Shelf-life

 

 

As more and more of humanity becomes incarcerated during the great Covid-19 lock-down, so people are devising more and more ingenious ways of combatting boredom whilst living in small, enclosed spaces.

 

Strategies so far have included: doing zany things on apartment balconies, like singing opera and running marathons; making fancy displays in your house windows with teddy bears (partly in honour of Michael Rosen, author of the 1989 children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, who alas is seriously ill at the moment); and sticking lots of whacky photographs and film-clips on social media, for example, of your worst culinary disasters, of your attempts to work out using household objects as gym equipment, of you and your family members re-enacting famous works of art, and of how you looked at the start of the lock-down compared with how you’ll look at the end of it.

 

Additionally, if you’re a wealthy Hollywood celebrity who’s totally insulated from reality, you can amuse yourself by posting on social media footage of you and a procession of your equally famous and wealthy friends delivering a tone-deaf – in all senses of the term – rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine.  This exercise in sanctimonious pukery was the brainchild of actress Gal Gadot and among the rogue’s gallery taking turns to sing lines of Lennon’s song were Amy Adams, Will Ferrell, James Marsden, Natalie Portman and Sarah Silverman (whom I thought would have known better).  No doubt the lines “Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can…” warmed the hearts of millions of workers, laid-off because of the pandemic, who are wondering if anytime in the near future they’d have a job, a wage or, indeed, possessions to look forward to.

 

Anyway, I’ve noticed another recent trend whereby locked-in people who like reading have taken pictures of their bookshelves and put them on Facebook and Twitter for other readers’ perusal.  The more disorganised and overflowing the bookshelves, it seems, the more appreciative the feedback they get.  So as a bibliophile, and to give myself something to do for a couple of minutes – in the face of the vast existentialist desert of empty time that stretches into infinity ahead of me – I’ve taken a few photos of my bookshelves.

 

(I should add that the books shown probably don’t constitute one percent of the books I own.  However, the vast majority of my collection is currently stored in boxes in an attic in Scotland and these are just the books I have with me in my current abode in Sri Lanka.)

 

Unfortunately, my bookcase is stuffed with so many other things – notebooks, files, papers, broken electrical equipment – that there are actually more proper books stacked beside it than residing on the shelves inside it.  Here’s a close up of the stacks.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that Daphne du Maurier is currently top of the pile for me, physically as well as metaphorically.

 

 

Meanwhile, on the bottom shelf, there lurks a strange combination of Irvine Welsh, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Iain Banks, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Harris and Theodore Sturgeon.  That last writer was the man who formulated Sturgeon’s Law, which stated that “90 percent of everything is crap.”  (Unless it’s a social-media singalong by Hollywood celebrities attempting John Lennon’s Imagine, in which case 100 percent of it is crap.)  The book lying on top with the camera-flash-obscured spine is a non-fiction one about The Avengers.  Because I’m elderly, I’m referring to the sublime 1961-69 TV series, not to the superhero movie franchise.

 

 

And above, on the top shelf, some Donna Tartt, John McGahern, Bill Hicks, a couple of Patrick O’Brian books about Captain Jack Aubrey and the complete Sherlock Holmes stories…  The horizontal book with the unreadable spine here is The Irish Witch (1973) by that pot-boiling author of yesteryear, Dennis Wheatley.  (Unkind critics would quip that it wasn’t just the spines of Wheatley’s novels that were unreadable.)  Also, there are three books in view that are about James Bond, although none of them were authored by Ian Fleming.  Can you spot them?

 

 

Finally, here’s the top of the bookcase, a perfect spot for positioning your effigies of Zen frogs and the Hindu goddess Kali, ornamental Burmese and Sri Lankan lions, Mexican Day of the Dead miniature skulls and posters for old Sean Connery and Timothy Dalton Bond movies.

 

 

Actually, looking at the books in these pictures, I realise that I’ve read most, but not all of them.  There are still a few tomes I need to get through.  Which means that the vast existentialist desert of empty time stretching into infinity ahead of me shouldn’t be so empty after all.

