‘If I’d listened to you, we’d be dead by now’ my father told me as the coronovirus carried one peer of his after another to their grave. I had wanted him to stay in London in February, while coronavirus was still being downplayed by English politicians and their ‘special advisors’. Father had just retired from his radio station in Prague, and was visiting London with my mother – wouldn’t they like to spend more time with my wife and the kids? But they’d insisted on going back, saying something about renewing a contract on their apartment. In retrospect, it was a close shave. My wife and I, as well as our kids, succumbed to corona later that month. We must have been walking around with it for weeks before, little infection engines. One misplaced breath could have done for my parents. In Prague they were safer: lockdown had happened much earlier than in ruthless England.
My first job after recovering from the illness was to make a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the pandemic. I’d pitched it as an investigation into whether Covid-19 was bringing society together or driving us apart. The program was related to my research at the London School of Economics, where I investigate ‘polarisation’ and how to overcome it. The last few years had been defined by social divides around Brexit, pitching Remainers versus Brexiteers, which, when you look at the underlying polling, is very much a war between the generations: the elderly vote Brexit, the young Remain.
Making the program was more of a struggle than I’d anticipated. Even after the most intense coronavirus symptoms – fevers, panting, sweats, deliriums – had faded, I was still listless, and would lose focus halfway through interviews. The covid brain, starved of regular oxygen by crappy lungs, frazzles fast. One of the first successful interviews I managed was with the psychoanalyst Josh Cohen, who detected elemental tensions in the relations between generations during Covid-19:
‘You have this notion in Freud that the band of brothers club together in some notional ancient time to kill the primal father. And then they are filled with remorse for it. And that remorse is the basis of repression which is the basis of civilisation. So civilisation is really about the internalisation of guilt at our aggression towards those we would like to topple or get out of the way. We become morally evolved by caring about the very people we feel this secret aggression towards.’
Cohen saw this logic playing out during the Covid-19 crisis – particularly around whether to pursue herd immunity, the idea that had been so popular in England at the start of the pandemic. ‘Part of the rhetoric was that it would be an efficient cull of the elderly and the infirmed and it wouldn’t affect anybody else,’ Cohen said. Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, discussed the herd immunity strategy in interviews with Sky News and the BBC, saying ‘our aim is to reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely . . . to build up some kind of herd immunity’. Later, the Sunday Times would report that Boris Johnson’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, had been overheard at parties describing the government’s strategy: ‘protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad.’
But as the data began to show that far more people could potentially die, there was a turnaround. The government rowed back on the idea of herd immunity, claiming it was never part of their official strategy, and called the Cummings quotation a ‘highly defamatory fabrication’.
I asked Cohen what he made of all this.
‘We went from a kind of cavalier “it’s only the old and the infirm” to “we must protect the most vulnerable, most precious members of our society”. It was a massive leap in cultural attitude. An invocation of the remorse and guilt that comes around any intimation that aggression towards our parents is making its way into the public conversation.’
After our interview, I found myself thinking again about my parents visit, and the way I’d insisted they stay. Had there been some sort of Freudian urge underlying my desire to keep my mother and father in the UK?
My father certainly thought there was something in the idea that coronavirus showed children’s hidden instincts towards their parents. Back in Prague, he was writing poetry on the subject. He’s been a poet all his life, but his radio career had meant that he was only able to produce one book or so per year. Now, hemmed in between retirement and the plague, he was tinkling out a books’ worth in a month:
In the good old days
Children and virgins were offered as sacrifice.
A civilisation should sacrifice its future,
Or else what’s the point of the sacrifice?
But these days
They come for us . . .
Do they think the Gods are blind?
But here we stand on the sacrificial altar,
Shivering, sniveling, farting.
Can’t you tell that we’re useless?
Father had often joked that because he wrote in Russian, and I in English, we’d avoided having an outright father-son confrontation over literary territory. We had different languages to fill with our ambitions. Perhaps in order to avoid a collision I’d also swerved away into different genres: first television in contrast to his radio; then the plod of social science and very Anglo-Saxon, grounded reportage in contrast to his Russian poetic flights. Whenever I publish an article about politics and propaganda he always sighs and complains: please try to remember that deep down, you’re a poet.
For my father, poetry had been a way to rebel against the oppressive power he grew up under, the soviet system, which crushed the individual voice under the weight of ideology. In an early novella, written when he was twenty-seven and being interrogated by the KGB for handling censored literature, his fictional narrator, a young writer, discovers his own father’s imperial, impersonal, official writing and compares it with his own. The battle of ideologies is represented by another generational struggle.
