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The Gentle Author’s Coronavirus Diary

June 21, 2020
by the gentle author

Oxford St in March

Early in the lockdown I pulled the volume of Samuel Pepys’ diary for 1665 from the shelf and, as my daily exercise, wandered over to St Olave’s in Seething Lane to walk in his footsteps through the vacant city.

At first, his diary consoled me like a dark mirror, describing a tragedy so much grimmer and more extreme than in our own times. It was at the end of April that he noted ‘Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up.’ Yet with every day that passed as the numbers of deaths increased, the difference in our circumstances lessened and his words acquired greater immediacy for me.

I took off my watch and let time go adrift since there were no longer any appointments or meetings. From that moment I forgot which day of the week it was, and the rituals of a daily walk and cooking dinner prevailed as the measure of time.

Searching for objective news, I deliberated each evening over the ascendant curve of the mortality rate, willing it to level off and decline until my anxious curiosity was rewarded by the realisation that these figures were unreliable and the true numbers were much higher.

I struggled to write of my experience because I was thinking of those who were suffering while I had the good fortune to remain healthy. As long as I was able to sit safely at home, this crisis was happening to others elsewhere but, without fail, every day on my walk I encountered an ambulance in the street as a constant reminder that it was all around me.

I began sleeping later, discovering that it was the traffic noise which previously woke me early each morning. I slept again as I did when a child, falling off the edge of consciousness into a soft dark oblivion and awakening to birdsong to find the world unfamiliar, as if – every morning – I were a traveller returning from a long journey to wonder at the changes.

Like Pepys, I was grateful that I had written my will and my affairs were in order. I am older than Pepys who was thirty-six years in 1665 and I feel I have already lived many lifetimes, even if I am not ready to leave this one. For the first time I found I was grateful that my parents are dead, since they have been spared these times. I realised was mentally preparing myself for whatever might come.

Each Friday, I cycled to deliver essential supplies to a couple of older friends in West London who live alone and of whom one was shielded. I shall never forget the solitariness of my first trip as the only cyclist in Oxford St on a cold afternoon in spring, traversing the lonely city as if I were the last human alive. Each week, more boards appeared upon the closed-up shops, seemingly in anticipation of the gathering apocalypse. I changed my route, cycling through the back streets of Bloomsbury and Marylebone in a vain hope of avoiding exposure.

I did the most conscientious spring clean of my house I have ever done and sewed all the missing buttons back on my clothes. I did it all slowly. I darned my quilt and I lay on the floor for two days, sewing patches on the sofa where the cat had torn it apart. Each day, I watered the garden and delighted in the plants flourishing as they gained inches in height from one day to the next in the exceptionally warm spring.

Other writers have written of their relative ease in adapting to the lockdown, since our work is solitary by nature and, over years, we learn to be comfortable with our own company. Thus it was with me too, until I fell into a hole when the coronavirus struck.

The virus – and my dawning recognition of the scale of the calamity – have left me with a mental paralysis. I had always been able to force myself to write, resisting tiredness, laziness or indolence. It is different now. I cannot force myself any more, I have to wait until the impulse arises. This is a significant departure for one with such a puritanical work ethic, yet for the first time in years the dark rings have gone from under my eyes. Now I can sit with the cat on my lap in the sunlight and spend the afternoon looking out at the garden, letting my thoughts drift into daydreams just I did in childhood.

When I picked up Pepys’ diary again, I discovered I had fallen out of sympathy with him. At the time of writing this, the cumulative death toll in London has passed ten thousand, as many people have died as perished in a single week in 1665 in a much smaller city. I realised that the quality of Pepys’ diary lies in its emotional authenticity, including some callous observations which make uncomfortable reading. At the height of the plague, he was filled with delight and self-satisfaction that his career was in its ascendancy and his bank account was growing. He was shocked when his coachman was struck down with the plague mid-journey in Holborn and horrified when confronted at night by a corpse on a stretcher on the watermen’s stairs, yet he lived in a bubble of privilege that permitted him to compartmentalise with astonishing disregard.

Once I recovered sufficiently to resume my weekly deliveries by bicycle, I found the city had changed with more people on the streets, dispelling the ghost town atmosphere that had pervaded. I want London to renew itself now, but I do not want it to return to how it was before. I have grown accustomed to the peace. My watch sits on my desk – still ticking – keeping the time of that earlier world before all this happened. I wonder when I shall put it on again.

