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Keeping in touch, virtually: two publications from the time of distancing

Keeping in touch, virtually: two publications from the time of distancing

Untitled, 2020, (The London Magazine: edited by Matthew Scott and available from Lucy Binnersley at the magazine’s headquarters at 11 Queen’s Gate, London, SW7 5EL)

Quarantine, (Muscaliet Press: edited by Moyra Tourlamain and available on the Press’s website at https://www.muscaliet.co.uk/the-quarantine-notebooks/)

Dated June this year Matthew Scott’s Preface to The London Magazine’s powerful collection of writings arising out of the Covid-19 lock-down opens with a quotation from Samuel Beckett: ‘a mind like the one I always had, always on the alert against itself’. That use of the word ‘alert’ places the importance of what will follow in a very particular time-frame:

‘To be alert to complacencies of thought is surely a good thing but Beckett’s phrase also seems to imply a mind at work against its own well-being. In my case, that quality of the mind working against itself has been a mark of this difficult period; clarity of thought becoming clouded by an oppressive form of uncertainty even more quickly than usual. This surely comes from being without many of the accustomed means to escape the narrow confines of the individual consciousness when it feels cooped up.’

Feeling ‘cooped up’ raises interesting issues about imprisonment and one aspect of the last few months has been the manner in which time seems to change. In ‘Faraway Close’, a title in which contradictories bump into each other, Elleke Boehmer writes about how, as one lockdown day follows another, time passes but ‘lacks texture’:

‘One week on, it is difficult to remember what we did last Monday or Tuesday’.

The Oxford Professor of World Literature proceeds to focus upon how lockdown ‘has made the idea of distant proximity immediate and present in ways I could not have anticipated’ and suggests that ‘we needed a new vocabulary for talking about being remote together, an oxymoronic lexicon for feeling each other across distance, for thinking as one across the miles, faraway but close’. The merging of distance and nearness must be ever present in the mind of the prisoner and Xavier de Maistre’s 1794 undertaking of a forty-two days’ journey around his room when he was under arrest in Turin is a disturbingly contemporary insight into the world of virtual reality:

‘I have undertaken and performed a forty-two days’ journey round my room. The interesting observations I have made, and the constant pleasure I have experienced all along the road, made me wish to publish my travels.’

The prisoner here delights in ‘being able thus to expand the soul’s existence’ in a way that might remind one of the world of Dickens’s Little Dorrit which is referred to Quarantine 6 as the wife of Plornish the plasterer creates her fictional reality by means of the decoration of her living room: she paints the outside of a thatched country cottage on the inside of her cramped walls in Bleeding Heart Yard near Clerkenwell. For the inhabitants of this claustrophobic tenement which exists below the level of the main streets of London this interior decoration is ‘a most wonderful deception’ and ‘it made no difference that Mrs Plornish’s eye was some inches above the level of the gable bed-room in the thatch’: pictures can encourage the mind to escape from the narrow confines of physical space. However, whereas the uplifting sentimentality of a film such as The Shawshank Redemption which offers us full-length photographs of film stars acting as cover for a literal passage to freedom, what is remarkably moving about Untitled, 2020 is its quiet understanding of a more mundane and convincingly real human predicament. Matthew Scott’s Preface points out that we cannot all be like de Maistre (nor Mrs. Plornish) and the ‘pleasures of domesticity and the consolations of the ordinary are at least in part granted by our capacity to escape them from time to time.’
Peter Robinson’s contribution to The London Magazine’s collection involves both reminiscence and shrewd awareness. He vividly recalls for us his years involved with teaching in Japan and of living in Parma and ‘Parmese Days’ echoes Matthew Scott’s thoughts about the need for life outside confinement:

‘During the last few weeks, I have heard some writers say, whether on the radio or privately, that this lockdown has not radically disrupted their necessarily withdrawn working-from-home lives’.

As Robinson points out this is mostly not true for him since so much of his work for about nine months of the year ‘would normally include face-to-face meetings with colleagues and students’. For Simon Smith in Quarantine 9 (24th May)

‘it is evening
me tight up on the microphone & microscope
intent on the details
unseen to the eye
& the covenant that part
to inhabit the space between perimeter fence & watchtower’

whereas Suzi Feay writes a piece in Untitled, 2020 which strikes a convincingly understated awareness of these times as she notes that ‘when there’s nothing happening out there, occurrences in here loom larger’:

‘My subconscious, desperate for input, now goes into overdrive at night, instantly processing the skimpy contents of the day into dreams.’

And again Moyra Tourlamain’s poem ‘Lockdown let loose’ in Quarantine 10 brings into focus how

‘This bit’s pulling all the stops
Out of mind, heart
Skull and bones the next
Best foot forward to stay
In the same place.’

Ian Brinton 26th July 2020

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