Testing times

By John Simmons

I see writing as a good antidote to the Corona Virus situation. Here we are, in not such splendid isolation, having to change the way we live. But as writers we have a precious resource. So here’s a quick round-up of my current personal writing, with one or two requests included. Please respond in writing.

First, there’s Painting Paris, now written, my fourth novel. As Urbane, who published my previous novels, have changed ownership and switched the focus of their list, I’m looking for a new publisher. John Mitchinson at Unbound has read it and tells me it’s my best yet but even Unbound is cutting down to almost nothing on its fiction. Anyone know anyone who might be interested? – in a novel that’s (I quote JM) “assured, exquisitely written, wise in its judgements and insights with a feel for character and the complex relationships between life and art”. It’s set in Paris in 1908. I hope to return there by the end of 2020.

Second, I’m writing a novella. The inspiration for this was Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice that I’d just reread. I thought the narrative of a writer going away alone and being haunted by unmade connections was an interesting model. In the end he succumbs to the plague (cholera) that is spreading through Venice. When I thought of this plot model, Corona Virus had not been mentioned anywhere. Now it feels as if I’ve brought a curse into the world. My version starts in New Zealand at the start of 2020 and ends in Bloomsbury at about this time. No spoiler alert needed, Thomas Mann’s title gives it away.

Third, I was due to run a Dark Angels course in April at Tilton House with the artist Jenni Wallace – our aim is to explore the links between verbal and visual art. The C-Virus saw that off too. We quickly rescheduled the week for October but the group is staying connected through fortnightly exercises I’m setting with Jenni over the next six months. I call it the Doolally Gallery. So far it’s working beautifully. There are other Dark Angels and Invisible Grail initiatives to bring people together through writing – ask if you need more info.

Fourth, there are 26 projects. These are brilliant ways to unite writers with a single purpose – to create a piece of writing on a shared subject. A project for the Bloomsbury Festival has just launched (sign up quick) but top of my list at the moment is the project with Wildlife Trusts in which 52 writers have been paired with 52 disappearing species. I’ve been paired with hedgehogs. My ‘research’ began yesterday when my nine-year-old granddaughter Ada responded to my request – that she read me Beatrix Potter’s Mrs Tiggy-Winkle on the phone. A magical ten minutes I’ll treasure forever.

My most uplifting moment of recent weeks was last Thursday when, like many of you, I stood on the doorstep at 8 in the evening and the whole neighbourhood applauded the NHS workers. A communication without words. A time for gratitude.

So I applaud the health workers, but also the shop workers, the civil servants, the broadcasters, the bin men, the pharmacists, the farmers, the bakers, the fruit pickers, the deliverers, the booksellers, the scientists, the artists, the volunteers, all those working or not working, the family, my wife, my son and daughter, their partners and families, my grandchildren, my writer friends who are my extended family. I thank you all.

This was originally published on John’s blog on 30th March 2020..