Corona city Chronicles
An angry mob descends upon
The supermarket; it’s every woman for herself
Eager to collect
She pulls the packets and the tins
That represent security, until at last
The powder-coated shelf begins to yawn
With unaccustomed emptiness.
With elegant restraint, this parasite
Brings into play the polished enzyme fangs
That fill with dryness each infected cell
Until at last the shelves are bare
And membranes find there’s nothing left to sell.
The supermarket keeps a chart of
Throbbing coloured lines and numbered boxes
On the wall; the manager is quietly assured
That competition will not be allowed
To interfere. We must proceed, organic growth
And structured desecration of the host
Until the angry mob obeys the call.
Dennison Arkwell, ‘Unseen Words’
The three works by Arkwell which make up this show were created in 2016-17 for the Hamburg Science Festival, and take as their theme the aesthetic possibilities of microbiology.
Agar nutrient plates were prepared by depositing a pattern of selective preservative compounds before seeding them with dust collected from historical printed volumes. The books were picked at random from the repair catalogue at Rylands library, and a vacuum-brush with pleated polyester filter units to retain the particles of forgotten organic material.
In the piece ‘System Nine’ we find seven icons arranged about the three petri dishes – a portrait of the explorer, enlarged pictures of the cultivated microbes harvested from his books, a DNA sequence slide and some FTIR and NMR spectra for the biocidal preservatives.
‘Voices’ is a series of narratives created by schoolchildren. They were given pictures of the petri dish assemblies and invited to speculate on what the images might actually represent. Proposed identities ranged from remote planets and moons, to impact sites and the eggs of exotic insects.
‘Floating Sundials’ depicts an artificial lily-pond with petri dishes floating on the water; an extended spine juts from each one, its shadow giving a dishonest and untrustworthy measure of time.
Corona City Chronicles
21 March 2020: It’s Saturday morning – normally I would be waking up in Andy’s spare room ready to walk across Manchester (we are required to carry out one Saturday shift from 8.00 to 4.00 every fourth week).
But today am at home, because the world is in the grip of Covid-19, a coronavirus first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The outbreak turned into an epidemic, Chinese authorities banned travel and shut down industry and leisure facilities.
Then cases began appearing in Europe and the UK, people started panic-buying groceries and leaving supermarket shelves completely bare.
This virus is severe towards anybody with underlying health problems – and since I was diagnosed five years ago with emphysema, following a chest x-ray, I have been allowed to work from home using a Surface Pro laptop to conduct webchat enquiries.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (!) has been relentlessly cheerful and optimistic but last night he caved in and ordered the closure of pubs, cinemas, nightclubs and restaurants in order to slow the spread of the virus.
Normally I would wake up at Andy’s, make us each a cup of tea and watch the news before going out to work. The city was always so peaceful in the early morning light. The news programme we watched would include a film review by Mark Kermode, which Andy hated (‘What gives him the right to tell us whether a film is good or not?’) so the nationwide closure of picture houses has one good effect, at least.
Outside, it’s a dull grey morning – the daffodils came up in the garden about three weeks ago, but only two of them have flowered. Very odd. Usually we have four bunches, each with five or six blooms. Last year I photographed them, and noticed that the flowers had appeared four weeks earlier than the same plants the previous year.
Back in July 2018, I went with Paul down to South Wales to visit Malcolm, who I hadn’t seen for about sixteen years. We spent a very enjoyable weekend visiting the beach, St David’s, and the Dylan Thomas boathouse in Laugharne.
But nowadays, to cheer us all up in this state of quarantine, the BBC ended the news broadcast with a clip of Cerys Matthews reading from ‘Under Milk Wood’.
Malcolm passed away in May 2019, so this audio clip brought bittersweet memories.
And today is World Poetry Day, an event that has been pushed into the background by the unfolding global drama. On his wordpress blog, Peter Coles posted Byron’s verse about Solitude.
22 March 2020: Mothering Sunday – normally you would treat your mum to a meal out at a restaurant and buy her some flowers and a big box of chocolates.
However, since the UK is now in a state of virus lockdown, socialising is prohibited. Pubs are closed and some restaurants are trying to survive on take-away business. And a real gesture of affection would be to give your mother some toilet rolls and liquid soap, since these items have been stripped from the shelves during the panic.
Yesterday I spent about eight hours working from home. Around me were a few small shelves, loaded with the books I have collected over the years and not touched for a long time…Women in Love, Nancy Cunard, Howard’s End, Iron John, Paradise Lost, The Secret History etc.
Two weeks ago, everything in the UK was fairly relaxed. So what if other countries in Europe were closing schools and cancelling sporting fixtures? We don’t need to panic – Johnny Foreigner might overreact when a few elderly folk succumb to the flu, but we are made of sterner stuff.
So Boris decided to announce that schools and universities would remain open, and major sporting occasions would go ahead as planned. The Cheltenham Racing Festival attracted huge crowds, and the St Patrick’s Day parade in Manchester was allowed to take place, despite nearly every other city in the world agreeing to suspend celebrations.
But now, everything is quiet.
During the past thirty years I’ve had several spells of unemployment when I have been forced to remain indoors, unable to socialise due to lack of funds.
And I wonder if that experience has prepared me to cope with this programme of isolation that we’re all having to endure?
The latest advice from the government is now that people should avoid socialising – don’t go out, don’t go to the park, don’t go shopping.
I very rarely make use of my Spiriva inhaler, but now that we are all in lockdown I have requested some capsules – the active ingredient, tiotropium bromide, is 86p per dose in the UK but 13 dollars in the US.
23 March 2020: Yesterday, we tidied the spare bedroom for me to use as an office when working from home. I moved the bookcase and noticed a 10p piece, so I picked it up, then carried on vacuuming.