First, the narrator’s father, in firm socialist style:
This country has thrown off the chains of Capitalist Slavery! Bourgeois culture was always far from the people! Now it has revealed its true face: the face of the maidservant of monopolistic capital! Welcome the Socialist Sun! Let the Darkness be gone!
And then we see the writing of my father’s narrator:
Just a minute ago you were walking the street, breathing in air and breathing out words; now you have burst through to the page, now it will pour out, like wild berries you’d been carrying inside your jacket. Is there any joy greater than writing in the first person?
Now, back in Prague, the quarantine and the closure of borders was giving my father Cold War flashbacks. And while Covid-19 was reducing life and death to statistics, father was again using literature to affirm individuality, a voice.
However much you try,
However much you hope,
You always end up as some set of statistic.
Homeowners or heterosexuals or failed writers.
How pointless these numbers are! What have statistics got to do with your life?
But now we have new sets:
The number of infected
(the counter is ticking)
The percentage of those infected who have died
(the counter is ticking)
The percentage of the dead over seventy
(the counter is ticking)
He was worried about my individual voice too, though not because of Covid-19.
When I told him about the radio program I was making for the BBC, he said, ‘Take care. You will end up sounding like a BBC person. They all sound the same. In your last program you sounded like an imitation of Andrew Marr. It’s horrific to hear you lose your voice this way.’
Radio, for father, has always been about the magic of the voice, the almost mystic properties of sound. My father had worked for the BBC himself, as a Soviet political refugee in the Russian Service during the height of the Cold War. At that time, sound was the only way to break through the physical walls and barbed wires of borders that had cut the world into different geopolitical zones. The rare phone calls he and mother had with their parents in the USSR took hours to arrange through a dispatcher, the secret services eavesdropping on every word. But barriers fell away when he entered the BBC radio studio; he felt himself piloting through censorship:
‘The hermetically sealed and soundproofed booths, the control panels, the lack of outside windows make radio studios like spaceships. And your voice alone is capable of unlocking this closed space. I am convinced that, as they sit by the radio, many listeners are on a voyage round the world, no, into outer space, more like. I too am a travel maniac: I jump from wave to wave.’
After decades in his spaceship studio he had come to see radio as a way of overcoming not only censorship, but death itself. The voices he recorded were immortal, once transmitted they travelled on infinite radio waves into the universe, like disembodied souls reverberating in the stratosphere. He once wrote a book of poems where the main character is a radio producer who goes mad thinking he can bring people back to life with the power of the wireless. In his ‘Covid Cycle’ he turned to radio once again as a metaphor of overcoming glum reality:
Only radio never shuts up during quarantine.
The world has become like a sunken submarine
Where a sailor inside needs to keep beating a hammer on the hull
Hoping to be heard upon the surface.
He imagines ‘a man, who looks a lot like me’ going around a spectral Prague with a magic Dictaphone which has the miraculous ability to record sounds that still existed before Covid-19: the tinkle of bottles in a bar; the whistle of skipping rope and squeak of swings at an empty playground
Back at the BBC, my own program was proving a more prosaic affair. It was, however, at least progressing, as I shrugged off the shortness of breath. Most of my interviewees were academics, who had conducted long, empirical, detailed experiments about how we can communicate with each other in a world no longer divided by physical barriers as in the Cold War, but by extreme polarisation, where people live in different social media ghettos of self-selected reality. Covid-19 now made those polarised divides a health risk – with groups tumbling into online worlds of wild conspiracies about the virus and quack cures.
Talia Stroud, a Professor of Communications at the University of Texas, told me about an experiment she had designed where you replace the ‘Like’ button on Facebook with a ‘Respect’ button. People in one political bubble were more likely to engage with content from the other tribe when they were asked whether they respected them, which was less a sign of partisan loyalty than ‘like’. Just a small tweak in the way a computer program creates metaphors for our emotions and relations could already change society.
Stroud had also experimented with how journalists can win trust from audiences convinced their claims to objectivity are a cover for their biases; that they are just ‘fake news’. One way was for journalists to reveal more about themselves when they present their content, welcome the audience into their process of composition. Trust levels could go up when journalists explain their personal background; how they collected the information; why the piece was commissioned. By revealing one’s subjectivity, you could have a more objective conversation. However, she lamented, as soon as you find one way of refreshing this relationship with the audience, it gets staid again, another set of clichés that again becomes a calcified wall between people.
One needs to be constantly finding new ways to break through; incessantly refreshing viewpoints that shake people out of their bubbles of identity. Only by constantly rewiring how we look at the world can one create enough movement to break through the barriers of seeing the world purely as ‘Democrats’ or ‘Republicans’, ‘Remainers’ and ‘Brexiteers’. Imagination, rather than fact-checking, is the path out of polarisation and, paradoxically, towards a shared reality.
