Journal of the Plague Year

It was the toilet paper that brought it home.

Reports started coming in, can’t remember exactly when, of another virus outbreak in China – Wuhan, to be precise. The reports shifted quite quickly closer to home, with Italy almost in lockdown. Then Italy was in lockdown. Then the reports started up right here, at home, of emergency stockpiling – in particular toilet paper, which seems to have become the currency and barometer of the crisis. Supermarkets were running out of it as people bought it up by the truckload.

But, even though they were coming from within the borders of the United Kingdom, even these reports still felt like they were coming from a foreign country. Surely not here?

Then, last Thursday (12th March) there was no toilet paper delivered with our Tesco order: not even a substitution.

Yup, it was happening.

First thing the next morning, I went into Poundland: none there either. Fortunately Saver had packets of 18 stocked up to the ceiling, with a restriction of not more than two per customer. So, that will keep us going for as long we keep going while we keep going.

We went to Tesco in person at the weekend: shelves empty of pasta and other dried goods, and – yes – toilet paper. But still plenty of other food. I can only assume no one nowadays has a large chest freezer. (We don’t.) Also, bizarrely, an entire almost untouched pallet of tins of chick peas. Does no one in Abingdon know what to do with those?

Anyway, for the time being, as long as people are able to make daily visits to the supermarket, and the human infrastructure exists to manufacture and deliver and stack food on shelves, no one should starve. That is quite a conditional, though.

At first the government was playing it cool in the best “Keep Calm and Carry On” tradition. After all, a bit like chickenpox, the sooner everyone gets it then the sooner it’ll all be over, right?

Then three days ago, Monday 16th March, they about-turned. Imperial College published a paper showing existing measures just wouldn’t cut it. Suddenly official advice was to avoid as much contact with others as you can, work from home if possible and for pity’s sake, stop panic buying. Oh, and local elections postponed until 2021. Yay democracy.

This makes a lot of people every thoughtful: will we be crashing the global economy to save lives? Stepson is working day by day at the brewery; management there is seeking to preserve jobs though it may inevitably mean paycuts, at least pro tem. The government has announced £350bn to help companies ride the business downturn, mortgage holidays and other goodies, though many feel it could go even further. This is the first time I can actually feel good about Johnson as Prime Minister: I still loathe the man but I do accept we need someone with ideological flexibility at the moment. And “ideological flexibility” is his middle name, between “de” and “Pfeffel”.

(And – whisper it quietly – could this possibly be a way of extending Brexit past the end of the year without political embarrassment? Especially as Michel Barnier has tested positive for the virus. Added 20/3/20: And that pranny who runs Wetherspoons – so uninterested in his existence I can’t even be bothered to remind myself of his name – was on the radio this morning saying no, we shouldn’t put it back, which frankly is one very good reason to do so, just to annoy him.)

On Monday evening we went to what turned out to be the last of a series of Lent lectures on Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary by the Rector of St Helen’s. The audience was already half of what it had been in previous weeks. Then, yesterday, the C of E announced that regular church and church happenings were being put on hold. Churches have already been restricting themselves for the last few weeks, first they were asking you not to intinct the wafer; then it was wafer-only and no hand shaking for the Peace; now this.

The gut instinct, frankly, is to be afraid, very afraid. Then you look at the figures. There’s a BBC site that helps you track the spread of the virus (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51768274). As of today there are 34 cases in Oxfordshire out of a local population of 687,524. That’s quite high up the infection list, relatively speaking: but, do the sums and it’s a stonking 1 per 20,221. A stranger who dared to wander in across the border from Berkshire could meet 20,220 people and not be at risk. I feel I can live with those odds.

Still, this is probably the first time something has happened in my life that could go absolutely anywhere. We probably won’t end up in a Survivors or Earth Abides-type situation, but things are going to change. As with any life-changing crisis, the vested interests will probably hope everything returns to the status quo ante as soon as possible, while the newly empowered unvested interests will embrace the change and see no reason to let go of it. We shall see.

So, I thought I would chronicle events as best I can, at least as long as the electricity stays on and the internet abides. I’ll add new developments at the end as they come along.

Herewith the chronicling as of 18th March 2020.

First, the positives.

