In the context of the international Covid-19 lockdown, which meant that all galleries and public spaces were closed, I was recently invited to takeover the Instagram account of the Kunsthaus Centre d’Art Pasquart, Biel/ Bienne, Switzerland, where I had a solo exhibition of my work from September - November 2016. I posted a short video every hour, on the hour, throughout the 24 hour period, weaving together recordings made from the radio (BBC News), or in train stations (announcements concerning the lockdown - telling people to ‘stay at home’), as well as a series of short films taken around my own apartment, where I have been staying in all day, and in my studio, where I read out extracts from my diary. Bells; the ‘pips’ on
the radio that mark the hours, and recordings of clock faces feature heavily. Two thirds of the posts document my life confined to my home, while from 2000 hrs BST onwards (after sunset), the videos record a night walk that I took across the City of London, from Paddington Station to the Royal Courts of Justice. My practice frequently turns to the diaristic mode, but I use things such as year planners, calendars and clock time primarily as structuring devices, that allow me to let something accidental and contingent into a narrative. With this piece, my guiding rule was the opening statement in Roland Barthes’s ‘autobiographical’ book RB/RB, 1975: “it must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel.”
Susan Morris, 2020.
This morning I can hear pigeons, rooks and seagulls, alongside some unidentifiable (at least by me) small tweeting things. Since the Clean Air act of 1956, which banned the burning of rubbish in refuse tips, the sound of the Herring Gull is heard in the cities as regularly as by the seashore. This is because of the way we now deal with our rubbish - we drop food everywhere. Gulls are intelligent birds and have embraced the urban scene. I’m very fond of them, and often see them feeding at night under the street lamps, raiding the litter bins. I was born in Birmingham, one of the places furthest from the shore in the whole of the UK. Still, whenever we heard their lonely cries above us, my mother would always say, “Ah… it must be rough at sea”.
On my night walks I have noticed a great many more foxes than before – I wonder if they are hungry now that the restaurants have all closed. They and the seagulls can no longer rely on the huge supply of food that is regularly dumped on the streets night after night, and while I don't like to think of the foxes or the seagulls going hungry, it does make me wonder if we should try to put a stop to this incredible, decadent, waste of food.
My goldfinches will be arriving soon, the greedy little fellas.
For more on the seagulls’s migration inland, listen to Tweet of the Day, The Herring Gull, by Steve Backshall, archived on BBC Radio 4’s website.
BBC NEWS AT 7 O'CLOCK
[PIPS] BBC News at 7 o’clock on Sunday the 3rd of May. Good Morning, this is Charles Carroll.Boris Johnson has spoken about the "tough old moment" his condition deteriorated as he was treated for coronavirus in intensive care. Soldiers from North and South Korea have exchanged gunfire across the demilitarised zone that separates the countries and churches in Germany are reopening after the lockdown, but singing will be banned.Boris Johnson has said he had to be given "litres and litres of oxygen" to keep him alive, while he was being treated in hospital for coronavirus last month. In an interview with the Sun on Sunday the Prime Minister speaks about the contingency plans that were in place in case, as he put it, "things went badly wrong". He spent three nights in intensive care at Saint Thomas hospital in London.More details from our political correspondent Chris Mason.
[PIPS] BBC News at 7 o’clock on Sunday the 3rd of May. Good Morning, this is Charles Carroll.
Boris Johnson has spoken about the "tough old moment" his condition deteriorated as he was treated for coronavirus in intensive care. Soldiers from North and South Korea have exchanged gunfire across the demilitarised zone that separates the countries and churches in Germany are reopening after the lockdown, but singing will be banned.
Boris Johnson has said he had to be given "litres and litres of oxygen" to keep him alive, while he was being treated in hospital for coronavirus last month. In an interview with the Sun on Sunday the Prime Minister speaks about the contingency plans that were in place in case, as he put it, "things went badly wrong". He spent three nights in intensive care at Saint Thomas hospital in London.
