Sunday, 7 June 2020

Lockdown Sunday extra: interview with garden designer Cleve West on THE GARDEN OF VEGAN

"It’s not a subject you can really ignore any more, especially now mainstream media is making the connection between animal agriculture and climate change, not to mention the link with pandemics."

Photograph by Chaz Oldham
Cleve West is a highly-regarded garden designer, with six Chelsea gold medals and two Best Show Garden awards to his credit. Recent projects include his Horatio's Garden for Salisbury Hospital's Spinal Treatment Centre (the first of several, all by leading designers) and work with primary school children, bringing them to his own allotment and helping them to set up gardens at their schools. He is a passionate advocate for animals and a committed vegan, both of which inform his gardening practice. The Garden of Vegan covers a wide range of subjects: personal reflections, sustainable gardening and farming, ecosystems, animal abuse, the nutritional and environmental advantages of a plant-based diet, and even his own recipes. As well as photographic illustrations the book includes poignant portraits drawn by Cleve's wife, artist and printmaker Christine Eatwell, of animals photographed as they await slaughter.

Cleve West answers questions from Linda Newbery.

Find out more about Cleve's work and campaigns from his website, and on social media: Twitter @clevewest Facebook Cleve West and Instagram cleve_west

LN: You've been well known for years as a top garden designer. Now it seems from your social media activity that your animal advocacy and championing of the vegan lifestyle have become at least as important as your design career, if not more so. What triggered that change?

Cleve West: It was the shock of seeing the horrors of animal agriculture and the damage it’s doing to our health and the environment. Not speaking out about it felt like complicity. I spent a lot of time wondering whether I should use different social media platforms to keep my advocacy for animals separate from work, but that felt like an apologist approach. I may have lost followers/clients as a result but I’m only showing and speaking about the realities of animal agriculture and the threat it poses to life on earth. If people can’t handle the truth they can look away or keep scrolling until they find a photo of a pretty flower! What’s alarming is that, given the current circumstances, there is still reluctance to engage with these issues that are making the future increasingly uncertain for our children.

LN: In the introduction to your book you say that you'd begun to question the importance of your design work, in spite of (or because of?) having achieved such outstanding success. But you write movingly about the Horatio's Garden you designed at Salisbury, and since then you've brought school groups to your allotment and worked on gardens projects for their schools - in all of which plants and gardening contribute to the wellbeing of others. Does this mark a change in your work ethic?

CW: Yes. Before I was vegan, while I understood the therapeutic value of gardens, I’d often consider my worth as a garden designer in terms of what I actually contribute to the world. Being vegan has accentuated that and made me question Thomas Church’s maxim that “gardens are for people”. I realise it’s impossible not to harm things unknowingly as we build our homes and gardens, but now that we understand more about the many other life-forms that share the garden with us (and that arguably they're more important in keeping things ticking over) it seems fair that they should be given consideration when planning our interventions. Horatio’s Garden and the Bee Kind Garden for Christ Church School have helped me understand how we can garden for both humans and non-human animals alike, but the emphasis is still from an anthropocentric point of view. Natural gardens or gardening for wildlife is still quite challenging as an aesthetic. I don’t have all the answers, so I suppose the short answer is that I’m still learning.

LN: Do you think the horticultural industry has been slow to embrace sustainability? What changes do you applaud, and what changes in attitude are still needed?

CW: Yes, I had a conversation about sustainability with Geoff Hamilton in 1994 when I built my first show garden. It’s disappointing in that almost twenty five years later people are still using herbicides, pesticides, slug pellets and peat products in their gardens. Revelations by Dave Goulson in his brilliant book The Garden Jungle about how chemicals in the plants we buy from nurseries can harm bees are really alarming.

As with transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, convenience seems to play a major role in stopping consumers from making ethical choices. Profit is also a big factor for nurseries, so I hope that the current crisis will focus the industry on what they can do to create more sustainable products and practices.

LN: I love your book but need little persuading, as I'm already vegan and a veganic gardener (though I hadn't heard that term before!) Are you hoping to reach out more widely - to people who haven't considered veganism and in particular how it might relate to their gardening?

CW: Indeed, the intention is to inspire gardeners to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. When I first started speaking out for animals I used a lot of graphic footage to raise awareness about the cruelty involved in animal agriculture. Naturally, most people looked the other way, so it was a revelation to me when I realised that vegans and gardeners share the same USP… plants. As gardeners we all love plants. We love growing them and eating them, so if a plant-based diet can help us mitigate climate change, reduce the chances of future pandemics (I’m kicking myself for not including that in the book!), feed an ever growing population and relieve the pressure on the NHS by keeping us healthy, it’s a win-win situation on so many levels.

LN: It's clear on your website that you want your ethos to be evident in every garden you design. Have you ever had to curtail a project because the client wanted something you felt unable to deliver on principle, e.g. because it would destroy a habitat?

CW: To be honest I’m still finding my feet on that one. One or two current projects involve a fair amount of earth-moving which is something I’m feeling increasingly uncomfortable about these days. I’m encouraged by conversations I’ve had with prospective new clients about things like wildlife and biodiversity. People are beginning to acknowledge the importance of the environment and to be interested in enhancing the natural world in their own small way. What I keep reminding myself is that if I walk away from a job, then someone else is going to do it and that person may not be as sensitive to a site nor make any effort in mitigating disturbance to habitats, etc.

LN:  In a recent interview you said that the fire has gone out of you as regards making show gardens. But are you being offered chances either to create show gardens or to take on longer-lasting projects to demonstrate your principles? You're probably in a unique position to influence others by showing the way.

CW: There’s a vegan-inspired show garden on the back-burner (a collaboration with Darryl Moore and Heywood-Condie) but it needs a suitable sponsor. I’d prefer to concentrate on real gardens for now and will be happy to work with clients who appreciate the bigger picture, or indeed to encourage those who haven’t considered the wider environment before but are willing to learn. I’m sure there will be others joining the dots now - it’s going to be interesting to see how the Covid-19 experience will inspire the next generation of designers at future shows.

LN: Anyone involved in animal activism will inevitably come across harrowing evidence, much of it photographic, of gut-wrenching cruelty and abuse. How do you strike a balance between keeping yourself motivated on the one hand, and on the other, becoming so thoroughly sickened at the scale of brutality that campaigning seems hopeless?

CW: Yes, the reality and scale of the oppression, violence and exploitation is beyond anything we can imagine - if you dwell on it too much it can break you. I limit the amount I look at these days but use it to keep the fire stoked and help me remember that while using levers such as the environment and health to persuade people to go vegan, the main reason is to put an end to the unnecessary harm and suffering we cause to sentient beings.

LN: How is your campaigning zeal seen by your garden design peers? Are you seen as extremist / eccentric, or are they willing to listen to you and consider veganic principles in their own work?

CW: That’s a good question. To begin with, when the shock of watching films like Earthlings, Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives made me try and turn the world vegan in a day, I think many of them thought I’d lost the plot and they were right, I had. A couple of people have called me an extremist but interestingly won’t watch films like Earthlings, Dominion or Land of Hope and Glory. If they did I’m sure they’d understand the true meaning of the word ‘extreme’. It’s difficult being patient when so many animals are slaughtered every second of each day, but over the years I’ve had enough encouraging messages from designers and gardeners (who have either gone vegan or are getting close to it) to feel encouraged, and have stood shoulder to shoulder with a couple at vigils and protests which is great. Of course, there are still quite a few who find the whole subject too challenging or inconvenient to take on board, but it’s not a subject you can really ignore any more, especially now mainstream media is making the connection between animal agriculture and climate change, not to mention the link with pandemics.

LN:  A question about the writing of your book. It's so wide-ranging, comprehensive and fully-referenced that I wonder how on earth you combined work on this with your design business. Did you set aside dedicated time to write, or were you fitting it around your other work?

CW: My assistant at the time, Ruth Lewis, did a great job keeping the design work on track so I could concentrate on writing. I tried to keep it personal to make it more digestible and to help readers relate to it. The fact-checking was a real pain and frustrating (my editor at Pimpernel Press, Nancy Martin, was brilliant at double-checking and keeping me on my toes) because I knew it would be out of date by the time the book was published with new studies and reports (not to mention pandemics!) coming to light. Some people might still look for loopholes or argue with the facts and figures, but even if they were only half-true they should still be more than enough to persuade anyone with an open mind to consider a vegan lifestyle.

LN: Finally, what gives you the most hope that attitudes towards animals will change?

CW: I’m not known for my optimism as far as the human race is concerned but I was buoyed by the heartening messages I received when the book was launched. That said, it’s a challenging read so it’s not going to fly off the shelves! I think economics, the threat of climate change and future (potentially far worse) pandemics will be the main drivers to a substantial shift to a plant-based world but, in the meantime, I’ll keep encouraging gardeners to join this important movement - plants might just be able to save us from ourselves.

LN: Thank you so much for this interview, Cleve. I hope your book will fly off the shelves!

Killed at Newman's Abbatoir on 13 December 2017: drawing by Christine Eatwell
The Garden of Vegan is published by Pimpernel Press.

Also: find out more about Horatio's Gardens here, and see a short film about the Salisbury Hospital one (with Cleve talking about it) here:

Monday, 1 June 2020

Guest review by Rachel Ward: THE LOST MAN by Jane Harper

"A fabulously plotted and absorbing story."

Rachel Ward has written five thrillers for young adults, the first of which, Numbers, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize. Her novels for adults, The Cost of Living and Dead Stock (Sandstone Press) are cosy crime stories set in and around a supermarket; Expiry Date will be published on June 18th . Rachel lives in Bath where she also paints and takes photographs. Twitter: @RachelWardbooks Facebook: Rachel Ward Art

In an isolated part of Australia, two brothers meet at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old that no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish. Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he choose to walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…

Many of you will have read The Dry,  Jane Harper’s first crime book which deservedly won numerous awards including the British Book Awards Crime and Thriller Book of the Year 2018. If you thought that couldn’t be topped, The Lost Man gives it a run for its money.

Once again, the bleak sun-scorched outback landscape comes to the fore, providing a lethal environment for anyone caught out in it without shelter. Harper’s descriptions are vivid and compelling.

The book follows Nathan, one of the surviving brothers, who lives in an adjacent farm, as he tries to unpick the tortured family relationships on the main Bright family farm and the events which led to Cameron’s death. All the characters are well drawn and complex. Nathan himself is an outsider within his community and his family and is a fascinating focus for the book.

It is a fabulously plotted and absorbing story. There’s a real sense of menace and despair, as secrets are gradually revealed. The ending is surprising (at least to me) and satisfying.

I’m rationing Jane Harper books, because they are real treats to be relished. I’ve yet to read Force of Nature, and I’m delighted to see that a new book, The Survivors, is due in September. Highly recommended.

The Lost Man is published by Abacus.

See also: The Dry reviewed by Adele Geras

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Lockdown Sunday extra: Ann Turnbull chooses THE ANCHORESS by Robyn Cadwallader

"engrossing ... brought to life in an imaginatively convincing way."

