I don’t know about you, but I’ve just about had enough. Enough of the toilet-paper hoarding, the ever so helpful hand-washing instructions, the “confirmed cases” and the “death tolls”.
And enough of the creeping fear that has begun to haunt our every waking moment.
This fear is so universal that it’s easy to get lost in it. But it is also so exhausting that it can never be sustained without inflicting severe damage on our emotional wellbeing, and so it is important that, amidst all the grave headlines and the hand-sanitiser scrambles, we remind ourselves that there is life beyond the pandemic.
Nostalgic for the innocence of a pre-coronavirus world, I have compiled a list of books and podcasts that contain no mention of disease or contagion, and that might provide a welcome moment of distraction from the panic unfolding around us.
If you really want to remove yourself from our current situation, it is best to find a book that will take you back in time. While you traverse the revolutionary streets of A Tale of Two Cities or the parched prairies of The Grapes of Wrath, for example, our contemporary concerns might begin to seem alien, irrelevant.
But such novels are not without their own tales of hardship, and you might be in need of something gentler, where the stakes are lower. Who better to choose than Jane Austen, who writes of a world cushioned by wealth and status, and whose protagonists are untroubled by war or sickness or hunger?
While these troubles may be raging in some distant region of the narrative, these characters are more worried about securing that “single man in possession of a good fortune.”
Of all Austen’s stories, Emma is perhaps the most soothing and benign. The novel begins, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, […] had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
And so things continue, as Emma, the cheerfully interfering matchmaker, does her best to fix the lives of others, until her own match is made, and she is left to her happy-ever-after. It is near impossible to find even a hint of darkness in this endearing comedy of manners, making it the perfect escape from the anxieties of real life.
Although a trip to the cinema is probably off the cards, Autumn de Wilde’s new adaptation of the novel will also be available to view at home from Friday. This film is an elegant and picturesque interpretation of the grace and wit of Austen’s prose, which is sure to have a calming effect on any viewer.
The reassuring softness of Emma is echoed in the style of novelists Elaine Dundy and Evelyn Waugh. The blasé heroine of Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, Sally Jay Gorce, and the hapless Paul Pennyfeather, protagonist of Waugh’s Decline and Fall, seem to exist in some sort of comedic vacuum, where no action or decision has any real consequence on anything.
Like the Radlett cousins in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love trilogy, these characters trip breezily through the pitfalls of their coming-of-age, refusing to be dragged down by the weight of external events.
If reading isn’t your thing, podcasts are also a great way of banishing unwelcome thoughts. And if you want to avoid reality, Off Menu, with comedians Ed Gamble and James Acaster, might be just what you need.
This podcast takes the form of a raucous chat-show-cum-interrogation, during which Ed and James invite special guests to their “magical restaurant” to discuss their “dream starter, main, drink and dessert”.
During the exuberant conversation that ensues, we are sent to all corners of the globe, from Karachi to Kettering and LA to Leicester, as these guests tell us about the different meals and restaurants that have shaped their love of food. It’s a programme that focuses on the small delights of everyday life, blurring out the bigger picture and its tensions.
Another comedy double-act that is definitely worth a listen is the agony aunt duo Joan and Jericha, voiced by Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine. In their salacious podcast, Dear Joan & Jericha, these rampant anti-feminists respond authoritatively to the letters of “the poor unfortunates out there in the world,” doling out hilarious doses of ruthless advice as they go.
“Sheila from Coventry” writes to complain that her husband John gave her a face-lift voucher for her birthday, and told her, “unless I do it, he’s going to leave me for the woman he used to sleep with when I was going through chemo”.
Joan and Jericha immediately exclaim, “what a poor man!” and advise John to leave her, as she’s clearly on a power trip. They continue in this merciless vein from letter to letter, their unrelenting nastiness producing countless laugh-out-loud moments as its venomous momentum builds.
For calm rather than comedy, you can try Richard Burton’s reading of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. Although not strictly a podcast, this radio drama is one of the most relaxing things ever recorded, and is guaranteed to have an uplifting effect.
Set in the imaginary Welsh fishing-village of Llareggub, this tale begins in the “moonless night [of] the small town, starless and bible-black”. With hushed lyricism, the narrative moves through the “houses sleeping in the streets”, watching, listening, as their owners begin to stir.
Then, charting the progress of a one normal day, it bears witness to the small moments – the short-lived dramas, the unremembered details – which weave wonder into everyday life. With the softness of a lullaby, it wraps you up in the littleness of village existence, so that the outside world is flung far, far away.
If you enjoy Burton’s velveteen tones, you can also listen to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which although bleaker and more sombre than Under Milk Wood, maintains the same ethereal feeling of otherworldliness.