In Wayfinding, by Michael Bond, a fascinating account of how people find their way in and around the world (and the perils of GPS on our innate navigational systems), the author quotes a Siberian reindeer herder on how to avoid getting lost in the wilderness:
When you travel in the tundra, you always think ‘Have I taken the right direction?’ And ‘Have I not missed the place I am going to?’ Everyone has these fears, especially if you believe that you should have already reached a place but you cannot see any sign of it around, these fears become really strong. Now, you should not surrender to these fears. You should be brave! It is not easy, especially when you are alone in the darkness. You can think, for example, ‘I have probably gone too far to the left, I should go a little bit to the right of the course I am taking now.’ You can even eventually become completely sure about this, especially if you do not see the place when you think you should already be there. Still, you should not change the course. If you keep on the same course, you will eventually come somewhere, maybe not the place you wanted, but still to a place you know . . . If you change course just once, you will get lost, because if you change it once you will want to change it again . . . If you start changing course, you will be unable to stop, believe me, nobody can. Then you will start to go in circles until your reindeer drop down . . . All the people who have become lost in the tundra and died did so because they were not brave enough and surrendered to their fears. *
More than anything else, the passage cited by Bond reminded me of writing a novel. Everything about it: the need to continue in a predetermined line, not to be distracted by detours to the left or to the right (with its echoes of Wallace Stephens’ firecat in ‘Earthy Anecdote’); the fact that if you change course once you will do so again; and the final catastrophe of going around in ever diminishing circles until your reindeer (or your ideas) lie down and die . . . It is such a salutary tale! Even if I had never made the association between writing fiction and wandering in the wilderness before, I would now, and it will never leave me.
*Cited from Kirill V. Istomin (2013) ‘From invisible float to the eye for a snowstorm: the introduction of GPS by Nenets reindeer herders of western Siberia and its impact on their spatial cognition and navigational methods’. In Judith Miggelbrink et al, eds Nomadic and Indigenous Spaces: Productions and Cognitions (Routledge, 2013).
‘All things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger.’ J.L. Borges
The black bear appeared out of the woods to my left and lumbered across the highway, just ahead of me. It was early morning and the shadows were long. I pulled over, crawled beside the guard rail, and spotted it again; an adult male, I guessed, from its size and the shape of its head. He had crossed the deep ditch beside the road and was climbing, foraging on the grassy hillside about fifteen metres away.
I was drawn to him by some elemental gravity, a force beyond reason. Something remote yet familiar stirred and fluttered between us and was carried on the air with the scent of juniper. The bear raised his head, kept his gaze on me for a brief spell, but he wasn’t especially interested, and his snout returned to the flower which he had been sniffing with devout attention before he looked up. He took his time. He wasn’t bothered by my presence nearby. He ambled slowly up the hillside, out of sight, and I got back into the car. Watching this animal, I was completely entranced, outside of time. I had been drawn towards the bear in a way that, afterwards, I tried to explain, but could not. Words failed me utterly.
The black bear appeared out of the woods to my left and lumbered across the highway, just ahead of me. It was early morning and the shadows were long. I pulled over, crawled beside the guard rail, and spotted it again; an adult male, I guessed, from its size and the shape of its head. He had crossed the deep ditch beside the road and was climbing, foraging on the grassy hillside about fifteen metres away.
This encounter in the Canadian Rockies, however fleeting, nonetheless filled me with a kind of awe, which I struggled in the following days to comprehend. I had not really been in any danger, and the bear, as I have said, seemed to be more interested in sniffing the flowers than in anything I was doing. But nonetheless, something had passed between us, and I explained it to myself and to my friends, back in Banff, in what might have seemed inflated or grandiose terms. The truth was, I felt suffused at the time, and for a couple of days after, by something like deep contentment, even love; as if I had not only learned something about the gaze that passes between human and animal, but equally about my deeper self – what I can only call the soul – and in a way I had barely considered before, but had always known.
What was the nature of this thing that passed momentarily between us, which for want of any other name I call the animal gaze? In the eighth of the Duino Elegies, Rilke writes ‘And yet, sometimes a silent animal looks up at us and silently looks through us.’ The bear looked through me, and I was going to write almost as though I was not there. But that is not quite right. The animal gaze may be indifferent, but is not oblivious.
I recall other instances when I have been a recipient of the animal gaze, or participated in an exchange of gazes with an animal in the wild. A fox crosses the field just ahead of me, catching my scent on the breeze, and turning his head, he stops suddenly, mid-step, one of his front paws raised in a characteristic pose, snout turned towards me, long whiskers twitching, alert and questioning. The passage of a few milliseconds as we assess each other, before he sets off on his way. That rupture in time’s narrative, that sudden hiatus as one creature enters another’s world unexpectedly, an animal going about its business, never expecting a human to appear. Whenever an encounter of this kind occurs, it is entirely new and unexpected. It feels like time out of time. I have come face to face with deer and boar while hiking in the Pyrenees, and almost always there is a moment of surprise, or shock, followed by a sort of mutual acknowledgement, before each of us goes our separate way. There are exceptions: once, last year, I disturbed a boar sow with attendant cubs, who, on seeing me, emitted a threatening growl. No time to examine the nature of the gaze then; the message was clear enough. She would certainly have charged me, had I lingered.
Among those writers who evoke our relationships with animals in the wild is Jean-Christophe Bailly, who offers a compelling account of the author driving at night along a country road and encountering a solitary deer:
A deer has come out of the undergrowth; frightened, it runs up the road, trapped between hedgerows: it too is caught in the estuary. It rushes ahead, just as it is, just as it has to be – fear and beauty, quivering grace, lightness. The driver, going slowly now, follows the creature, watches its croup move up and down, bounding in its dance. A kind of hunt is under way, in which the goal is not – certainly not – to catch up, but simply to follow, and since this race takes longer than one might have imagined, several hundred metres, a strange joy comes, childlike, or perhaps archaic. Finally, another path opens up for the animal, and after hesitating ever so slightly the deer plunges in and disappears.
It is this ‘strange joy’ that Bailly describes — childlike, or archaic — that I recognise, and want to think about, to write about . . .
In his essay, published in English as The Animal Side, Bailly recognises his reaction to the deer, but nevertheless is ‘taken aback, overcome. The sequence had had the clarity, the violence, of an image in a dream.’ He ponders what has happened during this bizarre chase, as the driver pursues the deer down the road, and concludes that he has touched some part of the animal world . . . with his eyes. He knows this is impossible, in any literal sense. He hasn’t entered the animal’s world but rather the strangeness of that world has revealed itself to him once more, ‘as if I had actually been allowed for an instant to see something from which, as a human being I shall be forever excluded . . . a strangeness [that] ought to be considered on its own terms, as a different posture, a different impetus, and quite simply a different modality of being.’ And he confesses that this experience moved him to tears, a sentiment which, after my encounter with the bear, I fully understand. It was, he says, ‘both like a thought and a proof that there is no supremacy, neither of humans nor of beasts, that there are only passages, fleeting sovereignties, occasions, escapes, encounters. The deer was in its night and I in mine, each of us alone.’
Is it, then, something to do with a quality of aloneness — the bear (fox, deer, or boar) in its world and I in mine— that reinforces my sense of having been granted, briefly, an opening into another world. A sense of origin, of something deeply remembered, though now forgotten?
What I earlier termed ‘love’ with regard to the bear, and the corresponding sentiment – a realisation of transience (‘fleeting sovereignties, occasions, escapes, encounters’) that produced tears in Bailly – might be pertinent to the topic that he addresses next in his essay. He writes that ‘declarations of intense feelings on the subject of animals quite often not only fall flat but give rise to a sort of embarrassment.’ This is a murky area, in which one might be accused of sentimentality, since most people regard a love of animals as something quite childish, a consequence perhaps of the general Disneyfication of our engagement with ‘the animal kingdom’ (this term itself is worthy of attention, with its neatly superimposed monarchical assumptions). But what I am talking about here is as far as imaginably possible from a Disneyfied attitude of cuddly objectification. While we have confined beasts into manageable conceptual spaces – domesticated animals as pets in the home, wild animals in zoos – we have retained a profoundly ambiguous relationship to them in our thought and in dreams. Animals will not stay put in their allocated place. They have continued, without even trying, to make the boundary between their worlds and ours an unsettled and unsettling one. Every animal encounter of the kind that I have described evokes a reaction of loss, and reminds us of something that surpasses the individual and yet is somehow integral to our humanity.
While Jean-Christophe Bailly’s essay speaks directly to the experience of encounters with animals in the wild, John Berger, in his essay, ‘Why Look at Animals’, reminds us of the more complex and elusive relationship between humans and animals that have been kept in captivity, either as domesticated farm animals, as pets, or else on display in zoos. He starts out by claiming that for most of human history animals constituted the first circle of the world that surrounded us. Indeed, that statement already suggests a distance that was barely apparent in the pre-industrial world; after all, animals and humans lived cheek by jowl. It is true, writes Berger, that such centrality was often ‘economic and productive’, since humans depended on animals for food, work, transport, clothing. But to imagine that animals ‘first entered the human imagination as food or leather’ would be to ‘project a nineteenth century attitude backwards across the millennia.’ Long before then, animals held a symbolic and magical value; they were good to think with, in Lévi-Strauss’ phrase, rather than merely resources to consume.
Berger then goes on to make an unusual point about the look that passes between animals and humans in the wild (which he later contrasts with the looks exchanged between humans and animals held in captivity, notably in zoos). When humans and animals look at each other, the human recognises the animal’s look as ‘familiar’, he writes. ‘Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look.’In other words, as I suggested in my encounter with the black bear, a kind of power is ascribed to the animal through this exchange of looks, ‘comparable with human power but never coinciding with it.’ The observed animal has secrets which are addressed specifically to us. ‘The animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man.’ It is because of this ability to recognise ourselves in this other creature that a companionship can arise between humans and animals: ‘with their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is offered to the loneliness of man as a species.’
But it would be foolish to read too much into the relationship between a human and an animal in the wild, or to read the wrong kinds of message into the gaze that is exchanged between them. Such was the case with dim-witted Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s documentary film Grizzly Man. Treadwell was a New Age voyeur who believed that he was in touch with his inner bear, but only succeeded in getting himself and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, killed and eaten by one. His story, according to Werner Herzog’s film, based on Treadwell’s video footage, was ‘a tragic misunderstanding of what wild nature is all about’. ‘What haunts me’, Herzog adds, in his commentary towards the end of his film, ‘is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.’ Treadwell’s tale is salutary, and his ending is summarised accurately, if brutally, by a park warden in Herzog’s film: ‘he got what he was asking for, he got what he deserved.’
While animals have served as metaphors for human character traits, humans have also likened themselves to animals (Aesop, La Fontaine, Beatrix Potter, Disney); thus has anthropomorphism flourished over the centuries. But in parallel with this, as we celebrate their alleged ‘human qualities’— or the corresponding ‘animal qualities’ of humans — we have, for the most part, lost the habit of interacting with animals themselves. Most children today, growing up in cities, have never seen an animal in the wild, in its natural habitat. Probably they never will.
