Can Landscape Writing Change the World? The Human Geography of Ivan Turgenev’s Sketches

Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (or, less commonly, A Sportsman’s Sketches) is a gargantuan presence in Russian nature writing. True, it rarely enjoys the acclaim of Turgenev’s later family saga novel Fathers and Sons or pithy novellas like First Love, but it’s up there with some of the greatest pieces of landscape writing of the century: from influencing Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels to becoming a cornerstone of the Russian Realist movement, it’s a giant of the art form that’s impossible to overlook in terms of craft or resonance. Sketches is the offbeat Russianist’s choice, the one for which there’s likely a dog-eared paperback in the worn satchel of a Cambridge postgraduate: newly-annotated, bubble-spined, never to be opened past the end of Michelmas term. 

Half poetry and (perhaps) half polemic, the work takes the form of a series of ruminations on the Russian rural landscape as a travelling huntsman journeys through its meadows and villages, forests and tundra, reflecting on the people he meets and their livelihoods as the urban face of Russia rapidly modernises. There’s an air of melancholy to many of the pieces as the narrator stumbles through the guts of the caucuses, rustic and ramshackle, lonely and unforgiving underfoot and brutal in their weathers–but Turgenev’s sketches aren’t about the kind of rural, nostalgic nationalism that characterises a large portion of nature writing from the nineteenth century. What looms large in these writings is a peculiar conjunction of social awareness and legitimate affection for the landscape, characterised by its focus on the Russian rural peasantry and their ways of living and dying. 

The human population of these short narratives are predominantly serfs–the ‘unfree’ peasants living prior to the Russian revolution, feudally bound to the landowning classes and often living in abject poverty with little hope of mobility or respite. Sketches was written at the very end of the period of serfdom, published between 1847 and 1851 and, upon release, promptly banned (and Turgenev exiled) for its unflinching attitude to the way in which these indentured families had struggled to sustain themselves for generations, living poorly and in poverty. As the titular hunter takes an extended trip through the provinces, he listens to their stories, their mythologies and their histories, which often recount the same tale: the land is hard, life is short, and both are governed by ritual and ghosts. But it is in this deep and curious relationship with the rural environment’s human geography that Turgenev’s unique take on the land itself becomes outwardly apparent. 

Sketches is, admittedly, beautiful: amidst the melancholy and the mire there are passages of sweeping, lyrical description that would put even Nan Shepherd to shame, ferocious in their use of colour and movement and powerfully tangible even in translation.

“It was a beautiful July day, one of those days which occur only when the weather has been unchanged for a long time. From early morning the sky is clear and the sunrise does not so much flare up like a fire as spread like a mild pinkness. […] Towards evening these clouds disappear. The last of them, darkling and vague as smoke, lie down in rosy mistiness before the sinking sun. At the point where the sun has set just as calmly as it rose into the sky, a crimson glow lingers for a short time over the darkened earth, and, softly winking, the evening star burns upon the glow like a carefully carried candle. On such days all colours are softened, bright without being gaudy; everything bears the mark of some poignant timidity.”

‘Bezhin Lea’, Sketches from a Hunter’s Album.

Yet these soaring depictions of Russia’s wooded landscape take on a new significance when we look at the ways in which Turgenev describes the people he meets. We find them often depicted in similarly zealous fashion, but more importantly, they often occupy a position between human and landscape: in the sketch Death, Turgenev’s hunter encounters a dying woodland, crippled by the unusually devastating winter of 1840. The trees are being felled by a workforce of serfs as their master tries to reap what profit he can from the brittle remains, and during the course of the day, a serf by the name of Maxim is crushed by the branches of a falling ash tree that had rotted the previous season. The serf hovers between life and death as a doctor is called. 

The mode of Maxim’s death is significant: like the oak and ash trees, he too falls victim to the merciless winter that choked out all foliage and greenery. Like the trees slowly rotting from the inside, he dies neither swiftly nor easily, left shattered and struck by the weight of the weather that ruined the woodland. His final breath is even described in animal terms, again as part of the landscape (“Trembling all over, like a shot bird”), laid out in a wagon in a manner similar to that of the great timber trunks that are to be carted away and sold. It is also perhaps significant that he dies in the service of his squire’s profit: although steering far clear of the ambitions of contemporary works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (to which Death has on occasion been compared), Turgenev’s position on serfdom is plain. 

The serfdom is portrayed as part of the landscape just as it is part of the region’s human geography, affected by the same winds and weathers, and the serfs die in the same way as a bird or beast might: indeed, later in Death, a dying serf is bound in a sheep’s skin as he awaits the inevitable. By contrast, a dying Russian landowner passes from the world fumbling under her pillow for a rouble to respectably pay the priest for reading her last rites. There is a parallelism heavy in the text, a binary that implies the serfdom die as part of the landscape whilst the gentry remain concerned with finance and office. It’s an interesting position in that the peasantry appear much more connected with the land than do the members of society who actually own it, and through this subversion Turgenev delves into the notion of what defines land and landscape.

The same natural imagery is used to describe peasant figures throughout the entirety of Sketches: in one titled Meeting we are party to a meeting between a serf girl “with eyes like a doe” and a pompous valet dressed in gaudy finery. The girl stands within a wooded dell, clutching a bouquet of flowers and listing their uses (“Field tansies, and they’re good for calves. And these are marigolds, they help against scrofula”) as the valet announces he’s leaving, thereby spurning her affections. She is of the landscape–described as animal, rooted in the wooded hollow and brimming with an interior knowledge of the natural landscape that her companion doesn’t possess. He is other, external to the dell, standing out in the trappings of his finery and intent on exiting the landscape. 

It’s easy to discern some manner of disdain in Turgenev’s equation of serfdom and the landscape itself. In reducing the serf to something animal, something flora or fauna, there is an act of dehumanisation well-known in narratives of servitude: to reduce the labourer, the indentured, the slave to something less than human for the purposes of moral distancing. Turgenev’s approach is different. Although his characters are of the landscape, characterised by the same adjectives and subject to the same fears, winds and weathers, they are not lessened by the association. 

In a later sketch, Singers, the huntsman-narrator happens upon a run-down tavern in the desolate village of Kolotovka, which hovers at the edge of a perilous ravine. He enters to find two locals about to enter into a singing competition: Barrowboy and Yashka. Barrowboy is technically skilled and sings well, while Yashka–a young man who, despite his noble bearing, is presented as ashen and sickly–sings with less polish but greater passion, stilling the congregation and evoking thoughts of their national landscape. 

“The honest, fiery soul of Russia resounded and breathed through it and quite simply seized us by the heart, plucked directly at our Russian heart-strings. […] He sang, and in every sound his voice made there breathed something familiar as our birth-right and so vast no eye could encompass it, just as if the Russian steppe were being unrolled before us, stretching away into an endless distance.”

Singers, ‘Sketches from a Hunter’s Album”. 

Turgenev’s inference is plain: although Yashka is little to look at, his passionate song is the very personification of the Russia of the nineteenth-century popular imagination. Although he is poor, sickly-looking and likely a labourer or factory worker, he represents the epithets commonly attached to their homeland: determination, spark, the honest, fiery soul of Russia. Found in a tavern that threatens with every gust of wind to fall into the depths of a ravine, Yashka’s song resonates far beyond the confines of the tumbledown village. Russia is the tavern teetering upon the precipice of so many things: modernity, Westernisation and indeed an oscillating relationship with serfdom, which appeared one day on the brink of abolition and the next at its continuation. To Turgenev, Yashka and his song are the soul of the country, humble and hobbled by his station but representative of the zeal and history of the Russia he imagines, and within the dilapidated building Yashka too is at risk of the impending collapse. 

Singers evokes several emotions: a wistfulness for Romantic nationhood, a sense of affection for the indentured, even a grim consideration of what it is like to labour under the yoke of serfdom–but most importantly, Turgenev raises a question. The work asks, in a deceptively whimsical way, that if these indentured peoples are truly where the honest, fiery soul of the land resides, then what does that make of the land itself? 

Sketches forces the gentry from their horses and carriages. It is an exercise not only in nature writing and navigating the backwaters of a sometimes impassable Russian landscape, but also in underpinning the notion of nation with a sense of human geography. Examining as it does the relationship between those who own the land and those who embody it, the collection gained Turgenev enemies in the country and cities alike–yet Sketches was also cited by Tsar Alexander II as an instrumental part of his burgeoning understanding of the country he inherited, and he remarked to Turgenev himself that it played a large role in the domestic reforms that led to the eventual emancipation of the serfs. In almost animalising serfdom, breaking it down to its component parts and presenting it as a facet of the natural landscape, Turgenev counterintuitively succeeds in humanising the serfs for swathes of the country that previously spared little thought for the rural poor. This seems a curious, even backhanded way to effect social change, but it also speaks volumes as to the contradictory attitudes and priorities of the nineteenth-century nobility and the cultural focus on nationhood as countries across Europe industrialised in preparation for the clamour of the approaching century. 

One must note that emancipation wasn’t a simple process for Russia: many serfs found that the new regulatory systems post-emancipation permitted little more freedom than they had previously enjoyed. Many found themselves similarly indentured, but this time to communities and villages instead of single landowners and estates. The road out of feudalism was long and arduous, and these shadows of the past eventually became a driving force in the revolution of 1917. 

Sketches might be considered as having helped effect change on a national scale, but national changes are by nature mired in condition and compromise; consequently, in using Sketches as an example of landscape writing’s potential as a force for social good, the collection may fall a little short. As an example of how literature may aid in altering societal perceptions, however, Sketches offers a great scope of commentary on how landscape acts as a force in culture and how its importance in a cultural and even national mindset might be used to prompt transition, growth and an altered perception. Turgenev’s points are plain and well-made, his descriptions wry and fiery, and his characters and peoples are sometimes even heartwarming as they rally against the cold. Sketches is more than a simple harbinger of change; indeed, it’s a study in how displays of humanity evoke a human response–and, in turn, how simple it is for that humanity to have become eroded or obfuscated in the first place.  

Landscape Literature: Reclaiming the wilderness of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

“Our life is frittered away by detail! . . . Simplicity, simplicity.” 

Walden, ‘Where I Lived and What I Lived For’.

