A pandemic diary

‘My concentration seems to be shot this year for anything except work. I have entirely failed to learn a new language, finish a novel, or watch anything more demanding than repeats of Morse’

Natalie Haynes

In March, like many performers, I watched six months of gigs fall out of my diary over about 48 hours. Usually, I do 75 shows a year, in theatres and schools, book festival tents and universities. I’ve probably done more events than ever in 2020: podcasts, Instagram Live chats, school talks, library and bookshop events. But they have all been online since the spring, except for a small festival in August, and one theatre show in October. I miss audiences—live audiences I can see and hear—more than I can easily explain. I miss the sound of them, I miss seeing their expressions, I miss the sense of improvising something with them which belongs to us all, just for an hour or so. I miss this more than socialising: I like being outdoors anyway, so I’m always delighted to meet a friend for a walk in the park rather than a drink in the pub. I didn’t—at first—miss the travel, most of which I do by train. I thought last week, as I scooted between events in Doncaster, Glasgow and then Trafford and Bristol libraries, that I would have struggled to do this in real life. But my diary reminds me that a couple of years ago, I did shows in Cornwall and Devon three days apart, with an appearance in Dumfriesshire between the two.

***

I probably have the pandemic to thank, however, for making my West End debut in November as a playwright. That’s how I’ll describe it on my CV, anyway. A more accurate description is that I loosely translated and modernised an Ovid poem (a letter from Hypsipyle to her errant husband, Jason) for a set of 15 short plays, based on Ovid’s Heroides, for the Jermyn St Theatre. Olivia Williams performed my monologue, which was screened as part of the mini-season. I’ve been performing since I was a student, but I’m no actor. Watching someone at the top of their game take a character and occupy every corner and crevice of her, seeing what happens to a piece of writing when an actor and director turn it into a theatrical (and cinematic) performance was properly thrilling. I think I’d always vaguely hoped that if I made it to the West End, there would be more people and glasses of champagne on press night. But it turned out not to matter at all.

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My concentration seems to be shot this year for anything except work. I have entirely failed to learn a new language, finish a novel (unless I’m reading it for work, in which case I still seem to be able to power through at speed, but as soon as it’s for pleasure, I slow to a sloth’s pace), or  watch anything more demanding than repeats of Morse. I want to join in with the collective watching of various shows, but I couldn’t get into Normal People (too many sad-eyed pretty people having sex they didn’t like to John Lewis-ad covers of songs I do like) and I have yet to commit to The Queen’s Gambit. I wonder if I’ve lost my taste for jeopardy. This month, I’ve mainly been watching Inspector Montalbano. This is partly because I like a murder mystery, partly because the conventions of crime dramas in other languages are intriguing (why can Catarella not open a door properly? Was the actor famous for slapstick before he was cast in the show? Don’t write in, I enjoy not knowing). But it’s mainly because I like the feeling of seeing people somewhere hot and beautiful, eating delicious food. I’d probably be just as happy if he didn’t solve the crime.

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I’ve been hopeless at Christmas for the past two years (I used to be excellent at it but I lost my way, so now I mainly try not to be Scrooge and ruin it for other people). I have a little wooden tree I might put up, now I’ve finally cleaned my flat. But I can’t remember enjoying other people’s Christmas decorations more than I have this year, even though they’ve been up since Halloween. The lights on London’s Oxford Street, and in Covent Garden especially, have a defiant quality to them which makes me tear up when I go walking through the unseasonally quiet streets. I think it’s the refusal to go into winter without offering up a little light in the dark.

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One of the happier aspects of taking everything online is that last week I interviewed Douglas Stuart, the Booker Prize winner, for Hay Winter Weekend. Neither of us was in Hay: I was in London and Douglas was in New York. The pandemic means that he has yet to see a copy of his book in a UK bookshop. His winning novel, Shuggie Bain, is a remarkable piece of work: a dark, bleakly funny account of addiction from the perspective of a child watching his mother fall apart. But even though I was in the enviable position of being able to ask him anything about his writing process and his inspiration for an hour, I got sidetracked when he mentioned knitting. His day job is in textiles, and we ended up comparing notes on our knitting projects after the event was finished. We hope to meet in real life in one or other of our cities at some point. I plan to wear a woolly hat.

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