Corona and the Culture Crash. An essay by Rosemary Jenkinson

Last June when I was touring in Australia with a play, a numerologist read my numbers and predicted a decline in my writing career over the next couple of years. My instant reaction was one of skepticism and I was convinced that the only circumstance deleterious to my writing would be my own illness. As the numerologist was also a writer, I guessed his forecast was tinged with more than a hint of jealousy and forgot all about it
And then coronavirus came to pass, proving the numerologist to be right all along. Not only people but the arts have been plunged into a coma and writers have come to realise their careers are literally not worth the paper they’re written on. The paper edifice I’d constructed around myself blew away quicker than the three little pigs’ house. It was a cultural crash like no other. The sole live arts I was unfortunate enough to come across during lockdown was a crooner warbling ‘New York, New York’ on a PA system outside a nearby care home.
It was at least a relief to hear of the four million funding for the Northern Irish arts, but this amount won’t even touch the sides. To escape from 2020 we need a twofold shot in the arm: money and a vaccine. The one consolation is that this era of social transformation is worth recording. Lockdown has been insane – living alone I got so used to talking to myself that when I finally went to a party in a friend’s garden, I kept embarrassingly voicing my internal thoughts out loud. To think we joked in March about doing elbow bumps and then, two weeks later, even they were too intimate. At least, the situation has been so ridiculous it’s provoked laughter. In the beginning, some people on social media were calling it corvid. While a certain winged black species may be connected with the disease, I’d just like to verify that covid has no relation to crows whatsoever.
Most of the rules have been nonsensical. How come dog groomers were open and hairdressers were not, but I had to go around with hair like a Dulux dog? There has been so much inconsistency and hypocrisy. How come packed planes have been flying all over the world but theatres can’t reopen? As for government advisers telling us to avoid speaking loudly or singing when we socialise, what do they want us to do, whisper through masks? Guldering is the way we normally speak here so it’s a bit of a shock to realise we can be killed by spit – or spitfire as I call it. What about whistling in public, is that permitted? Personally, I would have thought humming is safe. And by the way, walking round with what looks like a size C bra cup on your mouth is not a good look. A face mask does not make anyone look like a sexy actor in an ER drama. However, I am currently contemplating matching my mask with a Madame X eyepatch just to be different!
The strangest thing is that I already knew about the biggest predecessor of coronavirus. When I was twelve at boarding school in Lisburn, I saw the pale ghost of a young woman in the corridor one night. I told the other boarders about her only for an older girl to reveal she’d seen the same ghost who was reputed to have been a nurse assigned to look after the boarders during the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. Sadly the nurse succumbed to the flu herself.
On the bright side this year, some of us have been able to learn new hobbies like painting, playing a musical instrument, throwing statues into the harbour and shutting down free speech on Twitter. The latter I find a particularly delightful way to while away the hours. As for the Winston Churchill statue, I think some accommodation might be reached to reflect the fact that his great wartime speeches somewhat counteract his racist views. I therefore suggest cutting off his legs and keeping the top half. Maybe we could even start throwing the living like Boris Johnson into the sea for his ‘picaninnies’ comment. It seems apposite that in this year when cancel culture is so rife, the arts have been culturally cancelled.
Covid rates are currently higher in England and now that flights have reopened it could be said that the English are colonizing us with their virus. Even though the Troubles are long over, they can still kill us! As for the paramilitaries, they’re happily flouting the laws. The UVF-run pubs near me have opened their doors to regulars since day one of lock-down. No one would dare phone the police to complain.
While those of us in the arts have had a year to forget, a minority have actually enjoyed lockdown. People with families who, even without covid, would be sitting in night after night watching TV get a kick out of everyone else having to lead the same boring, limited lives. Coronavirus has simply helped justify their lifestyle choice. All I say is, a plague on all plagues and the only occasion I ever want to see a face mask again is for some rioting at a Belfast interface. A siege mentality is a term usually ascribed to Ulster Protestants, but Covid-19 has besieged us all. Let’s hope we writers can soon leave the bunker and rejoin the world for, as Sean O’Casey said, ‘The artist’s life is to be where life is, active life, found in neither ivory tower nor concrete shelter’.


Rosemary Jenkinson’s new short story collection Lifestyle Choice 10mgs was published by Doire Press in 2020.

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