cracking the code

tangle of dried plant stalks

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago the slightly strange fact that during this lockdown my muse seems to have been liberated and I am writing again. Admittedly, I’m not writing a huge amount of poetry, but then, I don’t think I ever did write that much, and I’ve always accepted that poems can take years to evolve, so the fact that I have some jottings may mean that more poems will come in time.

There’s also prose, both creative and associated with my business. As I said yesterday, social distancing actually seems to have encouraged conversations, and each conference call or webinar seems to produce at least one gem of an idea that could be worth working up into a full-length article or essay.

Of course, it’s possible to write, even without external conversations to stimulate ideas. Sometimes, writing itself is a pleasure. If you follow that link, you’ll find an essay by A A Milne where he describes the physical pleasure of the act of writing and the artistic pleasure of watching the words spill out onto the paper. On these occasions, there is no effort involved and no need to decide on a subject or theme. For Milne, one circumstance that would prompt such a feeling was having a new nib in his pen. He says:

“When I have a new nib in my pen, then I can go straight from my breakfast to the blotting-paper, and a new sheet of foolscap fills itself magically with a stream of blue-black words.”

But he also notes the days when he would “sit at [his] desk and wonder if there is any possible subject in the whole world upon which [he could] possibly find anything to say.”

I’m sure many people have written about the way imposed limitations can be inspirational, but my favourite text on the subject comes from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The particular section is currently available as a reading from Drury University; it’s also described here as Pirsig’s Brick.

From Pirsig, I learned that the tighter the limitations, the easier it can be to get started writing. It’s the getting started that is the difficult bit. Then, once the writing is under way, it’s possible to follow any train of thought wherever it happens to take you.

The last few blog posts have all been inspired by the coronavirus crisis, the lockdown and social distancing norms. Today, though, I don’t seem to have any new ideas or any new poem drafts I want to share. So I’ve decided to follow Pirsig’s method and find a small thing to focus on. I’m going to be thinking more closely about COVID-19 itself. Not about the virus, which is a major issue, and not about the social, economic or health issues associated with it, which, again, are huge subjects to discuss. I’m simply going to explore some thought associations triggered by those five letters and two digits: COVID-19.

First of all the letters: CO VID. In many circumstances, CO means together. And VID makes me think of Alex in A Clockwork Orange saying “Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well.” So perhaps this is something to look closely at together.

COVID-19 looks like a code of some sort. And it certainly seems to be a code we aren’t currently able to crack. Looking again at the letters, we have COV ID – the identity of someone from Coventry, perhaps? Cov ID 19 – the ID of the nineteenth Coventrian? I wonder who that might be. Or is it Coventry in the sense of “sending someone to Coventry” – when we ostracise them? And how does this connect to the idea of social distancing and lockdown?

Considering the letters again, together they are only a single letter away from CORVID, which is the word for a bird of the crow family. So what about CORVID 19, the nineteenth crow? Well, actual crows are mostly solitary birds, although we do have a rhyme about numbers of magpies, which are corvids, but I think it only goes up as far as ten. Apparently crows are more sociable in winter, which is presumably when they group together in enough numbers to warrant a collective noun. And, as many a pedant will tell you, the correct term for a flock of crows is actually a murder. But for all the fear it’s causing, COVID-19 is not murderous: the daily statistics are announcing deaths from natural causes, not by violence or accident.

Another thing that strikes me about the combination of letters is how close it comes to being a Roman numeral. Or not. Certainly we have C, which is 100, VI, which is six, and D which is five hundred. But although CD would be 400 (100 before 500), and CVI would be 106, CVID doesn’t mean 106 before 500, or 394. That would need to be written CCCXCIV. Anyway, I’ve conveniently skipped over the zero. And the Romans didn’t have a symbol for nought.

So the only way we can make this work as numbers is if we look at them as separate values taken from different systems; and then we might as well include the 19 as well. We get 100-0-6-500-19. I don’t think it’s a phone number, but it could be one of those “complete the sequence” puzzles.

COVID-19: 100,0,6,500,19…

I think we’re all asking what comes next.

cow parsley and fence

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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