Trafalgar Sq in March

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37 Responses leave one →
  1. Cherub permalink
    June 21, 2020

    I have Pepys in my bookcase here in Switzerland and will revisit what he recorded about the Great Plague. (I shipped most of my books over from Scotland when I moved here, could not bear to part with some of them).

    One thing I hope will come out of this crisis is that people will be grateful for what they have, despite what little that might be, and they will be kinder to each other. Kindness costs nothing but makes a huge difference to our everyday lives.

  2. Shelagh permalink
    June 21, 2020

    You describe so well what, I think, many of us have experienced – we have gone through a process of reevaluation. This extraordinary and devastating pandemic has brought recognition that perhaps some things have become better than they were before (they will be different for all of us) and should continue.

  3. June 21, 2020

    Thank you, gentle author, for sharing your feelings with us. I have had a meditative few months in isolation which has made going back to work at Daunt Books, which opened its doors this week, a very strange experience- the joy of seeing friends, colleagues and customers coupled with anxiety and exhaustion as I found myself interacting with people face to face for the first time. Your daily posts have provided a great deal of comfort as well as a welcome sense of routine for which I will always be grateful.

  4. Venetia permalink
    June 21, 2020

    To have slowed down is a precious gift. While mourning those who have died and those who are still struggling to fully recover, we can hope that this new appreciation of peace and quiet will stop us wanting to return to the frantic pace of life we knew before the virus struck. May our diaries remain redundant and our watches grow cold with lack of use.

  5. June 21, 2020

    Mesmerising GA. Look after yourself. One day I will walk down Fournier Street again.

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    June 21, 2020

    I wonder how many people, like you, have had the C-19 virus, but have NOT reported it to “the authorities”?
    .. Hint: I know one, personally, so it’s probably not that rare. And then there’s the “asymptomatic” cases – how many of those have gone undetected, I wonder?

  7. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 21, 2020

    It is good to hear that you have been able to relax and do some serious daydreaming which will do you a lot of good after all the pressure of the last couple of years. Just as long as you are able to keep posting your blog every day…

    I wonder how many other people have changed their mental outlook as a result of the pandemic?

    While it has been a terrible time for so many people who have suffered from contracting the virus themselves or from the loss of loved ones, I think many people have benefitted from the enforced pause in our hectic lifestyles.

    For example a workaholic printer friend of mine who used to work incredibly long hours has said that he has really appreciated the time he has been able to spend with his family, and has spent many happy hours cooking with his daughters.

    I have been in a ‘bubble of privilege’ myself and really enjoyed being able to observe and appreciate the incredibly beautiful spring we had this year, and having had the time to do lots of decorative work without the pressure of deadlines.

    Unfortunately I haven’t yet had time (or the will power!) to do the much needed spring cleaning… in fact I have happily added to the ‘creative’ mess.

  8. Ian Silverton permalink
    June 21, 2020

    GA, good to know you have made a full recovery from the Virus, enjoyed reading today’s Blog on your travels around Empty London, and your very good deed given to your Friends in need, would like to see some more pictures of empty London which I’m sure you have taken riding around on that bike of yours, or is that for your next book? Makes sense. Happy Fathers Day to all.

  9. Caroline Wilson permalink
    June 21, 2020

    I felt great empathy with the diary written today. Time has stood still and the days have just ebbed and flowed to the natural rhythm of the body. The day, date and time became irrelevant at the beginning of this pandemic.
    The natural world around us has been pushed to the forefront of our lives and you notice things like never before. I don’t live in the city where I’m sure it was more noticeable but in the countryside too nature took over for a while with much more bird song to be heard.
    Like you I hope that things will change our lives from the merry-go-round that was before… I’m not sure that this will be the case but live in hope.
    It has been good to read your diary… your tales have been missed and I hope you will write more now.

  10. Gilbert O’Brien permalink
    June 21, 2020

    You may have fallen out of sympathy with Pepys but if it brought you to an understanding of the emotional content of his work you have gained something. As I have gained something this Sunday morning as I read of your conscientious spring clean and the sewing on of the buttons. There is evidence of a life in those details and I am grateful to you and your insights, and for the sharing of them.

    Might be a thought to put your watch at the bottom of a deep drawer….

  11. June 21, 2020

    Be kind to yourself GA: I think many of us have struggled with what normally comes naturally: in my case reading. I imagine many writers will only start to address their experience of the pandemic in the months to come. I admire your ability – and willingness- to share your feelings.

  12. Ron Wilkinson permalink
    June 21, 2020

    Thanks for this post. Yeah, I want the change this has brought. I’m not sure how it will shake out and it will be a somewhat different world, for the better I hope. It’s 2am in San Diego.

