Category Archives: covid19

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

Dreaming of Books 10

Amid the leaked news that Spain’s lockdown may be extended until June, I resolve to remain calm and comment-free (see previous posts where I totally go off on one), and turn my gaze to literature. I’m resurrecting a series I used to post on this blog, dreaming of books, where I recommend great books to read – during the lockdown or at any time.

Pat Barker has taken Homer’s tale of The Iliad and retold it through the eyes of one of its central characters – one who barely received a mention in the original. Briseis is a beautiful noblewoman of Lyrnessus, near Troy, captured as a “prize” by Achilles in a Greek raid on the town. Having seen this warrior slaughter her family, she is enslaved as his concubine before being passed on to the Greek commander Agamemnon as disputed booty in a quarrel between the two warriors. She does not merely witness but experiences first-hand the events that unfold in this tragic final year of the siege of Troy.

Photo of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker on a Barcelona balcony with a glass of El Priorat wine
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is a great Covid-19 isolation read, here being read on a Barcelona balcony with a nice drop of El Priorat wine

I am an unconditional fan of Pat Barker. I first got to know her writing in “The Regeneration Trilogy” (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road), where her setting was the First World War. The subject of The Silence of the Girls is likewise war, but more specifically how the caprices of male egos cause innocent people – most often women – suffering and death.

I love the approach Barker takes to the concept of gods and mortals here, not attempting to engage in any kind of supernatural fantasy fest but accepting that through their belief her characters acknowledge and experience the gods in a real sense, and are affected by their whims. Being the female slave of the most powerful warrior in the Greek army affords Briseis the protection to wander where she likes in the camp. So she often swims in the bay, attempting to wash away the despair of her slavery. When she comes to his bed one night, “aware of how it must appear to him, the crust of salt on my cheekbones, the smell of sea-rot in my hair,” Achilles seems to become entranced. It is as if, through the sexual act, he is seeking his mother, Thetis (a Nereid or sea nymph, who deserted him as a child), attempting to reconcile her abandonment with his destiny. The imperative of his destiny and need for glory weigh constantly on him, affecting every action: “Ever since he came to Troy, he’s known – intermittently, at least – that he won’t be going home.”

In these days of the Covid-19 pandemic, plague likewise features heavily in this tale, so it is interesting to see how the male characters move through the various stages of hubris, denial, anger, panic and finally humiliation and appeasement, orbiting along their own strict paths of battle codes and honour. Yet it is chilling to see through the women’s eyes how decisions taken by the men directly affect them as they look on at events with an absolute lack of choices over where they live and sleep, what they eat and especially who touches and uses their bodies.

Barker never falls into the common trap of many historical writers of creating an overly prescient or knowledgeable narrator but rather presents a world of raw, bruised and believable humanity, comfortable in its own period even as it is conflicted by its own inequality.

Purchase the ebook here.

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Covid BCN 06: virus versus hubris

Sunday, 22 March 2020

I woke up grumpy this morning, wanting to go to the pool or for a bike ride, and angry at the incompetents who by their ineptitude have ensured our confinement will last closer to three months than three weeks. We’re in the ninth day of this damn lockdown, the ninth day I haven’t been able to get to my pool or on my bike and ride up the mountain. Yes, unlike Belgium and France, in their infinite wisdom our noble rulers have banned any form of exercise outside the home, even in situations where you are exercising solo, your feet never touch the ground and you remain at least fifty metres from any other living being at all times. We are expected simply to endure with little thought for the logistics of how the goal might be achieved while still ensuring our sanity.

The ninth day of lockdown, knowing this is likely to last for months and we haven’t nearly approached the peak yet. A lot of people still have to die before this is over. New Zealand will no doubt be locked down for about three weeks and sort it quickly. But thanks to those in charge, Spain is more likely to be locked down from here to eternity. And this morning as if on cue, it was declared that Spain’s lockdown will be extended by a further 15 days.

Why am I not surprised? The Catalan first minister, Torra, has repeatedly asked for Catalonia to be sealed off. He has asked Sánchez to stop cleaning airports and start closing them. His plea has fallen on deaf ears, as did the plea to properly seal off Madrid. From the Spanish point of view, the fears about closing off Catalonia are that those borders may never open again and Catalonia may become de facto independent as a result of the crisis. Hmmm, maybe we should have a referendum on that?

Below, I give the grim statistics, but before that, let’s stay positive (yes, up till now this has been positive – hadn’t you noticed?) and talk about keeping ourselves in shape during the lockdown.

Day nine and my affirmations are to start playing more music and doing exercise on a regular basis. This morning my body was screaming out for stretches and a proper workout, so to Velvet Velsen’s beats, I finally kicked my lazy arse into some semblance of a half-hearted routine. Reader, I exercised! I’ll do another short session this evening, turning it into a twice-daily habit – at least that’s the plan.

If exercise is difficult for you (as it is for me), break it up. Do half an hour in the morning and the same in the evening. Or even just ten minutes, go and do something else, then do another ten minutes and so on. I have a friend who works at home and has installed a lifting bar in his kitchen doorway, so that every time he goes to the kitchen for something (which us work-at-homers tend to do several times an hour), he does a few pull-ups to give the trip the patina of a virtuous goal. Otherwise, pick a spot in your house that you pass through several times a day and set yourself an exercise task to do every time you pass that spot: for example, five push-ups, some leg stretches, or ten star jumps. Keep it brief and easy but frequent.

Okay, here are the grim statistics* for those interested:

In the last 24 hours, 394 more deaths in Spain and 3,600 new cases. So officially, 28,572 cases and 1,720 deaths in all. Bear in mind that testing is only being carried out in hospitals so this doesn’t include people catching it on the street and self-isolating. Therefore the real figures are bound to be far higher.

This is a 15% increase in cases compared to Saturday. If true, it means the increase statistic is beginning to peak: 20%, 18%, 18%, 15% … (Or are they just testing less?) My friend working at a hospital tells me not to trust the statistics as they are being whitewashed. For example, a recent figure claimed that 57% of cases were in Barcelona and Madrid, whereas it breaks down into 47% of cases in Madrid and 10% in Barcelona, but this was part of an effort to conceal Madrid’s poor management of the crisis. Where infections have jumped is in the community of Castilla-La Mancha, probably from Madrid residents heading out of town to “escape” the virus.

Deaths have increased by 30%, half of them in the community of Madrid, and the rate of deaths is not levelling off. Madrid, still the main focus in Spain, now has over 1000 coronavirus deaths, with almost 10,000 officially infected. Its health system has collapsed. Two hospitals in the community, the Príncipe de Asturias in Alcalá d’Henares and the Severo Ochoa in Leganés, have asked for patients to be diverted to other centres because their emergency services can no longer cope.

In Catalonia, official infections increased by around 500, with 69 more deaths.

“The worst is still to come and we must prepare”

The experts are not optimistic. Seventy scientists from all around Spain have requested that everybody is confined to home to avoid collapse of the health system. They also demand – as Torra has repeatedly requested for Catalonia – that the worst-hit areas are totally sealed off. These include Madrid, Catalonia, Castella i Lleó, Castella-la Manxa, la Rioja, the Basque Country and Navarra.

Spain’s prime minister summed it up: “The worst is still to come and we must prepare”. Yeah right, like we didn’t know that already.

First layer of an oil painting of a reclining male nude
“Manchando la tela” (“staining the canvas”) of a new oil painting – channelling my frustrations away from politics and into art

I swear for the duration of this crisis and to preserve my sanity, I will henceforth leave politics alone and focus on pastoral pursuits such as painting and writing.

* The statistics in this article were drawn from CCRTV’s 3/24 news channel on 22/03/2020.

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Covid BCN 05: a time for reflection

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Day six of lockdown. I woke this morning to a neighbour playing ABBA at full blast, so how could this not be a glorious day!

Dancing queen, young and sweet only seventeen!

Yes, reader, I spent a fun half-hour lip-synching in front of the mirror. Desperate ills … desperate remedies. I don’t think I’ve done that since I was fifteen and a friend of my sister’s caught me at it. Oh the shame, the shame! Since then, however, I’ve gone on to do far more shameful things, so dancing to ABBA has been officially struck off the list. One of the glories of growing older is being able to own your idiosyncrasies – even weirdnesses – without shame.

Then I sat down and applied for two copywriting jobs that had dropped into my inbox, so the day started constructively. (Note to self: for the facetime interview, ditch the sweats and wear a proper shirt.)

Two items, one shared by my sister here, and another by The Big Idea website on the Japanese concept of Ikigai, made me think that with this crisis we are creating a new world. So the challenge is to create it better than the one we had. There will be a before and an after from this time. I suspect teleworking could become more the norm with, say, office employees needing to show up for meetings just one day a week while otherwise working from home. That would bring business rents down in cities like Barcelona, taking some of the strain off shops and off the businesses themselves, which would need less office space.

