Defoe’s “Diary of the Plague Year”, together with William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and Camus’ “La Peste” have been walking off University bookshelves in recent days. Everbody is in the same terrifyingly frail lifeboat, bobbing uncertainly on the waves of an epidemic which everybody is predicting is going to get worse before it gets better. Self-isolation isn’t altogether necessary here, but the Desert Island mentality is creeping into my consciousness. I steer around the rest of the population as if on rails, almost all of whom are doing exactly the same as me and in relatively crowded situations, like the supermarket checkouts, the ‘danse macabre’ is punctuated by bouts of ill-temper and sometimes the odd raised voice or two, should someone be rash enough to attempt to queue jump or put the last of the hand sanitiser in their trolley, overflowing as it is with a hundred toilet rolls. Fortunately, she-who-must-be-obeyed has an entire cupboard filled from floor to ceiling with non-perishables, enough to withstand a moderate siege by any marauding hordes, probably for months.
I have developed the immunity of age – which is not unrelated to the cunning of age. It requires surprisingly little manoeuvring to make sure that everybody else were the ones opening bug infested doors so I could squeeze in or out behind them like a fare dodger on the Paris Metro. I don’t see many people, being almost a professional Carmelite – not a fair comparison, perhaps but they were on their own a lot – and consequently don’t miss merry banter and arm-squeezing as much as my more sociable brethren. Perhaps not as isolationist as Simon Stylites who sat on a pillar for thirty-five years or those nuns who self-isolate – anchoresses like the fourteenth century Julian of Norwich.
Which reminded me of Wordsworth.
Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room;
And Hermits are contented with their Cells;
And Students with their pensive Citadels;
Maids at the Wheel, the Weaver at his Loom,
Sit blithe and happy; Bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-Fells,
Will murmur by the hour in Foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
I once remarked to a colleague that I’d be perfectly at home in a log cabin in Montana with good skis, fast Internet, Deliveroo and fuel to last six months. He laughed, nervously, imagining I was joking. I wasn’t. So for all my extrovert friends – this isn’t the end of the world as you know it. Just breathe, relax, make silly comments on social media and do try not to panic. It uses oxygen.