Tiger King and a bloody mary: Hilary Mantel, Simon Armitage and other writers on lockdown life

Simon Armitage pogos to neo-punk, Anne Enright craves for Cary Grant, The Seventh Seal cheers up Julian Barnes, Diana Evans works out to hip-hop and Jeanette Winterson talks to herself … writers reveal how they’re surviving the corona crisis

‘I’ve been rereading the book I wish I’d written’

Hilary Mantel

Sad days if you don’t read much, and members of my household run a mile from my recommendations, but I saw one of them cast a hopeless glance at the bookshelves, so after some hours took courage and said: “This is truly one of the best novels I have ever, ever read, and I wish heartily that I could have written it myself, and I don’t believe you could start it without wanting to know how it ends.” It is Eugene McCabe’s Death and Nightingales, set in rural Ireland in 1883, and it is a mystery to me how I only came to hear of it recently. I’ve made up for ignorance by reading it several times, to see how it’s done.

‘In the afternoon, it’s either neo-punk or a bloody mary’

Simon Armitage

I’ve been reading TS Eliot, Geoffrey Hill, WS Graham. There’s comfort in looking beyond the sociological here-and-now to something more transcendent. We’re fortunate to have a good-sized garden, currently operating as holiday destination, exercise yard, future greengrocer’s and panic room. My role in its upkeep is mowing the lawn, so it’s going to look like a bowling green by September. Beyond the garden are woods, hills and moors, which I think will be the saving of us.

I suppose now would be the time to embark on the whole of Dickens or Proust, but that feels like admitting to a timescale of infinite duration. However, I am strongly considering becoming a homemade expert in a subject I currently know nothing about, such as nuclear fission or the life-cycle of the giant squid. To guard against lethargy, despondency and slovenliness, structure feels important: appointments, schedules, achievable goals, regular activities.

‘I’m considering becoming an expert on giant squids’ … Armitage’s cure for lethargy.
‘I’m considering becoming an expert on giant squids’ … the poet laureate’s cure for lethargy. Photograph: Paul Fleet/Alamy Stock Photo

To that end, we have NT Live events in the diary and will be watching them theatre-style, with dimmed lighting and pre-ordered interval drinks. Testing my belief that the piano is the greatest machine ever invented, Chopin and Shostakovich are streaming regularly. I switch to synthesisers, guitars and neo-punk in the afternoons – especially Fontaines DC – for a burst of energy. It’s either that or a bloody mary, which is the kind of slippery slope I’m saving for true Armageddon or when the four horsemen come galloping over Black Hill.

My daughter has suggested a Bob Ross online painting tutorial, which I suspect is being organised for comedic rather than recreational purposes, given that my drawings make David Shrigley look like Leonardo da Vinci.

In just a few weeks, I’ve become a very proficient cameraman and sound recordist, helping media organisations trying to shift all their offerings online. Plus I now know what it means to “jump on a hangout”. This weekend, I repaired bird-boxes and baked bread with the last of the flour. Then, to offset the righteousness, drank a bottle of cheap red and ate chocolate as an entire mini-series drifted past.

Other than that, I seem to spend a lot of time wondering if the prefix “self” is really needed in the phrase “self-isolation”. Indefinitely feels like a long time. I miss my friends.

‘I’ve taken up meditation because I was giving in to fear’

Bernardine Evaristo

Booker prize winner Bernardine Evaristo.
Bouncing back … Booker prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

I’m semi-self-isolating at the moment because twice a week I drive across London to help look after my 86-year-old mother. The rest of the time, it’s just me and my husband. If I were isolating alone, I know I could deal with it, even enjoy it, having lived on my own for 20 years, on and off. But these are trying times and recently I’ve taken up meditation, because I was struggling to maintain my positive mental attitude, giving in to fear instead of fighting it.

My other strategy is to write positive affirmations: relationships, writing projects, fitness, finances, career ambitions – you name it, I have stacks of old affirmation cards going back to the 90s. They focus my desires and help me to expect the best, not the worst. If the best doesn’t materialise, I’ll write another affirmation to help me bounce back.

An affirmation is quite different to merely hoping a situation improves. A relevant example might go like this: “I feel utterly joyful that the virus has passed and that our lives are back to normal. All is well.” It doesn’t matter that the virus has not yet passed. Imagining that it will makes me feel motivated and buoyant.

