I've heard it mistranslated as 'And I am in Arcadia' and thought of as a joyful scene or perspective, but it's actually 'Even in Arcadia, I am there' – the tomb in the background suggests that 'I' is Death. Looking around me, the sun shining, people in shorts going for careful walks, barbecue smoke drifting in, many of us seem to have made this slightly tense accommodation with death in springtime. We should be admiring lambs and daffodils (and we are): death is a wintry spectre. Yet here we are, weirdly enduring a sort of holiday with mortality.
It's not an unknown approach. The 1950s and 60s saw the rise in Britain of the Cosy Catastrophe novel, perhaps most famously encapsulated by John Wyndham in The Day of the Triffids and other works. Something terrible causes mass death and total social and governmental collapse, but a small group of sensible people – usually led by a resourceful gentleman and an emotionally-grounded woman he rescues – use their skills to head off somewhere defensible to rebuild, making hard choices along the way but assured of success.
It's an interesting mélange of the famed Stiff Upper Lip and Cold War paranoia, plus a degree of resistance to the collectivist spirit that produced the Welfare State and the NHS post-1945. There's a much more recent American version too, of which James Howard Kunstler's World Made By Hand series is a good example. Drawing on the long history of individualist paranoias prevalent on the far right (such as Ahern's terrible The Survivalist series to which I own my in-depth knowledge of guns and ammo), the newer version is far less openly fascist (Kunstler is clearly conservative but no authoritarian) but no less worrying. In them, catastrophe reinforces the hero's conviction that modern life has become too complicated on every level for its own good. Civilisation collapses and rugged individuals use their huntin' shootin' and fishin' skills to fashion a new, simplified Amish-like life for themselves, untrammelled by the previous worries about, say, women's liberation, sexual identity, suspiciously commie leanings or the pressures of urban life. Survivors' social structures return to feudalism or barter, Providence is once more acknowledged and the pioneer spirit wins through. It's Thoreau's entrancing, infuriating, incoherent Walden (a book that changed my life, despite subsequent revelations about its veracity, its poverty tourism and its inherent self-absorption) but with a reactionary and Calvinist spin and lacking the transcendentalist driver. Thoreau may have been the American Savonarola, but he didn't revel in catastrophe for self-congratulatory kicks. No democrat himself, Thoreau famously and perhaps patronisingly asserted that 'the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation' (something every gig-economy non-employee worker might nod their heads at) but unlike the Cosy Catastrophe crew, he didn't fantasise about disaster sweeping them off the stage to leave room for the Real Men.
Ironically, like all apocalyptic texts, it's the kind of book that can only be produced by a sophisticated urban population and a pretty smug minority within it which needs the tang of disaster to enliven a comfortable existence. I don't know whether it's any less healthy than the more popular genre of disaster fiction, in which there's only temporary or no hope of survival - eco-catastrophe is huge in young adult fiction at the moment. There's a debate about whether such literature spurs people to action or persuades them that there's nothin we can do other than settle in for the ride, and I'm undecided, Walden is probably why I've never driven a car, hardly ever fly and don't have children (though my face and personality may also have had some bearing on the latter). Thoreau certainly had a cold-eyed view of catastrophe: castigating those who couldn't enjoy walking on a beach littered with the bodies of shipwrecked Irish refugees, he asserted that 'it acquired thus a rarer and sublimer beauty still' with death so close.
People are currently playing Pandemic and watching disaster movies, but once the death toll mounts I suspect we'll increasingly be turning to Mary Poppins and Friends re-runs. I'm currently watching old series of Doctor Who as an antidote to the news. Like many people, I'm also making light of the situation - slightly enjoying making do with less access to ingredients, enjoying the empty roads for cycling, feeling slightly pleased with myself at adapting to changed working conditions fairly well, coming up with witty quips on Twitter and the like, but such cheerfulness depends on the unspoken assumption that it will all be over soon, and that I won't be closely impacted. In the meantime, lots of friends and family have lost their incomes, contracted the disease (mildly, thankfully) and are in far worse conditions than me. Finding any pleasure in all this is – to use a dreadful phrase – a mark of privilege of which nobody should be proud.
That's not to say we shouldn't make the best of it, while looking out for others. As well as the Who marathon, I'm still reading. The last of the Green Knowe series was a suitable ending to a magnificent children's series. Following Beckett's account of the decline of the CPGB, I also read Geoff Andrews official history of the last 30 years of the Party, End Games and New Times, which I heartily recommend. For a revolutionary organisation, the CP was deeply conservative and really struggled - in interesting ways - with the 60s and the Youthquake. Sometimes it or factions within it got things badly wrong (long hair and The Beatles = bad), sometimes surprisingly right, often in ways nobody noticed despite the party's influence in old-style mass political organisation. Right now I'm eking out John Crowley's long, so-far wonderful and almost indescribable low fantasy novel Little, Big in which an odd, rural family on the edge of faerie negotiate identity and destiny in a space slightly apart from but not unaffected by (or opposed to) galloping American modernity. If anything it slightly resembles Gormenghast but without the poisonous atmosphere, but it's far less cartoon-like - the characterisation has real complexity and depth, and there isn't a magic sword to be seen.
If you're in the mood for a really evocative account of life under the looming threat of catastrophe though, I can't recommend Comet in Moominland highly enough.
“Moomintroll thought how frightened the earth must be feeling with that great ball of fire coming nearer and nearer to her. Then he thought about how much he loved everything; the forest and the sea, the rain and the wind, the sunshine, the grass and the moss, and how impossible it would be to live without them all, and this made him feel very sad.”
Hope you're all OK out there. We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when…