I was surprised a panegyric to the Monsters of Templetown by Stephen King was on the back cover and not the front. I’d describe that as bad marketing, but perhaps this was not to confuse the reader, because despite the title there are no real monsters. Lorrie Moore describes the Monsters of Templeton on the front cover as, ‘A bold hybrid of a book’. What she means by that is the stories are factional, and it’s a love story of place as much as characters. For Templeton read Cooperstown. Lauren Groff in the Author’s note explains,
‘I have grown up with these characters almost as if they were real people and they formed the myth of my own town in my head. They belonged very firmly in Templetown.
In the end, fiction is the craft of telling truth through lies…The story saw history as malleable and tried about a different kind of truth about my little village on the lake, one filled with all the mystery and magic that I was surrounded by in my childhood.’
I weigh story-telling by truth-telling. If I can’t tell where truth begins and fiction ends, that’s a good starting point. The Clydebank I write about rings true, because it is true. Templeton rings true because it is true. Harper Lee takes the reader back to the deep South and the old town of Maycomb during the hungry thirties in To Kill a Mocking Bird. A child’s eye view of change in a town where nothing really changes.
The narrator is Willie ‘Sunshine’ Upton (illeg.) born 1973.
The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.
That’s a killer first line to start any novel. All novels need questions that need answers so the reader turns the pages. Here we have two in the first sentence. Why is she disgraced and where did the monster come from?
Her disgrace is that aged 24, she’s pregnant; an English Harvard professor on an archaeological dig in the Alaskan tundra is the father, but he’s married. And Willie inadvertently tried to run his wife over with the supply plane. But there is symmetry in her disgrace.
Her mother Vivienne Upton (‘Vi’) 1955—arrived back in Templetown apparently pregnant, also aged 24. Vi claimed not to know who the father was, having lived in a commune with drugs and ‘free love’ on the menu. Vi was the town’s official hippy. But she was also a property owner. Her (and Willie’s) ancestors had founded Templetown. It was in their blood. Their backwater town cured them of all ills even Vi’s acne.
Willie paints the backstory of the town and friendship with Clarissa, her Harvard best friend, who was an orphan like Vi (her grandparents being killed together in a car crash). Clarissa, in New York, suffers from lupus and her ongoing health concerns provide some ballast to Willie’s attempt to find out who her father was.
Vi had told her that he was a son of the town fathers. Willie therefore must play detective and this allows her to outline the history of the town using forgotten letters and uncover dark secrets that allows other characters to speak for themselves. For example, Sarah Franklin Temple Upton from her Journal, 1913-1933 m. Asterik “Sy” Upton 1895-1953, before she walks into the lake like Virginia Woolf with a pocketful of stones.
Journals, letters and with a little help from a friendly, resident ghost, Willie tries to unravel the truth, while having a little fling with her childhood sweetheart.
All the parts fit in a coherent way, but some are a bit of a squash. There’s photos and portraits too, such as that of one of her forbearers and his dog—used to hunt Indians. A mish-mash of telling and showing. Worth a look. Read on.
20 Jan 2020 – USA has first confirmed imported case – From China.
20 Jan 2020 – COVID-19 included in Statutory Report of Class B Infectious Diseases and Border Health Quarantine Infectious Diseases in China – Measures to Curtail: Temperature Checks, Health Care Declarations, Quarantines – Instituted at Transportation Depots – Laws of China – Wildlife Markets Closed – Captive-Breeding Facilities Cordoned Off.
22/23 Jan 2020 – WHO decides not to yet declare the outbreak a PHEIC.
23 Jan 2020 – China observes Strict Travel Restrictions.
24 Jan 2020 – First Report of case in Europe – France.
30 Jan 2020 – WHO declares 2019 nCov (former name of COVID-19) outbreak a PHEIC – under International Health Regulations (2005).
11 Feb 2020 – The Virus and the Disease it causes officially named – The Novel Coronavirus named ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)’; The Disease it Causes named ‘COVID-19’.
27 Feb 2020 – WHO updates case definitions for COVID-19 for Suspected, Probable, Confirmed – Worldwide Surveillance Continues.
28 Feb 2020 – Nigeria reports first case of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa.
11 March 2020 – WHO upgrades the COVID-19 outbreak to a Pandemic.
A mother in a Lorrie Moore short story People Like That Are the Only People Here, jokes, ‘Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich’. We know what happens next.