Ann Turnbull has been writing stories for young people of all ages since 1974. Her most recent book is In That Time of Secrets, a young adult novel about the persecution of Catholics in 1605, set in the Black Country. Find out more at

This compelling novel tells the story of a young woman in medieval England who becomes the anchoress in a rural church. Her difficulties in settling to a life of prayer and contemplation have been brought to life in an imaginatively convincing way. The anchorhold is minutely described. Sarah measures it out: nine paces long by seven paces wide. There are two small windows into outer rooms, one for her servant to use, the other for visitors. She is also provided with a squint into the body of the church, which gives her a view into part of its interior - but the squint is angled so that she has no direct view and cannot be seen. A large crucifix dominates her cell, and a small window high up lets in a little light.The door is bolted. Under the stone floor are the bones of one of the two previous anchoresses. In this damp, cold place she prepares to spend the rest of her life.

Sarah is attended by a servant and a young girl who are there to make her life run smoothly and give her time for reading, prayer and contemplation. But she is an object of much interest to the women of the surrounding villages, who call in, one by one, to see her and talk to her. They don't come in need of spiritual help so much as information about her and to chat about the life of the village. One of the women says she thought she'd pop in just to be friendly, because "don't you long for a good natter sometimes, Sister?" The villagers are fascinated by the anchoress, and as they talk about their own lives the story expands to include the entire community.

Some of the chapters switch to the point of view of Father Ranaulf, a priest at the priory. Ranaulf has been appointed Sarah's confessor and visits her regularly, advising her on her reading and how to practise her calling. From Ranaulf's chapters we get a sense of the wider context of the anchoress's life and how it is overseen.

Two dark events haunt Sarah. One is the memory of how the lord of the manor had pursued and tried to force her, and how he remains a danger to young women. The other is the death in childbirth of her beloved sister, Emma. Sex and childbirth and the danger and grief they present for women are at the heart of this story. There have been two previous anchoresses, one of whom is buried beneath the floor of the cell and causes Sarah fear in her darker moments. The story of the other one is gradually revealed. Sarah struggles to subdue hunger and cold and to keep up with her spiritual reading. At first she is too hard on herself and is embroiled in outside events, but in the end a way forward becomes clear.

This is an engrossing book, which brings to imagined life the experience of becoming an anchoress. The style is not at all archaic, even though Sarah's lifestyle seems so alien now. And I found the ending very satisfying.

The Anchoress is published by Faber.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Guest review by John Bowers QC: TRIBES by David Lammy

"A mixture of personal background, sociological and political observations and what may be seen as a manifesto for a future Labour Government."

After attending state school in Grimsby, John Bowers was called to the Bar in 1979 and took silk in 1998. He has practised primarily in employment law and human rights. He has written or been the co-author of 14 books on employment law. He has been Principal of Brasenose College Oxford since 2015. He also sits as a Deputy High Court Judge.

The word “tribal” has become unfashionable; it seems an old-fashioned word. It may be abusive (and certainly pejorative) to say someone behaves in a tribal way. But we all have our tribes, our identities, our clubs, even our football affiliations. And increasingly with social media, we only gain information within our own tribal groups. Tribalism has benign and malign features.

Thus a 2017 survey by the Washington Post found that 47% of Republicans thought that Trump had won the popular vote because this is precisely what they had been told by the right-wing media. Many Democrats would not want their children to marry a Republican. Brexiteers and Remainers seemed very different tribes with little in common. The country divided more in relation to the deep passions this debate unleashed than the normal politics of class. Strangely and tragically, it took Covid-19 to produce a national unity, at least temporarily.

David Lammy MP examines all of this (pre-Covid-19) in this important book. As the MP for Tottenham, he has made the running on several campaigns, most notably on access to universities, Grenfell Tower and Windrush. He knows about race relations and the importance of integration. Tottenham is a place with tribal intensity. In recent years globalisation and digitisation have ed to a new more pernicious type of tribalism. He cites the remarks of Celia de Anca that “the new tribalism comes from a shift from a longing for independence from a society made up of communities to a longing for belonging in a society made up of individuals”.

