Friday 27 October 2023

Secret Blog: The pandemic plays

In early March 2020, my organisation advised employees to start working from home due to the rise in Covid-19 cases. Along with many other office workers, I stuffed a bag with my laptop, docking station, notebooks, a headset and any smart shoes I kept in the office, none of us knowing how long to expect this measure to last. On my way home, I popped into the library (I work at a university) to take out some play texts. Clearly, my priorities were having some good reading material to keep me occupied during lockdown!

As a student, I often enjoyed using the library to read a wide range of plays even if they weren't the focus of my studies. I had a voracious appetite for reading and was a part of a reading group for a local amateur theatre for a while. Even after graduating, working as a zero-hour agency staff member at a different university, I'd often sit in the library between shifts reading plays I knew about but never had the opportunity to see. That particular university didn't have a Drama course so the plays tended to be classics along with a smaller section of modern plays. The contemporary play texts could probably be held in one hand. I spent many hours not being paid (and in some cases being paid) reading the plays of Tony Kushner, Caryll Churchill, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Arnold Wesker, David Hare and so on. Many of them hadn't been taken out for years, some were dusty - literally or otherwise!

Since then, I've not had much chance to read plays as often as I'd like but I felt the coming weeks would hold the opportunity to remedy this. On this occasion, the plays were 'Sweet Bird of Youth' and Other Plays by Tennessee Williams, David Mamet: Plays One, and Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard.

September 2023. Three and a half years and 99 automatic renewals later I received an auto-generated email saying I'd reached the maximum number of renewals and needed to return the books. I hadn't even opened them during that time! Lockdown instead had been taken up with WFH, clearing our garden, re-organising a wedding, and immersing ourselves into a Netflix subscription. And reading other things. So without having read the plays I took home in a pre-lockdown world, I was now dusting them off my own bookshelf and returning them to the library. Until the next pandemic, David Mamet: Plays One!

Before I returned them, I read the Stoppard. As I opened it, the spine not yet quite cracked, a slip of paper fell out. On first glance, you'd have thought it was blank the ink was so faded. On closer inspection, I could see it was the receipt from the last time the book had been taken out of the library in 2014. I find these sort of things fascinating. We were recently in a secondhand bookshop in Aberystwyth where my wife bought a copy of Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn. Inside it was a makeshift bookmark, a family photograph taken outside a Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, the year 1974 pencilled on the back. Who did this belong to? Did they intend to donate the photograph with the book? Would they like it returned?

I looked at the library receipt from almost a decade ago, pondering how much the world had changed since. I looked closer. It had my name on it. I vaguely recall taking out some Stoppard plays when I was completing my undergraduate degree in the summer of 2014. I recall reading Arcadia but must have returned the others unread. Nine years later, it was back in my possession, still unread and about to be returned to the library once more. What a fittingly Stoppardian trick of time.

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