My lockdown achievement? Getting shingles

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

The choir of Notre Dame made a recording of Howard Goodall’s beautiful version of Psalm 23. Unlike cathedral choirs here they are wholly adult. It is so well done. The hands of the pianist in the middle of the screen are surrounded by the faces of the performers singing the incomparable King James text in impeccable English. The four-minute piece is intercut with shots of Notre Dame before the great fire. I found it tremendously moving — tears to the eyes. A gift to the British from Paris. Who says the Entente Cordiale is dead?

I’ve been in isolation and lockdown since the middle of March. I agree with Lord Sumption (about everything!) that this is an outrageous attack on our liberty. My dog has more liberty than I do. But as a law-abiding citizen I’m going along with it. I’m lucky. A roomy house, a modest garden in which if I walk round and round it for long enough I can do between two and three miles, and a wife who makes sure I don’t break any rules. Not a visitor into the house since mid-March. There seems to be a rather desperate need to do something memorable in this lockdown. I got shingles. I’ve never known pain like it. In my left inner ear for several days there was the sound of the screaming of a trapped fox. That took care of lockdown phase one. Then I joined the club and started on Women In Love, which I had not read for 40/50 years. Lawrence is a genius but this novel so glowingly remembered seemed turgid, pretentious, intellectually unacceptable, snobbish and verging on the fascistic. Perhaps it was a kickback from the shingles? And soon a reread of a mighty Dickens fell from my hands. I had begun to read more and more features and columns in several newspapers and magazines, and expanded on that. There are treasures everywhere. This could be a golden age of such journalism. Far from providing the first draft of history, they are providing the history itself from the inside.

Groundhog Day is every day. The virus consumes news and drowns out all other conversation. The churches sadly had to close their doors and forsake their role as places of refuge. Theatres, opera houses and artists are making ingenious attempts on the screen, with some wonderful results. But London was the crowded world capital of the broadest range of culture and entertainment. It brought more than £100 billion into the country. Now nobody I know in the West End thinks that it has much — if any — chance of coming back in its full strength. The damage is unlimited. It affected us on the South Bank Sky Arts Awards, which is a big West End production once a year, celebrating the best artists in Britain across the field. Over the 23 years we’ve included everyone from Stormzy to Harold Pinter, Tracey Emin, Victoria Wood, Tamara Rojo and Sheku Kanneh-Mason — the list goes into the hundreds. There are live performances by major artists and trumpeters from the band of the Household Cavalry. About 300 people are fed and watered in the ballroom of the Savoy, which becomes our theatre. Outside, broadcast lorries surround the building and a vast technical operation goes into editing rooms. Totally impossible this year, and we’re already worried about next year.

I miss preparing for In Our Time. I loved getting the wad of notes and books on a Friday evening on any subject under the sun from the producer, Simon Tillotson, and buckling down to the homework necessary to ask questions of three brilliant academics a few days later. These are the best conversations I have. It’s now temporarily feeding off its 21-year archive. What amazes all of us involved is that its global downloads are moving towards four million a month, second only to BBC World News.

We were going to go to the cottage I have in north Cumbria. I bought it more than 40 years ago for what now seems a scarcely believable meagre sum. It was a two-up two-down cottage, with a barn with no roof and less than an acre, in a hamlet of nine dwellings on the north side of the most isolated northern fell. At the beginning a mobile shop came round twice a week. It was very well stocked. That went. The village a couple of miles away had a Co-op, a Walter Wilson (commercial rival to the Co-op), a post office, a sweet shop, a carpenter and a proper garage. All gone. There were two pubs, the most famous being that in which Keats stayed on his visit to see Wordsworth. He wrote beautiful letters about his visit, praising especially the local girls at their dance in the room above the bar. That’s gone. The other pub gallantly struggles at the other end of the village, but the time of a large farming and village community seeking pubs as their evening focus has passed. Most people drink at home now.

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Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time is broadcast on Radio 4 at 9 a.m. every Thursday.

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