A movie has come to life and engulfed us

Louis Theroux
Photo: Neil Spence / Alamy

On the evening of 23rd March 2020, in a televised address to a shellshocked nation, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a legally-enforced, pandemic-induced lockdown across the UK that would immediately force millions to stay at home for months on end and countless businesses to close. Unsurprisingly, many people across the globe kept diaries when those initial lockdowns kicked in, either as an emotional or creative outlet, as a way to document an unprecedented moment in history, or simply in an effort to maintain some structure and routine amidst the panic. One of those diarists was award-winning journalist and documentarian Louis Theroux, whose career had for decades seen him travelling the world and communicating with strangers face to face. On 22nd March, the day before that first lockdown was enforced, he wrote this entry in his diary.

The Diary Entry

Sunday 22 March

An item on Radio 4 about woodcocks and their feathers and seeing them in the wild. Anything not about the virus feels hopelessly irrelevant. I switched to 5 Live. They were saying that in Italy the total number of deaths now stands at 5,000. Whenever a pundit or a reporter spoke, you could hear from the acoustics that they were calling in from their homes. Everything had a muffled bunker feel, but they carried on as if it was normal. ‘I’m at home, where I’ve self-isolated.’

There are mutterings that Boris Johnson left the lockdown too late and should have closed parks earlier. I flashed back to our kids wrestling and biting each other on Hampstead Heath.

The prevailing strange emotion, which one hesitates to acknowledge, is the shameful excitement at living in an apocalyptic scenario. A movie has come to life and engulfed us. Aliens, zombies, paranormal events—the tropes of Hollywood—have become our day-to-day reality and I still get a little pulse of excitement when I see the masks and the signs and the news bulletins. But then I was cycling back from the computer repair shop listening to the This American Life podcast and at the end Ira Glass, the host, said that when timing your hand-washing, instead of singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice you can also sing one whole chorus of ‘Stayin’ Alive’. And then they played it, the Bee Gees singing in shimmering falsetto, and for a moment I was ambushed by a strange sensation and I wondered what I was feeling and was I about to cry?

Further Reading

Louis began his Covid diary on 17th March 2020 and continued for exactly a year; it was eventually published with the title Theroux The Keyhole: When the world went weird (and so did I). It’s as charming, warm, and often amusing as you’d expect, and it’s very relatable, which is comforting. How odd, though, to relive through someone else’s eyes the initial chaos of 2020—a period which somehow, to me at least, simultaneously feels like weeks ago and the distant past.

Diary entry excerpted from Theroux The Keyhole: When the world went weird (and so did I) by Louis Theroux. Copyright © Scratch Pictures 2021. Macmillan 2021. Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.

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