Author’s note: this is stupidly long, so you might like to get a nice cup of tea. It also contains a very shaggy horse story. I’m sorry about that.
So much is happening now that every day feels like ten days. Every moment there is a new announcement or a new bit of breaking news or someone doing something marvellous on Twitter, like the bloke who lived miles from the nearest habitation and put up a video of his sheep baaing instead of clapping the NHS.
I think: I must write down that Welsh farmer, because I really, really want to remember him when all this is over. But even if I capture him for posterity, I’ll forget the eight stories I read about small acts of kindness. (I’ve forgotten most of them already, because my brain is so overloaded. I know that one of them was about a boy with autism working in a supermarket and how proud of him his mum was. I know that another was about somebody’s landlord forgiving their rent for the duration. And then there was my friend who told me about her neighbour leaving two boxes of eggs on the doorstep. The neighbour keeps chickens and they had laid eggs of all different colours. I think it was that which was the most perfect touch. Multi-coloured eggs in a time of disaster.)
I want to record some of the shocking things too, like Donald Trump being asked why he had chosen the 12th of April to reopen America and him looking vague and saying ‘It’s a beautiful time.’ It’s a beautiful time?
I want to record the amazing visual snapshots, like all the little videos that went around Twitter last night of people out in the streets, banging their pans and playing their bagpipes and whooping and hollering for the incredible women and men of the NHS. And I know there were the cynics, in full cry, saying that clapping was just an empty gesture, but it still made me cry. (The cynics have a point, but sometimes symbolic gestures can be very beautiful.)
I want to do all that, and I know I can’t. There is, simply, too much life. When I was young, I had a wise old shrink who would quote to me the Chinese curse – ‘May you live in interesting times.’ I was twenty-three and I was interested in absolutely everything and I thought that sounded like a blessing. It is only now I am fifty-three that I understand what he and the Chinese sages were talking about.
Last night, just as I was getting a bit weepy about the clapping Britons and the National Health Service and the bloke with the sheep, there was a tremendous banging at the door. My startle reflex is on high alert at the moment, and my amygdala is firing on all cylinders, so I was obviously convinced that it was some kind of axe-murderer. There’s no light outside my back door, so I couldn’t even see who it was. And I didn’t want to open the door because he was standing close and I was thinking of social distancing. He was speaking, but his words were muffled by the glass. I kept yelling, ‘Who are you?’ in a Joyce Grenfell kind of voice.
We finally sorted out that he had not come to kill me. He had come to save me.
My horses were out.
‘Fuck,’ I shouted.
‘I mean,’ I added, remembering my manners, ‘thank you so much for coming to tell me.’
So we all tore off and there were suddenly three cars on the track. It turned out that there is some kind of incredible Twilight Bark in the village. When livestock are out, people call people up. So the farmer was there, along with my kind gentleman from the back door, and another man who knows horses and had driven down to help, and my friend from the village who used to keep her Friesian stallion in our field. It’s a special telephone tree, and I never knew.
The horses had found some excellent grass and were grazing it. Luckily, because of the lockdown, there were no people on the road at all. I could walk up and down it as if it were a deserted country track. I felt passionately relieved that there were no speeding motors so that the horses were not in danger of causing an accident or getting hit themselves.
All the kind people were rallying round, flashing their lights to indicate precisely where the horses were, offering head collars, checking I was all right. The farmer drew up and smiled his serene and reassuring smile at me. I thanked him and said I’d got everything under control. He keeps his sheep and cows next to my horses, and we know each other well. There is an old converted barn in the middle of all the fields which my landlord hires out for weddings, and in the summer people let off party fireworks. The farmer and I drive around wildly at midnight, checking on each other’s animals. Sometimes we bump into each other in the dark, in our muddy cars and our muddy boots, on a mission of mercy when everyone else is dancing. We give each other looks as if to say, ‘Do they know the price of frivolity?’
Still, I was surprised to see him all the way down the hill at half-past ten at night, and I was moved too.
The third man, whose name turned out to be Phil, stopped and held up a torch whilst I caught the horses. We paused and talked for a while. I did feel like an idiot. There was a gap in the fence, and I’d plugged it a few weeks ago, but I hadn’t checked for a little while and it had obviously got open again. This was my fault, and a great dereliction of duty. I thought that Phil might judge me. He would have every right to.