Later on I went out for a walk, keeping a safe two metres between me and the couple who were out walking their dogs. Lovely sunny evening, birdsong, vast open fields of the Chat Moss where the local council is planning to permit the building of 1600 new homes.
I took the coin from my pocket and found it was actually Icelandic kroner, left over from Paul’s trip to Canada four years ago.
Thirty-five years ago on March 23 I went to a concert in London; walking up the hill towards the tube station I bumped into my housemate Richard. ‘Here’ he said, offering me his one-day travelcard.
At the QEH I saw the Orpheus Chamber Choir performing Schubert 5 and the Szymanowski Stabat Mater. And then I went for a drink and bumped into Ray at the King’s Arms.
24 March 2020: Yesterday I was on a webchat with an irate customer. Throughout the UK people are being hospitalised, there are businesses closing down and workers losing their jobs. But my irate customer was annoyed because his pensions were being wrongly taxed – he had an income of fifty-three thousand pounds a year from pensions.
Meanwhile my boss rang me to ask if everything was okay. ‘Are you living with your elderly mother?’ he asked.
No, I said: my mother died many years ago. I wonder if my personnel file at work contains any other outlandish rumours?
26 March 2020: Hurrah! I’m on holiday! When I booked this time off a few months ago I was planning to go to Cornwall. But now the UK is in lockdown – Boris has ordered people to remain indoors at all times except when shopping for essentials, or exercising or travelling to work in the care industries.
While tidying the spare bedroom I came across some long-forgotten items, including my tape cassette of Strauss.
Back in 1990 I travelled to a technical meeting at an institute in Melton, and I listened to the Rosenkavalier Suite about five times during the three train journeys.
The journey home didn’t look too promising – according to the timetable, I was facing a wait of forty minutes at one station and one hour at the other. However, it turned out that most of the trains were running late, so in the end I had to wait only five minutes at each.
“I’ve danced with a boy, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.”
But not too recently, one hopes – for it was announced on the news that Prince Charles has been diagnosed with Coronavirus. This nanoscopic organism has wrought havoc across the world.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until next year; Glastonbury has been cancelled; decisions are awaited on the Proms and Wimbledon.
Huge numbers of people have been hospitalised due to the virus, and many if them need to be hooked up to a ventilator to support breathing. Because there is now a nationwide shortage of these units, Boris has announced that Dyson (celebrated designer of vacuum-cleaners and hairdryers) will be awarded a contract to supply thousands of ventilators.
However, the government has snubbed offers from existing manufacturers of the units, who could increase production to help save lives.
28 March 2002: On Thursday evening it was announced that PM Boris has tested positive for Covid-19 and is now self-isolating in Downing Street. Bojo is famous for his enthusiastic support for Brexit.
Meanwhile the hated EU has apparently sent an e-mail message to all member states – including the UK – inviting them to join a procurement scheme for medical supplies including the ventilator units.
‘I see no ships.’
The UK claimed that we had never received this message, although the EU said that UK officials had been present at many of the planning meetings where this scheme was discussed.
This morning I shall exercise by trying a few kata (wonder if I can remember the moves?) and listening to Prokoviev Quartet no.2, filled with Baltic folk tunes and middle-Eastern atmosphere.
Outside I can see the two lonely daffodil blooms among their green shoots, which have now been out for five weeks. Very strange. But these are strange times, with the world being overrun by an exotic virus which may (or may not) have originated in a snake which swallowed an infected bat (or the other way round) before ending up in a tasty street-food casserole somewhere in a market in Wuhan.
Chinese authorities responded by blaming the doctors and accusing them of spreading false news, before eventually placing everybody under house arrest and closing down factories (great for air quality readings).
Meanwhile in the UK we have been ‘advised’ to avoid unnecessary travel , but the Brits have never enjoyed being told what to do, and we find people still having parties, playing football and going out for a family barbecue on the moors. A huge moorland blaze near Belmont led to Lancashire and Manchester fire crews being called out. So much for following advice…
29 March 2020: This morning on the Andrew Marr show we had Matt Lucas telling us about a project to supply food directly to NHS key workers, since nurses find the supermarket shelves empty when they finish their shifts. I recall seeing Matt L onstage in ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ at the Lowry several years ago.
And on Russian TV a studio journalist interviewed the Coronavirus itself – a person wearing a huge Residents-type fake head. Which I thought at first was their Eurovision Song Contest entry.
And when it was announced that Boris had been tested positive for Covid, we saw news footage of Dominic Cummings – mad scientist and ruthless political puppeteer – scurrying clumsily away from Downing Street. A few weeks ago Cummings gave a policy briefing and explained the ‘herd immunity’ theory that he claimed would safeguard the UK economy.
Shocked attendees reported later that his speech carried the message that ‘…if some pensioners die, too bad.’
Although the UK is still paralysed by the Coronavirus, we are still viewing and hearing media output based on a world where everybody is still free to travel, meet and mingle without any restrictions.
Popular TV serials like Corrie and Emmerdale routinely feature scenes in pubs and cafes with close gatherings. And talent show programmes have become a bit grim and lifeless now that they no longer have a studio audience to provide hysterical applause to the performers; so they have started broadcasting old episodes under the guise of ‘best of’ compilations.
One show where solitude is perfectly normal is ‘Desert Island Discs’ which today featured Brian Cox (the actor, not the scientist). When he introduced one of his choices as being by ‘the original rock chick’ I was expecting him to play Suzi Quatro, but it turned out to be Chrissie Hynde, performing ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’.
And I remembered when I lived in a children’s home, and on my little transistor radio we heard Kid Jensen telling us about an amazing new band called the Pretenders and their hit single ‘Brass in Pocket’.
If I could have turned to my housemates and told them that forty years from now, this group’s music will be on Radio Four they would have howled with laughter.