The result of this detachment from nature and wildness (and a direct consequence of the overcompensation it occasions) is that people have begun to regard animals nostalgically, and the animal has become, in Berger’s phrase ‘emptied of experience and secrets.’ It is this new, invented ‘innocence’, argues Berger, ‘that provokes in man a kind of nostalgia.’ It is almost as if, in a deranged act of housekeeping — of ‘keeping the wilderness at bay’ — we have divested ourselves of all that pertains to our animal selves, with the result that we are left only with cardboard cut-outs of the animals we once lived alongside. The animals have thus become caricatures, not of themselves, but of us. So it is that we must consider pets (the term ‘pet’, Berger tells us, once referred to a lamb raised by hand in the household). The acquisition of pets, incidentally — especially cats and dogs — has undergone a massive surge during the coronavirus pandemic, as thousands have attempted to acquire or purchase animal companions, apparently to lessen their own sense of loneliness. The past year has also seen a burgeoning black market in stolen pets, especially the cuter breeds of dog.
In the past, as Berger reminds us, people kept domesticated animals for specific purposes – guard dogs and hunting dogs, cats for controlling rodents – but nowadays pets are household trophies, a distinguishing feature of consumer societies. I can remember how, forty years ago, in rural Spain, practically no one kept a dog as a pet; nowadays every household seems to own one. Berger describes the setting in which the pet survives: ‘The small family living unit lacks space, earth, other animals, seasons, natural temperatures, and so on. The pet is either sterilised or sexually isolated, extremely limited in its exercise, deprived of almost all other animal contact, and fed with artificial foods. This is the material process which lies behind the truism that pets come to resemble their masters or mistresses. They are creatures of their owner’s way of life.’
The pet also serves another function. It offers its owner a mirror to a part of himself or herself of which only that person is aware. But this relationship, in which each party reflects the other, has none of the satisfying parallelism that marks the separateness of animal and human lives. It creates a new nostalgia, growing out of the domesticity that binds them together: a nostalgia for the wild.
But what is the ‘wild’? It’s a horribly overused word at present. Titles of books and documentaries celebrate wildness and ‘re-wilding’ abound, and the other morning I caught the opening exchanges, on BBC Radio Four Woman’s Hour, of aninterview with Glennon Doyle, author of Untamed, a book about getting in touch with our inner wildness. Start to ‘untame’ yourself, Doyle’s webpage urges readers: ‘We’re born with these wild, individual selves and then we start to just give up who we are . . . We lose our wild selves, and then we have to reverse the process so we can reclaim some of who we are or were before the world told us who to be.’ The ‘wild’ person is ‘who we are’, and ‘wildness’, we are told, is an inherent quality to which we have rights, and which has somehow been taken from us, rather than willingly surrendered.
Annie Dillard’s famous essay ‘The Weasel’ begins with the declaration: ‘A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks?’ and goes on to recount a story about a man who shot an eagle from the sky and discovered the dry skull of a weasel attached to the bird’s throat, the assumption being that the eagle had once pounced on the weasel, which had turned and sunk its teeth into the bird’s neck, to be carried thus for the weeks or months or years until the bird was brought down from the sky. The rest of Dillard’s essay purportedly explores the notion of ‘wildness’, focusing at one point on the moment when the writer herself comes face to face with a weasel: ‘The weasel was stunned into silence as he was emerging from beneath an enormous shaggy wild rose-bush four feet away. I was stunned into stillness, twisted backward on the tree trunk. Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key’. Dillard makes the most of the moment: ‘Our look was as if two lovers, or deadly enemies, met unexpectedly on an overgrown path when each of them had been thinking of something else: a clearing blow to the gut. It was a bright blow to the brain, a sudden beating of the brains, with all the intimate grate of rubbed balloons. It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes.’
Not satisfied with a blow to the gut, Dillard invokes a beating of the brains and an emptying of the lungs as well. I cannot help but wonder whether the weasel underwent equivalent anatomical distress. Dillard assures us that he did: ‘I tell you I’ve been in that weasel’s brain for sixty seconds, and he was in mine.’ I am not convinced by this, however; my guess is that the weasel, like my bear, looked through her. They were not like lovers, or deadly enemies meeting unexpectedly on an overgrown path: that is all human interjection. Fortunately, Dillard relents towards the end of the encounter: ‘What does a weasel think about? He won’t say. His journal is tracks in the sand, a spray of feathers, mouse blood and bone: uncollected, unconnected, loose-leaf, and blown.’ And here we come the crux of the matter. All those words Dillard employs to convey the utter confusion of her side of the encounter (damage to gut, brains, lungs) is reduced, on her creature’s part, to a list of weaselly phenomena — the bits and pieces that furnish a weasel’s day (tracks, feathers, blood and bone). A phenomenology of death. Dillard’s account, despite its title, is not really about a weasel; it is about Dillard. She wants to be wild, and has come to live in this place in order to learn from the weasel: ‘The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.’ It seems to me that this admiration for the weasel’s wildness, as exemplified by its tenacity in hanging on like grim death to the eagle’s throat, is not that far removed from the narrative of the American Dream: to ‘grasp your one necessity and not let it go’, as Dillard puts it, a call to indomitable tenacity and heroic individualism; and that is why it is admirable and acts as a kind of incentive to greater achievement. Dillard’s essay serves as an example of how easy it can be to conflate ideas about ‘wildness’ and the requirements of the ‘self’. It is an error that neither Bailly nor Helen Macdonald makes.
At the time of my encounter with the bear I had been reading Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk and had been moved by the way the author synthesised and channelled emotions of grief at the loss of her father though training a young goshawk. I too had recently lost my father, and her story resonated with me. I too had felt an unfathomable pull towards the natural world, and animals in particular, following his death, and in a way that I found very hard to explain or account for.
At one point in her book Macdonald writes of her growing understanding of the hawk, Mabel: ‘I am becoming fascinated by her quality of attention. I’m starting to believe in what Barry Lopez has called “the conversation of death”, something he saw in the exchange of glances between caribou and hunting wolves, a wordless negotiation that ends up with them working out whether they will become hunter and hunted, or passers-by.’ Again the exchange of glances, that moment of time out of time as two creatures assess each other. I remember a friend, the novelist Tristan Hughes, mentioning an unexpected encounter with wolves, near his home in remote Northern Ontario. I email him, curious to know whether he too experienced a moment of hiatus, a suspension of normal time, while the wolves and he measured each other up. His answer comes back after a couple of hours:
I was making my way through the dead grass at the edge of a beaver pond when I looked up over the top of the grass and found them directly in front of me. I’d had no clue or indication of their presence until I saw them. There were three of them, two grey ones and a black one in the centre. They were no more than twenty yards away.
There was, just as you describe it, a kind of paralysis of time (I’ve no idea how long the encounter lasted), and one that took on a physical aspect too – on my side anyway. There was a sudden and intense narrowing of focus, a sort of tunnel vision; it was like my brain had performed an instant bit of triage – there was only one urgent thing in the landscape, and all my senses were bent to it. And that hyper-awareness or focus seemed to put everything into a kind of slow motion (a trick of adrenaline, I guess, to increase the ability to react). And then, another effect of adrenaline. The cliché is ‘spine-tingling’ but that is exactly what it was: a million-year old mammal response; the memory of being prey. There was also a momentary paralysis or hiatus in cognition. For a few jumbled milli-seconds the cultural reference points or iconographies of wolves weren’t in place – I knew they were wolves, but I didn’t know them as wolves. Instead, for those few instants, my mind seemed to break them down into essential qualities: they were big, they were grey and black, they had yellow eyes – and those eyes were looking at me.
As for the way they were looking at me, I’d probably describe it as a mixture of curiosity and indifference. They must have known I was there for a while, through scent, and worked out I was no threat to them and wasn’t food. Getting sight of me fulfilled no function or need – they just wanted to look. And once they’d looked for what felt like a long time, but could only have been twenty or thirty seconds, they moved slowly away into the woods, as though I were something unusual thrown up on a beach – an interesting piece of flotsam to be examined, noted, nudged with a toe, and passed by.
The indifference of Hughes’s wolves not only evokes, for me, the reaction of my black bear, but ‘indifference’ is Herzog’s chosen descriptor for the faces of ‘all the bears ever filmed’ by Timothy Treadwell. John Berger, in another essay, defines nature’s energy as ‘fearsomely indifferent’, contrasting it with the sentimental view of nature often produced by urbanites, who regard nature as ‘a garden, or a view framed by a window, or as an arena of freedom.’ Berger’s view of nature, of ‘the wild’, is not only indifferent, but unmistakably bleak: ‘The gale blows itself out, the sea changes from the colour of grey shit to aquamarine. Under the fallen boulder of an avalanche a flower grows. Over the shanty town the moon rises. I offer dramatic examples so as to insist upon the bleakness of the context.’
What we are in relation to a natural, wild landscape, a wild creature, or creatures, is something we, as humans, have almost entirely lost sight of: in Bailly’s phrase, our eyes no longer touch those creatures, that world. A sense of perspective is lacking; we forget our own smallness and fragility below the vast and indifferent shift of the skies, in the tremors of an earthquake, or in the approach of a storm. Perhaps only in encounters with the wilderness do we feel our true status as creatures.
In Helen Macdonald’s book, there is another story, concerning the caves at Lascaux, which immediately attracted my attention. I was fortunate enough to have visited the caves at Lascaux as a young child, shortly before they were closed to the public – an event which made a lasting impression on me. Macdonald remembers that when she was at junior school, a teacher showed her and her classmates photographs of the cave paintings at Lascaux, and explained that no one knew why prehistoric people drew these animals. ‘I was indignant,’ she writes. ‘I knew exactly why, but at that age was at a loss to put my intuition into words that made sense even to me.’
How could the teacher not see? How could the teacher not understand the obvious interdependence between our ancestors and the animals that surrounded them? I recall our family visit to Lascaux but only return to images of darkness and a vague sense of wonderment at the beautiful shape of an animal, a bison, on the wall of the cave. I try my best to remember more but draw a blank; what I can recall is a very bright light — a spotlight — and warm, harmonious colours, reminiscent of the colours of the earth; but then again I have seen so many reproductions of the Lascaux caves that I have no idea if that memory is truly my own, or borrowed, so I message my sister, who is six years older than me, and ask her if she has any memories of our visit to Lascaux caves in 1962. At the time she gets my message — in one of those rare instances of synchronicity — she is packing a present to send to her grandson, Leonardo, in Los Angeles. It is a book called Cave Baby, in which — she sends me a photo of the relevant page — the baby’s mother paints the walls of the cave with bison and deer.
She also sends an extract from her scrapbook of the family holiday to France in the summer of 1962. Of course, our father had insisted she keep a record, as he always did of my older siblings on these trips. I learn from this, which she photographs and sends on WhatsApp, that the cave was discovered by four boys and a dog in 1940. My sister’s best eleven-year-old scrawl records that: ’The cave was lit up and looks very nice’, before continuing: ‘The drawings are of many ages and are the colours yellow, red and black ochre.’ In a final comment, she adds that ‘two of the boys who discovered it are now the present guides.’
I am trying to piece together parts of a puzzle: it is not only what I seem to recall from my visit to the Lascaux caves as a six-year old, but also the joy intuited by Macdonald in her childhood classroom, and quashed by her teacher’s remark that ‘no one knew why prehistoric people drew animals.’ It is the same joy I experienced on seeing the black bear.