Instead, he gave me an unexpected compliment. The horses were all standing stock still as we spoke. They are trained to stand still and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of about them. You can talk for hours to another human and they won’t move a hoof. We hardly ever have to tie them up, because they stand where they are left. It’s very peaceful and it makes my work with them so much easier. And it is so much a part of my life that I almost – almost – take it for granted.
Phil looked at the three mares, who were standing, polite and immobile, in the darkness. He and I had been talking for perhaps seven minutes. ‘They are very calm and good,’ he said. ‘If it were mine in this situation I don’t know what they’d be doing.’ He laughed the rueful laugh that all horse people know well. (We laugh that laugh because horses, one way or another, will make fools of us all.)
I glanced behind me at my little cohort. There they were, like the three little maids from school, patiently waiting for me to move. They would not have dreamt of pulling or pushing or barging. They could see that Phil had something to say, and they were not going to interrupt.
I felt stupidly pleased. I might be crap at fence management, but dammit, I have the most courteous horses in the county.
I wish I could tell you that I accepted Phil’s gracious compliment with a smile and a single word of thanks. I’m afraid I didn’t. He had to stand there for another seven minutes while I told him precisely how I taught them the standing still. ‘We practise mindfulness,’ I said. ‘We stand in the field and anchor ourselves in the moment and breathe. This creates new neuronal pathways…’
Phil started looking slightly frightened. He edged away from me. He was still smiling, but I could tell that he really, really wanted to get back up his hill. Why, I asked myself, did I have to talk about the mindfulness? Did he really need to know about the neuronal pathways?
I let the poor man go and led the mares the mile back to their field and put them in the secure paddock. Even though it was a very dark night with no moon, my eyes adjusted enough to see the horses and the outlines of the trees and I suddenly felt incredibly lucky. Lucky that I had these good mares who would walk gently home with me in the midnight blackness, lucky that I had such an incredible community of kind and generous humans, lucky that it was not pouring with rain or treacherous with ice. I’d had the terrifying adrenaline spike of disaster, but it was not a disaster. It was, in the end, oddly lovely.
Here is the problem with writing in the time of coronavirus – I’m twenty paragraphs in, and I haven’t even started on today yet. I’ve just managed to finish off yesterday. And it’s not like I can leave anything out, because this is a time of history, and grand events, and life and death. I can guarantee you that every single writer in the country is in a state of frenzy at the moment, as the voices in their head yell, every five minutes, ‘Write it down. Write it down’.
Of course I am going to have to leave things out. There is a reason that the brain is very good at forgetting. The mind can’t deal with too much information. It goes quickly into overwhelm, and that is what would happen to me and would happen to you, too, Dear Reader, if I did write it all down. And then there’s the idea of T.S Eliot’s that I always think of, the one about humans not being able to bear too much reality. Perhaps that is why I won’t, can’t, perhaps even shouldn’t write it all down.
Perhaps I’ll let today be a rest, a blank, an unmarked space on the map. Perhaps I won’t try to record the news, or what someone furiously said on Question Time last night, or how the graphs are looking. (Baffling, is the answer to that last. Every time I see the numbers, I understand less.)
As I type these words, the birds are singing outside my window. Even though I live in the country, quite far from that road the horses crossed last night, there is a lot of coming and going. There is traffic. I’m surrounded by small businesses, some of which involve enormous diggery things with wheels the size of a Mini and diesel engines that rattle and roar. On a normal day, I can’t hear the birds when I’m sitting inside. Now I can. Perhaps I should simply leave you with the birds.
PS. I really was going to leave it there. There would be the blank and the birds. There would be respite. Then I went down to the horses and spent some time in the open air, away from my computer, turning the rest of the world off, and came back, feeling restored, to find that the Prime Minister has got the virus.
The sensible voice in my head says, ‘Don’t look at Twitter. Don’t look at Twitter.’ I look at Twitter. It has, predictably, gone mad. Some people are being polite and hoping he gets better soon. Some people are positively gloating. Some people have been busy, and have dug out a video clip of a press conference where he said, ‘I shook hands with everyone’.
I stop Twitter. It is not helping. I turn on the BBC. They are ringing up everyone they can think of, and distorted voices are shouting down crackling telephone lines.
I realise, after a while, that I am not being informed. I am hearing different versions of the same thing whilst little beeps and klaxons go off in the background. (I wonder to myself whether these are endless notifications from the WhatsApp groups that all political operatives now belong to.)
I am going to stop now, and go back to work. The last hours of the fourth day of the lockdown will go unrecorded. There is, simply, Too Much News.
I stop, and listen. The birds are still singing outside my window.