong age and shape, it's very moving. At the end of the curtain call, Vitalit Liskovetskyi the tenor who has sung Pinkerton and Katarina Timbaliuk who has sung Suzuki, the maid, unfurl the Ukrainian flag and the whole company sing their national anthem. At first, the audience rise to their feet clapping and cheering but very soon we fall to silent tears as their voices ring out with lusty optimism around this gorgeous, comfortable Victorian house reeking of recently restored comfort and affluence. It's heart wrenching but also decidedly incongruous. I notice that one of the cast isn't singing - Madame Butterfly herself stands awkwardly downstage left, applauding shyly. Later, Wendy and I speculate that she might be Russian. She's not - she's Korean.
It's difficult to ignore Ukraine in this valedictory issue, it has so taken over the air waves dwarfing all other preoccupations. Until a day or two ago, I had felt that I had a duty to bear witness to as much of it as I could; I watched spellbound as this unhinged bully turned on his neighbour to annihilate the country where he spent his honeymoon. I study the maps following the Ukrainian's diaspora and for the first time in my life I am understanding how those Eastern European countries - the land of my fathers's ancestors - lock together.
But now I am sparing myself and watching only one news item a day, usually the Channel 4 news at 7.
Where will it all end ?
On the personal front, I am celebrating the seeming end of covid, even if it is illusory, by going out a great deal. I had covid a few weeks ago. It was pretty mild but I continued to test positive for ten days which meant that I lost a radio job that I had been looking forward to. It seems such a long time since the beginnings of the pandemic and the inception of this journal. So much - and so, so little - has happened. Why on earth did I learn all those sonnets, all of which have now, as Prospero says, 'melted into air, into thin air.' It seems another world. This journal was my lifeline. Can it really be true that I wrote in it almost every day ? So much has expired, as the sonnets have, from my memory. One thing I discovered about myself is that I don't like being alone and I don't much like watching television.
On the work front, things are much more positive than they were before the pandemic, which I think must have created a demand for multi-episodic TV shows. I have parts in two of them. Even at my age, work is still a huge motivator and the thing that will keep me going until my memory really fades.
A lovely break with Francis in East Sussex a week ago. We stayed at The Ram Inn in Firle, climbed on the South Downs, paid a visit to Charleston which I found greatly changed and not for the better, saw Jim Broadbent in The Duke in Lewes and discovered an esoteric pub game called TOAD which may well be known to The Macrae family as it's an East Sussex thing. We were lucky with the weather, cold but sunny.
I do hope everyone is keeping well. I am grateful to you all and pleased to have met you through these pages.
with love, David
Greetings from the far south
Mark Waller, Pretoria, South Africa
It’s been wonderful to be able to contribute to the Plague Journal during the more intense phases of the pandemic, and I’m delighted that it will become a permanent archive, part of the recorded history of this difficult period.
It’s been especially good to contribute to the Journal because Margaret and Peter are associated with it. Love to you both. And thank you Sheila for making the Journal so splendid.
Since I last wrote for the Journal, my youngsters and I have continued to live under the shadow of Covid and have all been infected, in my case for a second time. But none of us has been very ill. My oldest daughter, Leah (14), had it worst in December last year, and had problems breathing. Gracey (13) and Masana (8) only experienced mild symptoms. For the last few months their schools have been open for all learners daily, so in that respect things have got back to normal.
Most restrictions here have been lifted, and I heard that pretty soon we won’t have to wear masks. I wonder if that will change, if there’s a new variant that’s not as mild as the current one. It’s hard to know how the virus will behave over time, how this apparent tail end of the pandemic will pan out.
The news here, as everywhere, is dominated by the war and crisis in Europe, so there’s even less perspective concerning the pandemic, and very little concerning what the hell will happen in the coming period.
Long Covid, in one form or another, seems to have affected many more people than I realised. Leah has weird lingering side-effects that have altered her sense of smell and general wellbeing. Other people I know here have been affected too, often in terms of their mental health. There seems to be a lot more depression and withdrawal from life. I too often simply feel I can’t be bothered with anything outside my immediate routine and life with my kids. I’ve cut off from most people I know and refuse most invitations to take part in anything.