Of course we knew why people painted on the walls of their caves! Children, perhaps, more than anyone else: we know it in the very fibre of our being. We need to draw the animals, and to sing the songs of the animals and dance their dances in our rituals, for a very simple reason: we recognise them as both ourselves and as other, a simultaneous perception of identification and of othering; the elemental you and I, perceiver and perceived; the subject and object of all encounters. The essential paradox of being.
Our ancestors were not only fascinated by these creatures who lived their lives in parallel with their own, and with whom they had a pact of sorts. They also loved them. This love is visible in the paintings so tenderly crafted, which in a modern-day observer stirs a sense of a forgotten intimacy, of profound loss. Bailly again: ‘Leaving aside the dispute over the sacred to which these wall paintings inevitably lead, we can nevertheless say that they point to an origin or an originary state of designation, and that they can be understood as a first, stupefying recording in which, at the heart of nature as a whole, the animal is recognised as the great other, the first companion.’
We needed to invoke, to translate that other; the fox, the bear, the bison, the deer, through what would later be termed sympathetic magic. We still need to translate them. They are our others and we need to translate them onto the walls of our modern caves. The cave paintings of Lascaux and elsewhere record that reciprocal gaze in a fashion that seems to me exemplary; the animal is simply there, and the painter is looking at them as things of wonder. What do I conclude? That while animals have not forgotten how to look at us, we may have forgotten how to look at animals.
Troubled and troubling it may be, but these animal encounters lie at the heart of so much that we human animals experienced, day in, day out, over a few million years of evolution, for most of which time such thoughts were integral to everyday existence. The creatures we shared our world with — that same world we have ruthlessly plundered and are in the process of destroying — also help to remind us how to live. Or, as Anne Dufourmantelle puts it in her book, Gentleness, the animal disarms our sense of duplicity, because we humans are divided, in exile from ourselves, whereas an animal’s gentleness ‘comes to us from a being that coincides with itself almost entirely.’ This is not a question of consistency of ‘self’ or existential solidity, but simply of being true to one’s own nature, as a stone is a stone and a tiger is a tiger. To coincide with oneself almost entirely.
A recent article by travel writer Simon Calder has launched a small blaze of controversy about the use of the Welsh language on aircraft landing in Wales. The offending piece begins: “In the unlikely event you find yourself aboard a plane flying to Wales before the end of April, you should discover the Welsh terms for “a new continuous cough, a high temperature or a loss of, or change in, normal sense of taste or smell”.
Strangely enough, around the world, announcements are frequently made in languages other than English. Mr Calder, a seasoned traveller himself, must surely have noticed this. For example, English persons on flights landing in Spain might be inconvenienced by announcements in Spanish; likewise in France, China, Ukraine – anywhere in fact where commercial flights land, there are announcements made in the language of that country.
For Calder, however, Welsh doesn’t count. He writes that its abandonment would unlikely cause any harm and suggests that burdening the sensitive ears of passengers and crew with “guff” is not only pointless, but might well contribute to one’s plane meeting with a serious accident. This notion is backed up with a story about an Air Canada flight from Toronto to San Francisco in which garbled instructions from airport control nearly caused the pilot to collide with a packed Philippines Airlines plane, a salutary tale, no doubt, but one that bore no relation to announcements made to passengers in a language other than English. It makes one wonders what the target of Calder’s complaint really is. And it would appear that his real problem is with that pesky irrelevance, the Welsh language.
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes, writing for the news site Nation Cymru, suggests that indeed, this appears to be the case, and goes on to say: ‘Implicit in such tropes is that the Welsh language is inferior, and that it can therefore be casually disregarded. Unlike ‘real’ or ‘proper’ languages, it is not essential. It is characterised as merely an indulgence, not as something fundamental to the lives of those who speak it. Instead, it is a ‘waste’ of resources or as Calder puts it, a “burden”.’
Interesting, to say the least, that someone dedicated to travel and travel writing should show such astonishing lack of cultural awareness, or even basic intelligence. His attitude doesn’t seem to be any different from that of so many Brits abroad who moan about the inconvenience of having to put up with those irritating natives who have the gall to speak their own languages rather than English.
In an interview on the BBC News earlier this month, the singer Bonnie Tyler was interviewed by Katty Kay and Christian Fraser, usually an intelligent and benign pair of individuals with whom I have no axe to grind. The interview was standard early evening fare, and the three chatted away, getting along famously. Then, at 4’18” — if you click on the link below — you will hear Ms Kay ask the singer: ’Do you ever sit back and think, Bonnie Tyler, not bad for a girl from Wales?’
What does this seemingly innocent utterance actually reveal?
I would suggest that it comes from, and taps into an unconscious prejudice, something so deep-seated in the English mindset as to be understood — presumably — without further explanation.
Kay doesn’t say ‘a girl from Skewen’ (the village where Tyler was born) — but identifies her country of origin. What, by contrast would it mean, to say ‘not bad for a girl from England’? Nothing at all, presumably, because a ‘girl from England’ could be anything at all. The utterance would be meaningless. It can only be compared with a statement such as ‘Not bad for a girl from Scunthorpe’ or Middlesborough, or Blackpool (towns with the some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England) or ‘Not bad for a girl from (insert name of any rundown estate in east London).’
Why then is ‘not bad for a girl from Wales’ so offensive?
It can only be because ‘Wales’, in the minds of so many English people, is a backwater, and can only very rarely be expected to produce individuals who rise above the murk and mire of their place of origin, a dim and misty bogland somewhere to the west of the Severn — sorry, the Prince of Wales — Bridge, suitable perhaps for holiday homes, and for off-colour jokes about sheep, but hardly a place likely to offer up a stream of talented individuals who rise to the top of their professions on the international stage (omitting of course, such exceptions, in the world of theatre and show business, as Richard Burton, Siân Phillips, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Michael Sheen, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones; in the business world, names such as Charles Rolls, Frank Wright and Laura Ashley; in the literary world, David Jones, R.S. Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Lynette Roberts, to name only poets; in the world of the visual arts, Richard Wilson, Thomas Jones, James Dickson Innes, Augustus John, Kyffin Williams, Gwen John, Shani Rhys James; photographers such as Phillip Jones Griffiths and David Hurn; countless first-rate musicians, entertainers, scholars, scientists and sportspeople, I don’t need to list them – and realise I’ve missed out lots of names. So actually, considering the population of our country, I’d say we punch well above our weight . . . )
I am sure Katty Kay does not view herself as a racist, and her slip was almost certainly not malicious. But it reveals an attitude that goes far deeper. Despite all the debate about unconscious prejudice with regard to people of colour, or towards the LGBTQ community, these small indicators of the ways in which the ‘other nations’ of these islands are regarded by the ascendant group — the English — continues in much the same way as it has for centuries. In my youth, overt racism was displayed toward the Irish — I can remember the pubs in London with signs reading ‘No Dogs No Blacks, No Irish’. In recent years, animosity towards the Irish has shifted towards the remaining British Celts, and is expressed, sometimes relatively mildly, as with Ms Kay’s remark, and sometimes far less so (see the recent sacking of a senior Iceland executive for calling the Welsh language “gibberish” or even the Telegraph’s article opining that the Wales rugby team would be the Six Nations’ ‘worst ever Grand Slam winners’, were they to win their deciding match against France last night).
Prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious, is of course much easier to identify in others than in ourselves, but the bias against Wales and the Welsh certainly has a long history.
Which brings to mind the story of Parsifal, or Perceval. In the first full account of the Arthurian legends by Chrétien de Troyes, in the twelfth century, Perceval is identified as ‘the Welshman’ (li Galois), and it should be remembered that Perceval, after facing ridicule at Arthur’s court as a country bumpkin — as befitting someone from Wales — surpasses the deeds of all the other knights by finding the Holy Grail, and in the process healing the wounds of the Fisher King. As the mythographer Robert Johnson writes: ‘He is born in Wales, during that time a country geographically on the fringe of the known world and a cultural backwater, the least likely place for a hero to appear . . . Who would ever think of Wales as possibly producing an answer to our suffering? Myth informs us that our redemption will come from the least likely place.’
I never asked for a new passport, but last month I received a demand from the Passport Office to renew my old one. This came as a surprise, since the passport is (was) valid until March 2022, but was being withdrawn due to something called ‘Brexit’. As I later discovered, passports of a certain vintage were to be deemed invalid even if they had many months to run before their expiry date.
I was more than a little sad to send in my old EU passport, filled with many interesting stamps and visas. I had become quite attached to it. As for this ‘Brexit’, I am told it is a famous and well-known thing which has beset the times, wreaking havoc upon man and beast alike (many creatures being stranded in transit between this land and others, even as I write). All of this has been impressed rudely upon me since returning to my home in Wales in early December.
I had been living, since August, in a small and remote Catalan village — my family home from home for nearly twenty years —which has no cases of COVID, and in which the neighbours look out for one another, by and large. It is a close community, and despite the typical village hazards of everyone knowing everyone else’s business, it feels like a safe place to be in these hazardous times. There is a genuine sense of community, something almost unheard of in UK cities nowadays. So Mrs Blanco and I weighed up the pros and cons of returning to Cardiff.
Pros were: (a) we would get to see our daughters for Christmas and (b) we would stand a chance of getting a COVID vaccine far more quickly than if we stayed in Spain.
Cons were: (a) we would have to follow quarantine rules, despite moving from a place with no COVID to an area with more COVID per head of population than anywhere else in Europe — see diagram below indicating COVID rates in Wales as compared with UK and Europe, BBC Wales 14 December, 2020; (b) we would almost certainly have to go into a further period of lockdown — there seems to be a glorious indifference to safety here in the UK and, unlike in Spain, face masks are a rarity except inside shops and offices — which, inevitably, occurred just as we were emerging from quarantine; (c) we would, as a consequence of (b) be restricted to taking exercise and walking our aged dog, Bruno, in a city park near our house. But I don’t want to whinge . . . millions of people have it far, far worse than us. At least we have a roof over our heads, food, a warm house, a loving family . . .
Long story short, the Pros won out, and here we are.
Much has been written about British exceptionalism in recent times, including by me, and I don’t especially wish to add to the growing literature, but I must mention just one thing: it strikes me as rather odd when a police chief announces on national radio that it would be ‘un-British’ of his officers to set up road-blocks in order to question and fine persons found to be breaking the regulations on correct behaviour with regard to COVID, as I heard on BBC Radio 4 on Monday’s Today programme. The man in question was the chief of a Northern English police force, I forget his name. I can find no discussion of this in the media, and yet it seems to me an astonishing pronouncement. Does this man think the COVID virus gives a shit about British exceptionalism?
In Catalunya, if you were found out and about in your car at the weekend without a valid reason — and had failed to fill out an appropriate form detailing that reason — you would be fined 300 €, no questions asked. The system works. Numbers indicate that a relatively large fine is something of a deterrent when trying to contain a widespread and potentially deadly virus. How very un-British.