 

Cue the queue

 

 

I am one of the 20% of the human race that is currently in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

The appearance of the easily transmitted and often deadly virus caused Sri Lanka, my present country of residence, to announce a curfew last Friday evening.  This was a sensible decision in my opinion, as there are now about a hundred confirmed Covid-19 cases (though as yet no deaths from it) in Sri Lanka and, if its spread is to be slowed, the authorities needed to take drastic action quickly.  Compare that with the shambles of a response to the crisis going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, mis-orchestrated by bumbler-in-chief Boris Johnson.

 

Consequently, the citizens of Colombo, where I live, were confined to their homes for the next four days.  The curfew was lifted at 6.00 AM this morning – Tuesday, March 24th – but re-imposed in the early afternoon.  This was to allow folk a chance to nip out to the shops and top up on supplies for their kitchens.

 

Okay, the prospect of everyone in Colombo ‘nipping out to the shops’ during the same half-dozen hours was a potentially worrying one, because the supermarkets suddenly being crammed with people trying to buy groceries could lead to a bunch of new Covid-19 infections.  To lessen this danger, it was announced beforehand that the numbers of people on supermarket premises at any one time would be restricted and everyone else would have to queue outside and wait their turn.

 

So I got up reasonably early and headed out at about 7.00 AM – first to the nearest ATM and then to the nearest supermarket, which was Food City on Marine Drive.  There was already much traffic on the road, and the line of vehicles waiting for petrol at the local filling station had already backed up along the next block.  But very few people seemed to be out on foot.  I nearly had the seaward pavement of Marine Drive to myself.

 

Then I arrived at Food City, on the corner of another block, and discovered good news and bad news.  The good news was that Food City was already open – normally it doesn’t start business until about 8.30.  The bad news was that already a queue had formed outside, which was being slowly threaded into the premises by a group of shop-workers and police officers.  I approached from the south and the queue was arranged to the north of Food City’s entrance so, at first, I didn’t see how long it was.  I walked alongside that queue for the whole of the next block, counting the people as I went.

 

At the next corner, where Marine Drive formed a junction with Retreat Road, the queue turned 90 degrees and continued up the latter road.  I kept walking and counting people.  I finally reached the end of the queue two-thirds of the way along Retreat Road, having counted 173.  (Everyone was trying to ‘socially distance’ themselves from one another by keeping a metre of space between them, so it was a pretty long queue for 173 people.)

 

Figuring that I wasn’t going to find anywhere better than this – from what I’ve seen of it, the Marine Drive branch is one of Food City’s less known and less frequented outlets – I took my place as 174th person in the queue and started waiting.  My decision was confirmed when, sometime later, a flustered-looking English lady of about 60 years old walked past talking into a phone.  “I’ve just looked at the Food City on Marine Drive,” she said, “and the queue there’s as bad as everywhere else!”

 

 

The queue inched along.  At about 8.15, I’d advanced to the Marine Drive / Retreat Road corner and the sign with the red, round Food City logo was finally, if only just, in view.  Then, however, there was no further movement for about half-an-hour, which may have been because the Food City staff needed time to restock their shelves and nobody else was allowed in.

 

But movement finally resumed.  By about 9.15 I was standing underneath that sign…

 

 

…and maybe 20 minutes after that, it was finally my turn to enter.

 

 

Inside, the produce section had been entirely stripped, apart from a couple of trays of red onions and a few items of fruit.  But most of the things on my shopping list were available: water, eggs, milk powder, cream, pasta, noodles, margarine, chocolate.

 

Despite the frustrations of the wait, everybody outside Food City showed patience and understanding.  I suppose because of the 30-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami, and the Easter Sunday bombings last year, Sri Lankans are used to having to abide by, and understand the importance of, emergency security measures.  A big thank you is due, though, to the shop-staff and the assigned police officers, who kept the operation running smoothly.

 

To keep myself from going mad with boredom, I’d brought a book along and so I spent those hours in the queue reading.  In fact, a long, grindingly slow queue was probably the best context in which to read this book, for it was Anne Rice’s 1976 gothic opus Interview with the Vampire.  Yes, when you’re queuing for food in the middle of a pandemic crisis, even Ms Rice’s florid and overwrought prose seems the lesser of two evils.