David himself is an interesting mixture of identities. His parents came from Guyana and he grew up in the British Caribbean community in a single-parent household but he spent term time as a choirboy in the very English environment of a Peterborough public school. He is black but married to a white woman and his children are of course mixed race. His DNA test showed that he was 25% Tuareg, 25% Temme from Sierra Leone, 25% Bantu, 5% Celtic and the rest mish mash. He has a tribal loyalty (surprising as it may seem) to Arsenal Football Club.

The 343-page book is made up of a mixture of personal background (his visit to the ancestral home in the Tuareg tribe in Niger is particularly moving), sociological and political observations and what may be seen as a manifesto for a future Labour Government (of which he may be a member having just been promoted to the Shadow Cabinet).

The book is divided into three parts: My Tribes; how belonging can break society; and how belonging can make society. He calls for “a new civic politics of belonging” which recognises that people have tribes but must be part of wider society and he rails against the “ethnic nationalists” and “the populists who offer the false solution of animosity to solve the real problems of our time”.

It is worth a read but some of it is uncomfortable reading - whatever tribe(s) you may belong to and particularly if you think you don’t belong to a tribe at all.

Tribes is published by Constable.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Lockdown Sunday extra: C J Driver on A BOOK OF FRIENDS In Honour of J.M.Coetzee on his 80th Birthday

"An absorbing corollary to the work of a great writer."

C J Driver in 1963
C.J. (“Jonty”) Driver was for many years a teacher – in Africa, Hong Kong and England - and latterly a headmaster, now living in East Sussex, he travels regularly to his country of birth, South Africa. Elected President of the anti-apartheid National Union of South African Students, he was held in solitary confinement by the South African police in 1964 on suspicion of involvement in the African Resistance Movement. While a postgraduate at Trinity College, Oxford, he was refused renewal of his passport and was stateless until he became a British citizen. He remained in effect a prohibited immigrant in South Africa until 1992. He has been honorary senior lecturer in the School of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia since 2007, a judge of the Caine Prize for African Writing and more recently has had residencies at the Liguria Study Centre in Bogliasco, at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and at the Hawthornden Writers’ Retreat. He has published five novels (the first four of which have recently been re-issued by Faber Finds), two biographies, two memoirs, and seven books of poetry, the most recent Before, published in 2019 by Crane River in association with the African Sun Press. The Uhlanga Press will publish, later this year or early in 2021, Still Further, New Poems 2000-2019.

I need to be utterly upfront about what follows, because it clearly teeters on the edge of nepotism. I want to recommend a book mainly commissioned and entirely edited by my sister, Professor Dorothy Driver, as a way of honouring on his 80th birthday someone she calls her "life-companion", whom it happens I've known since 1958 (actually longer than she and he have been together): J.M.Coetzee, novelist, autobiographer, academic, twice Booker Prize winner, Nobel Prize winner, and so on.

A Book of Friends was published earlier this year. There is a preface by my sister, a foreword by Professor Jonathan Lear; and a range of contributions by some 35 other writers, including a poem by me. The range is wide: for obvious reasons, I'm not a person who could review the book objectively, but there are bits and pieces there which I think deserve reading and re-reading – or looking at more than once. For instance, reproduced as "Images". there are (among others) reproductions of two paintings by David Coetzee, John's brother; some photos by Kai Easton of John's cycling trips in France; Adam Chang's portrait of John; and a double-page "picture-plus" by William Kentridge.

Some of the entries were written specially for this festschrift; other are extracts from works in progress. It's not a great surprise that not every piece is as riveting as every other. I found myself especially interested in Nicholas Jose's story, Evvy After, which includes James Joyce's story Eveline, Dubliners 1914, as an intertext. I loved Peter Goldsworthy's very funny piece which begins when he is asked at a literary conference if he has ever met the "great Australian writer, Elizabeth Costello". There are interesting poems by Marlene van Niekerk, Antjie Krog, Akwe Amosu and others. I enjoyed what I think is an extract from a memoir by Siri Hustvedt.