Writers are readers. If they’re no readers they’re not writers. Here’s the story: We’re all in it together. In Burlington Care Home in Glasgow, thirteen elderly residents died in a week. Two of the staff test positive for Covid-19. All over the world Covid-19 has been behaving in the classic hockey-stick manner of epidemics plotted on a graph. We sit on the side-lines and clap our team, the NHS, care staff, all those on the front line. There’s good reason for this. Wearing gloves and a face mask doesn’t mean you won’t get sick – viruses can also transmit through the eyes and tiny viral particles, known as aerosols, can penetrate masks, but it does make it five times more unlikely.
With no football on, we’ve all become expert analysists, pitting our team against other countries. We know from the SARs 2003-4 in South Korea, most of the cases were in health workers. The pattern is repeated with Covid-19. Those who spend more time treating victims are more likely to become victims, especially if they don’t have proper protective equipment.
Other armchair experts claim it’s no big deal, no worse than seasonal flu. Herd immunity sounded feasible. This was the positon the moron’s moron President Trump took. Now he’s saying 200 000 American deaths would be a good score. The side of the Atlantic, Boris Johnson took the same position as his senior partner in the Oval Office. Johnson is now settling for 20 000 British deaths after the first wave of the Covid-19 has passed.
Do the math. If borne out by further testing, this could mean that current estimates of a roughly 1% fatality rate are accurate. This would make Covid-19 about 10 times more deadly than seasonal flu, which is estimated to kill between 290,000 and 650,000 people a year worldwide. The population of America is around 250 million so if Covid-19 hockeystick trajectory continued as epidemiologist modelled with over 80% of the population becoming infected over 2 million Americans would die. In Britain that would be around 600 000 deaths.
As we’ve seen, even with these lower numbers our health services are working beyond full capacity with apparently mild cases overlooked and hockey-stick numbers growing exponentially. This is important because as Chinese scientist have confirmed these cases DO contribute to transmission and need to be socially isolated. Health Care workers such as those in Burlington Care Home did go into work. Tens of thousands of Care workers face that same dilemma.
Employers, until now, have created even more ways of punishing and sacking low-paid workers and depriving them of their rights. Care staff as disposable as bed-pans. Classed as self-employed. No holiday pay. No pension. Zero-hour contracts. Minimum wage is the maximum wage and ways such as not paying for travelling costs being used to deprive them of even that. Classified as agency staff and their minimum wage reduced by a third by paying their employers for employing them. Take it or leave it.
The future looks like the past. Imagine the Queen, Prince Charles and Camilla residents of Burlington Care Home. We’re all in it together. Under new NHS guidelines in England (this is Scotland you might argue) rationing or triage needs to take place. The Queen because of her age would not qualify for Intensive Care Unit (ICU) or qualify for a ventilator. Charles might get into ICU but because of a shortage of ventilators doesn’t receive incubation. Camilla qualifies for both. Are we really all in it together?
Let’s look at the league tables and cheer. Singapore is top of the table. China has flat- lined, it no longer has hockey-stick growth in numbers. Italy is doing most testing, but has the highest fatality rate. Spain is catching up with Italy in terms of casualties and testing. Germanic efficiency, doing everything by the book. It has been doing widespread testing of suspects with symptoms and contact tracing in the WHO-recommended fashion from the beginning of the epidemic. We’re at different stages of the epidemic. The UK death toll is currently higher than Italy’s at the same stage, reinforced by another showing that by this stage of the outbreak. Italy had begun to flatten its curve while in Britain the line keeps rising, the number of deaths doubling every three days. We’re not even looking at Third World Countries. Trump boasts he’s testing more than Britain, more than China. Those without healthcare or the capacity to treat victims know what to expect. We’ve all seen it before. More of the same.
When it ends, when it really ends, we’ll be back at the beginning, waiting for the second wave of the Covid-19. The golden bullet of vaccines, optimistically, look about a year away. Only about five major drug companies have the resources to manufacture the golden bullet if it was found today. Scaling takes time. First world countries would be first. Even the moron’s moron in the US has woken up to the need to test – and is telling companies that export, America must come first. Trump tried to buy a German company bio-tech company. Third world countries third, because you can’t go any lower. But here you create a reservoir population, ready to infect the rest of the world. Using an economic axiom, ceteris paribus: Changing the number of people tested, or who is being offered tests, will also affect the number of reported cases.
Moving forward to when, or if, we flatten the hockey-shaped curve, people need to return to work in stages. In Britain one effect of government rhetoric is the NHS is safe, even under the Tories that have been selling it off piecemeal, and depriving it of funds. Any hint of depriving the NHS of much-needed resources would be political suicide, but this is short-term.
Cast your mind back to 2010 to the unfunny Laurel and Hardy of Cameron/Osborne government, before their slapstick act of economic stupidity and self-mutilation called Brexit. Note the four doctors to have died so far are BAME doctors. Britain had to pay higher than other EEC countries for ventilators, for example, because they’re no longer part of the EEC and the pound is plummeting. Fifty percent of our food comes from imports. Crops will rot in the fields without immigrant workers. We import more than we export. Quite literally, we can’t go it alone. Our government knows this. But the then outgoing Labour Chief Secretary of the Treasury Liam Byrne left a jokey written message to his incoming colleague, the Liberal Democrat (remember them) David Laws: ‘there’s no money left’.
We all know what happened next. A detailed assessment showed that public spending was to increase in five Whitehall departments and to be cut in seventeen, beginning with welfare. What we used to call social security was gone. As over 1 000 000 people newly registered for Universal Credit have found out. Living on less than £100 per week is the new norm. While the British economy was flatlining in 2010, in the way we hope the Covid-19 will in 2020 the Tory government pursued a policy of taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich. Tax cut. Tax cut. Tax cut. Privatise and cherry pick our NHS, stealth by the back door such as Virgin Health running mental health services. Yes, the same Richard Branson asking for a bailout for his airline. Private profit and dividend and tax cuts, whilst domiciled elsewhere. How does that add up with we’re all in it together? Those were also the words used by George Osborne and leave a familiar taste in the mouth.
Austerity was imposed on the poor in 2010, but not on the rich. They bounced back very quickly to 2007-2008 levels of capital wealth and an increased share of the GDP. The gap between rich and poor matched that of the Great Depression. Wages never recovered. Those in work and claiming benefits grew and grew. The working poor, those that work in, for example, care homes as carers were mocked as the scum of the earth. Junior doctors were labelled greedy. Nurses were chastised for demanding a pay rise. Loans instead of grants were the new norms for nurses training and numbers dropped.
Austerity in the twenty-first century. Covid-19 is a dress rehearsal for climate change, but one is now, the other deferred. In the same way, the $2tn US coronavirus relief package is doling out $60bn to struggling airlines and offering low-interest loans that are available to fossil fuel. Britain has in the words of the Chancellor Rishi Sunak effectively nationalised the economy. 10% of Britain’s GDP of debt and growing, £435 billion in Quantitive Easing (printing money) £200 billion up front to keep the economy temporarily afloat.
Writing in the Guardian, the economist David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the US and a member of the Bank’s interest rate-setting monetary policy committee during the 2008 financial crisis, said unemployment was rising at the fastest rate in living memory. UK unemployment could rapidly rise to more than 6 million people, around 21% of the entire workforce, based on analysis of US job market figures that suggest unemployment across the Atlantic could reach 52.8 million, around 32% of the workforce.
“There has never been such a concentrated business collapse. The government has tried to respond but it has no idea of the scale of the problem it is going to have to deal with. We make some back-of-the-envelope calculations and they are scary,” he said.
Unemployment looked to be at least 10 times faster than in the recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis.
The Great Depression of the hungry thirties was ended not by fiscal stimulus, although that helped, but by the second world war. During the Depression years rich monopolists chaffed at government intervention in the economy and called for a return to lassez-faire economics. Sounds familiar. Listen to Thatcher’s ‘let poppies grow tall speech’. Reaganomics was just Thatcherism wrapped in a different flag. We’ve seen the same effect under Osborne/ Cameron. At some point in the aftermath of the pandemic hard choices will need to be made. Simple choices if you’re a Tory, you take money from the poor and give it to the rich. After all under Thatcher dogma, ostensibly, they are the creators of wealth. The keepers of our economic good health, but just don’t ask them to share. Trillions can be wiped from stock market shares, ten, twenty, fifty, seventy percent, yet a tax increase of 1% is met as if Armageddon has occurred. Then it did begin to unfold.
Ironically, the moron’s moron may well win an election not for anything he did or said, but because he’s a leader on TV screens and his popularity remains high especially among white, male, Republican supporters. Those most likely to die from the Covid-19 virus. Here Johnson is in social isolation. He has the virus. He is a viral infection. But he’s never been more popular. As an old Etonian when it comes to making hard choices of who gets what and why, well, that is easy, Thatcherism. Survival of the fittest. Tall poppies, like Branson. Survival of the richest. Poor people are there to be applauded, every Thursday, but not helped. There to be used and discarded. The backlash is coming and it’s coming soon. Expect no mercy from Tory scum. Don’t say I didn’t tell you so. If you think we’re all in it together you’ve been living on the moon and probably would vote Trump if you lived in America. People Like That Are the Only People Here. A choice between being rich, or being healthy, few of us get to choose. I choose life, but not stupidity.
