How Ben Aitken came to spend lockdown in Australia with no brown sauce and a book deadline to hit
Gatwick Airport. Off to Adelaide for a family wedding. I buy a pair of flip-flops, then manhandle a dozen books in WHSmith. Of the dozen, I purchase one about gerontology because I’m writing a book about older people that was due two weeks ago. News of lockdown in Spain as corona cases climb.
Somewhere over the Suez Canal, the World Health Organisation starts calling it a pandemic. Immediately harder to focus on in-flight drama starring Tom Hanks. All change in Dubai.
Adelaide. Land of the Kaurna people. I’m collected by my sister and her children. It’s all hugs and no worries.
It’s fewer hugs and more worries, as Australia closes its borders and declares a state of emergency. Am told by my sister to live in the caravan parked on her lawn and not to take it personally. Am told the caravan is called Deirdre, which means “sorrow” in Gaelic. Am told meals will be left outside the caravan three times a day. Am told good luck getting that book finished.
Reduction can be fruitful. I can make a cup of tea sitting on the loo, for example. I’m given a Wi-Fi password and the news gets to me; it enfolds me in its perplexing smother until nothing else matters. Din of information offset by the stillness and quiet of the world. You could hear a mouse on Donald Bradman Drive, and there’s no roar of planes overhead. The normal traffic of living is hushed. Instead, there is birdsong, and the patter of dog paws, and the odd opening of an empty letterbox.
Am delivered a bacon roll by my nephew because he’s less vulnerable. I ask for brown sauce and he returns with barbecue, the philistine. Eat breakfast at desk (which is to say in bed), then write 150 words an hour for 45 minutes. Then do a spot of travelling in the van, as Xavier de Maistre did when he travelled his bedroom for six weeks in 1792, seeking diversion in cupboards and so on. Find user manual and spend pleasant morning with it. Learn that restrictions can be liberating.
Learn that restrictions can be liberating up to a point.
Emirates stops flying indefinitely. Not good. Wedding I’m here for is cancelled. Also not good.
I write about a coach trip to Lake Como, and in particular a lady called Jill throwing her bra into George Clooney’s garden. I look at the assembled text and the whole lot seems pathetic and beside the point. Word count: 146,213. Global death count: 29,476. I wonder if I’ll be overtaken.
Speak to grandparents back home. Both sets are complaining of boredom. As long as boredom’s the extent of their worries, I’m happy. I advise them to attempt a cryptic crossword in Mandarin with the help of Google Translate.
Australia in full lockdown. Loo roll a thing of the past. Less virus here but more response – the borders are closed, learning stopped. The Australians look at Boris Johnson and wonder what happened.
My favourite window shows a bit of the street and most of a gum tree. It’s nice noting the things that repeat. The passing of John, for example, who walks up and down about 10 times a day. His interest in Deirdre has been growing. The van’s windows permit the insider to see out but not vice versa, so when John’s curiosity gets the better of him and he comes through the garden gate and puts his face to my favourite window, I’m able to give him a shock by knocking right where his nose is. “Ah jeez,” he says, back-pedalling through the gate. “You got me. Won’t be doing that again. You all good in there?”
An Australian TV news reporter has found out about my unlikely quarantine and comes to visit. When she learns I’m now permitted to exit the caravan on occasion, she decides there’s no story in it.
John and I have a little chat. He tells me that the bright green birds that are abundant locally are rainbow lorikeets. “They form pairs for life,” says John. “Until one of them snuffs it anyway.”
British High Commission in Canberra gets in touch to recommend a hyper-inflated flight with Qatar that left Perth yesterday.
Mood low. Writing a struggle. Glad to be working from diaries; I don’t think I could muster the joy and humour I had back then. Editor back in London trying desperately hard to be sympathetic but ultimately failing. (“I know it must be tough, but worth remembering that it wasn’t tough for you the six months to March when book might have been written according to contract stipulations. Stay safe. Asap please.”)
Sick of Deirdre. Have cried often and vaguely. Sister gave a hug against the rules. Not sure about the federal system of government to change the subject. Each of the states of Australia have control over lockdown policy, etc. Hard to get ducks in a row when they’re all in different ponds. Like its subject, book is limping over the line.
More than federalism, it’s Australian news reporting that gets my goat. Wouldn’t be surprised to learn that context and nuance were last spotted in 1986, when Channel 9 viewers were invited to take Fred Billabong’s batting average of 239 with a pinch of salt on account of his being in bed with the scorer.
Emirates back up and running. First flight available is July 4, via Melbourne, Kyoto, Shiraz (Iran) and Stavanger. All being well, should be back in time for book publication in September. I let my mum know by text. She writes back: “That’s good because lockdown will be eased further by then. You’ll be able to go camping.”
Ben Aitken is the author of A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland (Icon books, £9.99). His new book, which he finally finished writing in his caravan in Adelaide, is called The Gran Tour: Travels with My Elders and will be out in September.