When my wife Liz came to photograph the cover image of Smugglers In the Underground Hug Trade, we decided it would be a good thing to contact the artist who made the figures, who we hadn’t met in perhaps. be 30 years old. Her name was Breda Lynch and when we made contact through mutual acquaintance we were shocked and deeply moved to learn from her husband that she had passed away from Covid a few months previously. In a way, this simple, even brutal fact has come to symbolize the whole project for us.
The book, in fact, had been Liz’s idea. We were walking Ardnahinch Strand in East Cork on a bitter easterly morning, in the days leading up to the first lockdown, and discussing how little direct writing we had been able to find on plagues and pandemics. We knew our Boccaccio, of course, and Les Fiancés de Manzoni has a superb description of the plague in Milan. Defoe’s Journal of the Year of the Plague (which gives my book its subtitle) is an equally well-documented account, but it should be observed that neither Manzoni nor Defoe actually experienced the events they describe. significantly – Defoe was five when he broke. and Manzoni was writing hundreds of years after the events described in his book.
It seems that few precious things are written in human disasters. It is not a surprise. I only know of two songs that could be contemporaneous with the Great Famine – The Praties They Grow Small and Na Prátaí Dubha. There are very few substantial direct accounts in the English literature of the 1918-1919 Spanish flu – Virginia Woolf survived the infection and many researchers believe Ms Dalloway to be a survivor. Then there’s the gorgeous They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell and Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Ann Porter – Porter herself barely survived the infection and certainly suffered what we would now call a long flu. .
It’s possible that Yeats’ Second Coming derives its apocalyptic imagery from the pandemic (as eloquently described by Daniel Mulhall in this article) and that there is a sprinkle of poems or parts of poems from various contemporaries, and that is all. Of the thousands of books in English that were written during and immediately after the outbreak by people who survived it, we have a handful of texts that directly reference it.
Perhaps the enormity of the cataclysm is stifling creativity. I have certainly heard many fellow writers complain that they were unable to write during the lockdown.
In my case, I can say that Liz pushed me to document the experience. At first I tried a prose journal, but soon realized that poetry was the only way for me to sum up random and fragmentary experiences – silence, news, rumors, hopes, stories of friends and neighbors, the constant flow of reliable science. , charlatans peddling fake medicine, presidents and prime ministers, bleach, masks, hand washing, lockdowns and releases and numbers, always numbers. I tried to write something everyday. Sometimes it was a line or two, sometimes a whole poem. Gradually, the poems began to take shape.
Themes began to emerge – silence, birdsong, enclosure and escape, time, history, numbers, personal and statistical mortality, hope and despair, love and importance of family. My reading ended up in what became a collection rather than just a journal – Thucydides who gave us the first account of a plague (in Athens in 430 BC), Boccaccio and Defoe and Manzoni and the others, but also Dante (the 700th birthday whose death falls this year) and Camus – although Camus’ plague is actually fascism – and many others. I decided to limit the journal to this first year, 2020. I don’t think I could have continued anyway – I found the process emotionally draining.
My ties to Italy made the situation there particularly moving for me. Liz and I were in Liguria when the epidemic broke out. We left in a hurry because we could see it was going to be bad – although we couldn’t have predicted how badly – and thought it best to be home. It turned out that shortly after we left, the Italians were literally confined to their homes. The images of Bergamo shocked the world and woke us up to how terrible a global pandemic is.
But traveling south on an empty train that February morning, through empty stations and later through a nearly empty airport was one of the strangest experiences of our lives. We spent a day in Rome at a friend’s house before catching our flight and I have a vivid memory of walking through Piazza di Spagna, normally crowded with tourists, and meeting a handful of people and a few police officers. The strangeness of the empty city.
Back in Ireland, I found the reading on plagues strangely heartwarming. Boccace taught me to laugh, Manzoni to love, but also to ignore charlatans including those who suggest that prayer is the best prophylaxis against Covid. When I hear an American Republican declare that he will trust Jesus to protect himself against disease, I think of Manzoni and the parades of relics of saints through the city of Milan that have in fact spread the disease wherever they are. gone. Florence, as I discovered from a brilliant history of the time, Florence Under Siege by John Henderson (Yale University Press), took a more scientific approach and suffered a fraction of the losses. Plagues come and go, the story taught me, and we survive and make a new way of life that becomes normal and has its compensations and pleasures.
When I think back to 2020 now, one of the most vivid memories is the prevalence in the media of serious and authoritative scientific voices – physicians, virologists, statisticians, epidemiologists, and medical historians. Our team of public health specialists, among which Dr Tony Holohan deservedly has heroic status, has been exceptional. Then there were the doctors and nurses and general medical staff whose fight against the epidemic was seemingly endless and exhausting but who never wavered in our defense.
In contrast, the little moans of anti-maskers and no-vaxxers sound like the annoying buzz of a bluebottle in a bedroom during sleeplessness. night. They spoke of freedom as if freedom prevailed over solidarity. In reality, what they were touting was selfishness, not freedom.
Ultimately, the raison d’être of this book is this simple, humble impulse to record, as much as possible, what it was like to experience such a period. I’m sure there are thousands, maybe millions, of diaries, blogs, and tapes all over the world with the exact same motivation to commemorate.
For many it was the year that never happened, largely cut off from everyday pleasures, unable to travel or visit or see family, a year barely lived and better forgotten. But for others, it was the year of nightmare, horror, grief, loss and separation, a year as long as a century. Perhaps it was also, for many people, a time of reconnection with friends and family, of solidarity and learning, and for governments to rediscover the value of the social as opposed to the market.
But for all of us, it was a time we never expected to live, something our grandparents lived and talked about, a legend, almost a myth. It was believed that science had conquered nature, at least with regard to plagues; but Nature is not to be conquered, it holds in reserve one or two battalions ready to surprise us at any moment.
We have been pursuing a scorched earth policy for at least 200 years, poisoning the planet, hollowing it out, suffocating it; it shouldn’t be surprising that our world has dealt us a blow in kind. Respiratory disease is the perfect metaphor for what we do in our habitat. Hopefully we – and, more importantly, the great powers of capitalism and government – learn the lesson nature has taught us with such severity.
William Wall is the author of five collections of poetry of which Smugglers In The Underground Hug Trade (Doire Press, 2021) is the most recent, six novels and three collections of short fiction films. His seventh novel will be published first in Italian. His work has won numerous awards, most recently the Premio Lerici (2021) in Italy and has been shortlisted and shortlisted for many others, including the Man Booker Prize. He is Cork’s first Poet Laureate. His work has been translated into many languages. He holds a doctorate in creative writing from UCC.