But this laxity has been the attitude of our leaders since the beginning of the outbreak, when Boris blathered on about the God-given right of the Englishman to go to the pub, and look where it’s gotten us, what with much of the UK in lockdown over Christmas, including the whole of Wales.
Back to the passport.
The new thing arrived this morning. I am in two minds about it. Firstly, and against my better judgement, I approve of the colour on a purely aesthetic, if not a symbolic level. It works better with the golden Royal Arms: a lion wearing a crown and quite possibly laughing (or yawning) — and a unicorn, an appropriately fictional beast. Plus ça change.
My photo — in which, as Mrs Blanco helpfully pointed out, I resemble a criminal gang member, possibly even a Mexican cartel boss — does not flatter, but when do passport photos ever achieve more than a passing resemblance to their subjects? In ten years’ time, when the passport expires, and I am a wizened and decrepit old maniac, I may well find it flattering. Indeed, when that time comes, who knows what the alignment of our nation will be? Almost certainly the United Kingdom will be no more. Scotland will be an independent country and Ireland will be united, and I very much doubt that, as a Welshman, I will want to be a citizen of the residual mess of a nation, torn apart by the regressive fantasies of the Little Englanders, and the associated qualities of prejudice, ignorance and racism that their belief system upholds.
Back to the passport.
A new feature is that the title of the document is written, as you can see, in six languages. English, obviously, and then, in descending order:
SpanishThe first three are indigenous languages of these islands, and that’s fair enou
The first three are indigenous languages of these islands, and that’s fair enough. French is (or was) the official language of diplomacy, but is it still? I doubt it. And besides, for many Brexiteers, it is the French, as much or even more than the Germans, that they object to on principle. Especially Nigel Farage, whose surname, of course, is French, whichever way you pronounce it.
Spanish, ahead of English, is the most widely spoken first language in the world (discounting Mandarin Chinese, which is spoken by more than either of them, if not across so wide an area of the world’s surface). So I guess that would explain the inclusion of the language of Cervantes. All told, it strikes me as a generous and inclusive list, which, given the generally monoglot and monocultural attitude of those who demanded the new passport in the first place, strikes me as somewhat counter-intuitive.
Finally, considering the fuss made by the Brexiteers about ‘taking back control’ — that idiotic phrase: take back control of what precisely? — and asserting the UK’s ‘independence’ from those dastardly continentals, it is deeply ironic that my new passport, rather than being an all-British affair, was actually produced by a French company and printed in Poland.
It transpires that in 2018, following open tender under public procurement rules, the Franco-Dutch security firm Gemalto was selected over British banknote and travel document printer De La Rue to produce the new passports. Hurrah for the free market! I hear you exclaim. However, the success of Gemalto in winning the contract proved highly controversial — after all, we took back control, didn’t we? — and the production of British passports subsequently moved from Tyneside to Tczew, in Poland, resulting in the loss of 170 jobs at De La Rue’s Gateshead factory. For the record, Gateshead voted Leave by a 57%-43% majority in the 2016 EU referendum. Gemalto, meanwhile, has since been taken over by the French multinational Thales, a leading manufacturer of advanced weapon systems and munitions (share price 73.36 €).
The blow to De La Rue employees in Gateshead did not prevent the constituency from undergoing an 11% swing towards the Tories at the 2019 general election. Apparently the lure of ‘Independence’ from Europe was too cheering a proposition to be flushed down the toilet by a vote for anyone other than BoJo, despite the shambles of the new contract for the manufacture of UK passports, and the job losses it inflicted on the local community.
It has become almost a cliché in recent years to remark on the conflation of reality and fiction in the post-truth world — both here on Brexit Island, as well as in Trumpland — but really, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
As we creep towards the New Year, and the promise of further months of lies and dithering from an incompetent government, intent on handing out lucrative contracts to their chums for the running of Test and Trace (remember that?) and much else besides, and the unrolling of the various COVID vaccines, and a seemingly inevitable crashing out of Europe, most likely without a deal, I cannot help but reflect on how this royal shitshow might end, and when, if ever, we might recover from the shame and idiocy evoked by those words, British exceptionalism; or whether indeed those words suffice for a condition that seems to be more adequately described as a sort of collective death wish, inflicted upon them by their Etonian overlords, and readily embraced by a significant proportion of the British people.
I never fully appreciated Love in the Time of Cholera when it first appeared, back in the 1980s. I was still in thrall to the García Márquez of One Hundred Years of Solitude,and while acknowledging the meticulous skill of its composition, was confused that he had written what seemed like a nineteenth century novel. Looking back now, I can see that my reaction said more about me than about the book itself. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a young person’s novel, written in an explosion of creative energy over eighteen months and a million cigarettes, and Love in the Time of Cholera is a novel of maturity, or at the very least, of middle age. Its premise is the unfashionable concept of eternal love, involving a trio of characters: the eighteen-year old Florentino Ariza falls for the schoolgirl Fermina Daza, and courts her throughout her adolescence, before eventually being ditched when, at the age of nineteen, Fermina marries the far more eligible and somewhat older Dr Juvenal Urbino. The doctor, returning from Paris, where he has worked with the leading physicians of the day, first meets Fermina during the time of cholera, when she is suspected of having the disease (it turns out to be only a mild intestinal infection).
Dr Juvenal Urbino, the scion of one of the city’s great families, rises to even greater eminence for bringing the epidemic under control, imposing strict rules of cleanliness and quarantine for the infected. In the meantime, far from being defeated by the seemingly irreversible obstacle of Fermina’s marriage, Florentino views it as a temporary setback, settles (but never settles down) and waits: he waits — as we are reminded on several occasions — 51 years, 9 months and 4 days, before proposing to Fermina at the funeral following Dr Urbino’s death in a fall from a ladder while chasing an irksome parrot up a mango tree. Understandably, she tells him to get lost. This much — Urbino’s death and Ariza’s proposal — is covered in the long opening chapter, after which we flash back more than half a century to the time of cholera itself. But cholera, as Thomas Pynchon pointed out in his New York Times review of the book, has two meanings in Spanish: ‘In their city, throughout a turbulent half-century, death has proliferated everywhere, both as el colera, the fatal disease that sweeps through in terrible intermittent epidemics, and as la colera, defined as choler or anger, which taken to its extreme becomes warfare. Victims of one, in this book, are more than once mistaken for victims of the other. War, “always the same war”, is presented here not as the continuation by other means of any politics that can possibly matter, but as a negative force, a plague, whose only meaning is death on a massive scale. Against this dark ground, lives, so precarious, are often more and less conscious projects of resistance, even of sworn opposition, to death.’
In this novel, however, cholera — or disease in general — is also cognate with love.
Perversely, in light of the novel’s overarching themes of love and disease, by the end of the story it is only by concealing the more extreme and obsessive dimensions of his character, which have sustained him over half a century of longing, and offering her instead a more rational, reflective version of himself, does Florentino ultimately succeed in his goal of seducing Fermina. This is achieved by wearing a mask, the mask of rational ‘Old World’ wisdom and culture, rather than the raw, impassioned (New World) persona which she rejected five decades before. There is no suggestion in the novel that beneath this mask, Florentino does not continue to harbour the same romanticised fantasy of Fermina that he always has.
I am taken with the idea that the novel’s ending — the reunited lovers ploughing the waters of the River Magdalena for eternity in an almost-empty river steamer — while suggesting that Florentino’s love for Fermina has finally overcome all resistance, also reveals that their relationship succeeds because it can only take place in a hypothetical world in which they are free from the quotidian responsibilities of life: ‘It was as if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love.’ They are both at ‘the heart of love’ and ‘beyond love’— a seemingly contradictory predicament. They are like ‘an old married couple who have lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.’ Their love is a third age re-enactment (or parody) of young love, but at the same time they both know they are play-acting at being their younger selves, and they both know they are not. The affair works because they are at ease with this ambivalence and can appreciate that it is perfectly suited to their narrative present; two characters living out the remainder of their lives, which, however, is what we are all doing, one way or another.
The novel illustrates how love can take on multifarious forms and serve different purposes over the course of a person’s life, or as Nicholas Shakespeare observes, in his Introduction to the acclaimed translation by Edith Grossman in the Everyman edition: ‘It might appear in conventional frills parading the stock clichés of undying love, but underneath that lace it proposes, in all seriousness, something more subversive, more affirming. We can have what we want, says García Márquez. But we may have to wait a lifetime to appreciate properly its worth.’ I find this summary oddly unsatisfactory. And I know why, because finishing the novel, this time around, I cannot help thinking: but what of América Vicuña?
América Vicuña is a minor character in the novel. She is only fourteen when she first meets her legal guardian, Florentino Ariza, who initiates a sexual relationship with her. Florentino considers sex to be exempt from moral obligations, and chooses to ignore the power dynamics in a relationship foisted by him — a man now in his seventies— on an adolescent. It is a relationship that elsewhere (outside of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, that is) would be termed paedophilic, and he remains oblivious to América’s anger, sadness and self-loathing when, after a couple of years of forbidden sexual liaisons, which he closely manages and controls, he abruptly terminates their relationship to devote his energies to Fermina Daza.
Here is the way that García Márquez introduces América: ‘She was still a child in every sense of the word, with braces on her teeth and the scrapes of elementary school on her knees, but he saw right away the kind of woman she was soon going to be, and he cultivated her during a slow year of Saturdays at the circus, Sundays in the park with ice cream, childish late afternoons, and he won her confidence, he won her affection, he led her by the hand, with the gentle astuteness of a kind grandfather, toward his secret slaughterhouse. For her it was immediate: the doors of heaven opened to her.’ And as if this account of grooming were not creepy enough, the narrative insists that América, rather than being the victim of abuse, begins to ‘take the initiative’. The details are presented in their full ickiness: ‘She was no longer the little girl, the newcomer, whom he had undressed, one article of clothing at a time, with little baby games: first these little shoes for the little baby bear, then this little chemise for the little puppy dog, next these flowered panties for the little bunny rabbit, and a little kiss on her papa’s delicious dickey-bird. No: now she was a full-fledged woman, who liked to take the initiative.’
Whose fantasy is this, we wonder, of a ‘full-fledged woman’, with América now all of sixteen? It goes on, in the episode with the typewriter upon which Florentino has embarked on his second series of daily letter to Fermina: ‘She continued typing with just one finger of her right hand, and with her left felt for his leg, explored him, found him, felt him come to life, grow, heard him sigh with excitement, and his old man’s breathing became uneven and labored. She knew him: from that point on he was going to lose control, his speech would become disjointed, he would be at her mercy, and he would not find his way back until he reached the end. She led him by the hand to the bed as if he were a blind beggar on the street, and she cut him into pieces with malicious tenderness; she added salt to taste, pepper, a clove of garlic, chopped onion, lemon juice, bay leaf, until he was seasoned and on the platter, and the oven was heated to the right temperature.’ The reader will observe how this culinary vignette echoes the earlier reference to América being ‘led to the slaughterhouse’ by her guardian.
