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Conversations in Isolation: William Sieghart

The Chairman of Somerset House Trust on life in lockdown

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During lockdown Scarfe’s Bar is shut, so we’re asking some of our past interviewees how they’re coping with isolation and how they think Coronavirus will change our world – this week: William Sieghart, creator of Poetry Pharmacy and Chairman of Somerset House Trust. Charlotte Metcalf spoke to him on the telephone.

Conversations in Isolation: William Sieghart

William Sieghart

Photo: Alexandra Dao

Where are you isolating?

On the Suffolk coast where I own a house on the beach.  I couldn’t be in a better place – the shingle comes right up to the garden gate and I can see the sea from where I’m talking to you now. I’m with my wife Molly, our three children, 18, 20 and 23, and a dog. Our oldest daughters were studying in America but thank God they made it back – it didn’t feel like a proper nest till we had them safely home.

How are you keeping fit?

I do a work out every single morning with my best friend on FaceTime. We do 60 press ups, which is what my age now is as of about two weeks ago. It’s pretty entertaining – two old blokes working out in their boxer shorts. I also cycle, walk along the beach and am doing a lot of gardening. At the moment I’m digging up what will be a wild flower meadow. I’m getting pretty fit.

Are you working?

I’m blessed because my current job is researching 150 children’s poems for a new anthology I’m compiling for Walker Books. It’s being illustrated by Emily Sutton who’s unbelievably brilliant and it will be published in time for Christmas 2021. I’m also waiting to hear about Poetry Pharmacy being produced as a Radio Four programme which will bring the prescriptions to a wider audience.

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What have you learnt in isolation?

That I love living by the sea. This is where I grew up and went on summer holidays and we’re governed by the tides so it’s like going back in time to a simpler world without FOMO. The draw of the city, which has been at the core of my entire life, has paled. I had a bad accident before Christmas when I fell down some steps carrying a very heavy bicycle. I fractured a lot of bones and spent eight weeks flat on my back staring at the ceiling, so in a way I was prepared for this time.

How do you see the post-Coronavirus world?

In our pre-coronavirus lives we had excess expectations of everything – we were rushing around, having to be here, there and everywhere. We had to be happy, our relationships had to work, we had to be successful and ambitious. Now my ambition for the day is to prune a plant well or plant some seeds.

For 30 years I’ve been banging on about the role of poetry during our hour of need so I feel so happy to have been flooded with it during lockdown. It’s all over social media and even on the Today programme every morning. I’ve always referred to the canon of poetry as a secular liturgy and this seems so appropriate in these rather Biblical times of pestilence and plagues of locusts over Africa. More and more people are discovering poetry and turning to it and its role will continue growing.

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People are talking about mental illness and the loneliness and isolation of Covid-19 but to me loneliness is five people in a room cut off from each other by their individual screens and devices. During isolation I’ve felt my family to be totally present, we eat and talk together without distraction now and I think people will go on wanting that genuine communication and not want to lose it again.

If you strip away people’s financial and medical pressures, I think people will realise they feel better without all the other pressures we had before from a constant digital onslaught.  I certainly don’t want to go back to sitting in a meeting trying to concentrate while your device is whirring, bleeping and pulsing and knowing you’ll never catch up on all the emails and information coming at you.

With no new news and fewer calls, texts and emails, people have been dusting off their jigsaws, getting out the playing cards, mending and repairing, decorating, baking. It’s back to the simplicity of my childhood, before smart phones and laptops, when we had to find a way of not being bored. Seneca said you had to lower your expectations to be happy. I think we’re all going to seek a simpler life after lockdown.


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