For nine years I had a job in a library which faced on to the side of a four-storey Georgian house covered in virginia creeper. Every year I watched the creeper put forth new leaves in spring, then over the year the leaves would darken from the luminous soft green of spring, to the deeper summer green, then gradually redden until in mid-October or so the entire wall would be ablaze with crimson. Then the leaves would fall. And every year, when I saw the first few red leaves, I felt a lifting of my spirits: autumn is on its way.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a virginia creeper climbing up the wire fence of the basketball court round the corner from my flat, in which I’ve been working since March. The leaves were beginning to turn red. It didn’t feel the same as it used to.
I entered a new phase of lockdown at the end of July, when the builders who had been doing up my kitchen left. My sister, who had been living with me since the week before the government imposed lockdown, had left a month earlier, to give the builders space to build. The builders were very cheerful company for eight hours every day, but suddenly they packed up their tools and left and I was all on my own in my flat, with a lovely new kitchen, but no one to talk to.
I have always liked living alone but living alone during coronavirus is different from living alone normally. Ordinarily, I go to work and talk to people all day, then go to a meeting full of more people, then come home, lock my front door and breathe in the silence: aaaahhh.
Now I sit at home in front of my laptop all day, then drift around the house in the evening trying and often failing to do one of the multiple projects I am supposed to be working on: reading, writing, sewing, gardening. Sometimes I go for a run or a swim. I keep realising that I haven’t spoken to another human being in 24, 48, 72 hours. Then, when I see people, it’s oddly over-stimulating: a couple of weeks ago, after a dinner with friends, I almost felt hungover the next day from the intensity of having social contact with more than one person at a time.
It’s slightly reassuring that everyone is going through the same thing: some people have flatmates or family, but everyone is going slightly mad in a similar way. My parents, both in their seventies, are as disconcerted as I am. And the thought of autumn, followed by winter, isn’t a comfort: instead of looking forward to the energising chill in the air, I’m dreading the long nights when it will be dark when I finish work and dark when I wake up, and the weather will mean that long walks and cycle rides, and meeting friends safely outside, will be more difficult to arrange.
The worst of course is that there is no end in sight: the WHO says that coronavirus ‘might’ last ‘only’ two years. By some calculations nearly as many people have died in the UK since February as civilian deaths during the whole of the Second World War, and we are only seven months in with the numbers rising again. No end in sight and nothing to compare this to in living memory, no understanding of how things like this have gone before.
I started lockdown reading in a great burst but now I find I don’t have the energy for anything new. Instead I re-read Wuthering Heights. The loneliness of it fits my mood; and the extremity of emotion – everyone being mad, very mad, throughout, at an intensity that I would find difficult to sustain for a five minute phone call, let alone a lifetime – is oddly sustaining while living such a circumscribed life.
But I realised I have read other things over the summer, mostly rereading books which I’ve read millions of times before. They’re not recorded in my reading list, because my rule for adding re-reads to that list is that I only do so if I think I’ve got something new from the book, and these are books that I’ve read dozens of times, whenever I want to soothe myself, and when I don’t have the energy to read something new.
So I thought I’d write about some of my comfort reading and why I turn to it when I’m low and tired, and what I enjoy about it. I’m going to try and write a post a week, but we’ll see how it goes. It’s interesting, anyway, to write about books I’ve read many times and know inside out, and it will give me something to plan for, above and beyond making myself leave the flat every day.