Unsurprisingly, this is an international collection. Partly as a result, some of the writers included were entirely new to me, and I was glad to have a fairly extensive description of the contributors to help me place them. Although John is South African by birth, upbringing, education and most of his years, he has now emigrated to Australia; he has taught in the Americas, north and south, and his polymathic brilliance means that he is regularly invited to literary festivals and conferences in countries beyond the English-speaking world. I don’t know how widely available the book is going to be even within the continents of its publication, Australia and South Africa, but I would nevertheless recommend it heartily. For those who can’t get a physical copy of the book, there is an ebook available.

I have never not enjoyed reading what John Coetzee now calls simply “writings”, because he wants to blur the boundaries of genre. I would recommend as specially memorable and likely to become classics what I would still call novels: Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, and Disgrace. I won't be around to have my judgement vindicated, but those are the three “writings” I would start with if I had never come across his work before. When you have read them, perhaps even before you get to them, I think you would find A Book of Friends an absorbing corollary to the work of a great writer.

A Book of Friends, In Honour of J.M.Coetzee on his 80th Birthday, is published in Australia (by Text Publishing) and in South Africa (by Amazwi Museum of South African Literature) 

J M Coetzee

Monday, 18 May 2020

Guest review by Ann Pilling: DRIVING SOUTH TO INVERNESS: POSTSCRIPT TO AN ACTIVE LIFE, by Phoebe Caldwell

"A brave, funny and inspired book."

Ann Pilling has written or edited over 40 books for children and has published three collections of poetry. A fourth, Jigsawis coming from Shoestring this October. She is married with two sons, six grandchildren, two cats and half a dog. She lives in the Yorkshire Dales which she calls 'the country of my heart', a phrase first used by D H Lawrence whose prose and poetry she greatly admires.

Not long ago Phoebe Caldwell, for 45 years a highly distinguished practitioner who worked, nationwide and abroad, with people on the Autistic Spectrum, decided reluctantly that she could no longer live independently. Now into her eighties she put her Yorkshire home up for sale and downsized to a small flat in a ‘retirement complex’ in nearby Settle. She can still be alone but help is at hand, should she fall, should the plumbing fail, or should the underfloor heating begin to roast the undersides of her feet. Such catastrophes, and the snail’s paced attempts of the ‘management’ to sort them out , are told with a wry mixture of frustration, humour, and sheer disbelief.

Phoebe dislikes the word ‘downsizing’, a euphemism for shrinkage and prefers ‘editing’ where the emphasis is on selection, rather than contraction. Her problem was to condense a library, a museum and an art gallery into two small rooms. When I first visited Phoebe she showed me round. I was moved by their beauty and enchanted by their diversity and their occasional eccentricity. Everything chosen was of significance to her. I recalled William Morris's  ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’

This book is the product of a richly furnished mind. It ranges widely, from the author’s knowledge of botany, zoology, chemistry to the workings of the brain. She writes with insight and passion about paintings and ceramics, about music, about poetry. Her descriptions of nature are those of a poet, her observations of the majestic limestone landscape which she inhabits are both precise and powerful. She writes of ‘drumlins, like green bubble wrap’, of how ‘Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside rise from their limestone plateau like yolks sitting on the white of poached eggs.’

Phoebe married early and had five children with her biophysicist husband Peter. She describes his ‘most astonishing eyes, sea green with a pale circle round the edge, like that slither of light trapped under the crest of a breaking wave’. He died young. Half mad with grief she took scissors, sat on their Emperor size mattress and tried to cut it in half. Unsurprisingly her small curved nail scissors were inadequate. Phoebe sold the rambling ruin they had lived in, and moved to a small cottage and went back to work. She has been working ever since.

What do the old do all day, she asks, apart from continually looking for their glasses? Line-dancing, quizzes, craft-work, all feel to her ‘like colouring books for children, to keep them quiet on a car journey’. But she is realistic. ‘The struggle to keep the mind going is balanced precariously against inertia and the temptation to retire to bed and read thrillers.’ What she longs for is ‘humour, conversation, empathy, and psychological awareness’.

