Monday 30 March 2020

Journal of the Plague Year 2020 (Entry Five: Lego and Ice-cream )

Entry Five: Lego and Ice-cream

Saturday arrived with its exciting promise of nothing. No chance to volunteer at the Samuel Johnson, no chance to do anything. Apparently people filled the time by filling the parks, it was pretty much the first sunny day this year but I wasn’t one of them. 

I happened to be checking out some old email inboxes when I found a notification from ‘How does it feel to be loved?’ a club night I’ve been intending to go to for the past fifteen or so years. They were holding a virtual club night, all I had to do was go to one website for the music and another for the video conference. There was a Brady Bunch montage of people dancing about, some using toilet roll as a feather boa, others strutting their funky stuff around their rooms. Once square had proper disco lights, another featured a guy with a beard, another a few friends. I also danced, sitting in my chair and swaying about to the brilliant playlist of indie and northern soul. At one point someone shared insipid porn with the group but they were ejected and the dancing continued. 

On Sunday I went to the laundrette, not knowing if it was my last opportunity to use it. That done, I went back home and did something. I’m not sure what. The main trouble with the forthcoming spare time is that all usual pleasures are tainted somehow. Rather than reading with joy and pleasure, it becomes pale and uninteresting, as does all writing - my mind keeps trying to be somewhere else. I imagine this is what life is now.

The other thing, is that I had developed a truly nasty case of handwasher’s scale, a dry and itchy flakiness on the back of my hands that match the dead, sun-starved skin under my eyes.

It was also on Sunday that I developed an intense yearning for fruit, which could not be sated.

Monday brought my first taste of working from home. The strangest thing for me is that the work I do at home is nothing like the work I actually do at work. I had some fun with the Google-classroom, setting some work and marking others. Most of the day was filled with mucking about on video chat with the other staff, chatting and showing each other our houses. The best part was a form where were to fill in the activities we would do with the children when we were actually in work. With so many people on it, there was a joy in editing their entries as they wrote them and mostly getting in the way.

On Monday night, a more stringent lockdown was announced. Tuesday was my first day of going into work. The park was busier than usual, full of joggers. The weather was glorious. I painted a rainbow, a made a peacock and I played dressup with a group of four year olds. The oddest costume being a dalek one consisting of a hood, a blue dress and some dalek arms that velcro roughly in the place where the nips are. Dalek boob tassles. In the afternoon, I played parachute games. I also really got to stock up foodwise on the way home.

Wednesday was more of the same but with fewer children. I spent a lot of time playing football (which wasn’t as fun as dressing up) but I also got to play parachute games again. 

The next few days were this strange working from home thing. We developed a game to know when to speak on the videochat. A person would hold an object as a microphone and when it was passed, the other person used a different object, the objects became weirder as we went. 

The biggest event of the week was probably a clap for the NHS. It bubbled up, got louder, there were fireworks and car horns. It went on for five minutes. When it quietened down one person said, “thank you”. There are already stories of joggers and delivery drivers thinking it was for them.

Quote of the week going to the parent of a child who hasn’t been getting involved with all the work we’ve been posting them. He is not doing his work because he’d prefer to play lego and eat ice cream. Sounds like a good life kid, a good life indeed.

Entry One: A Cough in a Box (22.2.20 - 28.2.20)
(Coronavirus is a rumble among other stories but silly stories start early.)

Entry Two: Eat More Garlic (29.2.20 - 6.3.20) 
(A song and a wash, rising paranoia.)

Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh (7.3.20-13.3.20) 

(Confusion at school, a new variation on 'it' and a new chat up line.)

Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat (14.3.20-20.3.20) 

(A week at school where it's open, closed then repurposed as something else.)

Wednesday 25 March 2020

Review: The English Recluse by Elizabeth Haywood

I love Eliza Haywood as much of what I’ve read of hers has an exuberance that is hard to resist. The British Recluse, though a little subdued compared to some of her other work, is still a well shaped and enjoyable piece.

It starts off with Belinda, a young woman who comes into London for ‘some business’. The inn she stays at is a very respectable place with a very trusty landlady but even this careful soul can’t help slip the information that there is another guest in the house, a recluse who will see nobody. The landlady talks up this recluse’s elegance, charm and beauty which can’t help intrigue Belinda. Most intriguing to her is the recluse’s sadness, a sadness she feels that she shares and suspects the cause of. In the end, she goes up to the recluse’s room, finds she is called Cleomira and they have a similar romantic sadness in common. 

The two women agree to write their sob stories for each other and pass them over. We hear Cleomira’s first. She comes from a noble family and often found herself at court until her father’s death revealed the delicate network of debt their finery was built on and they went off to the country to live quieter lives. Cleomira being young, beautiful and full of life finds this intolerable and manages to sneak an invite to a ball.

At the ball she meets a devilishly handsome man called Lysander. He is impossibly suave, smooth and attractive and when he breaks protocol a little and starts sending her letters, she responds. One day he even rides past her cottage in a cute little jacket and other very attractive clothes. These letters go back and forth for some time. One of the things that make this book stand out, is that we don’t have to read all of them. This is not a Clarissa Harlowe weariness of constant back and forward, we get a few examples and a little reported action to move us along.

Our Cleomira is not very subtle though and her mother soon finds out. Help soon comes in the form of some next door neighbours who keep passing notes on. Eventually these next door neighbour’s convince Cleomira that Lysander will totally marry her and that it’s her mother who is the main obstacle and if she transfers her mother’s guardianship to theirs, she’ll find herself married in no time.

Cleomira does this and moves to the next door neighbour’s other house in London. Now she’s secure, Lysander comes and wins her round, letting him sleep with her as they will be married shortly. His letters keep coming and they are effusive as ever but the visits start to dry up, first to one a week, then one a fortnight, then to one a month, then less. Another thing that is happening is that Cleomira starts noticing the effects of pregnancy - she’s got the standard first time sex/ first time pregnancy illness. Worst of all, Cleomira starts hearing that Lysander is going off with someone else.

Her anger builds up and she sends him a distraught letter, receiving one back that essentially tells her that she used to be very loveable but now she seems angry, she’s driven him away. She gives birth to a stillborn child and decides to kill herself, sending Lysander an accusatory note first. The apothecary reads the situation though and gives her sleeping pills.

When she wakes up not dead, she receives Lysander’s answer, which is to say that if she’s dead, it’s too bad and her decision. That’s when she fakes her death and goes to live in the inn.

As for Belinda’s story, she was engaged to a very nice, rich and reasonable young man called Worthly. He is engaged to Belinda with her father’s keen support but when her father dies, the wedding is pushed back a little. Unfortunately, in this time the carriage they are travelling in suffers an accident and they are saved by a devilishly handsome man called Courtal. e is impossibly suave, smooth and attractive and when he breaks protocol a little and starts sending her letters, she responds. She starts to fall in love with him and the more she does, the more Worthly seems like a tiresome stick-in-the-mud.

However, when they meet up to do the dirty, Worthly walks in. The duel between Worthly and Courtal, Worthly is stabbed and declared dead. Belinda, shocked, guilty and devastated, runs off to London where he ends up in the inn were she meets Cleomira.

One of the things they realise, is that Lysander and Courtal are one, they’ve both been jilted by the same lover. I like that idea that this figure is the central rake in all stories. I like the idea that this is also Lovelace and all the other unfaithful lovers in literature. 

I also love how the book ends, with the two women living together in a cosy and man-hating idyll.

Not the best Haywood, but I am still to find a bad one.

