It’s just over a month since lockdown began. I don’t need to tell you about the uncertainties or worries, but at Riot the crisis has strengthened our raison d'etre: we exist to promote culture, because we know how culture can offer perspective during turbulent times.
One of the positive takeaways from this pandemic has been the blossoming of culture in our day-to-day lives. Arts stories - so often relegated to their own broadcast slots or throwaway sections - are now front and centre. Celebrities and artists are coming out in droves to entertain us with storytelling (looking at you, Tom Hardy), art (David Hockney’s cheery missives from springtime in Normandy or Quentin Blake and Damien Hirst’s rainbows), poetry recitations (cue the daily verse on the Today programme) and - a personal favourite - readings of Girls Aloud lyrics on The Coronavirus Newscast (Hugh Bonneville’s Love Machine was particularly good). BBC Arts’ Culture in Quarantine season is well underway, and Curtis Brown Creative is running a free six-week writing course for those of us who have flirted with, but never committed to, our own scribblings. At Riot, we’ve launched a fortnightly Culture Drop signposting inspiring and motivating content for clients, colleagues and culture fans alike.
Entertainment aside, we look to creatives to chronicle crises. In a letter published in The New Yorker last month, Booker Prize winner George Saunders wrote to his students at Syracuse University:
"Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened (or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us something about some crazy thing that happened in 1970). What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this, and what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now, and what records you keep."
Closer to home, Penguin has released its brilliant Perspectives series, where authors - including Philip Pullman and Malorie Blackman - give their responses to the Covid-19 outbreak and outline positive change they hope will come out of this experience. These essays go some way towards articulating the hopes and fears we all share.
And yet… how can any of us really respond objectively when we are in the throes of a crisis? An emerging sage for our time - grief expert, psychotherapist and author Julia Samuel MBE (This Too Shall Pass, Penguin Life) – uses experience of bereavement and trauma to counsel us on how to cope with the social impact of Coronavirus. In one Instagram post, she writes: ‘We are all in limbo, so very many unanswered questions racing around our minds. It is helpful to think of the serenity prayer: accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can and have the wisdom to know the difference. Eventually, this too shall pass and we will all be able to come together again.’
This too shall pass. For me – and for many who’ve experienced grief – there is great value in reading others’ experiences, to provide the distance and learnings that can help us navigate an altered reality. And where better to look than the literary world? So here are four writers to read on crises past: all in very different situations, each recognisable now in their own way. They provide comfort to the reader by virtue of the fact that – in each case – out of crises came understanding and a knowledge of a better way of living.
1. On action: Ahdaf Souief, writing during the Arab Spring
In 2012, the Egyptian author, activist and political commentator wrote in the Guardian on the impossibility of escaping into fiction writing during a time of crisis.
The question is: do you want to engage with this? Or do you want to escape it? Do you want to live your life in a bubble? Or do you want to be part of the great narrative of the world...
Attempts at fiction right now would be too simple. The immediate truth is too glaring to allow a more subtle truth to take form. For reality has to take time to be processed, to transform into fiction. So it's no use a story presenting itself, tempting, asking to be written, because another story will – in the next minute – come roaring over it, making the same demand. And you, the novelist, can't grab one of them and run away and lock yourself up with it and surrender to it and wait and work for the transformation to happen – because you, the citizen, need to be present, there, on the ground, marching, supporting, talking, instigating, articulating. Your talent – at the time of crisis – is to tell the stories as they are, to help them to achieve power as reality not as fiction.
Based in Cairo, Souief was a go-to commentator on the revolution in the media, and went on to write Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (Bloomsbury). She continues to challenge the Egyptian government and, in March 2020, she was arrested by security forces after staging a protest demanding the release of prisoners over fears of a coronavirus outbreak in the country’s overcrowded jails.
2. On observation: Astrid Lindgren, writing during World War Two
From 1939-1945, the Swedish author and activist wrote diaries from neutral Stockholm. Observing the horror unfolding across Europe from the relative calm and safety of her own home, Lindgren was in an unusual position as a powerless spectator. This extract from her collected diaries (A World Gone Mad, Pushkin Press) - feels apposite:
2 SEPTEMBER 1939
We’re in a state of ‘intensified war readiness’. The amount of stockpiling is unbelievable, according to the papers. People are mainly buying coffee, toilet soap, household cleaning soap and spices. There’s apparently enough sugar in the country to last us 15 months, but if nobody can resist stocking up, we’ll have a shortage anyway. At the grocer’s there wasn’t a single kilo of sugar to be had (but they’re expecting more in, of course).
When I went to my coffee merchant to buy a fully legitimate quarter kilo of coffee, I found a notice on the door: ‘Closed. Sold out for today.'
Lindgren’s wartime experience led her to invent one of literature’s punchiest characters, Pippi Longstocking - an orphaned girl who rose up from the ashes of war-torn Europe as a triumphant, anti-authoritarian hero. Pippi turns 75 this May, and is central to Save the Children’s Pippi of Today campaign, which supports displaced girls worldwide.
3. On reflection: Virginia Woolf, writing on influenza and prolonged illness
In her essay On Being Ill, first published in 1926, Woolf reflected on time spent bed-bound with fever and fatigue. In her inimitable style, she asks why illness - that most common human experience - is so rarely the subject of literature. The blurb for Paris Press’s 2008 edition reads: "We cannot quote Shakespeare to describe a headache. We must, Woolf says, invent language to describe pain. And though illness enhances our perceptions, she observes that it reduces self-consciousness; it is "the great confessional.’"
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache. But no…
She goes on:
But this Heaven making needs no motor cars; it needs time and concentration... there is no harm in choosing, to live over and over, now as man, now as woman, as sea-captain, court lady, Emperor, farmer's wife, in splendid cities and on remote moors, in Teheran and Tunbridge Wells… to live and live till we have lived out those embryo lives which attend about us in early youth and been consumed by that tyrannical ‘I’, who has conquered so far as this world is concerned but shall not, if wishing can alter it, usurp Heaven too, and condemn us, who have played our parts here as William or Amelia, to remain William or Amelia for ever.
And this was before she wrote Orlando.
4. On literature: F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing on belonging
Last month, a fake letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald went viral on social media. Allegedly written in 1920, peak-Spanish Flu pandemic, it offers echoes of our own crisis. There is a familiarity there, even with the 100-year interval: the stockpiling, the need to drink, the dread for the future. But there is also a reassurance afforded to us by hindsight. Owning up to the parody its author, Nick Farriella, commented: "I’d like to think that people have responded to the optimistic sentiment of the message. That in these seemingly dark times, the line of true and untrue was blurred by the need for hope. I think that was something that was at the core of Fitzgerald’s life and work, an unwavering faith in better things to come.
I’ll round off with this perfect, genuine quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald:
That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.