Some of us have spent much of our lives seeking first to explain to self and then to justify to loved others the need to spend most of our time in solitude. It is oddly gratifying now to be ordered by the Prime Minister, whose personality and politics I do not like, to live exactly as I have chosen to for the last twenty years. Since shortly before the turn of the millennium, by then in my mid-fifties, long divorced, with no children, estranged from my elderly parents and having saved enough money to lead a modest existence without earning a fixed salary, I have dwelt alone in rural seclusion. Of an age now to be at target risk from COVID-19, I am fortunate in being accustomed to the social and physical isolation which is for many a harsh disruption of normal existence, in some circumstances a threat to life itself.
Though my daily pattern would suit few, some of the resolutions which work for me could perhaps be amended to assist those now struggling with externally imposed self-isolation. For me, one day is every day, order and repetition the rule, this month much the same as last month, pre-lockdown.
Doing the same thing at the same time each day keeps me sane.
It minimises waste, saves me from costly, energy-consuming travel and keeps me at home, mostly at my desk. This is the routine: wake at about six-thirty to go to the bathroom then back to bed to read for an hour, invariably a contemporary novel. My loyalty to certain novelists is solid and the big black and gold bookcase in my bedroom holds copies of every published work of fiction by Kazuo Ishiguro, A.L.Kennedy, W.G.Sebald, Ali Smith, Italo Calvino, and Marilynne Robinson, and a good number by John McGahern, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Handke, Primo Levi, Doris Lessing, Peter Stamm, Sarah Moss, William Trevor, Tove Jansson, Thomas Bernhard, David Vann, J.M.Coetzee, Lionel Shriver, Graham Swift, Iris Murdoch, Javier Marías, and many others. Shaved and dressed I am downstairs by eight for a glass of nearby Charlton Orchard’s home-pressed apple juice, before going outside for a chat with Moses and Clarence, the eleven-year-old rams in my orchard, orphaned at birth and bottle-fed in the byre. Then an hour or so working on the ancient hedgerows of the farm lane leading to my hidden home, or in my small wood, or the butterfly meadow of wildflowers outside my front door. Back in for breakfast of mixed cereal and muesli, or toast with marmalade and jam, homemade by the artist-friend who lives in the separated half of my cottage. Then to my study, a beautiful room minimally converted by me from a small Victorian granary tacked on to the side of my seventeenth-century estate worker’s cottage, with windows on three sides looking out to fields and the wooded hillside.
Down to the kitchen at eleven for freshly-ground Monmouth black coffee, usually taken on a bench in the sun while opening the day’s mail, delivered into an oak lidded box on the lane wall. Up to my desk again, until stopping shortly before 1.00 pm to gather lettuce, arugula, cucumber, and tomato from my neighbour’s greenhouse for lunch, with cold-smoked trout delivered by a smokery out on the levels. Every day as I prepare and eat lunch – wild garlic in the salad at this time of year – I listen to the World at One on Radio 4, three-quarters of an hour of news, before going outside for more fresh air and labour on my territory, mowing and weeding and manoeuvring brambles to where I wish blackberries to fruit in the autumn. Whatever the weather, however cold or wet, I invariably spend time twice a day in the landscape, my hall lined with pegs of protective clothing, gumboots at the ready.
During the afternoons in my study I sometimes struggle against tiredness and indecision, the post-lunch effect of ageing, both of which dangers tend to dissolve after tea and chocolate tiffin at 4.00 pm, releasing me to write steadily till about seven, when I make myself a simple supper, maybe rack of lamb from the local butcher two miles away in Bishops Lydeard, with fresh greens and potatoes from the garden. Listen to Radio 4’s daily arts programme Front Row while washing the day’s dishes, and return to my desk. The evening is for logistics, cataloguing for exhibition the artists’ postcards recently received into my collection, emailing my sister in New Zealand, taking notes from newly acquired publications on contemporary art. I am almost always in bed by 10.00 pm, to catch the news on the radio before returning at the end of the day to the novel of the moment. I like to keep a small pile of new fiction on my desk waiting to be read, as I never borrow or lend books – everything I read I own and keep, intermittently finding space around the house for additional bookshelves, including by now a large esoteric library on post-1960 European art.
Apart from my four days a fortnight away in London to see, listen to and watch new creative things, an activity presently curtailed, this home routine continues seven days a week throughout the year, with no break at Christmas, Easter or any other of the traditional interludes. Last winter my niece came to stay over the holiday break from her job in Berlin, warned in advance that Christmas did not exist in my household, cards and presents neither given nor received, mince pies and turkey outlawed. My neighbour baked for us a special Stone Cake, a marzipan fruit cake in the rounded shape of a stone, with blue-grey smoky swirls brushed onto the white icing. At breakfast one morning I asked my niece: ‘When is Christmas Day, incidentally?’ ‘It was yesterday!’ she replied.