Phoebe has a religious faith. Life keeps posing unanswered questions. To someone whose working life has been given addressing the physical disorientation and emotional isolation experienced by people on the autistic spectrum, there must be so many. She writes of meditation, of the experience of being in ‘Presence’. There may be other kinds of mindfulness, she says, ‘but I don’t care, since it works for me and empowers my life and helps me to help others.’

This is a brave, funny and inspired book. Read it.

Driving South to Inverness is published by Pavilion Books.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Lockdown Sunday extra: REDHEAD BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD - reading Anne Tyler in Lockdown, by Paul Magrs

"Four novels in five years from her. That's amazing, and I'm so grateful for that quiet, calm, sane voice still being here."

Paul Magrs brought out his first novel in 1995. Last year he published his book on writing, The Novel Inside You. This year Snow Books are republishing his Brenda and Effie Mystery series of novels. He lives and writes in Manchester with Jeremy and Bernard Socks.

Easter Weekend, 2020

Sometimes I think I’ve lived my whole life in lockdown. Many readers and writers I know secretly hanker to live like this. It must be why I’ve always been drawn to the novels of Anne Tyler, these past thirty years, since I discovered her. Tyler heroes tend to hanker for locked down lives, and they spend their days quietly aghast at the way everyone else goes flitting and changing about.

Up much of the night worrying and lying awake, fretting about Bernard Socks not being indoors, even though I know he's all right really. These are warm, moony nights for cats to go crazy in. At three I put on my slippers and take my keys to have a look at the bottom of the garden and of course, there he is, sleeping in the Beach House chair. I carry him indoors and he indulges me, running straight back out once I’m in bed.

This morning is beautiful. The sun so strong and the cherry blossom like great cumbersome sleeves on the branches outside my study window. The petals are starting to fly off already. There's just a few days of this.

Jeremy gets up saying, ‘It's like waking up each day and thinking that you've gone deaf. There's no city noise at all.’

A thousand people dead each and every day. Our rates are worse than anywhere in Europe. After us looking at Italy and Spain in horror for those weeks, it turns out those were the precise weeks our government should have been taking action, when they were simply telling us to wash our hands and to carry on as normal.

My treat to myself is the new Anne Tyler, which arrived the other day. It was on order for months. I take the parcel and open it and immediately wash my hands. Does cardboard carry the virus? Was the postman wearing gloves?

I've read her for thirty years and now she's writing characters slightly younger than me: characters who are already middle-aged, faded and disappointed. Characters who've missed out somehow. Taciturn, diffident characters who we meet on the very day that they try to catch hold of their lives again.

I always love her characters. They’re kind and they've usually lost out and, if it's through fault of their own, it's not a bad fault. Not usually. It's to do with a one-time hesitation, a fatal stepping back in order to let other, more pushy people dart forward. Her characters let others get on with being self-centred and ruthless and unkind.

Straight away I'm thinking of people who have leapfrogged their way onto and then over me in the past. It’s the same in Micah’s backstory here, when we learn a little from his college years. He stood by and let himself be robbed. There was a rich boy who simply took the patent for a software programme away from him. You’ve had comparable situations in the past, when you let people get away with stuff. And, like Micah, all you think you can do in these situations is pity the thief. Yes, I guess I might have been daft, letting them get away with it, but really… don't they have any ideas of their own? No talents? How desperate must they be to steal ideas, or to use up and exploit people and then move on past them?

I've been unlucky and foolish in the past. Hapless as an Anne Tyler character. I'm thinking of people I thought were friends and, looking back, realizing that there was always something smarmy about them. I look back at particular ones and think, Yes, the way they grinned was just like the Blue Meanie in the Yellow Submarine cartoon and that should have been a danger sign.