Of course, América never becomes ‘the kind of woman she was going to be’ because she dies by her own hand, in heartbreak at Florentino Ariza’s desertion of her. Having deflowered her as a child, taken her innocence and used her to gratify himself in his grotesque self-pity, Florentino Ariza callously dumps her once he has decided to focus all his amorous intention on wooing the widow Daza. After news of América’s death, when Florentino Ariza is on his pleasure cruise with Fermina, we learn that: ‘At a certain moment, the pangs of grief for América Vicuña made him twist with pain, and he could not hold off the truth any longer: he locked himself in the bathroom and cried, slowly, until his last tear was shed. Only then did he have the courage to admit to himself how much he had loved her.’
Considering how love and cholera are so intertwined in this novel, and the fact that this symbiosis of love and disease — or love as a kind of disease — is flagged up throughout, it seems to me significant that the innocent América falls victim to the outrages of the much older, sophisticated figure of Florentino (whose name derives from the city that, more than any other, evokes the European Renaissance), just as the native Colombians fall victim to the plague of cholera, brought about, in large part, by passenger ships from Europe, in an epidemic that persists throughout the novel, even re-emerging at the very end — in spite of official denials — when Florentino and Fermina are enjoying each other on their way to the city of La Dorada, on the banks of the river Magdalena.
América’s teenage suicide, while Florentino and Fermina are slipping into a second adolescence on the river boat, seems to have been neglected by critics; perhaps it is considered too ‘uncomfortable’ an area to address in the work of a writer as lionised as Gabo, as he is known to Colombians and his devoted readers worldwide. But my objection to this oversight is based not merely on the sexual exploitation and subsequent dismissal América receives at the hands of her guardian; it is more that by minimising this part of the story we might miss something critical. Might it be that there is a deeper message here than merely pointing out the tragedy in which Florentino is implicated, and is found so severely wanting? I scour the internet for articles about América Vicuña and find very little of any significance, and then I stumble across a piece by the Venezuelan writer Federico Vegas, who has an essay in El Nacional about this very subject, titled, promisingly ‘De Lolita Haze a América Vicuña’, in which he draws comparison between the two nymphets (Nabokov’s term). In his essay, he is at pains to point out the seismic importance of Lolita in Humbert Humbert’s life, the fact that she is the focal point of his obsession from start to finish. On the other hand, the episode with America Vicuña is, in the context of Love in the Time of Cholera, nothing more than an anecdote near the end of a long novel. Indeed, as Vegas points out, Florentino’s happiness that América has left no clue of his role in her death seems to occupy more space than the sorrow he endures as a result of it.
Vegas, like me, is returning to Love in the Time of Cholera half a lifetime after his first reading of it. He is a self-confessed fan; Gabo, he says, is one of his four favourite writers, the others being Cervantes, Nabokov and, a little strangely, perhaps, Truman Capote. Like me, he is shocked by the lack of attention paid by critics to the episode with América Vicuña. How, he asks, did he not take in this episode the first time round? While not suggesting that the novelist shares the moral turpitude of his protagonist, ‘he is responsible for the consequences of his actions, or of the effect that they produce on his readers.’ The episode with América seems abhorrent to him — the rape and corruption of a child, effectively and in fact. But there is more than one way of reading the América Vicuña story: one of these reflects a major shift in the treatment of and intolerance towards sexual abuse over the past forty years; another is, rather shamefully, the veneration in which García Márquez was held, and which, in the machista culture of Latin America, allowed such unsavoury details to be swept under the carpet, especially as an author of ‘magical realist’ novels — that is, novels in which the bar for the suspension of disbelief is raised indefinitely. However, this latter explanation doesn’t convince me any more than the first. A third, more appealing possibility is that the episode is there for another purpose entirely, and that seems bound up, among other things, with her name.
García Márquez always chose the names of his characters with great care, and it seems to me no coincidence that the two main protagonists, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, have names that begin and end with the same letters, and when uttered together produce a particular sort of music, a pleasing symmetry of rhyme and assonance.
América Vicuña — another name that echoes around the vowel ‘a’ — is remarkable in that it bears the name of the continent, as well as almost containing the Spanish word for a cradle (cuna). A vicuña or vicuna, is the name of a species of small camelid ruminant, similar to the guanaco, which might also be significant, in the context. While América is not an uncommon first name in Latin America, deriving from Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) the Italian navigator who made three voyages to the Caribbean and South America between 1499 and 1504 and whose name was thereafter appropriated to refer to both continents, North and South, it is certainly no accident that the author uses it here to refer to the child who is dumped by her protector-abuser and who, ‘in the grip of mortal depression . . . swallows a flask of laudanum stolen from the school infirmary.’
Once again, towards the end of the book, we witness the interjection of the Old World on the New, as a second wave of cholera brings with it death and corruption, echoing the systematic unleashing of diseases such as smallpox — not to mention the blight of slavery — on the indigenous peoples of the continent. How significant, then, that as Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza are reunited in love, the approach to the city whose name was taken from the ‘El Dorado’ of legend, fabled as the target for all of Europe’s lust for gold, should also provide the setting for the sudden appearance of bodies floating in the murky waters of the river: ‘At night they were awakened not by the siren songs of manatees on the sandy banks but by the nauseating stench of corpses floating down to the sea. For there were no more wars or epidemics, but the swollen bodies still floated by. The Captain, for once, was solemn: “We have orders to tell the passengers that they were accidental drowning victims.” Instead of the screeching of the parrots and the riotous noise of invisible monkeys, which at one time had intensified the stifling midday heat, all that was left was the vast silence of the ravaged land.’ The sinister way in which the epidemic is denied by the authorities (‘We have orders . . .’) foreshadows the increasingly shrill denials of Jair Bolsonaro — nicknamed the ‘Tropical Trump’ — that COVID is a hoax, and that he personally, would have no qualms about contracting the disease: ‘In my particular case, because of my background as an athlete, I wouldn’t need to worry if I was infected by the virus. I wouldn’t feel anything or at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold.’
Back on the river boat, Florentino and Fermina have become intimate, though Fermina takes the precaution of imbibing regular drafts of anisette to prepare the way. Kissing her, Florentino recognises ‘the sour smell of old age’ but ‘consoled himself with the thought that he must give off the same odor, except that he was four years older, and she must have detected it in him, with the same emotion.’
Still reeling from that fervent and malodorous kiss, they take the leap, and become lovers. This is achieved with admirable directness on Fermina’s part, who, a glass of anisette in one hand and a cigarette in the other, allows Florentino ‘to explore her withered neck with his fingertips, her bosom armoured in metal stays, her hips with their decaying bones, her thighs with their raging veins.’ No doubt bored by the half-century’s dead weight of his anticipation, she tells him: ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it . . . but let’s do it like grownups.’ The description of their lovemaking is not pretty, as Florentino surveys the woman he has waited for all this time: ‘Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her ribs were covered by a flabby skin as pale and cold as a frog’s.’ He tells her he has remained a virgin for her. She doesn’t believe him, but likes the spirited way in which he says it. This is all very well, but consider that he then remembers the way ‘he had often taken care of América Vicuña, whose diaper smell awakened maternal instincts in him, but he was disturbed at the idea that she disliked his odor: the smell of a dirty old man. But all that belonged in the past.’
I find it significant that it is only after the news of América’s death comes through that the couple finally attempt to make love; significant, again, that after his well-documented sexual adventures with six hundred and twenty-two women, and after half a century of anticipating this precise moment, Florentino cannot get it up. ‘She searched for him where he was not, she searched again without hope, and she found him, unarmed. “It’s dead,” he said.’
After all the waiting, Florentino’s impotence — temporary though it is — comes almost as a relief. The paradox is not lost on the attentive reader, especially in the light of his last seduction by the sixteen-year-old América, in which he was forced to play the passive role.
And at the end of the book, the themes of love and cholera are reunited once more, as the river boat flies the yellow flag of contagion, and the lovers ply up and down the Magdalena. ‘How long,’ the captain asks Florentino Ariza — who is in fact the general manager of the river boat company, and therefore his boss — ‘can we keep up this goddamn coming and going.’ ‘Forever,’ he replies.
I would suggest that three related themes permeate this novel: love as contagion, as exemplified by Florentino Ariza’s lifelong affliction; the corruption of innocence, as boatloads of Europeans bring the plague of cholera to the once virgin lands of America, just as América Vicuña is plundered and then abandoned; and cholera as rage: rage at the exploitation and neglect of the native population, when the fatalities caused by war and disease are made invisible, and the statistics of death merged. Elsewhere in García Márquez’s work, most famously at the massacre of workers at the banana plantation in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the statistics of death are foregrounded. The incident is based on actual events, when, in December 1928, under threats from the US government to ‘send in the marines’ in support of the United Fruit Company, who owned the plantation there, the Colombian army murdered an unknown number of workers in the town of Ciénaga. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, a total of 5,000 dead is mentioned. The Wikipedia entry on the massacre suggests fewer, but no one knows the real number of deaths.
During the opening weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic many of us tuned in every evening to hear the latest statistics of the newly infected and the dead. As the figures mounted, this morbid need to know became a habit, fed by a convention of news reporting in which any tragedy, any disaster, is measured by the number of its casualties.
This televised event was interesting for a number of reasons, not least because we now know that the statistics released each day in the solemn pantomime enacted by the Health Secretary, flanked on one side by the ghoulish Chris Witty and on the other by whoever was unfortunate enough to be dragged along for the press pummelling, were inaccurate, as there was not — and is still not— any reliable way of measuring the fatalities: no one has produced an algorithm to accurately record which of the ‘excess deaths’ are related to COVID and which are not (the term ‘excess deaths’ refers to those deaths above the figure normally to be expected for a given period among a population). Figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics indicated that the coronavirus was to blame for more than two-thirds of the excess deaths in England and Wales, based on the number of confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 reported on death certificates. According to an article in the New Scientist on 29 April, that left approximately a third of excess deaths unexplained. Some of these may have been coronavirus cases without obvious symptoms, or cases where doctors weren’t confident enough to mention COVID-19 on the death certificate, and these were left off the statistics for release by the government. A Financial Times analysis suggested that the virus had led to 45,000 deaths in the UK by 21st April, more than twice the official figure at that time, of 17,000. The statistics of death are confusing, and we may — and no doubt will — argue about them for a long time to come.
Now, imagine a world in which that situation is turned on its head, and no one, but no one, dies. Death takes a holiday. The statistics would then report on the absence of death. The round figure zero of those who have died, day after day. Such is the opening scenario of José Saramago’s Death At Intervals, his 2005 novel in which an epidemic of immortality strikes an unnamed country.
Among writers of the past fifty years, Saramago’s claim to fame might be made on the strength of his imaginative repertoire alone, but it is not only as a conjuror of ‘what if’ scenarios that he is remarkable: the writing too is masterful, with long twisting sentences and slyly perturbing dialogue, such as the conversation near the start of the novel, when, in this Catholic land, a cardinal berates the prime minister for a speech he has just made, in which he stated that the country will accept the challenge of the body’s immortality, if that is God’s will. The cardinal is profoundly shocked, since ‘without death, there is no resurrection, and without resurrection, there is no church.’ God, he suggests, would not commit the mortal sin of suicide. With deft irony, Saramago then has the cardinal suffer an acute attack of appendicitis: he is rushed to hospital for an emergency operation, and as he is sucked down the the tunnel of anaesthesia, ‘in the fleeting moment that precedes a total loss of consciousness . . . he thought that if, despite everything, he did die, that would mean, paradoxically, that he had vanquished death.’
