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BooksApril 9, 2020

Lockdown letters #14, Glenn Colquhoun: Down the back of the bus

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

‘It is sobering watching what a country can do if it wants to. Having been told for so long that nothing is possible. These are strange times down the back of the bus, John.’

Read more Lockdown Letters here.

Dear John Keats

Funny that it’s had to come to this. But when I think of it it’s kind of inevitable you’d be going past sooner or later. I saw William Wordsworth the other day. And William Blake. Byron (he’s a fucking lunatic isn’t he). Coleridge. Shelley. A tyger… lamb. I suppose you’ve been through all this stuff before too. Hiding from bugs. Miasmas. The humours. Whatever passes death between people. I read those odes you wrote a while back. The ones you put together a spring or two before you died — knowing that you might. Standing in that room in Rome did it for me in the end though. I’ve felt tangled ever since. I hope it’s OK to walk beside you for a while. Shake your hand. Stand our ghosts together while we talk about the weather.

Think of yourself as the wedding guest if it helps. Accosted. I’m feeling more and more like an Ancient Mariner these days. Have shot a few albatrosses in my time. I think you would have liked medicine, John. I know you were walking away from it when you died but I’ve wanted to knock on your door for such a long time and ask if I could talk to you about that. Introduce myself. Observe the social customs. Say, “Please stay. Consider it at least.” I think it would have eased you somehow. Fused one day with the poetry. Opened a doorway to a particular form of compassion in you that people, in all their struggles, bring. I would have loved to see what you made of it all too. Discussed it with you some time.

No doubt it would have hurt you though. Challenged your bricks and mortar. You would have been exhausted. Enraged. Delighted. Undone. But one day, like raw atoms in soup, your nuts and bolts would have reached back out to each other again. Come together. Congealed. Reconstituted. Your arms and legs fitted back into your clothes. You would have been different somehow. Matured. Chiselled. Your eyes made wetter. Grecian urns and nightingales have nothing on people and their ills my friend. It just feels like I’ve needed to tell you that for a long time.

It’s good to have you here. A new country suits you. You can start over. Be again. It’s encouraged on this coast. Forgive us. But the times are skewed at the moment. We are under a great and transcendent peace. And hiding from the Angel of Death at the same time. It’s the Passover, all over. There is joy and fear. Roads you can land planes on. People a bit frightened. Talk of kindness. Panic occasionally. Rising like vomit into the throat. Quick drinks of water.

My sort of medicine is at the back of the bus on this one, John. I work with young people. They’re in pretty good shape as far as arms and legs go. They don’t often come with coughs and colds. Most of them I’ve known for years. They call and we talk. It’s like yakking to my nephews and nieces. Mostly they have their heads down weathering things at the moment. I worry for the ICU doctors. The hospital doctors. The GPs wading out through all that viral tide to deal with those things people get sick from regardless; sore heads, dodgy hearts, gammy legs, kidneys, livers, bellies and skin. It makes me wonder too. About crises. This bug is out of the crisis textbook. It’s a centrefold. Square jawed. Full of menace. And brutally existential. It’s the Brad Pitt of viruses. A Dr Evil perhaps. We are right to run for our lives. This is a rainy day. And we are doing what we need to do. Shutting down our country. Staying home. Taking planes out of the sky. Being kind. We are looking under the bed and spending our savings.

But down the back of the back of the bus I listen to the stories of young people. It is a different sort of medicine. So many of those young people have been hurt. They have been hit. They have been touched. They have been told they are useless pieces of shit. They have watched their dads beating their mums. They have been bullied. Too many have not been able to take kindness for granted at all. Some find their minds turned against them. They put their hands over their ears and want it to stop. And usually it is us. Adults. Big people. Who are toxic to them. We are their viruses. Full of insult and spike. Some of them die. Some carry the trauma of what they have been through for the rest of their lives. It pops up in difficult relationships. Being in pain. Not getting jobs. Being kicked out of school. Going to prison. Getting pissed. Stoned. Wasted. Pregnant before they are ready. Hooking up with the wrong person. Things can just keep going round and round in circles. Pass into new children. I suppose there’s a form of transmission in that too. Eventually some of them get to the front of the bus. They fall under the wheels. Many get well. Overcome. They are beautiful. They are all beautiful.

It’s been going on for decades. And for decades before that. Everyone down the back of the bus calls out. We shout out, “Oi, there is a crisis back here.” But the planes keep flying. And the borders stay open. And the money stays under the bed. And no one stops at all. Not for a moment. No tests. No PPE. No funding. No coordination. No planning. No thinking. No science. No kindness. No imagination. It is as though we live in two different countries. Stand in one. And look across at the other. Sometimes I don’t believe what I’m seeing myself.

They are talking about sacking the minister of health for driving to the beach while Dr Evil is on the loose. But not for ignoring those young people. They didn’t sack the minister before that. Or the one before that. Not all crises are created equal, it seems. Some are fast. And some are long and slow. Unsexy. Some look like Brad Pitt. And some just look like us. It is sobering watching what a country can do if it wants to. Having been told for so long that nothing is possible. These are strange times down the back of the bus, John.

I wrote you a poem a while ago. I was exploring odes. That is a sentence I never thought I’d write when I was growing up. I was looking for the music in them. I meant to write six, one for each you wrote that year I was talking about. They were to be replies of a kind. I only finished two. Then got sidetracked. But I’ll go back to them at some stage. Now we’ve talked. They are about some things you might have seen if you had lived, John. Been a doctor. I wrote this one to a kid with a virus. There’s been talk of that lately. He’s my nightingale. I’m glad we finally met. I hope I see you again. Go well, e hoa.

To a boy with a runny nose
(for John Keats)

Jesus would have looked like you once,
round-eyed, dog-tongued and panting,
drip, drip, drip, drip, sniffing.
Before thoughts of kisses,
‘is’ ness, his father’s business.
Cheek to jowl, one tolling bell of
sweet, sad, sweet, sad song,
our on and on, our right and wrong,
our sing-a-long, our Do-Ron-Ron.

Mary, teary, tired and weary,
the cross on which he hung.
His cough, a knock on the innkeeper’s door.
His belly, five loaves and two fishes.
His skin, the smell of frankincense and myrrh.
His sneeze, the sneeze of life.
Some virus at host in a nose-blown
bubble of holy snot, like an
insect in amber, poor little lamb.

But you truly are the Son of God,
honey-muscled, grubby-chubby.
Arms and legs and chest and head
gathering tentatively like
wolves over a fresh carcass.
Swaddled in unconquered land,
the ridge and drain of rib and brain.
A pudge-fingered policeman
checking every door at night.

In your eye the unmistakable fire
smouldering, shouldering
all our hiss and fizz and spark.
Already old for time to shrink, make fool,
‘though age itself the curl of smoke
from ancient engines thundering past.
Pudding-round and squelching now;
science, history, geography, art,
nappied on your mother’s knee.

The breath of God perhaps, passed over
and on, from Holy Land to hand and and,
on camel back, the bloody hack,
by sky, by sea, by Jesus wheeze,
to port, to court, by horse of course.
By biscuit, ticket, tide and rip,
by ship, by crew, to you, to you,
I am, I amber, God’s meander, thick,
slick, lip-licked, drip, drip, dripping.

Keep going!