Such is the gospel of Henry David Thoreau. Transcendentalist, eco-anarchist and wild old man of the woods, Walden is a gargantuan presence in landscape writing that never fails to make the bookshelf of any suburban dad over the age of fifty-five with even a passing interest in rambling. 

That said, it’s also one of the most heartfelt and compelling treatises on the rural that continues to resonate within the landscape of nature writing to this day. In July of 1845, Henry David Thoreau packed up his life to live in an isolated cabin on the shores of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, to escape the irritations of modern living and develop his understanding of the land he resided in both as a writer and as a human being. The literature he created is a moving, heartfelt narrative of his life as a woodlander; and as he fishes and reads, marks the passage of the seasons, we become party to a deep and powerful sense of belonging within the leafy acres. We begin to question our own relationship with the everyday and the modern as Thoreau calls us to find simplicity, simplicity and experience the same urge to remove ourselves from the trappings of conventional urban society for a calmer, greener life based on an earnest relationship with nature. 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

Walden, ‘Where I Lived and What I Lived For’.

But Thoreau’s peace of mind comes at a cost. He lives alone in the landscape, without the influence of modernity: he has no running water, no support network, no amenities closer than the nearest township of Concord, no luxuries and none of the trappings and comforts that the nineteenth century offers–but he is compelled towards the natural like it is a vital, biological part of himself, eschewing all else for it. He argues that it is through this transaction–gaining tranquility through the adoption of an ascetic life, choosing to nourish the soul over garnering profit or achieving societal renown–that we might achieve a life as we were intended to have, a life that is worth the living of it. But this philosophy raises some questions when we come to examine it apropos what it means for our own conceptualisation of Thoreau’s works and how they might still have meaning in a twenty-first century setting. 

In the construction of his cabin by Walden Pond, we see a writer whose intent to immerse himself in the rolling natural woodland is motivated by a distinct dissatisfaction with modernity and the compulsion to strip away the trappings of city life and live as he believed nature intended: as the most famous part of Walden reads, seen at the beginning of every eco-tourist vlog since 2005, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately”. Thoreau is dissatisfied with the face of the nineteenth century and what its complications have done to humanity’s precarious balance between enlightenment and the animal, removing them from the natural landscapes they came from and “liv[ing] meanly, like ants […] and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness.” In returning to that seminal state within nature, as opposed to living nearby it or, worse, without it, Thoreau makes a statement on the idea of what nature is worth within the landscape of a life. By foregoing the century’s common comforts and embracing the land’s precariousness and danger, he finds something of greater worth than the ease and affluence of his previous existence.

Walden implies that there is an innate desire to pursue wilderness, to expose ourselves to the danger of an unmanaged landscape–but what does that desire come to mean when we complicate it with the notion of the deprivation of comfort as an integral prerequisite? We explore, we ramble, we are inspired by, but we don’t live in the woods. Even were we to pack up completely and live forever alongside the lake, miles from anywhere, we still would live less completely in the landscape than did Thoreau, our cabins replete with the modern comforts of air conditioning, indoor bathing, eBay and Diet Coke. In that, we aren’t truly making the transactional sacrifice that Thoreau believes is key to living a freer existence. Our experience of wild country is for most of us devoid of the negative aspects that define Thoreau’s experiment. We might holiday in the landscape, but we are still foreign to it, landscape-adjacent as opposed to within

It distances us a little from the text: it cools the ardour a little to think that although we might sit on the same stony shores of Walden Pond, trail our fingers through the shifting pondweed, wander through the arrowy trees that formed the stack and body of the famous cabin in the woods, we are not interior to the landscape in the same way. We might camp out in the woods a night or two, but we can return to the relative ease of our suburban homes whenever we choose. We might spend a day hiking alone in the hinterlands, but a vibrant thread of red in the sunset might then be splattered across social media, connecting us with others across the globe and shattering our supposed isolation. We enjoy the luxuries of emergency support, rescue services and a much greater interconnectivity of transport, the thrilling absence of which gives Walden its almost unique character. In traversing these landscapes we are tourists, rendered other by our modern world, able to observe Thoreau’s anchorite devotion for the sake of his soul but never to emulate it on a level that would bring forth true understanding.

So, then, how may we appreciate what Thoreau’s writing truly means when, by dint of our modern existence, we’re so removed from the deprivation inherent to Thoreau’s chosen life that renders Walden such a compelling piece of landscape writing?  

It’s easy to get lost in the romance of the image. The figure of the lone, haggard, bearded man stumping about the perimeter of his rough-hewn homestead, growing beans and gourds for sustenance like some kind of nineteenth-century Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is compelling, and we’re drawn into the narrative in a way that we can’t help but look on longingly as he exists without friends, without delicacies, without a LinkedIn profile. There’s something of Christ in the Desert about it, tapping into our eternal fascination with the hermit, the walled-in priestess, and any and all who traipse back into an old high past as corporate life becomes more invasive and vines its way into the home. But what we tend to forget in the haze of this heady New England Mills and Boon is that Henry David Thoreau–grandfather of landscape writing, builder of cabins and naturalist champion of all things pious and good–wasn’t quite the ascetic heart of the wilderness that pop literature implies.

Henry David Thoreau was an educated white man of no small means, and although that doesn’t indicate that he never experienced danger or deprivation in his time on Walden Pond, it means that his choice in doing so might not be the high-stakes gambit for his soul that sells copy after copy, year after year. 

Upon graduating from university, the young Thoreau met fellow writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. The older man took a patron-like interest in him, and from there Thoreau’s literary aspirations grew. Whilst Thoreau focused his attentions on the natural from the very beginning, it was during this period that Emerson began introducing him to key players in what would solidify as the wider Transcendentalist movement, finding him employment in Emerson’s household and opening doors in the publishing industry that would have otherwise remained shut to the young writer. The pair often talked about landscape, advocating a return to the cradle of nature in their writings and championing the green and the good above all things modern and canny. Eventually, and with Emerson’s blessing, Henry David Thoreau left to embark upon his venture of simple living in the woods. 

What is often occluded, however, is that his homely plot by the side of Walden pond was actually situated on a swathe of land owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, far from the heart of the forest. Likewise, the pretty dell that would become the setting for Thoreau’s magnum opus of solitude was less than two miles from the Emerson family home. And whilst the young writer did live simply–growing what he needed, buying only what he could neither build nor propagate–he wasn’t entirely unsupported by the society he reportedly sought to remove himself from: upon being apprehended by a tax collector and promptly jailed, Thoreau’s aunt bailed him out with a vast sum equal to six years of poll tax avoidance. We must ask ourselves: does there truly exist risk, danger and deprivation if, in a heavy snowfall, one has the option to wrap up and head to Emerson’s house for Saturday tea? Does one really risk the penalties of civil disobedience if, although against the writer’s wishes, extended family may rally to pay all debts and release one from the life-altering ramifications of a prison sentence? The genius of Walden remains unassailable, but the reality of Thoreau’s ascetic experiment is that the romance by far outweighs the reality: the stakes were relatively low, the networks of modernity still present. Thoreau, like us, was a tourist in an antique land. 

Yet it has no bearing on his art. 

Walden is characterised by its open-faced affection, and although its affected rustic heart may only be a stone’s throw from Emerson’s front porch, the work remains a triumph of nature writing that unlocks the green potential of the imagination and indeed compels us to simplify. The way Thoreau regards the forest-scape is moving, finding multitudes in the way his sun catches in groundswell, in the scurrying of his rabbits and the swaying of his ferns. The whole text sears with a vast, many-levelled appreciation of the processes of nature and season. It’s a labour of love in the purest sense; and although it may sometimes be difficult to share Thoreau’s philosophy, we can share his fascination, his great love of the land and his small part in the cycles that dictate his existence.

It is easy to look at Thoreau’s experience of landscape and feel exiled from the text, to believe that there’s no modern way to live in such proximity to nature, but the truth is that Walden was motivated by love of the landscape and a desire to ‘get away from it all’ in much the same way that we book secluded Airbnbs in the Lake District for a social media detox. Thoreau too had the option to go home–yet he chose not to, instead writing of his simple life in a way that, even two centuries later, continues to drive us into the woods, into the wildernesses, to consider the nature of what is vital as opposed to what is simply expected of us in our lives.

Walden is far from a philosophical masterpiece–contradictory, self-righteous at times, complex in its innovation and obfuscating meaning behind the lengthiest and most arduous passages–but it stokes us to passion. We too might venture out into the woods with the intention of living more deliberately, and even now the work inspires us to explore, experiment and deviate from the norm, as Thoreau himself did, to attain a richer understanding of ourselves. 


You wonder if she’s dead. The girl in that photograph. The well-known one—photograph, that is, not girl. She’s lying at the centre of a caved-in car roof, buckled metal ripples out from under her. It’s a perfect composition; a delicate balance of soft flesh and sharp steel. You see it a lot. Replicas, mostly. Music videos and haute couture fashion spreads, that kind of thing. And there’s a particularly famous silk-screen print. It’s old. The photograph that is. And the car. Not the girl, though; she’s very young.

But is she dead? It’s important that you know this. And no, you don’t mean dead outside the photograph. No. That would diminish it, wouldn’t it? Lessen its beauty. Admit it. You’d be disappointed if, after the shutter snapped, a male voice shouted “that’s a wrap”, and the girl sat up, stretched her stiff limbs, and stepped down from the car roof into a long, unremarkable life that ended one distant night in silver-haired sleep. Yes, you would. But if death were closer… to her, to the photo… If, minutes after this final flash, perhaps as she dashed to meet her beau at their favourite seafood restaurant, she was rammed to immediate death by an overzealous squad car, then the photo retains some value. But it decreases, doesn’t it, the longer death prowls the edge of the frame. Even if it’s only for a day or two, or however long it takes for bacteria lurking in undercooked oysters to kill an otherwise healthy human. There’s a ratio to these things: beauty, time, death. So, you concede, a final photo of a soon-to-be-dead girl is all-well-and-good. But for it to be beautiful, you need to know.

For it to be beautiful, you need to know that the car, a limousine, is parked on New York’s 34th street, a little after 10 on the morning of May 1st, 1947. You need to know that the observation deck on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building is 1,040 feet high and that a ticket is required to access it. You need to know that she purchased a ticket. For the photograph to be beautiful, you need to know that it was taken about four minutes after her landing. You need to know that she was twenty-three when she jumped.

