I had difficulty deciding on a suitable topic this week. Partly because I've been unwell. Some three weeks ago, my partner and I rolled up at our local pharmacy for our annual flu jab. Four days later, he woke up with a streaming cold and a hacking cough. I followed suit 24 hours after.
Duly alarmed, he got dressed and shot off to our nearest Covid testing centre. They didn't think he had Covid from their impression of his symptoms, but they tested him anyway. They promised his result in two days. It didn't happen. After a week, it seemed his test had fallen into a black hole. He went back to the testing centre for a retest. Now he has two negative results. A great relief, assuming they can be trusted.
Being a couple of years younger, he is more active than I. When he gets this seasonal affliction he tends to push through it. He can't bear being cooped up at home and generally gets better relatively quickly. I take to my bed, hoping for the restorative power of sleep and rest, the knitting up of the unravelled sleeve of care which, for different reasons, Macbeth longed for. I like the comfort and warmth, surrounded by my books and projects, 'mine owene woman wel at ese'. For my other half, that's halfway to the grave.
We are, thankfully, gradually recovering, but I resent the days and nights of discomfort, the cancelled engagements, the waste of time watching undemanding daytime television, when even reading a novel seems too challenging.
However, one evening recently, BBC4 did offer three literary documentaries back to back: on Dylan Thomas, Alexander Pope and Sylvia Plath, respectively. The one on Pope was fascinating, partly because it was so rare. Simon Callow impersonates Pope, haunting his desk, wearing a banyan, an oriental-inspired dressing-gown, and turban, favoured as indoor dress by wealthy and literary men of the period, and mellifluously conveys Pope's thoughts.
We read Pope's Rape of the Lock
at school and at university were introduced to The Dunciad
and his Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot
, his physician and friend who predeceased him. We enjoyed the satire and those brilliant rhyming couplets, a deliberate tactic, apparently, to make his meaning more memorable. His education suffered from his being a Roman Catholic during the years of the Test Acts. So he was largely self-taught. He also caught a form of spinal TB as a child which stunted his growth.
His sharp literary and political satirisations made him enemies, but he had a close coterie of both male and female friends, including Lady Mary Wortley-Montague and Martha Blount whom he chose as his heir. Unlucky in love, he made his fortune translating both of Homer's great epics and was able to settle comfortably on the proceeds in his villa at Twickenham for the rest of his days.
I was surprised to hear that Pope is now considered a 'forgotten' poet. Like many, I may not have revisited him much, if at all, since my student days. So he may be unfashionable. He certainly didn't figure on any of the English curricula of the half-dozen comprehensives I taught in latterly. But forgotten? Who, once having made his acquaintance, could ever forget Alexander Pope?
Thank goodness for such documentaries to cheer us through these otherwise dark and dangerous days. The whole world seems out of synch just now: Each new morn/New widows howl, new orphans cry; new sorrows/Strike heaven on the face...'. I steel myself each evening to watch the news. Some of my friends have stopped doing so. Brace yourselves for a long, cold, deadly winter ahead. If nature isn't exploding or erupting somewhere in lava, fire or flood, it's random killers on the loose, targeting lone women off to meet a friend or walking home, an MP in his surgery, supermarket shoppers stopped in their tracks by an arrow from a bow.
Then there aren't enough HGV drivers to guarantee fuel or supermarket supplies. So the military have been called in to drive trucks and ambulances and manage Covid testing centres. The Northern Irish Brexit protocol is in jeopardy. Way out east, the Taliban clamps down on women, doing what it does best, despite what some of them say. And the long march of history shows us what happens to great empires. Consider the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Hapsburgs. Now Britain is slipping and sliding in the same direction.
As if the reality isn't bad enough, there are all those bleak new dramas to watch. Vigil
was compelling but I found the relentless misogynistic treatment of the central character beyond disturbing. An unnecessary ramping up of the obstacles she has to overcome. I actually preferred The North Water
. Men pitted against each other and their own inner demons, against a landscape of icy Arctic wastes through which wanders a lone polar bear. As for Paris Police 1900
, set at the time of the notorious Dreyfus Affair, we're confronted with shocking, state-sanctioned anti-semitism, more misogyny, random assassinations, a backdrop of abbatoirs and the hacked bodies of women no-one cares about folded into suitcases.
However, so as not to end on a gloomy note, the sight of Josh Widdicombe on Who Do You Think You Are?
, his face mutating disbelief, hilarity and horror, as he was taken through a roll call of his 'uber-posh' aristocratic and right royal ancestors was a treat. Whether he will be ribbed to pieces by his fellow comedians for loss of street cred or arise, duly ermined, as Sir Joshua Widdicombe, Lord Dartmoor, remains to be seen.
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh