Taking to London’s streets in lockdown, with thoughts of Orwell and Henry Miller, plagues, eels, decorative cakes and what might be done in the belly of a whale
“Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.” So begins Dan Albergotti’s 2008 poem, “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale”. “Look up for blue sky through the spout. / Make small fires with the broken hulls of fishing boats”, then “Practice smoke signals”. And this is very like how it has felt to be contained in the COVID-19 pandemic – hasn’t it? For those of us who wait at home, I mean, adrift between the only two continents, known to us now as the states of Sick and Well. The muffled indoors. London reduced to a flickering star in the chink between blinds. Equally, Buenos Aires, Paris, Shanghai. “Dream of the beach,” Albergotti implores. Failing that, “Review each of your life’s ten million choices.” The cough of our downstairs neighbour rises faintly through the floor. In the dawn the flat appears to expand and contract, as though the beast we are lodged within has itself found a deep and enviable pranayama. Doubtful, now, whether space ever left an impression on the mind, or if it was always the case that the mind gave shape to space; if one’s inner moods gave space its character.
So, to dabs of bleach on the doorhandles in the morning. To the ritual rinsing of produce, the boiling of keys. Every mundane thing yet coated in menace, the float and settle of it. Fomites. Imperceptible fleas in a flea circus that now comprises the world. To take such threats on faith, as we must, is to struggle on fields of convergence so miniscule and indistinct as to render the entire project metaphysical. “Fomites” are to “household” as “holiness” is to “church”: at once everywhere, and entirely elusive. In a burst of zealotry, I will wipe down each and every light switch, then pour a cap of Dettol, neat, into boiling water to sluice the empty bathtub. A text from the people below: Panadol please. And, only if you go past, fruit. Their COVID tests came back positive a week ago.
Who hasn’t begun a secret flowchart of vulnerable relatives? Who hasn’t soon abandoned it, aghast, several times, stuffing the paper somewhere – down the back of the settee, into kitchen cabinets atop the blender – only later to drag the plan out once more, with a steely pragmatism born of 7pm, the last glass of wine and a fat red crayon. (The point of the crayon to underscore the inanity of the chart, no true prophecy ever having been written in Crayola’s Jazzberry Jam). My scribbled blueprint to the emergency: if Grandma, then Granddad disconnects from Aunt; if Aunt, then Cousin connects to Sister. A terrifying calculus of comorbidities, age and staggered dependencies.
Online I’ve read that, were it possible to collect all the molecules of SARS-CoV-2 inhabiting the planet – the sum total of the virus inside bodies, airborne and alighted – its mass would weigh no more than a sugar cube. Stood in the bathroom’s carbolic fumes with sponge in hand, I can picture it: a faultless sugar cube, aglow, revolving slowly. That death should look like this hardly surprises me. It is similar, in many respects, to how I have long imagined the soul. (Any time I have been monster enough, that is, to ask What is a soul? and when some foolhardy part of me has seen fit to raise an image in reply.) Little. Crystalline, and all too soluble. Quick to trickle away.
But before I lean into these scheduled ceremonies – the cleaning, the roster of self-deceptions, the yoga mat unrolled – a run. One state-sanctioned jog per day; as much as to learn what is afoot out there, as a reminder that the body, too, is an animal with its animal-needs. I run as far as I can, and then walk back. Good to have an assignment. I’ll fetch the man downstairs a bag of pears. Better yet, a cantaloupe. Its heady fragrance a lure for his returning sense of smell, as he recovers. I believe that he will.
For some weeks now I have been gathering news from the street; this street being the east end of Roman Road, in London’s Tower Hamlets, during the pandemic’s first wave, a borough with one of the highest death rates in the country. Stranded in the United Kingdom by the international flight caps, I have been coming here daily, to avoid the fact that the only other place to go to write is inward: a dive into biography.
I am the type of writer who needs a certain amount of friction to get started, a rasp between mental domain and outer world. I have never been taken in by that old story that’s sometimes told about the genesis of art-making: that our early human ancestors took up painting and carving amulets only after they moved off the savannahs and into caves. The point of the story being that people gained a sensitivity to their inner lives – to their dreams and feelings, their musings and “spirits”, as an upshot of living inside. Sheltered from exposure, relieved of keeping vigil for predators, such ancient hominids as these are supposed to have awakened to “the life of the mind”, and set about pulverising rock for pigment – to develop, in time, a symbolic realm. Which is to suggest that the evolution of art-making starts with being boxed in, and that, as a species, imagination could only expand within us once the far-off horizons of nature were brought up short by the cave wall.