Maybe that’s not really to do with Covid but with the general state of things. I guess we’re on the cusp of major changes that we have little idea how to handle and we are surrounded by fools and ghouls. As Gramsci wrote: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”
Paul Lowden, Malaysia
Two weeks ago I pruned this bush
And now buds erupt row on row
And clustering close new mulberries
Show for the first time. They hang
Like droplets of blood, first a fresh
Reddish glow and then over time
They turn a dark brooding black.
If left they drop and rot.
The juice stains fingers, clothing,
Lips, souls. Overhead thunderous
Storm clouds gather. I cower.
Elsewhere on a pavement
Half-wrapped two children
And their mother lie, discarded
Cuttings from another era, now.
John Underwood, Norfolk
“ If your house was on fire…”
Somehow the charms of the private detective V.I.Warshawski paled, and I found that I had lost interest in the grimy waterfront, with a nagging feeling that I had started to read the same book and abandon it at about the same place in the story a year ago. After all, if I feel the need for more grimy waterfront I can go and sit by the pond, or indeed, take a bath. I scrabbled around for some comfort reading and lit upon “A Pound Of Paper” by John Baxter. This is a work with the half title “confessions of a book addict” and it describes the activities of collectors, dealers and book runners including the late lamented Martin Stone who used to exhibit at book fairs wearing a rather distressed pink suit and who always had fascinating books that you never dreamed existed. Thumbing through the book I found a section devoted to lists, one of which caught my eye, and set me off on the train of thought that I am sharing with you now. “If your house was on Fire… an informal poll” was the title of the list, and in it various literary figures talk about the book that they would grab in extremis.
This idea engaged me in the middle of the night as I struggled to get back to sleep, and I went on a dozy mental stroll along my bookshelves. Well, duh, passport of course - but that perhaps was not in the literary spirit of the thing. My copy of “Wanley’s Wonders” bound by Jane, and an introduction to a whole world that has engaged me for thirty years give or take? A wonderful leaf from a printed Book of Hours overpainted with a miniature of a naked Bathsheba in the fountain, being leered at by King David from a castle window? Perhaps Ally’s Covid diary, kept throughout lockdown and describing her anger and sorrow for it all? Would I grab my great grandfather’s “Manual of Ladies Hairdressing” bearing the ink stamp of his barber’s shop in Poole? I still haven’t worked out how to repair the binding without destroying the spine lettering. I love my copy of T.H.White’s “Mistress Masham’s Repose”, have most of the “Just William” books but couldn’t choose just one, adore my Mervyn Peake Illustrated “Alice” books in their onlay bindings, and cannot bear to sell a little book of naïve watercolours of Ireland, beautifully intricate and inhabited by quirky Lowry-esque figures; all strong contenders.
Perhaps I shouldn’t limit myself to books. One of my most treasured possessions is one of the simplest. When my mother was a schoolgirl in Reading, she was taken on a school visit to the woods to look at the woodland flora, and to see the pole lathe woodturner and chair bodger who lived and worked in the wood, the last of his kind, one George William Lailey of Bucklebury, Berkshire. My mother was an attentive pupil who valued education all her life, and aged 97 she still does. She managed to answer her teacher’s questions about Lailey’s work concisely and was rewarded with one of his turned bowls as a prize. She gave it to me a few years ago for safekeeping, afraid I think that the rather anonymous little bowl would end up with house clearance when she dies. “I will DIE, not “pass on” or any of that rubbish” she says to me often. The bowl is an enormously emotive object with an almost sacred aura about it – and very suitable for writing about in a kind of “humble bragging” way.
But lying there in my bed, the worries of the day worked their way back into my thoughts, and came round again to Ukraine. We started the journal with the fear of an unknown plague, and end it with another. If I was in Ukraine and my house was on fire what would I reach for? With one hand, Ally’s hand. And in the other hand a Molotov cocktail? Has it really come to this?
A Wymondham Plaguery
George Szirtes, Wymondham, Norfolk
Covid has been writing time for me and a good many of the shorter poems in my new book, Fresh Out of the Sky, which appeared in October last year, are set in a section titled ‘Going Viral.’ It’s ashameless pun that, given the mixture of pandemic and panic in the air, seemed appropriate to me.
