Where do you start with the pandemic? It may have been one of the most universally shared moments in history but that collective experience was instantly refracted into billions of entirely unique memories. How also do you address the weird paradox that for many the pandemic was an uncomfortable blend of positive and negative? “Me being at home was great for the children, but we’ve had to close our business.” “It was nice to spend more time with the family, but we lost my uncle.” It’s a mesh of contradictions; the cheerful banging of pans mingling with the distant screech of an ambulance siren. The pre-pandemic era feels both a long time ago and yesterday. As we emerged from lockdown, everything was both totally different and kind of the same.
And how do I respond to the pandemic as a writer and a director? Like many working in film and television, I had mixed fortunes. My film, The Personal History of David Copperfield, never made cinemas around the world, but it got shown on streaming platforms. As a writer, I’m used to working at home anyway, and, though work slowed, it never went away. I’m currently starting up a shoot we shut down eight months previously and I feel both blessed and guilty to have been one of the lucky ones. Strangely, although I thought about it often, my response to the pandemic won’t be a film or TV show. Unexpectedly, it’s emerged spontaneously as a poem.
I have written a mock epic. Epics are, by definition, very long but “mock” permits brevity. It’s a poem in the style of those daunting but rather wonderful depictions of love and loss and the battle between good and evil: The Iliad, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. The last of those works I spent three years studying for a PhD that I never quite managed to complete. There’s an unconscious connection: my title Pandemonium was a word invented by Milton and first used in Paradise Lost to describe the home of Satan and his fellow fallen angels. Maybe writing Pandemonium is my closure?
“Mock” may imply comedy, but I knew when I was writing it that the last thing I wanted to mock or make amusing was what people endured. Instead, it’s a rather fast and furious distillation of my mixed emotional response to the past year and a half, including, I suppose, all the anger and confusion I felt at our leaders’ catastrophic handling of the first eight months or so of the pandemic. I didn’t want to write a polemic, though; more an expression of bewilderment and regret.
For some time I’ve privately taken to writing poetry. I would write little nonsense verses or try writing a verse to a very strict rhyming scheme. They are sometimes no more than doodles with words, but other times a full poem emerges. It’s mainly for my own benefit, a private and therapeutic way of exploring words and language, and compressed meaning. Maybe it’s also a response to the frustration of not being able to draw or play an instrument. Writing a poem is, for me, as close as I can come to performing music or capturing a form in paint. The page is suddenly a large, airily lit studio. It’s a quiet moment of self-expression and, unlike painting and playing an instrument, can be done on the train without bothering anyone.
Not long into lockdown, trying to understand my shock and bewilderment at what was going on, I started tapping out what became the poem Pandemonium. It began in a rush, 10 lines at a time, and then would stop. Maybe a month or so would go by and then more would come. It seemed instinctive to compare these people who had power of life and death over us to the immortal gods of Greek myth and religious verse, and see how they matched up. Maybe, too, poetry – with its play on ambiguity and double meaning, the fact that it need not be literal, that it thrives on evoking several interpretations at once – was the only form that, for me, helped make sense of the many contradictions the past 18 months have forced upon us.
The pandemic is ongoing. More than a hundred people a day are still dying in the UK. The world is still largely unvaccinated. It will be many years before we can truly assess and respond to what’s happening. So, Pandemonium is not meant to be any formal summing up, more a brief snapshot of where we are so far. I hope it chimes or connects with some of how you’ve felt, too.
Pandemonium, by Armando Iannucci
Say, heaving Muse, what catalogue of restraints
And luckless lockdowns fell upon th’unwilling world
Accompanied by pain and stifled shouts of family grief
Till the world’s wisest company of brethren
In stately halls and candelabra’d chambers flush
At their desks with freshest data
Brought an end to that wailing noise
And comfort to those begging for release.
Tell, Mighty Wit, how the highest in forethought and,
That tremendous plus, the Science,
Saw off our panic and globed vexation
Until a drape of calmness furled around the earth
And beckoned a new and greater normal into each life
For which we give plenty gratitude and pay
Willingly for the vict’ry triumph
Merited by these wisest Gods.
Take us bravely to that source of all our woe
A wet and withered bat in Wuhan, or, some say,
A bat-lab nearby, carelessly venting bat juice to the world
While, ’tis equally true, Pharma and/or Bill Gates,
In league with Illuminati lizards
Hid poisoned cameras in our breath
So we could spray their malice drop by drop
Like spoken mist, as from a tower of Babel
Or like that other mighty shaft, the mast of 5G
(For, yes, I near forgot, 5G is another cause,
Since everyone has seen it said,
Where G is for George, and 5, to all, is clearly S,
The sign of the malevolent serpent Soros, it is true.)
And all is truth, for truth also can mutate,
Into twenty truths, and spawn twenty variants more,
Once uttered, slotting into any gaping void of sense
And fitting it like a fisting fact.
Tell first of one who fought that bat, and tackled truth
As it clawed and ravaged his beating lungs
And near ended life in some ventilated corner
Of a ward. Orbis Rex was he known on high
By all the Gods, “World King” by birth and plan,
Though the Gods, sensing men would stall in fear
Of his breeding, transformed “Orbis” to more earthly “Boris”
Spurring love and laughter from us on hearing
This more mortal name.
Say how this hero Boris, seeming felled
By the evil mite, coughed back up
His gleaming soul renewed and rode out to fight
Sadness with mirth, and brought lilting light
Into the darkest streets and homes of his kingdom.
Golden capped, like a sainted knight, he slew that dragon
In twelve weeks or so, or if not weeks then months.
And if not slew then tossed it flattened
Back into its cave, where it would certainly
Think long and hard before it dared to spaff
Its deadly spew upon this land again
And spread its dark and manic ills.
