by Zoë Fairbairns
Which aspects of lockdown have been worst for you? The queues? The propaganda? The loneliness? That sinister symptom you developed?
I’ve been through all of the above. But they were nothing compared to the rage and sadness I felt at the closure of bookshops and libraries. I live in a modern city. How could there be no books available?
Don’t talk to me about internet bookselling. I loathe ebooks. And as for mail order – who was to say that those innocent-looking packages on the doorstep weren’t awash with germs? I turned to the books on my own shelves. At least if they were infected, it would be with something I already had.
I’m not one of these admirable people who have seen lockdown as an opportunity for self-improvement, working their way through the classics and picking up a foreign language on the way. I’ve gone for what I know I know I’m going to like because I’ve liked it before.
Their Finest by Lissa Evans (Black Swan). A fitting choice for a lockdown library, this novel is about government propaganda and propagandists. The year is 1940, and a woman called Catrin is hired by the British Ministry of Information to write patriotic film-scripts to help the war effort. An advertising copywriter by profession, Catrin is more accustomed to extolling the virtues of face cream and beef extract rather than the heroism of Dunkirk rescuers, but she steps forward to do her bit, wrestling with dilemmas which face propagandists everywhere: if you discover that the facts don’t quite fit the propaganda message, is it OK to change the facts?
In a more up-to-date take on public relations, Helen Fielding’s Cause Celeb (Picador) is a novel about the use of rich and famous westerners (some of them good-hearted, some cynical and a bit dim) to shine a light of publicity on a famine-threatened country in Africa, and so bring aid.
First published in 1994, Cause Celeb predates Helen Fielding’s better-known Bridget Jones series; but aid worker Rosie Richardson is obviously a sister under the skin to Bridget, with her tendency to give her heart to horrible men and her bewilderment as she negotiates her way through celebrity culture: ‘these gatherings were a total nightmare. You feared to ask anyone what they did, lest they turned out to be the author of Love in the Time of Cholera, or one of the Beach Boys.’
Mass hunger. The Blitz. Ordeals faced by characters in these novels helped me keep a sense of proportion over the irritations of lockdown. As did a book called 24 Stories, edited by Kathy Burke (Unbound). This collection, whose full title is 24 Stories of Hope for Survivors of the Grenfell Tower Fire, brings together established writers and newcomers to tell stories of neighbourliness, solidarity and warmth.
It’s not for me to comment on whether these stories have helped Grenfell survivors deal with their trauma, or even whether fiction can do that. Not all the 24 Stories are about Grenfell – most of them don’t even mention it. But they are carefully crafted and unsentimental, and they show different ways in which human beings survive crises great and small.
Bessie Head’s short story ‘Let Me Tell A Story Now…’ (which appears in her collections Tales of Tenderness and Power and A Woman Alone, both Heinemann) show how writing a short story can assist its author in overcoming the difficulties of, well, writing a short story. Normally I would run a mile from such a self-referential concept – I mean, if you’ve got a story to write, write it. If you can’t, keep quiet about it until you can. But this account of a mixed-race woman’s literary ambitions in apartheid South Africa, is hilarious, wise and inspiring.
I’ve mainly focused on women’s writing for my lockdown library. But I couldn’t resist having another look at Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (Vintage). In Shute’s grimly banal 1957 apocalyptic vision, the entire northern hemisphere has been wiped out by nuclear war, and the south is under threat from an advancing cloud of radioactive fallout. Beleaguered survivors huddle in Australia, swallowing government-issued suicide pills and amusing themselves with fast cars and love affairs as they await their end. To this locked-down reader, it seemed oddly reassuring to be reminded that things could be worse…
What’s been in your lockdown library?
Zoe Fairbairns has been involved with the Feminist Library from its
beginnings – first as a paid worker, then as a volunteer and Collective
member, now as a supporter and a Friend. Her website is at