I was writing something every day, noting down the sense of things in brief 10 line poems. The section containing those poems began with the notion of a plague ship approaching the docks and the crowds gathered there awaiting it. From the docks we move to a night train and the knowledge that this was not the first plague but that ancient plagues had become haunting legends for us. What sort of world were we entering? What would change in it? We would be living more isolated lives, alone with our imaginations. I considered animals, real and dream creatures. There were pigeons and parrots as strutting or screeching bureaucrats. There was a whole section about nights more silent than we have known them. There was a section about life in an almost deserted small town such as ours. Then come the numbers we were presented with daily: infections, admissions, deaths, and the way they were spoken about by ministers and experts. There were the metaphors the politicians used, specifically the metaphor of war, and the clear bewilderment behind their eyes as they strove to look as though they were in control, and the lies and extemporisations that became ever more obvious. The angel of uncertainty governed us. We were behaving badly and growing angry in the streets. Official words meant nothing. Lastly, there were the consolations of our circumstances: sunlight, fresh air, the delight of words – their sheer musicality - and the mere fact of existence. It was all in the writing for me. Daily life was reading, listening, watching and awkwardly venturing out. That was life until the advent of omicron. By then there was at least some notional end in sight. The poems continued, and still do, but the book had to be wrapped up before then. I had started travelling to live events, to Brighton first, then to Gatehouse of Fleet in Scotland for a festival, then to Cornwall to work with musicians, then to Rye for another festival. This Monday I returned from St Andrews, the festival there. There were train and car journeys. Much else was cancelled or postponed, including events in Kolkata and Delhi. But, like many others, I could work from home, for radio two or three times, attend virtual book launches, and continue mentoring students, and giving lectures by Zoom. I took on almost everything offered. Living with Zoom was like exploring Nova Zembla. It’s where we saw friends and family: our new grandson; and helped to home school our other two grandchildren. They were growing over the two years. Clarissa and I were each other’s soul guardians. We kept each other from drifting. A friend in Lithuania writes: I feel a great hapless ennui, and semi-depression. We were never too far from it ourselves. But that is now under the new pressure of war. The plague appears to be receding. We still carry and wear masks in closed spaces and on public transport.
Walking in Norwich today we saw an enormous magnolia tree, crowded with particularly large flowers, like glowing candles in one great hosanna. Spring is on the doorstep, skipping and twirling its hat. In Ukraine it is death and struggle and escape.
Clarissa Upchurch, Wymondham
Here we are at the end of a long 2 year war against a very infectious virus which has mutated into different variants in order to keep surviving. I have survived the virus by being extremely careful which has been a strain at times and I worried that I might be developing over anxious behaviour especially after washing hands more times than Lady Macbeth ‘what will these hands ne’er be clean’. If the pandemic has accelerated signs of ageing then washing hands has made mine wizened and dry as a Saharan desert.
Another survivor, a friend (ex- student from my teaching days) had the misfortune to get Covid which then developed into Long Covid. She writes ‘this is the 2nd year Long Covid anniversary. I am one of the lucky ones who has been able to make good progress thanks to support of family, work colleagues, and friends. Covid destroys you but it also gives you the chance to build back a better life. I have been able to reach peacefulness whilst staring fear in the face, bring out my creativeness, deeply value nature and, for the first time, befriend wild life’.
She goes on to say that in the first year of LC the medical advice was harmful but recently results from research are shining a light on the condition. It makes me think of the early scary days of the pandemic when the virus was spreading so fast and no one knew much about it and mistakes were made. The scientists had to work very hard on producing a vaccine quickly - which they did, and then there was the great collective British effort to vaccinate the population.
Two years later the virus is waning, happily the recent Omicron version though highly infectious is weaker but the country must start returning to normality. As I am a cautious older person I still wear my mask in shops and on public transport as I think it is a good thing to avoid infections anyway. Most shopping outlets still advise the wearing of masks but maintaining distance notices have disappeared. If I am in a queue I feel a little uneasy if I hear someone cough and hope my mask will protect me. It is a French designed mask. My daughter- in -law sent it to me because she says it is better than the British ones. It is.
My blue/white British one kept riding up my nose leaving my mouth clear and the sides were loose so the virus particles could easily breach the defence which we were told is not a very affective defence anyway.
From time to time over the last two years I have felt the strain of enforced isolation. The best way to counteract that was by taking walks in the fresh air, reading, regular exercise - bike riding and more reading while sitting on it, drawing (mainly towers, some strong fortress-like while others were falling apart), making bread, seeing family and friends when lockdowns lifted, watching films I have always wanted to see but didn’t have the time. The list can go on.
