Most days I get lost.
I have a pretty good sense of direction, but an essential part of my job is to get lost, whether it be immersion, labyrinthine digression or deep concentration. It may not look like I’m doing much but really it’s exhausting emotional and cognitive calisthenics. So a COVID-19-lockdown life-of-the-mind this past month has not changed too much for me—though I miss rehearsals and workshops terribly—and combines some of my great loves: researching, reading and imagining.
At day’s end I have been re-reading Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel to prepare for The Mirror and the Light, but it sent me on a bit of a detour. References to a diseased London reminded me to re-read Daniel Defoe’s 1722 Journal of the Plague Year and its portrait of citywide lockdown for 'the Public Good’. Defoe was only five when the plague of 1665 was at its peak (roughly 70,000 Londoners died). As the child of a successful merchant, Defoe was sent out of London but his uncle, a saddler, lived and worked through it. It was his uncle Henry Foe’s journal that inspired Daniel (indeed he used his uncle’s initials H.F. for the central character) to offer advice, thanks and courage should ‘that dread-ful Havock’ ever reappear.
A possible ancient uncle of mine, Dr Richard Mead, published at the same time as Defoe’s Journal (with the less catchy title: A short discourse concerning the Pestilential Contagion and the methods used to prevent it, apparently the standard medical text on the subject for years) and another doctor, Dr Nathaniel Hodges, wrote Loimologia, another of Defoe’s key sources. Now that’s a curious word—Quick! Get out the etymological map, I’m getting lost! It’s archaic now but the word—superseded by ‘epidemiology’—derives from an Ancient Greek noun attached to the Greek-derived suffix, -ology, in this case loimos-ology or pestilence study. ‘Loimos’ had remained in relatively regular usage because it was the Ancient Greek word deployed in the Bible to describe pestilences (1 Samuel, Psalms, Proverbs, Matthew and Luke etc.). In looking up the origin of that word I hit a similar Ancient Greek word, Limos, but she was the goddess of starvation. Limos was the daughter of Strife and sister to the gods and goddesses of forgetfulness, pains, battles, murders, manslaughters, quarrels, lies, stories, disputes, anarchy, ruin and false oaths. I’m not sure what your household is like in this lockdown but maybe it’s good to know it could get a whole lot worse. And it’s certainly all a potent reminder that no matter how noble our reason or how infinite our faculties, we are still to prey to hubris; pestilence is not just ye olde history and certainties do collapse.
And of course, I haven’t even got to the books on my bedside table—apologies, I get lost—let alone the plays I’m reading towards seasons in 2021 and 2022. Do yourself a favour though and read Teju Cole, Daniel Yergin, Vera Tobin, W.G. Sebald, Marcus Aurelius and Georgia Blain. And seek out former MTC team member Stephanie Convery’s first book After the Count!
Besides trying to download great drone footage as a virtual background for Zoom meetings, there’s been Tiger King, season four of Nailed It, Unorthodox, Succession, Watchmen, Veep, any and all Miyazaki films, the glorious doco on Jane Goodall, Hedy Lamarr and also, for nerds, on the extreme teen nerds who made a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Raiders! Plus a great family watch, the smart and wonderful Anne with an E (Season Three and so much love for dishy Gilbert Blythe!).
I’m finally beginning to embrace the plenitude of streamed music (almost anything and everything is there! Al Bowlly, Vikingur Olafsson, Salt-N-Pepa and TLC) but I am missing all my podcasts now I’m at home. In a non-commuter world the staple of my train/walk to work has faded fast. I started trying a bit harder last week and as a result I’m into Bird’s Eye View (extraordinary) along with my go-to’s Against the Rules, Deep Background, Hidden Brain, Invisibilia, FP’s First Person, Revisionist History, The Gist and No such thing as a fish (nerdy and always funny, a podcast from the QI question writers).
We live near a park by a creek, so cycling and walking are daily necessities (I need to look beyond the page and the screens to remember what my eyes are good for). When the sun comes out it’s wonderful to see so many people out and about, if a little odd as they smile but only in a non-interacting, socially-distanced way.
Yes to the yes! Just completed a 2000-piece quirky map of the world that was a birthday present from my oldest daughter. How long until the puzzle shop re-opens?
If nothing else from this adumbrated list you have at least garnered a new, relevant (if rarely used, so perhaps not that relevant) word Loimology. To me words are a refuge, a map and a portal. It’s a great time to embrace them, dig into them, and get lost. Most especially, as Defoe warns us, nothing is more contagious than fear, and our places of refuge offer more hope than we might expect for spectacular new voyages of discovery.
Published on 15 April 2020