This week saw the anniversary of the first COVID lockdown in the UK. Here are a few notes I’ve made over the past twelve months — a little disjointed, perhaps, but all with a pandemic thread running through them.
A year ago, I began taking walks. I’m lucky: from our house I can get out into the open countryside in just a few minutes, usually without encountering anyone. If I do see someone coming along the pavement, one of us will cross the road or find space to step aside and allow the other to pass, at which point we always nod in greeting or thanks. I walk as frequently as I can, usually every other morning. Thanks to the lockdown, I’ve explored the surrounding fields and woods for the first time since we moved here three and a half years ago. I’ve seen it all; if there’s a public footpath within an hour’s walk, I’ve been there.
I take photographs, sometimes, of the tracks and paths ahead of me, leading through fields, along streams, over bridges. When I started taking the photos, I wondered if I’d see in them evidence of the impact of the pandemic, occasional small details of how radically life has changed. ‘No entry’ signs, shut-down pubs, neglected farms. But really, there has been nothing; everything appears as it always has. Although, in that observation, I suppose I’m revealing a typical human blind spot. If not for the pandemic, I wouldn’t be here. The change in the landscape is me.
In July last year, after the easing of the first lockdown, I drove into London to pick up a few things from the office. It was the first time in months I’d been into the city or any built-up area. It struck me how much worse it must’ve been for people in large towns and cities, how much more acute the sense of isolation. Constant reminders in the urban landscape of how everything has changed. Surrounded by people, but seeing no-one. I read somewhere of the crisis: we’re all in this struggle together, but each of us is doing it alone. And in the media, there’s just one news story, everything bends to it, and this, too, adds to the feeling of isolation.
Imagine you’re a peasant in medieval Europe. It’s an unusually hot spring morning and you’ve taken shelter in the small church in your village. After the bright sunlight, the church interior is almost entirely dark. There are a few narrow windows which provide little light, and some candles. The nave is silent and cold, but you feel comforted: you’re sheltering here not only from the heat but also from the plague. Scores have died already, and the disease will not be satisfied until half the village is gone. But you’re safe here: the angels will protect you. You look up at them now, just visible in the altarpiece above your head. The flickering of the candlelight makes them look like they are moving, and to you, there is no difference between the illusion of that motion and the real movements of living beings. I want you to try hard to imagine that. It’s difficult, but not impossible, to comprehend how radically different your view of the world would have been. Today we recognise the difference between the representation of the thing and the thing itself, but in the Middle Ages, there was a fluid relationship between the two. Paintings and the stories they told were not ‘realistic’, they were part of reality, interwoven into people’s lives and the world around them. It seems absurd, impossible to imagine, but really it’s not that much of a leap. Even today, the boundaries between flickering images and what they represent are blurred.
The history of vaccination can be written as a story of fear and fake news. The story usually starts with Edward Jenner, who, in 1796, infected a young boy with pus from a cowpox sore to see if it would protect him from smallpox. Smallpox was a deadly disease that had killed millions; cowpox is a much milder illness. Jenner had heard that milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox but, through their work, were widely exposed to cowpox. Had cowpox given them immunity to smallpox? After infecting the boy, he spent months repeatedly exposing him to smallpox, to no ill effect. The boy remained healthy. Jenner’s arguably cruel persecution of a child became the celebrated genesis of modern vaccination. Smallpox killed hundreds of millions of people over a period of centuries, but by the end of the 20th century it had been eradicated — the first and only time a human disease has been entirely defeated.
The word vaccination itself is a celebration of Jenner’s story — it comes from vacca, Latin for cow. But before vaccination, we had variolation — a form of smallpox inoculation that had already existed, in various forms, for hundreds of years. Whereas vaccination used low-risk cowpox, variolation would expose people to deadly smallpox itself in a way that, supposedly, gave you a mild case of the disease from which you emerged possibly damaged, but, crucially, immune from future infection. It could, however, still result in your death. Added to this, variolated subjects were a high infection risk to others — inoculating someone this way meant potentially causing an outbreak of the disease in a previously healthy community. Vaccination avoided these risks.
