Life in Lockdown: Verso Staff
What we're reading, watching, listening to, and doing.
In the last couple of weeks we’ve been sharing Life in Lockdown contributions from our authors to find out what they’re reading, watching, listening to, or thinking about to pass the time (read them all here!). Like many of you, we at Verso (in London and New York) are working from home, and trying to make sense of this difficult time. Some colleagues are on furlough, others are not. Some busier than ever, others sadly having lots of author plans cancelled. Collectively angry with government responses, and devastated at the numbers of deaths.
It’s strange to go from seeing colleagues at work every day to a relentless series of tiled screen discussions, but a welcome distraction has been sharing what we’ve been enjoying in the last couple of months. So here we bring you our Life in Lockdown recommendations: highbrow, lowbrow, some active, some not. We hope you find inspiration, or share in some of our experiences!
(Ps there is some degree of anonymity by reducing names to first-name initials)
Reading: having gotten hooked on The Golden Notebook, I have been working my way through Doris Lessing’s entire backlist, in order of publication. I’m on her sixth book, Landlocked, the fourth in her Martha Quest/Children of Violence series following the life of a (by the sixth book) communist activist in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the second world war. Finally dipping into Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital and Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan, both reminders that COVID-19 is not the only urgent crisis needing previously unprecedented interventions. Next, I’ve lined up Melinda Cooper’s Family Values.
Listening to: Radio 3, whose nature soundscapes send my cat, in full hunting mode, hurtling towards the radio. James Butler’s The Burner, highly recommended (I get it via the app Telegram, where it automatically arrives each day).
Watching: just finished watching the 1970’s children’s TV show Children of the Stones, a very strange show about a boy and his father who move into a village surrounded by a circle of ancient stones. Very unsettling chaos ensues. According to Wikipedia, it was called the scariest programme ever made for children. And my cats, hunting flies.
Doing: Lockdown has converted me into a fitness fanatic. I do an hour of yoga each morning, and go jogging around the local park each afternoon. Preparing the next issue of Salvage for press, with an anxious eye on the postal services, hoping it’ll reach subscribers before too long. Video-calling my nearly two-year-old nephew, who remains more interested in washing his dinosaurs than video-calling.
The OC, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and my new skipping rope (turns out I can still do backward criss-cross).
I thought I would have all the time in the world, but I find the time goes more quickly than ever before. Feelings of boredom are random and fleeting and I suspect not at all to do with boredom and more to do with frustration and powerlessness. Not being in the office is strange and requires setting all sorts of new boundaries. Having said that, life without a commute has been revelatory.
I had to abandon some books that I had been reading before the start of the pandemic; things I had been enjoying all of a sudden far beyond my concentration levels. Instead, on the advice of a friend, I picked up (and devoured) Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín—the film adaptation of which I have watched more times than I am willing to admit (my 6th screening a couple of weeks ago. I can't help myself). I also re-read Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners. So my advice here is to be kind to your brain and give yourself something that you’re familiar with if you're struggling to concentrate on too many new things. Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, from indie publisher The Emma Press, is the last book I picked up in an actual bookshop (the London Review Bookshop, as recommended by one of their lovely booksellers) and it did not disappoint. A short and moving memoir about homesickness and belonging, accompanied by a food narrative that will have you fantasising about dumplings and travel and life after lockdown. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi—recommended by and borrowed off a colleague before lockdown—is exceptional. I’ve recently started dipping into Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather (delivered by the London Review Bookshop—you can still buy from them online!), and have just started Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs—a radical and intimate portrait of working-class womanhood in contemporary Japan (out soon from Picador).
Vittles is a food blog that I never miss reading. That is perhaps a slightly misleading description as it is about so much more than food, with recent pieces on the food of care homes, Ramadan, and migrant markets/Latinx mutual aid. You can subscribe to get it straight into your inbox here. Other inbox subscriptions that I look forward to seeing are the Astronomy Photo of the Day from NASA (sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox daily), and Huw Lemmey’s Utopian Drivel (some of the best writing out there). He has also been narrating his book Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell via podcast (and it’s free to listen to).
I’ve really gotten into watching old episodes of Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting from the 80s. “There is no such thing as a mistake, only happy accidents”. Hypnotic and incredibly calming, there are plenty of episodes online (BBC iplayer and youtube). The National Theatre (UK) have been streaming some of their live shows (from Jane Eyre to Twelfth Night). For May they have lined up the Barber Shop Chronicles and A Streetcar Named Desire (calling all Gillian Anderson fans). Aside from that, I waste a lot of time watching trailers on Netflix, never quite able to commit to anything. Stop Making Sense - the live concert film by Talking Heads - is not new to me, but getting lost in it again has been fun.
I should probably be moving more, but I’m trying to be kind to myself. I’ve given up on yoga, and instead seem to find enjoyment swearing my way through barre and HIIT classes. Some hand weights finally arrived so I’m no longer using bottles of wine (their original purpose has been welcomed).
Cooking has been the biggest distraction and pleasure. Nigel Slater is keeping things simple with recipes for toasties and comfort food (ie mashed potato). Meera Sodha’s website never fails to inspire and Rachel Roddy remains a firm favourite. Rukmini lyer’s roasting tin recipes suggest flavour combinations I hadn’t considered before (aubergine and cinnamon) and make easy work of things in the fridge that you aren’t quite sure what to do with (turns out you can roast almost anything, then sprinkle with feta). Ducksoup, a wonderful Soho restaurant near our London office, have been posting up recipes on their Instagram, and Bancone for pasta (homemade gnocchi - if not now then when?). I recently discovered a newsagent nearby that stocks an incredible selection of Mexican produce (rare for the UK), which has sated increasingly intense cravings for tacos and smoky salsa (the same product line can also be found online and are still delivering). Despite all of this, I still desperately miss the chippie. Cleaning the kitchen almost constantly is a curse.
To my shame, I’m loving video Zumba. Feel the beat, feel the heat.
I walk the dog in the park around midnight. Only the old lady with the locally notorious bitey big dog Emerson is there at that time. My own dog, starved for canine company, has decided he must become this monster’s friend. If I’m not fleeing the virus, I’m running from angry-dog grandma.
Reading: Virginia Woolf's The Waves -- there's something about the luminous focus on the moment, and the broken narration, that makes it the only novel I'm able to read now.
Adorno and Horkheimer's The Dialectic of Enlightenment, which seems fitting: "Only thought which does violence to itself is hard enough to shatter myths."
Manuscripts and proposals and submissions, and the wonderful writing being published every day by our friends at n+1, the LRB, Boston Review, the Paris Review Daily.
Writing: I'm writing animal parables and fairy tales and broken myths that don't signify, instead of my usual political and history essays, which seems less like escape and more like the only way into this moment that appeals to me. Also, marketing copy for Verso and editorial notes to authors.
Doing: Witnessing my neighbors, as they go to the hospital, as the ambulances drive by, as they arrive masked for memorial services held in my building's community room, as we all give a wide berth to the NYPD "mobile command unit" set up on our corner, as we read the death notices hung up in the building lobby. I tend to the houseplants. I take the cat, on his leash, to the park. I worry about my authors who have come down ill. A music conservatory drop-out, I've finally started practicing again and have started learning Debussy's "Chansons de Bilitis." Joining the mutual aid networks in the neighborhood being advertised on flyers. And walking, long walks, from central Brooklyn to the sea.
I had rather blithely assumed that my furlough from work (never have i used that word before–hopefully never again, either) would lead to a exponential increase in my time for reading. Instead, though, it means that I spend longer feeding my anxiety scrolling through Twitter.
Between scrolling, though, I've been finding if not comfort exactly then a strange political focus in catastrophism. Mark O'Connell's new book, Notes from an Apocalypse, is wonderful and oddly calming as everyone is saying. Mike Davis's particular brand of LA-eschatology has also provided some welcome succour. I've just finished his Ecology of Fear, and polished off City of Quartz earlier in the week.
It's been hard to maintain focus on the music I loved before the lockdown. Everything now seems destined to be purely functional, or it is cast aside. The functional has mainly been Jazz – notably, John Coltrane's two Village Vanguard lps, Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch, Mingus's sublime The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and his equally stunning Ah Um, and a bunch of other wanky records (plus, Valerie Wilmer's As Serious as Your Life as a companion piece – which is without doubt the best music book i have ever encountered, bar none!). Also on heavy rotation has been Tiris by El Wali, one of the latest re releases from the always-excellent Sahel Sounds, this time of some incredible Sahrawi national liberation tunes from the early 1990s.
