No one actively likes wearing a mask, but for some of us putting one on does more than merely help to stop the spread. Last week, I interviewed a neuroscientist and experimental psychologist who told me that a few people have told him that if they wear theirs outside, at least no one will see them talking to themselves as they doggedly march yet again around their local park. Is talking to yourself a sign of incipient madness? On this, he had good news: no, it isn’t. The latest science, in fact, suggests that muttering to yourself in the second or third person (“Rachel, you are not imagining things”) really can help to quieten an inner voice that may be a little too loud for comfort.
As we spoke, something fell into place for me, for doesn’t literature suggest that human beings have always done this? Consider the diaries of Dr Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, in which he often slips out of the first person when he’s anxious: an effect that’s comical and touching. “Yesterday you was pretty well,” reads his entry for 4 April 1764. “But confused and changed and desperate. After dinner, you said to Rose, ‘I have passed a very disagreeable winter of it, with little enjoyment.’ You was truly splenetic. You said to him after, ‘When I recollect, ’twas not so.’ You are imbecile.” I’ve always thought of Boswell as the most deeply human of writers. But now I shall forever think of him as deeply sane, too: a pioneer of mind control as well as of biography.
All dressed up…
My friend Sophie gave me the most fantastic present for Christmas: a full set of costume jewellery – earrings, necklace, brooch as big as a satellite dish – by Norman Hartnell, the couturier best known for dressing the Queen (and, perhaps, for his rivalry with another royal dressmaker of note, Hardy Amies, whom he was said to call “Hardly Amiable” behind his back). The stones are citrine yellow and surrounded by huge chunks of diamante and every time I look at them my heart beats a little faster. But how on earth to wear such glorious paste in lockdown? Under house arrest, my wardrobe could be summed up thus: “The ageing Jane Fonda has unexpectedly got a Saturday job at Neal’s Yard Dairy.” It’s so frustrating. At the moment, I put the whole lot on just before I go to bed and prance about the bathroom as if I’ve just bagged a starring role in The Crown.
The lockdown has many retro aspects and until the other day I’d begun to believe that chilblains, presumably born of all my endless walks on sodden ground, might just be one. The toes of my right foot, red and sore and slightly swollen, looked just as they did when I was a teenager and living in a house where the central heating came on, like menstruation, about once a month. But there is, it turns out, another possibility. My latest ailment, it seems, may not be chilblains after all, but “Covid toe”, a baffling long-term side-effect of the virus that can last for months (Covid-19 dropped by our mostly quite warm house last spring). Oh, well. Either way, the treatment, at least in mild cases, is the same – hydrocortisone cream or witch-hazel generally do the trick – and so, too, is the Jane Eyre-ish feeling that comes over the afflicted as they gingerly peel off their socks at night in front of the fire.
• Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist