‘Companions’, by Emma Smith

Posted on 25/05/2020

How We Live Now is a series of pieces about these uncertain times, in the spirit of what the Guardian recently called ‘thoughtful, nuanced portrayals of life under altered circumstances’. Lucy Mangan was referring to Meg Rosoff’s classic novel How I Live Now, the inspiration for our title.

‘Companions’, by Emma Smith

for Elizabeth and Tadlow

I. Thomas Nashe

One of my academic projects at the moment is editing a play by a brilliant and zany Elizabethan called Thomas Nashe. Summer’s Last Will and Testament depicts an ageing Summer – part Queen Elizabeth, part plague victim, part seasonal allegory – who is settling his estate on his putative heirs, Autumn and Winter. It’s a tonal switchback, with an ironic, mouthy fool called Will Summers (see what he did there?) who punctures its melancholy with freewheeling associative puns and backchat. Nashe’s play is much closer to plague psychology than anything of Shakespeare’s, especially its chilling lament with the refrain ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ – the sign put on the doors of infected houses. Editing is absorbing work, following up Nashe’s classical learning, his magpie mind for popular culture and his ongoing feuds with other writers, as well as the broader context – Elizabethan puritanism, Morris dancing, the vocal range of young male actors, the architecture of Croydon palace. Much of it can be done online. But one tab that’s always open in my browser is the Bodleian catalogue. It would be great to have a coffee in the Covered Market and then go into the Old Bodleian, past the statue of William Herbert, see the light that streams into the Proscholium, beep my card against the reader, and climb the cold stairs to the Upper Reading Room.

II. Courgettes

It’s hard to do this without becoming (more of) a cliché, isn’t it? Ocado order – check. Sourdough starter – check. Finally got time to read The Mirror and the Light – check. Have you heard the birdsong – check. Great to be using up those fava beans from the back of the cupboard – check. So inevitably, we are growing seedlings, aided by an eve-of-lockdown delivery of compost from the local garden centre. Our first crop was a successful row of radishes in the back of the window-box, since there is so little traffic to pollute them. Some chard and some beans have also germinated obligingly, though they are still pretty small. I have high hopes for the courgettes, currently at three leaves each, their stems propped on the spare disposable chopsticks that are always a reproach (do they really think this is a meal for 4?). I realise how much I am missing our routine, our Thursday takeaway, and Annie and Peter and all the team there, who we’ve seen and chatted with for years. I hope they’re doing ok.

III. Zoom

I can’t claim Zoom as my unique companion. At first it was great fun. Zoom aperitifs! A Zoom party! Zoom seminars! Zoom committee meetings! Zoom book talks! You can make smart-arse remarks in the Chat but be careful it is Private not to Everyone! You can Share your Screen but make sure it really is the plans for the new college library and not your online shopping trolley order! Zoom Leonardo with an empty socially distanced last supper table and all the apostles in little boxes across the top! Now the shine has come off. I have one question for Zoom – why would you imagine I would want to see myself all the time? Not only do I see my colleagues, students, and friends in much more detail than I ever would, but I also see my own jowls and outgrowing hair. Do I really use my mouth that way when I speak?  I’m grateful for my companions in lockdown. I am more conscious than ever of my privilege. But boy, I am so looking forward to seeing less of myself, and more of my friends.

IV. Jess

We are fascinated by Yoga-with-Jess. She is implausibly lithe and Californian, recording a 30 day course from a sparsely furnished studio with an orchid and a carved Huanaman in the background, and so far (day 4, but we have done a lot of repetitions) she has a different matching yoga outfit and mat every day. Jess earnestly instructs us in postures from the banal – press one nostril closed and breathe through the other to the count of four – to the preposterous – feel that – beautiful – stretch where? Explaining how to do the splits (the answer is: in my dreams) she suddenly whips out some props called yoga blocks, although she admits that you could use a pillow or even – faint condescension – ‘a book or something’. The nearest in shape seem to be Pevsner’s guides, so my comedy yoga progress is propped unsteadily by Aberdeenshire: North and Moray. We won’t get to Scotland this summer.

I wonder even about next year.

V. Apus Apus

The swifts have returned from their African winter this month – we saw the first on May 3, which was a day or two earlier than usual. Despite having been an Oxford resident for more than thirty years, I never go to the May Morning celebrations, but this is our domestic version: a great spring ritual which involves several anxious days of neck-craning into an empty sky, and then a shout of triumph as the familiar dark anchors appear high above. In the books of my childhood people always used to tell the bees significant news: for me the swifts have to be filled in on what’s happened since late July, when they left. Where to begin this year, guys? I ask, as they gather in screeching parties, flying lower reconnaissance flights to look for nesting sites. I try to watch them carefully, thinking about how much sustained bird observation was prompted by enforced leisure, like John Buxton’s investigation of the redstart while he was a PoW in Offlag VII.

I’m sorry to miss this year’s ducklings.


Emma Smith is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the Oxford Faculty of English and a Fellow of Hertford College. This is Shakespeare, called by Alex Preston “the best introduction to the plays I’ve read, perhaps the best book on Shakespeare, full stop”, attracted praise from James Shapiro and Hilary Mantel, among others, and was a Times Book of the Year 2019. Her new work, Portable Magic, a biography of encounters with books over the last millennium, focusing on the book as an object across centuries and continents, is forthcoming from Penguin Press.


You can read others in our response-to-crisis series – from novelists to historians, from pictures to poetry – at the How We Live Now main page.