In a recent article on reading Camus’ La Peste in the context of the current plague, Jacqueline Rose writes that the statistics of death hold a grip over us because such knowledge delivers the false impression of being on top of a situation that we know to be out of control, exacerbated in certain countries by government incompetence. ‘Counting,’ she writes, ‘is at once a scientific endeavour and a form of magical thinking’, and this may be so, but it does not help, since having the numbers in front of us does nothing to allay our sense of impotence. In Camus’s novel, we are reminded, certain people begin questioning the statistics, wondering if they are all, in fact, attributable to the plague. What, they ask, would be the normal rate of death for a city of this size? Questioning the accuracy of the official statistics in this way was precisely the route chosen by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in their attempts to make the pandemic ‘go away’.
However world leaders minimised the threat at the start of the outbreak — including Boris Johnson famously suggesting that the British people ‘take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures’ — the people themselves, faced with a lack of available information about Coronavirus, wanted to find out what might be coming to them. During those early weeks, sales of Camus’ novel rose exponentially, as did lesser works such as Stephen King’s The Stand and Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness. Netflix recorded massive numbers watching movies such as Outbreak and, especially, Contagion, one of those top-heavy Hollywood flops that labours so frantically to crank up the tension that the viewer is beset by a fatigue as deadly as any virus long before the closing credits have started to roll.
Early on in the pandemic, I was invited by the Argentine writer Jorge Fondebrider to contribute to a joint global venture, involving mostly Latin American writers, but also a handful from Europe and other parts of the world, all of us sending in diary entries over the three months of March-May, 2020. The entries written in other languages were translated into Spanish and all of the pieces will eventually be published, in homage to Defoe, as a Journal of the Plague Year (Diario del año de la peste). The exercise of writing and sending my reports about the situation in Wales to Jorge, as well as the general obsession with plague and contagion that was rife at the time — but which already seems to be receding, no doubt prematurely — caused me to re-visit a couple of other works about contagion, written by authors other than Camus.
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Contagion was a recurring theme in José Saramago’s oeuvre. Ten years before Death At Intervals, he published Blindness — which was later made into a well-crafted and underrated Hollywood film, directed by Fernando Meirelles and starring Julianne Moore. Blindness is about an epidemic in which the entire population loses their sight. It is a truly terrifying novel, which also offers a devastating exploration of human depravity and human resilience.
The first victim of the plague is struck blind while sitting behind the wheel of his car, waiting at traffic lights. The lights turn to green just as the man loses his sight, and begins shouting: ‘I am blind, I am blind.’ Amid the furious blasting of horns, a few pedestrians come to lend assistance. One of these offers to drive him home, and after helping the blind man into his flat, steals his car. The contagion is underway: the car thief becomes infected, as does the ophthalmologist the first man visits with his wife the next day. Overnight, the doctor, and everyone who was in his waiting room when the first man appeared, turns blind. There is no pathology to the blindness; no lesions, no signs of ocular infection. The eyes of the blind appear normal. The only person not affected by blindness is the doctor’s wife, but when this first group of infected cases are rounded up and escorted to an empty mental hospital on the outskirts of the city, to be kept in quarantine, she feigns blindness so as not to be separated from her husband. This act of selflessness proves crucial, both to the well-being of the small group that becomes the focus of Saramago’s story, but also to our understanding of the disease as the symptom of a deeper affliction, a blindness embedded within the wider society. No explanation of the blindness is offered at this stage but, this being a novel by Saramago, we might infer the loss of a coherent moral compass, the absence of all direction not dictated by material greed. The epidemic, which spreads through proximity to an infected person, becomes known as ‘the white evil.’
Sequestered in the cavernous hospital, the small group of blind struggle to make sense of their new environment. No one in the novel is named, only described as they are initially introduced: the first blind man, the thief, the doctor, the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the man with the eye patch. In the hospital, the inmates receive food, which is delivered by the soldiers who guard them, but they risk being shot if they venture too near to the gate, since the soldiers are terrified of becoming as blind as their charges. Inevitably, the numbers of infected grow, and the hospital fills up. The new arrivals tell of catastrophe and social breakdown; of aeroplanes and buses crashing, of all government collapsing as the country’s leaders succumb to blindness.
Among the newcomers are a group of men for whom incarceration provides the opportunity for personal gain through the exploitation of others, a familiar practice across human history, and the starting point, we might reflect, of all expansionist and colonial regimes. (In the The Walking Dead, before it jumped the shark, the oppressive micro-empire founded by Negan reflects the same impulse towards explicitly gendered domination and abusive control). The men arm themselves — one has smuggled in a pistol, and the others take apart beds and furniture to provide iron rods — and impose a regime of subjugation, or slavery by any other name. They confiscate the daily food deliveries, for which they demand payment from the other inmates, first through the handing over of jewellery and money, and later through the supply of sexual favours by the women of the other wards. During a night of sexual violence, one of the women in the first ward is killed, and the one sighted person in the hospital, the doctor’s wife, takes a decision that will change the course of all their lives. She also reveals that she can see, a fact that has already been surmised by the sharper members of her little troupe.
Saramago’s trademark narrative style, embedding dialogue within the main body of the paragraph, superimposing multiple voices amid descriptive and reflective passages, takes some getting used to, but is remarkably well suited to the kind of story he chooses to tell. There are numerous occasions in which things taken for granted by those who can see unravel when attempted by blind men and women. The chaos incited by greed (or ‘blind self-interest’), the brutal conflict over food, the squalor of the latrines occasioned by the inability of the blind to clean themselves, all of these are described mercilessly, as Saramago sketches a society gone to hell, the corridors of the hospital crowded with bodies crashing into one another, or else crawling along the floor amid the rising tide of filth, fingers feeling for the walls.
When a fire breaks out, the surviving blind escape into a world which is now utterly sunk into ruin and desperation. Led by the doctor’s wife, the group wander through the city, in a fashion reminiscent of those World War One film clips, in which the victims of a poison gas attack shuffle forward, each with his hands on the shoulder of the one in front. Finding refuge in an empty shop, the doctor’s wife leaves the others behind and goes in search of food. Most of the stores have been looted, but in the underground storeroom of one supermarket, she stocks up on chorizo sausage, black bread and water. Driven by hunger, she takes a few bites of the sausage. In the frantic passage that follows, she starts back through the supermarket, three shopping bags slung over each arm, and the blind, though they cannot see her, smell the goods she is carrying, ‘and in no time a blind man was shouting Who’s eating sausage around here’. The doctor’s wife is mauled by the grasping arms of the blind, and she ‘broke into flight, colliding, jostling, knocking people over, with a devil-may-care attitude that was wholly reprehensible, for this is not the way to treat blind people who have more than enough reason to be unhappy’, and is pursued breathless and stumbling out into the street, out into the pouring rain, where the scent of sausage now attracts a pack of feral dogs, who, however, soon disband (the streets, after all, provide enough cadavers to keep them going) save one, which licks her face, licks her tears away, and which she befriends after collapsing in rage and terror at the side of the road.
The human pack is subsequently joined by this ‘dog of tears’ in their trek across the city towards the doctor and his wife’s apartment, where they eventually settle, as an extended family of sorts, including the owner, the first man and his wife, the girl with the dark glasses, the old man with the eye patch, the boy with the squint, the litany of characters seemingly comprising all of humanity within the confines of the apartment. And it is their camaraderie and gentleness towards each other that redeems them, setting them apart from the desperate hordes of the blind who forage, fight and fornicate in the streets below.
Throughout the novel, there is an extraordinary awareness of language, and the way in which everyday speech is rooted within the visual. Sometimes this is done in such a way as to remind the reader how the normal order has been turned upside down; how things that have always been done a certain way must now be done differently. How familiar this is to us all now, in lockdown; perhaps most poignantly by the absence of touch or embrace, our inability to hug our loved ones — even, tragically, the impossibility, for many, of visiting their dying relatives in hospital. In Saramago’s novel, we are encouraged to reflect on the inversion of normality through those everyday sayings that take sight for granted: ‘Just imagine,’ says the girl with the dark glasses, stumbling on the staircase to her family apartment, on a return visit with the doctor’s wife, ‘stairs that I used to go up and down with my eyes closed.’ Then, the narration continues, segueing into the voice of an invisible commentator: ‘clichés are like that, they are insensitive to the thousand subtleties of meaning, this one for example, does not know the difference between closing one’s eyes and being blind.’ This sort of meta-commentary is not unusual in Saramago, who sometimes introduces an omniscient observer as an additional perspective to that offered by the doctor’s wife, whose vision, as the only sighted character, is otherwise the main point of view on offer. These subtle shifts of perspective are offered throughout, adding a kind of displacement, as though the reader is both inside the movement of the narrative and outside, looking in.
A shift in perspective is adopted again, when, shortly after arriving at her apartment, the doctor’s wife and the two other women in the group step out onto the balcony and wash away ‘the unbearable filth of the soul’ under the torrential rain in an act of ablution that, in less skilful hands, might appear too crassly symbolic, but here deftly captures and celebrates the miracle of their survival:
Perhaps in the building opposite, behind those closed windows some blind people, men, women, roused by the noise of the constant beating of the rain, with their head pressed against the cold window-panes covering with their breath on the glass the dullness of the night, remember the time when, like now, they last saw rain falling from the sky. They cannot imagine that there are moreover three naked women out there, as naked as when they came into the world, they seem to be mad, they must be mad, people in their right mind do not start washing on a balcony exposed to the view of the neighbourhood . . . my God how the rain is pouring down on them, how it trickles between their breasts, how it lingers and disappears into the darkness of the pubis, how it finally drenches and flows over the thighs, perhaps we have judged them wrongly, or perhaps we are unable to see this the most beautiful and glorious thing that has happened in the history of the city, a sheet of foam flows from the floor of the balcony, if only I could go with it, falling interminably, clean, purified, naked.
So much of what we say and do in the normal run of life comes under question when confronted by a turnaround in everyday circumstance. The cretinous appeals of Boris and his pals to come together with a ‘wartime spirit’ were brought into sharp perspective in the early days of the pandemic. Once, in mid-March, my wife visited our local Asda, in search of toilet rolls, to be confronted by row upon row of empty shelves. Ditto pasta and tinned tomatoes. At checkout, she commented in friendly fashion to the young man on the till, that it was a shame people took it upon themselves to ransack the place, rather than simply take sufficient for their needs. ‘It’s every man for himself, love,’ came the swift and hostile retort. So much for the spirit of the Blitz.
In subtle ways, Blindness challenges our preconceived notions about community and the individual. The underlying message of the novel, if it is not banal to speak in such terms, is one that suggests the obligations of the individual towards the wider society. Born to landless peasants, who were too poor to send him to grammar school, Saramago entered technical school at the age of twelve and worked for many years as a car mechanic. It was barely surprising, therefore, that he was for most of his adult life active within the Communist Party of Portugal. He remained unapologetic for the communist regimes of the twentieth century, claiming that, as an historical fact, the church’s history was more deplorable still, and that he was ‘hormonally’ committed to a communist ideology. How this seeps into Blindness is not difficult to see. The society that breeds the pandemic of sightlessness is steeped in greed and intolerance. In an interview from 2008, Saramago claimed: ‘I don’t see the veneer of civilisation, but society as it is. With hunger, war, exploitation, we’re already in hell. With the collective catastrophe of total blindness, everything surfaces — positive and negative. It’s a portrait of how we are.’ The crux is ‘who has the power and who doesn’t; who controls the food supply and exploits the rest.’ These sentiments recall those he uttered in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1998: ‘This same schizophrenic humanity that has the capacity to send instruments to a planet to study the composition of its rocks can with indifference note the deaths of millions of people from starvation. Going to Mars seems easier than going to visit one’s neighbour.’