The evenings are never as long as one expects, but the occasional bit of writing (between cookings whatever I have left from the once-weekly shop and watching whatever dumb film happens to be online somewhere) has provided some relief. As has the new Bullion record, someone who never fails to provide happiness (check out his incredible reworking of everyone's childhood favourite sea shanty, Blue Pedro), same with the Swing Ting album.
While I was still working, it became hard to differentiate time. I had never realised quite how reliant on moving between spaces, and the routine that brings, we all are. The day is not a naturally divided mass, we need acts to separate the day into specific sections. Without that, I either found it incredibly difficult to finish work, or conversely, to start it at all. That's been magnified by the furlough. I'm trying to regain that with regular exercise, running most days at around 5, although avoiding all parks. The whole of SE London seems to have descended on any green space of late (understandably, considering the lack of gardens and substandard housing in this part of town) so i'm running instead through the backstreets of Bermondsey to the River, or in to Central London, now an oddly calm oasis. The real issue though is avoiding those regular early evening beers turning into something a little too regular.
Lots of time in the evening is spent on the computer, talking to friends and family. Being away from my family is doubly hard at present; both my parents have been seriously ill, and the time between now and seeing them again seems immeasurable. At least technology gives us the means to see one another – if little else.
Just before the lockdown I was lucky to get hold of Blue Crow's wonderful Map of the Great Trees of London. This was originally a list of 41 trees that had survived the great hurricane of 1987, and then another 20 were added in 2008. The map sets this list out across the city. I had hoped to go and visit some of these places as an excuse to wander, until such wandering was considered unnecessary. In recompense, I tried to venture through google earth to see what these places looked like virtually. It's not the same, and dare I say it, not really worth doing.
The week before Easter I was supposed to be in Istanbul with my family. Since January I have been reading and cross-referencing Bethany Hughes' 800 page history of the city noting places and stories that we would visit and record when we were there. It now sits on my shelf, feathered with post-it notes.
Reading: My attention has been very wayward of late and sitting down to focus on a book is a challenge. However, I did just finish Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, a dark and weird thriller which made me laugh and cringe in equal measure. I've also been reading (on screen, sob) proofs of Vigdis Hjorth's new novel Long Live the Post Horn!, which will be coming out this autumn. Again, it's very funny, which feels important right now, but also sharp and odd, a really unique tone. I've signed up to the ICA's Daily emails, which are packed full of brilliant reading, watching and listening.
Listening: The Cultural Front Line on BBC World Service offers a view of the world through the lives of artists, and right now in particular how artists around the globe are responding to the current crisis. Esther Perel has been speaking to couples in difficult lockdown situations in her inimitable Where Should We Begin. The New Yorker Fiction podcast has an incredible catalogue of short stories read by New Yorker fiction contributors, it practically feels like reading and there's always a smart little chat between them and the magazine's fiction editor Deborah Treisman in case you feel like your brain needs a little exercise.
Eating: I learnt how to make Okonomiyaki, which are very good if you have no energy but a few eggs, flour, cabbage and ketchup. I've also been sprouting mung beans, which is very easy, excellent in salads or stir fries, and balances out my new Snack cupboard, which is full of things that are the opposite of mung beans.
Doing: A lot of staring out the window and counting the ladybirds (I have a small infestation). Ryan Heffington hosts glorious dance parties, grap your wig and a mic/toothbrush, he's on IGTV five times a week and he makes even the ladybirds shuffle in their shells. It's hard to accept that I may not come out of this speaking another language and doing the splits but then I look out the window and forget about it.
I have not been furloughed. This is both a blessing and a curse. My work has been stripped of many of the things I love about my job; my colleagues, booksellers, actual physical books, the office. Nevertheless having this semblance of normality gives me routine and space away from the feelings of anxiety, loneliness and existential doom. I think constantly about my family in Italy. The family WhatsApp has never been so active. We share what we made for dinner, fun facts, news articles, pretty pictures from walks, our windows, our balconies.
- I have nearly finished Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook which I started before lockdown and had to put down half way through as the sense of loneliness and despair became all too much. But after a couple of days of intense feeling and doing nothing I’ve picked it back up and find it strangely comforting. The prose is so beautifully written I can’t help but continue.
- The family WhatsApp group.
- Jonathan Nunn’s food newsletter Vittles. A daily email newsletter with excellent ideas/inspiration on eating well under lockdown and a thoughtful insight into the London food scene backed by good politics.
- Twitter, WAY too much twitter.
- Brian Eno’s Ambient music.
- Nina Simone and Billy Holiday while cooking.
- Podcasts while walking: Season of the Bitch, Novara Media, Politics Theory Other, Pluto Press and Sibling Rivalry (by Monet Exchange and Bob the Drag Queen).
- I’ve watched all of Steven Universe (even the tv movie). Good, wholesome, queer children’s tv is a much needed injection of joy.
- Studio Ghibli films.
- My Brilliant Friend, the tv adaptation of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is an excellent portrayal of the lives of working class women in 50s/60s southern Italy with the added bonus of gorgeous location shots of Naples and Ischia. Extra joy is derived from the fact it’s making me feel artificially closer to my Nonna.
Doing: [when not working]
- More exercise than ever (which was not much), yoga with Adrienne and long walks to nowhere.
- Cooking: I made a (lactose free) southern Italian lasagne which I’m so proud of! With ragu, peas, pancetta, mushrooms, vegan bechamel, vegan cheese! Next weekend I’m planning vegan brownies.
- Smoking too much
- Drinking alone in my room with loved ones on video chats.
- And an unbelievable amount of time doing absolutely nothing.
Reading: Behold the Dreamers, a tale of an immigrant family and their wealthy employer set just weeks before the '08 financial crisis. It's scathing, laughably funny, and devastating all at once.
Listening to: Left indie-punks who write songs about cats and socialism––the Hotelier and the Weakerthans.
Doing: Writing, mutual aid, digital design, lots of naps.
Out here in the sticks, 25 miles from London, it’s a quiet, lace-curtain sort of crisis. The family opposite has been social distancing since we moved in. The latest New Left Review suggests the pandemic has made us think globally for a change. That’s true, but in practical terms London might as well be Atlantis.
Worrying about relatives and about Verso; doing some mutual aid (not a term the residents’ association would recognise, though there has been a general trespass on the local golf course, so politics isn’t completely static); watching trains rattle past, as if life goes on as normal and someone is practising a joke on Hemel Hempstead; reading Alex Niven’s New Model Island and Vijay Prashad’s Tricontinental newsletters; making sandcastles in the bunker off the 15th fairway.
Reading: It's now time to tackle the whole Hilary Mantel trilogy, then next will be all of Marilynne Robinson's books.
Watching: This Saturday, theatre maker Milo Rau's Lenin, streamed online at the Schaubuhne.
Listening: An exploration of prog has been abandoned as it was all horrible! So now ploughing through the entire back catalogue of Autechre. Lots of 'desk gurning'.
Exercise: Endless walking, informed by Bob Gilbert's wonderful study of the trees of an east end area.
Sanity: Managing one's news intake, reading about how previous pandemics have passed.
There Is No Outside: Covid-19 Dispatches. An urgent collection of essays on the global pandemic, from n+1and Verso Books.
See all our recommended Distraction reading here.
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A collaboration between the renowned magazine of literature and politics, n+1, and Verso Books, this collection tracks the course of Covid-19 across the circuits of global capital to New York’s prisons and emergency rooms, Los Angeles’s homeless encampments, and the migrant camps in Greece; and into the intimate spaces of our homes, our ideas of how to live, and into our bodies and cells.
We hear from sex workers without work and sailors quarantined on their ships, witness the pandemic from the quiet devastation of upstate New York and quarantined Rome as well as the streets of Delhi, Kashmir, and London and the emergency room of a New York City hospital. From some of the most exciting and thoughtful young writers around the globe, There Is No Outside explores the unspooling wreckage of Covid-19 and helps us on what might come in the aftermath.
With contributions from Andrew Liu, Rachel Ossip, Gabriel Winant, Francesco Pacifico, Sarah Resnick, Teresa Thornhill, Shigraf Zahbi, Debjani Bhattacharyya, Banu Subramaniam, Mark Krotov, Karim Sariahmed, Ana Cecilia Alvarez, Jack Norton, Laleh Khalili, Aaron Timms, Sonya Aragon, Sean Cooper, Chloe Aridjis, and Marco Roth, and with an introduction by Jessie Kindig.