“In dreams the living and the dead drop in to keep me company”
Charles Glass former hostage
The window was sealed behind a sheet of solid steel. The door was locked. Thick chains bound one arm and one ankle. The room was bare apart from a thin foam mat for a bed and a plastic bottle to pee into. I was alone.
That was the summer of 1987, when Hizbullah was holding me hostage in Lebanon. They had many other hostages, but I didn’t see them. In fact, I saw no one. When a guard came into the room, I had to put on a blindfold so that I couldn’t identify him. The only conversations I had were a few interrogations, when I was also blindfolded. The questioning involved threats and verbal abuse, but mercifully no torture. As unpleasant as they were, they broke the monotony. The rest of the time left me thinking, remembering, imagining. One way of relieving the loneliness was to pretend that one or another of my children was with me, each on a different day. I made chess pieces out of paper labels on water bottles to play with each one. Sometimes I let them win, or they beat me outright.
Although I never saw daylight, I was acutely aware of time. Every morning when I woke, I reminded myself of the date and thought, “This is day ten (or whatever other number it happened to be) of my captivity – and my last.” The only idea that sustained my morale was that somehow I would escape. After 62 days, I did.
Now, there is no escape. Where would I go? Most of the planet is locked down. I knew in Beirut that if I got out, I would return to the world I left behind. London loomed as a safe haven to be reached at any cost. But I was spending this year in the beautiful resort-cum-fishing-village of Porto Ercole on the Tuscan shore in Italy, working on a book and planning trips to London and Islamabad. So when the Italian government put us in quarantine, like the rest of the country, I was trapped. And, as when I was a hostage in Beirut, I’m on my own.
The regime here is better than it was when I was being held by Hizbullah. I was given so little food I lost 25 pounds. Now I’ll probably gain weight from the pasta and meat I’m cooking. I considered myself lucky in Beirut to have water to drink, but here I’m well stocked with red Chianti from the famed vineyards of Castello Sonnino. I also got five-litre tins of olive oil from the same source, which I now pour generously on my burrata.
Italy tightened its quarantine rules gradually. In the first days I drove to the beach for long walks. That privilege soon ended. Bars and restaurants closed on March 12, ending social life. A few women speak from balcony to balcony, far enough apart to avoid contagion. The tobacconist, butcher, news agent, pharmacy, bakery and grocer open each morning. Only one customer at a time is allowed in, and we queue outside, most people in surgical masks, as far from one another as we can manage. In the afternoon police station themselves along the portside to check we have not wandered more than 200 metres from home, preferably with a dog.
I have more than enough books for a siege, another advantage over the Hizbullah Hilton. The internet is a lifeline for information and video calls with my family in England, France, Singapore and America. In Beirut, I had the consolation of knowing that my family was safe in peaceful England. Here, I know that they are as vulnerable to the virus as anyone here. One of my sons has succumbed, and my worry for him, his wife and his children is as great as his was for me all those years ago. The BBC keeps me better informed than any other source. In Beirut, the world could have ended without my realising it. My sense of time is different now. As a hostage I was determined to be sure of dates, yet now I don’t know whether it’s Sunday or Tuesday.
The only marker of time is the market every Monday in a large car park at the edge of the village. The number of stalls diminishes with each passing week. At first, crowds of Porto Ercolese, as the people call themselves, squeezed tomatoes and crammed artichokes into paper bags as usual. Now, we wait behind yellow lines on the concrete perimeter, a few feet from the vendors. When my turn comes I tell them what I want, and they bag it for me lest my fingers contaminate the vegetables. A policeman stands by to make sure everyone obeys the law. This sort of thing hasn’t happened since Mussolini’s time.
For company I have only some small birds who descend on my terrace for the breadcrumbs I lay out, like the Birdman of Alcatraz. As a lifelong urbanite, I wasn’t sure what kind of birds they were until an Italian friend told me via WhatsApp that they were tordi, thrushes. They are bold creatures, sometimes flying into the flat in search of more food. Seagulls swoop overhead, but they appear too proud to stop in.
The vista from my terrace over the port is probably the finest in the world, a fortunate contrast to the steel plate that hid the window in Beirut. The shore of the tiny marina, from which a few fishermen still motor out to bring in a catch, swerves in a crescent from one fortified hill to the other. But there are no people on the quay or in the streets. It’s like a scene from the 1959 movie “On the Beach”, about nuclear armageddon.
My life here bears one curious similarity to that in prison in Beirut, though: sleep. Sleep was the only escape from the loss of liberty, when my mind could roam, if not my body. On most nights in captivity I slept soundly for eight or nine hours. That experience repeats itself here, a change from my typical routine of late-night socialising. Perhaps in dreams the living and the dead drop in to keep me company.