At the moment I'm feeling sadder and more demoralised about my own work than I even realised. I took the week off to read and do very little work. I learned a bit more about painting with gouache and I gloried in 1970s Jackie Collins and that really was about it for me, this week. But I was also reading Anne Tyler and she put me into a kind of reflective, mopey mood. I love to read her but she makes me feel terrible, too, when I realise, like many of her characters, that I might have done my life wrong. I start to suspect I ought to have had harder edges, maybe… or fewer mixed feelings.

A tough day, feeling claustrophobic indoors. The only place I can sit is my study and that is wholly infused with the idea and atmosphere of work. I'd love to be able to spend the day in the garden. I think how lovely it used to be in the Beach House. I go out to take a look and the garden is so neglected. The Beach House is damaged and crammed with furniture we don't want and can't fit indoors. It's impossible to sit out here.

Jeremy started work in the garden, putting it all back together at the end of February. And I thought: maybe this year he'll sort it again. Then he found all those bones under the fallen tree at the far end and we had to get the police and CSI round, and that was a whole drama for a day. A ridiculous drama – soon resolved. (‘My money is on the remains of a badger,’ said the woman from CID.) The next day we visited my family in Trimdon and it was on the drive back we listened to the news and realised how close the pandemic was coming. We suddenly understood we were all going to be locked in for months, likely as not. So here we are.

Jeremy sits for two hours each day, transcribing the government broadcasts, decoding and fact-checking and commenting on them. Then he posts them online. The local groups are full of people he argues about politics with and they barely acknowledge the work he puts into this and other community initiatives.

I can hear the reasonable, doom-laden voice of the minister and the health experts playing through his laptop in the garden under my window. I want to tear out my hair. I did actually cut my own hair this morning. We’ll all be doing it before long.

I've been sleeping so badly. Lying awake worrying about Jeremy and our parents and Socks and everyone. Lying awake, too hot and thinking: a thousand dead every day. In hospitals I read that they have to turn everyone over and over again. It's best when they lie you face down: best for the lungs and the fluid on them. This image of passivity is horrifying in a way, so that everyone looks like giant babies, being turned over, helplessly.

Finishing the new Anne Tyler this morning, Easter Sunday. Jeremy and Socks have just got up and gone back into the garden. Reading and thinking, that's four novels in five years from her. That's amazing, and I'm so grateful for that quiet, calm, sane voice still being here. Telling us that it's okay to be wrong, imperfect, messy, timewasting… and it's never too late to go back and to make a change. Maybe.

And the theme of quietness! I just read a review of the new one on Amazon where someone says that when they give friends Tyler's books they complain about nothing happening! I think you might as well say that about your own life. (Well, perhaps some people do.) There's absolutely everything happening in her novels, I think. It's all there.

Oh, remember, when you wrote your little play about going to see your granda at the end of his life and you'd been chatting with a very famous producer friend and he said send it to so-and-so at such-and-such productions, his great supporter, all these years. Well, you had the assistant put onto you, of course, and you explained (modestly, stupidly) that perhaps the script was a bit quiet and a bit small scale for them. Then, of course, the assistant gave it a day or so before writing back, and telling you she found it a bit quiet and a bit small scale for them.

Oh well, it doesn't matter. Do you remember your first agent and how she used to say that you had to find something ‘high concept’ to hang all that ‘beautiful writing’ on, or else no one will care, because nothing really happens?

They only notice Anne Tyler now because they've been told to. All these years, and she's finally caught on. Thirty years ago I was lying in the park in Lancaster after my second year at University. That summer I read fifty novels in an empty house and wrote one of my own. I was living in lockdown back then, without even knowing it. All I did was read and write and venture out once a day to the park. Just the same as now.

And just like in an Anne Tyler novel, those thirty years went by and, though all the changes seemed very dramatic at the time, I’m doing all the same stuff as ever. I’m happy to, with the world around me in such constant disarray.

Redhead by the Side of the Road is published by Chatto and Windus