What could be worse than spending these last few weeks alone in a place defined by its public communal aspect? A fatuous statement of course—there is always a case worse off than your own. And I say alone, but that is also a bit of a conceptual stretch, as in fact I live here in a temporarily closed pub called the Paper Lantern with my mother and father. I am compelled to keep a ‘social’ distance even indoors, not because of the chance of infection, but because of the fraying tempers and deteriorating psyches of the three of us. In the first few days of the shut-down, my parents sat outside in the beer garden, my mother enjoying the sun, my father a little lost without his regulars, without his inventory of tasks, in short, without his work. The first two days they got started with the cask ale which would soon go off, moved onto gin and tonics in the afternoon, rum and gingers in the evening, and eventually, by nightfall, the bourbon. I grew a little anxious. I am bound to say that I partook myself, and that first week was a brightly-lit drunk of slippery time and the almost hallucinatory suspension of old certainties. The roads fell silent, the small market square in the village empty, the dismal weather of winter broke on endless vivid skies and the greening of the hillsides. But the mix of novelty and shock wore off, and we all fell into something like line. First drink not taken until five, that sort of thing. But I could tell after a couple of weeks that there was something about being stuck here in the Lantern, perhaps something in the very fabric of the building itself, that was getting to the old man. The rooms carry some quintessence of their former conjugality, their form is one of congregation. The tables and chairs sit empty. It’s oppressing all three of us, somehow, this absence, but my father is distracted, morbid, convinced he’s finished.
Unlike me, my father is powered by the will to work. No hobbies to speak of, no interests, no pastimes. The closure of the pub is an erosion of his identity, an undermining of everything he has always, without ever considering it to be mutable or up for debate, believed in and relied on. Times of crisis are to be met with work, to be fought, to acquiesce to the current vogue for militaristic invocations, and defeated with that final, triumphant capitalistic strategy—work. All this and his eldest son can barely define the word. I find it too easily-said, too often invoked, too uncritically deployed. Like Gandalf and his various ‘good mornings’, I mistrust how many and how different the meanings of the word are when I come up against them. Put simply, I suppose, I am lazy and it is true that I can happily lie around all day on a sofa without so much as reading a word or raising my hand in effort. And so, of course, part of me secretly desired the closure of the pub, an end to my own allocation of tasks, to the clock-watching, to the painful wait to be ‘on the good side’. I find myself between two positions even now. Dreading the return of the work, but desiring the Lantern’s communion, the babbling background noise, the late afternoon light caught on a half-empty glass.
These last weeks, I see people who, if I were of a different type, or lived somewhere more cultivated, more urbane, would perhaps be called my peers talking about their ‘work’ during the lockdown. Writers and poets describing their experience in phrases like failing to keep up with work, or struggling with their work. Of course it’s a failure of my own imagination to be unable to conceive of a thing as work unless somebody else has told me to do it. A poet failing to ‘keep up’ needs simply to stop writing their poem. Nobody asked for it and it will save nobody. This attitude may explain the spectacular failure of my own poems. For a little while, a few years ago, I thought that might be different, and like every fraud, I indulged my ego to the detriment of what turned out to be my meagre talent. Now I’m living in the spare room above my parents’ pub, working there part-time, and following others’ writing careers with a mix of jealousy and horror on the internet as if it were all a soap opera, the characters scarcely believable and the interactions coming off as false, unlived—in short as something written.
I take myself off into the country most mornings. I stay out for longer than the allotted exercise allows and later when I’m home reading the news I wonder how I should feel about everything. Guilty? Shamed? Do I really know these walks to be an outrageous indulgence, the latest shape my innate selfishness has taken, one that is now costing lives? Can these really even be called feelings if I have to think them up? I read about how I am supposed to feel in the opinion columns and hear it on the radio, see it on Twitter. But here it’s hard to tally opinion, with its capital ‘O’ and its bylines, with the divergent facts of the matter across the country. This place does not feellike death and disease. It feels as comfortable as affluence always does. I walk, implicated, up the hill and out of the village, up onto the Chilterns escarpment. The white chalk path is marked on the OS map as the Ridgeway, an ancient path that runs across the south of the country. A commercial scar in the land used for generations to cart goods and livestock from the farms in the east to the markets in the west. An old pull, this, that drags my feet into the hills—an urge to escape the physical confines of a building denuded of its folk-purpose and the psychological enclosure of my life here, nearing forty and living with my parents—the reality of that suddenly a brutally clear one. Hours in each other’s company. Weeks of it ahead.