I’ve spent the last few years of my life in a university building full of social scientists, trying to use polling and focus groups, data analysis and digital targeting to investigate whether a piece of content breaches the Berlin Walls of partisanship. It’s slow work, often worthy, but it only leads me back to how secondary sociology is to poetry in the project of reopening identity: poetry is the place where we experiment with changing ‘frames’ and points of view most radically.
While writing my last book I came across a PhD study that showed how the one thing that connected disparate Chinese people who did not accept government propaganda was that they had read fiction voraciously growing up: they could imagine a different way of experiencing the world to the one doled out by the CCP. It reminded me of my father in the Soviet Union, for whom poetry was a path to political rebellion, a way of changing ‘frames’ so radical it undermined the edifice of identity all around him. Perhaps poetry is the vaccine from the information virus.
Even today my father was still overturning perspective with every new poem he posted on his Facebook feed: he told the story of the virus from the point of view of rats undergoing vaccine experiments; of an information virus jealous of the coronavirus. He imagined trying to record the voice of the virus, bursting into a laboratory and breaking a test tube to gather its triumphant tones. Other poems satirised the quotidian. There was one about not being able to get through to a solicitor to make his will . . .
Or else I thought that was a poem – but then the next day he called and asked why I hadn’t gotten back to him. ‘Can’t you see we’re facing a crisis with how to plan for death?’ he asked me. I apologised and explained I’d read his post as poetry, rather than as a cry for help, confusing his regular voice with his poetic one. I said I would help source a solicitor in London as soon as my radio work allowed.
I asked a friend of mine, Devorah Baum, about how our relationship to our elders, or just the elderly, had shifted during Covid-19. ‘We have both put our parents onto a pedestal and protected them, but at the same time that protection and worship is a way of controlling them,’ she mused. ‘Now they are the helpless ones who, much like when we were infants, depend on us.’ We had gone from ‘herd immunity’ to protection, but that protection was also a form of control.
I wasn’t surprised to see that father’s latest poem was all about this new dynamic:
‘It’s cold. Steam comes out of her mouth.
The doctor says she has the Spanish Flu.
A shadow passes over my mother’s face. She’s dead.’
That’s by Mikhail Zoshenko.
But who will describe my cough?
Zoshenko’s mother was lucky.
Isn’t my son a writer too?
Yes – but the borders are closed.
He won’t be able to fly here
As they say, in good time.
It’s all very well thinking of radio as a metaphor to overcome death, but it’s children who guarantee immortality, and who are truly in power.
After I had finished my radio show, and it was released, my father messaged me. ‘I listened to your program. Very good. Your voice sounds personal. Born for radio by me.’ I told him I now felt fully recovered from Covid-19, and had been asked to make a new, ten-part series for the BBC. It had been nice to get away from the social science and just work on recording voices and storytelling. I felt at ease spending my days in the ‘spaceship’ of the studio: when Covid-19 has ruptured so many patterns, I felt like I was continuing my dad’s.
In Prague, his poetry seemed to have made peace with being made the sacrifice – or perhaps he was now playing with the idea that risk was a better fate that being controlled by his own children. I couldn’t tell.
It is good we are the prey.
We walk slowly. Sit in the sunshine. Pause in the window (without masks)
He doesn’t hurry. Aims. Wipes the sweat from his brow.
He takes pleasure in choosing who to hit and where:
In the sinuses, lungs, throat.
Yes it is good we are the prey.
Because if it were the children
Where would we hide them?
In the cellar? The loft?
We would shout: ‘I will tear your ear off if you dare peak out!’
And afterwards we would walk around with an ear in the hand:
That is not something you can just throw in the bin.
And this sniper is a sophisticated type.
He loves his job.
He shakes the moth balls from his suit.
Picks up a retro suitcase.
Comes round and rings the doorbell.
‘You have mice?’
‘No we have a cat. The cat catches the mice.’
‘What about Bats?’
And he just stands there quietly.
Refuses to leave.
While you hide the children in the pantry.
To summarise: we are lucky.
Let me open the window. Let him take aim.
After work at the BBC the other day I came home to find my own children, ten-year-old twins who haven’t seen a school room for two months, on a Zoom call with father. He’s been giving them lessons while school’s been off. Largely, he spends the time teaching them to write poetry. He thinks one, at least, may be a poet like himself.
Image © Dean Hochman
Poems translated from the Russian by Peter Pomerantsev