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Spectator writers in lockdown — by the people stuck with them

What’s it like being quarantined with Rod Liddle or Lionel Shriver?

April 23, 2020

12:46 PM

23 April 2020

12:46 PM

Andrew Watts (Tanya Gold)

‘I can’t eat this,’ said The Spectator’s restaurant critic, putting down her fork after one mouthful. Our son, who had not yet decided whether he liked mackerel, immediately declared that it was yucky-poo. The correction of taste is, after all, the function of criticism. When we’re not in lockdown, Tanya leaves the house to be a critic. I am left at home with the boy to eat fish, liver and haggis, all of which he loves when she isn’t here to tell him that they are, objectively, bad. I wouldn’t mind if she hadn’t gone straight from the kitchen table to sit in her study and eat Monster Munch while watching Spooks. Or if she hadn’t been the one who sent me out to buy mackerel from a fisherman offering it for sale by the quay because the fish markets had closed. Or if I could get back the time I spent watching YouTube videos on how to fillet mackerel. I could, I suppose, rebel and insist that she takes over in the kitchen, but Tanya can only cook two dishes: one of them is spaghetti bolognese, the other one isn’t. She likes to joke that the only thing she really knows how to make is reservations. It’s not a joke.

Julian Glover (Matthew Parris)

Matthew has built a den in his bedroom. He’s dragged his duvet from his bed and draped it around his desk, surrounding himself with more soft furnishings to deaden the noise in case the BBC rings up and asks him to broadcast to the nation. Downstairs, amid a scattering of hacksaws and screwdrivers, he carries out increasingly perilous DIY jobs while wearing an old woolen dressing gown, most recently rewiring a pre-war brass electric fire with a switch which flashes sparks when you turn it on. Outside, his longstanding work on an adventurous stone drainage system continues, recently interrupted by a small herd of escaping Welsh Black cattle. We’ve started drinking white wine at lunch. His only online order so far has been for 200 candles from Price’s. I am thinking of hiding the Land Rover keys in case he busts out of lockdown and heads for London.

Dominic Cummings (Mary Wakefield)

I’ve gone back to work, so I’m not locked down with Mary any more, but at the end of March and for the first two weeks of April I was ill, so we were both shut in together.

The word I’d use to describe being stuck indoors with Mary is: sticky. Everything is covered in a layer of spilt Ribena, honey, peanut butter and playschool glue. Mary has made a castle out of polystyrene and cardboard; she pretends it’s for our son, but it isn’t. She spends most of her time staring at it and chewing her thumb, lost in thought, wondering whether to stick on more sequins. I have to talk a lot more at work than I like — I like quiet. Being with Mary in lockdown means I think I am talking all day and Mary thinks she’s starved of conversation. But I like listening to her and our four-year-old. They bicker like an old married couple and discuss what the birds are thinking.

Caroline Bondy (Toby Young)

Toby spent the first week of lockdown in bed convinced he had coronavirus. He didn’t. He is a complete hypochondriac at the best of times and this pandemic has sent his anxiety levels through the roof. He was so worried about catching it that the stress led to a bout of shingles which is what actually laid him up. But Toby was convinced and started taking hydroxychloroquine, vitamin C and anything else he’d read might alleviate symptoms. There was also a lot of temperature-taking, as well as doing some ridiculous breathing test that has now been discredited.

Having recovered, Toby’s life has carried on pretty much as normal in lockdown. My life, on the other hand, has changed quite dramatically. Work has dried up and my days are now filled with domestic chores, which with six people in the house all day every day can be quite daunting. So you can imagine how much I have welcomed comments from Tobe such as: ‘We seem to be managing really well without our cleaner.’

Actually, I do have one other job — I have to go through the papers each morning removing any articles relating to evidence that it may be possible to be re-infected with COVID-19. I don’t think I can handle watching Toby fretting again over which combination of medications to take.

One upside is that lockdown means Toby has more time to bond with our new puppy, and seeing him playing with her in the garden is very heartwarming.

Tiffany Daneff aka The Fawn (James Delingpole)


No man has shown greater satisfaction than James on returning from the garage bearing a multipack of licorice rolling papers. But of all the changes (a renewed enthusiasm for gin and cigarettes; a more than usually obsessive observation of small tickles in the throat), none was more surprising than the day he fixed the lawnmower. James is not banausic. Indeed, he had to ask me where the toolbox was. Five phone calls and 24 hours later he had located the fuel line, removed the blockage and spent the rest of the afternoon mowing the garden. Result.

Alicia Monckton (Rod Liddle)

Having spent the best part of 16 years in a Liddle lockdown of our own devising, this should have been a cinch. We’ve rubbed along well enough. He punctures my inherent neuroses with his ‘cheer up love, it might never happen’ bonhomie. Only now it has happened and the tables have turned. There was a foretaste of what lay ahead when he took delivery of a large consignment of freeze-dried food pouches — a week before internment commenced. He’s seized command of the household with a rapidity and ruthlessness that would shame Pinochet. I’m frequently summoned with grave import to his work shed, only to be asked whether I want the chicken or fish a week next Tuesday.

He turned 60 on April 1. Our daughter, thrilled with her ingenuity, bought for him one of those personalized photo gifts you can order online. This week’s prescribed ‘family activity’ is to complete the 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of his own face.

The Builder Boyfriend (Melissa Kite)

It’s more like knockdown than lockdown, living with Melissa. Every time I come home she’s broken another piece of the house. I call her monkey fingers. Every day I have to fix something she’s meddled with. To say she’s accident-prone doesn’t really do her justice. She does always cook a good dinner, usually while smashing a lot of crockery and setting fire to the odd tea towel.

Catriona Olding (Jeremy Clarke)

I wondered how it would be to be locked-down together, EasyJet grounded. Jeremy reads and occasionally gardens. I paint, read, walk and WhatsApp my daughters and friends. We don’t Zoom or watch TV. Cabin-feverish the other day, I went for a three-hour walk up a medieval path through the woods, hoping for nightingales. Jeremy was censorious. Was I special, he asked, sniping as we did our usual circuit the next day. Irrefutably it was wrong of me, but galling to take from a man who shagged his way round sub-Saharan Africa at the height of the Aids epidemic. I look forward to a 6 p.m. gin and tonic and a fag. Jeremy doesn’t. Except when he does. When he does, the bottle’s soon empty and we’re tipsy-drunk, dancing round the living room cave with pulsating disco lights. On soberer evenings we’re in bed by 11, racing each other through Anthony Powell’s 12-novel sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, reading out funny bits.

Princess Alexandra von Schönburg (Taki)

We are incredibly lucky to be locked down in Switzerland in a house with a garden and a view over the Alps. The father of my children has never been more docile or good-natured than he has been the past six weeks. But then Taki ages well, like the wine he often enjoys. While he would normally be in New York at this time of year, walking the streets of the Upper East Side admiring young women in their spring dresses, now he trains for some imaginary sporting event in the garden every afternoon with our son. Gone are the days of late nights at the Boom Boom Room and reports of lunches and dinners with Hollywood types. Instead I learn a lot about films from the 1940s, his current favorite pastime. If he isn’t spending hours in front of the TV with Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Joan Fontaine, I find him lugging crates of beer down to the cellar, a surprising occurrence considering Taki has been unaware until now that he even has a cellar. Having always had staff, the sight of Taki making his bed and mopping his bathroom floor in the morning is a welcome surprise. The best part of our day comes in the evening at dinner, which is either cooked by me or our son, John-Taki. We usually drink a bottle of wine and listen to Taki, who tells us stories about the old days. However embellished they may be, we laugh a lot. Confinement has only brought out the best in him.

John Wordsworth (Dot Wordsworth)

As a doctor I have observed changes in my wife, Dorothy, that I do not trouble her about. Annoyed by finding no basmati rice in Waitrose, she complains when a moth flies from the rug under my chair. I find it best to remain calm and cheery. I see less of her than normal, partly because she spends long periods out of doors on the pretext of shopping, partly because she has made the sun-dappled kitchen her fortress, playing foreign classical music stations and sitting at the table over newspapers or at her laptop. It’s been an enchanted spring, but now I fear she’s making nettle soup.

