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Books Column: How to write a plague diary


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

Forget the novel you’ve been hankering to write: what you should be working on is the next great plague diary.

A number of writers are encouraging their online followers to use their lockdown time to finally start the novel they’ve always wanted to write. I think this is a mistake. To me, it’s clear that the literary form you should be working in, if indeed you can muster the concentration to write during this time, is that of the plague diary. And to judge by the great plague diaries of posterity, you have between now and, say, August – call it next February at the outside – to really nail your contribution to the genre.

This is because plague diaries, unlike normal diaries, dry up: they end when the plague does. Further, you mustn’t pin your hopes on enjoying any fame because of your literary efforts: plague diaries are ideally kept out of sight for a generation or three. There’s a reason for this, which those who write the diaries may not be aware of. The point of a plague diary is not to serve as a warning: writing can be prophetic, but never prophylactic, though this is its constant aspiration. Nor can a plague diary ever serve some kind of public good. “Ten Tips for Avoiding the Spanish Flu” is not the survival guide you’re looking for today. No, the point of a plague diary is to create a connection – a feeling of heightened empathy, a reminder of the joy and despair of being human – across centuries, or indeed millennia.

Your best hope, then, when aiming to write a successful plague diary, is to write as privately as possible. Now is the time to confide in your journal as never before. Tell about your yearning for your lover; how you ventured out on a risky expedition to stand in a shopping queue with him, two metres apart. Describe your jealousy at the undeserved success of a peer, and how you castigate yourself for considering, if only fleetingly, how convenient it would be if she caught the disease and disappeared forever. Mention the things you love and hate about the people you’re confined with: record the petty arguments, the sudden fits of laughter, the extraordinary tension that surrounds decisions you wouldn’t have previously given a second thought. Note your efforts to shield your children from the greater horrors, while doling out small gifts that you hope will prove life-savers in years to come – like making a game of washing hands. And note the deaths that arrive, little notifications in your inbox and on your phone. Write things about the dead that you’ll never want to see the light of day, while you’re alive.

The plague diary that people are quoting on social media is Samuel Pepys’, of course: he’s the go-to prior authority for all modern events. I wonder, though, how many of those who have retweeted or posted a screengrab of the quote about the “gaggle of striplings making fair merry and no doubt spreading the plague well about” know that it’s fake?  Pepys never complained about those “young rogues” who had “not a care… for the health of their elders” – a parody account wrote that. (The interesting thing about the fake quote, of course, is that it is still an entry in a plague diary: a 2020s rather than a 1660s one.) Here is what Pepys actually wrote about the plague, on April 5th 1666 – almost 364 years ago to the day:

“The plague is, to our great grief, increased nine this week, though decreased a few in the total. And this increase runs through many parishes, which makes us much fear the next year.”

You can hear the worry in his tallying, feel the dread in his gut. Where he was then, we are now. What he didn’t know, for all his anxiety, was that the pandemic was largely behind him: he mentioned the plague only 25 times more in his diary, compared to the 115 times he had occasion to name it during the previous twelve months.

We occupy a different position, vis-a-vis our knowledge of how Covid-19 is predicted to spread, and have sound scientific reasons to fear the year ahead. The coming months, we know, will be a time for heroes and goats, many of whose names will eventually be lost to history. With a good plague diary, you can avoid this fate. For in a plague diary, you’re the hero. Just being alive to write it makes you lucky, and readers decades hence, during the next plague, will thirst for your tale of luck. If you get at it now, that is, before – like Pepys’ plague – it all dries up. DM/ ML

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.


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