24 March 2020

The lockdown lowdown: CapX recommends


As we enter a nationwide quarantine, CapX brings you the definitive guide to thriving in self-isolation. Our writers and editors share their tips on how to cope when cooped up, and recommend what to read, watch or do in order to stay sane and enjoy yourself. From Boccaccio to Mantel, Paw Patrol to virtual pubs, this is the lockdown lowdown.

John Ashmore – CapX Editor

When not working on the website, I’m using some of the downtime to catch up on the kind of giant Russian tomes the lockdown was designed for. I’m currently 400 pages into Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy, an engrossing, incredibly detailed account of the Russian Revolution, including the painful privations ordinary people had to endure. After that I’ll be dialling up the lolz with 800-odd pages of Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Suffice to say his account of the Battle of Stalingrad will put the closure of my local Nando’s into its proper context.

Frank Lawton – CapX Deputy Editor

I’ve managed to get stranded in Oxford while (briefly!) house-sitting for a friend, so am living off the two books I brought with me: J.M Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, with its army-enforced curfews and overflowinging hospitals is not proving the most comforting of reads…The other book is The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, which in the silence and solitude is proving more relatable than I perhaps imagined…

Luckily however, I’m a member of the London Library – the most glorious, eccentric and storied institution around. While they’ve had to close their doors, members across the world still have access to almost every possible journal, article or essay from the last 200 years via the e-library system, as well the Library’s 1 million books as a result of the remarkable postal loan service, which operates in all but the strictest quarantine conditions. In times like these, the discounted Remote Access membership is a godsend.

I’m also trying to cultivate an indoor garden, to lighten the doom-laden air(waves) and remind me that whatever is happening, it is still Spring and a time of birth.

Robert Colvile – CapX Editor-in-Chief

As a single parent, I am steadily becoming more familiar with the Paw Patrol mythos than is strictly desirable. In the rare moments of freedom, I’ve been spending my evenings binge-watching 30 Rock – the perfect escapist comedy – and am planning a full read-through of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy now that The Mirror and the Light has finally landed. I’ve also queued up her earlier novel A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution, although the title has a certain poignancy…

Frances Coppola

Humans are social animals. We thrive on contact. So during this time of enforced isolation, taking steps to maintain social contact in ways that don’t involve physical presence could be the key to staying sane. You can’t meet your friends in person, but you can have a virtual cup of coffee and chat over Skype or Facetime. If you are working at home, set a working schedule that gives you time for your family and friends. Try playing synchronised chess with a friend, or board games with your family.

There’s lots of time too for reading and learning. Many online libraries have made their content free, so have a browse. It might be tempting to read novels like Camus’ La Peste, but personally I’d go for something a bit more cheerful. Find something that makes you laugh or lifts your mood, and share it with your friends.

Sunder Katwala

My tip for the long haul of this year of isolation would be to try to find one new author to get into until you exhaust their back catalogue. I’d be jealous of those who have never before read Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series, and so who have the option to rip through those murderous entertainments at pace. Politicos could proceed leisurely through Trollope’s parliamentary Palliser novels, comparing the volatility of 19th century politics to our own. In this spirit, I’ve embarked on Wolf Hall, the first volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, having not finished it the first time around. That gives me a 1600-page 16th century triple volume to aim at, even if we all know how these stories end…

Haruki Murakami’s blend of realism and surrealism seems a good fit for these anxious times. I’m part-way through his compelling but weird Killing Commendatore – and would recommend his epic IQ84 trilogy to anybody new to his writing.

But … I’ve also just downloaded the temporarily free Football Manager 2020. My intention is to play it only on these long drawn out sport-free weekends. While I haven’t  touched any similarly dangerous substance since Championship Manager over 15 years ago, any good intentions to read more may end up flying out of the transfer window.

Ian Acheson 

I’m used to working from home in the middle of nowhere – social isolation won’t make much difference. Thankfully, being married to a drinks writer, I have a ready supply of liquid anaesthetic and the base ingredients for DIY hand gel. I’m looking forward to mining the Kindle for unread fiction and re-reading Alan Judd’s brilliant Charles Thoroughgood series. The Tom Sharpe back catalogue might have a look in too, if it all gets too bleak.

Nature clearly doesn’t care about our feelings so the brambles and nettles will still grow over our recalcitrant few acres and need taming. I’m definitely going to sit down and finish my many attempts to learn Irish Gaelic which will require patience and whisky, mostly in that order. Ádh mór!

Helen Dale

“Why learn Italian?” I remember being asked quite a few times in my youth. My responses were fairly predictable – “I’ve already studied Latin, so it’s easy” and “Well, I lived there for a while, and living in someone else’s country without learning the language is rude”. However, the answer I should have given was “to read Boccaccio’s Decameron”.

