Pedagogy and Print
Nick Wonham, North Hertfordshire
I include with this, my last entry for The Plague Journal, a recent linocut print which epitomises my experience of this pandemic: my wife, Tilly, and I are depicted on our own, enjoying the countryside and wildlife, trusty binoculars to hand. Neither of us have caught Covid; we’ve had no brush with death. Tilly has lost work, but I’ve been teaching more or less continuously since September. So, we’ve filled our free time with long walks.
We have missed seeing family dreadfully, and this is what we have been looking forward to most as the lockdown has eased. Last weekend we met up with our grown-up children for the first time since Christmas. This weekend we will have my parents over to our house for the first time since last September. We look forward to having friends over for dinner again, going out for meals, watching films in a cinema, shopping in Cambridge, exhibitions in London, the return of live music, normality returning.
James Oglethorpe, Blue Ridge Mountain, Virginia
Just over twelve months ago, the Covid virus roiling the world, we moved house. Suddenly the plans we had made, our house sold, we were caught in a hurricane of disfunction. Masks? Hand sanitizer? Virginia in lockdown? Would the removers be able to work and move our stuff south into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains? Then there were my underlying health issues. I looked out into a world where hospitalization with the virus was a likely death sentence.
Over a year later we all remain alive and dare I say it, thriving. The fear has largely gone. The stress of living under siege — real or imaginary hardly matters, the effect was the same — has passed into the periphery of concerns. I am still careful, looking in wonder at the local world opening up. Still some way to go internationally, so no travel, for which I am profoundly thankful. Have had quite enough of that thank you very much. Exciting times, sure, all for the good, enriching experiences of a wider world. I am happy to explore the world closer to my home with no need for passports, security checks and confinement in tiny seats with no leg room at a level that creeps towards abuse. You want me to voluntarily submit myself to torture by airlines and their grotesque social distancing and discrimination? Not for a while.
Through all this I have been writing. I started out writing poems in my new home, some short stories. Gradually as the influence of living once more amongst nature, as the effect of natural beauty reforms me I have to my surprise started writing lyrics working with the singer/songwriter, Caitlin Evanson. I heard some violin on a track I liked, went to her website, saw that she offered a “songwriting experience” and almost without thinking signed up. Three months later 12 songs laid down as working tracks with me writing up to four songs a week I have found my writing home.
I arrived in this place because the Journal gave me an opportunity to write something for publication once a week, it sped up my production rate, gave me room to experiment. Once a week I send Caitlin lyrics and we spend two hours in collaboration as she writes melody, plays piano, mandolin, guitar, sings harmony, lead vocal while mixing the track. My work is in the hands of a musical miracle worker.
Here is the opening to Fireflies, which we recorded yesterday. I wish you could hear Caitlin's beautiful voice.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for offering up the space in the journal for us all.
Evanson (Song Writing Workshop)/Oglethorpe
Fireflies flash in galaxies of trees
quasars burn in a celestial breeze
in the skies of a summer night
the end and beginning burns so bright
Atoms planets and melodies
passing bright dark destinies
from velvet night into sunshine
stars pulse in the curtain of time
From the deep deepest blue stars
all you are travelled from afar (repeat)
Robjn Cantus, Cambridge
The end of the Plague
To many the plague and black-death was long ago, in a distant time. In the medieval period it hit Europe many times. For the modern world the freedom of international travel was our downfall, with Covid-19 spreading all over the world, we see the same with random variants across the country. The same was true of the bubonic plague, spread by boat and trade caravans across the world. In 1897 an epidemic travelled from Yunnan in China, to Hong Kong and India via ship. That caused it to become international in all the major trade ports of the East India Company. Anywhere trading in silk, cotton, spices, salt, tea, indigo dye or opium.