Saturday 21 March 2020

Journal of the Plague Year 2020 (Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat )

Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat 

The week started on Saturday with my going into Dr Johnson’s House and being shown the coronavirus policy, it involved hand washing. There was a vague feeling that the place may be shutting at some point but no real notion it was soon. My sister was supposed to be in Prague but the Czech Republic had shut its borders and my Mum’s birthday present of a ‘good day out’ was unlikely to happen soon. The museum itself was pretty busy, certainly busier than the earlier weekends of storms and I even got to chat to some Danish people who were having a lovely trip to England. Similarly at the laundrette, there was a notion that things would get worse but not any real feeling of imminence. 

It was Monday and my journey to work that I realised things were different. A few months ago, I accidentally reset my alarm clock in my sleep and came into work two hours late - this felt the same. The streets were not exactly emptier but more subdued, it was like each person took up less space, especially less audio space. It was like the beginning of a zombie film.

Walking into work was like walking into limbo or a dreamworld. Everywhere things were arranged as if were were going to keep coming back as usual. Trips were still on the cards, visitors scheduled to come in and weekly deep dives and progress meetings as always. At the same time, there were emergency emails ensuring we could all keep in contact if we had to go home later in the week, or the day, or the hour. I now know how Schrödinger's cat must have felt in his theoretical box. Our school was neither dead nor alive, nor even undead. 

We had our usual Monday planning meeting. We planned lessons for next week. We plotted in extreme detail the lessons, the resources and the groups we would have. We did it all with the ghost of not being at work next week, though not being able to rely on not being at work. I popped into the head’s office to thank her for keeping us as informed as possible.

 Tuesday was much the same. We carried on as if everything was normal, we half pretended that things were normal but we knew things were not. There was an emergency staff meeting where all the teachers were taught how to use a remote access classroom programme while we teaching assistants sat in the hall with all the children and watched the ‘live action’ Lion King, it sucks all the life out of the original. 

It was Wednesday when things happened properly. Halfway through the day, the Welsh and Scottish devolved governments announced that they were to shut schools. Boris Johnson had started making daily announcements and this one was going to be for us. I was excited, I’d wandered around the school getting teachers to show me elements of the programme so I could get involved. There was a thrill as I left the school, knowing the briefing would start in my walk home. I fizzle of excitement, that I was living in unusual times and was sort of privileged to see them.

I decided to take a chance with the big Sainsbury’s, I needed milk, bread, toothpaste and possible ingredients for a casserole or stew of some kind. Everything was empty. There was nothing in the fruit and veg aisle but watercress in packets and a handful of sprouts. All the fruit and veg had been stockpiled, I needed onions but there were none. All I can say is that whoever took all the onions, I hope you’re crying now. Neither was there meat, even the black pudding had all been taken. There was no milk, there was not a single item in the bread aisle. Even the Staffordshire oatcakes, which I swear I am the only consumer, had been taken. I collected a random collection of stuff and went home, thankful that my school provide a very decent and reasonable lunch.

Once home, I started my now usual evening practice of face-timing my parents. The news was filled with the news that schools would close by Monday. With my school closing, I could move in with my parents and work on my computer. London was getting crazy, there was no food to be found and that I’d soon not have anywhere to do my laundry either. As I discussed terms with her, we created a fun image of the future with my living in relative comfort and being able to pitch in with them. Then I got the email from school. It stated that the school would not be closing as such but would be looking after the vulnerable children and the details of that would be announced soon. I pictured a nightmare scenario of teacher’s at home in their pyjamas doing a small piece of work and me slogging it out every day with the difficult children. Even worse, this nightmare scenario would be over the easter holidays, the half term ones and the summer ones too. The selfish part of me railed against everyone else in the world barely working from home and my having to work more than usual. I pictured slogging through empty supermarkets. I pictured no clean clothes. Then I got an email saying that the Dr Johnson Reading Circle was closed, then one saying the Dr Johnson House was. Then I cried. 

Chatting with people the next few days, we all had at least a moment like that, when the stripping of joy and pleasure and normality got to us and we had to have a little tear, that was mine. As my sister said, “it’s like everything but work is gone”. It’s not, the Reading Circle established itself on Facebook, I’ve never phoned my family so often and my books are not going anywhere. But it’s right to have a tear for all the things that are lost for now, and to move on.