More details from our political correspondent Chris Mason.
CASTING HOUSE, BBC RADIO 4
[PIPS] He’s quite right. Good morning, it’s Nine O’Clock, this is Broadcasting House. Hello, I’m Paddy O'Connell, here are the headlines: Boris Johnson's described a near-death experience in intensive care. We'll hear from the man who interviewed him, at 9:30. Troops from North and South Korea have exchanged gunfire across the demilitarised zone and churches in Germany are reopening, but singing won't be allowed for now. .
Ahead: 'Track and trace'. We seek inspiration from John Snow, The Victorian doctor, who mapped and stopped a cholera outbreak. If Snow was here now, he would be leading a very interesting epidemiological investigation. We probably need a few Dr Snows - hopefully we've got a few. Well, the government advisor on the new smart phone contact-tracing app will join us live. We hear from the 1000-year-old mill, back in the flour business to meet demand.
SOME NEWSPAPER HEADLINES THIS MORNING:
Coronavirus Fears: Britons remain strongly opposed to lifting lockdown. Just one in five want schools, pubs and restaurants to be reopened, according to new poll by Opinium. (The Guardian).
Coronavirus lockdown: scientists challenge No 10 with rival advice on Covid‑19. Sir David King, government critic and former chief scientific adviser, announces 12‑strong group and criticises lack of transparency in Boris Johnson’s decisions. (The Sunday Times)
Oh no! I forgot - AGAIN - that Leila’s shop no longer opens on Sundays! We miss our routine of walking to her cafe, next door to the shop, but are still able to buy our green groceries from her - so long as we can remember the new rules! Where will we go today for delicious eggs, asparagus and all things seasonal and fresh? The rules with Leila are: call between 10.00 and 12.00 o’clock (midday), Tuesday - Saturday. Collect your box of food outside the shop between two and four o’clock. Provided you can keep track of the days, this works a treat...
The shop is in Calvert Avenue, East London, just off Arnold Circus, where between 1890 and 1900 one of the earliest social housing schemes was built. The Boundary Estate - which may in fact be the world’s first council housing - was constructed on top of the demolished Friars Mount rookery, in the Old Nichol. Rubble from the ruins of these slums was used to construct a mound in the middle of Arnold Circus, where a beautiful bandstand remains to this day, surrounded by flowers and plants, and lovingly cared for by the Friends of Arnold Circus.
STUDIO. EMPTY DESK. CLIVE.
Clive has run aground, he tells me. He is still walking to his studio everyday, across the park. We joke that he should do it in sportswear, so as to avoid being arrested for making ‘unnecessary’ journeys. Sweatband and shorts. But Clive dresses as he always does - in suit and tie, with hat. He was looking forward to getting on with some new stuff, he says - quietly, and with no distractions - but he has ground to a halt. It was all going so well. There was a plan. Nothing worked. He’s thrown it all away. Clive throws a lot of his paintings away, yet his finished output is huge, compared to mine. It must be all the dithering I do. All the chasing of my tail, the way I get myself so tangled up, in knots… like I am right now.
STUDIO. EMPTY DESK. MATHEW.
Mathew texts from Berlin. He, like many of us, is re-reading The Plague: Camus on the state of distraction that descended upon the populace of Oran once the city had been locked down… Compelled to mentally avoid despair and fear on the one hand and painfully happy imaginings of a post-plague future on the other, the citizens “drifted through life rather than lived… like wandering shadows that could have acquired substance only by consenting to root themselves in the solid earth of their distress.” That's us, baby!, Mathew writes, “foundering halfway between the abyss and the peak”. Then he sends a fragment of a recording of Lou Reed, Live at the Matrix, 1969. “I stayed indoors for about eight months”, says Lou, giggling.
Albert Camus, The Plague, Penguin, 2001, p57.