What people might not know is that the plague came to Britain in 1910, mostly to East Anglia. Starting in the area around Ipswich, a child became ill first, with flu like symptoms. The household and neighbours were ill in the next week, each person only surviving three days only. Their funerals were held in the open air and the mourners had their clothing disinfected. It's all too familiar. The 1910 plague likely came about because the port of Ipswich was a busy industry and many people moved to and from the docks. Also being an arable landscape, there was plenty of food for the rats as many of the epidemics happened during the harvest. Back then the rat population used to grow to quite large numbers, until the local councils employed rat catchers.
The same experts who worked on the plague in 1887 in India were called in for advice and expertise, in those investigations over fifteen thousand rats were killed and dissected for examination.
Other than the local rats being caught was other wildlife, including a hare found to be infected with plague. A sailor who had cut himself while preparing a rabbit he had caught also contracted the plague and took it to the village of Shotley. How did it transmit itself if there were no major outbreaks elsewhere, no one really knows. The idea was that rats or flees (Xenopsylla cheopis) on ships or in the sacking from the ships provided the substance for these outbreaks and they affected mostly rural families. Other than an outbreak again in 1918 in Suffolk there have been few cases in Britain since.
Rosemary, Rodborough Common
Within hours of returning back home from our trip down to the Devonshire/Somerset border, a small miracle of new birth happened in our garden. One of our many rogue Roe deer, possibly one of those that have been demolishing our flowers, gave birth to the sweetish, prettiest little fawn that you have ever seen - we could hardly believe what we were witnessing.
The mother busily licked her baby and encouraged her to stand up and feed. Wobbling up onto her feet was not an easy task, she would feed for a couple of minutes before collapsing back exhausted to the ground. We have decided that she is a girl, and named her 'Blossom'. After all her mother may have been one of those 'dining out' on our flowers throughout much of the Spring.
An opportunistic Magpie appeared on the scene, the mother looked rather anxious, but luckily the bird flew off before any of us needed to intervene. The fawn, having found a sheltered spot in which to rest, fell asleep whilst the mother demolished more of our plants. However, their requirements are far greater than ours, needing all of the extra nourishment that they can both get.
As the evening drew in the little one made itself cosy beneath one of our tall thick hedges whilst the mother kept a wary eye on the surroundings.
The evening was particularly chilly and wet, and we were very concerned for the little fawn. We felt like giving it a blanket or some straw to keep it warm. In the morning all was well, the fawn was looking stronger, and by late afternoon they both vanished through the hedge without even so much as a backwards glance.
New life, and hopefully new beginnings for all of us as we slowly move forward.
Thank you once again to Margaret and Sheila for the sterling work that they have both done over such a long period, and to all of you too, for so many interesting and varied contributions.
Thoughts from the Suffolk coast
Harris G, Suffolk
The final week and my last entry in the journal. It is time to say thank you and good bye.
Looking back - it seems impossible that over a year has passed since the first lockdown and that peculiar experience of being plunged into the world of pandemic restrictions. Pandemia! We have learned and witnessed lots along the way - we have had time to evaluate and reflect on the important parts of our lives. Predictably, everyday things, things that are easy to take for granted have been desperately missed - seeing friends, talking to people in a shop or cafe, relationships with others. How many times in my life have I secretly wanted to be able to just ‘stop the world’ and have a break? Certainly, when I was working I often felt overloaded with the pressures of life and so wanted to be ‘free of it all’. Lockdown gave me a taste of what it would be like ‘switching off and stopping’ - well, at least ‘turning down the volume’. And yes, for a while - there was silence - a lovely peace descended on rural Suffolk - and there was time to catch my breath. But it is not an experience that I have any desire to repeat. Good and bad have emerged in equal measure - good to be able to enjoy traffic-free lanes and wander unpeopled beaches but not good that I cannot sit next to a friend in a cafe and recount those experiences. And no, not good to see people fearful and alone - or hear news reports of huge death tolls and so much suffering. Anyhow, with vaccinations and - to quote Boris Johnson, good old “common sense”, life is now hopefully starting to revert... well, somewhat. The recriminations are of course continuing... last night the mud was being thrown again... Dominic Cummings accusing Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock... and so it goes on...