Usually, I know what I’m going to say, although I’m not quite sure how I’m going to say it. I guess I’ll start with the author, George Saunders. He’s won a stack of awards and a litany of writers—Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Thomas Pynchon, Jennifer Egan, Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore, Hairi Kunzru and Tobias Wolff—are stacked like library cards to testify to his originality and brilliance.
I find Saunders hard work. And I don’t like reading to be work, because I read for pleasure. I’m shallow that way. I did kinda enjoy Lincoln in the Bardo or I wouldn’t have finished the 343 pages and the bit about the author afterwards telling you how brilliant he is.
343 pages sounds a lot, a hefty tome. But if I skim through the book from the back and get to chapter LIV this is how it reads.
Had we—had we done it?
It seemed that perhaps we had.
roger bevins iii
That’s a chapter finished. hans vollman and roger bevin iii are ‘shades, immaterial’. There is different shades of meaning and understanding as there as shades of ghosts. They enter President Abraham Lincoln’s body and brain to remind him that he still had the key for the white stone house, the crypt, where his twelve-year-old son lies dead and he’s no longer sure if he locked it or left it open. Doubt is the key.
The voices of demons and angels are heard and heaven and hell are present in each shade. The reverend everly thomas reaches the gates of heaven and goes inside to await judgement. He has two companions with him. One wearing a pair of swimming trunks is asked to speak honestly about his life by a Christ-like figure and his heart is weighed. There is rejoicing throughout heaven and angels sing as he is found to be one of the elect. His companion’s heart is a shrivelled thing and demons come to collect their due. When the reverend’s heart is weighed, there is a dull note and he runs from that place, expecting to be pursued, but is not and expecting to understand, but does not. He only knows his existence is marked by the boundary fence of the graveyard and he must rest in his ‘sickbox’, his body, during the day and at night he may roam, mingle and intermingle with other shades. None can be forced from that place seems to be a rule, but they must voluntarily give up that existence. Their going is marked by a state of bliss and unravelling of self into what was, is and would have been, each person existing as the shade of a multiverse.
Their staying –or overstaying – such as Willie’s refusal to move on because his father the President said he’d come back to visit causes an unpleasant stink and allows demons to enter and wrap the shade to the spot. Willie, quite simply, is in the Bardo and he should have moved on to heaven. His pure soul staying is a catalyst for change. I’m not sure if that makes sense.
Juxtaposed with the voices and backstories of the various shades inhabiting the graveyard are other voices, commentators on the social scene and what President Lincoln is doing, or not doing, or should be doing. Their voices mirror the voices of the shades, often contradicting each other and petty and vindictive as the modern-day media.
Chapter XLVII, for example, reads.
Young Willie Lincoln was laid to rest on the day that the causality lists from the Union victory at Fort Donelson were publicly posted, an event that caused a great shock among the public at that time, the cost of life being unprecedented thus far in the war.
In ‘Setting the Record Straight: Memoir, Error and Evasion,’ by Jason Tumm, “Journal of American History.
The details of the losses were communicated to the President even as young Willie lay under embalmment.
More than a thousand troops on both sides were killed and three times that number wounded. It was ‘a most bloody fight,’ a young Union soldier told his father, so devastating to his company that despite the victory he remained ‘sad, lonely and down-hearted.’ Only seven out of the eighty-five men in his unit survived.
President Lincoln’s loss of his son is magnified a thousand fold, his grief mirrored by thousands of others and yet it is and can only be a private affair. Whatever way the President turns in public or private he will be found wanting.
I guess I’m found wanting too. I don’t hold with the elitist nonsense and with what W.B. Yeats termed ‘the fascination with the difficult’. But in quoting Yeats I align myself with somebody well known and give myself kudos. The truth is if I’d picked up this book and read a few pages and didn’t know the author I’d have put it down and left it unread. Saunders’s added value and the weight of other author’s praise made me read on. That’s shades of shallowness in anyone’s language. But equally in another multiverse if an unknown had presented this same book to publishers I doubt without the publicity and heft of positive praise associated with Saunders’s name that it would have been published. Read on.