From the Glass Half Full Department:

In other business:

Update: 19th March 2020

Okay, this does change things: schools and universities to shut from tomorrow. Academic exams for this year cancelled. Glass half full: no performance tables for 2020 to be published either. But even so. We’re promised this somehow won’t affect GCSE and A-level students: goodness knows how. Clarification awaited.

National Trust to open parks for free to give people ‘access to space’, though indoor sites are closing. English Heritage likewise. Update 23rd March 2020: and the National Trust is closing them again, as too many people are taking advantage of the offer and hence not properly social distancing.

Stonehenge spring equinox celebration cancelled.

Air pollution and CO2 fall rapidly as virus spreads, though there’s a warning to governments not to undo all the good work as they try to get the economy going again.

And our neighbours have started a WhatsApp group for our building so that we can all look out for and help each other. I don’t know them at all and they have a 3-month-old baby. I feel humbled.

Update: 20th March 2020

Cafes, pubs and restaurants must close from tonight, except for take-away food; all nightclubs, theatres, cinemas, gyms and leisure centres have also been asked to close “as soon as they reasonably can”.

That nice Chancellor has said the government will pay 80% of wages for employees who are not working, up to £2,500 a month.

Update: 24th March 2020

… and that really was the big one: Boris Johnson announcing at 8.30 pm last night that the UK is on lockdown. Shops selling non-essential goods to close (Sports Direct tried to take an unconventional approach to “essential” (but in the last five minutes since I started typing this has backtracked) and everyone whose job can’t be done from home to stay at home, apart from exercise once a day.

This will make life … interesting.

Beloved is still having to travel in to work. This morning she got a lift from a colleague who is also having to go in; this evening I will pick her up rather than subject her to public transport, which we both feel is within the spirit of the lockdown.

Update: 26th March 2020

No big news except that to say this is the first day of all three of us working from home. Bearing in mind other people’s problems, I have to make myself remember it’s all bigger than the minor loss of my accustomed state of having the house to myself during the day … Also that I’m now working from the laptop on the desk in the living room, since Beloved’s job can only really be done from the main computer in the workroom. Three more weeks. Meh.

Update: 27th March 2020

The government is matching its help to the self-employed with its help to the otherwise waged. My accountant’s generic email to all her clients laying out the guidelines for eligibility, and I would count. 80% of my average profits per month does not sound bad. It also sounds very, very naughty as I doubt my income will take a hit from this: if anything it might go up as more people need ghostwriters. So I will try to be strong and not claim, leaving more dosh for the genuinely deserving.

America now has more COVID cases than China … which Donald Trump says is a tribute to all the testing they’re doing. Good grief, that man.

Update 28th March 2020

Our first stab at a post-lockdown Tesco shop this morning. I didn’t see the inside because they only allowed one person per trolley in, with a carefully managed one in, one out policy to keep numbers down inside. Beloved queued in the overflow carpark – markings on the ground showing they were prepared for a queue that snaked the length of the carpark two or three times, but at 7.15 am it had just started on its second length – while I went home to shave and shower. I was just done when I got the call to come and get her. Anyway, apparently it was all quite bearable inside and she got everything she wanted.

Boris Johnson, the Health Secretary, the Chief Medical Officer and Prince Charles all now have it.

People who show too much initiative in finding somewhere isolated to exercise are doing it wrong, apparently. A couple walking their dog in the Peak District were photographed by a Derbyshire police drone and their image splashed up on Twitter marked NOT ESSENTIAL. Idiots. The police, not the couple.

Earth abides.

 

The Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins

H.M.S. Barabbas cover

“ Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island …”

Almost the last words that Jim Hawkins writes in Treasure Island. So, why is every sequel to Treasure Island a return to Treasure Island? Sometimes it’s blatant, as in the several TV series called Return to Treasure Island. Sometimes it’s subtler: Andrew Motion’s Silver has Jim’s son and Long John Silver’s daughter returning to … guess where? (Although, as it’s their first time there, I suppose they don’t really return …) But even so, there has to be more to Jim’s life story than that accursed island.

Thus H.M.S. Barabbas. We’ve had Young Sherlock Holmes, Young James Bond … here is the Slightly Older Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins.