One of the good “constants” for me during this past year or so has been the ‘plague journal’. It has been delightful to read each Sunday... to hear about the lives of others - highs, lows, differences, similarities, tears, joys, common experiences, unique ones. Strangers have become like friends. I feel very privileged to have been part of it - this club of writers, diarists, readers. It has been a great and reassuring part of routine in an otherwise very uncertain time. I shall miss you, folks, so goodbye and thank you so much. Do take care, be safe and stay well.
Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free...
If I, if I have been unkind,
I hope that you can just let it go by.
If I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you...
Leonard Cohen 1968
And finally, a massive, massive thank you to Margaret and Sheila. You have done a super job in putting together this journal. What a fascinating social commentary you have gathered. You have been such good, kind and loyal friends to us all too - encouraging us to write and to share our thoughts and feelings. Please do keep in touch via email or news bulletin or whatever. My sincere thanks to you.
From the black shed
David E, East Norfolk
You know how it is - a tune or a phrase keeps going round in your head, day and night! The more you try to ignore it the worse it gets. This week the phrase in my head is "nul points". It's been there since I confidently predicted in this household that following Brexit the UK would receive "nul points" in the Eurovision Song contest. Although my prediction was correct the pundits assert that it was nothing to do with Brexit, just that our song wasn't very good. I suppose it wasn't helped by the fact that Amanda Holden, one of the presenters claimed not to know the difference between the French and Dutch for "good evening". Some detailed analysis adds to the theory that the choice of song could be better - it was in the wrong key! All of the top ten tunes were written in minor key whereas three out of the bottom four, including the UK entry, were in major key. Musicians say that minor key tunes tend to be associated with unhappiness, fear or distress. Perhaps this says something about the mood across Europe in these strange times.
I was drawn to another snippet about the ESC this week. Steve Rosenberg, the BBC Moscow correspondent and a skilled pianist, can play on request every winning tune from the competition! Perhaps he just does it in his Moscow apartment to amuse the KGB listeners?
Moving on from the ESC I can think of a number of public figures to whom I would give "nul points" over the past year including Aleksandr, Donald, Dominic, Emmanuel, Harry, Jair, Martin and sundry others. Some members of my family would include Bojo and Matt in this list but to be fair they have faced a task which few of us would relish and although their stars have fluctuated they deserve some points for effort.
I would also award "nul points" to myself for trying to grow coriander and broccoli from old seed and to my runner beans which just don't seem to want to progress. The sweet peas aren't much happier having stagnated in the cold month of May. On a positive note the cherry and apple blossom has been fantastic, the rugosa roses are well into flower and the aeonium cuttings are producing plentiful new buds. Unfortunately we have agreed among our community that the June open gardens event must be cancelled for a second year but we hope to make up for it with a bountiful produce show in September, Indian variant permitting.
If I was able to do a straw poll of all the contributors to The Journal, more than 100, there can be little doubt that Margaret and Sheila would receive a straight "dix points" across the board. That would be a grand total of more than 1000 points, compared with 524 for Italy. Well done to them and to everyone who has put in so much effort.
John Mole, St Albans
Exchanging one horizon
as we cross the threshold
we gaze in both directions,
balancing loss and gain
in equal measure
while we move ahead.
Bewilderment and gratitude
direct our looking back
to where the thin air
that so much has vanished into
first surprised us
with its welcome strangeness
promising then as now
a trust to be restored.
The runaway diaries
Sophie Austin, London
I have been writing to you for over a year and am so grateful to have had this opportunity to document my life with you during these wild times. You won’t remember this last year, only the third year in your short life, so I hope these journal entries will be enlightening if you ever come to read them.
I wrote to you previously, just before you were born and for a few months after, perhaps I will continue to write to you at important moments in your life. I wonder what the next moment will be, and when?
