Empathy and kindness in these difficult times come more easily to some than others, but I’m trying. I had heart surgery in November to repair a faulty mitral valve. Recovery has been terribly scientific. On my daily walk, a heart monitor is synched with an app on my phone so through earphones I can hear my heart rate as well as encouraging messages in a voice I find indistinguishable from the American cultural critic Bonnie Greer. Mainly, my walk is spent suppressing the inner Nazi who can’t believe the human race still refuses to be more like me. Particularly at a time when good manners and common sense are now a public health issue. The people ambling down the middle of the pavement or stopping in doorways to chat like they’re in the closing credits of a film called A Wistful Stroll Through Memory’s Non-Pandemic Meandering Bimble are really challenging my composure. At the same time, I hate joggers more than ever. I’m sure they’re all perfectly considerate when you find them walking normally or sitting still. But once the running imperative kicks in they become monstrous automatons whose idea of social distancing is to refrain from licking your face as they zoom past. I scowl at the ground. ‘You are improving fitness,’ Bonnie Greer tells me.
The lockdown has created a multiverse of parallel worlds and in one of them I should now be somewhere between Cambridge and Bristol (Swindon?) promoting my second book and first novel, Come Again. I was looking forward to the tour. In fact, while I was writing the first draft of the novel there were moments when a daydream about book events — in particular the fantasy of being in the impossibly smug position of having actually finished the book — was all that kept me working and away from hard drugs. And then last month it became apparent that roaming the country and cuddling up for 1,000+ selfies was not quite what the chief medical officer had in mind. I now inhabit the pre-1990s world which I’ve sometimes heard the Publishing Elders speak of. A world where you write a book, it comes out (or not), it gets reviewed (or not) and then… that’s it. I really don’t know what novelists did with their time. Start the next one, I suppose. Oh God.
Feeling some pressure to write is one thing; being told what to read is quite another. On social media there seems to be a peculiar view that challenging tasks one would normally put off are suddenly expected in the face of a horrifying pandemic. ‘This is a great time to finally read Ulysses! If not now, when?’ I’ve got a pretty good idea of when — how about when we’re not all knackered and stressed out because of the plague outside the front door? That might seem a more convivial moment. Absorbing hobbies I can understand, escapism I can understand, but books from the weighty end of the English canon that I didn’t get to when I was a student, I’ll read another time or I won’t get to at all, thanks. Ditto my first risotto.
Zoom: this proper noun is playing a much bigger part in my life than I ever expected. Until a few weeks ago it meant a rocket-shaped ice lolly or the delightful 1982 single by Fat Larry’s Band. Now, access to the video-conferencing platform has become a borderline human right. I’ll be doing about half a dozen virtual book events next month and will avoid the usual pitfalls. I will not position the camera a foot below eye level so the audience have to peer up my nostrils or directly into the overhead light. I will not carefully curate my bookshelf or casually place TV awards in the back of shot. I will, however, risk looking like a prat by wearing a headset with a proper mic so viewers don’t have to contend with audio quality as if I’m broadcasting from the inside of a giant funnel.
These events usually feature a Q&A session and a favourite question seems to be to ask an author about their daily routine. I love those ‘My Writing Day’ features in broadsheet supplements even though I always strongly suspect, or hope, I am reading a pack of lies. ‘I wake at 5.46 a.m. after dreaming of rescue dolphins and immediately do two hours of yoga. Then a quinoa, wasp legs and pomegranate smoothie sets me up for the day. I am only able to write for ten to 15 minutes at a time because I am special. In between writing sessions I meditate with the help of my wicker iPhone or just frantically masturbate. By 10.57 a.m. my thoughts turn to lunch….’ Personally, I’m a bit more productive in the morning than the afternoon and that’s about it.
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Robert Webb’s Come Again is out now.
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