We don't want pandemic novels – we want gentle escapism

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

28 November 2020

9:00 AM

I’m often asked when I’ll write a pandemic novel. I’m not sure I’d ever be tempted, though the backdrop of Edinburgh’s deserted streets at the height of the (first) lockdown certainly provided food for the imagination. I dare say novels will arrive — some may even be good. But I find that fiction concerning momentous events usually benefits from the dust having settled. Only then can we begin to comprehend the human costs, stresses and implications, by which time there may also be an audience ready to relive the experience. In the near future, however, I foresee a hunger for escape to a gentler and more reasonable world.

I’ve been told that the title of my latest novel is prescient, but it came to me (by way of Brecht) in the early autumn of last year. For me, those were dark times, with events in the USA stretching credulity, the perception that the far right was on the rise in Europe and beyond, wildfires raging across the globe and Brexit trundling towards us. Not being a writer of speculative fiction, I had not factored Covid into the equation. The book, however, was written during the pandemic and proved a mercy. Novels can be a form of escapism for their authors as well as readers. I disappeared into a fictional universe that had order and where I could intuit the likely outcomes. In fact, I’ve penned two novels so far this year, and am even mulling over ideas for a third.

When not writing, I wander through the emptied streets of Edinburgh, posting photos on Twitter and plotting the pub crawl I’ll one day undertake. When hostelries did reopen first time round, however, they seemed husks of their former selves. No more huddling at the bar, finding oneself part of this or that casual or heated conversation, often with strangers. The places I frequent tend to be cramped sociable spaces and these have the most difficulty adjusting to the new reality: only a handful of tables; no standing allowed; Perspex screens and a couple of metres distancing you from anyone you might know or wish to get to know. And having reopened, these places found themselves ordered to close again soon after, the PPE purchased for naught, the fresh intake of beer poured away. Last week I did some filming for a documentary in an empty Café Royal. For the first time in forever, I could actually find a seat.

The drouthy spirit prevails however. Another Edinburgh howff — a folk music staple — was serving takeaway pints when I passed it recently, and a few yards further on some musicians were playing al fresco while their hardy audience, socially distanced, sipped from plastic pint glasses.

The perception is that the Scottish government’s messaging has been clearer and more eloquently conveyed than that from Westminster, though the recent move to various tiers has led to audible grumbles and questions as to the science involved. During a lull in hostilities I was able to visit a cinema where I sat masked and with empty rows behind and in front of me. Soon however the cinemas closed, though their cafés could stay open, allowing unmasked patrons to sit across from one another blethering. Gyms meantime remain open and busy, filled with unmasked runners and lifters and pedallers, separated by less than a metre and the ubiquitous sheet of Perspex. As my dentist said, if we’d known what was coming, we’d have known which shares to buy. One of my favourite restaurateurs, Tom Kitchin, is fighting to keep his establishments open and viable: not easy when he has to close by 6 p.m. and isn’t allowed to serve even a single glass of wine with lunch, lest diners suddenly start lunging at each other. It’s the science though, we’re told.

I’ve been able to write about my character John Rebus in lockdown — a monologue which was performed by actor Brian Cox as part of a series devised by the National Theatre of Scotland. Rebus is missing the pubs as much as I am, and Mr Cox conveyed this with great feeling. More than even the barroom, however, I’ve been missing my younger son. He is profoundly disabled and since early March his residential unit has been in lockdown. At first we could not see him at all; then it was agreed we could peer at him through the gate if his carers brought him into the garden. And now one family member at a time (in full PPE) can visit his bedroom. One hug and the world suddenly seems a better place. And though we are planning a very quiet Christmas with no family coming to stay, my wife and I have booked a week in the Caribbean in January. Yes, it may never happen, but it will have given us one more thing to look forward to. We will get through this, hopefully without too many bad novels having been written.

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