ReadingRoom

London lockdown with Fleur, 86

"I'm 86; I've had my good times," writes celebrated New Zealand-born poet Fleur Adcock, in her journal from London.

April 1. Lockdown began officially on March 21, the spring equinox. Before that there had been a flurry of shopping on the part of myself and my over-70s friends, to stock up with everything we might need before we were banned from risking infection in the shops – not exactly stockpiling, but just sensible precautions to make sure you didn't run out of all those little items you never think of in advance: shampoo, batteries, eyedrops, paracetamol. I’d already stocked up over the course of some months with extra tins of beans and chickpeas and other non-perishables, but that was with Brexit in mind. Who remembers Brexit? It took an unprecedented global pandemic to take our minds off the event that we thought had blighted our lives for ever.

One thing rapidly became clear: the official figures for the number of people already infected in Britain were wickedly underestimated. Word-of-mouth soon revealed that the virus had been running around loose here for weeks before there was any admission that it had reached our shores. Most of the friends I was in touch with knew of several cases among their acquaintance. There was, after all, no testing, and no system for reporting the disease; you just went to bed with a high temperature for several days and hoped to feel better soon.

Then our Prime Minister came down with the virus, a victim of not taking his own advice about social distancing. Before I pulled myself together, a brief vision flashed before my eyes of St Boris the Martyr mourned by millions of Brexiteers. No, no: anything but that.

His 79-year-old father, rejoicing at his recovery, said he had nearly ‘taken one for the team’. Johnson is recuperating at his official country residence, thanking ICU nurse Jenny from Invercargill for helping to save his life, while those in government not yet infected stumble on with their pronouncements and the civil service continues running things, as always.

The shopping question. Everyone has their own stories about the problems. Mine have to be at second-hand, now that I can’t go into shops myself, but my helpful neighbour Bill, who kindly offered to shop for me, reported on the footprints stencilled on the pavements outside Sainsbury's two metres apart and the ignorant voices shouting “Don't you tell me where to stand! I ain't got no diseases!” How would they know? The whole point is that it's invisible.

April 3. My blood ran cold this afternoon to read a Facebook post offering a poem by “the late Kit Wright”. How could my old friend Kit have died without my hearing of it? I immediately tried to ring him, but got the ominous-sounding message that “Kit and Marianne are not available”. Later in the day Kit called me back, thank God! Apparently Marianne has been very ill for two and a half weeks with what was obviously Covid, unable to eat for all that time, poor woman; it was touch and go, he said. She is now much better. Some time ago Kit himself had a mysterious illness from which he recovered easily; presumably he passed it to her, but it was in the days when the country was still in denial about the presence of the virus here.

These alarming facts had nothing to do with the premature announcement of Kit's death, which was pure carelessness on someone's part, and a coincidence. I went back to the source and had it corrected.

April 5. 10 PM. It's been a wonderful day: so warm and sunny that I was able to take a folding chair outside to sit enjoying it, among the spring flowers. And now I keep rushing out into the garden to look at the stars, which even with my defective eyesight I can’t help noticing. Usually they're hidden behind the murk. Venus is enormous, in the clear air. They say traffic levels are back to what they were in about 1962, the year before I came to London. And there is a large moon. I'm beginning to have very mixed feelings about this terrifying time, with death coming closer to everyone and nature taking over;  this morning I woke up in panic after a nightmare of being unable to breathe.

The new, instantly created Nightingale Hospital is full of ventilators for Covid patients trying to grab their last breaths. When you are on a ventilator you have a tube down your throat, and have to be sedated. Not for me. Do not resuscitate, I'll tell them. My legally approved document to this effect, signed and witnessed, lies prominently on the hall table for any visiting paramedics.

April 10. So far 8,958 people have died of the virus here. In New Zealand the total is two.

In New York they are digging mass graves.

April 13. Charities have been complaining that elderly patients in hundreds of care homes are infected with the virus, and many have died, but because there is still no testing these deaths have not been included in the official statistics, which record only deaths in hospitals. And what about my friend Stella, who died yesterday at home? She was sedated for the final week, and her daughters were with her – the kind of death we'd all prefer, in the circumstances – but will it appear in the Covid 19 statistics?

April 15. The government announces that testing kits for the virus, which are in short supply, will be made available to care homes. There is still a shortage of personal protective equipment.

It amazes me that although often sad I'm not depressed, unlike several friends who are finding the whole business, and in particular the isolation, unendurable. Perhaps it's the non-stop sunshine, my flowery garden full of blossom, and the pronounced difference to my health caused by the suddenly clean air: almost no nitrogen dioxide, fewer particles from exhaust fumes. We are allowed out for one period of exercise per day: my salvation. I go for long walks alone in the quieter, less frequented streets of our suburb, carefully weaving my way past anyone I may see approaching: either I step into the road, putting two metres between us, or they do. Quite often I walk the length of a short street entirely in the roadway – asphalt is easier on the feet than hard paving stones. Very occasionally a car goes by, and more often a bicycle, or a little fleet of cycling children with a parent.

Last week a distressing incident brought a novel social dilemma: a fit-looking, white-haired woman tripped on the curb and fell into the road. My natural instinct was to rush towards her, but I held back: would she be terrified at the approach of a stranger? Or should I be nervous about possible infection from her? Seconds later a young couple on the opposite pavement, wearing masks, ran across to her aid; they seemed to have no compunction about touching her, while someone else held off an approaching vehicle. I walked guiltily on.

Every evening I turn on the television and watch half an hour of horrors: desperate scenes in hospitals; tragic stories of retired doctors and NHS personnel who came back to help out and are now dead from the virus. And the bus drivers: nine in London and one in Bristol, I think, all dead from doing their jobs without enough protection. I feel so sad about the bus drivers.

And then I go to bed and sleep as never before. Weird. With my daily 20 minutes of Pilates in the morning and a brisk walk in the afternoon I've become accidentally fitter than usual – no urge to doze off in my chair after lunch.

One thing missing from this routine is any inclination to write poetry; that seems like a frivolity, a self-indulgence from the olden days before we all shared the same grim future. I don't feel as cheated by what lies ahead as a younger person would: I'm 86; I've had my good times. I suppose it's fortunate that I'm a pessimist – a cheerful pessimist, by nature, but one with absolutely no expectation that the world will somehow save itself from a collapse through climate change, overpopulation, mad populist politicians, and now pandemics.

Meanwhile I enjoy keeping in more regular contact with friends and family on both sides of the world, and wonder if I've been to my last book launch. Are there going to be any more books or will they all migrate online? Instead of standing packed shoulder to shoulder in whichever branch of Daunt Books is launching the latest collection of poetry by one of my friends, I may have to wish them well from my desk at home, and read their poems on a screen. Cheers!

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