Never read Middlemarch or listened to Wagner’s Ring cycle? Now’s your chance

Observer critics suggest ways to while away the long days of self-isolation during the coronavirus crisis

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Books: Rachel Cooke

The Zoo of the New, edited by Nick Laird and Don Paterson. Such an anxious moment surely calls for the consolations of poetry. What you need is this fat anthology, in which Rosemary Tonks nestles up to Tennyson, and Sappho sits in close proximity to Seamus Heaney. Or what about The Prelude, Wordsworth’s epic autobiographical poem? Even if you can’t leave the house, its hundreds of pages will transport you swiftly and elegantly to the Lakeland fells – and, perhaps, to the happier times of your own childhood.

Middlemarch by George Eliot. Maybe you want a novel. This is a book so capacious and wise it cannot fail to suit a period of quarantine.

Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon. Not only are these journals, written by the snobbish, American-born Conservative MP for Southend, witty, gossipy and completely engrossing; they also cover the blitz and, as a result, come with a built-in sense of perspective. These bad times, like other bad times before them, will surely pass in the end.

Podcasts: Miranda Sawyer

My Dad Wrote a Porno. If you’ve never got round to listening to this, now’s the time. With loads of episodes, every one hilarious, ridiculous and with no relevance to real life, this podcast will cheer anyone up.

The Allusionist. This is about language, and never fails to engage: clever, witty, distracting.

In the Dark: Season 2. One for true-crimers. It’s about a Mississippi man who faced trial for the same murders six times: a shocking miscarriage of justice case, doggedly and brilliantly told. (Season 1 is also excellent, but it’s about child abduction and I found it quite distressing.)

TV: Euan Ferguson

Detectorists (iPlayer/Amazon). Nothing happens. But this gentle tale of treasure-seekers, penned by Mackenzie Crook, who co-stars with Toby Jones (left), contains sublime depths and sharp humour amid the whimsy. Let Johnny Flynn’s achingly soft music wash over you as you watch the meadows, old stone and butterflies of England, and wonder when it’ll be safe to leave the house again to seek them.

Toby Jones, left, and Mackenzie Crook in Detectorists.
Toby Jones, left, and Mackenzie Crook in Detectorists. Photograph: BBC

Money Heist (Netflix). It sounds much better in the original Spanish (La Casa de Papel, or House of Paper) but it’s still the best subtitled/dubbed thing around. Combines a series of ingenious thefts with, for once, truly three-dimensional characters. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll fall in love. And series 4 lands in April.

Classical music: Fiona Maddocks

Mendelssohn: Octet (1825). As exuberant and joyful as music gets; eight string players jostle for attention, chipping in like a witty dinner-table argument. Mendelssohn was only 16 when he wrote it.

Bach: Goldberg Variations (1741). Sharpen your brain with one of the greatest works of all time, Bach’s “aria” and 30 variations supposedly written to amuse an insomniac count. Fit to refresh the most jaded spirits.

Wagner: The Ring (1876). Wagner demands time, in the case of his epic four-part Ring cycle (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung), about 15 hours. All human life is there, and gods, valkyries and dragons, too.

Film: Simran Hans

An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) on BFI Player. In a time of global emergency, frivolity can feel inappropriate. That mood has me inclined towards something more sombre and reflective, like the late Chinese filmmaker Hu Bo’s searching, rageful four-hour drama.

The Matrix (1999) on Amazon Prime. Escaping into a virtual reality is also an option. Twenty years on, the Wachowski sisters’ cyberpunk dystopia feels a little dated but their vision of the future is fun to revisit.


Rachel Cooke, Miranda Sawyer, Euan Ferguson, Fiona Maddocks and Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

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