Lockdown Letter

Dear friends

It’s the first day of the lockdown in South Africa and I just wanted to write and see how you are.

Don’t expect too much from this letter. Everyone else seems to have so much to say about everything that’s happening, but I’m afraid I don’t. I have fears and misgivings like everyone, I feel resolve like everyone, and just like most people, I have questions to which there aren’t yet any answers. But truthfully I don’t know anything and have no special expertise to share. I feel no compulsion to lecture anyone or advise anyone, and please banish me from the tent in the middle of an Antarctic snowstorm if you hear me demanding the right to walk my dog, or publicly excoriating people for wanting to walk their dog. I feel no great urge to boast about my quarantine virtues or trumpet my quarantine rebellion.

It’s too much and I want no part of it, but I’m writing now because I do hope you’re feeling okay. Everyone deals with big moments in different ways. Some are angry, some are scared, some virtue-signal and others act out, some are grateful for authority, some chafe against it, and we’re going to have to find a way to embrace it all. Over the next while we’ll be learning a lot about ourselves and the people closest to us and they’ll be learning a lot about us. I think we’ll need to learn to forgive each other. And mostly we’ll need to learn to forgive ourselves.

I don’t know how you’re planning to get through these weeks, but I’m going to try be kinder to myself. I know that sounds the kind of thing pampered rich folk say, which causes all right-thinking people to yell, “Actually, maybe try being a bit harder on yourself, you self-indulgent baby!”

Maybe. But I think we’re most self-promoting and self-aggrandising, most insensitive and boorish and unkind when we are most unforgiving of what’s happening inside us. It’s very difficult to break patterns of thinking and acting when we’re caught up in the hot flood of everyday life, each moment leading to the next with no steady place to stop and stand, but what we’re being given, whether we want it or not, is the opportunity to stop and think, to break habits and form new ones, to decide for ourselves what’s an essential service in our lives and what we can do without.

But already I’m sounding preachy and holier-than-thou, and oh my God, I don’t want to do that. I’m honestly just writing to say that I love you all, and I appreciate you greatly, and that although I don’t have much to say today, I’m going to write shorter letters, more frequently, and if I think of any nice things, I’ll share them with you.

Here’s my list of things I want to do this antentwig that I don’t normally do enough of. I probably won’t get them all done, or even most of them, and that’s okay.

  • I want to see as many actual sunrises as I can manage.
  • I want to make a jigsaw puzzle.
  • I want to read a big, long classic 19th century novel that requires much immersion and unbroken attention.
  • I want to catch up on my correspondence.
  • I want to write morning pages every day.
  • I want to download as many of my old columns into the archives of this website as I can.
  • I’m going to redo my 21-day elastic band challenge.
  • I want to try getting into some opera. They say if you sit still and listen to it enough, you can get into it. It would be nice to be a guy who likes opera, or who at least knows that he has tried.
  • I want to read all the articles saved in my Pocket folder. Do you use Pocket? You should (getpocket.com).
  • I want to play some card games again. I used to love playing cards.
  • I want to finally write my book.
  • I want to come out of these three weeks speaking much better Greek than I do now.

I’ll write to you very soon – please write too – and don’t spend too much time on social media.

With very warm and fond embraces



17 thoughts on “Lockdown Letter”

  1. Thanks for this letter. It means a lot to stay connected. I never thought of my virtue-signalling (which I do almost like a reflex) as a way of dealing with anxiety – and as I read this letter it hit me like a lightning bolt. I’m going to ponder on that (with a big dose of kindness to myself). Plus I learnt the word ‘antentwig’ and for that I am grateful. Take care of yourself.

    1. Sioux, this may be the nicest message I have ever received. Please take care of yourself too.

  2. I have family in Italy, a father of 85 in a precarious position. I have found myself getting into reactive debates with people who just don’t seem to understand the reason for ‘social distancing’ now I have sat in silence at my laptop, reflecting on what you have just written….Thank you.

    1. Oh, that is a wonderful thing to hear, Marisa. Of course we are all scared, and of course we are all angry, and it’s perfectly understandable. My own mother is 79, has emphysema and is alone in Somerset West, very lonely, very bored, very fearful, so I get where you’re coming from. But I do suspect fighting with people online only ever really does the opposite of what we hope for, and makes us unhappier in the bargain.

      1. Darrel, thank you for your reply. I am not an on line person at all, in fact I would classify myself as rather compromised. I love to read your newsletters and your blog is the first I have taken the liberty of posting on. What I was trying to say was that in my social circle I could not understand why people had the need to fit in as many social events before lockdown officially began, when we could have started making a difference immediately, whilst observing the onslaught of Italy….what your newsletter did, was make me come to the conclusion that sometimes it is best to just retreat in silence…

  3. Only recently found your news letters thanks to a friend. Have followed your stories for years. Loved this one and am waiting for more. Seems I arrived just in time. Be safe

    1. Hi Jenny. Oh, no matter when we arrive, we are always just in time. Thank you very much for dropping me a line (it can be terribly lonely on this side of the letter).

  4. This morning around 11.00 a.m. I walked out into the backyard to put something into the bin, and stopped for a few minutes to listen to complete silence. We live on the edge of a small town in Northern Ireland, and it’s usually quiet, but I had never realised before that even so there is a background hum of distant traffic and other noises made by people going about their daily business.
    Eventually, far away by the sound of it, I heard a few wuffs from a dog, and then silence again. Even the birds were taking a break.
    It wasn’t eerily apocalyptic as one would think; it was so peaceful. It did me good, as my brain has been overloaded with the bletherings on social media of those so anxious to have their say, no matter how inconsequential.
    But what you have to say is always thought-provoking, in a good way, so thank you, Darrel.
    I like your list, though I’m wondering about “make” a jigsaw puzzle?