I look forward to the day when we all re-emerge from our homes with a renewed appreciation for what we have, and a stronger sense of community.

‘When I get bored, I want a 70s mix or a Cary Grant movie’

Anne Enright

Honestly, there is a lot to be said for tooling about all day, looking up recipes and not making them, not bothering to paint the living room and failing to write a novel. In the middle of the messy non-event called your mid-afternoon, you might get something – a thought to jot down, a good paragraph, a piece of gossip to text a pal. Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you. Try not to confuse the urge to get something done with the idea that you are useless. Try not to confuse the urge to contact someone with the thought that you are unloved. Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine.

… Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
‘For when I’m bored with big thoughts’ … Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo

I find big music helps at fateful times. Rachmaninov is good when the news is bad, Mahler also works. Poetry helps and I have turned, in recent days, to the religious work of John Donne, George Herbert and Henry Vaughan. But I also get bored with big thoughts and that point of boredom is the moment I am looking for – when I want my teenager’s mellow 70s Spotify mix, or a Cary Grant film.

In the first days of locking down, I felt as you do after trauma: language was no use to me. It has come back slowly, because it always does. I know this and I trust it. Meanwhile, I do not try to push a broken machine. I wait for boredom to kick in because boredom, for me, is a very good sign. It is the beginning of pleasure.

‘My 31-DVD Ingmar Bergman box set is cheering me up’

Julian Barnes

My first (cultural) reaction to the lockdown wasn’t to reach for Defoe or Camus but to send off for a 31-DVD box set of Ingmar Bergman movies. Which, after all, does contain that greatest of plague movies, The Seventh Seal. The idea of following the career of the 20th century’s pre-eminent European film-maker through its 60-year span was compelling. Moreover, I hadn’t even heard of, let alone seen, the first seven of them.

It will probably come as no surprise that Bergman didn’t have a larky, frivolous early period before he found his central tone and concerns. The first film in the box is called Torment; the second, Crisis. But it’s also true that Bergman’s sardonic sense of humour is often overlooked. So, one a day is the rule – and yes, it is making me cheerful.

My local bookseller (before he closed) told me that trade was surprisingly good, and that people were buying those long books they felt guilty about never having read. War and Peace was doing well, so was Ulysses. I wish them luck. I suspect that pandemic anxiety is not an aid to sustained concentration.

The chess match with Death in The Seventh Seal.
‘Bergman sardonic humour is often overlooked’ … the chess match with Death in The Seventh Seal. Photograph: Sunset Boulevard#CorNonExED/Corbis via Getty Images

I am finding that a quick three-hour, start-to-finish immersion is more what is needed. For example, Simenon’s Maigret and Monsieur Charles, the last of the 75-novel cycle (and also the last to appear in Penguin’s admirable retranslation of them all). Next I tried one of Simenon’s supposed successors, Pascal Garnier, but found his How’s the Pain too jocose, too grand guignol. It emphasises how quiet Simenon is in tone, even in a police procedural. I’ve just started Craig Brown’s somewhat longer Beatles book, One Two Three Four, which seems the perfect antidote to these times.

Music: a friend recently tipped me off about the Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, so I have ordered his Debussy-Rameau disc, plus his Bach: Works and Reworks, thanking Amazon while cursing it at the same time. And they don’t seem to be offering a plague discount.

‘All the internet you can eat is not the answer’

Jeanette Winterson

I was brought up in End Time. Mrs Winterson would have loved a plague that stopped the world. We did drills for it – hiding under the stairs with tinned food and a flashlight. As a writer I have also been self-isolating for most of my life. I live backing on to a wood outside of a village. I am used to quiet and I like it.

I know, though, that the Revenge of the Introverts isn’t easy for most people. Imagine yourself as a big store room. What’s in there that you haven’t used for years? Did you love drawing as a kid? Were you great at inventing games? Can you make things? Do you have a good memory? If so memorising silly poems – like The Jumblies or The Owl and the Pussycat – is fun for you and pleasurable for others when you recite.