Go back to that day, when the bat first smote Europe
And he, our Hero, to lull it into thinking us unprepared
Deliberately sat at home, in a country house, finishing
A book, and gathering his family in games and sport
Lest the bat gain sense of how ready he was.
(A feint he learnt on rugby’s field).
Then, luring that flying fury across our shore
And into these islands, our hero struck and fell
Upon his friend Hancock, also known as Matt,
Which, as any mat, splayed upon the ground
Gives surface protection to feet that stamp
Upon his front, and welcome smiles
To those who enter their domain
And drop their dirt, gave Orbis full grace.
“Dear Friend” spake Bojo, for so this immortal being
In earthly guise was also known, “As you are a friend
And will vouch for anything I subsequently do,
And publicly vamp with reasoned praise my actions
And defend with utmost cleverness any wise delay
I might cunningly effect, so now I turn to you,
Sweet Friend, and ask for Friendship’s suckle.
Help me, please, my Matt. In Christ’s name
Summon all the friends you can!”
[Spurred on by Orbis, Matt rides into battle atop the Beast of Bits, a twisted ball of his friends, contacts, colleagues and mates. Unfortunately, the Beast is felled by its own confusion and Matt is yanked down into oblivion by a creature named Gina, her lips intertwined with his as they descend. Orbis too is felled, and finds himself trapped “twixt dreams and life” where he is shown a nightmare vision of what’s to come by a blind seer, Dom’nic. But waking up, Orbis stays positive and calls for a celebration, though the two wise angels flanking him, Sweetness and Light, urge caution…]
Sing of mighty arms! Let the brass horns parp
At tales of hard-won vict’ry! The battlefield prepped,
Lay silently readied for war. The clamour
Would be hard, the fierce clash obscene,
All were revved with th’utmost energy
To meet their surly foe. But Orbis was hungry,
His appetite inflated by sleep’s deprivations.
Eager this crash of armies should reach a swift end,
He charged to his throne, ignoring the cleaners
Sanitising it safe for his glorious form.
“Folks, I’ve got to tell you,” he declaimed to the people
Eager to hear his war-devious plans,
“Stonking progress was achieved in my absence
As by my instruction. I’ve spoken to someone,
A peculiar fellow, with all of the data,
Who seemed to know a hell of a lot
And who taught me to see a thing or two,
Not via dull senses’ cache, but with the inner gut
Of the mind. Gazing this way and reading between
The lines, guys, I feel the trajectory is good.”
“There is a long way to go,” said Sweetness
“We have barely begun,” said Light
“I think we’re nearly there,” said Orbis. “but with only
A few loose ends to tidy. We’ve got this,
More or less. I tell you, the virus is pinned to the ground,
Evil’s as good as nailed. It’s popped its peak.
So I say for sanity’s sake, all of you please
Come back from the battle, fetch all your purses,
Rejoice in this moment and get out to eat!”
The people were silent, surprised by the speed
Of this total result. As an online delivery
Whose purchase was forgotten, comes sudden
In dead of night, yet sparks quick enjoyment
When opened in the morn, so was the land
Filled with cheer at the surprise and swiftness
Of the unseen victory, and burst with delight.
Sensing it safe to emerge, they immediately clamoured
For food at the table and quaffed with full vim
In a hasty feast. What magnificent chickens
Were roasted that day, how laden were the pizzas
Resumed in their ovens. Hundreds and thousands
Poured Aperol Spritzes, rendered quite massive,
Into a palace of glasses, and up straws like cabers.
Townsfolk gnawed all of Albion’s herds,
Wassails were booked and shanties were sung
In riot delicious all over the land.
What grim endeavour is this, that would catch
Our kin unawares? For Evil’s great Sequel
Flooded the boroughs while we were feasting
And brought a second sickness upon us,
More vicious, less original, a mewling
Bastard Badchild cleft from parent’s head,
Felling heroes everywhere with its rancid fumes.
“Folks,” spoke Orbis, palely gobsmacked on his throne
“This vile pestilence has breached the terms
Of our agreement fair, and come back at us
Like a poxy charlatan. We maybe
Have to ride again to give it swift dispatch…”
“We will,” said Sweetness. “Most certain,” said Light.
“Or maybe not, who knows?” said Orbis, seething
Through his teeth, all flecks of charm dried up
And monumental ire burning in his cheeks.
While willow-capped Orbis stood foursquare
The demon grew and grew, its airy sewage
Swaddling the land in knotted pain
Until Albion’s heart was riven with tears.
“OK, I’ll parley once again,” said Orbis, clanking
Armour now shapeless on his form. “But
This Bastard Badchild must then depart!”
He rode out to seek the fiend, yet all was empty,
The screams of many lifting high, but nothing seen,
Sirens blaring, orderlies shouting, death resumed
In a howling darkness far across the land,
Isolation again encased each home
As winter wandered in.
“Folks, all is air and empty.
Bastard Badchild lurks in hiding
Like a busted loser. Why don’t we
Shame the ghoul with unexpected chutzpah!
Let’s all come out for Christmastime
And, using utmost bravado,
Make Pandemic feel really small!”
The great halls swung open for a second
Hurrah, hope was hysterically high,
And tinsel burst upon the scene,
And care homes dreamt of hugs.
When came Sweetness and Light with charts.
“Sire,” said Sweetness, “Badchild grows apace,
These graphs swell like hillocks. Soon they’ll grow
To mountains gigantic, perilous to climb,
Clumsy in the fall.” Orbis swore an oath
And with heaving heavy heart, rode out,
A third time out to battle, thinking kinsfolk
Years from now, when present melts to past,
Will speak of this encounter as the greatest and the last…
This is an edited extract from Pandemonium: Some Verses on the Current Predicament (Little, Brown, 4 November). Armando plans to donate his profits to Mental Health UK.