Can you look at it? Do you flinch? It’s bloodless, after all. No bones piercing skin, no sign of solid turned to liquid–although reports say that when they tried to move it, the body was little more than mush held together by clothing. A meat scarecrow. But you can’t see any of that. And perhaps this disappoints you a little. But the body hadn’t settled long enough to dissolve when photography student, Robert Wiles, snapped its image. He’d be drinking coffee in a local diner when he heard whatever sound is made when human meets steel at top speed. LIFE Magazine’s Picture of the Week. Page forty-three of the May 12th issue. “The Most Beautiful Suicide.”

Her name was Evelyn McHale.

She wasn’t beautiful.

Only the photograph is beautiful.

An exquisite shot; as artful an arrangement as you could expect to see in an edgy advertising campaign, the kind found only in those thick, heavily scented magazines. The slightly elevated camera eye allows us the full length of the upside-down body and the wrinkled steel spreads from beneath, as if she’s simply flopped backwards, after a long day, on to a bed of black metal. About her head and to the right of her feet are white dots, glass fragments that give sound to the image. The sound of calamity; the smashing of a million, million cells in a single instant. The sound of hysteria. These same tiny dots give it movement; a bounce-less energy of down, of plunge, of end. Delicate and devastating. Like one of those slow-motion films of a water drop crashing onto a leaf.

At the top edge, there’s the blurred suggestion of people. They’re very close. All men, it seems. Trench coats and cigarettes, fedoras at cocky angles. Officials perhaps? The type called to deal with situations like this. But then you remember: four minutes. There’s been no time for police or tape or procedures or statements or questions or identification or loved ones. So, these men are just there. De-mobbed veterans, stormers of Normandy, liberators of Belsen. They’ve seen worse. Perhaps these fuzzily rendered Joe Publics turn to each other, and silently decide: Let’s start at the top. With her feet.

Shoeless. Though shoes seem to be the only item of clothing lost during her free-fall. A flayed stocking drapes her right foot, and the elasticated top of its partner is visible under her left knee. Of course, we wouldn’t normally be able to see this—her knee that is, but in this prone position, her skirt is hitched a little higher than usual. Her ankles are demurely crossed. There is a suggestion in some reports that this was done by the first police officer on the scene, Patrolman John Morrissey. To preserve her dignity.

Moving our eye down the photograph and up her body … her legs are solid. Strong calves, meaty, not fat; brimming with mid-western vigour. Travelling up the curve of her thigh, the suggestion of fullness, of sturdiness is again apparent. The phrase “good stock” comes to mind. But then the curve streamlines, cello-like, to the hips and what was robust becomes voluptuous. And not just because of those Mansfield-ian proportions. No. See the hole? Just above the crotch? A missing button. A burst of sex. Like water gushing from a ruptured pipe. 

Strangely—and we’ve arrived at the breasts now—this sexual surge doesn’t continue. Maybe they’re rendered flat by the angle of the lens, or perhaps her bra is not engineered to prop them up. Maybe it’s her “Thursday” bra; thrown on without thought because it’s comfortable and, well, who’s going to see it? Or perhaps her breasts just are small. Now is not the time, the Joe Publics agree, to consider such things.

But lifting our eyes to the throat, we note a different sexual charge. Not overt, like the burst button. More vulnerable, exposed. The slight incline of her chin suggests she’s offering it, her throat that is, inviting it to be kissed, bitten, or licked. And her lipsticked-lips feel wet. Open, mid-pant, a response to a mildly erotic dream. Then there’s the pearls. Perhaps it’s because they’re so close to that meaty lower lip that they too seem so wet and fleshy. Or maybe pearls are always like that. Brutal too. Snatched. Rewards.

A gift, maybe. Let’s suppose they are. From the beau. His name is Barry Rhodes. Barry Rhodes of Eastern Pennsylvania who, at the second this photograph is taken, believes that in one month, Evelyn McHale will be—as she has agreed to be— his wife. Barry Rhodes, who first saw Evelyn at a New Year Party. Who—we might imagine—watched her from his own empty table. Watched her laugh too late, too loud, too soon; watched her square-peg-self search for a way into an invisible round hole; watched her eager smile grow evermore desperate; watched it freeze, then thaw, melt and drip from that round, heavy chin. Every time she tried to talk, drip, to dance, drip, drip, to sit, to do, to be, to fit drip, drip, drip. Perhaps Barry Rhodes, engineering student, living at home with his mother, watched Evelyn McHale struggle into an ill-fitting coat, and stumble on ill-fitting shoes and then, certain no one else was watching her, thought to himself: This is the ill-fitting girl I’ve been watching out for.

Let’s imagine him, kind, colourless, Barry Rhodes, presenting his girl with this string of pearls at their favourite seafood restaurant. Let’s imagine he thought it witty. And let’s take the liberty to reanimate Evelyn McHale. To sit her upright, alive and unremarkable, her knees covered. In her hands, a velvet box. There they are, sumptuous and white against red fabric.

“Y’know, the way these things are formed, Evelyn… so interesting,” white-bibbed Barry explains, “They’re these irritants. Like a splinter, or a spec of grit in your eye.” He picks up a shell from his plate, points to the pink, lip-like animal inside, “so this little guy, he needs to protect himself, right, from this infection. So, he—or she, I guess—secretes this stuff from its glands. Layers and layers of this mucus stuff. All around this infection. To isolate it, y’know?”

She tries to hide her distaste, her instinct to recoil from the strangely obscene animal that disappears down his convulsing throat.  

“So when they prize the shell, the oyster’s shell, open,” his chin glistens with exquisite juice and she focuses her eyes on the contents of the box, “they find…”

Tiny balls of mucus, she says. Then she lifts them, dangles them in the candlelight, and she fancies she can see the source. The piece of grit, the splinter, the cut, the ache, the pain at its centre. Tiny balls of infection, she says. Then she notices his open mouth and the familiar jolt of shame makes her eyes water and her fists clench, because she tries, she does. She tries and tries and tries but still… …I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…

He chuckles then, ‘No, no you’re right,’ he says, because he loves her and is happy to retune his pitch to hers. “Pure Timeless Chic is how the sales girl put it! Ha! Whatever that means!”

She puts them on to please him, and feels their sickness against her throat. He smiles. ‘The girl said they’re the same type Lana Turner wears.’ He pays the bill and places her ill-fitting coat on her shoulders. ‘And y’know Evelyn, every woman should have a set of pearls.’

Gentle, well-meaning Barry Rhodes, who we have to imagine didn’t immediately the recognise the elegant beauty in the photograph as his Evelyn. Barry Rhodes, who’d rolled out and off her the night before she jumped; who then re-adjusted his flannel pyjamas, and planted a brisk but tender kiss on her cheek, before scuttling back to the twin bed made daily by his mother.

“’Night, Evie. Early start in the morning.”

Barry Rhodes, who can’t recall their parting words because she’d had to dash to make the 7 am train from his home in Eastern to Grand Central station, or else be late to her bookkeeping job in Lower Manhattan. Barry Rhodes, who saw no signs, and had no clue, who told investigators that she was as happy as any young girl about to be married. Barry Rhodes, who spent the remainder of his eighty-five marriage-less years, wondering just how happy that was supposed to be.

She’s clutching them – clutch is the verb used with pearls. In a white gloved hand. Turner-esque elegance with a smatter of Davis-ian melodrama. And, could we venture, a soupcon of Monroe’s innocence, mixed with a hint of Baccall-ian cynicism? Yes, there in the combination of raised chin and parted lip. A naiveté and a seductiveness. The virgin and the whore. Or maybe it’s confusion we see. Maybe she’s wondering why her descent is so rushed; why she’s hurtling like a brick and not billowing like a leaf. Why she doesn’t feel light, doesn’t feel relieved of her cumbersome mass like she expected. Because for god’s sake, that’s why she opted for this method! Why she hasn’t slashed or swallowed, gassed or garrotted. Maybe she’s wondering about why the windows of this, the tallest man-made structure on earth, this mammoth feat of engineering and imagination, watch her fall with such icy disregard. Will they remain closed? Will no one try to catch her?

Maybe she’s surprised at just how easy it is to die. 

Turns out all you have to do is buy a ticket.

It’s in her purse. The ticket to the observation deck. In her purse, next to her carefully folded, ill-fitting coat, 1,040 feet above the limousine roof. They’re given to a Uniformed Man who rifles through them to find the answer. The note isn’t addressed to anyone in particular, so perhaps Uniformed Man feels that he is as entitled to read it as if his name were on the envelope. He reads:

I have too many of my mother’s tendencies

At this time, Uniformed Man doesn’t know about mother. He doesn’t know that mother is the former wife of father; that father’s name is Vincent McHale, that mother’s name is Unknown; that Unknown mother is mother to all seven of Vincent McHale’s children, the sixth of which was named Evelyn; that Unknown mother called her Evie; and that one day something happened and Unknown mother was gone. And when she left, she left all seven of her children. But her tendencies, these she left only with her sixth born. Tendencies: tender gifts wrapped in complex codes, in cells, in blood, in hair, bones, and proportions of hip, thigh, and breast. Little hidden infections.

Let’s suppose one day, before Unknown mother disappeared, she invited her little Evie into the dark, smoky boudoir she seldom left and which stank of her unwashed illness. Perhaps Little Evie was nervous to enter this room, perhaps she sensed its danger. Imagine Little Evie. Number 6, hand-me-down, unnoticed. Imagine Unknown mother, tangled in grey sheets on an unshared bed. Imagine Little Evie’s round face held fast against Unknown mother’s bony chest. And now imagine Unknown mother apologize for being:

‘a little late… I should have told you a while ago… about the things that happen….to young girls… about what will happen to you…’

Picture Little Evie, watching the wet drops that fall from Unknown mother’s face landing on stiff sheets with an audible plop.

‘… but I’ve not been very well and… Plop, plop…things are going to happen … to you…Plop, plop…and you need to be…prepared.’ Plop, plop.

And Evie wants to wrestle out from Unknown mother’s grasp, to run from her rank body and poisoned breath. And she wants to tell Unknown mother that Big Sister Helen has already explained everything. That she did so after finding panic-stricken Little Evie stuffing red stained sheets into the garbage like she had been for months. And now Little Evie wants to tell Unknown mother to save her foul breath, but then Unknown mother’s voice tolls, cold and clear.

