Coronavirus self isolation can bring out your creative side


All over the world countries are battling to keep clean (Image: Press Association)

I want you to imagine an Italian city, the streets full of that liquid golden sunlight only Italy can produce – but with not a soul in sight. Absolute silence, all around. No sudden bursts of chatter, no echoing church bells. Nothing. All the doors closed. And some of those doors might have crosses painted on them.

No, this is not Milan, or Verona, or Bologna in 2020 (where some of my dearest friends are battling the worst that coronavirus has thrown at any of us), this was Florence in 1348, a whole city hunkered down and fighting its way, day by day, though the Black Death, the worst pandemic Europe at that time had ever experienced.

Yet it was at just this moment that a 35-year-old Florentine writer named Giovanni Boccaccio put pen to paper to create the first stories of The Decameron.

The plot of The Decameron really couldn’t be simpler, or literally more escapist.

Ten bright young things flee the plague for a villa in the Tuscan countryside, and pass the time there telling each other stories – the frothiest, silliest, sexiest, most melodramatic, soap opera-ish stories you can imagine.

Love Island with added inkwells.

Nonetheless, without The Decameron there would have been no Canterbury Tales from Geoffrey Chaucer, written 40 years later, in which a group of pilgrims heading off from London to Canterbury while away the journey by, you guessed it, telling stories.

There might have been no All's Well That Ends Well from William Shakespeare either, and maybe a completely different plot-twist to his Cymbeline.

But Boccaccio did much more than just fill a treasure-chest for other writers to plunder: he was also bearing witness to something basic in the human spirit.

The more vulnerable life is, the more precious it becomes; and the stranger the world outside, the deeper we go into the world inside our heads, and we create – sometimes at an absolute fever pitch.

You may remember the line from the 1949 classic film The Third Man.

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed," sneers Orson Welles's character Harry Lime to Joseph Cotten's Holly Martins.

“But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Welles reputedly ad-libbed the whole speech, but he most certainly had his finger on the human pulse when he did so.

Shakespeare is often cited as an example here – the internet is full of memes at present about how he wrote Macbeth and King Lear while he was quarantined.

In Elizabethan London, plague was simply the background to life and whenever it was in town, as it was pretty much every summer, the theatres closed.

King Lear

Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine (Image: Getty)

But then, Shakespeare the businessman and theatrical impresario took himself off somewhere quieter and safer and wrote new plays ready for when the theatres re-opened.

It should be pointed out that as a writer, self-isolation is pretty much your lifestyle choice to begin with.

Sometimes it is enforced.

Any number of great works have been created from the sick-bed – think Marcel Proust's masterpiece In Search Of Lost Time, for one.

Hilary Mantel, whose Thomas Cromwell trilogy is sustaining so many of us now confined to home, is another who chose writing as a profession only because her health was too fragile to support any other.

But what we writers know is that you don’t immure yourself with no one to talk to but the cat because it gives you writing time.

It's because it gives you the time to let the little grey cells bubble and come up with an idea as simply brilliant as The Decameron.

Time away from the world can lift our thinking to a whole new level.

Would Sir Isaac Newton have come up with the theory of gravity, his first theories on optics, and his first explorations of calculus if he had been bustling through a normal year in his life as a Cambridge student?

Instead the plague of 1665 closed the university, and Newton was sent home to Woolsthorpe Manor.

And in its garden was an apple tree (still there today, miraculously).

The whole "notion of gravitation", as he told his first biographers, "was occasioned as he sat in contemplative mood".

And thus began what Newton himself called his annus mirabilis – one of those moments when the whole world changed.

Well, now we're facing another of those moments of great change, and again grappling with human tragedy, just as were those 14thcentury Florentines.

So will our own Renaissance of art, and literature, and music and scientific discovery come out of this?

Can anything of greatness come out of such an unprecedented global nightmare?

I know, it's hard to lift your head and look forward very far at present, but history would tell us that's just what we should be doing.

The world survived the Black Death, and this country emerged from the plague of 1665.

And that magical space we all have in our heads will prove itself equal to this one, too.

Most of us will come through this, though we'll never be the same again.

We will be poorer (us writers, for certain), we will be less sure of ourselves.

But for every merchant of doom there will be five or six folk who suddenly find themselves contemplating a spring blossom, or listening in the newly quiet air to birdsong, and thinking "That's beautiful".

And from a safe six feet apart, we'll maybe even share the recognition of that moment – just as I am now with you.

• Jacky Colliss Harvey's latest book, The Animal's Companion, is now out in paperback (Allen & Unwin, £9.99)

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