Writers in lockdown, then and now

Writing in lockdown might feel strange and new to us, but we’re by no means the first to experience it. John Simmons shares a timely edition of The Milton Messenger, and reflects on a 26 connection.

In the early days of 26, way back in 2006, I had an idea for a project that asked our members to write about particular places – places associated with writers. Thirty writers signed up, visited the places of their choice (in every corner of the UK) and wrote essays. This turned into a book called Common Ground with chapters on writers as different as Alan Garner and Van Morrison, Harold Pinter and Virginia Woolf, Robert Louis Stephenson and Keith Waterhouse.

In the foreword I wrote:

“These are people in love with words that poets, novelists, storytellers, screenwriters, playwrights and lyricists have created, it seems, especially for them. There is a very personal relationship between the writers and their chosen subjects. Words, written and read, have enormous power to shape lives.”

My chosen author was John Milton and the cottage in Chalfont St Giles where he lived in 1665. Milton had been an influence on my own writing career and Dark Angels (or at least its title) was inspired by Paradise Lost.

In 1665 Milton had fled the Great Plague in London – it was to wipe out a quarter of London’s population that year. Centuries later I visited the cottage to write the chapter and later became a Friend. It’s a tiny but inspiring space. It was here that Paradise Regained started to form in his mind.

So with COVID-19 and lockdown stirring memories, the leaflet The Milton Messenger arrived the other week from the Friends of Milton’s Cottage. Many thanks to them for the fascinating leaflet and for giving us permission to reproduce it. You’ll see that there are intriguing parallels between the plague then and now.

When this lockdown is behind us, I aim to revisit the cottage. I hope others will too. Find out more at www.miltonscottage.org

And let us know what places associated with writers are special for you. Perhaps it will be time, post-lockdown, to revive the original project?

– John Simmons

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