‘…I worry about you, Evie…plop, plop…You’re just like me.’

Perhaps around Unknown mother’s neck, there are a string of pearls. Perhaps she says to her Little Evie, “Do you know why they make them, Evie? Do you know why the oyster makes pearls?” Perhaps Unknown mother bestows these pearls, along with her tendencies, upon her sixth born. And perhaps Unknown mother, flipping idly through the May 12th, 1947 issue of LIFE Magazine, is arrested by the image of “The Most Beautiful Suicide” on page forty-three, but doesn’t recognize her not-so-beautiful daughter until she reads her name in the accompanying caption. Perhaps Unknown mother clicks her tongue knowingly. Or perhaps where she is, she doesn’t have access to things like magazines.

Perhaps Uniformed Man, note in hand, imagines a scene similar to the one you’ve just imagined. Maybe he nods and thinks; That explains that! Imagine him reading on, deciphering hasty blue scribbles, doodled whirls, pressed hard into the paper. Imagine the note is covered in them, these inky tornados, mini storms surrounding a polite request for cremation, and an emphatic plea for no one in or out of the family to see any part of me. Of course, Uniformed Man has no idea that it is far, far too late for that. 

Too late because Robert Wiles had the presence of mind to grab his camera from the lunch counter he was sitting at when he heard death’s unmistakable smash. Robert Wiles who had simply raised the Kodak Six-20 above his head at an angle that was either instinctive or accidental, and depressed the exposure button; who was, for our imagined purposes, an indifferent student of photography in whom his instructors discerned no flash of remarkability; who entered his bath-cum-developing room with no visual memory of the dead girl on the car. Robert Wiles, who stood in the chemical darkness, congratulating himself on his fine artistic eye, as the image emerged in fluids and became memory.

Yep, the Joe Publics think as they sit at kitchen tables and snip a rectangular hole on page forty-two of the May 12th issue of LIFE Magazine, That’s what I saw, exactly as I saw it. Then they stick it into books scraped with other things they saw at Iwo Jima and Omaha Beach. Yep, that’s what I saw.

It’s left to Big Sister Helen to identify the messy remains with her own eyes. She has to hurry because the neighbour watching Little Bobby has to go to work at 3 and she couldn’t very well let a small boy see his aunt’s dead body now, could she? Perhaps Big Sister Helen is shocked. Perhaps she is not shocked. Perhaps she always knew that she, Evelyn, that is, had too many of their mother’s tendencies. Perhaps she’s distraught at the site of her sister’s pulverized remains. Perhaps she’s seen worse.

Perhaps she is given a bag. Plastic, transparent: Items Found About the Person of the Deceased. Clothing has been incinerated of course; nothing to be gained from the fibres that held Evelyn’s innards in. The stockings too. Her shoes, well there’s a bit of a mystery there, ma’am, Another Uniformed Man explains. He hands over the bag of Evelyn, and Big Sister Helen thinks: Shouldn’t there be some sort of ceremony? Turns out she just needs to sign and date here, and initial here and here.

Let’s imagine Big Sister Helen as the type of person who waits for the privacy of her own home to go through the belongings of a deceased sibling. That she removes a pearl necklace from the see-through bag on her kitchen table. Maybe Big Sister recognizes Unknown mother’s pearls. Maybe she holds them up to the light, watches them blink with tired lustre and thinks: These really should’ve be mine, anyway.

Or maybe she assumes they’re a gift from Barry Rhodes. Will he want them back? she wonders? Or would it be in bad taste to…

And no, she never once wonders how these creamy mucus balls are formed.

But let’s also think practically; it’s very likely that the necklace had to be cut from a stiffened clutch or pulpy neck. So maybe unfettered pearls spill from the bag onto the table. Maybe they bounce, scatter and roll and Big Sister Helen scrambles to retrieve them before Little Bobby one shoves one in his mouth. But still, maybe for weeks, for months, for years —long after Big Sister and Bobby are gone from that kitchen in that house—tiny balls of grit are found lurking in dusty corners and crevices.

And now you know. The girl on the car is dead. Indelibly so. All you need to do is purchase a ticket to see for yourself.  Yes, for the bargain price of $20 (plus tax) —$10 on Good Friday— you can examine every inch of Evelyn McHale’s beautiful death. And you think about it. About buying a ticket. Of sitting there in front of huge silk-screen prints, and absorbing this piece of art. And while you do, you might think about Robert Wiles, and you might wonder if the money he made from his photograph was enough for him never to have to publish another one ever again. Or was he too overcome with guilt for having foiled Evelyn McHale’s one desire for self-obliteration to continue as a photographer? Maybe. Or maybe he just wasn’t any good. And then you wonder if Barry Rhodes ever spent $20 to see his Evelyn in her pearls? Or Big Sister Helen, or Little Bobby. Maybe even Unknown mother. And then you wonder: what did happen to those pearls?

And so maybe you go there. Maybe you spend $20 to look at her for as long as you want —between the hours of 10 and 5.

Please make sure no one in or out of my family sees any part of me.

Could you look? Would you flinch? There’s a joy in it, isn’t there? In the flinch. Because she really is dead, you know. In the photograph. And out of it. Can you see them? Her mother’s tendencies? Maybe in the burst button at her crotch, or in the wet, parted lips? Perhaps in the string of tiny infections around her neck.

She is not beautiful.

Only the photograph is beautiful.


How To Hand-over your No. 2 to the Right No.2 In The Middle Of A Pandemic

by Ash Kaul

So Young Horus Johnson – what else will you call a fifty-five year old hyper hormonal protoplasmic assemblage with a straightened blond pubic top and shoulders hunched for a rugby style roll in the hay every damn day – lumbered out of bed in his beautiful home at 10 Frowning Street in the city of Undone, the famed capital of the Blighted Kingdom, in the glory of which a poet with an undernourished version of a borisian hairdo was notorious for having said back then in 1802 unknowing at the time that his words will hold true in 2020 though for sadder reasons: ‘Breathes there a man with soul so dead  who never to himself hath said . . . this is my own my native land’ and so on and so forth. Because a lot of water has flown under the London Bridge since then. So much so that ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ is now in 2020, like a damning metaphor for the bridge if it was ever meant to connect the eking electorate with their elite representatives.

Too bloody much has happened since March 11th when WHO declared Coronavirus a pandemic Or since even earlier for that matter. Though Horus couldn’t be bothered way back in January 25th when his cabinet buddies saw the virus as a little twerp that was deemed to be locked down in its alleged native land or at best be seen flirting at airports. Only that can explain the right noises that the cabinet made then starting with the now fashionable claim to stirring statesmanship by grandiosely vowing to pick up one’s citizens from an affected geography and making it sound like a personal expedition to Everest in the head-stand position. Then there followed the whole melodrama of travel advisories especially to untouchable communist and third world geographies and of course the ritual of making the national civilian air carrier sound like a bugle call for war with a sizzling headline like Blighted Airways suspends all flights to the People’s Republic of Hyena. And then coughing gently as two meagre laughable cases were confirmed in the Blighted Kingdom – gentle coughs to mimic a Ha! Two frigging exceptions, maybe Hyenese for all we care.

And soon it was February.

A bit of snow, a bit cold, a bit of relative warmth, this was Horus’s month for really hard erections. The others were January, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November and December. Much like Mark Twain’s October – by his reckoning, a dangerous month for investing in stocks, the others being the rest. But these dangers, Horus has always scoffed at. Like a veteran marine of the 69 Coitus Rifles, his bayonet will not be deterred. And so he spent the whole of February fighting for the honour of his native land because as the great poet said, ‘Breathes there a man with soul so dead who never to himself had said, this is my own my native land.’ Tut Tut. Not Horus, the patriot. He would never take the risk of ‘breathing’ in that unpatriotically indolent way. He would pant and pump, the way soldiering patriots do, never allowing place and time to come in the way of a patriotic bang. Outside of course, they coughed again as a third case was reported, and then a fourth and soon a ninth. The coughing by some of Horus’s colleagues was now beginning to look more inadvertent than scorn and that is what made them seek testing, a privilege easily available to them. Imagine. Had they not first scoffed in scorn, they mightn’t have got that timely check, and so we might have been luckier. Not because we the people wish ill will on highly deserving bastards but because they act only when they wake up to a rocket in the arse. You see in a crisis of this kind where a virus hits your native land, you are better off with no government if what you have in the name of a government is a catalyst to the virus. To figure this better, replace the word virus with the word NATO. If the virus could talk it would wink while confessing its impotency and say that its incremental fatalities only turned exponential when managed by the sincere elitism of NATO governments.

