Book interview: Why William Wall wrote a poetry journal about the pandemic

Wall says survivors of awful events like pandemics tend to want to forget about them which might explain the paucity of plague literature
Book interview: Why William Wall wrote a poetry journal about the pandemic

William Wall, author of Smugglers in the Underground Hug Trade. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

Prolific author of novels, short stories, and poetry and also Cork’s Poet Laureate, William Wall joins the relatively sparse number of writers focusing on plagues through the ages. Wall, originally from Whitegate and a former teacher of English at Presentation Brothers’ College, says that while it might sound strange, he and his wife, Liz Kirwan were looking for books to do with pandemics in the early stages of Covid-19.

“That sounds like a counterintuitive thing to do at the beginning at a plague but it was interesting and comforting to read that plagues come and go,” says Wall.”Ours will come to an end eventually.”

Wall found it difficult to find books about pandemics. He started with Thucydides in the 4th century BC who wrote about the plague in Athens. There’s Giovanni Boccaccio who wrote ‘The Decameron’. It has an account of the terrifying Black Death that broke out in the 14th century.

“There’s Daniel Dafoe and Samuel Pepys. There’s Alessandro Manzoni who wrote The Betrothed, a superb account of the plague that struck Milan in 1630. In modern times, regarding the Spanish flu (which killed fifty million people) I can only find references to it in Mrs Galloway (a novel by Virginia Woolf) and there’s William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows. There’s A Journal of the Plague by Camus which is probably about fascism.”

Wall says survivors of awful events like pandemics tend to want to forget about them which might explain the paucity of plague literature. “I can only think of two traditional songs about the famine that are reasonably contemporary. At the same time, I’ve always felt that a writer has a duty to engage with what’s happening with the world. People say that no one wants to read a book about the pandemic we’ve experienced. In a sense, that doesn’t really matter. Maybe this generation won’t read about it but future generations will want to read about it.”

It was Kirwan who suggested to her husband that he write a poetry journal about the pandemic. She has taken the photographs reproduced in the book, humorously entitled smugglers in the underground hug trade: A Journal of the Plague Year.

“There are many poems in the book that are relatively happy. I’m engaging with nature and trying to take a positive view of lockdown. It’s not all doom and gloom. We weren’t sick fortunately, so far.”

Wall has Stills Disease, a form of rheumatoid arthritis which he contracted as a child. He says his doctors weren’t able to say definitively whether he would be particularly vulnerable to Covid.

“Stills Disease is an autoimmune disease so I would be suspicious but I’ve no intention of getting the damned thing.”

Smugglers in the Underground Hug Trade: A Journal of the Plague Year by William Wall
Smugglers in the Underground Hug Trade: A Journal of the Plague Year by William Wall

When the Covid outbreak happened in Italy, Wall and his wife, both Italophiles, were staying in Camogli in Liguria, an hour’s journey from Cologna where the army was sent to create a cordon sanitaire around it.

“I was listening to Italian radio. When I heard about the army being sent in, I said to Liz that we just had to get out of there and that it was going to be terrible. So we took the train down to Rome, passing empty stations in an empty train. We were staying with friends in Rome for a night. Walking by the Spanish Steps, there was nobody there except policemen. Then we were in Fiumicino Airport in Rome. There might have been 20 other people there besides us. It was a really strange experience. We were worried. You can’t take these things lightly.”

But lightening up — if you’re lucky enough to escape the virus — is important. In The Decameron, a fictional group of noblemen and women leave Florence and go to the hills to tell each other stories. “The argument in it is that in terms of plague, you have to divert yourself and amuse yourself.”

But we also have a social responsibility. In A Journal of the Plague, Camus wrote: ‘No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny made of plague and the emotions and shared by all.’

“That’s really saying that during plague, solidarity becomes crucial. We share the same destiny therefore we have to work together. Ireland is a very good example of that. We haven’t had mass rejection of the vaccine programme as they’ve had in America and to a lesser extent, in Italy and France. We have had 95% compliance with regulations during lockdown.”

The anti-vaxxers make Wall “sick. We’ve all had vaccinations having been vaccinated when we were children. The thing about public health is that it’s not about an individual. It’s about the numbers. You have to think about society when you think of vaccination. When you’re vaccinated, there’s a small risk that you can catch the virus. But by being vaccinated, you are depressing the numbers. You’re flattening the curve in society. And you’re saving other people as well as yourself.”

Wall says that essentially, “anti-vaxxers are selfish. I suppose that’s not true of all of them. Some are misled by bad advice. But the leaders of the anti-vax movement are charlatans.”

They have an agenda, says Wall. “There’s a political element to it. If you look at Italy or France, you can see the anti-vaxxers movement associated with people like the Lega in Italy and Le Pen’s movement in France. They’re right wing. They emphasise personal liberty over solidarity. They see solidarity as a left wing thing. But you can see solidarity as a Christian thing or a Muslim thing. Most religions are about solidarity.”

As well as sometimes having a political agenda, Wall says some anti-vax leaders have a financial interest in spreading their beliefs. “Some of them are peddling alternative cures.”

Golfgate and Merriongate not withstanding — examples of our politicians’ sense of entitlement and self importance, says Wall — would he rate the government’s management of the pandemic?

“I do and I don’t rate it. I actually think Micheál Martin is doing very well and I’m not just saying that as a Cork man. But in other areas such as the housing crisis, it’s a complete disaster. They need to go back to Fianna Fáil of the 1930s when houses were built and people’s lives improved as a result.”

Reading Wall’s poem, ‘In Time of Quarantine’, it seems love will save us. He writes: ‘and some of us will be smugglers/in the underground hug trade/black market kissers/purveyors of under-the-counter embraces/solicitors of indulgence/intimacy pushers on the bright side of the street/our only law will be affection/our currency will be love/from which there is no default.’

  • Smugglers in the underground hug trade: A Journal of the Plague Year by William Wall
  • Doire Press, €14

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