Benjamin Myers provides words of wisdom from the comfort of his home.
“Who gives a fuck about New York, when elephants are being killed?” said singing sack of spuds Lee Ryan, from the boyband Blue, not long after the 9-11 attacks of 2001. Blue lost their US record deal as a result, so I’m choosing my words carefully here: surely I can’t be the only person who is revelling in the chance to hit pause on life for a while?
In February 2020 the valley in which I live in West Yorkshire was badly flooded and almost every shop, café and pub was chest-deep in stinking river water. After helping with the initial clean-up I fled to rural Scotland for a month of pre-virus self-isolation in an empty cottage belonging to a generous writing trust, while working on a new novel. It’s something I do often: last year I had two writing stints alone on an island and it’s twenty years since I retired, at the age of 23, from the conventional office life of team-building day-trips, secret Santas and awkward drinks for Joan from HR’s birthday. At last, a subject I finally feel qualified to comment upon: self isolation.
At home, routine is everything, from an elaborate porridge ritual (involving about six ingredients), through to familiar Radio 4 voices and the necessity of exercise. It’s the only way to stay sane and get things done. So when I leave the Scottish cottage to return to my wife after an unbroken month-long run of writing, I find myself straight into another lockdown, this one by governmental decree. Out of the frying pan and into another frying pan.
Kevin Barry recently wrote “If you ever see me mooching along the road looking a bit distracted, you can presume that I’m thinking about death,” and as a writer naturally prone to excessive introversion, I felt an immediate affinity. Yet as someone who spends half their life wrestling with anxiety, I am surprised to discover that, faced with the very real prospect of death stalking the litter-strewn streets of England and tapping on windows with his gleaming scythe, all the stupid day-to-day worries that scratch at the inside of my skull have miraculously lifted. My new novel was published in paperback in March and for the first time ever has been picked up for prominent Book Of The Month promotional displays in several major chains, all of them shut. I can’t even look through the windows at them.
I don’t even care. Because for the most part I feel – dare I say it? – inexplicably great. Great and grateful. And also energised, slightly delirious and gloriously alive. And out on the streets a dream England has emerged: slower, quieter and more respectful as people engage in a contactless tango across the cracked pavements. I talk to strangers from across the street.
Being such a geographically specific event, 9-11 no long feels comparable to the worldwide pandemic that has drastically effected all of our lives (for once such a sweeping generalising can be applied without sounding crass), but when that last disaster struck I found myself stranded in Los Angeles with the band Blink-182, with no possibility of leaving the country for several weeks. The soundtrack to my Armageddon was lightweight pop punk songs about girls and skateboarding and hot-dogs, and it’s still triggering now. A subsequent relaxing drive down the Californian coast to San Diego turned into a panic attack when I saw scores of warships stacked along the horizon, and the news channels filled with vile rhetoric. Oh to be England, I thought, popping another Xanax.
Stranded abroad, I learnt a valuable lesson: in times of uncertainty, home is the place to be. I could have kissed the warm Heathrow tarmac that late September morning, for potential societal breakdown is a wonderful way of bringing perspective into sharp relief.
Another plus point: beyond Trump’s usual incoherent word chowder and the Daily Mail trying to blame Michel Barnier for Covid-19, the everyday post-Brexit racism and xenophobia may have been temporarily dialled down a little, as the blame for this pandemic can only be laid at all humans, everywhere. We caused this. Capitalism’s endless appetite for consumption – and our collective restless approach to travel – have created the conditions for the type of pandemic that regularly raises its head throughout history.
So thank Bono I’m home, doing what I do best – shuffling and wallowing – and exploring the opportune ways I can use the lockdown time. I build a gym in the garden, using silver birch trunks as barbells. All this sawing has already give me one large arm, like a crab. I set up a Virus Book Club for my nephews and cancel our mortgage payments for 3 months. I discuss which neighbour I’d eat first (Brian). I dig out an old lump of hash secreted in a sock during the Blair era. I join a family WhatsApp group and use a winking emoji face and some aubergines for the first time. Who said a pandemic has to be depressing?
In week three – or is it four? Five? – of lockdown I could get into baking sourdough like everyone else, but I know I won’t. I could finally listen to Use Your Illusion , Guns N Roses’ two double-album set, use the word “unprecedented” more frequently or tackle Proust, but I know I won’t. Like many, my reading has slowed considerably. I’ve now been working through a wonderful William Golding novel for longer than it took him to write it (three weeks).
Instead, I find myself reminiscing about simpler times, when all we had to worry about was austerity, terror, the blood-drained cadaverous husks that Iain Duncan Smith keeps in his cellar and having to drive to 11 shops in 3 towns over 7 days in search of toilet roll. The more rapidly the mortality rate increases, the more inane my tweets become too – proof that instead of having to “talk” about “feelings”, gallows humour is a vital coping mechanism to the English cynic. I also buy things online I neither need nor can afford: smoked kippers, extra saw blades, a Lycra mask depicting a full English breakfast (sausage for the mouth, eggs for the eyes). I’ve also ordered my first ever tailored pair of trousers. Yes, I’m making a truly vital contribution.
Should I feel guilty for being pithy while death creeps closer? I don’t think so: I’m doing my bit by keeping out the way and waving at old people. Life goes on, until it doesn’t. You have permission to circulate these words and laugh along when I die next month.
To help out indie publishers Bluemoose and Little Toller, Ben Myers has written a short story called A STONE STATUE IN THE FUTURE, inspired by a failed fishing trip in Durham in 2006. You can buy a copy, priced £3, here.
The Offing is out now on Bloomsbury.