Lucy Vickery

How famous writers do social isolation

How famous writers do social isolation
Rudyard Kipling: ‘If you can wash your hands ten times an hour…’ Credit: Topical Press Agency / Stringer
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In Competition No. 3147 you were invited to submit tips on social isolation in the style of a well-known writer. It was a terrific entry, in which famously retiring souls such Emily Dickinson loomed uncharacteristically large. I loved Nicholas Stone’s twist on Louis Macneice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’ (‘It’s no go the bog roll, it’s no go the office,/ All we want is a conference call and a bag of Werther’s toffees…’) and J.G. Ballard’s suggestion, via Adrian Fry: ‘Exercise in liminal spaces: abandoned office complexes, rewilding traffic islands, Shepperton’. Commendations, too, to Hamish Wilson’s Philip Larkin (‘Man hands on unwashed misery to man,/ Keep people distant. Stay in while you can.’), Phillip Sheahan, Liz Aram and Amar Singh Bhandal. The winners take £25.

If you can wash your hands ten times an hour

Without becoming overly obsessed;

If you can hold back tears when there’s no flour

Nor make an online search your daily quest;

If you can keep at least two metres’ distance

From everyone (that’s those you love as well)

And not despair at your confined existence

But strive to make a Heaven from this Hell.


If you can work from home without succumbing

To living in pyjamas, munching Twix

If daily updates have become brain-numbing

And you can’t swallow yet more politics;

If you can live within each indoor minute,

Not lust for travel plans you can’t contrive,

But cherish each small hope and how to spin it

Then you might — but, no promises! — survive.

D.A. Prince/Rudyard Kipling
Go wander lonely far from crowds

But not as far as vale and hills;

Go meditate on sky and clouds;

Gaze on your neighbour’s daffodils.

Down empty byways take your stroll;

Think safety first where e’er you roam

And when fresh air has filled your soul

Go back content to muse at home.


Earth may for you not look so fair

When happy friends are far away

And deadly germs are in the air

But safe at home it’s wise to stay.

And when upon your couch you lie

And feel that life is full of pain,

Look for a rainbow in the sky

A sign the sun will shine again.

Frank McDonald/Wordsworth
Go placidly amid the joggers coughing and wheezing and the brats chalking rainbows and hopscotching all over the street. As far as possible, while crossing the road, looking the other way, holding your breath, be on good terms with all persons. Listen to others, even the Business Secretary: they too have their story. Avoid Good Morning Britain hosts: they are vexatious to the spirit. Enjoy your achievements, however humble: a Tesco delivery slot, a Netflix subscription — these are real possessions in the changing fortunes of time. Do not distress yourself with dark imaginings: Strictly will be back. You are a child of the universe. No less than Robert Peston, you have a right to be here. Be at peace with your neighbours, however noisy their bloody sound system. With all its scams, drudgery and joggers (did I mention joggers?) it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Watch Bargain Hunt.

David Silverman/Max Ehrmann
When you’re lying awake, is it umbrage you take

At the thought of this terrible virus?

Do you find it most grating, this self-isolating

As Hancock and Whitty require us?

Staying six feet apart from the love of your heart,

And being of germs very conscious,

Obeying the laws, are you washing your paws

More than Pilate whose forename was Pontius?


Are there grim thoughts a-brewing as you’re Asda-queueing

At double the length of a trolley?

Do you ask my advice how in times so un-nice

Not to give in to dark melancholy?

I say just sit it out, repressing all doubt

That the thing will end, sooner or later.

Meanwhile, do have handy a bottle of brandy,

And the crossword from this week’s Spectator.

George Simmers/W.S. Gilbert
Quarantine is a rum business, but this is no time to lose your grip. Mens sana in corpore sano, so for splendid exercise, hang up a heavy cushion, visualise some unholy blackguard and punch the living daylights out of him. Alternatively, use your dressing-gown cord as a skipping-rope while briskly singing a sea-shanty. You can easily mock up a rowing boat with a chair, broom-handle, and elasticated braces attached to a doorknob.

If nerves need steadying, reread some Henty or perhaps White Fang, or tie a few trout flies. If you happen to have a telephone, why not ‘ring up’ your pals for a bit of chaff? You could, purely for interest, ask your wife to show you how household tasks are performed.

Eat sensibly, don’t get clogged up with too many vegetables, and try to make that bottle of whisky last two, or even three, days.

Hugh King/John Buchan
The Sanctity of Solitude

Is Nature’s best — Advice.

When Fellowship turns fatal, then

Let Self — alone suffice.


When summoned by — the wider World

Upon some needful Task,

With rubber Gauntlet guard the Touch,

And breathe — behind the Mask.


That Cleanliness and Godliness

Are Kin — we often read.

With frequent Soap greet any Spot

Where Pestilence might — breed.


Enriched — by Isolation, let

Our Hygiene be — a Prayer

Until such Day as we can bid

Adieu contagious Air.

Chris O’Carroll/Emily Dickinson

No. 3150: herculean

You are invited to provide a sonnet describing one of Hercules’ labours. Please email entries to by midday on 20 May. NB. We are unable to accept postal entries for the time being.