Tony Judt’s brilliant foreword to this 2001 translation of The Plague by Robin Buss is available on The New York Review of Books website, November 29, 2001 issue.
THE WORLD THIS WEEKEND, BBC RADIO 4
[PIPS] Welcome to the World This Weekend. This is Jonny Dymond. The poor are dying of COVID-19 at twice the rate of the rich. Is a decade of cuts showing its face in the north-east? "I do represent some of the most deprived communities in the whole of the country and I'm conscious of the responsibility that brings, but I have never seen any evidence that we are unable to provide the proper support to these people at this time." Local MP and the Minister for Regional Growth says no. But what of the future? "While we're all looking at the moment on winning the war, the battle against the acute problems with COVID-19, we should be thinking about this in the long term as well. We have to think about winning the peace." Also, we'll look at the pitfalls of of high-tech tracing, with one of Britain's most senior computer scientists. And, if Tuscany is off this year, have you thought about Margate? .
SOME NEWSPAPER HEADLINES THIS LUNCHTIME:
Work times could be staggered to help end lockdown, says Shapps. Minister discusses ways to stop transport being overwhelmed during Covid-19 crisis. (The Guardian)
Coronavirus lockdown: set free healthy over‑70s, say doctors. Blanket ban on old is ‘discriminatory’, union warns. (The Sunday Times)
STUDIO. EMPTY DESK. MICHEAL.
Is this the beginning of the Great Torpor? we ask ourselves. Things feel sterile, bloodless. Michael continues teaching, by remote. This term it’s Bartleby, Kafka's Burrow, Perec's A Man who Sleeps, and Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation. You can see where that's going, he writes.
I email back, made sleepy by his curriculum, with condolences for his mother, who has died, after all this time. For months, as she grew older and more frail, he sat with her, playing chess. But since the lockdown he had not been allowed back into the home. He spoke to her instead, by phone, on the morning that she died. The family linked up from London to Canada, where Micheal’s son is living. He played his guitar for her, Michael tells me, and when his mother heard it - in an affirmation of pure life - she cried out, YES!
STUDIO. EMPTY DESK. CHRISTOPHER.
An email from Christopher, the designer, about the book project we are trying to finish. He's having difficulty getting hold of paper samples, he says, and anyway the printers may still be closed. We can try and work remotely, later this week, if you like?, he says. Hope you are keeping well. Stay safe!
There's also an email from the project manager of the Oxford thing, about the commission for the new tapestries that may or may not be happening. I text Marcos, the weaver. The factory is still closed, he tells me. Sarah and I are walking through the empty streets in Ghent. It’s all very different, all very strange.
We say we are anxious but maybe that’s not it. We can’t quite put our finger on how we feel. And every time I open my email there are more and more things sent from galleries and publishers etc., for me to look at, read, or watch… though these gesture feel positive, I feel slightly suffocated by them.
STUDIO. EMPTY DESK. MATHEW DARKER.
Mathew again - his mood has darkened. I’m not great, he says. I’m becoming withdrawn in a tense and exhausting way. He tells me that when I sent him the Johnny Depp recording of Lennon's ‘Isolation’, he had just finished listening to John Crace, on The Guardian podcast. This made him cry, he tells me, and we agree about how sad it is that such a funny man suffers so... But there is something freeing in hearing him describe it so fully, Mathew says. We're afraid to be alone / Everybody got to have a home.
We text back and forth and accidentally start swapping pronouns: he becomes you, you becomes me. Then I realise that, from one hastily-typed sentence, I’ve left the “me” out altogether. At the heart of all this, the fear: that he might get it - or I will.
“Reality had caught up with my own anxiety” says John Crace, in ‘What is the Covid-19 crisis doing to our mental health?’ Podcast on The Guardian website 24.04.2020
“People say we got it made / Don't they know we're so afraid / Isolation”. John Lennon, 1970. Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck released a version of Lennon’s song in April 2020.
