Caught by the River

In Quarantine: a diary (Day 3)

Tim Dee | 20th May 2021

Another hotel-room dispatch from a caged Tim Dee.

Wednesday 19th May

I got a letter today. It was delivered to my room. We, the quarantined, are designated as resident guests. There’s nobody else here but us chickens, but that title makes me think of the Major in Fawlty Towers. Or, perhaps, the Chelsea Hotel in NYC. I am more like the Major, I suspect, than anyone of the legendary Chelsea team. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if the next knock at my door came from a moose. Everyone wears a mask in the quarantine inn; a moose head wouldn’t be so odd. The concept of the resident guest however is more disturbing. It is an oxymoron, isn’t it? A kind of double speak for these times. A euphemism too. For, we are not at home, nor yet are we free to leave. And we’ve paid £1700 for the privilege.  

But would I flee now, in any case? My door is unlocked, I’ve agreed to not leaving my room unescorted, but what would it take to make me want to break free? I wish I had read Emma Donaghue’s Room or seen the film adaptation, rather than hearing Freddie Mercury when I write those words. I really am more like the Major. 

Thus me, tonight. I have joined the establishment in this way. I have acclimatised and accommodated; I have bent to the place and its routines. I complain of nothing. On the day I arrived, I tried to start a conversation with one of my minders; today, I noticed, I call them all sir and say no more than that. Something in my body clock now knows to expect the knock on the door which announces the delivery of my meals. Me pap! ­­– Nag repeats from her dustbin in Beckett’s Endgame. I tear at the lids of the plastic pots of curry without looking at them; I’ve learned how they open. I’m Major Sealion, perhaps, at feeding time. 

The last thing I wrote about London before returning to it on Sunday was some reflections on the Snowdon Aviary and my visits to it at London Zoo for Michaela Nettell’s book and art show Less a building which happens in September. I loved remembering my childhood steps through the giant cage and walking among its captive birds. But it was awful and sad too. I quoted Captain Beefheart as I like to do when I can. And I thought again of his Apes-ma today; it seems to have much to say about how things go for me now:

Apes-ma, apes-ma
Your cage is too dirty, apes-ma
Remember when you were young, apes-ma?
And you used to break out of your cage?
Well you know that you’re not
Strong enough to do that anymore now
And apes-ma, the little girl that
Named you years ago has died now
And you’re older, apes-ma
Remember when she named you
And it was in the paper, apes-ma?
Apes-ma, apes-ma
You’re eating too much
And going to the bathroom too much, apes-ma
And apes-ma
Your cage isn’t getting any bigger, apes-ma

But then I felt bad. Can I really be making some sort of self-regarding joke out of all this? The virus is foul and has killed far too many people. It must be contained. Isn’t it sick itself for me to flirt with the idea of quarantine giving me a kind of existential freedom, a sort of holiday in my own misery or some atrocious variant of tourism? There are toddlers, the same age as my young Adam, quarantining with their mothers in some of the rooms in the wing of the hotel opposite me. I’ve watched them come to their window and look about.  

I have been dreaming of a drink tonight, even contemplating ordering a bottle from the vestigial room service available to residents (remember Basil Fawlty always opening up the bar for the Major whose gin-driven time-keeping was as punctual as any sealion regarding a sprat in a zoo). Then I read a poem by Louis MacNeice written in NYC during World War Two. ‘Bar Room Matins’ it is called. 

Mass destruction, mass disease; 
We thank thee, Lord, upon our knees
That we were born in times like these. 
Pretzels crackers chips and beer; 
Death is something that we fear 
But it titillates the ear…

Isn’t that awful? I felt suitably ­– badly – seen. That, in turn, led me back to another runaway boozy poet in New York in the same years – W.H. Auden in ‘one of the dives / On Fifty-second street’ who throws into his poem one of the great lines (a diamond-thought under huge pressure) of what still feels (toddlers at the window…) like our time:

We must love one another or die.

The problem is that loving one another we have, thereby, killed one another too. We must love but at a distance. We must de-nature. So it is that we will see out our required days here – go placidly, as the posters used to say – and we will behave as we ought in our cages, even if some call for gin before all that sun and the yardarm business.


More from Tim tomorrow, a birthday in quarantine no less.