Among several cogent critiques to level at this origin myth, for me the most pronounced is this: let us observe what prehistoric people painted. In the caves, they painted mostly animal life. Bison, boar, horses, fish, whales. There’s a picture of a pig in Sulawesi, Indonesia, that dates back at least 43,900 years. People – Neanderthals, some of them – didn’t paint their own life stories, not at first, and they didn’t paint the past (so far as we can tell). Instead, they depicted the outdoors. When painting animals, prehistoric people reproduced them with great accuracy and detail. Archaeologists credit a focus on, for instance, animals in motion and repose, how animals interact, their life cycles and specific features: spots, horns, skeletons. If these can be said to be “emotional” drawings, their power lies in a fidelity to reality, to physical experiences and observations. So – it seems to me – you might account for art-making not as the result of enclosure enrichening the human psyche, but as a reaction to the impoverishment of the indoors. Art, as an attempt to re-create, or induce, being back out in nature, surrounded by animals, by plants and weather. Art as yearning.
Cave paintings have been on my mind recently – along with art and writing pieced together in prisons, from sickbeds, under siege and on religious retreat – because I have been looking for lineages of artistic expression shaped by confinement. The literature of contagion this time around will be a literature of the walled-in disaster: a crisis of separation. Of the shrunken world, what portraits, what stories, what plays? Human history has seldom seen people forced indoors, and into such a condition of stasis, by a threat so global. When tuberculosis (the “white plague”) ravaged Europe in the 19th century, the prevalence of the disease was mistakenly touted to owe to a lack of fresh air: consumptives were counselled to leave their beds and sleep outside, or on open porches. Tuberculosis turned households inside-out. Historically, leprosy moved patients into quarantined, though communal, colonies. Ahead of seasonal “sweating sicknesses” and during outbreaks of bubonic plague (the “black death”), mediaeval cities were depopulated: the wealthy fled in droves to rural hinterlands. Epidemics have often triggered mass movement, and mass public protest (see the American AIDS marches and “die-ins” of the 1980s). On far fewer occasions has disease frozen us in place, cloistered at home.
Natural catastrophes – earthquakes and floods – likewise tend to lead people into shared space. Perhaps only volcanic ash and air pollution, where it thickens the atmosphere to a dangerous degree, has the same distancing effect as COVID-19; for these, where we can, we shelter in place. How will art reflect this self-isolation? What are the aesthetic effects of being restricted, geographically, to a boundary line of 5 kilometres or less, to a single dwelling, or only one room?
Kept inside, my own imagination becomes a small, gnarled thing, like a bonsai in ligatures. All too readily I engross myself in trivialities. The mackerel sunlight moving on the draining board, say. The slightly ASMR-inducing sounds emitted by the radiator. Or the possibility of mice (in all probability: mice), in nests of carpet-pilling behind the electrical sockets. None of this makes for good material. An exploration of the states of consciousness brought on by boredom only, inevitably, yields boring pages. Yet, how else to account for the sluggishness of the hours since midyear? An afternoon seems to take a day, a weekend proceeds like a month. Quotidian life acquires elephantine dimensions. Now the Modernist books I read at university – novels-in-a-day such as Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway – at last make sense. Twenty-four hours fit to fill hundreds of pages? But of course! I imagine great new novels of sensuality being written, all over the city; books freighted with long, deliciously stupefying descriptions of scent and taste, texture and tone. Then, almost at once, I realise: I could not stand to read a book like that. Who has the attention? All I want is miniatures. Postcards, poems. A novella of such assertive economy it approaches the calligrapher’s art: a single line, laid down in one intake of breath. And nothing fashionable. In a very real sense, what feels most modern to me now is to be out of joint with time, to have lost all sense of the contemporary.
Sooner or later I will begin to wonder if the problem does not, in fact, lie with me, but with the space. Namely, that my living space ought to be more minimal, more open. Then, I think, I would be less drawn into frivolous detail, and the clock will move as it should. Clutter-free, I will write something lucid and lovely. The bout of unsentimental tidying that follows sees much of the landlord’s bric-a-brac stuffed into overfull closets. And in that newly cleared setting? A different neurosis emerges: low-key distortions of my own dimensions. I find myself engulfed by the impression my body has grown gigantic – some Alice in Wonderland effect. A ship in a bottle. In this state of hypersensitivity, distraction lies within. The tiniest scratch in the throat, a vagrant, metallic taste on the tongue: is that not COVID’s early warning? I write zilch.