Thursday was an agony of waiting, as much of the week had been. More details would be given about the future situation, but when? The story doing the rounds at school had been how one of the office staff had gone to buy a 60p pack of paracetamol and been charged £10 for it, but other than that, staff members were trading tinned tomatoes for bread and generally sharing what they could. In terms of lessons, most of the school watched films but our year group, despite being a teacher down, carried on as usual. There were few enough kids to fit the whole year in one class and we went through the rituals of writing lesson, reading lesson, maths lesson and the like. During my lunch break, I saw a man running down the street with a red Iceland’s basket full of food, I reckon he must have stolen it. The information at the end of the day this time suggested some type of rota, yet the lady in charge of the Borough had demanded all staff come in for all the days. 

I walked home utterly unsure of what lay ahead still, a tension across my back that seemed to have been there forever. I wandered into Londis to see if I could score some toothpaste. What had always been the ‘shop if I’m not really shopping, shop’, that had always seemed empty of anything useful, now seemed like a glorious Aladdin’s cave. They had loo-roll (didn’t need, didn’t buy), they had tinned beans, bacon, bread, milk - such glorious staples that I had never quite so appreciated till that moment. The prices were the same as always, the shop only a little busier. The man at the checkout had a smart blue-checked suit and yellow marigolds. I narrowly missed a shoving fight about proper queueing etiquette that happened as I left the shop, but that’s not so different to usual.

On my way to work on Friday, I passed the big Sainsbury’s at 7:45, long before it opened. There was a mass of people, fifteen deep, ready to burst in and take everything. Once people had over-shopped once, surely they wouldn’t need to come back for a few days. 

I entered school with a mixture of expectation and mournfulness. The children’s numbers had already dropped to half the school and we were hurriedly creating packs to send to those who were at home. One of the children had joined the school only the day before. Two of us from year five had been planning to come in on April Fool’s day with moustaches and bow ties, we did it today. I think it may have exacerbated the surreal feeling of the day but it did make a few people smile. Despite feeling like an eternity, the day was done and we said goodbye to the children left. There was nothing of a holiday spirit, just a sad emptiness.

We had a meeting where we got two pieces of good news. The first was that offsted workers had been declared key staff and now had to get into schools and actually work, there were a number of schadenfreude smiles at that. The second was that the school had already arranged an Easter provision for the children and the company running it were desirous to fulfil that contract, so we did have Easter off (and I could go see my parents for a bit). 

As for the two weeks up until Easter, we’ve been put in five teams, each team spends two days a fortnight at school, four as first reserve in case of illness, whilst being at home and  making work for children and four days making work without the expectation of being called in. I am in plague team A and (at the moment) I very much like the people in it with me. Long may that be the case.

The most shocking part of the whole school situation is that school’s have not been shut but repurposed as something completely different, it’s as if school’s have been eradicated and replaced with something else. Amazing that an institution can just change like that overnight.

We sat in a classroom drinking tequila and chatting, for the last time together for a while. We heard Boris announce the closure of gyms, cinemas, pubs and non-essential shops. He said he thought the virus could be turned around in twelve weeks.

I’m not convinced.

Entry One: A Cough in a Box (22.2.20 - 28.2.20)
(Coronavirus is a rumble among other stories but silly stories start early.)

Entry Two: Eat More Garlic (29.2.20 - 6.3.20) 
(A song and a wash, rising paranoia.)

Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh (7.3.20-13.3.20) 

(Confusion at school, a new variation on 'it' and a new chat up line.)

Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat (14.3.20-20.3.20) 

(A week at school where it's open, closed then repurposed as something else.)

Wednesday 18 March 2020

The Selected Poems of William Cowper at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

It was a dark March evening, the wind was roaring around the courts and alleyways just off Fleet Street and 16 Gough Square, lit up with fake candles and warmed by real wine, was ready for a meeting of the Dr Johnson Reading Circle.