And so February rolled on while cases were still reported in two digits and one had succumbed. But that’s not bad given that testing was still in single digits and it was probably happening when the patient was asleep. And now of course one case was reported in the national afterthought and the Brexit pastime of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, its unification and Scotland of the Scottish independence fame, these parliamentary hiccups claimed their column for peripheral news as always. Otherwise, February, which for Johnson is a snowy month for flaky sex, some ten thousand Blightons had been tested by mistake it seems because there was every sign that the plan was to test ten. You see the trouble with cunning is that it is a laboured attempt at elusive intelligence, and is about as convincing as free market pretending to be a considered and controlled thought. Free. Controlled. Antonyms, remember? Resorting to number management because that is the art of counting crumbs to convince yourself you aren’t hungry, or that A and B aren’t hungry because C has overeaten. And so in the chronic quest for number management, worldwide, the nationalist right wing fell in love with this new word called ‘contact tracing’. Another antonym. The opposite of ‘pandemic’. Besides obviously slowing down reported cases, it is based on the sound scientific principle that one African can infect one Blighton but that one Blighton will not infect any other Blighton till Horus Johnson gives him the permission to do so. In other words, when you travel from Wuhan to London you are certain to be infected but nowhere on the way and at home will Horus Johnson allow you to infect anyone else despite that there was no real lockdown at the time and the virus was as well figured by Johnson as the institution of marriage. Which then should beg the simple question that when the infection didn’t spread, then how did it suddenly spread. The answer is that this virus, like others which go by names like Dominic Cummings or Priti Patel, report to the great Johnson. Such is the might of the Blighted Empire and of its valiant leader, the bayonet charging horny (sorry I say! This typo I tell you!) Horus Johnson. As though it’s bloody different. But regardless of Johnson’s confidence in the virus’s acquiescing subordination to him and to his right-wing cousins like Hump, the President of the Disunited States of Blamerica, some 442,675 Blightons called the emergency line in panic. All hell had broken loose. Horus would have seen it, if he was not rolling in the hay that is. So March was threatening to be a month of reckoning. But only if you are not a privileged Etonian or a member of Bullingdon Club that is. March would roast the hell out of you. But only if you’re not the same frivolous chap who was once a London Mayor doling out sponsorship advances to pole dancing American women that is. March would be a wake-up call, but only if you weren’t convinced that viruses wouldn’t dare touch the white race because you were so fucking Islamophobic that you actually said the burka was oppression and that the women who wore them looked like letter boxes. March 2020 would have been March 2020 if you had the sense to not joke at a funeral, if you had at least a grain of decency and didn’t use swear words in the position of a Foreign Secretary simply because business leaders thought Brexit was conceived in the rectum but didn’t literally say so, but you heard it, because you knew that indeed it was. ‘Fuck business’ indeed. Your words. March could have been brutal in your vagrant head too just like life which has routinely shown you the mirror, a mirror your voters have no view of because you are blocking the view with your awful clumsily looming hunch that is weighed down by your bursting overweight ballocks. And if the voter doesn’t see it, you didn’t do it is how you process the shite. Yet this March would have been this March if you had an iota of sensitivity, which went conspicuously missing when you recited Kipling’s “The temple bells they say, come back you English soldier” in the most inappropriate place, the most sacred Buddhist temple in Burma. You had to be stopped. You are always stopped. But you never stop. Your mouth is like your dong. Because this incident was just about three months after you blabbered about alcohol in a Sikh Gurudwara. And this was a year after you spoke derisively of Africa and talked of the Turkish President where your limerick on him spoke of him having sex with a goat. Did you realise what the Turkish President must have done besides ignoring you, you intractable boner. He might have googled the images of the women you’ve been with and had a good laugh. Goat indeed. Goats. Plural. Some were even hybrid. Take that, you racist, for a change. Where all you sowed your own ‘wild oats’ he would have seen. March would indeed have been a March galloping with a virus claiming lives if you weren’t still busy sowing your wild oats and missing COBRA meetings.

But in the same March, Horus lumbered out of bed in panic, but only towards the end.

Meanwhile, before that day, outside 10 Frowning Street, the world was increasingly agitated. And so the first COBRA meeting was held on March 2nd when the cases had jumped to a laughable 36 only. Naturally Horus with his arse finally catching up with his swollen head wasn’t going to waste his time especially when Jennifer Arcuri had been threatening to cook him in Corona oil since November because he wasn’t taking her damn calls. On March 3rd the government published an action plan with everything detailed to the tee except for two things; action and plan. And the cases were now inching to three-digit numbers which is commendable detection, ostensibly by the MI6, Blighton’s Secret Service, since the testing was still barely happening. No wonder MI6 Chief Alex Younger got that “KCMG” (KGB Culled Maimed Gutted). Horus would need this suave talent soon. Meanwhile the action plan was so detailed that in the middle of a crippling dastardly pandemic it actually included a scenario called ‘milder pandemic’ thereby giving a subtle hint to stubborn recalcitrant Blighton voters that Horus was clearly out of sorts and rolling in the hay again. And of course he had bunked the COBRA meeting, and so all said and done May might have sounded like an uncertain something but was certainly better than Hay. But bemoaning Brexit at the time of permanent exit is like fearing sex fatigue while being treated for erectile dysfunction. Especially since the cases now crossed a hundred and Chief Medical Officer, Chris Shitty needlessly informed the nation that the Blighted Kingdom had now moved from the ‘containment stage’ to the ‘delay stage’ thereby proving that he himself had moved from the asinine stage to the bovine stage. Bloody mumbo jumbo and semantics as though union budgets aren’t enough. But in March – you have to give it to the blighter – taking a break from rolling in the hay, PM Horus did something bloody visionary. Bypassing the elementary stages of masks, PPE and smoothly enforced lockdowns, he jumped straight to announcing £46 million for research into vaccine research. That this vaccine will resurrect those who died to Covid is the only way to fathom this brilliant move in the absence of basic preventive measures and equipment. This may have been on the advice of Priti Patel whose qualifications are known to be restricted to PR unlike her disqualifications which are unrestricted. And while that makes her seem like quite a promising successor to take Great Blighton into any century as long as it is in the past, it doesn’t help frantic lungs on ventilators, and much worse, those gasping in the absence of them. And to that came her homily, ‘I’m sorry if people think there have been failings’. This is like mythology being recited to the dying and dead. How utterly Hindian. Yet to those in the know, this is a typical Patelian malaise but there’s still time enough for that Far Right thinking as that fluff is pretentiously called.             

But this virus has a crafty left-wing bias.

It bloody well knows that the cretins (leaders) resorting to socially sanctioned dacoity (right wing ideology if you please) will do bugger-all for others. So it directly goes for their balls. That’s how they got the wake-up call when the FTSE 100 plunged, something that a hundred deaths couldn’t achieve. The hyper capitalist is a capitalist only, a man, if at all, who stops to douse the fire only when it goes either for his balls (his vault) or his arse, and this one had started to go for both. And so alongside the FTSE, the Hyenese virus opened its account by infecting Health Minister Nadine Dorries. The cases were now touching 500 and galloping. The vaccine research was on in earnest, the PPE sourcing project was abandoned like Horus’s women. In the middle of this, young Rishi Sunak was sent by Horus to present the budget, and also by God, to balance out country cousin Priti Patel. You see the Hindu pantheon is no less than a pandemic with 33 Mn Gods and so whenever they see some Hindian making as ass of himself, they panic and send a better sample to neutralize the slur. Funnily they do it the other way round too. They created Gandhi in Gujarat and then sent Modi. But what Modi is undoing is far in excess of what Gandhi did, and faster and worse. And so good boy Rishi Sunak, son-in-law of his pious body-shopping South Indian Pa-in-law, may do what he will with his face scrubbed and hair oiled, but Priti Patel will open her mouth to undo Sunak’s £30bn to protect the BK in March much like how the public memory of good boy Sunak’s grades in college will yield to another FTSE collapse, this time its biggest since 1987. Frankly it was this, rather than reality that made Public Health stop contact tracing thereby finally conceding that blowing off birthday candles and clapping happy birthday to NHS is a hare-brained idea when you arse is screaming for a bloody fire extinguisher.

But something stunningly hare-brained was afoot secretly.

The great strategist and Johnson’s buddy Dominic Cummings had cracked the strategy. The only problem was that the strategy was needed for saving lives and so when Cummings thought herd immunity was his eureka moment, two things became clear. One that Cummings didn’t know whether he was coming or going. And two, that Horus was still cumming only and doing little else. Not only that, Cummings even edited his old blog post to make it seem like he was like the bloody Nostradamus of Coronavirus. That the egghead is poached out of his bloody mind is not the point because then you may sadly and blasphemously find that the only way to handle the pandemic is by replacing Horus Johnson with Xi Jinping. Serious. Imagine if Undone, the capital of the Blighted Kingdom was Wuhan of Hyena. Cross your heart and say it would still be lapping around in the shit it is today. Ah. That must have been a wordy blow to the anti-communist solar plexus, no? Reality my dear. Like the sun that gave up on the British empire. Bottomline: barring Hump, the President of the Disunited States of Blamerica and Dominic Cummings, there isn’t another arsehole whose solution to pandemic deaths is herd immunity. But then it wouldn’t be the first time Cummings came with a strategy on which only he would be cumming. He usually cums alone. At best Johnson has cum with him. But that’s because all that Johnson ever does is to cum.

By mid-March the cases had crossed a thousand and the death toll had crossed a score. Not fatal enough for Johnson. But suddenly on March 14th Donald Hump’s Deputy Disaster Mike Tuppence announced that the travel ban would include flights to the Blighted Kingdom while the latter was fretting over travel advisories to Spain. This was quite a blow and even though no flights would come from Hump-land, Johnson’s ego was so bruised that he still banned flights to Hump-land in retaliation!

More trade has stopped due to right wing egos than has ever been created – Old jungle saying on laissez-faire.

On March 16th, Bonking Johnson took a break and rolled out of the hay and announced a lockdown in as clear terms as asking a naked man to wear his underwear on his head to cover himself. For some time, his cabinet tried clearing his shit but ended up contradicting each other. You see the blighted constitution is bound to churn out such talent. Political chaos is the womb of parliamentary charlatans, of which the Blighted Kingdom is now a shining example. May needn’t have resigned as per the constitution, but gave way to convention. And see what you got. Because while the parliament of Blighton is supreme, the constitution is but a jumble of precedence and convention only. And so whether it is Brexit or a fixit of any kind, chaos is inbuilt. So you cannot blame the sun for not rising on the empire anymore. It simply cannot locate the old empire of the Attlee, the Churchill, the Lloyd George, the Harold Wilson, the Tony Blair or even the Thatcher.

The kingdom is blighted now.

So now in March ‘20, when the Sunak announced a princely £330bn of loan guarantees to businesses the cases were now crossing 2000 and the deaths were approaching three digits. Then came another capitalist jolt. The pound sterling breached its 1985 Thatcherite level. And just then MP Lloyd Russel-Moyle tested positive. The virus was coming closer to 10 Frowning Street. Slowly but surely. And on March 20th, Johnson broke down a little bit, but in private, when he announced among other frivolous things, the deeply moving lockdown of nightclubs. It felt like a part of him was shutting down. Such a personal loss. He felt older. Intuitively he knew – he always relies more on the spinal cord than the brain – that something was not right. Two days later, on March 22nd, Johnson woke up to a sore arse.

March 22, 2020.

The very point where we’d started this fairy tale of the sex kittens of heads of state or the fable on how celibacy or loyalty makes Johnson a dull boy, or how orgasmic panting is far more patriotic than breathing like a man with soul so dead. But this big boy felt bloody dull. Not because he was fifty-five, which he was. And not because the sun had set on British Empire. No it hadn’t set. It had actually gone into its arse.