The underlying belief in human goodness evident at the close of the book might appear at odds with the overtly pessimistic tone of much of the rest, but this paradox surely reflects the ambivalence present in the lives of ordinary people under duress. A similar ambivalence and accompanying unease provoked questions among many people during the COVID lockdown. How are we going to emerge from all this? Will we learn anything from the process? Will we begin to change our habits, be more respectful of the environment, and of each other? Speculation seems pointless, and the question of ‘how will we emerge from this’ brings to mind an enigmatic minor character in Blindness, a writer who has squatted the home of the first blind man and his wife, and who occupies himself by writing, in ball point pen, an account of all that he cannot yet see. He writes even though he cannot see what he has written, perhaps because ‘a writer manages to acquire in life the patience he needs to write.’ His parting words to the doctor’s wife, after showing her his work, are: ‘Don’t lose yourself, don’t let yourself be lost’, which, we are told, ‘were unexpected, enigmatic words that did not seem to fit the occasion.’
The redemptive power of love is a recurrent theme in Saramago’s work, and Blindness, in spite of everything, ends on a note of hope. The role of the female protagonist in leading the group to safety stands in marked contrast to the moral indigence of some of the male figures, especially during the novel’s bleaker moments, of which there are many. I would stop short of suggesting that she is meant to personify saintly self-sacrifice, but she certainly rises above the petty concerns that preoccupy most of her blind companions. When her husband sleeps with the girl with the dark glasses, she readily forgives them both; in contrast, she responds to the outrages committed against the women in the hospital with swift and deadly vengeance. Certainly, the love and tenderness the individuals in the group feel for each other provide a release from the relentless misery into which they have fallen, but it is a release based on the scraps of humanity the group is able to muster, thanks, in large respect, to the doctor’s wife ability to see. Does this suggest a sort of messianic role for her? Does she exemplify what Christians refers to as Grace? I am not sure, and it would be strange if it were so, at least in the work of an atheist such as Saramago; but her own words perhaps serve best to provide an answer, when, having regained his sight, she responds to her husband, the doctor’s, question: ‘Why did we become blind, I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.’
This essay first appeared in Wales Arts Review on 14 August under the title of ‘Contagious Realities’. Part Two, in which I consider Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera will follow.
Reading over the third set of entries, from May, the events described already appear distant, dreamlike, as though they happened in an adjacent or parallel world. Did Trump really suggest we inject ourselves with detergent? It seems like the kind of thing that would happen in only the most abject of dreams, but then again, much of what has happened these past few months would have been unthinkable last New Year’s Eve. I don’t know whether I will continue my journal. Like everyone else I’m pretty sick of the whole damn thing now. And whether we ‘return to normality’ in any recognisable way is another question engaging media pundits. I offer only the merest commentary on that.
The pandemic in the USA takes a dive to new depths of absurdity when Donald Trump, the World’s Most Important Human, recommends injecting detergent as a cure for COVID-19. We are all aghast at the stupendous ignorance of this claim. Here in the UK, George Monbiot’s tweet summed it up: ‘Two million years of hominid evolution, and it comes to this.’ Trump continues to blame China for the virus, whether it came from their nasty chiroptophagia, or else the nasty people in the famed research facility in Wuhan. ‘Nasty’ — a word infrequently used by English speakers above the age of eight —remains the President’s favourite descriptor for anything he does not like.
Whatever its source of COVID-19, the market in Wuhan does sound like a grim place, reminiscent of the public market in Las Animas bay, in Love in the Time of Cholera, where ‘. . . the offal from the adjoining slaughterhouse was . . . thrown away there — severed heads, rotting viscera, animal refuse that floated, in sunshine and starshine, in a swamp of blood.’
But China-hating and the bullying of Sino-American journalists won’t get Trump through this disaster, however hard he tries to shift the blame. The laggardly way in which the US government, and its counterpart in the UK, came to respond to the pandemic will no doubt be exposed to scrutiny, although I do wonder whether those responsible will ever be held to account. Despite plenty of warning, the UK government, under its floundering buffoon of a Prime Minister, refused to take the advice of the WHO, and put business invests before people’s lives.
Yesterday, in Parliament, the new leader of the Labour opposition, Keir Starmer, questioned the Prime Minister’s claim that ‘many people were looking at the “apparent success” of the Government’s approach only to learn that, tragically, at least 29,427* people in the UK have now lost their lives to this dreadful virus. That is now the highest death toll in Europe and the second highest in the world. That is not success, or apparent success, so can the Prime Minister tell us: how on earth did it come to this?’ Johnson replied that it was not straightforward comparing death statistics and added that there will be a time to look at what went wrong.Starmer replied that ‘many people are concluding that the answer to my question is that the UK was slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on tracing and slow on the supply of protective equipment.’ Johnson blustered in non-response; he had clearly found the floundering and intellectually challenged Jeremy Corbyn a much easier opponent that Starmer, an internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer. Starmer then asked why has it taken so long to improve the situation in care homes? Johnson responded that there had been a ‘palpable improvement’. But there has been nothing of the kind; and if the number of deaths has fallen, it is because in many care homes most of the residents have died.
A local effect of the COVID Pandemic is that hostilities between the Scottish and Welsh governments on the one side, and the English administration on the other, have become increasingly perilous. It has emerged that the UK has stopped its Foreign & Commonwealth Office and overseas networks from helping Scotland and Wales to access PPE. Even the New York Times reports that Scottish and Welsh officials have raised concerns that the NHS in England is being prioritised for personal protective equipment, though Downing Street denies the accusations.
* This figure continued to mount. On the 20 May it had risen to 35,704; as I post this, it is over 45,000.
Last week Prime Minister Johnson changed the UK Government’s tagline from ‘Stay at home’ to ‘Stay alert’. The problem is that no one knows what that means. Should one be alert while going out to work, or alert while working from home? Who can go to work and who should stay at home? Must everyone be equally alert, or should some be more alert than others? The Welsh and Scottish Governments do not pursue the ‘Stay alert’ policy, telling their citizens to continue to ‘Stay at home’. The Welsh government then announces that English people, however ‘alert’ they might be, are not welcome to come and take their exercise (walking and cycling) in Wales, or to visit beauty spots in Snowdonia and other of our national parks. The Welsh rural police are delighted: this is their dream scenario. They can now go around with impunity telling visitors from Liverpool and Birmingham to ‘bugger off and stay at home’.
Meanwhile, traditional British values are maintained: sales of alcohol rocket and eating disorders flourish. Thousands of people attempt to acquire a dog or other pet; they want company in their solitude during the lockdown. Animal welfare groups are concerned that when the lockdown ends, many of these pets will simply be abandoned.A female transport worker in London dies after being spat at by a man who claimed he had the virus. It is revealed that BAME peopleare more susceptible to COVID-19 than others, though no one yet knows why.
President Trump, the World’s Most Important Human, announces that he is taking the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic against COVID-19.‘I’m taking it for about a week and a half now and I’m still here, I’m still here,’ was his surprise announcement. There is no evidence hydroxychloroquine can fight coronavirus, and regulators warn the drug may cause heart problems. The Donald doesn’t care. Besides, since he lies about most things as a matter of course, why would anyone believe him now? He might be taking it, but then again, he might not. And who cares anyway? Well, millions of Americans do, because if the President recommends it, many will follow his example. Although The Donald has a small investment in Sanofi, one of the companies that manufactures hydroxcholoquine, it is really very small, and has nothing to do with his promoting the drug.
Back in the UK, Captain Tom Moore, who vowed to walk 100 laps of his garden in order to raise money for National Health Service charities, has been granted a knighthood by the Queen. ‘Captain Tom’, as he is universally known in the UK media, captured the minds and hearts of the British people by his valiant walk around the garden. The occasion of his 100th birthday was marked with an RAF flypast as well as birthday greetings from the Queen and Prime Minister. He has been made an honorary Colonel by the 1st Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, in which he served during World War Two, and he has received an estimated 140,000 birthday cards. In all this jollity, you might be forgiven for forgetting that the NHS, ravaged by cuts imposed by successive Conservative governments, should not require charitable donations to keep its doctors and nurses safe and its hospitals in working order. My father dedicated his life to working in an NHS that provided care ‘from the cradle to the grave’ and my daughter is currently following in his footsteps.I am sure Captain Tom is a very fine fellow, but must his story be accompanied by proclamations of gung-ho jingoism, and the lavishing of praise on our National Health Service from a government that has spent the past ten years undermining it?
I am not convinced by the argument put forward at the outbreak of the pandemic that the quality of life might improve afterwards;that our citizens will have been so positively affected by the quiet streets, the clean air, the slow incursion of the natural world into city life, a respect towards others’ personal space and a greater awareness of the benefits of silence — that they will insist on retaining those benefits when the plague has run its course. I am fairly certain that everything will revert to the way it was before, but because of certain restrictions and the necessary intrusion of the state into our private lives during the pandemic — which no doubt will continue, with a repression of certain liberties under the guise that they are no longer safe — things will all be a little bit worse.
Continuing with my journal entries over the first three months of COVID-19, here are two entries for the month of April. During this period the roads around the city were gloriously silent, and many more birds appeared in the garden; indeed, it seemed to me that birdsong was louder than before, though perhaps that was due to the absence of nearby traffic. At this stage we didn’t know quite how bad things were going to get, although it was soon apparent that the UK was overtaking Italy and Spain to become the worst-affect country in Europe, despite having had more time to prepare for the pandemic.
Daughter no. 2 lives in London and works as a fundraiser for several London hospitals, including St Thomas’s, where Boris is laid up. Since just before the lockdown, she has been with us here in Cardiff, working from home, and she receives hundreds of messages every day from companies and individuals wishing to donate to the hospitals administered by her employer. One man wants to donate something specifically to Saint Thomas’s, because that is where Boris is, but my daughter tells him this cannot be done, you can only donate to the NHS Trust of which St Thomas’s is a part. The man doesn’t like her reply. Other companies ring in with offers of gifts, specifically for the Prime Minister. How can they be certain their gift gets to Boris? Can the hospital send a photo of Boris (with nurses) consuming their gift? Can they send a photo of the prostate Boris being spoon-fed their gift?