Illustration of Ikigai by Jessica Thompson Carr (AKA Māori Mermaid), courtesy of The Big Idea website
Illustration by Jessica Thompson Carr (AKA Māori Mermaid), courtesy of The Big Idea

The covid19 crisis has all but shouted down news on the environmental crisis the world is facing, yet this fundamental change we are all making to our lives could be the healthy beginning of a new way of treating our planet. In China, Europe and many industrial nations, air pollution is the best it has been for decades as industry closes down. If we continue with and expand upon the patterns we are establishing to fight this crisis – travelling less by air, avoiding a commute and working from home, doing as much of our business online as possible (admittedly computers use a lot of energy, but not nearly as much as trains and planes) – we are likewise taking positive steps to heal the planet. Neither am I suggesting that industry should remain shut down, but this crisis might provide an impulse to reorganise it along greener lines, so that when it reopens, our world is a better place.

We should identify these processes and make them manifest and permanent. A friend who has been forced to work from home for the Covid19 crisis is now considering – if he can make teleworking a success – a move back to his village, where he is closer to the beach and life is cheaper. A lot of Spanish towns have been affected by migration to the cities. This could be the key to their repopulation. Obviously this solution would not work for everybody, but if commuting within cities was halved, for example, and we had less need to build new motorways, imagine how grateful our planet would be. Working from home means you are lowering your carbon footprint so neither do you have to feel quite as guilty about taking that holiday by plane as you did before the crisis hit us.

Just some thoughts for reflection from a Covid home-exile.

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Covid BCN 03: shop till you drop

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Yesterday it was time to eschew my quarantine and head out into the world to stock up on perishables. After 72 hours, in which my computer has been my only window onto the world – except for my balcony, which faces a brick wall – this was a big deal.

First things first: this meant putting on my outdoor shoes, careful not to tread virus deeper into the house. In many countries, people remove their shoes when they enter a home, but in Catalonia, with its predominantly tiled floors, shoes inside remains the norm. That’s a thing of the past. Shoes that walk on the street now stay in the entrance hall, since virus-containing sputum coughed into the air ends up on the street and from there onto the soles of your shoes, where it can live for several hours.

I take my shopping bag and head downstairs – I’ve been advised not to use shopping trolleys as too many people have handled them (I’ve been trying not to use plastic for several months already because of the environment). Once below, I realise I have no gloves (or a mask!) and have to open the street door with the cuff of my jacket. So many simple actions now need to be rethought to help contain the spread of this virus.

At my local supermarket, a few dodgy characters can be seen hanging around the entrance, but there are no queues or hysterical mobs in sight. Yet as I go to enter, one of them hauls me up. Thus I am introduced to the new Covid queue: far more spacious, with oodles of room between you and the next person. I assume I’ll be here for hours so I take a selfie, but in just a few minutes, I am waved in by a masked and gloved supermarket cashier, who in these post-Covid days has assumed the role of traffic warden. Inside, there is none of the usual shoving and jostling that generally goes on in this small but popular shop. Customers edge around each other warily, aiming to maintain that crucial one metre of viral-free breathing space.

Photo showing people in BCN queuing 1.5 metres apart
The new Covid queue is far more spacious: over 1.5 metres between members and no nasty pushers-in

I’m surprised to find that many products are available: no eggs, pasta, fresh milk or my particular brand of yoghurt, but plenty of paella rice (fair enough; it isn’t the season for large family gatherings), and meat and poultry. I came for juice, yoghurt and other perishables and these are mostly available. That may be unique to this supermarket, which though small is popular, offering high-quality products at excellent prices, so endless restocking of shelves has always been a big part of their working day.

It is tempting to want to pile goods into my bag. The whole atmosphere is post-apocalyptic, and the goods I am seeing now may not be here tomorrow or next week. But I stiffen my resolve and heed the government warnings not to hoard, buying just what I came here for, not a half dozen more.

Today is Tuesday, and I am worried that my organic veggies woman – who normally comes into town on Tuesday evenings – will have bailed. Last night my remaining veggies were looking extremely bedraggled. I made soup, reader. There is something about this lockdown that inspires domestic endeavour (being shut within these same four walls, no doubt). There’s been a frenzy of vacuuming from neighbours above and below over the last 48 hours).

Today’s figures are six deaths and almost 500 new cases in Catalonia. Five of the mortalities are linked to the city of Igualada, which has been totally closed off from the rest of Catalonia. Spain is still being laggardly about closing its ports and airports – or about isolating Madrid. The city has become a major focus of viral infection – and spread: the capital’s wealthy have apparently been fleeing to their summer homes in Valencia and so importing the virus there, which the Valencians are none too thrilled about.

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