Horus’s arse was swollen.

And not from kinky experiments. Being a realist, his first reaction even in the middle of the pandemic was that he had contracted AIDS. But it didn’t feel so lousy. So it must be some venereal disease, he thought. He had always believed he was immune to the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. And that all venereal diseases venerated him given his unblemished record and daring. Sheer respect for a fearless fucker. But there was complication now. His almost-wife Carry Symonds was carrying. He had to figure a secret way of getting diagnosed without his nearly-wife getting to know all that she was certain to know about him anyway.

Ah, the fighting marines of 69 Coitus are not so unsung!

But soldiers wounded in battle must hand over command, even if reluctantly.

But that he did only on March 27th after privately thanking the Hyenese upon testing positive to Covid instead of being diagnosed with the African AIDS or the cosmopolitan VD which would have left him suicidal given that bonking the opposite sex in many plurals was all he lived for besides bonking a nation whose name rhymed with the word Britain. And so from March 22nd till 27th when they admitted that he had tested positive and would self-isolate in 10 Frowning Street, he took the time to figure a No. 2 to hand over the No. 2 of the nation to, just in case. And this is what this case study of interim succession in a crisis is all about.

So he quickly considered his options from the aces in his Rt Dhon (Right Dishonourable) team – which ol’ bastard to deputize this shit to. He called the head of SIS, the legendary Secret Service MI6 of the Blighted Kingdom, who was responsible for the covert collection and analysis of ‘human intelligence’, so naturally Priti Patel, his Home Secretary was outside their purview. But still. So Alex Younger arrived. The Chief of MI6 who signs letters with a ‘C’ in green ink. Rumour has it that it took a long time for the CIA to convince President Hump that C doesn’t stand for Cunt and that this is the Intelligence Chief accountable to Blighton’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Then it took even longer to explain the meaning of the word ‘accountable’ to Hump who had forgotten it since the onset of the pandemic. Younger and his MI6 are deadly guys. Johnson trusted them blindly. Younger was the one who had confirmed to him that the virus was not a Hyenese conspiracy.

‘They didn’t do it,’ he had said.

‘Who told you?’ Johnson had asked.

‘Very reliable source,’ smiled Younger. And looked at his notes and named him. ‘Guy called Xi Jinping.’

‘Okay,’ said Johnson, rolling a joint.

And Johnson called Hump, the President if the Disunited States and passed on the intelligence report.

Hump called and asked, ‘Source?’

‘Xi Jinping,’ replied Johnson.

‘Okay,’ said Hump, and rolled a joint.

Just then Toady of Hindia called and asked, ‘Jaansunn Bhai! Namaste! Bhat newj you habe on Hyena?’

And Johnson told him.

‘Okkay,’ he said, and resumed his make-up.

And now the same talented Alex Younger on whom the anti-Hyena world relied on, stood before Johnson with a file on all his direct reports. Johnson had called Raab to whom Younger reported and told him he was calling Younger. Raab didn’t care two hoots what it was for. He was wondering about his own swollen arse.

 Younger’s file this time was full of sparing truths and Johnson read them one by one:

Rt Dhon Dominic Rennie Raab: ’74 born Secretary of State and Foreign Affairs. At ‘affairs’, Johnson gulped as always, but continued. Raab was promoted by May to a cabinet role and for exiting EU but he resigned in four months on an agreement he only was negotiating. Subterfuge! Johnson smiled approvingly in spite of his frowning arse. Then he read about how Raab paid a bomb in an out of court settlement to silence a b…. Good. So there’s enough dope on him to keep him on a tight leash. And he’s stood with Johnson on Brexit even though he had contested against Johnson in the conservative sweepstakes. Johnson liked such men. He could relate to them, figure them out, and even be a step ahead. Because Raab is actually quite an ass. Nearly lost his own Conservative safe seat despite a Tories surge, and also struggled under sharp shooter Cameron. This seems like the guy to deputize the shit to.

Still Johnson glanced out of interest at a couple of more file notes.

Rt Dhon Rishi Sunak: educational pedigree but playing second fiddle to Raab, too staid for today’s Blighted Kingdom, a joke to be pulled down by a laughing Satan at will, capitalism poster boy scrubbed daily with its commode brush, hair pasted even in bed, grin practised in a concave mirror so that it delivers better. Quietly butters his toast but is well past his Nirvana. This guy cannot rule, cannot represent, cannot usurp. Was only good for releasing Sajid Javid, a scary Islamic careerist who had nothing against Islamophobia. Dangerous. Which is why Johnson had used Dominic Cummings to get him out. Cummings replaced him with Sunak. But Sunak is okay. He’s happy to be under someone’s arse. And he’s qualified too. Typical American desi Ivy league type. Only an oily Finance, Economics and Banking guy would pay money to dead bodies lost to herd immunity crafted by Godfather Cummings.

Rt Dhon Michael Gove: he scanned through fast but was left with one thought. There’s something about a man who comes third all the time. And a man who can’t choose between Labour and Conservative. And of course the disloyalty comment on him by Cameron. That was still haunting Johnson. But May’s enemies became his February friends. Something so sexy about promiscuous February.

Rt Dhon Alok Sharma: too staid, too stable. Why on earth is he in politics. Worse, he might just solve the damn problem and take it over. Johnson needed a guy who would screw up while he was away so that when he returned, he would play saviour. 

Rt Dhon Priti Sushil Patel: PR and tobacco lobbyist, washed in honey till honey is all there is. Failed in the 2005 general elections but Cameron saw some promise. Johnson winked. Cameron and he had much in common besides even Bullingdon Club. Patel was involved with a book (couldn’t have been co-author. Ballocks!) where they spoke of the British being the worst idlers in the world. Hasn’t she been to native Hindia, Johnson winked at Younger. Got a Jewel of Gujarat award in Ahmedabad! Younger and Johnson cackled uncontrollably till Johnson began to cough. He read on. She supported Cameron’s plan to bomb targets in Islamic Syria. How predictably Patel is that. Met Modi a few times. Naturally. Had secret meetings in Israel without telling Foreign office. Bloody Pateli. Wanted to give aid money to Israeli Army. Holy fuck! Defended herself – how can Johnson forget – by saying he, as Foreign Secretary then, knew about it. Scary that was. Theresa May called her and roasted her and made her go even after she apologised idiotically. How bloody Patelian is that. He liked her. When she made an idiotically insensitive statement that implied Blighton should take advantage of Ireland’s fear of food shortages, he was clear he had found his Home Secretary. A bagful of misdeeds and controversies – how bloody Patelful – this one is easy to control, he thought. But to hand over the reins to her is like handing over the bridals and reins of the horse to the horse itself. And you have to have one heck of a humour to import the Gujarati brand of austerity which when Patelite, can actually be seen when you zoom in to a miserable looking fellow’s face with drool dripping down his lapel and when you zoom out you will see his misshapen belly like that of stuffed kangaroo and as you zoom out more you see that bedraggled moneybag full-length in a check shirt with striped trousers and green shoes, seated inside a Phantom bought from a State Bank of India loan availed for business. And by his side, you will see a gigantic lardaceous oval with a small circle for a head, dripping in gold with diamonds on the ears that at first seem like spotlights, as they head together – hippo husband and whale wife – to the Jain temple of austerity. Ah yes, the Patels are technically not Jains, but the Jains are pretty Patelian, as are Modis and Shahs. Hmm, said Johnson to himself. Will keep her on the bench for now. These Patels I say. And that Sunak. Banking and vote-banking that’s all they’re good for. No. 2 my arse. I go with Dominic he decided. And he called. Hi there ol’ chappie! he half-boomed in his cracked voice. And Raab croaked back after recent recovery. And that’s how Raab became the Deputy Disaster in Command.

Ten days later, on April 5, Johnson was admitted to St Thomas hospital and on the 6th he was in the ICU. Hump offered to help him as though he didn’t need help himself. Hump is like the last Mughal who will pay income tax without income so that no one knows. And as though he had anything even close to NHS! Even though what Johnson and his capitalist predecessors have done is to hump the NHS and attempt to privatize it till it resembles the tattered underwear of Hump’s own disastrous health delivery. And no amount of applause will alter the fact. Anyway. But after Hump, Toady called from Hindia and offered to send Lotus flowers (also the symbol of his looney party) with roots forgetting they grow in shit, some Gujarati sweet rice laced with Hydroxychloroquine. Before he offered to send cow dung and cow piss, Johnson, on the pretext of coughing, hung up. So scared was he now with the quality of right-wing benefactors, that Johnson made a speedy recovery while Raab and his cronies made sure he met his goals by screwing up such that he looked like a saviour on his return. On April 9th, they pulled a pipe out of his arse, spring cleaned his genitals for spring and shoved him out of the ICU before he infected the nurses. On April 12, they quickly discharged him to keep the nurses safe. And off he went to Sucker’s Court in the country side (the 1500-acres country home that only a sucker of a tax payers would fund for a supposedly serving Prime Moron of the Blighted Kingdom) to recuperate with his pregnant wifi (rearranged to mean almost-wife) while the death toll in the Blighted Kingdom crossed 10,000. On April 27th he returned to work, if you want to really call what he does – work.

Stop laughing.

There’s a pandemic on, dammit.              

Because the shoe is now on the other foot.

Dictators are benevolent now and democracy a machinating farce.

Imagine, singing this one today:

When Britain first at heaven’s command

Arose from out the azure main;

 This was the charter of the land

And guardian angels sang this strain:

“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves

“Britons will never be slaves.”

The nations not so blessed as thee,

Must, in their turn, to tyrants fall;

While thou shall flourish great and free,

The dread and envy of them all.

“Rule Britannia! Rule the waves:

“Britons will never be slaves”

Well, well.

The Queen is following the lockdown. And Dominic Cummings is beyond it.



No, the sun has not set on the British empire.

It has gone two steps further. Let’s not repeat how deep inside it has gone and where. Only that pipe in St Thomas Hospital knows. But Johnson will not let it rest, the sun, I mean. For orifices are things he knows better than the back of his hand.

So let the sun be where it is.

He will create another one.

Hope will sing everywhere again.

Soon will be one more son. Oh blimey! This typo!

