As I write

As I write, I wonder what other people are doing this morning. Other writers, I suppose, are doing exactly the same thing as I am. Well, the typing part anyway, the actual sentences may be a bit different. Other people are at work or travelling there: posties, nurses, cleaners, shop workers, carers. ‘Essential workers’. Every heart beating a little or a lot faster. And, some people are working from home; or if you are sick, disabled, unemployed or retired, you may also be stuck at home too. Home has become, for millions of people, the eye of the tornado. The quiet place at the heart of the vast storm whirling around outside. Unless, of course, your house is full of noisy children. Then, you are in the wild bit of the tornado. Good luck!

A few months ago, I went to see a counsellor about work-related stress. She taught me ways to try to cope. Some of it helped. The idea of ‘being in the moment’ was suggested as useful. I found it hard. Most moments at work were ones I wanted to run away from. Hundreds of haunted faces, looking at me for help, as they faced having no food, or electricity, no money, and their home was sometimes under threat.

You don’t have to be on some scary frontline to feel as if the moment you are in is a moment to escape from. Even in calmer days, I can find it is difficult, or it may feel impossible – to focus on ‘the moment’: where I am, who I’m with, what I am doing or thinking. Inside, I’m somewhere else: falling off a cliff or stepping into a busy road as a bus hurtles towards me. In other words, I’m worrying about things I don’t want to happen.

My whole life has been about helping people whenever I can, and arguing for and struggling for a better, kinder world. I still believe that this can happen and it will. My own troubles, getting burned out severely a few times, but recovering, hasn’t made me pessimistic or cynical at all. I think that my experience, including being very tough and very broken – has made me value things which heal us, moments when life is good.

Nergal is a crazy and wonderful cat. She is the third cat which has owned us. The first two: Molly and Cleo, are sadly no longer with us. They lived long cat-lives: each lived for the human equivalent of one thousand years, roughly. Nergal is younger and has many charming qualities. It is her hunting skills I’ll mention here.

In the garden, where the hunting skills of the mighty Nergal can be observed, strange sights can be witnessed by the patient cat-watcher. Firstly, she will run to her favourite spot, a small concrete slab, and roll about. Or, lately, she does the same thing on a patch of earth where Isobel planted potatoes. Soon, after a thorough and luxurious rolling is completed, the Nergal begins to hunt. But – not to catch anything, and this is the strange thing. She may crouch low in the grass, her eyes fixed upon a spot a few metres away, the intensity of her gaze so strong it looks as if there should be visible rays emanating from her  eyes. Then, she will tense every lithe muscle and run forward like a cheetah on the savannah. In the blink of an eye, she reaches her destination: an entirely empty, birdless piece of grass. Then, her furry head held high, she saunters away proudly, as if to say: another mission accomplished.

Nergal does other strange things too. But that will do for now.

My reading patterns have always been strange: I tend to read a lot of very different books over the same period, which can lead to immense confusion. When you start having dreams where storylines get hopelessly jumbled, it may be time to focus on one book at a time, or a number less than many. Otherwise, you may get something like this:

On the pine-needle covered forest floor, the man was searching inch by inch for Charlie Brown. Charlie was not there at all. He was me: running as fast as his my little legs could carry us to kick an oval -shaped ball that Lucy was holding for us. We kicked – and flew through the air, landing with a bump, as Lucy walked off triumphantly with the ball. Meanwhile, all around, the forest was growing darker and the trees were transmogrifying (it’s a word in dreams) into tall, smoke-blackened buildings, as Russian revolutionary songs and occasional gunfire filled the air. Around a corner of the street, a vast column of humanity marched forward. On the one of the many banners I could see carried by the revolutionary masses was a beautifully embroidered picture of Paddington Bear.

Yes, none of this helps my reputation as any kind of writer or thinker or serious person, at all. And I have the cheek to make fun of Nergal. I had intended to add a list here of serious stuff I have read in the last week or so. I’ll maybe leave that for another time.

Aha! This could be the ‘another time’ I mentioned above. Reading is a big part of how I get through lockdown days. Two highlights will do, as I don’t want to inspire any more jumbled-up dreams. (And, yes, I also read children’s books. Doesn’t everyone?)

Shelley – the Pursuit (1974), by Richard Holmes. I’m very much enjoying this fat biography. All biographies of interesting people should be fat. If too thin, it’s like a thin pigeon. Aerodynamic perhaps, but wrong. This biography gives us the Shelley who filled his student rooms with dangerous electricity experiments and planned to make a giant kite to attract lightning. The same Shelley who upset stuffy professors at Oxford  with his radical ideas and scandalous horror stories. I’m looking forward to reading how the sublime poetry was born from the mind of this young, immortal rebel.

The Kenneth Williams Diaries (1993). I’d read this a few years  ago and then lost it or given it away to Oxfam. It is funny and it has acute observations of many people and their behaviour and quirks – as befits a great, comic actor who desired, personally and artistically, for more of a life than his fame (and limited fortune) ever brought him. Well worth reading again.

And, I’ll say no more, for now, about the other books I am also working my way through, except to say: more jumbled dreams are highly likely.

As to other bits of my own lockdown life, I continue to write (more on that below); and I run nearly every day. I’ve noticed that more people around where I live are also starting to run. From semi-professional running-gear models of both sexes, who sometimes appear bemused at the lack of mirrors in the park, to a large man who appeared scarily close to a heart attack. I did feel like suggesting to the puffing warrior to “slow down, mate”, but then I realised that if he did slow down he wouldn’t be moving at all. Then, he might get arrested for loitering in a lockdown, and I don’t want that on my conscience.

I had one scare over the past few days, now sorted. After typing 48,000 words for my book ‘Hunted like a fox’, I began to type the final 12,000 words which are written in a notebook. On re-reading those notes, I reluctantly decided: they are not as good as the 16 stories I’d finished typing. I decided to write 3 new stories , which will give me a new 12,000 words. I began that work in a state of terror that I had ran out of things to say. But it was fine. A short delay before I send it all to an agent. I can cope with that.

The future is, I suppose, terrifying for most of us. Or, at the very least, a bit scary. I try to live in those moments which help me to move forward, renew me, and make me feel that the virus will not have the last laugh. Do viruses laugh? Maybe not. But I know what might laugh – a lot: birds in my garden, watching Nergal – hunting and catching absolutely nothing.

Stay safe.

Harvey Duke

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