Caroline Moore (Charles Moore)

Many journalists write from home; so the lockdown makes little difference to us. In our case, a practice lockdown began in 2003, when Charles gave up the editorship of the Telegraph. I was summarily evicted from my book-lined study, with its coal fire, and found myself cooking two meals a day. Actually, though I did mind a bit about the study, the spare bedroom had its compensations — a fine view across the valley, and a family of house martins a few inches from the window — and I like cooking. I don’t much like washing-up, which Charles has always done, so I think I get the best of that deal (especially as I am, perhaps as a result, rather a messy cook. Or should that be ‘creative’?). There were, however, three of us in our household — Charles, me and Margaret Thatcher. When Charles finished the biography, kind friends would remark how nice it must be to have Charles back again. Actually, I saw less of him than ever before as he embarked upon endless book tours, and I could indulge in my secret vice of going to bed unfeasibly early. Now all the tours are cancelled; but I still barely see him during the day. I am in the garden from dawn till dusk. If you garden on heavy clay soil, there is only a brief season for effective deep weeding, when the soil is in transition between wet claggy clumps and dry baked concrete. Grit and manure, manure and grit, all day long…and I fall into bed unfeasibly early.

Jeff Williams (Lionel Shriver)

Throughout nearly two decades of marriage we often spend quite a bit of time apart due to our respective professions. Although this is not always agreeable, the opportunity to miss the other person, while acquiring interesting conversational material to unleash upon reuniting, is not to be underestimated. Being in lockdown has altered this equation. Surprisingly, perhaps, we seem to be enjoying each other’s company unabated. Lionel does what she always does, being a highly disciplined person — rises late morning, reads newspapers online over coffee, writes during the remaining daylight, exercises in the evening, then prepares a wonderful midnight feast for us to enjoy as we reconvene to discuss matters relating to the current plight. A lot of television news will have been consumed prior to the meal and will feature in a conversation often rising in intensity in proportion to Lionel’s outrage over what has been reported. She’ll need to get a few things off her chest.

Barbara Machin (Susan Hill)

The lockdown has encouraged Susan’s eccentricities. Now she can flaunt her talent for acquiring absolutely anything online. Elastic for NHS scrubs, yeast in sacks, and a scary set of dog clippers.

The world’s gone virtual but right here it’s just us with more words. Conversations spread into lengthy emails between rooms. And not just about supper. Skype has always been a ‘no’, but now Susan reads daily with her adorable granddaughter on Zoom. The exit beckons us back but this sweet bond is now theirs. And we’ll reclaim the New Normal quietly. It was ours all along.

Ed Cumming (Lara Prendergast)

Lara has just had a baby so lockdown hasn’t given me much insight into her working life. Instead, she and our month-old daughter, Lily, have come crashing into mine. The house used to be a temple of quietude between 8 and 7, where I was free to work or not, get dressed, or not, and shower, or not. Now there’s a grizzly, ravenous creature making constant demands on me for food and attention, and a baby to think about too. Like any brilliant professional Lara has found maternity leave occasionally lacking in mental stimulation. So she has decided to take up Latin. A copy of Harry Mount’s Amo, Amas, Amat and Book 1 of the Cambridge Latin Course sit on our coffee table. I suppose it’s as useful as any other language when you can’t leave the house.

Andy Ryan (Laura Freeman)

We have our WFH territories: Laura in the study; me at the kitchen table. Occasionally, for novelty’s sake, we swap. Like a mini away-day. I eavesdrop on Laura’s interviews with art world grandees. She disapproves of my calls taken sprawled on the sofa. For food, Laura hunts (shops online), while I gather (fetch boxes). She is determined to maintain standards. For Easter Sunday lunch, our little table on the fire escape was adorned with G&Ts and napkin rings. All was well until I mentioned that working from home suited me. Laura’s look of horror suggests I’ll be back in the office the moment the lockdown is over.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s 10,000th UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.


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