On Sunday, lonely as a cloud, I wandered across a windswept moor in County Durham and passed a solitary sandstone rock with a small, round hollow in the top, an old penny glued to the base of the hollow. It is called the Butter Stone and it’s where, during the plague in 1665, coins were left in a pool of vinegar by the inhabitants of nearby towns and villages, to be exchanged with farmers for food. The idea was that the farmer or his customer approached the rock only when the other was at a safe distance.
My family is in lockdown in our isolated house in the countryside a mile from the sea outside Ravenna. It is amazing how easily the state can deprive citizens of liberty. Like everyone in Italy we have now been under virtual house arrest for a week and cannot leave home without a valid reason. The novelty of such a dramatic situation quickly gave way to ennui. Valid reasons for leaving home are: going to work, buying food or medicine, or seeing the doctor.
We will have to get used to this. Every afternoon the prime minister strides into a butterscotch room in Downing Street and stands at a lectern between two drooping flags to give the latest dolorous news to an uncertain nation. How ironic that Boris, who instinctively loathes ‘doomsters and gloomsters’, is obliged to play the mortician’s bean--counter and recite the daily tallies of the infected and the dead.
He’s flanked by the best brains in the land.
Last week, the French were amused at Anglo-Saxon hoarding of toilet paper, known vulgarly here as ‘PQ’ — papier cul. Now France itself has tested positive for panic. Supermarkets across the country have been under siege, shelves stripped bare of loo roll and much else. The government has already requisitioned all supplies of face masks and slapped price controls on hand sanitiser — with foreseeable results.
It is dispiriting being an also-ran. Setting yourself up as a writer takes hubris. It is a wild and outrageous claim that you have something to say, in a voice worth being amplified. Then along comes Hilary Mantel, and you realise with deadening clarity — you have little to say, badly.
Earlier this month, The Mirror and the Light, the concluding part of Mantel’s Tudor trilogy, was published. You might have noticed? It is a titan.
The Labour leadership contest has been going on for so long that two of its candidates, Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey, have taken to counting down the hours they have left. The race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn started in early January, and will finally finish on 4 April. When we meet, Nandy is feeling run-down — not because of coronavirus, but the sheer length of a contest that she had initially thought should run beyond May’s now-cancelled local elections.
‘Cancelled’ is quite a buzzword of our times, isn’t it? Up until about ten days ago, it referred mainly to cancel culture, that ability of Twitter mobs to rule on whether or not a celebrity misdemeanour means the end of celebrity for that celebrity. But recently someone tweeted me the words: ‘Nature: “I’ll show you cancel culture.”’ It’s true. Suddenly, the idea of the world ending — or at least, theatres, art galleries and musicals shut down for the foreseeable future — has lessened the trepidation felt by the targets of cancel culture.
Pubs are fascinating at the moment. On the day that the Prime Minister advised us not to attend them, I turned up at one in leafy Highgate, London N6 to find it much fuller than you might expect. I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing. People are still getting out, having a jolly time — but carefully. At the Woodman earlier this week, while I sat alone with my book and a drink, everyone was very politely giving each other a metre of space because that’s now the done thing.