Virus Diaries

Virus Diaries

Dame Margaret Drabble, Lady Holroyd

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Dame Margaret Drabble, Lady Holroyd, DBE, FRSL: Writer, biographer and critic

My husband Michael and I are self isolating in Porlock Weir, in the last house in Somerset, on the South West coast path. We are both in our eighties, and we are at the very end of the road. There is nothing beyond us but a rocky shore, and Devon. We set off here before there had been talk of travel restrictions, intending a short Easter visit, but we are now here as it were forever. Had I known we would be here for so long, I would have packed differently. Michael brought only one pair of shoes, and those turned out to have holes in them. Books we don’t need, for this house is full of books, and we can buy e-books and the Guardian online as we go. I read to Michael every day at teatime as he can’t read very well now, and we both listen to the radio.

I was relieved to find plenty of coffee and toilet rolls here, as I buy those in bulk anyway. But fresh vegetables and milk are a problem. The village shop delivers, and is only a mile and a half away, but the staff there is very hard worked and the phone constantly busy. So I don’t like to order too often or too much. I am behaving as though rationing were in operation, which it isn’t. The radio tells me there is a glut of some of the things I would like, but I’m not sure how to get them to reach me. This makes me feel helpless. A kind poet brought us milk last night. We were down to our last quarter pint.

Born in 1939, I have strong memories of the war and of post-war rationing- of powdered egg, and Spam, and a Mars bar on a Sunday cut into three for the three sisters. I am good at making a chicken go a very long way. I like lentils. I’ve been using up a lot of leftovers, and have written a coronavirus short story called The Leftovers. My friend Michele Roberts contributed to a TLS Symposium, in which she says ‘Late at night...I read old French cookery books, from De Pomiane to Madame de Saint-Ange. Soothing, but also practical...whole chapters on ‘l’art d’accommoder les restes.’ So some aspects of this lockdown are satisfying to some of us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Amazon recently. They seem to know how to find us, in our remote fastness, and the back yard is filling with detoxifying cardboard boxes. They have delivered shoes for Michael, a book for me, some tins of lentils, some olive oil and some bottles of gin. I’m waiting for soap and salad cress seeds. I had to shout out my date of birth for the gin, which caused much mirth: ’You don’t look your age!’ the handsome young man cried gallantly from the end of the drive. ’You’ll live another hundred years!’

I well remember when I first heard of Amazon. It was way back in the 1990s, when my American publisher at Knopf, Bob Gottlieb, told me about this new way of buying books. He said he’d been buying recklessly, compulsively, and that it would revolutionise the book trade. I was sceptical, and it was a long time before I ordered my first book, let alone any other items. But I could see that the delivery of groceries was becoming more popular, as High Street parking became more difficult. In the 1940s and 50s my agoraphobic mother always had her weekly groceries delivered, so the wheel was slowly coming full circle. I’ve always been fascinated by shopping habits (although I hate shopping for its own sake) so followed the rise and diversification of Amazon with keen interest. I have used the ever-reliable Ocado over the years. Ocado keeps emailing me now telling me I’m a valued customer and would I like a slot, but I don’t think they deliver to the Weir.

But Amazon does. As a system, it works brilliantly. Like many of us, I have felt socially guilty about using it, and guilty towards the book trade about the vast quantities of books in my Kindle. But how can one not use it, when it is all that is there? Last year, in the days when we could still go to the cinema, we saw Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You, which forcefully illustrated the appalling circumstances of those working in the gig economy. We now need those drivers so desperately. When, if ever, we emerge from this crisis, it must be possible to devise some fairer way of paying for what we need. We can’t go back to the old inequalities. I hope somebody cleverer than me is working on this redistribution right now.

Dame Margaret Drabble, Lady Holroyd, DBE, FRSL