Now that travelling restrictions have just been lifted it is easier and faster to venture abroad. To travel to some countries is still a problem as I heard yesterday about a friend’s mother who is travelling to South America to see family for the first time in years. She is having to pay a ‘Covid ‘ health insurance bill of £800 on top of air flight costs and the normal travel insurance.
I look out on our small yard, more open now to the sky. There’s a space there where a small Photinia tree blew down in the gales recently, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine. A portent maybe except the news was all about another possible war if Russia did invade. No one believed it was merely military operations.
In the yard the blackbirds are busy collecting twigs and moss to line their nests. In a corner the single daffodil sways gently in the soft spring air and under the stone a toad waits for rain.
End of Dog Days
Jane, just south of Norwich
So here is my final contribution to the Plague Journal and although the "Plague" has been pushed from the headlines by news even more alarming, it still seems to be very much with us. Close family and friends who have stayed Covid free for so long are now succumbing. I suppose, like the flu, we will learn to live with it and hope that with the boost of antibodies regular vaccinations give us, symptoms for most will remain mild. I continue to wear my mask in busy indoor settings and continue to test before meeting socially with others.
Life seems to be overshadowed by grim news at the moment and relief is once again provided by the natural world, the sunny spring days, the opening daffodils and the ever cheerful garden robin. I officially became an OAP last month and with my bus pass we've had two day trips from Norwich bus station, one to Beccles and one to Cromer, enjoying the views from the swaying top deck, and appreciating the beautiful county we are lucky enough to live in.
Reading the contributions of the Plague journalists has been a regular bright spot for me throughout the pandemic. It has been an education as well as entertainment and it was a highlight of last summer to meet some of you in person. It is comforting to know you are all out there, all living different lives and all trying to cope with a world that seems increasingly beyond our control.
Good wishes to you all and thank you Margaret and Sheila for creating this wonderful Journal in the first place.
Rosemary, Rodborough Common
The time has arrived to pack away the Plague Journal which thanks to Margaret and Sheila has been a great resource to the many who have contributed and to those who have seen it over the past two years. But what has happened to the Pandemic? Last month it was still occupying our daily lives, but suddenly it has all but vanished from the news, only to be replaced by something even greater - man’s inhumanity to man.
There was always a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel during the Pandemic as our scientists toiled away in their laboratories around the world. The vaccination programme has been a worldwide success. However, the virus has not gone away as illustrated by the 1.3 million suffers of ‘long covid’. Further preventative doses of vaccine are still going to be necessary to reduce further impacts of the virus.
We had a huge cost of living crisis coming even before the invasion of Ukraine by Putin. Financing the cost of health care, increased energy costs, and inflation will create severe hardship for low income families, exacerbated by the consequences of the invasion. The huge numbers prepared to take in refugees is a positive indication of peoples’ resilience to cope with these massive changes.
Further more, we must not neglect our path to net zero by 2050. Is there light at the end of this tunnel? We have to believe there is.
I send each and every one of you my best wishes.
Special thanks to Margaret and Sheila for their dedication to the journal.
Linda, Richmond, Yorkshire
In the main the way so many people managed support one another, even celebrate and get together, during lockdowns has been heartwarming. Obviously Zoom and the like have helped those with the means, and I recall early on, a birthday celebration which was an international quizz - 10 people from 6 countries - we wouldn't have done it but for lockdown. Then there were the Sunday lunchtimes when neighbours gathered just inside front gates, glass in hand, bottle at the ready, calling messages of encouragement and offers of support from one garden to another. Not to forget the sparklers in the car park, on November 5th, socially distanced, but still writing our names for posterity, in the transient sparks. These were often hilarious times and wouldn't have happened in this way had we not been locked down. Times to remember and be thankful for.
Masks have provided endless irritations: glasses steaming up, getting misplaced, getting lost, getting forgotten and because we couldn't SEE what people were saying, distorting speech. These were shared irritations, but my sense was, that people were rarely miserable - often frustrated, frequently frightened and sometimes bewildered, feelings common to us all and thankfully, often shared.
That is of course, unless you lived alone and were housebound, or had children to homeschool in cramped conditions, with insufficient means and little support. Theirs must have been the most bewildering times of all, and who knows how or whether they coped? Or what the long term effects have been on the relationships, the children, the job prospects and the finances in families so placed.
So, let's count our own blessings, rethink priorities and be glad, but let's make sure also never to forget the undoubted inequalities around us, which were greatly exacerbated for many, many of us in these troubled and unpredictable times.