I have other intermittent guests, artist-friends invited to stay cost-free for peaceful and productive respite in the stables adjacent to my cottage, adapted by my local builder to self-sufficient studio living, available for a couple of months if needed to complete a group of drawings, plan the shooting script of a film. My current most frequent visitor is an enchanting young black and white cat, seeking breathing space from his crowded home of children and dogs down the lane. I hear him right now banging around in my empty bath, chasing his own white-tipped tail.
Living alone, I am free to structure the days to my sole design. In my life, there are no parties, no funerals, no holidays, no birthdays, no reunions, no alcohol, no golf, no teabags, no trainers, no sunglasses, no puffa jackets, no bottled water, no weather forecasts, no … no burglar alarm, no garden lights, no chainsaw, no front lawn, no patio, no birdbath, no barbecue, no garage, no … no insurance, no private pension, no investments, no ISA, no home ownership, no political membership, no committees, no … no art fairs, no book festivals, no literary agent, no exhibition previews, no sport, no dinners, no pubs, no clubs, no … no newspapers, no television, no mobile phone, no iPad, no iPlayer, no podcast, no skype, no emoticons, no online screening, no DVDs, no videos, no Netflix, no smartphone, no … no amazon, no uber, no WhatsApp, no Facebook, no blogs, no twitter, no youtube, no Instagram, no Snapchat, no sat-nav, no … no hi-viz anything! None of lots of stuff.
Sheep, yes. Email, yes. Google, yes. PayPal, yes. WeTransfer, yes. The railways, yes. Co-operative Bank, yes. eBay, yes. AbeBooks, yes. British Film Institute, yes. Institute of Contemporary Arts, yes. Wigmore Hall, yes. Times Literary Supplement, yes. Art Monthly, yes. Royal Court Theatre, yes. Tate Modern, yes. BBC Radio 4 & 3, yes. NHS, yes. Things I use, am not used by. And plenty of neo-Joycean lists, essential to stable life for a solitary writer.
An anti-ideologue, I nevertheless seek to minimise my personal threat to the climate, travelling by public transport and flying nowhere. At home, I cook locally produced food, declining a dishwasher and cutting down on washing machine use by wearing the same clothes and underclothes for five consecutive days, all made of natural fibre, mostly cotton and wool. Every piece of clothing I own is of a material, style and colour to match any other, removing the need to think about what to wear. I buy little in plastic bottles or tins, use ecological cleaning materials, and ban weed killers and pesticides from my land. Fallen trees are left to decompose in the wood, providing habitat for the small creatures on which larger animals feed. The farmer from whom I rent my cottage and patch of land does the same, leaving margins to his ploughed fields, seeded with wild plants leading recently to the magnificent return of Barn Owls.
After thirty years working and living in London, I have discovered since 2000 down here in West Somerset a great love for English weather, any weather: rain, sun, sleet, mist, wind, thunder, snow … all of it. The road up to my lane is narrow, at one point a little steep, and I am quite often ice-snowed in, once for two-and-a-half days. The endless changes of the weather in a single day are wonderful, the clouds and sky shifting tone, the greens of grass and trees always different. Nothing in nature is ever the same, visible by the day growing and dying. Here in deep countryside, the air itself is so pure, the colours so sharp, the local stone a rare red-brown.
And the sounds, so clear. The varied deep-throat calls to each other of the pair of ravens in my Monterey Pine; and the distinctive morning rattle-trills of the Great Spotted Woodpecker and Green Woodpecker, one from amongst the trees the other feeding on the ground. The play of light, the movement of birds through the air, the burst into life of bees and butterflies and flowers in the spring astonishes, however many times witnessed. The yellow herald of growth I treasure is the dandelion rather than daffodil. The hammock reappears from hibernation.
Within my private daily life, I have come to believe that little need productively change over the next decade, before full old age restricts the effectiveness of mind and body. In my experience, it is the fought-for emotional stability which equips me personally to negotiate internal challenge, as well as to argue publicly for necessary social improvement. Whilst needing sameness at home, I do want change in society, want the phased removal of private education, the banning of off-shore funds, substantial reduction in pay differentiation, more women in control, and a system to provide affordable homes for the majority, secured in part by imposition of a purchase tax on expensive private properties and luxury goods, such as high-cost art, jewellery, motor cars, five-star hotel rooms, and the rest. I cherish the perhaps-illusory hope that the challenge of a global pandemic on the self-confidence of the rich and powerful in the privileged West may somehow point society towards more egalitarian goals in the future.
A lucky few, of whom I am one, are able to choose to live as we do because we have established ways of survival on the outer fringes of increasingly destructive systems of world power, capitalist and communist, monarchic and theocratic, all the -ists and -ics. Right now, however, caught in the mid-storm of disease and death, the task at hand is interdependent survival. Fearfulness is inevitable. Without the freedom to read and write books, and the experience of having seen them published, I cannot imagine how I could have endured the challenges of life. In his literary autobiography Ways of Escape, published in 1980, the novelist Graham Greene wrote: ‘Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.’
Words/Photos Jeremy Cooper © Jeremy Cooper first published Artlyst 2020