STUDIO. EMPTY DESK. T. S. ELIOT.
My new second-hand book arrived yesterday, ‘The Collected Poems of Hope Mirrlees’. I bought it for ‘Paris’, but some sort of lethargy has set in and I’m tempted to add it to the pile of unopened books, gathering on my desk. And yet… how beautifully this poem is laid out! Published by The Hogarth Press, a hundred years ago, it was typeset by Virginia Woolf, no less. This might be the only way I can get to Paris right now. It’s good enough.
Now my mum emails with some photos - pages from my father’s old copy of poems by T. S. Eliot. They are covered in my dad’s notes. I print them out so as to look more closely at his handwriting - childish, like mine at the same age, across the same poems. My father had beautiful handwriting, though it deteriorated towards the end. He died eight years ago, in February. This year, my mother was unable to visit his grave.
SIX O'CLOCK NEWS
… [BONG… BONG… RECORDING OF BIG BEN STRIKING SIX] … BBC News at 6 o'clock. This is Jane Steel. Good evening. The number of coronavirus tests fell to just over 76,000 yesterday, significantly below the government's target of 100,000. The transport secretary has said that employers will have to stagger starting times for staff when the lockdown is eased, and there'll have to be more trains and buses. Officials are about to start testing a new contact tracing app on the Isle of Wight, which will play a key role in preventing a second wave of infections.
The number of daily tests being carried out for coronavirus in the UK has fallen significantly below the target of 100,000.
SOME NEWSPAPER HEADLINES THIS EVENING
UK coronavirus live: Gove reveals testing way below 100,000 daily target. (The Guardian)
Coronavirus in rural communities: Self-isolation? We know all about it, say thriving remote corners of Britain. If it wasn’t for the news, the Covid-19 crisis would have passed many people in rural communities by, writes Charlie Parker and Anna Lombardi. (The Sunday Times)
STUDIO. EMPTY DESK. LOUIS.
Consolatory messages come from friends and family, about Louis. People remark on how beautiful he was - and he was. I will miss his limpid eyes, I tell them - and I will. Those who have never had pets are bemused. Why cry over a cat at a time like this? Others tell me they have tears in their eyes as they write, remembering cats who died as long as 20 years ago that they are still mourning. I decide to keep company with these people, people who have loved cats - a strange bunch, with whom I can at last feel normal. On my night walks I go to visit Hodge, beloved cat of Samuel Johnson, separated from me by two centuries. A statue of his likeness sits on a bronze dictionary alongside two oysters, left for him to take to cat heaven. All this seems completely reasonable to me right now, as the emptiness crashes over me, in waves.
Thank you to kind Joey Kötting for sharing your story about darling Daisy, and to Anouchka, for listening to the sobbing…
The statue of Hodge, Dr Samuel Johnson's cat, can be found in Gough Square, London,
Louis, my cat, dearest small companion: 03.06.2006 - 21.04.2020.
I hear people but can’t see them… Is this a blackbird, singing into the emptiness? I am on my roof, getting ready for my night walk. Hope the weather holds. At first I was doing these on my own, before The Architect forbade… now he comes with me and the walks are organised around themes. We’ve done all the churches and standing towers in the City of London (there are 58). It’s the bridges next, he says. He ticks them off on a little map. But I prefer to walk like Dickens walked - like a vagabond. Dickens adopted the persona of the ‘Uncommercial Traveller’, who saunters purposelessly, who loiters, whose walks are completely objectless…
"Hurried or brisk walking… marked one’s subordination to the industrial system; sauntering or wandering represented an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to escape its labour habits and its time-discipline. [Dickens] describes clerks commuting through London on foot who are too hurried to shake hands with the friends they happen to meet because 'it is not included in their salary.’ " From Mathew Beaumont, NIGHT WALKING, Verso, 2015.
Charles Dickens NIGHT WALKS, Penguin, 2010.