So, I go out. I go out for a run; I go out to take notes on something bigger. I look for change in the limited radius of my wandering. While I do, as I jog, it’s often George Orwell I’m thinking of. Orwell trod these streets too, at a time when the future was upended and the world was shaking: from Spitalfields to Whitechapel, down the Mile End Road. In 1940 Orwell wrote of the “mental atmosphere” in Henry Miller’s novels; that Miller adopted – to Orwell’s cool-eyed approval – “the view-point of a man who believes the world-process to be outside his control”. As in this historical moment: all concentration trained on “flattening the curve” and “raising the line”, the globe down-powered by a powdering of microbiota. Have we ever been so collectively enfeebled? Not in my lifetime. Orwell says that Miller “opens up a new world not by revealing what is strange, but by revealing what is familiar”. A useful mission statement. Miller, he writes, “has performed the essential Jonah act of allowing himself to be swallowed, remaining passive, accepting”, therein describing only what takes place in his immediate surroundings: “robbing reality of its terrors, by simply submitting to it”.
“Get inside the whale,” Orwell hectors, “or rather, admit you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process … accept it, endure it, record it.” Any other time, I would repel from this kind of claustrophobia and passivity. And yet, in truth I would like to be that sort of Zen individual who is able to abide within fear: to do as mindfulness adherents preach and focus only on what is in front of you. Albergotti’s poem – whale as blubbery cell – has often been shared on social media since the beginning of the shutdown. It ends in beseeching the reader: “Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope, / where you can rest and wait.” There seems to be little else to do. In the belly of the whale, you can only eat whale. In the closing line of Orwell’s essay on Miller, titled similarly “Inside the Whale”, he writes of “the impossibility of any major literature until the world has shaken itself into its new shape”. So, once my legs tire, I slow to walking pace. I look around. I do my best, for now, to record.
Before the chain stores Poundland and Iceland, queues lengthen. Well-spaced at the front but jumbling where rectangles indicating appropriate distancing, haphazardly stuck onto the pavement, have loosened under the shuffle. Very early on I saw two men, butchers in blue hairnets, reach out to shake hands, only to pause and revert to the Wuhan greeting: a hop that resembles the beginning of a dance move called, in the late ’80s, the “Kid n’ Play kickstep”: tapping one foot and then the other, instep to instep. A thrill, to catch that. As though the consensus of the crowd, some subcurrent choreography, were, that instant, changing forever. Henceforth, we say hello with our shoes. But it doesn’t appear to have caught on. Since then people do “Ebola elbows” in the queues, sleeve tipped to sleeve. More often than that, they just shout. Each store has a masked bouncer whose gestural repertoire rivals that of an air traffic controller. People exit – masked too, always – laden with boxes of breaded chicken popsters, off-brand cola, packets and jars.
Today, a woman in the line wears a silk bomber jacket of a brilliant apple-green that fills my chest with light – the phrase “Stay Tuned Boppers” is stitched across the shoulders. She gives me a nod, which makes me think that it’s possible we met, once, sometime on a dancefloor nearby. Say it was so, at the Village Underground drenched in colour, or shoulder-to-shoulder at Egg. A refrigerated bottle held to a stranger’s flushed cheek: no one thought twice, then, to offer it. And I remember, just now, the time when I saw a girl taking her temperature in the blue-lit crowd in a Camden club. Last year, when no one I knew even owned a thermometer, let alone carried one around; this old fashioned, glass object, so out of place in the standard panoply of dancefloor artefacts. Oh, I’m ovulating, she explained, shaking it out in front of her face and then, with a laugh, tumbling into the sequined shove. Back when what you read off a thermometer had to do with sex – whether to have it, or not, and what life might be gained if you did.
Taped in the window of the pharmacy are the excellent drawings of local children: signed Ted, Rafi, Moses, Monét, Lilly. They spur on the NHS with fervent slogans loaned from the sportsfield: Don’t give up! Your doing great! A nameless child, younger than the others I suspect, has drawn the prevailing rainbow alongside careful printing: nurse and dorder, you have been very nice. The heart just crumbles at that. See it skim by, like an old piece of Styrofoam in the gutter. Beneath the pastel rainbow, a ghost. An intensifying fear, surely, for five-year-olds in the pandemic: all the extra ghosts, upright in the city. Painkillers are limited to one packet per person, but I convince the pharmacy assistant I’m buying for the building and get four.
Then on, past shuttered pawnshops, bet shops, the bait shop, the pebblecrete hairdressers, Jesus on the cross a-shimmer on the awnings. Extinction Rebellion notices for revolutions past; Rent is Theft on the brickwork. Glimpse of a pitch gone to seed where a woman in shorts stubbornly hacks, taking shots on goal, the ball snagged again and again in the weeds. Bundles of clothing, toys and kitchen goods overspill the curb next to the charity stores; cupboards debouched, drawers up-tipped, the consumer debris fields of home made public. A pair of boots blooming with mould.