  13. ALISON ENGLEFIELD permalink
    June 21, 2020

    Thank you. Accurate descriptions of the peace wrought by lock-down; the realisation that time is essentially artificial. I live on a main road in the countryside and I longed for the relative quietness to continue. I, too, slept longer for the same reasons. Because I slept longer, I began to wake earlier and was able to listen to the dawn chorus. The birdsong was amazing. Once again, a very big thank-you for your eloquent words.

  14. June 21, 2020

    Beautiful crisp writing as usual. Worth reading just to track down Seething Lane. So apt for this Spitalfields Lifer who seems to spend far too long seething at the world (politics). Again, with history so much does not change. That bubble of privilege still alive and kicking today from those that wish to continue to be kept aloof from responsibility for making life better for more of us.

    So hope we do not return to our normal ways of life too.

  15. Valerie permalink
    June 21, 2020

    You have lost nothing of your mental agility & clear sight – and if you remain a little knocked back, so are we all – even without (so far) being infected. The shock to our collective system is profound.

    The cliff edge pre-coronavirus means we know we must slow it all down and bring forward changes to that pell mell pre-covid19 mindset much more meaningfully. Hopefully we gain a more thoughtful & grateful world, one with less shrill music, less screaming from sports commentators, less vroom vroom on roads, less frantic overdoing of all kinds – and as the economic fallout de-fangs spending so we will see less of the voracious land grabbing for monster developments too. A becalmed moment that with will we can keep.

  16. June 21, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a thoughtful reflection on the current plague in London. Such eerie views of the city.

    Pepys comment, “yet he lived in a bubble of privilege that permitted him to compartmentalise with astonishing disregard,” has resonance for me. I live in a leafy suburb (in a very small house) of some 11,000 people. We have experienced 90 cases total, and 11 deaths. Meanwhile, my state of Massachusetts had the 3rd highest coronavirus death count in the US after New York and New Jersey.

    A large majority of victims come from minority and urban communities. The virus has unmasked (no pun intended) those inequities that beset contemporary life.

  17. paul loften permalink
    June 21, 2020

    You have recovered and that is good, not only for you but for all your friends and readers that greatly appreciate your own daily journal. I am one of those. You mention how you are grateful that both your parents ane no longer here to experience what we have endured. I had exactly the same thought about mine. I wondered how they would cope. Then I thought about their lives. My mother an ARP warden in Hackney during the Blitz. My father who endured the outbreaks of Diphtheria and Scabies in Spitalfields in his childhood and it was the only time in his life that he was in Hospital. He was an infantryman that spent freezing nights in the trenches during battles in France Belgium and Germany and then I wondered how I would have coped with that.

  18. June 21, 2020

    From Alberta, I write to wish you continued recovery and to thank you for your many wonderful posts. These last two are exceptional. Thank heavens for your recovery and bravery during that “mild” case of the CV. I, too, mended clothes during the first week. Then made masks. As I turned 75 in May, I am grateful for every bit of good news and for the love of family, friends, and four-footed companions.
    I would also like to mention that the comments from your readers are beautiful and express a wonderful level of affection and regard.

  19. Su C permalink
    June 21, 2020

    When those of us who experience near death come out the other side, I believe we necessarily do so with altered perspective and rearranged priorities.

    Be kind to yourself in letting what your muse may now be speak when it is ready.

    Enjoy and absorb the calming nature of your contemplative cat.

    Be well GA.

  20. Teresa Clark permalink
    June 21, 2020

    How eloquently you speak in your diary. Gradually mine has turned into a prison diary – “Day 97 quarantine, 78 new cases in our county yesterday (bad), death rate hovering still in the 400s (good?).”  I walk, read, eat sleep.  Slowly the fear is being replaced by acceptance, looking toward the following year, not month. Thank you for describing all the small important details I also have experienced but cannot properly express.

  21. Chris Connor permalink
    June 21, 2020

    Firstly glad to hear that you are well again, this is good news for all those who read and enjoy your writing. Secondly thank you for expressing so clearly the thoughts of others who have been able to reassess their style of living, the speed with which they career through life and the “small” things that we miss every day. Sitting in a self protected bubble with the advantage of a large garden to enjoy and allow the dogs to run around, it has been somewhat therapeutic to see fewer contrails, see fewer cars and lorries, hear less commotion and generally be able to take stock of what is around us. Equally importantly to take stock of what is important to us. I have no doubt that the feeding frenzy of high commerce will return and some will have learned little or nothing from their experience over the last 3-4 months. Shame really, as this could have bene an opportunity for those who deem to wield the power to actually do some good for the majority of the population.