All this slumber in difficult circumstances reminds me of one of my favourite novels, Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep”. At the end of the book its young protagonist, David, is knocked unconscious and the people around him fear he is dead. He is alive, enjoying the peace of sleep, as his mother lays him in his bed. Roth wrote: “It was only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, kindle out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such vivid jets of images – of the glint on tilted beards, of the uneven shine on roller skates...of the glow on thin blonde hair, red faces, of the glow on the outstretched, open palms of legions upon legions of hands hurtling toward him. He might as well call it sleep.”
David, like Stephen Dedalus in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, sleeps knowing that he will write his book. And I need to finish mine.
Charles Glass is a journalist and author who has spent decades reporting on the Middle East. In 1987 he was held hostage in Lebanon for 62 days. His latest book “They Fought Alone” is published by Penguin
“It has taught me what it might actually feel like to be old”
Susanna Hislop writer with ME/chronic fatigue SYNDROME
I know lockdown. I have not left my house or seen another human for a week, and my main evidence of the existence of time, sanity and an external world has been the pips and rhythms of Radio 4.
I do not, as far as I know, have covid-19, but I do have the less pithily monikered Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic-fatigue-syndrome (ME/CFS). Its effects have not been nearly as debilitating for me as for many sufferers – some of whom are completely bedbound or even paralysed – but I have been forced to spend large swathes of the past two years in housebound limbo, self-isolated, quarantined, adrift. As someone who has already been held captive by illness, whose life has already been wrested from their control, it has been a curious feeling to suddenly find my very private, particular experience become the general one.
I feel the uncanny parallels of your shock. It’s not just that I’ve had to try to learn how to survive self-isolation (spoiler: I haven’t). It’s that I know how hard enforced isolation is.
The first thing, the worst thing, is the uncertainty. The existing on shifting ground. When I first became unwell, my illness crept up from the depths in fits and starts, puncturing the surface of my life, but not yet breaking it. I had endless tests. The doctors all had different opinions and I had no idea who to trust. Eventually, I had to learn how to live in muddy waters. To stop railing at my newfound restriction, endlessly trying to calculate how long it would go on for, and panicking about what the future looked like.
In his book “Limbo”, a deft cultural history of the state (and top of my lockdown literature list), Dan Fox talks about Keats’s notion of “negative capability”: the ability to exist in a state of uncertainty and doubt. It’s shocking and disorientating, and I’m not even sure it’s possible. But it’s the only option. Breaking in your mind, training it to live day by day, hour by hour.
Once you’ve accepted the shock of the new normal and mastered living in the present, you can then fully start to embrace your newfound limbo. If, that is, you’re not too ill to do so. This is where the horrifying spectre of the hobby makes its appearance. For me, the possibilities of philately, gardening or some gentle taxidermy have been a fiery negotiation between the limitations of illness, time and existential purpose. For many people now self-isolating or in lockdown, however, limited energy resources aren’t a problem. If anything, people are climbing the walls. Which brings us to DIY. One of the worst aspects of being stuck at home is the brain-grating familiarity you develop with each and every quadrant of your increasingly inadequate abode. The skilled, healthy and nimble among you will be strutting up ladders to straighten architraves. The rest of us are trapped, clasping at broken door handles, coughing into the dust.
When it comes to artistic consumption there are two ways to approach limbo, and you have to make a choice: embrace or divert. If embracing, then alongside Dan Fox, “The Decameron”, and the entire canon of Eastern thought, Rebecca Solnit is the writer for you. In “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” she draws a series of philosophical, autobiographical and experiential “maps” for navigating the unknown. Radical yet reassuring, she articulates – without capitulating to cliché – how finding yourself on the path you didn’t mean to go down is often the best way to find something (warning: she spends much of the book recounting vast open spaces). If diverting, then after the initial disappointment that nothing has ever or will ever be as good as the Netflix series “Succession”, there is the comforting though violent consolation of a French crime drama “Spiral” (“Engrenages”). Not only are there seven seasons, but since they were filmed over a period of 15 years, you can enjoy the quantum-leaping sensation of watching the actors (and production values) age at terrifying speed. This adds to the psychological rollercoaster that is the experiencing of time in chronic illness (or isolation).
When it comes to finding a sense of purpose, the world probably splits into two types of people. There are those who are excited or relieved to have a break from work, to jump off the carousel and play in the grass. And there are those who turn back to the horse aghast, desperately calculating how to climb back on. I had always assumed, with my hardwired tendency to procrastination and hedonism, that I was one of the former. My illness has taught me I was wrong. I have struggled to define or justify myself outside the parameters of what I considered to be purposeful work. Or I did, until one day, desperately trying to find uncharted content, I found myself re-watching the nihilism-busting masterpiece of cinematic Prozac that is “Groundhog Day”. Putting jokes to one side – as Bill Murray’s grizzly weatherman Phil Connors is forced to do by his Zen psychopomp, Andie MacDowall’s wincingly winsome Rita – this film could save your life.