All sorts of shrewd, ad lib entrepreneurialism going on here, at the periphery of things. You don’t have to look too hard to see that the threshold between getting by and going under has thinned, and is tearing. Young guys in sweats wash cars for cash. A gloved hand volunteers playing cards from a doorway – this number (sharpie on the Queen of Diamonds) for a 20 of weed, or this one for a tapped-out gym, selling off dumbbells. The tout for a pedicab business calls out to offer “airy travel”, in place of rideshares in hybrid sedans. One overcast morning someone furtively pushes a tub of neck chains through a gap in the roller door by the Cash for Gold sign and receives a fistful of notes in return. All else is closed, save the supermarkets, grocers, a few countertop eateries doing take-out, pharmacies and pet shops.
On the cement beneath the tower block today a man is doing push-ups, his sullen girlfriend filming as he narrates a personal training session to an invisible audience. I’ve seen him there before, doing exactly as now. Behind them: a rusted washing machine and a flowerbed of overblown roses, heads hung and browning. Lung Function Club – joke or warning – scrawled in an alcove where unsheltered citizens heap their bedding and share cigarettes. Scandinavian companies selling snus (nicotine pouches to be slotted between lip and gum) advertise in the bus stops – muscling in on the market, now that smoking and vaping have been connected to more severe cases of COVID-19. And then, the aquarium store, with its green tanks and grey-market hours, one lone fish idling like a glass eye in the shopfront; no bright plastic corals, no filter gear. What do they sell there now? Something people need, for it’s never empty.
An aphorism, long forgotten, resurfaces in me as I walk this stretch of road. It goes: “The arch only stands because all the stones seek to fall at once.” When I get home, I look it up. A fragment from Heinrich von Kleist’s letters, when von Kleist was beginning work on a novella set in the devastating 1647 Santiago earthquake (a work scholars sometimes cite as representing the birth of modern disaster fiction). The sentiment feels right, anyhow: to describe what is happening as falling. We are plummeting. How long will the superstructure hold? Some fall faster than others. Some transform on the descent. Others are forced to break apart.
Recently re-opened is the Noted Eel & Pie Shop, its narrow doorway fashioned into a service counter by way of a table pushed against the entrance and a thick band of cling film at eye height. The barrier clouds the expressions of the servers, who float inside, moon-faced and sexless. Pies, mash and liquor, and eels stewed and jellied, get pushed out by nitrile gloves below the cling film. Payment is tossed in overhead.
I have recently learnt that wild British eels have become endangered. Mostly – so it’s thought – because their migratory waterways have been bisected by weirs, hydropower stations, roads and buildings. In the ordinary course of things, eels are great travellers. Their very small, transparent fingerlings are impelled out of the sea, along brooks and tributaries into freshwater lagoons and culverts, where – and this process is triggered by the chemistry and temperature of the water – they mature by millimetres into bootlaces called elvers. Once they reach a suitable nook or streambed, the elvers transmogrify again into yellow-bellied, muscular eels with needling teeth – the archetypal kind you envisage prowling pond mud.
As I go on down the road, I think about wild eels, somewhere out there, journeying upriver. Does an elver intuit the very different animal the water, and the distance, fleshes it into? A young eel possesses no guile; it is scarcely a shred of life, and completely see-through, with its heart and bones visible. In its brain-spot there is room only for instinct – it responds to magnetic forces and lunar cues, to odours and brackishness. But as the elver lengthens and gains heft, the eel obtains a kind of bodily privacy: scales enclose it, and the whole fish darkens in colour. Hungers bloom inside it. The eel’s eyes sharpen into the eyes of hunters, for full-grown eels are cunning predators. To divide an eel from its migration is to estrange it from its adult form. Prevented from moving inland, it will perish as a fragile, glass thing. Though perhaps, even then, it is aware of a second-self latent within it, the contours of which will only be provoked by some unmet, far-off environment. A crisis of separation.
The sign on the railing around the front of the fruit and veg store says: Do Not Touch the Items. This makes selecting a cantaloupe difficult. A ripe one should feel heavier than it looks; it should hold the impression of a thumb. No one dawdles now, no one stops to solicit the grocer’s talent for selecting the ripest produce. Luck of the draw, the melon I get is perfect.
