Do you mean, sir, there are 104 symphonies by Haydn
like this one?
—H. C. Robbins Landon, quoted in the Daily Telegraph
obituary, November 2009


Something to raise the spirits, to lighten the dark times—
a day remembered, a kindness, the music of Haydn, and rhyme’s
pleasing close encounters. We’re used to crossing the street
by now to avoid a friend, to greeting that blurred sheet
of perspex in Budgens, to washing our hands obsessively
from morning (as the Business News announces how massively
Netflix and Amazon are profiting) through midday (when
we gather up the post) and into evening, again
and again, then rinsing the shopping. Because we are enlightened,
simply do as we’re told, determined not to be frightened
at Rumour’s tongues. But how does Time expect us to endure . . . ?
By listening, watching, reading. By planting a hundred and four
ways to get you through, and tapping their green cure
like those seedlings our daughter has started to nurture on her terrace,
a WhatsApp shot of them each day. But also like worries
that squirm to reach the light. It’s true we’re almost resigned
to confinement, our little pot of minor: the walk around
the block, speaking for once, maybe, to someone new
who’s lived across the lane for years, a doctor who
works in A&E. And when we go out to applaud
key workers, that’s a shift to major. Would you have allowed
bin collectors or nurses into your Republic, Plato,
since poets didn’t make it? And would you perhaps care to
remark on the effect of being left in your cave to watch
shadows flickering at us since the Ides of March?
Alack and welladay. We survive. They’ve closed the church,
but there are quizzes—every Sunday on our conference call.
“Reflections” was the last week’s theme: they got them all
except our one about the Lady of Shalott, half-sick
of quarantine. Hallelujah, and the mirror’s crack
has put her back in touch. A horn call. Camelot—
though not quite as she’d dreamt it. I trust our ending
won’t be via funeral barge. I have been sending
emails to old friends (the emphasis on “old”)
since they’re the ones who when they turn to face the world
are most at risk. Some won’t even make it online
to search half-snowblind until midnight for a way in
to Iceland, as we did. An echo asks me how my father
would have coped, who spent those two years in another
spell of lockdown: Akureyri, in that wireless hut’s
darkness—it got to him, I think And my mother’s Blitz?
That’s not (although it is) so different. Look up, and it’s
a starry night in London, a planet near the sun
is searing her inside, but she is mourning one
beyond the icy reaches. Fare well. Their cortege
passes through that archway into peace, and we emerge
from Sturm und Drang, with ringing ears and rationed food,
imperious, prepared never to have had such good
health now the pillars have fallen, all passion spent.
Living with less, acquiring more, it’s swiftly learnt.
History says we must wash our vision clean, predicts
a date as indelible as 1665 (or 6).
The empire of assumptions starts to shrink to a commonwealth
of compromise, pared circumstance. And a birth,
unexpected, as if a teacher suddenly turned
a cartwheel in front of the class. Just now he had warned
us about our behaviour, said we were all in danger
of being kept in. At school, I was bell-ringer
(marking the lesson’s end with a sound like the start of a fire)
so could wander distractedly out as if unaware
that a grim calculation was spreading from desk to desk.
I’d close the door and BRRRING. Now, I want to ask
a question of my own. Too late. Becalmed. Nothing but rocks
and a light that keeps on flashing, whether to warn or coax
is not so clear. A voice in my head insists it’s a hoax.
But how can we escape it? We are not Doctor Who,
can’t slip into our box and head for, I don’t know,
Eisenstadt, or even the London of the future
when this will all have become an exam: “What was the nature
of the crisis at the beginning of the twenty-first century?”
They went on serving the old Prince. Eventually
it dawned on them how things could change, that there were trophies
of another kind beyond their walls, out in the leafy
suburban wilds where birds, it seemed, were coming back,
the cuckoo, lapwings, tiny piercing things, and the bleak
horizon sang: blue skies, clear air.
The carbon they never managed to capture wasn’t there.
Instead they found a future. Children. From Trafalgar Square
to the High Dam at Aswan, from Athens to Hampton Court,
the vine renewed its mazy growth. But always the thought
of those behind the yew hedge in their toxic trance—
like the thought of a bear on a chain that is tortured to make it dance,
like the thought of a hen in its cage that pecks at its only chance.
So we turn on the box for the briefing, the update, to hear the PM
or the Queen reassure us that everything’s really just the same
old game of Happy Families. Keep back the bad
news by playing the good Mum or perfect Dad
in the latest streamed box set on Zoom. So it plays
unstoppably, day’s slow introduction, phrase
by interminable phrase; a burst of cheerful light
develops; the slow mid-morning; teatime minuet
that trips so gracefully from Oxford into Cambridgeshire
and finally, the summing up. And always be prepared
for the Surprise. A gift hung on your gatepost. The clip
in your inbox you instantly share. The online quip. The hope
of a miracle that momentarily flashes on your screen,
swells and fades. You are the mariner who knows he’s been
aboard the Marie Celeste and lived: what matters
is making it back to Enlightenment through these dark waters
as if they were sending you home from a war, to measure each day
like a clock, not yet, not yet. And say
convincingly: soon (yes, soon) we are going to wake to hear
a drumroll crescendo, it’s about to end, about to clear
the way for you to London or beyond. You can disappear.