I am so grateful to the readers of this journal who have stood in your shoes as I’ve documented our weeks. I hope the toddler’s journey has been a welcome distraction from political playground antics.
I have loved reading this journal, it has replaced my need to read the news, the journalists here feel far more trustworthy and genuine. Those reporting from abroad have gifted fascinating, heart breaking, exciting insights, I have felt more of a global citizen reading these pages during lockdown than in the before times. Those reporting from the UK have made me fall in love with this country again, thanks to the warm, generous sharing of simple joys, the only things we have been allowed; gardening, baking, walking, dreaming.
It has been an honour to read the ups and the downs and for it all to feel so familiar, despite everything.
This journal has also served as a vital reminder of the power of a good teacher. Editor Margaret has probably been the most influential person on my life, outside of family. She appears just when I need her and guides me down paths I didn’t know existed. It only takes one good teacher.
Fittingly I had my first jab this week. As the rain pelted the vaccination tent outside Guys hospital, a young woman called Sabha gently pushed a needle in my arm and I became the last adult in our extended family to get ‘done’. After two days of aches and mad dreams, I’m back to normal. And the rain has stopped and the sun shone today, like it usually does at the end of May. So it really does feel like the end of a chapter.
As for you, you attended nursery with no tears twice this week, and I rewarded you with a trip to the toy shop and a new toy motorbike. You are full of chatter and opinions and desires – your greatest desire, now, is to return to Wales, and to our first lockdown location when I started writing this journal. Your bedtime story request tonight was for me to recount the time your dad and I wheeled you, sobbing and bleeding down the country lanes in a wheelbarrow in the driving rain after you tripped over and cut yourself on one of our long walks. ‘What a mission that was!’ you said tonight. We will all be returning to Wales for our honeymoon in a few weeks and it will probably feel like we never left.
Time really is just a concept.
If you are reading this my darling boy, somewhere in the future, know that the world is a beautiful place and people can be exceptional. Write a journal and don’t be afraid to share it, open your eyes to other people’s experience, you won’t feel so alone, and you might feel more connected.
To all of you standing in Rudi's shoes today, thank you for reading and for sharing your worlds with me.
Clean, sort, tidy
Lily, Camberwell, London
Thursday 27 May 2021
I didn't write that often, but I did and do appreciate having been part of this journal. I’m so pleased to have a record of at least 1 year and a bit more of my life written. And it was a good feeling to part of something communal.
What does life look like for me now? Having felt some financial security at the start of 2020 it does feel we slipped back down the hill again and now we have to climb up another side of the hill to regain what we had. But having said that life still feels rich, and we enjoy the simple pleasures of family life and being in London. Effort will need to be made to see, do, experience more beyond these easy confines.
The routines are there again, taking the boys to school in the morning and collecting in the afternoon, usually late. I get caught up in working and lose track of time, that or time speeds up between 3pm and 3:30pm. After school the boys tell me about the high lights and low lights of their day. 3 days a week there’s something extra to do, swimming (Chuesday Chips after swimming), drama, tennis (slowly slowly slowly getting better after so many years of classes). The weekend mornings are lazy and the boys help out with housework and we venture out to find a park or wood or river we have not yet visited.
But there are also new things or the return of things we missed. We need to choose, apply and for eldest son to be accepted into a secondary that is not too far away, not religious, is mixed and friendly, and this is our new anxiety and the subject of so many conversations.
I have returned to delivering work in person, with real people in a room. The online delivery will continue but it’s been lovely to share a room with people. Everyone still wears masks and tries to keep a distance, but that does come quite naturally to most. It does not get in the way of friendliness and interaction, unless you let it.
Part of this work, this month has been to finally start the training with Tate. At last. We are really proud of this work and the people we worked with to make it happen. There was so much commitment and enthusiasm to make it right.