You’d imagine, given its clear advantages, vaccination would have replaced the old style of inoculation virtually overnight. Instead, people were suspicious of the new method and resisted the change, and the two competing treatments were used concurrently for decades. Despite the evidence, and the horrors of the alternatives, there were concerns about the vaccine’s safety. Vaccine scepticism was widespread. It worried many that the treatment originated in cows: James Gillray’s famous satirical cartoon (‘The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!’) shows Jenner’s patients sprouting cow parts from their arms, necks, faces. Parents refused to vaccinate their children, even though the young were more at risk from smallpox than adults. Newspapers helped fuel people’s fears. Although scientists argued vaccination’s case — not only was it less risky than variolation, it was also more effective — for a long time, their words had no effect on political or public opinion. Again and again, personal freedom and individual choice trumped the greater good. In a parliamentary debate over a proposed ban of variolation, one speaker opposing the motion declared: ‘The liberty of doing wrong was still left among the privileges of free-born Englishmen’.
If not for a catch-up on Facebook last week I might have been oblivious to Cape Town’s unfolding environmental catastrophe. A casual browse of my timeline revealed that most of my South African friends have been posting about little else for weeks. The water reserves are running dry and the day Capetonians turn on their taps and nothing comes out — Day Zero, currently pegged for 19 April — is now less than a couple of months away. Learning this is a complete disconnect for me; this is not the Cape Town of my youth, when we were lashed by winter rains yearly. It pains me how out of touch I am with my hometown. My mother and I have a FaceTime chat every Sunday, but she’s never mentioned Day Zero. Is it actually happening?
Then today I have a couple of text conversations on WhatsApp that are like despatches from a post-apocalyptic future. My step-brother, R, is travelling from his home in New Zealand to Cape Town for his first visit in years. R, and his sister, V, are the children of my step-father from his first marriage. My mother isn’t their mother, their father isn’t my father, but somehow we are a family. We call our parents ‘the folks’. R has flown for a day and reached Dubai, where he will pause for a couple of days before flying on. A picture arrives in WhatsApp that may or may not show his hotel. I’m hazy on the details.
When I get to the folks’ place, his message reads, I’m installing some water tanks and a generator. Don’t they already have a plan? I ask. They do not, he replies. I’ll set up a couple of water tanks and filter the swimming pool water. Pump the water into the tanks. With the right treatment it can be drinkable — five thousand litres should get them through two months at eighty litres per day. When it rains (if it rains) they’ll catch the rainwater. I tell him he’s a hero and a saint. All the same, I picture him in a sun lounger at his hotel pool, typing these messages with one hand, sipping a Mai Tai with the other. There is, of course, the unspoken guilt: he’s flying out there to actually do something about a drought while I huddle in damp Kent, complaining about the storms and the rain. On my commute to London I walk over the river Eden which looks closer by the day to bursting its banks.
I have a photograph of myself in that pool taken more than twenty years ago. I’m holding my arms in front of my face while my mother sprays water on me from the garden hose. The sun is shining, we’re both laughing. It’s an image from a past that already seems like it never happened, a past that should have never happened. The white South African dream is crumbling. The only surprise is that it’s taking this long.
Next, a message comes in from Port Elizabeth, from one of my oldest friends, T. He has some time on his hands as he’s just fumigated his house and he’s sitting in the garden waiting for the poisonous air to clear. I mention Cape Town’s impending Day Zero and R’s plans for the water tanks. Yes, he says, they’re in deep shit down there. We’re not doing so great up here, either. I’ve got a water tank myself. Why were you fumigating? I ask. Fleas, he says. A plague of fleas. Not locusts, not yet.
We are in, at last. The cottage in Kent, with its shabby textured wallpaper and dated bathroom, is finally our home. What’s more, I’ve left London after nearly twenty-five years — half my life.
