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Arts Diary Life Magazine May 2020 The Month Theater

Tom Stoppard in isolation

If it were not for the terrors surrounding us, this is the life I’ve always wanted — social distancing without social disapproval

This article is in The Spectator’s May 2020 US edition. Subscribe here to get yours.

Week five…which is to say I’ve been self-isolating in the country since March 6. Meanwhile, engagements which threatened a return to town have been falling over like a row of dominoes. If it were not for the terrors surrounding us, this is the life I’ve always wanted — social distancing without social disapproval. My wife, Sabrina, who to my amazement is a techno whiz, has expanded her social life digitally, sometimes with pals by the roomful. I am learning not to blow my cover story (‘Tom’s working’) by passing behind her while she’s on FaceTime. Meanwhile, the days are not long enough for me to not work and keep up with my magazines. Here is what comes through the letter box: The Spectator, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the Week, Prospect and Standpoint. If I couldn’t read them in print, I’m not sure I would read them at all. It’s as though they wouldn’t matter anymore. What is wrong with me?

If I were not so busy not working, I would make time to start a campaign to bring back ‘he or she’. The movement to make amends for the excludingness of the male pronoun is becoming ridiculous. Recently on the radio it was said that Carl Friedrich Gauss (b. 1777), the Prince of Mathematics, annoyed some of his readers by omitting the steps leading to a proof. Gauss was defended by Professor Marcus du Sautoy, who told us that Gauss ‘replied that an architect doesn’t leave up the scaffolding when she is completing a building’. I don’t think he meant that Gauss was woke before his time.


Lately, the novelist Will Boyd had a piece in the TLS about being in Tokyo for a few days, committed to writing a short story as payback for a freebie. In the end, he finds one. With me, when I was in Tokyo, it was different. The story found me. It goes like this. I was coming back to Tokyo by train from the Pacific coast. For reasons too shaming to explain, I found myself on a train just as it was leaving the station with all my luggage still on the platform, including all my money, cards, passport, etc in my shoulder bag now sitting on my receding suitcases. I still had my phone. I got out at the next station and found my way to an office, where I called a Japanese-speaking friend who conveyed my predicament over the phone. No one spoke English. Everybody nodded and made calming gestures. I waited, hopping up and down and trying to explain that I had to get back to the station I started off from. After a while I was led back to a platform which I then realized could not be the platform I needed because it was the one I had alighted on. I now had a couple of escorts who simply didn’t get the idea at all, so I had another tantrum. An incoming train glided in. The doors opposite me glided open. All of my luggage, including my shoulder bag, was on the train, babysat by a railway guard. I got on board. Everybody smiled and bowed and I continued on my way to Tokyo. I shouldn’t have been surprised. A couple of days later the desk clerk in the hotel smilingly handed me a credit card which I didn’t know I’d lost. It had been picked up in the street.

The trout season opened on April 1. I was given my first fly rod 70 years ago. Since moving to Dorset, my fishing has been on a chalk stream so small and so tricky that the only way to fish it is to walk up the middle in chest-waders with a seven-foot rod. The last time I was on the water I slipped and went under, since when I haven’t been sure whether I should still fish. Lockdown shelves the question for the time being. I wait for further instructions from the Prime Minister’s office.

We recently celebrated Easter and Passover. The assimilated family in my play Leopoldstadt recognizes both. Grandma offers to have everybody for the Seder meal, adding: ‘Unless it’s the same time as Easter. I don’t mind Christmas because baby Jesus had no idea what was going on, but I feel funny about Easter eggs.’ In rehearsal, Patrick Marber (the director) and I debated whether the line was funny or not. I thought it was but began to lose confidence when Patrick started referring to it as the Death Star. Until there’s an audience you don’t really know. At the first preview they laughed. My joy was disproportionate. Playwrights are like that about laughs. I like to say laughter is the sound of comprehension, an elevating thought, but in truth we just love getting a laugh.

Tom Stoppard’s play Leopoldstadt was at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until it was shut down by coronavirus.This article is in The Spectator’s May 2020 US edition. Subscribe here to get yours.


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