“There I was, tied to an ox with wain-ropes, being dragged back to the island. ‘Oh, the irony’, I thought …”

That is not how H.M.S. Barabbas begins. Instead:

“We buried the doctor today. The old man nearly made his century, which would not have surprised anyone who knew him …”

Within hours of the suggestion that I write the Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins, the first chapter had written itself. Sir James Hawkins, FRS, MD, wracked by Weltschmerz, is penning his memoirs on the day of the funeral of his mentor and father figure Dr Livesey. Clearly, it’s many years after Treasure Island. So, what did Jim Hawkins do next?

He’s still young at the end of Treasure Island. He’s also rich, and despite his antipathy to strong lengths of twisted cords and cattle, I believe he would have a taste for adventure. He might not go back to the island, but he would also not go back to meekly running the local inn with his mother.

The starting point of all this was thinking of Jim as a kind of anti-hero – a Flashman figure whose life is essentially all one big con. I didn’t want to do that, though. Jim has genuinely been a positive role model for generations of boys and I didn’t want to take that away from Stevenson’s accomplishment.

But Jim is a flawed hero – an interesting mass of contradictions. He is never quite as brave or as strong-willed as he would like to be (until it really counts, of course). He can be a self-righteous prig, ready for a right good slapping. On at least one occasion, the plot of Treasure Island goes on hold for a couple of pages as he pleads with a pirate to consider his immortal soul. (Stevenson was agnostic-verging-on-atheist but he knew how to play to his Victorian gallery.) At the same time he can cheerfully blow the head off Israel Hands with a pair of pistols at point blank range (admittedly in self-defence) and joke about it. Following the plot-convenient death of Jim’s actual father in chapter 3, part of the fascination is watching Jim torn between two father figures: Dr Livesey, upright and moral and just a teensy bit boring; and Long John Silver, wrong but wromantic. There’s a lot of possibility here.

Silver is out of the picture (for now) and Livesey is clearly the man Jim admires most in the world. Obviously, I decided, Jim wants to learn medicine himself. He won’t be able to do that in the unnamed west country village he lives in; he will have to go up to that there London. And what might happen to him on the way? Well, that’s when the further adventures begin, isn’t it?

Suffice to say that Jim doesn’t get as far as London; not yet. He probably will in the next one.

As the plot of H.M.S Barabbas developed, I had to make some decisions.

Tell the story in first person or third? Treasure Island is in first. The problem there would be having to replicate Stevenson’s writing style, which I knew would just sound like someone hamming up nineteenth century gothic prose. It also has the problem that you can only ever show things from the point of view of the narrator (though Treasure Island gets round that by inserting clips from Dr Livesey’s diary, when Stevenson really got bogged down); and, given that this is all in the past tense, it’s a fairly massive clue that the narrator survives. Granted, you can generally surmise that of the hero of any novel, and you can draw your own conclusions from ‘The Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins’, but … In short, I decided third person would work best. The very brief first and last chapters are all the first person you get – about as long as I can carry a convincing Stevenson impression for.

Jim, Livesey and all the other characters from Treasure Island are safely out of copyright (as of 1964) so I can do what I like with them – but to make the Further Adventures mine, I needed more characters of my own. There’s also a singular dearth of female characters in Treasure Island: Mrs Hawkins is the only one, and her only job is for Jim to think of from time to time. So, I introduced more characters, and I’m pleased to say most of the ones I intend to carry on into further books are female.

And what of Jim himself? I can work with his established flaws. Jim can be refined by hardship, having his priggishness knocked out of him, bringing out his innate decency and emerging the better for it. Jim will always be a combination of innocent abroad who is also able to sup with the devil, but he can have self-knowledge too. To set this up, I let one small detail of Treasure Island turn out to be a little white lie that has preyed on Jim’s conscience ever since.

Jim’s greatest handicap as he sets out in life is that there are people who have actually read Treasure Island. We know Jim wrote an account of the expedition at the behest of Livesey, Squire Trelawney and other survivors. In H.M.S. Barabbas I have it that Trelawney had Jim’s account published privately and a handful of people have read it. At best, this colours their perception of Jim, not always accurately or positively. At worst, it tells them that here is a young man who knows where there’s more treasure …

What of the future? Jim should continue to pursue his medical ambitions, at least until the point something else comes up. He can’t have life too easy – he will have to lose that fortune of his to make things more interesting for the reader. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in the late eighteenth century, but Treasure Island is never more specific than that it is written in “the year of grace 17__”, and for that reason, I won’t tie it into any specific historic events. Maybe it’s in a parallel universe with the same events, just not in the same order.