  22. June 21, 2020

    One Day this Maybe Over and the Pictures will be of the Past. Bless Us All.??????

  23. Leanne Teves permalink
    June 21, 2020

    I love you. Pure and simple.

  24. June 21, 2020

    Thank you for sharing this. It has given me peace and hope. So very elegantly expressed.

  25. Ann permalink
    June 22, 2020


  26. Jonathn van Halbert permalink
    June 22, 2020

    When you are old and grey, and nodding by the fire.. Take down this book and slowly read…

    Remember one man loved the Pilgrim soul in you….

  27. June 22, 2020

    Greetings from south-suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota.

    I too, love you, GA. I am so glad your recovery towards wholeness continues steadily. Also, I am thankful that you have been able to resume your bicycling care-errands to your beloved friends.

    This once again is a soul-nourishing diary entry, as with all of your others; yet this one strikes me extra-deep. I have very often remembered your diary entry about your Christmas Eve walkabout in London — remember, the time when you, by chance, entered the Cathedral in Southwark just in time to observe the service. And Mr. Pussy there to greet you when you returned home to Brick Lane. This new diary entry will, for me I think, join that earlier one, as being frequently recalled, unbidden.

    I want you to take good care of yourself always. Use your masks. Continue to follow all precautions. No need to chide yourself for being a changed man now. Above all, please be aware you are loved and cherished by many of us, your faithful readers. What a blessing you are to our lives!


  28. June 22, 2020

    Well you may find it impossible to force yourself to write now, but when you are able to write, the result is just as wonderful as it ever was.

  29. Saba permalink
    June 22, 2020

    First, Jonathan van Halbert — Is your post a quotation? Would love to know the source.

    GA, Yes, your pilgrim soul fortifies me every morning. And, your experience of peacefulness during the epidemic is like my own, although mine is coupled with flashes of the existential terror of life in the USA right now. I’m grateful to you and your allowing me to understand a bit about your passage through this dark time.

  30. Mike Brown permalink
    June 22, 2020

    A very warming and interesting recollection of these terrible times. It must resonate with many people in lockdown circumstances. Thank you GA for your thoughts

  31. June 22, 2020

    This is exactly what I’ve needed to read. Not that I needed you to indulge me by catching Coronovirus.
    A gentle meandering, no fighting, no victory and thank goodness no defeat. I loved every considered word. Thank you

  32. Mary permalink
    June 23, 2020

    Thank you GA for such an eloquent blog, I think it resonates with many people. One of the messages that has emerged from this dreadful pandemic is the desire for a better world, and we all have a part to play in that.

    Saba, I agree with your comment and I have found that Jonathan was quoting from “When you are old” by William Butler Yeats. It is such a beautiful poem and perfectly complements GA’s blog. Thank you Jonathan.

  33. Annella permalink
    June 23, 2020

    Thank you Gentle Author for sharing this diary – wonderful writing as always. So happy to hear that you are well again

  34. June 24, 2020

    Thank you for sharing your observations and experiences with us. I had planned to write more but working from home zapped that. I am glad you are on the mend.

    Samuel Pepys was both candid and selfish. Whether he lacked self awareness or was committed to true authenticity, we will never know. I love how his voice has lasted, though.

  35. Margaret Mcdermott permalink
    June 29, 2020

    Very glad you have recovered but take it easy we don’t want to lose you, you mean too much to us.There is a Mosque at the end of my street and one of my abiding memories of this terrible time will be worshippers not going nightly to pray during Ramadan.Another is reading Michael Rosen’s account of his near death experience and my enormous joy that he is still alive.I hope we learn from this experience but I’m not optimistic.

  36. Suzy permalink
    July 4, 2020

    Ahhh flippin’ ‘eck! I’m just catching up on some of your posts and was utterly enthralled with this offering and then you say you’d actually been felled with the cursed thing. :o( Ahhh I’m so sorry to hear that. I bet the fatigue has been wretched! You go gently GA. Would it be very inappropriate to say that despite learning of your horrible malady this is one of my most favourite of all your posts? ?

  37. November 13, 2021

    I have loved reading your articles, my family having left Suffolk on the very early 1800’s. They ended up in the East End like so many others. It has been interesting but sad at the same time to see the struggles they went through. Interestingly they had passed away by the time they were 50. The ones who stayed in Suffolk were in their 70’s. Thank you for what you have done and stay safe.

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