See website of The Friends of the City Churches for map of all the churches, standing towers and ruins within the City of London.
See website of The Charles Dickens Page for a map of Dickens’s night walks.
PADDINGTON RAILWAY STATION
Taking my cue from an entry discovered in Derek Jarman's diary, written on this day, May 3rd, 1989 - thirty one years ago, and five before his untimely death - I start my night walk from Paddington station. My plan is to head off back East across the City, towards the sunrise, home. "Stations attract all those who have no journey to take, they provide, warmth, a roof in a sudden storm, and the illusion of being at the hub of things. Brueghel would have recorded this: a shrunken man in a wheelchair driving around in circles; old men shuffling past in shabby suits, demob refugees lost in time; tense, pale clerks, their ill-fitting trousers shiny with wear, threadbare briefcases; bleach-blond, mismatched office girls, hairdos and bulging jeans.” Derek Jarman, MODERN NATURE, Vintage, p74.
But there is no one here, bar two train attendants and a policeman, who stands over my shoulder as I film (hence the slight shakiness) then asks me to leave - to "go back home." (I told him that I lived around the corner. I lied!)
“This is a message from the government. Coronavirus is a national emergency, life-threatening to people of all ages everywhere in the UK. To help save lives, stay home. Only go outside for food, health reasons, daily exercise, or to go to work if you cannot work from home. Stay home. Anyone can get it, anyone can spread it. Coronavirus. Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.”
ST PANCRAS RAILWAY STATION
“This is a message from the government about coronavirus. It is important that we all help to protect all the people and those who [distant crashing sounds] from coronavirus. If you, or anyone in your household, has a high temperature, or a new continuous cough, even if your symptoms are mild, you should all stay at home. Don’t go to the GP or hospital. Instead, go to nhs.uk to check your symptoms and follow the specialist medical advice. Only call NHS 111 if you can’t get online, or if your symptoms worsen.”.
More from Derek Jarman’s diary entry of May 3rd, 1989: “A boy with black nail varnish and tarnished jewels limps across the [station] concourse. He stops and rummages through a litter bin. A bulky man on crutches with a lopsided theatrical turban heaves into view, cast adrift by a charity shop. A lean boy stripped to the waist walks back and forth with a pinched accusing face and wild darting eyes. A tragic tide spirals round gurgling like water disappearing down a plug hole. I carry on filming. No one notices, except the lonely ice-cream boy with a straw boater and striped apron. He is stuck under the large advert that reads THE WARHOL DIARIES: IF YOU’RE NOT IN IT, YOU’RE IN IT.” Derek Jarman, MODERN NATURE, Vintage, p74.
LIVERPOOL ST RAILWAY STATION
A hunched figure shuffles towards me and I finch - please don’t, please don’t walk away from me, he says. I need help. I’m just 17 and everyone just turns away from me or walks away. I find some coins, trying, all the while, to maintain eye contact with him, but hesitant to ask why he is here and not in the ‘hotels’ that have apparently been provided - suddenly, miraculously - for the homeless. Do they actually exist?
"This is a coronavirus travel update. Major timetable changes and reductions to services will be in place across the rail network from Monday the 23rd of March. Please only travel if your journey is essential, and check before you travel. Thank you." ... We have been informed by the British Transport Police that there are professional beggars operating on and around the station area. May we request that you give no money to any person who may approach. Please be aware these people are professionals, and appearances and attitudes can be very deceptive. Thank you for your cooperation."
"Social distancing is important, so please keep at least two metres away from other travellers, on the station, on board the train, and when queuing at ticket barriers. Thank you."
CHURCH OF ST MARY LE BOW
The word for ‘clock’ is probably of Celtic origin, linked etymologically to the word for ‘bell’ (the Old Irish word for Bell is ‘cloc’, or ‘clog’.) But you can go down other etymological paths and discover roots shared with the word for ‘laugh’…
I notice that many clocks on churches and towers have stopped, and I wonder if this is because of a decline in the use, care and observation of clocks, at least analogue ones (while the technology of so-called 'time management' permeates ever deeper into the bodies of ‘zero hour’ contract workers).