Fun to recite … The Owl and the Pussycat.
Fun to recite … The Owl and the Pussycat. Photograph: The Granger Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Everyone in a family choosing and memorising something, whatever it is, gives a bit of purpose and curiosity to the day, even competition. I think it’s good for kids, who outsource everything, to learn to use their memory. And right now, all the internet you can eat isn’t the answer. Looking inside ourselves, rather than outside, gives a different perspective.

Reading is still the best inside/outside activity I know. Many people have been saying for years: “I don’t have time to read.” Well, you do now, and this is such an opportunity to instil the habit in kids. A family reading hour is fun, especially if everyone shares their experience afterwards.

I am going along my bookshelves and pulling out things I haven’t read for years or didn’t read properly at the time. As usual, I am reading a poem a day to keep me sane. I read the poem out loud – usually twice – to get the sense and meaning, and to hear my own voice. If you are living alone, speaking out loud makes a huge difference. Also, if you are anxious or struggling with random thoughts or lack of concentration, the poem read out loud will anchor and calm you. Try it.

‘Heimat is 60 hours of ultimate highbrow soap’

Eimear McBride

Coming in at around 60 hours, Edgar Reitz’s epic series of Heimat films, which chart the events of 20th-century German history through the eyes of the inhabitants of the village of Shabbach, is surely the perfect entertainment for our time. Set in the German writer and film-maker’s own home region of Hunsrück, the first film spans the end of the first world war to the early 1980s and focuses on the Simon family and the evolving life of their rural community.

‘It’s long and slow, but where are you going?’ … Heimat.
‘It’s long and slow, but where are you going?’ … Heimat. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy Stock Photo

The second film goes back to the 1960s and follows Hermann, the son of the family, as he heads to music school in Munich. Here he attempts to free himself from the constraints and judgments of the inward-looking village and experience directly, or indirectly, the social movements and political upheaval of the era. The third film again focuses on Hermann as he returns to the village in the period from the fall of the Berlin Wall up to the new millennium.

Reitz manages to make the films both meandering and gripping. Nuanced characters and relationships provide the immediate human interest while the heavy tides of history buffet from all sides. Each film is shot in black and white but flowers into colour at significant moments in a seeming underlining of the vagaries of national memory and national forgetfulness.

If you’re a fan of delicately nuanced intergenerational sagas set against historical backgrounds, this one’s for you. Yes, it’s long and sometimes slow, but where are you going? And if its description in the New York Times as “the ultimate highbrow soap opera for couch potatoes” doesn’t tempt you, I don’t know what will.

‘The courage of the Tesco van-driver seems to show the way’

Sebastian Barry

Here in the Wicklow hills, we have been hunkered down since 13 March. One of my sons is keeping to his room; the other is on the far side of the country. It is so real, the quiet air of Wicklow around us seems to be on the verge of frantic speech. But – the rooks continue their high-rise life in the beech trees, a gang of sparrows appeared today, and the wren is rebuilding in the field wall, where his family has been holed up for 20 years.

‘Beautiful gestures of survival’ … A home delivery.
‘Beautiful gestures of survival’ … a home delivery. Photograph: Justin Kase zsixz/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

I have been rereading as a means to calm myself: for instance, Hubert Butler’s essay collection The Invader Wore Slippers, a sort of Alexis de Tocqueville of toxic European history, his writing in itself a lucid vaccine. Then as laureate for Irish fiction, I have been worrying about Irish Fiction, and those valiant writers whose new books were just about to come forth. Caoilinn Hughes’s The Wild Laughter, whose proofs have just arrived with “New Pub Date – 25/6/20” written in green marker on the back cover. Heroic Postman (who is a woman as it happens), bringing such hopeful objects up the avenue!

What are we to do with these universal Troubles? There’s something in the courage of the Tesco van-driver, in the courage of the doctors and the nurses (my nephew’s girlfriend Gemma, final-year student, straight into the frontline), in the courage of the wren, in the courage of Kathleen’s shop in our village, in the courage of the rook, that seems to show the way – the beautiful gestures of survival.

Persist, do the work allotted to you. The old Pathé footage of the Queen Mother in the East End, the bomb disposal officer sitting on the bomb he is trying to defuse, the wren in his wall, the stoat, the fox, the hare, the deer traversing the forest behind us with steely will. The love you have for your children melting the wretched carapace of a virus. Hope is a folly and they hanged Lear’s fool. But – the world stirs with perilous things, but – nevertheless, this courage.