‘Horus’ is inspired by Egyptian mythology. He was the son of the goddess Isis and she created him after assembling all the body parts of her dead husband Osiris except his penis which was eaten up by a catfish in the river Nile. Other accounts say she fashioned a phallus by resurrecting Osiris and used it to give birth to her son Horus. However, on ‘Horus’, the urban dictionary is more direct. And since it is all about the immortal penis, the sun and the son, the author had a Eureka moment and chose this name for the hero of the parody.  

The Final Hour For Brazil

It might be a surprise to Europeans or any citizen of a developed country, but it shouldn’t be to any Brazilians. Last night, the video of a major cabinet meeting of president Bolsonaro was revealed and what it really showed was an unequivocal intent, from the president, to apply an armed coup over my nation. In his own words, Bolsonaro is arming the population for a civil war. He said it with every word.  There were many signs before. He recently revoked the need for tracking large amounts of ammunition sales.

The video was, aside from all the profanity being said – which isn’t the most important aspect at all – a shocking display of hypocrisy, egocentrism, and most of all, of a vicious and authoritative government agenda. Every part showed its real intentions. Bolsonaro, to arm the population – aka his militias and extremist supporters – for an armed coup; Ricardo Salles, the minister of environment, to “take advantage of the pandemic” – in his own and every word – to pass out decrees to destroy the Brazilian Amazon forest; Paulo Guedes, minister of economy, “to profit from money-lending to big companies and not help small companies, cause that would make us lose money” and a few others, including the minister of education urging to arrest every supreme court minister.

My country is under siege and I fear it has already been taken, because I woke up today and they are all in the same exact place. Like it’s been happening for a long time. A war of information, via social media, has made millions of Bolsonaro zombies that can’t be brought back, just like “walking deads”. Bolsonaro claims he wants to arm the people to avoid a military coup. What a joke! The great fallacy in his argument is that no one else wants to launch a coup, but himself and his allies!

His ratings were diminishing and the supreme court and the media finally decided to make a stand against him – which are the only hope we have left. But his outrages grow by the week and so far even the more than twenty thousand deaths that had fallen from the virus haven’t been able to stop him. They have become involuntary martyrs against Bolsonaro and there was absolutely no concern for them in the dreadful video we saw. None. We are ruled by a group of psychopaths with no empathy for human life.

Once more, Brazil is on the verge of a dictatorship.

North & South

‘The truth universally acknowledged is how I
am a southerner and I hate northerners.’

The depth of the graven hostility tore my eyes
from the wide screen flickering before us.

‘Mother, how can tha say such vile rot?’ I
repeated the visual sentiment in my words, ‘please come t’Scarborough and feel
tut force for yourself and break bondage o’ thy mighty prejudice,’ I suggested
in a great reasoning.

‘New,’ she replied, ‘new and new never,’ and
sipped at a decaff aberration, the pinkie rising with thimble like the Clooney
and his claw.

‘So that’s that?’ I said and stood, reached for
my Lidl bag of pants and clean socks, ‘Never the twain shall…shall…shall
ever again..?’ words drifted like my confusion, like my cigarette in her
garden. I stamped clogs for the last time not in her garden but here in the
drawing room.

I would no longer endure
bigotry, the man of mystery [sic] marooned at three o’clock on a Monday
afternoon in this distant and Biddyford enclosure.  I lifted lace curtains
at the window frame, beheld the horror streetscape; the dozen exiled kippers,
the biddies and the Brummies encircled her estate on foot, pooches stretched
ahead on their leashes.  And beyond upon a triple highway the infestation
of VWs piled with the boutique boards, thundered aside a transit van convoy of
plumbers.  I recoiled from the double punch of a total ghastliness.

‘Euch…’I said and slouched back to the sofa,
winded, defeated and supped instead with a great philosophical perception on a
full strength but cold Nescafe triple blend.

‘Oh shush a moment…’ I said into my
coffee.  I swallowed my coffee, waved my palm, ‘see how much the man
makes at the auction,’ I said – decisive at last with the remote control held
in my, my other fist.

Re-united a while before the hundred inch flat
screen television it was a ‘how about that?’ I said and whistled to mother as I
do in moments of reflection.  ‘Eight thousand pounds, a teapot spoon;
that is the life for me, baby,’ I said.

My piercing blue eyes sought the truth, a
destiny. A slender tendril – perfect – stroked at my jaw:

‘Mother,’ I said, ‘where to ever is Claris Cliff
collectioned?  And whereabouts are my Steiff teddy-tigers from the
cereal?  Remember, Father left me a kukri somewhere significant, remember
for killing his Japanese prisoners of war?  Did you perhaps in your
folly donate my knife to the window-cleaner, did you?  Didn’t you,
you did, didn’t you?’ I said, ‘and you despatch me now, your favourite son back
to the North dressed only in Father’s gardening smock.  At least I found
the smock on his, and not your spade. I need more loot. There must be
something else in the inheritance here-in?  Speak up woman or to your
loft be bound…’

Freddy pipsqueak growled at my ankles.

‘Shut up you traitor,’ I said.  ‘Come on
Mother, reconsider your location and location decisions.  You would
adore experience of the North peoples up to the border walls, obviously. 
So come with me and visit some time soon.  It is like the South, and down
as you are, but with the altitude.  This, my final offer; come, one day
even settle and sell this Barrett hovel in the horn of Exeter. Imagine how
Whitby Abbey shall be our new home, and yours for a while.  Think about
the brass in my offering.

‘No, I married a northerner and that was enough
endurance for one woman,’ she said.

‘Yes, and he smelled divine in that shoe box,’ I

‘Would you, my child, like one final feel of the
crumble?  Don’t you sneeze this time, my boy,’ she winked.

‘Maybe Mummy,’ I said, the steel rising in my
vowels, ‘I shall remove him and hurl him high at a Flamborough Head, huh? 
Back to the old country…’

‘No, he is mine,’ she said.  ‘It might snow
and man has his uses.’

‘You bastard, my Daddy’s not for your lining

The revolting new cat Maximillian bounded into
the room, a tartan ponce like a box of shortbread on his uppers.

An evil grin spread above Mother’s chin.  I
sensed malice and rushed the stairs and rushed into her boudoir of fluff.

‘Daddy,’ I cried and scooped Father’s litter from
the corners of the wardrobe.  I secured his lid using the vintage elastic
band twisted across the cardboard.

‘He’s coming with me you bitch!’

It was her turn to shudder.  She fainted on
that downstairs sofa with a swoon of palm upon forehead. Her memory faded to
1967. Nineteen years old and beautiful in her borderline dwarfism
condition wearing mini-skirt hanged to the shins, and a cardigan –
imprisoned inside the caravan outside Bridlington headquarters by tat.

‘Tripe!’ calls granny-warden. Mummy sits with her
young man-creature and the haggis-in-laws surrounding the dinner/supper/and tea
table, the cauldron of tripe, offal, kicker plus onions.

‘I love you, Sawny,’ she whispers into a

‘I’ll tell ye family as poverty coms in front
door love gos out windee,’ says granny-hag and the wind howls in black and
white banging Satan against the caravan windows.

‘Mummy, mummy, awake, you are hallucinating in
your fantasy,’ I said and woke her from the slumber fit. I wiped the
spittle with my sock.

‘Put down the shoe box,’ she demanded.

‘A final word before I headway to North,’ I
said.  ‘I know how you boasted how well sister and everybody family is
doing and does very good stuff in their jobs in technology recipe and Facebook
lifestyles down here, and that fucking army job of the brother-in-law, that
kite-surfing his tank regiment, and crap like that crap…and GSTQ…yes?’

I took one breath.

‘Just I, well I, your favourite son in
Scarborough I don’t have two brass farthings to rub together. I have got no
money, Mummy, I love you and would you pay me back for the hire car and the
petrol and perhaps an overnight allowance for Pops in the box?   It
is very gruelling for me, y’know, visiting the relatives…

‘What, you steal my man and box, and I give you
money so you can smoke your weeds.  That wife of yours pours wine bag
after bag down her throat!’

‘For the recycling, Mummy and her passion, Mummy,
she likes her singing to the Titanic soundtrack.  I don’t mind.’

‘Get a job!’

‘I am getting a job.  Only when I rang the
agency with my CV, the woman on the other end said my history was “varied.” You
know what that means to me? Probably I am simply unemployable and artistic,
y’know like an author-writer, even a painter.’

‘Stack beans!’

‘I will stack beans.  Just give me time
and some of your money.


‘But Mum don’t push me out of the house. 
What are you doing with that broom?’

‘Put down your father!’

I placed Father on the pathway.  November
flurries drifted in the twilight and Mother stood over his ashes, the broom
held in her hand, the kukri in her teeth.

‘And don’t come back until you are an IT Sales
Project Director in Resources and Marketing,’ she said.

‘I hate you,’ I said.

‘I hated feeding you from the very first day you
were born,’ she replied.  ‘Remember your favourite, the Fray Bentos

‘Yes and no,’ I said.

Freddy barked from the tulip border.

‘Fourteen years I spooned you on the economy and
not even a Pedigree Chum.  All the while I ate taramasalata at your bib,’
she cackled.

‘Mummy,’ I screamed and raged and ran at her wide
silhouette.  She swiped with her broom.  I levered around her
waistline and with all my strength staggered in the embrace toward her wheelie
bin. Finally I closed the lid.

She clawed fingernails back to the rim, and
peered powerless yet safely installed like an Arthur Bell until that next
Thursday morning collection.

I rescued Pappa from the surf Nazis of Biddyford and strapped him aside me secure in our passenger seat. We drove the night up hills and down the vales laughing like old times.  I played favourite tunes, I played the Buddy Holly and fat dominoes for the re-united father and son combination sped tag-bound for tribal plantations in the North of England.