I subscribe to the notion that a novel, as a general rule, should always tell the most important thing to have happened to its protagonist at that point in their life. That’s why novel blurbs say things like “his most exciting adventure yet!” rather than “a doddle compared to the last one”. On that basis, every sequel to Treasure Island must out-Treasure Island Treasure Island. That’s quite a challenge. It will be fun to see how I manage.

His Majesty’s Starship, part 2: B5, bad guys and by golly, a sequel

Go to the book's home page

Go to the book’s home page

Like me, Babylon 5 was also on a mission to do right what Star Trek got wrong. Its key innovation was the story arc – the idea of an overall plot across the entire series that would take many episodes to unfold. Nowadays it’s almost unknown for a series not to have an arc. Babylon 5 gave us a universe of consequences – if a character broke a leg in one episode, they were on crutches in the next. In one episode a fighter pilot was killed and the closing shot was of Commander Sinclair composing a letter of condolence to the next of kin. Humans in Babylon 5 were a minority species, one among many, as opposed to the apartheid-like setup of Trek in which humans are clearly the minority yet equally clearly in charge of almost everything. It was a universe where it was okay to be religious, without the right-minded good guys on the one hand ‘respecting’ your faith until their hearts bled and on the other quite obviously despising it as primitive superstition.

None of it was actually original in comparison to written science fiction, which had grasped all these innovations in the fifties or earlier. For television science fiction it was brand new and I felt a lot of moral support.

Babylon 5 also gave us a feisty Jewish-Russian female second-in-command; not a combination of features you would expect to be duplicated easily. Well, I got there first! Hah!

I enjoyed dividing the Earth into the political map of 2148, including such nations as the Confederation of South-East Asia, the Pacific Consortium, the Holy Arab Union, the South American Combine and the United Slavic Federation – and of course the Vatican. Then, once I had the entire planet neatly divided into political entities, I suddenly realised to my horror that I was doing what Trekkies do – I was neatly delimiting and parcelling up a potentially fascinating future to make it manageable. So the published version names a few nations, but many more are now implied.

One of those entities is the EU. Ho-hum. Innocent days.

Books need antagonists and it would have been too easy to make the Rusties the bad guys. In fact their invitation to the nations of Earth was pretty straight, for the amount of information they chose to reveal. So, the tension had to come from within the humans. For the baddies I chose the Confederation of South East Asia. This was a superstate India and its puppet satellite states; Pakistan, Bangladesh (I take credit for the first ever Bangladeshi on a starship, I think), Afghanistan, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma. I really should add I had and have nothing against India – but the baddy had to be a global superpower of 2148, and I have no doubt that India will be one. Europe and North America will have long had their day by then. Whether India is a good or a bad superpower, only time will tell. In His Majesty’s Starship it’s just emerging from a mad and bad period, and there’s a tension between different factions who have different views of the past. Several of the Confederation characters are perfectly decent guys who just happen to have been born into this situation and so I gave the Confederation the NVN, an equivalent of the Waffen SS, who unquestionably are bad and not necessarily well liked by their compatriots. As I don’t speak a word of Hindi, NVN stands for ‘Not Very Nice’. NVN uniforms were plain green, based on the pyjamas I was wearing at the time. Depending which part of the novel you read, the uniforms are either dark or pale green, which has two possible explanations: dark green for dress uniform, pale for combat (or vice versa); or, they left the dark uniforms in the wash too long.

Then I unexpectedly started thinking of a sequel …

I honestly hadn’t intended to. But I showed some chapters at Milford 1994 in Rothbury, Northumberland and they came up with two unforeseen reactions. First, I explained the background plot and an immediate reaction was: that’s what the aliens want, and we’re the best they can do?! And second, a criticism was made that Gilmore was a bit bland. He needed more background. He needed a family! Thus his eighteen-year-old son Joel was generated spontaneously from the ether, together with a perfect rationale for the Rusties’ actions, and these two things together gave me enough material to write The Xenocide Mission: the only sequel I have written so far.

In part 3: finding a publisher and discovering I’m a children’s author.