By Libby Purves in THE TIMES, 23 March 2020
We all have doubts and fears about home confinement in the long, dull, anxious months ahead. What will it do to us? A distinguished colleague writes online: “It will be a very long time in quarantine before I do a goddamn jigsaw.” To be fair, he has three children and a literary magazine to run and isn’t ill, so it may be delayed. But I risked a sarcastic snort: who knows? The fiendish cardboard tormentors may roll inexorably towards even him.
In my case, starting from a similar lofty attitude it took six and a half weeks to happen, out of thirteen spent so far in extreme social-distancing at home and intermittently hospital. It began not with coronavirus but with ordinary, though rigorous, chemotherapy. Am fine, no complaints, just a few more immuno-compromised weeks to go until the infusions drain away and my haemoglobin count rises triumphant (accompanied, one hopes, by some hair). Of course at that point, with seamless irony, I must simply join fellow citizens in the different but parallel weirdness of 2020 British life.
It is a life indoors, mainly unvisited and cautiously sanitised, with circumspect walks in empty green spaces where you swerve round fellow humans because all could be either potential hazards or vulnerable victims. The oddity of it affects everyone now, but I can at least pass on experience.
Most people trapped at home, working, childcaring or just alone will not actually be ill at all but will get stir-crazy. We have blessings to count: by historic good fortune this pandemic waited until the full flowering of 4G and the internet so there is email, Instagram, WhatsApp, Skype and teleconferencing to maintain a semblance of human interaction — an inestimable boon. Every text counts, believe me, when you find yourself feeling like Héloïse in the convent, “The world forgetting, by the world forgot”. More good fortune is the new stream of digital entertainment: every level of brow catered for from Mantel to Mrs Brown’s Boys. And there are still books. I even tried to learn GCSE physics from our Tom Whipple’s cheerful new manual.
But as the weeks go by, for some of us a kind of neurological hunger sets in: a sense of brain areas unused, restless, anxious. Something is missing in those of us without a craft skill. People who knit, sew, paint, cook creatively or fix things in sheds are comfortably in touch with those brain areas all the time. Those like me, over-evolved into mere language and incompetent with their hands, may not be. In normal life, catching trains and scribbling notes in theatres or interviews can make those cells stir a bit. But reading, scrolling and watching screens does not. Your fingers literally itch, your eyes hunger for a different focus, a new job. You lust for physical achievement too, beyond self-improving PE. Washing up, changing a light bulb or scrabbling for something under the sofa becomes a kind of treat.
Thus jigsaw puzzles began. You need good ones, probably German (they always work, every tile clicks in the right place and rejects the wrong: ordnung muss sein!). The pictures will be of extreme optimistic naffness. Rejecting “Happy Days at Work: The Factory Worker” and anything Disney, Potter or fluffy, I first attempted a “Tranquil Harbour” for the sake of boats. Resenting every cloud and ripple, day after day I spent a sullen hour at the kitchen table learning new disciplines: close forensic peering to see which side of a railing is in shadow, and an attention to precise fiddly form. Tiles took on personalities: obsession with colours, tabs, nobbles, indents, spade-shaped curves detached me from the strangeness of illness and solitude. Though irritated by the triviality I rose each afternoon changed and calmed, able to face screens and print again. And, gradually, the national crisis.
The harbour complete, dismantled and Sellotaped up for the charity shop, I unwisely bought “Happy Days at the Beach”, which chiefly made me feel like a dirty old man peering too hard at the exact line of small children’s swimsuits and pink legs. After that I was thankful for “A Busy Trafalgar Square”. As the real London emptied, I have spent each day’s Radio 4 relay of the prime ministerial press conference gently building a sentimental artist’s world of running, laughing, skating, lounging, lion-climbing Londoners. I have cherished every fragment of bollard and fountain and romping stick-person. The word “therapeutic” is too lightly used but blimey, it is. Click, snap, smile: it got easier to reflect more calmly on the intricate connections of science, mathematics, politics and leadership, and hope they would make a clear picture soon. Journalistic hysterias fade into place. The final tile of Nelson’s Column clicked in just as the pub ban landed. Little I can do right now for the real stick-people, our fellow citizens, but it felt like a benign affirmation: indoors, harmless, calm.
Scoff all you like, but jigsaws have sold out in charity shops and even intellectual giants may take up some unlikely pastime before the grip of house-arrest is loosened. Perhaps it won’t be jigsaws: darning, maybe, or building amphitheatres out of lavatory-roll tubes. We rightly stress kindness and community, but for us indoor people this long, strange time will be as much about self-discovery. It will change relationships, skills, self-knowledge, ways of thought. After all, even our blusterous, jokey, winging-it prime minister is changing before our eyes, pitchforked into seriousness. Strange fruit may come of it all.