'I only read one Philip Roth book each year. I want to grow older with him, rather than after him' - whynow

For the crowning of Charlie Mitchell’s lockdown legendarium, he’s been leaping about in his ice cold Ottawan home gym, asking his girlfriend silly questions about pizza, and inhaling American literature.


‘In 2016 I decided to only read one Philip Roth book each year. So potent is his fiction and so coiled his narratives, that I want to grow older with him, rather than after him.’

On Wednesday I rose early, worked for a couple of hours, started learning how to code, leaped about a bit in a brick-walled basement gym (ice-cold dumbbells, shard of mirror to shave in), strolled past some stonking great houses, had a delicious evening meal, did a crossword, watched Ex Machina and then between midnight and 2am, pitched, wrote and filed a story.

On Thursday, I flossed, thought I had coronavirus, decided I didn’t, and then called it a day. Such is life in lockdown – what you make of it.

On Thursday, I flossed, thought I had coronavirus, decided I didn’t, and then called it a day.

During calls back to London, where my family live, I am told that my aunt and uncle have become cadets in the volunteer army. My uncle, an urban bee-keeper, buzzes around southwest London, delivering medicines to grey old ladies with bloodshot eyes. My aunt chats to the old, lonely and jettisoned on the phone. I, by contrast, have noticed that the backs of my hands have been drying out lately, so I’m experimenting with different moisturisers. Until a month ago, I was losing a few too many hairs in the shower each day – great handfuls of the things, taut and shiny. But that stopped pretty suddenly, and no longer draws much attention from my throbbing mind.

If you grumble about some symptoms, people bring you bits and bobs, tea, pasta, maybe some brie on a bit of ciabatta with a couple of gherkins. In return, you’ve got to wear a mask to go for a wee.

Charlie Mitchell’s arresting view in Ottawa, Canada

I ask my girlfriend if she’d rather eat exclusively vegetables for the rest of her life, or eat anything and everything, but on a pizza. From a distance of six feet away, she quickly chooses pizza, after confirming that the dough could be shaped into a goblet for, say, orange juice. It doesn’t seem so clear cut to me, so I take a few days to think it over.

After nearly forgetting to pop a vitamin D on Friday, I decided to become a person who makes lists. I only completed three of seven items, but the endorphin-sizzling ding of a completed task felt nice.

In 2016 I decided to only read one Philip Roth book each year. So potent is his fiction and so coiled his narratives, that I want to grow older with him, rather than after him. It is harder in quarantine. I re-read the last 4 chapters of Operation Shylock, his best, which makes American Pastoral seem almost glib. I was given a signed first edition of the Anatomy Lesson for my last birthday, but the gold-crusted pages are so thin that my oily fingertips stain them, the very ones flicked through no doubt by the master himself. It’s like a copy of the economist, which sticks resolutely to your forearm when you drop off on a flight. I suppose that’s one less thing to worry about.

Have you still done a crossword if you cheat on three out of upwards of 120 clues? I’m leaning towards no, but I might let that marinate for a couple of days as well.

Have you still done a crossword if you cheat on three out of upwards of 120 clues?

I have one Charles Bukowski novel left to read, Factotum, about, as the title suggests, a bloke who does a number of different jobs. Bukowski writes well, like a punch in the face, but it’s all his life really, apart from the supernatural Pulp, which pokes fun at its own genre. I suppose many of us will become factotums in the post-virus world, skidding around looking for different types of low-paid work, while shovelling condensed milk into our tear-crusted mouths.

Then there’s The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and The Freedom Artist by Ben Okri. Neither of them are Roth, but that’s ok. I met Okri at a literary fair in Abu Dhabi last year and talked to him for a while about process. Afterwards he scrawled in my copy: “Stay brave, look deeply and write with cool fire.”

Well, frail reader, how did I do?

Rampa  They Will Be