Z and I will need to adjust to a longer commute. As we’re heading into winter, we’ll be setting out to work before sunrise and returning long after sunset — coming and going in the dark. On weekends we’ll hunker down indoors, occasionally looking out our back windows at dormant gardens and sodden fields but never quite plucking up the nerve to get out there. We have enough painting and decorating to keep us busy inside; outdoors can wait until the spring.
Our house is one of a short row of terraced cottages down a quiet cul-de-sac. One by one, the neighbours have introduced themselves. Everyone has been friendly and chipper — this is the countryside, after all. Most have chatted a minute or two before moving off politely with the usual anything-you-need-just-ask, although one distinguished himself with his affability and offers of help. M, our immediate neighbour to the right, introduced himself over the garden fence one afternoon. He is possibly in his seventies, has a heavy brow and a from-under stare that makes him at first a little intimidating, but when he speaks, his face brightens. My daughter was craning to get a look at him, so I picked her up, and M smiled generously at her. He seemed completely at ease talking to her, even though she was too shy to reply. He repeated the now-familiar offers of help, with an odd emphasis on lending us hardware. Whatever you do, he said, don’t go out and buy any nails. I’ve got tins and tins of the bloody things in the shed if you ever need some. I thanked him for his offer. How’s the lawn? he asked, pointing at the ankle-deep grass. I can sort that out for you if you like. No, no, we couldn’t possibly, I said. It’s no trouble, he insisted and wandered off. A few days later, I got home from work and the grass had been cut. There is a gate at the bottom of our garden for access to a shared lane along the back of the cottages. M clearly just wheeled his mower in there and got on with it without another word.
In the following weeks, we saw little of M and continued to settle into the new house. Then, one bright but cold Sunday morning, as I was walking home from the shop, M threw open his front room window and stuck out an arm. Hi, hi! he shouted. Moments later, he shot out of his front door and gestured down the side lane. Come, I must show you the sewage pipe. Do you have a moment? Only we’re going away next month, and if anything happens, someone needs to know how to fix it. We don’t want the whole road backing up and shit everywhere.
He led me in the side gate to his back garden, explaining as he went that the only access to the sewage pipe that ran down our side of the road, connecting all the houses, was through a drain cover on his back terrace. He took a metal hook from behind a plant pot and pulled up the cover, revealing a shallow concrete hole with a section of open plastic drain pipe visible at the bottom of it which seemed unusually narrow. Surprisingly, the smell wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d expected.
It blocked up only once before, said M, but it was good and solid, make no mistake. If it happens again, although I don’t suppose it will, but if it does, you’ll have to have a go at shoving these down it. He got a tangle of poles out from behind his shed — specialist plumbers’ drain rods. The front rod had a rubber stopper at one end and a thread for screwing in the extensions at the other. M demonstrated, fastening together a few sections, but before he could shove them down the pipe, a slurry of turd and toilet paper floated past, and with it a stench and a terrible sucking sound. Ah, well, there you go, said M. We watched and waited for the drain to clear. M rested the end of the rod on his boot. In the pause, my mind went to a passage in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being which I read as a student and has stuck with me all of these — what? thirty years? Even though the sewer pipelines reach far into our houses with their tentacles, the passage goes, they are carefully hidden from view, and we are happily ignorant of the invisible Venice of excrement underlying our bathrooms, bedrooms, dance halls and parliaments.
Unbearable Lightness was a set work in a modern fiction course that I took at university. It had been run by novelist Andre Brink who was then head of the Department of Afrikaans and Nederlands at Rhodes University, where I studied in the early 1990s. Brink’s introductory lectures took us through canonical works of modernist and postmodernist fiction. I’m surprised how well I remember them, or snatches of them: Don Quixote riding out on quest after failed quest, inventing and reinventing himself. Tristram Shandy’s Corporal Trim gesturing with his walking stick, and the line it follows through the air is drawn right there on the printed page. I remember how Brink, seated in the small seminar room where the course was held, tumbled his hand through the air as he spoke, then let it settle on his desk. I have a clear recollection of that, can see it as if I’m still sat in my seat at the back of the room. I’d have to say that I was a little in awe of the famous novelist who sat so casually before me, lightly animated with an understated passion for his favourite books. I could have raised my hand at any time and asked a question, but I never did, I never once spoke to him. He died in 2015.