A little emptier than previous gatherings, this proved the perfect comfortable environment to discuss the poet William Cowper and his writings. Having not discussed poetry before, the evening included as much sharing of favourite poems and letters by Cowper as it did discussion. 

Starting with a reading of a letter for The Gentleman’s Magazine, the same periodical which Johnson had been a regular contributor in his early days. This letter was about Cowper taking a young leveret off some children who found it hard to look after, and through his joy in this one leveret, ended up with more until he had three fully grown hairs in his house. Each of this hares, Puss, Tiney and Bess, grew to have very different personalities, my favourite being the intractable Tiney who as; “even his surliness was a matter of mirth.” What shone through the letter most, was Cowper’s simple emotional connection with these animals and the joy they gave him. The reader’s eyes shining slightly with fond tears, the letter showed Cowper at his best, simple and unaffected, blessed with a capacity for joy, observation and simple connection, despite the weight he carried about with him. 

And Cowper did carry a weight with him. He was a terribly bullied child who, when passed over for a job, fell into a deep depression in which he tried to kill himself three times. Part saved by a religious experience, he was also prone to huge religious depressions and at times believed he was peculiarly damned and peculiarly blessed. In his poem, Lines written in a period of insanity, he ends the poem with a description of his damnation, not to Hell put into; “a fleshly tomb” where he is “buried above ground.”

The poem, The Castaway, dealt not with a Castaway but with a man who had been washed off his ship, only to be lost in the waves. He describes the power of the wave, the panic of being knocked from the ship, the shouting from the men and their absolute powerlessness as they are driven further away from their shipmate who is swimming strongly but with little use. Finally, it shows how strongly he identified with the drowning man, describing himself as; ‘beneath a rougher sea, And whelm’d in deeper gulphs than he.”

But Cowper isn’t all self-pity and depression, a lot of it is utterly charming. His first published work was a comic poem called The Diverting History of John Gilpin, a nonsensical galloping bit of fun about a man being galloped about by a powerful horse. He even uses the same meter as his insanity poem to translate a latin poem describing the peculiar attributes of a snail, making the creature seem a quirky little chap in the process.

Cowper’s longest poem was The Task, which was loved by Jane Austen (who could quote big chunks of it) and inspired sections of the Lyrical Ballads. The initial task was to write about a sofa, but the poem becomes a description of a walk in the winter, then a description of the winter evening, then night and a last part about the coming of the spring.

One of the things we discussed was Cowper’s ability to simply watch and listen. The winter walk describes the quiet of winter as well as how it looks. There is the slip of wet grass and the snap of dry twigs. The evening part has him staring into his fire, taking time to simply be and watch the shapes and little wisps of smoke. His description of snow falling had us all remembering times in our life when we had been captivated by that same silent magic.

“To-morrow brings a change, a total change,
Which even now, though silently performed
And slowly, and by most unfelt, the face
Of universal nature undergoes.
Fast falls a fleecy shower; the downy flakes,
Descending and with never-ceasing lapse
Softly alighting upon all below,
Assimilate all objects.  Earth receives
Gladly the thickening mantle, and the green
And tender blade, that feared the chilling blast,
Escapes unhurt beneath so warm a veil.”

And this was the tone of this meeting, quieter than others but cosy and warm, sharing snippets of poetry and exchanging words of appreciation. Much like Cowper’s poetry it has been unpretentious and comforting, perfect for such a windy evening.

Monday 16 March 2020

Journal of the Plague Year 2020 (Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh)

Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh

The week that containment spread throughout Europe started fairly low key with a general low grumbling noise about virus and shut-downs but all this in some vague future. 

Coming into Samuel Johnson’s House for my volunteering session, the trains were as busy as they usually are and although the first conversation was about coronavirus, the rest of the day was no different from other weeks. Plenty of people came in to see the museum and although they weren’t as chatty as I’d have liked, that had nothing to do with the virus.

