Writers like me are used to long hours alone. I’ve never enjoyed that side of it. I don’t like the bleakness of silence. As I try to settle and gather thoughts on my bed, pillows piled up behind me — Robert Louis Stevenson did the same, and it worked for him — I must have birdsong, music, the murmur of voices, and I must be able to see the living world from my window. I need the reassurance that I am not alone. I get up from the breakfast table always reluctantly, knowing the hours of solitary work that lie ahead, often dreading to have to go to it. I make myself do it, because I do have a story in my head I want to tell, because I need to prove to myself every day that I can still do it, and because it’s how I earn my living. So, come this pandemic, I find I can cope well enough with our self-imposed isolation. I have to. We all have to. For me, I can easily imagine nothing has changed. I’m on my bed writing this, and I can hear my wife Clare humming downstairs, now talking on the phone. A little trotty wagtail is dipping and drinking from the gutter, and our resident cock pheasant struts and frets on the lawn, ruffling his feathers and declaring again to the world that he’s the alpha male in these parts. I tell myself: work, Michael, write, shake out your feathers, strut your stuff.
In peacetime (as was, bc, Before Corona), I often claimed I had a writing routine. You have to tell that sort of untruth at literary festivals. It’s expected. But my routine varied far too much for it to be called a routine. Now, in this time of coronavirus, I keep rigidly to it, otherwise things would fall apart. Three weeks in, and here’s what I do. Up 8.30 a.m., dressing gown on, wellies on, out to pick kale from the garden to make a green smoothie. (This was recommended by a dear friend who said it kept her going after cancer treatment. So when my turn came, she advised me to do the same. She’s still here, so am I.) I get the toast, coffee, count out pills. Clare comes in, in dressing gown too. Quiet breakfast. Upstairs to scribble, this today, and then my retelling of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Coffee soon. Back to the writing. Shower, shave, dress, help cut vegetables for lunch, fetch in logs for the fire, feed birds. Lunch, rest, or listen to music, read, reply to letters. 4 p.m., walk down along the river, Tarka’s river, the Torridge, where Henry Williamson walked, and Ted Hughes. Tea in front of the fire, read through everything I wrote that morning. Welcome delivery of supplies to two stranded oldies. Pilates, our attempt at it anyway. Then we watch the news, not for too long, it’s too long to bear. Supper, then phone or text family and friends. Watch films. Bed. Sleep, ‘perchance to dream’.
I try not to think or dream of the sadness out there, the sickness and the dying, the world and all of us topsy-turvy. But I do. We have family scattered all over the world, some living in Zagreb. Isolated in a flat, the city in shut-down, the virus stalking the streets outside; inside a family coping, the work dried up, one child autistic, needing routine, needing time to adjust to this new reality. And then last night an earthquake, and the chimney comes down. There are dozens of aftershocks, and they can’t leave the house or the city. Nightmare upon nightmare. We all feel so helpless. But they are coping. Somehow.
Our sadness here was seeing the children who come to the farm from the cities walk away down the lane for the last time, for who knows how long. Farms for City Children, the educational charity which Clare began, has been going for 45 years. About 100,000 schoolchildren have spent a week of their young lives living and working down on the farm. It happened before, this shutting down, during the foot and mouth crisis of 2001. Then, too, movement was restricted, the farm off limits, and all down Tarka’s valley the fires burned and smoke rose and the smell of it clung in the air, and all the time we promised ourselves it would be over one day, and the children would come walking back up the lane to feed the sheep and check the lambs. They did.
Meanwhile Clare and I hunker down, talking more, reading more, loving each other more, family and friends more. We think of people we know whose work is on hold, theatre friends in particular. War Horse, the National Theatre’s great play, had to close down on its second world tour. Cast and crew have come home to no work. But I am fortunate. I will read all Shakespeare’s plays, and retell those I love best. And one day those same theatre friends of mine will be up on stage acting in one of his plays, and there will be children in the audience who first came to love Shakespeare through my retellings, and will know as they watch that he was right. ‘The play’s the thing.’ And the play will be All’s Well That Ends Well.