On that course, he showed us a different way to look at stories. He planted a seed, and without it I might never have asked why it is we are so insistent in conveying truth the way we do — as neat stories that hold a mirror to reality — and just how irresponsible it is to pretend it’s a trick we can actually pull off. Kundera seemed to be a favourite of his. I was captivated by the book, reading it quickly, far quicker than many of the set works for my English literature course which seemed, at the time, so turgid and heavy by comparison. It was a marvel to me that the novel could dispense with a linear storyline so effortlessly, jumping back and forth in time, giving away the ending at the beginning, and yet be propelled by another logic and be no less compelling or rewarding a read in spite of it. It seemed a magic trick.
I had read one of Brink’s novels in high school for an assignment in English class. It is perhaps the one he is best known for and which landed him in some trouble with the South African authorities at the time: A Dry White Season. I suppose I must have chosen it perversely, mischievously, knowing that it had been banned by the apartheid government, and to take it into a state school, to deliver a précis of it to a class of teenaged boys, would have felt like a rebellious act, an open provocation. In the event, though, nothing came of it. My English teacher, Mr K, was liberal in his outlook and, rather than provoked would most likely have been secretly pleased with my choice. My book report came and went without comment or even a raised eyebrow, which seems odd, looking back. The perception today of 1980s South Africa is of a fascist state replete with tight censorship and authoritarian control. Make no mistake, it was, but there are these unusual anomalies. A Dry White Season (the title is taken from a poem by Mongane Wally Sarote: it is a dry white season brother, only the trees know the pain as they still stand erect / dry like steel, their branches dry like wire, / indeed, it is a dry white season but seasons come to pass) tells the story of Ben du Toit, a white school teacher in 1970s Johannesburg, an ostensibly conservative member of the middle-class elite, whose political conscience is slowly awakened by the murder in police custody of Gordon Ngubene, a black man who works for him as a gardener. I remember only fragments of the novel, and I’m sure much of what I remember is, in fact, from the film adaptation. It was made in 1989 and starred Donald Sutherland as du Toit and Marlon Brando as the lawyer he hires to find justice for the murdered man. My strongest recollection is of a line mumbled by Brando: Truth and the law are distant cousins at the best of times. In South Africa, they’re simply not on speaking terms.
In that same year, I took part in the English Eisteddfod, a kind of national schools festival encouraging extracurricular interest in literature. (The word eisteddfod sounds so alien to me now, a word I’ve not used in over thirty years, and seems a relic from another life, another world. In fact, it’s from Wales.) The subject of that year’s eisteddfod was Athol Fugard, a South African playwright known for anti-apartheid protest theatre. We focused on his play The Island, about cellmates John and Winston, political prisoners on Robben Island, the one-time island prison in Cape Town’s Table Bay where Nelson Mandela served eighteen years of his twenty-seven-year sentence. Scene one of the play starts without dialogue: John and Winston shovel sand back and forth in a ‘moat of harsh, white light’. The stage directions read:
It is an image of back-breaking and grotesquely futile labour. Each, in turn, fills a wheelbarrow and then, with great effort, pushes it to where the other man is digging and empties it. As a result, the piles of sand never diminish. Their labour is interminable. The only sounds are their grunts as they dig, the squeal of the wheelbarrows as they circle the cell, and the hum of Hodoshe, the green carrion fly.
Later, back in their cell, John and Winston rehearse for a performance of Antigone that they will perform in the prison. Winston will play Antigone, the sister of Polynices, a man the state, in the form of King Creon, has declared a traitor. When Polynices is killed in battle, Creon decrees that his body must be left as carrion on the battlefield and to remove it would be a crime punishable by death. Nonetheless, Antigone defies Creon and buries her brother. Creon, who is also Antigone’s uncle, sentences his niece to death for her treasonous act of conscience and loyalty. In their cell on the island, Winston tries on his Antigone costume for the first time and John laughs, humiliating his friend, as he crassly makes fun of his long hair and false breasts. Winston throws down the costume and refuses to have any more to do with the play, and John must work hard to get him back on board. He argues that while the other prisoners might laugh at first, they will stop soon enough when they hear what Antigone has to say to them.
