Shakespeare wrote King Lear in lockdown. What did you achieve?

An Irishwoman’s Diary on auditing your lockdown goals

Isaac Newton: with no social media to distract him, the young genius retreated to his bedroom during his lockdown to develop the theory of gravity and work on what would become calculus. Portrait: Sir Godfrey Kneller

Isaac Newton: with no social media to distract him, the young genius retreated to his bedroom during his lockdown to develop the theory of gravity and work on what would become calculus. Portrait: Sir Godfrey Kneller

 

So, the day of reckoning is upon us. With Covid restrictions falling away, it’s time to audit your lockdown goals. Did you finally write the Great Irish Novel? Can you now play Chopin’s Minute Waltz with your eyes closed? Have you conquered your fear of baking with yeast?

Do not despair if you failed in these endeavours. This writer had one modest lockdown project. It involved an overflowing box of photographs accumulated since the late 1980s and never sorted into albums. At the start of the global pandemic, I determined the photographs would be placed in albums, in a pleasing chronological fashion, within the week. Reader, the box is still overflowing. The babies in the photographs are now men with big beards and it is time to accept that the box will only be emptied after my death when people will admire our chutzpah for appearing in public with frizzy perms and pinstriped jeans.

I am not alone in failing hopelessly to acquire new skills during lockdown, but we could argue that the fear and uncertainty wrought by a global pandemic rendered us incapable of action. Tell that to Michael Rosen. The 75-year-old author of children’s classics such as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt almost died from Covid-19 last year. He spent more than a month-and-a-half in intensive care and still suffers the after-effects, yet he has since written not one, but two, best-selling books.

Nor was Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford paralysed by inaction during the pandemic. The 23-year-old single-handedly changed UK government policy on free school meals last summer, raised millions of pounds to fight child food poverty, wrote a book and is now launching a book club for disadvantaged children. Oh, and he continues to score many goals in his day job.

The small matter of the bubonic plague didn’t affect William Shakespeare’s productivity either. He is thought to have written King Lear when he was in quarantine as the plague raged in 1606.

Some of us returned to our childhood homes during the Covid lockdowns. Cambridge University student Isaac Newton did the same when another outbreak of the bubonic plague hit Britain in 1665. Happily for the world of mathematics, there was no social media to distract him, so the young genius retreated to his bedroom to develop the theory of gravity and work on what would become calculus.

Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream accurately summarised how many of us felt during lockdown, and like Michael Rosen, the Norwegian was also brought low by a pandemic. In Munch’s case, it was the Spanish Flu and he fell ill in early 1919. He survived and would have been forgiven for lying around on the sofa gorging on banana bread afterwards. Yet, within months he was using the experience of his illness in his art, producing Self Portrait with the Spanish Flu, and Self Portrait after the Spanish Flu, in rapid succession.

Yes, perhaps some of us didn’t achieve the dizzying heights of Edvard Munch or Shakespeare during lockdown but we did succeed in one big task. We may be fatter, greyer, and battle-weary, but we are still here. And we survived near-apocalyptic conditions without engaging in hand-to-hand combat over the last toilet roll.

We should also acknowledge some of the more unexpected skills we have acquired. Remember how hard you worked on your speed in reaching the front door so that you could intercept the courier before the neighbours saw the results of yet another online shopping splurge being delivered? Don’t forget the creativity you displayed in dodging another infernal Zoom quiz when you had literally nowhere else to be.

And just look at the knowledge we’ve gleaned from sitting on the sofa. Thanks to Michael Scott’s ham-fisted efforts at resuscitation in The Office (US), I now know that you should perform CPR to the rhythm of the Bee Gees’ song Stayin’ Alive.

How many of us can now walk around the house muttering profanities in French, because we binged on Call My Agent? Perhaps your knowledge of Colombian and Mexican political party systems has expanded exponentially after studying a few seasons of Narcos?

And is there anyone among us who wouldn’t know how to dress appropriately for a 1950s chess tournament after observing Anya Taylor-Joy’s wardrobe in The Queen’s Gambit?

Or maybe you have learned the difference between a ganache and a mirror glaze after receiving a fine culinary education from The Great British Bake-Off?

Isaac Newton, on the other hand, would be totally ill-prepared in the event of a baking emergency. As for Shakespeare, well, all I can say is that King Lear is silent on the matter of chocolate icing. Make of that what you will.

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