On the way back, the store I cannot help but stop in front of each time is called First Choice Cakes. A favourite, it is padlocked and deserted. When I came past here at the start of the lockdown, there were, in the back of the shop, cabinets of ornamental toppers: rows of diminutive brides in several skin tones, grooms in tuxes, suits and sherwani coats. Behind the dirty glass stood 20 or so large creations in marzipan – proud stage cakes. Cinipaan of Seema hand-piped across a rectangle of fondant. There were tiered cakes, divided by tiny Doric columns, as of Greek temples. Cakes so palatial you could momentarily configure yourself Lilliputian, strolling around inside them. Sheet cakes for christenings with frilled and fluted edges: lemon, mint, peach, periwinkle. And one delicate ship, picked out with edible gold, sailing across a board of granulated waves, with fine, coloured bunting strung from its bow.
I used to come and stand here, I think, because it undid some tension inside me to imagine the great control composed in cementing the tinier details of the cakes; the steady and confident hand that had laid down this unbroken loop of royal icing, or that line of perfectly uniformly, scalloped beads. The display in the window bespoke a very subtle and dexterous talent. Some unsung maven of sugarcraft, their artistry usually elided by the commerce of the street. But how I admired it. If each flower and trailing spray had a brace of wire, the artifice was invisible. Every cake, I supposed, must have consumed many long hours – days, even. Yes, days.
If you are a person who regards cake as, first and foremost, a treat to be consumed, then you might have looked into First Choice Cakes and thought something like: pleasure withheld or time stalled. After all, some of these were wedding cakes, and no weddings were taking place. Retirement cakes can only look sour from the standpoint of a recession and imminent layoffs. Yet, for me, the lesson the cakes imparted had much more to do with patience. I thought of the cakemaker, their focus honed on each handmade diorama of icing. That the world had grown so small around me no longer seemed so frightening. You might pass the time by confecting a smaller world yet, within it, I thought. Sugar eaten speeds time up: a rush. But sugar is also a preservative. Sugar-coated foods can last for thousands of years. For this reason, the Ancient Egyptians used honey in mummifying their dead.
Across the weeks, the windows grew sootier. One day I noticed a grotty mophead, dried stiff, lying in the middle of the floor. Pamphlets fanned out across the linoleum, and then the mail-slot jammed completely, stuffed with circulars and notices. In the display, the sunlight began to stain the cakes yellow where they faced the glass, until they all came to look like old photographs of cakes; Kodacolor prints of cakes from birthdays and anniversaries celebrated in the 1970s. I tried to conjure up a person, a decade hence, or three or four decades later, standing on this corner and thinking, What must it have looked like around here, during the pandemic? But did people in the midst of London’s former plague years – 1665, the Great Plague; 1775, influenza; 1919, Spanish flu – also think the same, of where I was standing now? How possible was it to imagine a future in which this passage of time would look like unfathomable history? How much more likely that 2020 would be viewed as an iteration in an increasingly durable cycle: only one among other pandemics to come?
The art and literature being made now will bear the imprint of the coronavirus in ways that remain unknowable. But unlike the fate of eels, though we have stayed in one place, we are not the same. Authors will perhaps turn to writing on smaller canvases, representing the restriction of attention, or maybe big, sprawling narratives will emerge from this moment, novels a reader can roam around inside to escape their own constricted lodgings. Strange temporalities might evolve: dilations of time, uncertainty as to endings. And if we are in a new golden age for the street-watching flâneur, it is surely only because we are yet to resolve the protocols for engaging strangers, at a time when physical contact and closeness is hazardous. There will be art about missing nature. Art about the gothic qualities of caregiving. Art about waiting, about grief and fear, and about resilience. Diaries and other collages will be important, to register what it felt like to live through this.
On the day First Choice Cakes went belly-up, the ship-cake was cast out into the street. Rain unmoored some of the icing, and exposed rotted gingerbread beneath. I took a photo of it, and my shadow encircled the boat, as though I was the creature that had swallowed it whole.
Rebecca Giggs writes about ecology and environmental imagination, animals, landscape, politics and memory. Her essays have appeared in publications including Granta, the New York Times Magazine, Meanjin and Overland.
“Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.” So begins Dan Albergotti’s 2008 poem, “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale”. “Look up for blue sky through the spout. / Make small fires with the broken hulls of fishing boats”, then “Practice smoke signals”. And this is very like how it has felt to be contained in the COVID-19 pandemic – hasn’t it? For those of us who wait at home, I mean, adrift between the only two continents, known to us now as the states of Sick and Well. The muffled indoors. London reduced to a flickering star in the chink between blinds. Equally, Buenos Aires, Paris, Shanghai. “Dream of the beach,” Albergotti implores. Failing that, “Review each of your life’s ten million choices.” The cough of our downstairs neighbour rises faintly through the floor. In the dawn the flat appears to expand and contract, as though the beast we are lodged within has...
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