Going into Tescos and there was no sign of panic-buying (or even panick-buying as Twitter had it). It could be that I eat my main meals at work and only pop into the small shops for top ups, but none of them seemed any emptier than usual.

A friend of mine was chatted up in a strange way. A man pretended to cough on her and then told her that she didn’t need to worry as black people can’t catch corona. I can’t say she seemed too pleased with this chatting up techniques but seeing as other first lines have included, “let me lick your arsehole” and “it won’t suck itself”, it matched the general levels of Harlesden Romance.

At school, the children have take to playing coronavirus it, they chase each other, pretend to cough and then their hands represent spray and if you’re touched, you’re it. It’s impressive how they fit the real world into their games - during the 2011 riots, they played cops and looters.

On Tuesday, I went to my usual Dr Johnson's House Reading Circle. There were half the numbers than usual, though this was claimed to be due to other commitments and not virus worries. It turned out very well in the end, poems are nicer in a small group and there was twice as much wine to go around.

On Wednesday, Cobra met to discuss moving the phase of governmental response from containment t delaying, a stage that might include shutting schools. I was under the impression that we were already in delaying but must of been wrong. It was a ticklish moment when a guilty sigh rippled through the staff room when it was declared we wouldn’t move up a stage yet. It was a sigh encapsulating worry, irritation, a longing for some bonus days off and a guilt about what those days off would represent.

In Italy, the entire country went into lockdown. There have been regular heartwarming scenes of streets and estates singing together. Partly I am heartwarmed but partly I am horrorstruck.How annoying I would find it if I were at home self-isolating and all these noisy people forced their rubbish music at me. There was one video where two separate people in a tower block had squeezeboxes, that's against the Geneva Convention, isn't it?.

The same guilty sigh sped around the school the next day when Cobra met again to decide we would move to the delaying phase but that they wouldn’t actually implement anything. The advice being to stay in with a cough and to wash hands as often as feasible. On this day Ireland declared a two month shut down of schools, the next day every other country in Europe declared it would shut its schools also. Have to admit I felt a little left out, as on the same day this was announced, the school held a practise offsted with inspectors they paid to come. 

Indeed, as the week went on, it seemed a personal affront to keep the school’s open, like there was someone somewhere who really wants me to get it. The conspiracies online suggest that this might actually be the case, that the government want people like me to get it and get over it to provide a buffer should it come again. Ours seems the only government trying this particular method of dealing with the virus.

Will it work?

I’m not convinced.

Entry One: A Cough in a Box (22.2.20 - 28.2.20)
(Coronavirus is a rumble among other stories but silly stories start early.)

Entry Two: Eat More Garlic (29.2.20 - 6.3.20) 
(A song and a wash, rising paranoia.)

Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh (7.3.20-13.3.20) 

(Confusion at school, a new variation on 'it' and a new chat up line.)

Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat (14.3.20-20.3.20) 

(A week at school where it's open, closed then repurposed as something else.)

Wednesday 11 March 2020

Review: The Strange Adventures of the Count de Vinevil and his Family by Penelope Aubin

Today’s text from the Oxford Anthology of Popular Fiction by Women 1660-1730 is a really juicy one, horribly ‘perfect’ characters, weird attitudes to women and lashings upon lashings of Islamophobia and racism, there’s something in here for everyone.

The Strange Adventures of the Count de Vinevil and his Family. was written by Penelope Aubin, who wanted to redeem the novel’s bad reputation for saucy little love stories and use the format to show people of great virtue acting in admirable ways in difficult circumstances. She’s explicit about this in her preface. She’s also explicit about setting it in a foreign setting to capitalise on the success of Robinson Crusoe and the title pages tease something more of a shipwreck story than we get. The majority of the novel is set in Turkey, making use of the same ‘Eastern’ archetypes that are examined a little more subtly in Johnson’s play, Irene. It must be said that Aubin knew who to ride trends and tailor her work to taste and she knew it, saying;
“If this trifle sells, I conclude it takes, and you may be sure to hear from me again.” She was very popular, writing another four novels that year.

