An indefinite present, an unknowable future


This still doesn’t seem real. One minute I’m doing ordinary, everyday things, the next I remember that everything has changed. I see the same dislocation online. Upbeat marketing from publishers. Ads for long-haul destinations. The organisers of the Tokyo Olympics still somehow thinking they can go ahead.

I can’t settle to reading fiction, because I’m constantly checking news feeds, wondering what will happen next. On one level, it’s entertaining, a story whose end you can’t guess, until you realise, with another jolt, that it’s real life. This isn’t Station Eleven, this isn’t a disaster movie — even if it’s following all the tropes — you can’t switch if off.

I’m carrying on writing, lulled by routine, but even that throws up questions. I’m working on my second Tilda and Freddie novel. I normally set my books in an indefinite present, so they have a contemporary setting, but are not tied to a particular date. When they are published and for some time afterwards, they should feel like they are ‘about now’ in both senses.

I like to do this because it stops the novel feeling dated (last year is just so — you know). It also means you’re not tied to specifics. If you want a scene to take place in a thunderstorm, you don’t have to check the weather reports. How, though, can I write a book that’s set ‘about now’ when the now of next year is likely to be dramatically different from the now of this one?

Everything is in flux. We may see some positive changes. Walter Scheidel has argued that only catastrophe has ever led to reductions in inequality. At times of disaster, people look to the government to act. The ideology of the free market has been shown to be inadequate to deal with this, unable to even allocate toilet roll with any efficiency. So far the government has done little to protect workers or renters, but they are under increasing pressure to do so. The assumptions of recent decades are falling away fast.

Less positively, we don’t know what the implications will be for infrastructure, public services, business, even day-to-day life. Then there are the potential long-term consequences of giving extra powers to a government which has shown a willingness to be arbitrary and authoritarian, as outlined in this thread by constitutional lawyer David Allen Green.

This period of isolation could also be life changing for people in less predictable ways. A year at home for a child is a very long time. What will it mean for their social development? What about young, single people who won’t have opportunities to form relationships or start careers? People whose relationships break down under the strain of isolation, but are unable to move?

The future now feels genuinely unknowable. Of course some people, even now, are dismissing that as dramatising. Most of us who have grown up here post-World War II haven’t experienced major social upheaval and still believe, deep down, that it happens to someone else. We are all the hero of our own story and the hero always wins. Soon we will find out.



  1. You’ve expressed much of what I feel. And social media is a mixed blessing: perhaps that’s why, when I put the phone down and read a book, I gravitate towards so-called escapist literature as a way of distancing myself from everyday reality (even though much of it seems unreal). I echo the injunction above: keep safe.

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  2. On the side of whether there can be positive changes, I’ve heard chatter online between acquaintances about various daily habits that have shifted for the better, like taking walks after dinner (we are still allowed outside for exercise, for food/groceries, for medical/health care, and to assist those who cannot access those things alone or at all) and preparing their own meals (rather than relying on restaurants – although our food service industry is still allowed to operate as take-out only). And speaking of Station Eleven, I recently reread it and was even more impressed by it the second time through. So many interesting characters and connections. Good luck with resuming the reading and with maintaining the writing habits!

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  3. Thank you for this– a lot of what you wrote here resonates with me. I also often imagine life as a story, which can be entertaining at times, but you don’t get the option of closing the book for a while when things grow uncomfortable.

    The greatest peace comes when we recognize that each of our stories is a little subplot in the grander narrative that is taking place– and that every subplot can have incredible meaning when lived for something bigger than itself. As much as I often wish I could fix the world, it is relieving to remember that I am just one character of many… and thankfully the Author knows what He is doing. šŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

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