There’ll come a time when they will stop laughing, and that will be the time when our Antigone hits them with her words.
The Island ends with their performance, a play-within-a-play. Antigone is sentenced and, before she can be led away to her prison, an island, she delivers her parting speech, and the final words of the play. She tears off her wig, becoming Winston again, and addresses the audience:
Gods of our Fathers! My Land! My Home! Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honour belongs.
What were we to make of this? A group of sheltered white schoolboys in 1980s South Africa, mostly oblivious to the realities of apartheid, thrown suddenly into discussions about political conscience — how did we react? I don’t remember if, at the time, I made much sense of the political complexities of the play, but nonetheless, its rebellion and anger made an impression on me. There was a side to South Africa I simply hadn’t known. The brazen defiance of talking about this play in a government school classroom opened a door for me. After that, I suppose it must’ve been easy to stand up in front of my classmates and deliver a report on André Brink’s A Dry White Season.
The Island was first performed in Cape Town in 1973, with John and Winston played by John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who both also co-wrote the play with Athol Fugard. (Coincidentally, thirteen years later, Ntshona would play Gordon Ngubene in the film adaptation of A Dry White Season.) The real Robben Island prison closed in 1996, and today it is a tourist destination. I visited it for the first time in 2015 when Z and I took our daughter, then just three months old, to meet her grandmother, my mother, for the first time. Z had never visited Cape Town, so the three of us went on a tour of the sights, feeling, not for the first time, like a tourist in my home town.
On the day we visited the island, we crossed Table Bay on the early morning ferry. It was bright and, on land, the air was still. I could already tell from the light touch of the sun that it would be hot by midday. On the water, though, it was cool and breezy and the swells quite large. I tried to take a panoramic photo on my smartphone of the bay and the mountain behind, but the rise and fall of the boat disturbed the automatic stitching together of the images, distorting the horizon. At first, I was annoyed at the result: eddies of bitmapped artefacts, ugly bent perspective lines. But now I’ve grown to like the photo. It has a brutalist beauty and an honesty; these days, everything, even the waves, is just data.
We were taken off the boat and put on a bus, then driven around a coast circuit, which didn’t take long — it’s a tiny island. The tour guide highlighted points of interest: the bungalows of the guards and their families, the warden’s house, a small shop, the prison buildings. And there were beautiful beaches. My mother had sunbathed and swum on one of them, when, as a teenager in the 1950s, she briefly dated the son of one of the guards. She once told me she remembered being ferried over on a staff boat and spending a blissful day with her boyfriend on a deserted beach, oblivious to the prisoners toiling in the heat just a few hundred metres behind her. On our tour, the bus stopped at the very quarry where they had laboured and where, in the play, John and Winston hauled their wheelbarrow loads of sand.
The tourists emptied out to have a closer look, all except for my daughter and I. The heat and the rocking of the bus had sent her to sleep in my arms, and she lay, sweating, on my chest. I didn’t want to wake her, so we sat there alone in the building heat. I remember the stillness of the air and the sudden quiet. The only sound was the sigh of her breathing on my neck. I looked from the dusty quarry on one side of the bus across to the bay and the mountain on the other. At the foot of that mountain is the school where, twenty years previously, I had sat in a classroom with other white schoolboys and chatted about protest theatre while Mandela broke rocks out here in the bay.
M lifted his eyes from the sewer drain and held up the plumber’s rods. I think you get the general idea, he said, quietly closing the drain and putting the rods back behind the shed. I wondered if he might come out here from time to time, lift the cover and, with transgressive curiosity, see what he could learn about his neighbours by watching their shit float by.