A Journal of the Plague Year 2022—chapter 277

December 12

Last night came the first snow of the year—a light dusting that will largely melt away by midday. 

For the past six days, Emily has been suffering from a virus—but it’s not COVID, according to the Binax NOW test. Initially, she thought she just had a cold, then the symptoms turned to nausea, and finally other, explosive gastric distress. Her diet nowadays is pretty restricted to bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast…with the possibly transgressive addition of a little dark chocolate.

The truly mysterious aspect is precisely how she contracted the illness. She hasn’t gone out of the house, so I must have brought it back from a physical therapy session. But I myself had no symptoms.

As a result, we postponed a planned trip to New York City, along with a doctor’s appointment for me. Em’s a bit on the mend already, so we’ll probably travel to the city next weekend and I will likely see the doc next week.

Out here on Long Island, it grows ever darker and colder, so I have an excuse for setting aside the lengthy Orhan Pamuk novel Nights of Plague and seeking out some lighter fare.

Thanks to a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore, I’ve been enjoying a series of British spy novels by Mick Herron—also an Apple TV adaptation of some of these. They’re quite clearly a bit derivative of John Le Carre. But while Herron seems to imitate a certain waggish Le Carre argot—like that in The Honorable Schoolboy, I think—he aims more insistently for the funny bone.

Le Carre’s British spies, particularly George Smiley, were upper-class social misfits and so physically innocuous that you’d never notice them. Herron has two stables of spies: the denizens of MI-5’s sleek, central headquarters (Regent’s Park) and those exiled to a seedy redoubt (Slough House) as a result of fouling up assignments. At the latter location, the agents are encouraged (like the cops in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown) to do as little as possible lest they fuck up again. But circumstances (the kidnapping of a well-connected Pakistani student, say, or the terroristic activities of a North Korea-inspired group) regularly intervene and require action from the exiles. 

Ricky Gervais’ British TV series The Office makes similar reference to Slough, an actual town in England as well as a memorable reference point in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. But the Slough House regulars wouldn’t fit in either work. Instead, they are occasionally functional drunks and drug addicts, led by an unwashed chain-smoking dipsomaniac named Jackson Lamb. Lamb’s most characteristic gesture is the fart.

Slough House’s location on London’s Aldersgate Street is behind “a black door dusty with neglect, sandwiched between a newsagent’s and a Chinese takeaway; its façade is distempered, its guttering a mess, and the local pigeons have shown their contempt for it in the traditional manner. …The building is a bad tooth set in a failing mouth. Here is where nothing happens: nothing to see here.”

Still, Slough House fits perfectly into post-Brexit, post-Boris Johnson and -Liz Truss England: unglamorous, dysfunctional, repellent, and oblivious. Where James Bond was and remains as glitzy and cosmopolitan as Cary Grant, the Slough House regulars are more fit for a charity mental ward.

Did I make that sound unappealing? No—if you can put up with the insistent, screwball-comedy-like banter of the Slough House regulars, Herron’s books are worth a look. 

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