Early mornings on top of the hill, the birdsong rich and varied in the beech woods, the bluebells still shimmering, the wild garlic now in rampant flower. I am here long before the dog walkers, the family cycle rides, before the expensively shod and utterly serious runners. Half a dozen red kites glide slowly past where the scarp drops sharply into the valley below. Their form in the moving air is hypnotic, something between chaos and supreme control. Economy of movement, absolute discretion in each flurry of breeze in their flight feathers. It is beyond worship, what I feel watching these birds, which requires symbols and attendant ideas. I sense the ‘towering appetite’ of Tim Lilburn standing face to face with two deer in his essay How to be Here. Below us, the kites and I, lies a large field with the straight white path of the Ridgeway cut across it, pulling my eye further into the west, into the line of hills. The field is normally full of rapeseed, but these last weeks I see mostly groundsel in the hard, baked earth. The farmer who tends the field has cut a huge NHS logo into the early growth with a tractor. I play five-a-side football with the farmer on occasional Monday nights and looking at the field I half-remember the team’s conversation on WhatsApp the night of the last general election.
Somehow it becomes a Friday again. A bank holiday. Last year the government announced they would move the early May bank holiday from the 4th to the 8th, to honour the 75th Anniversary of VE Day. God forbid an extra day off for the worker-ants. Now the nation sits around in a perpetual state of bank holiday. I read that the chancellor is worried we’ve become ‘addicted’ to the financial aid the government have provided while people can’t work. I’d ask him to check with the aristocratic class on that. They seem to have found it hard to wean themselves off state-aid for the last thousand or so years. I cannot remember exactly when, but in the days following the lockdown we receive a letter through the front door telling us of plans to get the whole street out of their houses to toast the sacrifices made in the war effort. The planned street parties may have had to be abandoned, but the disease won’t defeat us in our efforts to memorialise the dead. This sort of thing always makes me think of my grandfather and his experiences in the war. Perhaps the village as I have so far described it does not immediately suggest itself as the kind of place to have a council estate. But there is one, making up the south-eastern edge of the village, built on what was once the farmland of ‘the big house’. My grandfather has lived his whole life up there, apart from his time at sea in the war. He told me once he’d joined up to travel as much as anything, there’d been no other way for someone like him to see the other side of the world. Straight back here afterwards and a job for life with the gas board. It’s hard somehow for me to picture him as a military man. I see him as I used to on his allotment. Jeans, faded blue sweatshirt, stood on his spade rubbing his thumb and finger over his top lip where for most of his life, the Navy aside of course, he’d grown a moustache. He’s too old for the plot now, and his much younger brother and my cousin look after the twenty poles he still has.
A few summers ago, my father organised an open mic in the pub on the May Day bank holiday. There were a few locals who brought acoustic guitars down, and a couple of musician friends of mine came out from London. A man called Mark, who still uses the pub now (or would do), got up to sing. Mark was born in Singapore, with Sri Lankan parents, and has lived in the village for twenty or so years. He moved here while working for the rail network. He lives alone now, his grown-up children moved away, and he spends his time walking in the hills and at home reading up on the various conspiracy theories and murky critiques of globalism that make up most of his conversation. That afternoon he was singing the Hank Williams standard ‘Jambalaya’ with no accompaniment, when an old woman shouted something like ‘get that monkey off the stage’. A younger woman who lived around here at the time asked what she’d just said, and was told to shut up and mind her own business by a large middle-aged man. The man had a ponytail, the last of his hair pulled back tightly over his head. A rugby top tucked into his faded jeans. The younger woman replied by telling him to fuck off. Who are you anyway, the man said. Are you even from here? Where do you live? Where are you from? The young woman told him to keep his pet racist on her lead if she couldn’t behave. She said it didn’t matter where she was from. What matters, the man said, is that they are bombing our boys. And while they are bombing our boys, we can say what we like. I nearly laughed in the man’s stupid fucking face. Nearly, nearly.
I had once been asked round to Mark’s house after meeting him by chance out walking. It was like entering a kind of small, deconstructed library, an eccentric research resource for non-violent protest, post-9/11 truth theories and anti-war activism. There were books on every spare surface and thrown across the sofa in the front room, piles of them on the floor next to the coffee table. On the kitchen table sat a large PC and a printer, and there was printed-off pages in small piles on top of chairs, on the stacks of books and magazines, and here and there on the floor. Some stapled together, some clipped, some loose. Mark knew exactly what and where it all was. Material he’d culled from his regular sources. Websites like Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, the Skeptic’s Dictionary and The Daily Grail. And next to the PC, a stash of crosswords he’d cut out from the papers we took in pub. We drank tea.
My father asked the man with the ponytail to leave the pub that day. Later that night he had the weary look he always has after there’s been trouble of some kind. Like people have personally let him down. I’ve not seen the man back in the Lantern since. The younger woman and her husband moved away a little while afterwards. Somewhere more affordable, she’d told me. Sometimes Mark will get a bit drunk and ask very politely if those of us in the bar mind if he gives us a song. We all say we’d love it and he sings ‘Jambalaya’ and ‘King of the Road’. It’s always his own cue to put his backpack on and take his ash staff, decorated at the top with a rainbow of elastic bands and a jay feather and take himself back across the fields to his home.