- 23 Apr 20
In the new Hot Press 'Stay Safe' Emergency Issue, Irish stars and cultural figures pen 'Letters From Home' – offering their personal takes on the COVID-19 crisis.
Covid-19 has in an odd way shown up the paucity of our imaginations. None of the dystopian fictions of the past fifty years – The Stand, The Andromeda Strain, Margaret Atwood’s Onyx and Crake, etc etc – have quite matched it. So ordinary, so global, so ferocious.
So I would ask for a moratorium on the word “dystopian”. And another one on the misuse of the word “surreal”. There is nothing surreal about the images of an empty Dublin, an empty Venice, hospital doctors, nurses and patients enclosed in various forms of disposable plastics. They are all too real. Too ordinary. Too contemporary.
The only image that seemed to deserve that word, was that of the Pope in an empty St Peter’s Square, sitting on a ceremonial chair, lit by a yellow light. That had a resonance that Dali could never have matched. Or Max Ernst. Or any of their later also-rans.
And the only piece of fiction that comes anything close to matching the atmosphere of what we’re going through is, oddly enough, a story that has nothing to do with viral infections. Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds. Not the Hitchcock movie. The 31-page story, of a Cornish farmland and the gradual realisation that something in nature has turned against us. One farmer, one family and some eruption in the natural world that might have to be endured.
“The smaller birds were at the window now. He recognised the light tap-tapping of their beaks and the soft brush of their wings. The hawks ignored the windows. They concentrated their attack upon the door. Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.”
Nat Hocken couldn’t communicate with the outside world. I can. And there are certain compensating realisations. I never really liked house parties. Was never the best in crowds. Always preferred empty cinemas. But I have never felt quite so useless. Without a medical degree, without training as a nurse. I would maybe make a passable hand at garbage collection and grocery delivery. Could have been a postman. All professions that have never seemed more heroic.
I have a sneaking suspicion – or maybe it’s a hope – that something might happen that will be as unexpected as the virus itself. Like in the ending of an earlier dystopian fiction – H. G Wells The War of The Worlds, where the alien invaders were killed by the common cold.
But, no wait.
Isn’t that a coronavirus?
Read more Letters From Home in the new Hot Press 'Stay Safe' Emergency Issue – available to buy in shops and order online now.