    1. Oh, I wonder if Make a Jigsaw Puzzle is a weird South Africanism, or a weird Durbanism, or just a weird usage of mine. I have always made jigsaw puzzles. What would you say? Build one? Construct one? Put one together? I think you make a jigsaw puzzle the way you make a drink – put the various components together until they form a neat and perfect whole. (I say that only because I have just made a various delicious gin and tonic.)

      Silence is beautiful. As well as the Sara Maitland, I can recommend One Square Inch of Silence by Gordon Hempton. he is an acoustic artist, I suppose, and is obsessed with the idea of preserving places in the world that are free of man-made sounds. He tried to create such a space in the middle of a park in Washington Sate (trying to get jets not to fly overhead, and so forth). he is very good on the essentialness, the necessariness of silence.

      I actually gave an hour-long talk on the subject of silence at the Franschhoek Literary Festival last year. Let me know if you’d like me to send you a copy.

  5. Darrel, if you haven’t read The Count of Monte Cristo, then that’s the tome for you. You do have to print off a relationship map of the characters to understand what on earth is going on sometimes, but it’s worth it. I did it through Audible, it’s 50 hours of gripping stuff.
    I have taken out a Dickens for this period, and am loving it. Interspersed with Stephen King’s The Stand, which seems very appropriate.
    There you go. No one really likes to be told “oh, you must read this”, and even worse when someone actually gives you a pile of books which they’ve enjoyed and with it a pile of potential guilt if you don’t, but since you brought it up, those are my suggestions.
    Help is not help unless it’s taken as such, so if you weren’t actually looking to hear any suggestions, you can go back to your puzzle making without a second glance.
    Keep well.

    1. Hubert! of course I am looking for suggestions. My letters are in some way a desperate cry for dialogue, not a desire to drone away as a monologue. I have always intended reading The Count of Monte Cristo. I once made a brief excursion to the Chateau D’if, the island prison where he is, well, imprisoned on an island. For some reason I have never quite made it to the book. Thank you, I shall attend to it immediately. (I love being told “Oh , you must read this”, especially when it’s coming from someone who has themselves thoroughly enjoyed it.)

      1. Hi again, Darrel,
        I hope you have amassed a pile of books and are locked down with them. On the topic of books, are all of yours available digitally? I read the Speedo book in paroxysms of mirth a lot of the time and want your suggestion as to your next personal favourite.
        And I noted in your Anthea Bell article that you were deeply familiar with the Willard Price section of the library. As was I. I’m currently reading them to my 10 year old son. He doesn’t need to be read to, he can certainly read, but I have forbidden him to read them alone. What started out as bedtime togetherness is now a mandatory close to the day’s home-schooling proceedings. When he broke ranks and finished Safari Adventure by himself the other day, I locked him in the shed for the night. No, I didn’t, but I did refuse to download Amazon Adventure for him until I had caught up and found out who Blackbeard and Judge Singh were (not that I didn’t know from my 20 previous readings). They are so dated, so inappropriate, so full of animal facts so exaggerated that they’re almost fraudulent, and so wonderful that to be reading them again through the eyes of a 10 year old boy is giving me that tingle of excitement that comes with discovery, and which, as rat-running adults, we very rarely experience anymore.
        You should find a compliant nephew or something, and pin him down. It won’t take long before he’s listening avidly.
        Hal Hunt.

  6. Hi Darrel
    Thanks very much for your newsletter and “Thoughts”. Much enjoyment derived.
    Here I am hearing the birds chirping more loudly and besides that very little vehicular movement. O what a joy!
    The sun seems brighter and as a result everything looks clearer.
    Finding that this period is quite a responsibility as the expectation is that we need to improve our lives, otherwise it would be a waste.
    Trying to learn more online teaching methods as soon we’ll start teaching our pupils in the best/most accessible way possible. If I thought I was able to use technology well before, now it’s an eye-opener.
    But inevitably “words” are how we’ll reach our audience.
    So thanks very much for all your writing. As you always inspire and show us new ways to observe and become interested! Life is fascinating.
    Keep writing!
    Stay healthy!

  7. My default way of coping with stress is to DO MORE! BE BUSY! TIDY ALL THE THINGS! I realise this is my way of ignoring the very real fear and anxiety so many of us are feeling. Thanks for the reminder to slow down a little and be gentler with myself. Good luck with your list – it looks like it could be fun.

  8. Doing jigsaws are amazingly therapeutic, so I am on the same page there and about to do my second one. Blow spring cleaning and conversation! Doing a jigsaw invites silence and contemplation and a challenge.

    My next passion is playing Scrabble, right hand against left, works like a dream and saves everyone from my usual constant patter and allows me my own silent time.

    Hand-written letter writing is still the best though. The good personal contact, that feeling of connecting to the person one is writing to, I love it. The joy of finding a letter just for me in the letterbox. I wish more people would do it. It doesn’t matter to me that it’s not immediate or maybe out of date, it’s a personal connection I value.

    Thanks Darrel. Like everyone I love receiving your letters.

  9. P S My Dad used to make Jigsaw puzzles at home using a Jig (I think that’s what it was called) That’s an extra memory for me when doing a puzzle – what a joy to “have” to do something because we can!

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