Circles of light

April 18, 2020 0 Comments

A virus, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is ‘an infectious, often pathogenic agent or biological entity … able to function only within the living cells of a host animal, plant, or microorganism’.  It’s a dark and invisible thing, that threatens suffering and destruction.  William Blake knew about the terrors it would bring:

O Rose thou art sick. 
The invisible worm, 
That flies in the night 
In the howling storm: 

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy

A corona, though, seems to belong to an altogether more benign, or even transcendent world.  According to the OED, a corona is a small circle or disc of light appearing around the sun – a kind of echo of our home star.  Blake was once asked, ‘When the sun rises, do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?’   ‘O no no’, he replied, ‘I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty’.

It’s curious that the period of coronavirus lockdown we’ve all been through so far in this country has coincided with a long spell of sun-dominated weather – day after day of warmth, cloudless skies and spectacular sunsets.  For some the contrast of pain, death and fear on the one hand, and irradiating brightness on the other, has been sinister or disturbing.  But there can’t be much doubt that most have welcomed the sun as a rare comfort.

But there are other comforts, and here are a few of the ‘circles of light’ that have kept me afloat amidst the sea of appalling news on the effects of the virus.


We’re lucky to have a garden, and a wood not far away, so birds are constant visitors.  Down one side of the garden runs a beech hedge, which we (and our neighbours) have allowed to middle-age-spread, sideways and up, since the early 90s.  The result is that it’s become a Premier Inn for local house sparrows.  In and on the hedge, families of them nest, parade and eye the world, including the miniature lido and the take-away, which serves seeds, fatballs and other delicacies.  (One night we caught a badger jemmying his way into this restaurant).

The elasticated version of time that has come with lockdown has given us far more opportunity than normal to watch birds closely at their spring best – not just sparrows, but woodpeckers, tits and finches, magpies, jays and crows, robins and wrens, pigeons and starlings.  Last night, after dark, a blackbird landed on the TV aerial just outside the open attic window, and sang, in long recitatives, for ten minutes and more.  This morning a silent crow has resumed its usual seat on the topmost branch of a conifer at the bottom of next door’s garden, an all-black surveillance camera.  Birds, oblivious of Covid-19 and unaffected by it, console us just by occupying an alternative, parallel world.


We may be housebound, but at least we’re all licensed to leave the house once a day on foot to ‘exercise’.  Walking is one way.  But somehow walking has lost its ecstasy.  I miss the essential qualities that make it so special as a way of moving the body around.  I feel, if not under surveillance, at least under a duty to avoid ‘excessive’ length, and to avoid ‘loitering’, which could be construed as non-exercise.  Just as important, you can’t any longer walk in abstracted or preoccupied mode, or release the mind into neutral.  Walking has become like driving a car, an exact science of mechanical awareness: you need to look ahead constantly and anticipate what other pedestrians are doing, in case you have to cross the road, leave the path or take other evasive action.

Running is somehow less frustrating, even though it calls for the same extreme spatial awareness.  It uses up more energy than ‘prison yard walking’.  And it can be exciting.  For the first time in my life I realise I’ve the capacity for exciting panic and fear in other people.  I sense their frozen alarm and frantic calculation (this man must be ‘shedding’ bucket-loads of virus), before they grasp that my glacially slow speed is no threat, and that I won’t come anywhere near them anyway.  I’ve also had to abandon my decades-old cliff-path route and use my imagination to devise new routes, instead of switching off the manual direction controls.


Yesterday a small parcel came through the letterbox: a CD of Scarlatti sonatas from the pianist Angela Hewitt, complete with her autograph.  Domenico Scarlatti – short, fast, clever, blissful – is the most 21st century of baroque composers, and ideal for lockdown listening.  Miniatures in general seem to suit an easily distracted attention.  Most days Angela Hewitt sends out a tiny Twitter recital from her piano room at home.  Her miraculously nimble fingers flash across the keys in mirror image.  I look forward to the next episode with absurd avidity: often it’s Bach (today’s is one of the Goldberg Variations).  Daily doses of good things act as a kind of antidote to each evening’s appalling roll-call of more lives cut short by the virus.

Strangely, I find the plague is slowly shrinking my usually catholic music tastes to one predominant type, classical music.  Radio 3 seems to be on most of the day.  It’s impossible not to admire the calm, invention and gentle humanity of the presenters as they try to help us shore up our musical defences against death.

Dreaming utopias

Opinion polls report that support for the Tory government has soared.  It’s hard to believe that this can be true, since our government seems to have handled the corona crisis in a uniquely incompetent and untrustworthy way – or it would be unique but for Donald Trump.  But so many things are hard to believe at present.

One of the most depressing daily events is the televised press conference, each featuring a triad of slippery ministers and grey-grim scientists.  They remind me of the three implacable Fates or Moirai of Greek mythology, spinning, measuring and cutting the thread of life.  As an antidote, I find myself dreaming about a post-virus future.  A better future, where our society and economy are ordered in a quite different way.  Where bankers, TV stars and lawyers earn no more than the minimum wage, and where nurses, cleaners and care workers have enough money to own their own homes.  Where Donald Trump, blinded by a Damascene light, signs orders to tear down the Mexican wall, ban gun ownership and introduce a national health service.  The dreams need turning into plans, debates and campaigns. Some are beginning to agitate, like the 170 Dutch academics who’ve just posted a five-point manifesto for a fairer, more sustainable post-Covid economic system. 


TV talking heads have found it hard to adjust to appearing remotely from their homes.  The lighting’s all wrong, and so is the angle: we see as much of their necks as their faces.  But gradually some of them are learning the techniques, and especially how to get the background right.  What’s surprised me is that many of them – not just academics, but politicians and commentators – judge that full bookshelves are the right backdrop for their heads.  Calculated badges of authority and scholarship they may be, but they also reflect a fact of coronavirus life: books are back.

Not just electronic or even just audio books, either, but the real things: wood-pulp codices.  One of the commonest lists in what’s left of traditional journalism are lists of books recommended for lockdown use, especially books that take a long time to read.  Personally, I find long books hard to concentrate on at present (writing is somehow easier than reading).  But I’ve returned to books collected in earlier times, and I listen to books late at night, when the eyes are tired, like Philip Hoare’s inspired multivocal Moby-Dick big read and (just started) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner big read.  And the collecting continues: the only parcel that’s better than a CD arriving through the post is a book.

I could add more kinds of comfort: bread-making, for example, or conversations over the fence with our neighbours, or making homemade Octonaut puppet videos for four-year olds.  But the very word ‘comfort’ is uncomfortable, because it advertises that for which it is a distraction: the ‘invisible worm’, working its insidious way around the world.  We feel uncomfortable about our safe distance from the battle against it. And about our feeling of helplessness in the face of it (after all, a lockdown is a very traditional, medieval response to a dangerous virus).

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