By David Barnett
A fortnight ago I was pondering what I would say at the events I had planned at the Huddersfield Literature Festival, which were due to take place today.
That now feels like an aeon ago and half a world away. Life has changed beyond all recognition for all of us, and the worst part of it is that we are really unsure when it will all end, and what the final impact will be.
At one of the events, with the estimable fellow author Stephen May, I would have been talking about my latest novel, Things Can Only Get Better. It’s set in 1996, which — if two weeks feels like a lifetime ago — seems lost in the mists of time to us now.
I chose the title both as a reference to the D:Ream song that became the anthem of New Labour’s ascension to power in 1997, and to John O’Farrell’s excellent non-fiction book of the same name, charting that turbulent political time.
What I never guessed when the book was published in November 2019 was that a few short weeks later the title would almost become a mantra for this very different world of March 2020, something to focus on, a goal on which to set our sights.
Because, things not only can get better, they will get better. Not for all of us, sadly; we have lost many hundreds of people, and we are likely to lose more. But as a community, as a country, as a planet, we will get through it.
Writing fiction in the time of Coronavirus is an unsettling affair. I am currently working on a novel that will be published in the early part of 2021. It is set in the present time, though a time unaffected by a pandemic. My characters hug, and kiss, and jostle each other in busy streets. They shake hands upon meeting. On occasion they punch each other. Writing these scenes feels weird and even archaic; perhaps even a little transgressive. This is not what we do.
Not right now, at any rate. We have settled, with a few bumps and curves, into the new normal. But this is not our forever home. This too shall pass. Things can only get better.
What did occur to me, though, was that though the phrase “social isolation” is part of the currency of this new normal, something we never uttered before, in a way my books have all been about social isolation, to one degree or another.
Things Can Only Get Better is about an old man, Arthur Calderbank, who lives an ad hoc life in a tumbledown chapel in a municipal cemetery, taking on a semi-unofficial role as caretaker just so he can be close to the grave of his wife, who he desperately misses.
Into Arthur’s lonely life come three young girls and a young boy. They are all, in some way, isolated as well. From the roughest estate in a town still suffering from years of neglect and decline, they are the outsiders in a whole school full of outsiders. And yet, somehow, their lives overlap with Arthur’s, and connections are made where no-one could have guessed there would be any.
My previous novel, The Growing Pains of Jennifer Ebert, explored similar themes. To make extra money, a failing elderly residential home on the Lancashire coast takes in students from the local university. Young and old clash, at first, and then find common ground.
Perhaps the ultimate case of social isolating came in my 2017 novel, Calling Major Tom. A man who has given up on the world is allowed — by comedic means — to become the part of the first manned mission to Mars. The only problem is that he’s going alone… and it’s a one-way trip.
However, Thomas Major — the titular Major Tom — is dragged into the world of a struggling working-class family through a wrong number phone call. From space. And he finds out that while he might have given up on the world, it might not actually have given up on him.
We are practising social distancing now because we have to, in a bid to stymie the spread of the Coronavirus, to try to save lives. We have been told we have to do it, but most of us are happy to give up our usual freedoms and liberties in support of this world-wide effort to beat this crisis.
But before the pandemic, there were people in social isolation of one kind or another, not through choice, nor through noble desires, but because that was where they found themselves. Perhaps through age, or social standing, poverty, race, religion…
In my books, very different people come together, in the end. Lessons are learned. Lives are enriched. Prejudices are challenged. Which is all very well in books. Real life is, sadly, all too often not like that.
But perhaps now, as we’re enmeshed in challenges never before faced in living memory, we might allow ourselves to look to the future with a sliver of hope. Things can only get better. Maybe we’ll take forward the lessons learned, the lives enriched, the prejudices challenged, and make ourselves a better world out of this.
I mean, it works in books, so why not? Like they always say, truth is stranger than fiction…