April 17, 2020

Lockdown can be hard. We are not used to being confined and forbidden to socialise. After more than three weeks of it, and with at least three more to come, the strains are showing in us all. But I know that this sort of isolation can offer a way to a new happiness if you are able to prepare, schedule, self-discipline, train, innovate and surrender. The process is challenging before it becomes satisfying. Yet, in time, the discoveries of an isolationist journey can be delightful.

I assert this confidently because my training ground for today’s Covid-19 isolation was a single cell in HMP Belmarsh, 21 years ago.  Those conditions were tougher than they are now.

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As I was confined in a far smaller space for 18 hours a day (23 hours a day at weekends) with no modern distractions — no mobile phone, no internet or TV — I had to be resourceful.  Nevertheless, the basic ground rules for surviving isolation are surprisingly similar then as now.

The preparations are all in the mind. Your world has been compulsorily changed. If you resent or rail against the restrictions, your mental health will suffer. The trick is to attempt, no matter how hard it seems, to train your mind to accept confinement calmly, to ask the question: “How can I make the best of it?”

Penal, as opposed to medical isolation, had its own challenges: guilt, the cacophony of prison noise and spartan conditions. Staying emotionally and mentally stable was the name of the game. Yet the Belmarsh pressures did concentrate my mind wonderfully in some challenging directions.

The first priority is to create a schedule and find the self-discipline to stick to it. In prison, I pinned my hour-by-hour timetable on the bars of my cell and rarely deviated. It was no draconian schoolmaster’s regime. My schedule now, as then, was a patchwork quilt of colourful commitments and curiosities.

I was, for example, receiving around 50 letters a day from well-wishers. Remembering that Lord Curzon, while Viceroy of India had dispatched over a hundred letters a day written in his own hand, I somehow tackled my correspondence with punctual diligence and no laptop.

I would also spend two or three hours every day learning Greek. Oxford had offered me a post-prison place to read a degree in Theology. But to pass my prelims, I had to take a paper in Greek, the subject I had lazily skipped at school. I knuckled down to learning it with a single text book, Wenham’s New Testament Greek. To master the 900 word vocab, I would take out little postcards with me on the wing whenever we were allowed out of our cells for meals. My fellow cons used to tease me saying: “C’mon Jono we knows those squiggles on Greek are ‘em codes for your secret Swiss bank accounts!”

I revived a discipline I had learned in school, the ‘Saying Lesson’. This had required every boy to learn by heart and to recite aloud some 20 lines of poetry. Forty years out of the classroom, I discovered that my powers to recall sonnets, soliloquys and limericks were not too rusty. I polished them up and increased my repertoire declaiming the words through the bars of my cell into the sky.

In the loneliness of the night and early morning hours I also stumbled along some rather primitive pathways of prayer. They were perhaps too simplistic and self-centred, yet they nevertheless laid some foundations of spiritual discipline which have continued to this day.

With a little innovation, the motivations of self-improvement and spiritual-exploration kept me going.

It’s the same now. As in Belmarsh, I designate an hour for poetry, usually reading aloud to my wife Elizabeth (her favourites are Wordsworth and Maya Angelou) or occasionally learning verses by heart to improve my fading septuagenarian memory.

And I relish, as I did then, uninterrupted reading. I have embarked on the third and final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, the 870 page volume The Mirror & the Light. Sixteenth century Tudor plottings are particularly fascinating for an ex-politician who has seen half a century’s worth of contemporary betrayals, stabbings and executions (admittedly without the gore!) in and around Westminster.

But it’s not all betrayal and execution. When I have finished my hours with Hilary Mantel I slot in similar encounters with P.G Wodehouse or Nancy Mitford – because they bestow the gift of laughter on their readers.

One major difference between Covid isolation and Belmarsh isolation is that I now have easy access to modern technology. Also I have the companionship of my beloved wife. So loneliness is not the problem it was then.

I also follow Dr Samuel Johnson’s advice: “Sir, a man should keep his friendships in good repair”. And have been touched by the warmth of communications that lockdown has nurtured. I am able, with the help of Zoom and a telephone, to calm fears among my parishioners and laugh at the jokes of my children and godchildren. In isolation, sometimes we find a new closeness.

And I have built, too, on those spiritual foundations laid back in Belmarsh. I conduct the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer from Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. The attendance consists of my wife (the congregation); my wife’s carer Jessie Chawda (a Jesuit trained Church Server) and myself (the Priest). On Sundays we celebrate full Liturgical Eucharist with bell, book, candle and robes. Some of the passersby who look into our ground floor flat seem to think the lunatics have taken over the asylum!

The last of my six verbs “surrender” is the strongest of practical and spiritual lifelines. My Belmarsh training taught me that it is as stupid as it is pointless to get angry or argumentative about the circumstances that cause the isolation. Surrendering to them with ingenuity and innovation opens new horizons.

The ultimate surrender in the present pandemic may mean facing up to the last enemy — death. This has long been an almost unmentionable subject in our secular society but not any longer.

A few days ago, with high fever, breathing difficulties and dreamy excursions in and out of consciousness, I wondered whether, as a 77 year-old asthmatic and ex-TB patient, if T.S Eliot’s “eternal Footman” might be holding my coat.

So I prayed — but in a new way. Instead of the predictably self-centred, “O Lord please save my life!” requests, I offered instead prayers of gratitude for a wonderful rollercoaster ride. And then I offered prayers of surrender: “Lord it is you who decide the hour of our death. I gladly and totally surrender my life to your will.”

In a moment of peace I dreamt I heard a voice saying with a celestial chuckle: “At last – you’ve got the point!”

Soon afterwards I began to recover and have returned to my isolationist timetable with even greater joy. As my favourite Old Testament prophet Isaiah has written:

“I will give you the treasures of darkness
Riches hidden in secret places”.

Discovering the riches and treasures of darkness can be the greatest blessings of self-isolation.