We are introduced to the Count of Vinevil and his family. He is of noble blood but having been an uncorrupt official, is now rather down on his funds and decides to trade with Muslims in Constantinople. He was a daughter called Ardelisa who is beautiful and looks after a young man, the Count of Longueville.  While Ardelisa (our main character) is barely described, Longueville gets attributed an entire page of perfections, so of course I hate him instantly. The young couple are in love by default and Longueville declares that he plans to be, ‘lover, husband and father’ to Ardelisa, a declaration that surprisingly doesn’t get him banned from going anywhere near her again.

Things are instantly alarming when they enter Turkish waters, catch sight of the Haigh Sofia and Longueville warns Ardelisa that they are not in Kansas anymore but in a place full of, “odious mosques, where the vile imposter’s name is echoed through the empty choirs and vaults where cursed Mahometans profane the sacred piles.” Ecumenism hasn’t reached him yet.

Pretty much as soon as they set up shop, they wish they hadn’t, particularly due to the oppressive fondness of an important Turkish Bassa called Mahomet for Ardelisa. Hearing of a plan to have their goods stolen and innocent woman stolen for a harem, they make a plan for the Count de Longueville to sneak out of the bay and Ardelisa to stay at a friends. Before they put this into effect though, the Count de Longueville begs for marriage to Ardelisa in case the plan goes wrong. This isn’t presented as a romantic act so much as a practical one, Longueville wants to marry her so they can have sex as it would “be so wretched to lose her unenjoyed.”(I’m not sure I’ve written the word ‘yeuch’ quite so many times in my notes with any book as this one).

He also gives her a motivational talk where he encourages her to kill herself if captured as although her virtue is strong, “force does oft prevail” and he would “be completely cursed to hear you live and are debauched”. It is here we see Penelope Aubin the canny worker of the book trade, for a book dedicated to ‘honour and piety’ and is obvious she is also trying to titillate her audience, teasing a dramatic rape or escape.

When the moment does happen, it happens in dramatic fashion. Mahomet is a brute who loves the notion of killing christians declaring he means to leave nothing in the household but “speechless ghosts and murdered carcasses” and that he will capture Ardelisa and “force her to give up her treasures to me.” When he finds Count Vinevil, her father, he orders his men to, “bring her naked from her bed that I may ravish her before the dotard’s face”. But the plan has worked, Ardelisa is at a friend’s house, so he stabs the Count de Vinevil and that’s the end of the title character of this text. To be fair, that’s the best scene, it may be hammy and revels in its rapey imagery but it has the more life than the rest of the novel.

The bulk of the novel consists of Ardelisa, her maid and their servant moving about and hiding in one of the many comfortable little Christian hermitages that seem to litter the countryside. As they do this, they gather quite the retinue. For a few tense paragraphs, they are are caught and the women are put in a harem, luckily for them, the person who has captured them falls from grace with the Sultan and is imprisoned and they escape in the confusion with yet more people.

Finally they put to sea. The ship is wrecked in a storm on a deserted island in the Mediterranean. Here they have more trouble finding food and the tension builds until another ship turns up. There’s some discussion about the relationship between Violetta, a woman picked up at the harem, and the ship’s captain. The issue is, that she has had sex when she was in the harem and as a wife (though against her will) considers herself still married to him. This is quickly solved with news that he has been executed and takes them all to France along with the many gems they seem to have gathered along the way.

The last part is completely baffling. The odious Count of Longueville, who we last saw having a quick wedding and sneaking goods out of Constantinople has reached France ahead of them and is in a Monastery and about to become a monk. Instead of going straight to him and declaring that she lives, Ardelisa decides to send a message that she has died. Why? I’m not sure. Possibly for giggles, to see what he has done, or because she has a similar opinion of the Count of Longueville as I do - not sure.

It makes sense this novel ends with an act bother pointless and cruel as it sums up the experience of the rest of it. I recommend this one only to enjoy hating it.

