Book Review: Spring Journal

“there is no joie de vivre,
None at all. It is absolutely banned.”

Spring Journal, by Jonathan Gibbs, was inspired by Louis MacNeice’s long poem, Autumn Journal, which he wrote in late 1938 in response to the impending world war. I am not familiar with this earlier work. Gibbs’ offering is divided into twenty-four cantos, written between March and August 2020. It provides a response to Covid 19, England’s first lockdown, and the summer release that was not the hoped for return to freedom.

I was eager to get hold of a copy of this book as a sort of memento of a time I felt would be a significant life event, however the future pans out. On reading I realised it offered even more than expected, mainly because it highlighted to me how all appeared to enter that first lockdown as a country united to fight an unknown threat, but quickly divided into angry, polarised units of righteously indignant opinion on how others should behave.

“And its March coming in as the last daffs are fading
And the first nasturtiums coming, blithely ignorant of the farce”

The early cantos beautifully capture the early weeks of lockdown – the strange silence of streets devoid of people and traffic; the pause that felt as though the world held its breath, even as nature continued to bring forth new life, as it has always done.

When the impact of both the pandemic and the country’s response became better understood, sides were quickly taken. Focus shifted to anger, with many blaming politicians, as happens when it is not ‘their’ people in charge.

The author acknowledges his privilege. He remained healthy, not alone, able to exercise outdoors.

There is a reminder of the protests that happened about non-Covid related issues (how quickly we forget that which does not directly affect us).

“And if the pubs and restaurants go under, what about the theatres
And galleries and concert halls?
Will we stay at home and mutter nostrums
For the benefit of our four bare walls?”

As I read this I pondered the plight of those who would never use such facilities, through lack of means or desire. A journal will obviously be deeply personal – a strength in the window it offers. The author’s response, at first so familiar, was diverging from my own.

My reaction to this divergence slammed home when Gibbs wrote of a holiday in Greece, taken when released from the first lockdown. I was reminded of the angry tweets at the time from those who still never left their homes and expected others to do the same. Even when laws are not broken there can be a form of moral outrage honing in on what matters most to each individual. I remembered those who attended raves regardless, and those who have chosen to remain under personal lockdown throughout.

“don’t ask why our spending’s more vital than our earning
Or why the economy depends
On us giving out more than we can gather back”

The underlying concern, the gnawing anxiety over future impact, comes through strongly. As summer progressed the author wrote of the young people whose future prospects became ever more uncertain. There were musings on who will bear the brunt of what will be lost.

“everything we’ve grown up to take for granted
And are losing now to toffs and spivs
Who dress like lawyers and act like thieves
And know not to waste a good crisis.”

The final canto reeled me back in as the author reflects on the future, that man’s concerns are insular, that climate continues to change.

The journal is elegantly written and offers much to reminisce over and reflect upon. I shall now put it aside to read in future months and years when what has happened may be put into context of fallout, when we have moved on to whatever must be dealt with beyond.

“it seems we have forgotten how to shout,
Or have lost our voices;
Will we get to forgive ourselves our weakness,
Our failure to act on our justified doubts?”

We are living through ever increasing state intervention on day to day behaviour. This long poem offers a reminder of how it started, how as a country we acquiesced. Worth reading for the literary quality. Recommended as an encouragement towards greater critical thinking.

Spring Journal is published by CB editions.

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