Daughter no 1, a junior doctor who was at the time of the outbreak working in paediatrics, is re-assigned to a general medical ward at another, bigger hospital, where she will begin to treat COVID patients. But she is given three days off, then another three days off, before she starts. There isn’t enough protective equipment; there aren’t enough masks; there aren’t enough gowns. There aren’t enough tests being carried out, and the tests that exist don’t seem very accurate. The tests show a 30% rate of false negatives, which means patients are being sent back out into the community with the virus. The Welsh government order 5,000 test kits from Roche Diagnostic but they don’t turn up. The Welsh government gets angry, makes accusations. Roche Diagnostics say they never had a contract with the Welsh Government for any test kits. You did; we didn’t; you did; we didn’t. This goes on for a couple of days. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Independence party, attacks the Welsh government for failing to locate the missing test kits and refusing to say where they are. There is reason to believe that the 5,000 test kits have been appropriated by Public Health England. The Scottish also claims that orders for protective equipment have been waylaid by the English. How we love to stoke the fires of old enmities.
On the 12th of April, Boris is released from hospital and retires to the Prime Minister’s official country residence at Chequers, in Buckinghamshire. He admits thatwhile in intensive care things ‘could have gone either way’ and heaps praise on the staff who looked after him. He singles out two nurses, who stood by his bedside night and day, so he says, and saved his life. One is Jenny, from New Zealand, and the other Luis, from Portugal. I cannot help but wonder whether Luis is looking forward to being kicked out of the UK once we ‘Get Brexit Done’, according to Boris’ wishes.
The metaphors of war and battle are being bandied about as though we were re-living the Blitz of 1940. However, wecould do without the military metaphors. This is not a war.A BBC documentary on the virus takes us into a COVID ward in London’s University College Hospital, where the correspondent presents his report unequivocally in terms of war: “This is the frontline in a war,” he begins. “Every day some battles are won and some are lost.” During his hospitalisation reports on the Prime Minister’s illness are riddled with metaphors of conflict: “He is a fighter and will beat this virus.” Together, “we will be able to win this battle”. “You fight for a swift recovery.” “You are a fighter, and you will overcome this challenge.” Visitors to London parks have been branded ‘traitors’, which is the same taunt used against Remainers in the Battle of Brexit.
By heaping up the metaphors of violent struggle and resistance, language creates a template, or a cut-out in the mind for an enemy to step in, and once we have an enemy — in this case, the virus — we tend to link it with particular groups of people or individuals. The Chinese. The incomers. The second home owners. The foreigners. The others. It feeds beautifully into the UK’s obsession with Brexit, and Trump’s current discourse on China. On 14th April Trump announces that he will stop US funding of the World Health Organisation, for thealleged crime of being China-centric. In the UK, COVID-19 and Brexit have something in common: both of them target the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
As the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the world, the Argentine writer Jorge Fondebrider wrote to friends and fellow writers around the world, asking for contributions to a Journal of the Plague Year (in homage to Defoe’s work of that title). Most of the contributors were from Latin America, but others lived in Europe or Asia. Jorge, an old friend, is indefatigable in organising people; all of the pieces were translated into Spanish, and will eventually be published in a single volume. The criteria were simply that the entries be under 500 words, and the resulting work, tracking the pandemic and the ways that different governments responded in diverse countries, makes for fascinating reading. Over the next three days, I will be posting my own contributions to the collection, made over the months of March, April and May as a record of my own experience of living with the pandemic in Wales.
As soon as the news broke that the plague had arrived in Europe, it was obvious it would come to Brexit Island, but our government was in denial. They gabbled on about the globally repudiated tactic of herd immunity. They refused to join forces with their EU counterparts in focus groups dedicated to resisting the pandemic, and they ignored the World Health Organisation recommendations for immediate lockdown. However, none of the efforts of Prime Minister Johnson or his pals to distance themselves from the place they fondly call ‘the continent’ was ever going to stop this thing from crossing the Channel — and with a vengeance, given the head start our leaders had allowed it. The extent of our Prime Minister’s lack of interest during the weeks before the lockdown is shocking: he didn’t turn up at five consecutive key COBRA meetings to discuss policy on the pandemic, and one senior government adviser told The Sunday Times that Boris ‘didn’t work weekends’ and ‘there was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning.’ For Boris, resistance to the plague was merely a hindrance to the more pressing agenda of Brexit. However, it became apparent to many observers that the government’s laggardly approach was likely to have serious repercussions on the British population, such that the UK might turn out to be the European country most affected by the pandemic, and with the highest number of casualties.
On 20th March Boris announces the closure of the pubs. ‘We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub,’ he said. The right-wing, Brexit-loving newspaper The Sun reports this rather differently: ‘Mr Johnson said it went against what he called ‘the inalienable free-born right of people born in England to go to the pub’. In this version, as Fintan O’Toole points out in an article in The Guardian, ‘the freedom to go to the pub was conferred by genetics and history, not on the “people of the United Kingdom” or “the British people”, but on “people born in England”. It does not apply to Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish people and certainly not to the 9.4 million people living in the UK who were born abroad. It is a particular Anglo-Saxon privilege.’ So, we — or rather, the English — are not going to the pub. I don’t care. I don’t drink any more. But that is not the point: as O’Toole reminds us, this outburst of Johnson’s was about something else: ‘What Johnson was really evoking was a very specific English sense of exceptionalism, a fantasy of personal freedom as a marker of ethnic and national identity.’ He was flagging up the fact that ‘we’ (the English) are special and different, not like those ‘continentals’. So we will, reluctantly, stay at home and not go to the pub, but we won’t impose a full lockdown just yet. We will wait and see, and Boris will continue to shake hands with whoever he likes because he is Boris, who at the age of five told his sister Rachel that his ambition was to be ‘king of the world.’
As the recipient of another man’s liver, I knew I would be one of those persons deemed ‘at risk’. I take immunosuppressants and therefore, in theory, am more susceptible to catching nasty things. I email my consultant and ask his advice. He tells me to follow government guidelines, and that I will shortly receive a letter with instructions about ‘shielding’, a new term to me, but one that will soon become very familiar.
I live in a house close to Cardiff city centre with my wife and daughter no. 1, who is a junior doctor, and living with us while saving to buy her own place. I am a university professor and walk into work most days, up the river and across the park. A pleasant walk. I am reasonably fit and visit the gym frequently. I walk my dog in the park. We get out at weekends. We live an active life.
When the plague comes to our island I decide not to go into work. I tell my Head of School that I will work from home as from 16th March. Daughter no. 2 visits us from London just before the lockdown is announced. Her employers there tell her she can work from home, and since she is here, she stays with us in Cardiff. We are all four at home then, for a few days. On Sunday 22nd March we drive to the mountains near my natal village and go for a long hike. We do not realise it will be our last excursion of this kind for a long time. On Monday 23rd March the university announces that it will close, and that if anyone wants to retrieve anything from their office they should do so now. I drive in and collect my plants, drive home. In the evening Boris announces to the nation in an evening broadcast that the lockdown has begun. He is in Churchillian mode, trying very hard to do serious and sober. The next day daughter no. 1 leaves home and moves in with a medic friend. She works in a local hospital and doesn’t want to infect me or her mother with the plague.
On the 1st April, as foretold by my consultant, I receive a letter from the Welsh Government telling me that as a person with ‘an existing health issue’ I need to take extra steps to avoid catching the plague. If I live with other people (i.e. my wife or daughter no. 2) I should ‘try to keep away from them as much as you can. Try not to be in the same room. If you have to be in the same room try and keep a window open. Keep three steps away . . . Do not sleep in the same bed if you can avoid it . . . Use different bathrooms if you can. If you share a bathroom, clean it after every use. Avoid using the kitchen at the same time as others and eat your meals in separate rooms. Clean all cups, plates and cutlery thoroughly.’
We are still allowed to exercise, and to take the dog for walks. I take my ancient dog, Bruno, for an early stroll by the River Taff, which divides the city in two. The path along the Taff doubles as a cycle track. As we climb onto it from the river bank, where we have been watching the swans, a cyclist, speeding towards us at thirty metres’ distance yells: ‘Get out the bloody way!’ I am so astonished at his rudeness that I am temporarily lost for words. The cyclist has swished past and is heading for the bridge. All I can see of him are his taut, jigging buttocks and his pumping legs. ‘Fuck off, you lycra-clad Nazi’ I yell, finally enunciating a phrase I have been dying to utter for some years now.Passers-by stop and stare, and follow my gaze upstream towards the cyclist. I am willing him to stop. I want him to return so we can have a proper confrontation. The adrenaline is racing through me. I want to rough him up, show him what’s what. The image of a 63 year old man wrestling with a wiry young sporting type on the sidewalk is not very becoming, I’ll admit, but I am fuming. What has come over me? Plague madness? Fortunately the man doesn’t return in response to my taunt. I shuffle home, pondering what might have been.
Boris comes down with the plague. Hardly surprising, considering the way he’s been ignoring his own advice about social distancing and shaking hands with everyone. Why’s it called social distancing anyway? Why isn’t it called personal distancing?He falls ill, and then, dramatically, gets taken into hospital, and onto an intensive care unit. The nation holds its breath.
Yesterday, to celebrate the end of the five mile travel limit imposed by the Welsh government during lockdown, we drove to the Black Mountains and followed the Grwyne Fechan towards its source below Waun Fach. On the way upstream, I spotted a ram’s horn lying amid the fern, and although on most occasions I would simply have glanced at it and moved on, yesterday – perhaps because we have been away from wild countryside for so long – I had to have it. I took it back home and soaked it overnight in bleach and water. In the morning I scrubbed it with wire wool, and to my great surprise and joy, found within it a smaller, proto horn that slides perfectly inside the larger one. I supposed at first this was the original infant horn of the ram, but Mrs Blanco suggests it is, rather, the next horn, which will grow inside the old horn, and eventually displace it. This seems convincing; however, checking online, I discover that rams do not shed their horns, but that the horn contains within it a keratinous sheath, that is attached to the base of the skull. Is this what the smaller version of the horn is? I cannot find any images online of any structure that resembles the one in the photograph. Is my horn an anomaly, a freak of nature? Do any readers out there know anything about the biochemistry of the horn?
Ram horns grow in a helix, like the threads of a bolt, out from the head. Naturally, I couldn’t help but notice the structural resemblance to the ouroboros, symbol of the eternal cycle of renewal (and the icon of this site). The image of the ouroboros below is from a wood carving on the rood screen at the church of St Mary and St Egryn at Llanegryn, Gwynedd, which I photographed last November.
Quarantine means forty days, so Poems for staying at home is coming to an end, for now. Nearly all of the poems published here since April 20th can be found in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America. The final poem in the series, ‘Walking Backwards’, by the Guatemalan K’iche’ Maya poet Humberto Ak’Abal, is like a koan, self-explanatory in its simplicity, and yet not.
From time to time I walk backwards:
it’s my way of remembering.
If I were to walk only going forward,
I could tell you
what forgetting is.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Camino al revés
De vez en cuando camino al revés:
es mi modo de recordar.
Si caminara sólo hacia delante, t
e podría contar
cómo es el olvido.
Humberto Ak’Abal was born in 1952 in Momostenango, Guatemala, of the K’iche’ Maya people. He started out as a shepherd and weaver before leaving to find work in Guatemala City as a street vendor. He wrote in Maya-k’iche and Spanish, and his work has translated into many languages, including French, English, German, Arabic and Italian. Ak’Abal published twenty books of poetry, as well as three books of short stories, and two books of essays. Ak’Abal died suddenly in January 2019.
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