Some clocks carry on, but stuck in Greenwich Mean Time, because we changed to BST (British Summer Time) during the lockdown, and no one has come to make the alteration, to add the extra hour. Still, many do ring out, on time, across the empty city. .
The bells you hear after Bow Bells are from the clock on St Paul’s Cathedral, which appears to be running a few minutes late.
CHURCH OF ST MARGARET LOTHBURY
Just as words evolve from roots often unfamiliar or obscure, so street names and places have links to pasts that have crumbled. Nevertheless, each event seems to leave a trace of something arbitrary or contingent on the thing that followed it. But new office buildings make enormous, sterile, holes in this edifice, interrupting history’s slow time-lapse… Their bland, aspirational, names seem ridiculous in this wasteland right now.
Since the Noise Abatement act of 1960 - or so I was told by a pipe-smoking vicar who emerged from the St Lawrence Jewry at the Guildhall earlier this evening - the majority of church bells in London have been silenced after 11 pm. This is absurd, especially in central London, where air-conditioning units scream out into the night at the volume of a jet engine. This screaming, this howling, as if of things refusing to die or of their coming back to life, fills me with foreboding… We want to return to our lives, we want to get back with our friends, to start work again - but do we really want a return to 'business as normal'? A return to skies full of polluting aeroplanes... a return to business practices and employment laws where, for example, the people who have kept the country going over the last few months are put back into their place - a place of no value.
Even Anouchka, the embodiment of optimism, says that the lockdown is beginning to get on her nerves. Everything is cancelled! But something is stirring, something is restless - what corpses have begun to sprout? What might we want to hold onto from this experience? What might we wish NOT to come back?
CHURCH OF ST MARY WOOLNOTH
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many,
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet,
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours,
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine,
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying, "Stetson!
You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
From The Wasteland, T. S . Eliot, 1922.
Behind me, a group of skateboarders leap from nowhere, then cruise together down the empty street.
CHURCH OF ALL HALLOWS BY THE TOWER
The oldest church in the city of London, All Hallows dates back to AD 675.
From the church’s website: “Located next to the Tower of London, the church has cared for numerous beheaded bodies brought for temporary burial following their executions on Tower Hill, including those of Thomas More, Bishop John Fisher and Archbishop Laud. In 1666 the Great Fire of London started in Pudding Lane, a few hundred yards from the church. All Hallows survived through the efforts of Admiral Penn (William Penn's father) who, along with his friend Samuel Pepys, watched London burn from the tower of the church.”
OUTSIDE THE ROYAL COURTS OF JUSTICE
The bells in the background with the Westminster Quarters, that start earlier and that go on for longer, are from St Clement Danes (the RAF Church), opposite the Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand, City of London.
Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch,
When time stops and time is never ending,
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
From The Dry Salvages, No.3 of the Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot, 1941. "(The Dry Salvages —presumably les trois sauvages —is a small group of rocks, with a beacon, off the N.E. coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Salvages is pronounced to rhyme with assuages. Groaner: a whistling buoy.)"
Nothing but traffic lights, orchestrating the emptiness.
I will take the Night Bus home from Aldwych/ Drury Lane. I’ll catch the N243, at 0416, if I’m lucky.
STUDIO. EMPTY DESK.
Oh, my love, my darling
I've hungered for your touch
A long, lonely time
Time goes by so slowly
And time can do so much
Are you still mine?
Unchained Melody, Hy Zaret, 1955
“We know too little of the nature of love to be able to arrive at any definitive conclusions here.” FREUD, ‘Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’. (Epigraph in Peter Trachtenberg’s 2012 book, ‘Another Insane Devotion: on the Love of Cats and Humans’, which recently arrived in the post for me.)