Monday 9 March 2020

Journal of the Plague Year 2020 (Entry Two: Eat More Garlic)

Entry Two: Eat More Garlic
(29.2.20 - 6.3.20)

It’s been over this week that coronavirus has really come to the forefront of people’s mind. There are statistics everywhere; 1% death rate, possibly 3.5. That all the residents of London have a 50% chance of catching it, possibly a 75% chance. Even 1% of 50% of 9 million is a lot.

On Tuesday, a friend was telling me how her graduation had been cancelled and that she was worried. Worried about the virus but also worried about her Easter wedding being cancelled, or a dud which no-one would come to. They’ve cut back the release of the new Bond film till November for similar realise, that film can’t catch a break. The new Bond song has already been released, it doesn’t really start until the last thirty seconds.

There’s no official word at the school about what will happen if the virus hits us. There’s no official notification (or consent) about all the cameras yet, so I’m not surprised. The rumour is that the Head has said we’ll carry on regardless, teaching whichever kids turn up with whatever teachers are left.

The biggest change in the school is that we actually have soap now. The government’s recommendation is that everyone gets in the habit of washing their hands more than five times a day, for twenty seconds a time, roughly how long it takes to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice. I’ve acquired a veritable jukebox of songs, mostly bits of The Beggar’s Opera and other old songs. Belting out a bit of ‘Mirie it is’ whilst washing my hands has become something of a highlight of my day. This does mean I’ve thrice forgotten to do up my flies and all this washing is making my hands feel pretty rotten.

Apparently, the government are at a stage of their plan called delaying. The hope is not to prevent a mass outbreak but to push back the inevitable until the summer. This gives more time for research and preparation but also separates the cases of normal winter flu from the coronavirus. I can’t help having the selfish hope that it hits sooner and that I get some time off work. It’d be so dispiriting to have to put up with a stressful year of work and then spend my time off sick or in quarantine.

One of the weirdest theories I’ve yet heard was expressed to me on Wednesday by someone at work. In their view, this strain of virus didn’t come from China but has been in London all this year. Her evidence for this is the fact that she had a winter cold at the beginning of February. I’m not convinced. Possibly weirder than that is the theory that coronavirus has been purposely created to kill old people and give governments cash boosts from death duty. I’m not convinced of that either. 

A friend told me that her friends would not go to an Italian restaurant because the virus has spread to Italy. How do people think illnesses are spread, through words and thoughts?

In a slight detour from coronavirus news, on Tuesday I saw a strange van on the way home from work. It looked like a police van but was labelled ‘immigration’. On Wednesday, four of these vans lurked at the end of my road. Perhaps I’m growing paranoid, what with these vans and the CCTV at work, I’m feeling watched. It’s not that I see dark forces manoeuvring against me so much as dark forces manoeuvring against someone. 

What’s more, I’ve become hyper-aware of my body. Every premonition of a headache, every slight raise in my temperature, every heaviness of limb obtains a greater significance. Am I getting sick? Have I ever been well?

There hasn’t been any panic buying as far as I’ve seen but when I went to my local chemist/health-food shop to get some interesting tea, the weird lady over the counter was speaking in hushed voices to a customer. They had no big pots of hand sanitiser themselves, but the weird lady over the counter had whipped up some of her own. She also recommended eating as much garlic as possible.

Garlic, yeah, that’ll do it.

I’m not convinced.

Entry One: A Cough in a Box (22.2.20 - 28.2.20)
(Coronavirus is a rumble among other stories but silly stories start early.)

Entry Two: Eat More Garlic (29.2.20 - 6.3.20) 
(A song and a wash, rising paranoia.)

Entry Three: A Guilty Sigh (7.3.20-13.3.20) 

(Confusion at school, a new variation on 'it' and a new chat up line.)

Entry Four: A Week as Schrödinger's cat (14.3.20-20.3.20) 

(A week at school where it's open, closed then repurposed as something else.)