Why Italians are dancing on balconies during the Covid-19 emergency

Italy has plenty
of balconies. Growing up, I had one of a decent size in my family apartment; it
was always kind of dirty and rarely used, but during Christmastime it would be
filled with lights and decorations, thanks to the dedication of my mum – and
with the constant disapproval of my environmentally-aware brother. As an
Italian who lives far from home, when spring is approaching and I’m preparing dinner
in my shared flat in East London, I sometimes lean on comforting stereotypes of
Italian families, large and loud, sharing a meal on their modest balconies,
enjoying the breeze and laughing a lot – even though we are only four, we never
ate outside, and we are not as loud as you would think. After all, in Italy,
balconies have been largely symbolized; on a balcony Juliet pronounced her most
iconic words, Mussolini gave his speeches during the darkest times of recent
history, and from a balcony indeed the Pope is now reassuring his people about
the Coronavirus emergency, exhorting them to “not be afraid”. In recent times,
balconies have probably been deprived of their romantic nature to assume a
tactic commercial potential, as they are cheaper to build but able to increase
a lot the value of a property. But the fact is, there are a lot of balconies
indeed, and a brand-new movement has recently taken them over, giving them the
leading role during a new people force.

I am talking here about the wave of flashmobs that originated during the first week of national lockdown for the Covid-19 pandemic, the second week of March. To show sympathy and solidarity with medical staff, patients, victims’ families, and to everyone forced to stay in quarantine for the foreseeable future, some Italian citizens started to enact various performances using balconies as privileged stages. The result was a series of collective actions, joyful and participatory, but also planned in advance, that have been spreading all over the country as fast as the virus itself – and that are now expanding to the rest of the world. Over a couple of days I received from my Italian friends at least four different flashmob schedules for the days ahead: on Wednesday people were asked to light torches on their balconies as a sign of solidarity; on Thursday to engage in collective applause for the health workers risking their lives at the forefront of the battle against the virus; on Friday to sing “Ciao Mamma”, by Jovanotti, all together, as one and the same.

The chosen mode of
flashmob allows all that; described by Aristita
I. Albacan
as “performative acts
that reconnect individuals with their environment”, flashmobs represent a
moment of disruption of the everyday life and a suspension of the course of
time – a particularly useful tool to intensify social relations during a time
of isolation. By gathering together, but each from their own balcony, Italian
communities reappropriated a public dimension that had been made unavailable by
the impossibility of physically occupying actual public spaces.

In a scenario
where house and health privileges have been exposed in plain sight, and some
fundamental human rights have become inaccessible to the people – considering
that access to care is no longer guaranteed – the possibility of restoring a
sense of collectiveness holds strong emancipatory potential and the hope that,
in a way or another, this crisis will pass.

The cathartic power of the Italian flashmobs, however, goes beyond the embodied experience and the message of solidarity they convey. The visual force of the balcony movements challenges the usual aesthetic of the quarantine, mostly conveyed by images of empty streets, deserted cities, and inhabitants forced to never leave their homes and far removed from society – in decadent and apocalyptic tones that actually allowed the production of some quite interesting photography. On the contrary, the nature of flashmobs is traditionally playful, fun-oriented, and exquisitely participatory; during an extended period of social distancing – and for a brief amount of time, as it typically is for flashmobs – the balcony movement invites people to fill the spaces instead of empty them, restoring in this way the efficacy of mass actions to uplift spirits and convey a sense of collectiveness, where bodies themselves become sites of resistance.

My London home does not have a balcony, so I could not dance on it. Instead, I observed the phenomenon from a distance, on my social media channels: I saw balcony dj sets, entire families singing and dancing together, communal aperitifs from one building to another, and – my personal favourite – the song “Bella Ciao” performed with a sax. As the days went by, I had the impression that the playful dimension was quickly transforming to a way more serious and patriotic tone; there was now a massive presence of Italian flags and daily singalongs of the Italian Anthem – which, by the way, can be pretty dark, and includes the lines: “Let us unite! / We are ready to die / Italy called”. Today, the spirits are changing after all; while the number of Covid-19 victims is tragically increasing, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has started to firmly advise the Italian population to stay strong and united, the resistance to the virus and the very same act of staying home has become collectively considered as a civic and moral duty – a call to arms.

I cannot know for
how long Italians are going to keep singing on their balconies, and whether
this renewed national wave will evolve into something else. As for me, I wish
we could dance together even here, in the UK – considering that probably we
don’t have as many balconies. As Nandu
writes: “We are sad, overwhelmed
with what is happening, but we step out on balconies to make music and share it
with others. What if the balcony was our new exit strategy?”

A Few Words on Lockdown in Northern Italy

Just over three weeks ago I was in Venice on a truly
dazzling day. A cold wind from the Dolomites left every building shimmering
with light, the Canal Grande was radiant. Venice bustled with her bars and marine
traffic with the type of beauty that shocks, makes you stop and waver. I’d
caught a train into town for my nephew’s graduation in scultura at the
Accademia delle Belle Arti, and was on Aunty duty with a good portion of the
family. As I wandered down to the Zattere through Dorsoduro, the place pulsed
with beauty. We celebrated, drank, hit another bar, drank. Days after that,
universities and schools were closed. It was the last time I think any of us
felt reckless and exuberant about the season ahead.

All month the news from
Wuhan had been upsetting but still so far away. I spoke with a Chinese friend
who was trying to send face masks to family members and we agreed to meet up in
Padua. It never happened. Somehow, I knew deep down that it would come to this.
I’d caught a plane from Thessaloniki to Bologna on 7th February and
felt a jolt when our temperatures were taken off the flight. An
intra-Schengen-state flight, not a long-haul trip from central China. The guy
next to me on the flight was Asian and wearing a mask. Precautionary, I
thought. Am I paranoid? No. But I had bought my first hand sanitiser a week

The first deep shudder I
feel is when a town five minutes from my village is quarantined days after my
Venice visit, and Italy’s first patient dies: a 78-year-old pensioner who inexplicably
contracted the virus at a local bar. At this stage it is still personal. His
daughter speaks of her old-school Communist father at the kitchen table. This
was when the deceased were still named.

Weird fact: all along
the finger has been pointed at China but where was the outbreak in Prato, near
Florence, one of the biggest centres of Chinese factory production in Europe? This
attitude resulted in some bungling. Paziente Uno, a fit cyclist from the
blighted Codogno community with no contact with China at all, was misdiagnosed
because of this, and sent home to spread a virus that has now infected over 9
000 in the Lombardy region. But how is this even possible? Voices say that a resistant
influenza cropped up in northern Italy as early as December 2019. I have my
suspicions that strains of this virus have been moving amongst us for months. To
date, there are over 17 000 cases in the country.

After various phases of
lockdown the PM, Giuseppe Conte, shuts down the entire peninsula. He implores
Italians to stay at home, to protect the elderly from infection, to see this
thing to its end. Insieme. Together. Supermarkets and pharmacies remain
open. There is no panic-buying. Post-its and banners appear in cities: #andràtuttobene
Fines are given to those who are without the
downloadable certificate where you must state your purpose of movement. A few
villages away an old guy is caught out away from home: he protests he was going
to pray. Fined. People sing from balconies all over the country. The end of
each day brings a table of new cases, new deaths and – this brings hope –
recoveries. The infected are broken down into those in quarantine at home, and
those in hospital, those in intensive care. Each day every region, province,
city, town, village shows up its victims. The transparency is reassuring. But
it is not.

I spend much of my time
writing fiction or tutoring online, so long hours at home do not weigh heavily
on me. City life is not outside my front door. But socialising in town has ceased.
There are no healthy, regenerative distractions. The good vodka has all gone. My
dreams are getting stranger. I dream that a long-standing couple, old friends I
haven’t seen for weeks, announce they are splitting up. Just when they seemed
to be in the clear. I take it as a sign that everything I considered normal is
unsettled. The carpenters working at the house turn up in masks, one with a
cold. They offer to abandon work until it’s over. They say they want to protect
me from any bugs they might have or pick up. I read that the virus resists on
surfaces for hours perhaps days so I wash my hands at length after retrieving
their coffee cups, then feel silly for doing so. Then wash my hands again

I have had pneumonia and
I know what it feels like not to be able to breathe. To call for air into lungs
and feel the constriction there, the failure to receive oxygen; the gasping and
the fear. They call it the old man’s friend. This weekend they said that
hospitals in Lombardy are at breaking point. A tenor sings an aria from Nessun
to an empty street. In Milan, at midday, people stand on balconies
and at windows to applaud health workers along the front line. 

There is an island in
the Venetian lagoon called Lazzaretto Vecchio which between 1423 and 1630
housed a hospital for the infected and dying. Victims of the Italian Plague (1629-31)
died there at a rate of 500 hundred a day; their skeletons have been unearthed
in pits that show no distinction between status or race. In her cosmopolitan thousand-year-history
as a republic Venice was swept by 22 waves of epidemics. Like Covid-19, the Black Death of
1347-51 travelled into Europe from the Italian peninsula, coming up from Sicily
via fleas on the rats from Genoese trading ships, carrying wares from along the
Silk Route. At the time, Italy was the most urbanised society in Europe. More
than a third of the population was slashed. The epidemic came in a pneumonic or
bubonic form, the latter causing putrid pustules and agonising death. In Milan,
all occupants of infected houses were boarded up and left to rot.

Last weekend before the nationwide shutdown, I went hiking in the Colli Euganei, where the poet Petrarch decided to end his days in the late 1300s. His frescoed, buttressed house is still there in the peaceful hills. The trail I took climbed above the quarantined town of Vo’ and I heard the town bells ring out. Last week the road barriers went down as there have been no new cases, ‘just’ one further death. Only the whole country is shut now. I imagine how these hills were in the time of epidemics.

Every so often you do a
round of check-ups. You call offspring, friends, in-laws. My daughter the soprano
tells me I can make a face mask by using half a bra and dares me to wear it to
the supermercato. She lives in Le Marche in central Italy, where she says
everyone wears a mask. At least we have a laugh. I work erratically, skipping
over to the news, walking about the house, calling friends, reassuring family
abroad that we are all okay, even though some days it feels as though something
must be planted in me.

I keep thinking ahead to
when this will be a memory. The worst spring. The spring when the blossoms and
the birds were oblivious to our cries. I wonder if we will be changed. If the
sense of community I feel that is being shouted from balcony to balcony in the
cities and their outskirts, will be something that carries on with us. If we
will be as caring and respectful and united as we are now. I see that there are
Chinese specialist doctors who have arrived to help. Online I see Chinese kids
saying the equivalent of Forza Italia. I wonder if it might lessen our
fear of the ‘other’ and make us realise that we are fragile creatures of this
universe, who do not own this planet or control the destiny of our species.