‘Shrill is perfect bedtime TV’

Curtis Sittenfeld

‘Nuanced in a way TV characters rarely are’ … Aidy Bryant in Shrill.
‘Nuanced in a way TV characters rarely are’ … Aidy Bryant in Shrill. Photograph: Allyson Riggs/Hulu

The Hulu TV show Shrill is the perfect watch before bed (also available on BBC iPlayer), a transition away from alarming news articles and into sleep. Based on the memoir by Lindy West, Shrill stars the phenomenally talented Aidy Bryant as Annie, an aspiring journalist in Portland, Oregon, who’s figuring out her career, love life, friendships and family.

Annie is fat, which both is and isn’t relevant to almost every episode. She and the other characters are real and nuanced in a way TV characters rarely are, even on good shows. They seem like they could be people I know who are having conversations, making mistakes, realising new things about themselves.

The depiction of journalism is also unusually realistic. One of my favourite episodes – titled WAHAM after the name of a magnificently depicted women’s conference – features Annie talking through how to improve an article with her editor. He’s smart and also kind of a jerk. She’s turned in a boring first draft and their conversation highlights to Annie the value of conveying her sincere and complex opinion of the conference, which nicely encapsulates what’s wonderful about Shrill itself.

‘I’m making a dress while listening to Middlemarch’

Diana Evans

My blood ran cold at the prospect of months of home-schooling and 24/7 company. Isolation is crucial in isolation. Disappearing into another room for a significant amount of time, going for a walk, drive or bike ride with nothing but the air so that you can hear your thoughts. Otherwise there must be music, at the right time.

Joy and energy … Raneir Pollard leads a workout.
‘He gives me joy and energy’ … Raneir Pollard leads a workout. Photograph: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIeCMhNWFQQ

Aside from loving the new J Hus, I’ve been raiding the vinyl, current favourites being Al Green, the Fugees, Aretha, Donna Marie and some jungle. In the mornings before work and school, which start at 10, there is maybe some sanity-preserving group Tabata with Raneir Pollard (he gives me joy and energy), or zumba with Nicole Steen, or Mike Peele’s hip-hop workout, all on YouTube, or instead I’ll go for a run in the sun.

Time is everything, carving out portions of the day for achieving in work and returning to the desk at night. A bright side of home-school is the opportunity it gives to refresh our English grammar and maths, as well as to do some things I love to do but never seem to have time for, such as painting and learning Spanish.

By the weekend, though, my partner and I are spent, and being able to sleep until noon is a blessing. Sleep helps with the anxiety of this horror, and there must also be a clear distinction between the week and the weekend: no timetable, no maths – instead games, culinary adventure, or complete immersion in a creative project. I’m making a dress I abandoned years ago while listening to Middlemarch on Audible.

I’m reading Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades and Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, recently reissued by Virago. Films are on Fridays (The Last Tree, The Water Horse), preferably with snacks and loving company.

‘It’s hard to focus on cultural things – beyond Tiger King’

Matt Haig

I was in an anxiety dip even before the coronavirus panic set in, so I haven’t been in my calmest frame of mind. I have distracted myself by home-schooling the kids and doing the edits of a new novel that were due in two weeks ago. These are not normal times so I think it’s OK not to have normal expectations.

Handmade rustic bread sour dough
Not for everyone … artisan bread. Photograph: Viktorné Lupaneszku/Getty Images

It’s important not to beat ourselves up. You don’t always have to do stuff. Or achieve stuff. You don’t have to spend your time wisely and productively. You don’t have to be doing tai chi and DIY and artisan bread-making. Sometimes you can just be and feel things and get through and survive. It’s OK to just exist.

I want to write a new novel. But it is hard to know what to write as contemporary reality is melting in front of us. I must admit I have found it hard to get creative inspiration or to focus on cultural things, beyond Tiger King on Netflix. Reading history is always my comfort in tough times, and it holds true in a pandemic. So I am reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Pepys, and have even dipped into Daniel Defoe’s pretty fictional Diary of a Plague Year.

History always teaches us that however bad things are, there have always been worse times – and people to live through them and record them. That is a kind of therapy in itself.


Compiled by Lisa Allardice

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