The salient if obvious point to make about lockdown is that when you can’t go outside, there is only one place you can go: further in. That’s not always the best place to be. Especially when you can’t get out. But it’s also the only place where real change occurs. Although I would never have chosen to be ill, there are humbling and fundamental lessons to be learnt from your life unexpectedly shutting, shrinking, down. Patience means nothing until you actually have to practise it. My illness has floored me with the misery of isolation, disappointment, grief. Yet it has awakened a new kind of empathy: it has taught me what it might actually feel like to be old.
Perhaps we never discover the limits of human empathy until we are shocked into an understanding of our own. So this may smack of hypocrisy: having felt like such an outsider in my own lockdown, I confess to a certain resentment of the collective spirit of the covid-19 confinement. From the sublime – arias across Italian alleys – to the ridiculous hash-tagging brigade spreading hyper-positivity with viral enthusiasm, there has been a rallying. Of course the usual human selfishness and greed has reared its loo-rolled limbs too, but there is shared experience even amid plundered pasta shelves.
For all my guilty schadenfreude, I hope that this journeying through limbo will be for everyone else what it has been for me. A lived experience of dislocation, a sentimental education in the truest sense. Let us hope that when we all emerge from the cave we are changed. And that we don’t forget the people still stuck there.
Susanna Hislop is an actor, writer, director and author of “Stories in the Stars”, published by Penguin
“Even astronauts will find niggles if they’re in a confined space”
Helen Sharman astronaut
In 1991 I became the first British astronaut to go into space. I had chosen to put myself in a small spacecraft with only a few other people, an event we planned and trained for over many months. The circumstances are different from those under lockdown, but there are similarities too: uncertainty, self-isolation and social distancing.
A lot of my mental adjustment to being in a confined space station involved acceptance. On the Mir space station I had planned for it so I was comfortable with the situation from the beginning, but I’m feeling the same thing right now. It's important to understand why we are doing this, to accept the situation, realise it could always be worse and that it will get better.
When I was in space, Mission Control scheduled my days to the minute. Every evening the information they sent would come out like a fax machine, a long thin bit of paper telling me exactly what time I should get up, when I should eat, what experiments I should do and when. I didn’t mind – it was efficient – but I did get comfort from the small things that I could control, like what juice I drank and the time after dinner when I really could do whatever I wanted. Now my days are restricted like everyone else – my speaking engagements have been cancelled and my work for Imperial College London is moving online – but I still take pleasure in the small things; deciding my morning run and what path I take. I remember that lesson from space, letting go of what you can’t control and focusing on what you can. We have all been told to stay at home – but we can still decide how we use our time.
Living in a confined space with other people requires more tolerance than normal, so now is a time to work on the relationships with the people you’re in close proximity to. I was in space only for eight days and we didn’t have any arguments. But one commander up there had a habit of tapping me on the shoulder when he wanted to talk. He thought it was less intrusive, I found it terribly annoying. Once I was looking out the window, I felt a little tap-tap on my shoulder and I thought, “There he goes again!” When I turned around I realised it was a camera lens that had come loose and was floating in space. Lesson learned.
Astronauts are selected on the basis of being gregarious people, not particularly highly strung, not obviously depressive or excitable. We don’t necessarily choose the people we live with on that basis. Everyone – even astronauts – will find niggles if they’re in a confined space with someone for a period of time. It’s so important to keep talking about those things openly, and in a calm way, rather than let them build up. On the space station, the only private space I had was a small bedroom area with no door, but even that was useful. At home, we have a storage room. When I close the door, people know not to disturb me.
There’s a lovely poem by William Henry Davies that includes the line, “We have no time to stand and stare”. But in space we did have time. At the end of the day, we would find a window, gather our heads around its circumference and appreciate the gorgeous planet that we have. Over the Himalayas, you would see the snow and where it has melted in the ravines. In Madagascar the soil is a reddish colour and from space you can see its sediment swirling out into the ocean. You get to know the patterns of the Earth; every time you look out to see the view constantly changing.
Now we all have more time to pay attention to what’s outside our window. In my home in west London, I look out onto a very old cherry tree. It's not flowering yet but I can see little pink buds ready to burst out. It’s going to be an absolute joy when they do. I can open the window and feel the fresh air (which I couldn’t do in space...) and listen to the wind, or the birds or children playing. You might think your view stays the same but it’s always changing.
The material items we strive for on Earth become insignificant in space; I didn’t think once about possessions when I was up there. Confronted with this materialism back home, I was repulsed. I downgraded my attachment to “stuff”. In space, I had all the basics I needed – food, shelter and crew mates for company. But what do astronauts really miss? Friends and family, the personal relationships we often take for granted on Earth. When you go over parts of the world where you know people, it’s those individuals that come to mind.
When you go around the entire planet in 92 minutes it really does seem quite small. It made me realise that even if we don’t always feel the effect of what is happening on the other side of the world, we cannot be divorced from it. We influence it, and it influences us. I feel that sense of connectedness now, back on Earth. At night, if the clouds are gone you can look out at the stars and the people who you might be connecting with – virtually or by phone – can look out and see those same stars and feel a sense of togetherness. As told to Alexandra Genova