But now that we have it done. At last. I need something else to look forward to. The next big thing. The gradual release of lock down and hopeful end of Covid 19 is also an anti-climax. Having been within it. The long slow drama of it. We come out of it (fingers crossed) but there is no proper ending or pay off. Chocolate helped this week. And as I enjoyed another piece or two on Tuesday evening, my neighbour suggested a street party as something to look forward to, so it’s not just me feeling the need for something else.
Mum’s old routine of having a glass or two in the hotel bars around her flat has returned, added to her routine of going to different shops twice a day to buy a bottle of wine. Occasionally the wine will be upgraded to champagne. Our phone call in the morning is regular, “How are the boys? Are they at school? Is there anything we need to do?”
The sun is out this morning, it finally looks and feels like May. I think one of my lasting memories of this last year will be of the extremely appropriate weather we had, appropriate to only having the being of outdoors as the main thing to do. Scanning through photos there was a lot of bright sun, bright blue skies and bright green leaves. I wore skirts and dresses far more last year than ever before. This spring it’s been jeans… I’m wishing keenly that the sun remains over the long weekend so I can enjoy my birthday outside on Monday and maybe it will last all week and we can have an outside sunny half term next week and maybe the pleasant weather will last for the summer and I will get my summer skirts and dresses out from under the bed and put away in their place my winter vests and jumpers and trousers.
That’s something to look forward to.
View from a town formerly known as crazy
Chris Dell, Washington, D.C.
BACK TO THE ROOTS
Late night TV host and comedian Steven Colbert formerly starred in a parody program - "The Colbert Report" - in which he played a character known as Steven Colbert, a right-wing crank and pseudo-reporter. It took a while for his audience to adjust to the non-character, real-world Steven Colbert when he switched to hosting late night. With the advent of Dear Departed Leader, the real Colbert ultimately found his footing and his viewers.
And now, Your Intrepid Reporter must attempt something similar. Alas, not to launch a new late night career, but to close out a chapter. Or chapters.
First, thanks to everyone who participated in this project. Especially our Dear Editors, Margaret and Sheila. I've enjoyed getting to know all of you through your contributions and I hope to have news of you going forward on whatever platform is finally agreed. For me the contributions from the UK in particular were a touching reminder of the basic good sense and decency of the Brits, getting on with life as best they could under tough circumstances, and the fact that not everyone on the planet had been sucked into the vortex of Trump's madness, however much it seemed that way in the eye of the storm in Crazy Town. Although I will in fact be in the UK on 28 August, I must pass on the party because my stepson is getting married in Devon that same day. Don't you just hate when that happens? Perhaps I’ll forward to the Dear Editors my well-worn reporter's trilby hat and the down-at-the-heels shoes which tramped the streets of Crazy Town this last year and they can be displayed as a kind of more interesting stand-in for me.
Now for the harder part. This last despatch (the approved State Department spelling, btw) comes to the Gentle Reader from the slightly cooler climes of New Jersey. My mother is close to death and the family has gathered at her side. Although the proximate cause is cancer, she's in some respects also a victim of the pandemic. Mom first detected a lump over a year ago, but said nothing - as much out of fear that she'd fall victim to COVID as of a more general reluctance to put herself into the hands of doctors and hospitals. By the time she finally consulted a physician in January the disease had taken a firm hold and there was little to be done. Mom quietly but firmly declined even that little, deciding that she would prioritize her quality of life - reading, sitting on her porch watching the deer, visiting with old friends - over a desperate search for more time and spending her last days being poked, prodded and probed in the world of American healthcare. And until the last five days she largely succeeded. But the decline has been quick and steep and we had to rush our children in from London and Lisbon, a task which the required COVID tests made all the harder. But the light in Mom's eyes and the joy in her smile when her only granddaughter came into the room made it worth it. She spent the afternoon on Monday largely her old self, talking, listening, and animated, rallying one last time. By Tuesday morning she had turned inward, retreating into that final silence which says all we need to know. Now we can only sit quietly at her side, stroking her hands and hair, talking about old times. When I told her she'd soon be reunited with my brother and father, saying ironically that maybe she'd be a little less excited about seeing dad, I felt a small twitch of her finger. A response or an involuntary gesture? I'll never know for sure. But I'm certain she knows that she's at home and not alone at the end. It seems a mom can never stop being a mother, and even at the end she's taught me much about the dignity of accepting death on your own terms. It makes me feel all the sadder for the thousands of other victims of this year, spending their final moments scared, isolated, and alone.