Many Italophiles would no doubt substitute Dante’s Commedia for Boccaccio’s secular work, but given our current situation, a book containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death is probably more apposite. If you read it, you’ll find it curiously familiar. Boccaccio’s tall stories finished up everywhere in English – in Chaucer (“The Clerk’s Tale”), in Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well) and in Jonathan Swift (A Tale of a Tub).

Apart from that, much of the Decameron is very funny, and we could all do with a laugh in plague time.

Alan Lockey

Remarkably, I find myself drawn to reading about the Labour Party as a source of anxiety management rather than, as is usual, for ramping it up! For historical lessons about Keir Starmer’s future path I had intended to re-read Philip Gould’s brilliant Unfinished Revolution but in the Coronavirus era it feels like John Bew’s biography of Clement Attlee, Citizen Clem, might prove more instructive. Never too late to brush up on the dynamics of a National Government, eh Keir?! This will be balanced by Caroline Criado Perez’s must-read Invisible Woman, which I feel will push me into a helpful place of empathy and embarrassment, as my wife and I try to find a way of self-isolating alongside the demands of childcare.

TV-wise I feel myself bristling against weighty box-sets in favour of escapist travel programmes like the BBC’s Race Around the World. I also have the entire Headingly Test from last year’s Ashes recorded, which I will probably save for the darker moments.

John Hulsman 

Greetings from four weeks in quarantine here in Milan. What I’ve learned is primal, but essential. As Emerson put it, ‘nothing can bring you peace but yourself.’ So don’t fritter away the opportunity to actually grow.

If you can, garden – it enables you to think deeply and at leisure. For a TV show about how governments shouldn’t act in a time of crisis, there’s the peerless series Chernobyl, or for how they should, try The West Wing. As for books, I’d recommend The Mirror and the Light (not Mantel’s best, but still plenty good), Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (a Homeric journey with the plague as background), or Jean Edward Smith’s FDR, for what grace under pressure looks like

And, if you can, surround yourself with those you love (even if virtually). John Lennon was right. Love is the answer.

Jethro Elsden 

It’s a cliché to say that we’ll all be sitting down and opening our copies of Proust, but I may well give that a shot. I’m also aiming to finally read Cao Xueqin’s classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red ChamberI’m hoping that it will remind me that it’s not only maladies (of the medical or political variety) that come out of China, but also great works of art.

If I had any innovative business ideas to solve the crisis, I’d probably try setting up a startup. Sadly, I have none so I’ll have to concentrate on learning the piano, improving my culinary skills, and keeping a coronavirus diary.

Emma Revell

As a renter in a house of six my book stash is quite small and at least in part populated by books I’ve borrowed and not returned. I’m kicking off with Marie Le Conte’s Haven’t You Heard? (which I do own) to remind me of a calmer, funnier time in British politics and then burying my head in fiction with Jane Austen’s unpublished works; The Watsons, Lady Susan, and Sanditon (which I don’t. Apologies to their actual owner…).

Luckily I’m a crafter and we’re known for hoarding supplies so all of my family members should expect cross-stitched Christmas gifts when December rolls around.

I’ll also be using this time to dust off old skills, roping friends into playing chess via app and encouraging my two French housemates to help me revisit my language GCSE. Depending on how long we’re at home, my Polish housemate is next on the list.

Glen O’Hara

I think I’d watch ‘Succession’ and ‘The Politician’ on Netflix – both insights into power, one very darkly comic, the latter slightly less so (and slightly more fun). How far will people go for a little bit of power? Well, quite far it appears – as if we didn’t know that already.

In terms of reading, I’m taking another and more thorough look at John Bew’s Citizen Clem, and, with appalled fascination, rolling through Sam McBride’s Burned, about the ‘cash for ash’ scandal in Northern Ireland. At a time when the Left is looking for a language that can connect them to the people, rather than drive voters away via obsessive narrowcasting, I think the former is essential: for me, reading about the taciturn and introvert Labour Prime Minister who led the way towards the National Health Service proves that less really can mean more.

McBride’s book expertly skewers the inward-facing and secretive political system that has made Northern Ireland’s governance so dysfunctional: a dense, but essential, read for anyone who wonders what a relatively small place governed by very tight-knit parties will run like at the top. It’s not pleasant, but as nearly five hundred million pounds go down the plughole (or up in smoke), it certainly does hold the attention.

Oliver Kamm

In these dark times, I’d recommend tackling Middlemarch by George Eliot. It is the greatest of English novels (alongside, for me, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair). Among much that touches me about the work is its matchless insight into the human heart. Dorothea marries Casaubon believing his own estimate that he is a genius. Tragically she is wrong, yet the ideal of a deep attraction allied to an esteem for the loved one’s characteristics (their real ones, not their imagined ones) is surely the key to happiness.

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Frank Lawton is the Deputy Editor of CapX