As you may know by now, I spent my career as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer, much of it living abroad. Long ago, when I was an intern at the State Department, another FSO told me that diplomats were like gentlemen gypsies (gentleperson Roma these days), living a kind of vagabond life. But as much as my life and career took me elsewhere, New Jersey has always been home. When I was growing up, admitting as much inevitably invited jokes about the refineries, gas flares, swamps, and Jimmy Hoffa. And then. And then Bruce Springsteen. The Boss made it actually COOL to be from 'Jersey, imbuing "the Shore" with a mythology he largely created in his songs. Suddenly the places and characters we lived became the stuff of rock 'n roll legend. And he lived around the corner, one of us. So this week, in the middle of saying goodbye to you, to Mom, and to the ties that have bound me to this place for just shy of 65 years, we took a few minutes to go back to the source. Here's the proof, Y.I.R and Mrs. Intrepid performing the Tenth Avenue Freeze Out on E Street in Belmar, NJ (luckily, my fellow journalists are largely of an age where this requires no explanation other than, “yes, THAT E Street”). And, finally, one last sign: the AirBnB where we’re staying is right across the street from the Jersey Shore’s very own WRAT 95.5FM – The Rat on your radio dial. In this year of Flat Rat Alley, Crazy Town, Dear (Thankfully) Departed Leader, pandemic, insurrection, the Big Lie, and generalized insanity, it’s good to know there’s a thread of cosmic oneness tying it all together. From New Jersey to Crazy Town, anyway.
David Horovitch, Twickenham
I remember that I was walking through Marble Hill Park on my way to the river when I got your email asking if I'd like to contribute to the journal. Immediately I thought that I wouldn't, no absolutely not. I mean why would I want to be part of something like that? I can't imagine why that was my initial reaction but I remember clearly that it was. I suppose that, like everyone else including our political leadership according to Dominic Cummings, I was in a state of utter confusion about what this covid thing was: certainly I thought it would be of much more limited duration than proved to be the case. I thought that I would be holed up in my flat for a few weeks watching TV and reading The Greeks, something I suspect I will never do now. Within a day or two, though, I'd changed my mind and fired off my first piece. You thanked me and suggested that we have a chat on the phone sometime soon. Imagining that it was not up to scratch I assumed that you wanted to talk to me in your editorial capacity and called you immediately. It was a lovely evening: I was breathing in the homely scent of wallflowers and watching some kids feeding the ducks near Eel Pie Island as I braced myself for rejection. You seemed surprised to hear from me and I never let on, till now, that I thought you were, so to speak, about to fire me.
For a few minutes we talked of this and that, as we have done on countless occasions since. It was only after a few more editions that I realised that there was no censorship, no editorial guidance even and that I was free to doodle away as I liked. We all were. All these utterly different people of all ages from all over the world with their appetising recipes for cakes, ravishing pictures of gardens, accounts by children of home-schooling, elusive poems spun out of thin air, loneliness and despair along with unaccountable moments of euphoria It was a, gobsmackingly brilliant idea Margaret and I'm really grateful to have been part of it.
But I myself do feel ready to wind it up. As lockdown restrictions have been eased I have found myself feeling less and less inclined to write my weekly piece. I'm starting work now on The House of the Dragon and have spent a couple of days rehearsing in the studios in Leavesdon, outside Watford, where the massive sets are being assembled for the start of shooting in mid-June.
And in just over a weeks time, I will be coming down to see you and Peter in Norfolk. I'm so looking forward to it.
with love and many, many thanks,