Roberts’s poem, “The Great Realisation,” was released on YouTube on April 29 and has been viewed tens of millions of times. It has also been translated independently into multiple languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, German, Spanish, French, Italian and Russian. A simple rhyming tale read as a bedtime story, it takes on heavy themes — corporate greed, familial alienation, the pandemic — and somehow comes up with a happy ending. Set in an unspecified future, the poem looks back on pre-pandemic life and imagines a “great realisation” sparked by the scourge.
Roberts, a 26-year-old filmmaker who posts online under the moniker Probably Tom Foolery, narrates the story “Princess Bride” style, to his brother and sister, Cai and Sora, who are both 7. “Tell me the one about the virus again,” a little voice pipes in at the start. As a gentle lullaby sound hums in the background, Roberts tells his listeners about pre-pandemic life — “a world of waste and wonder, of poverty and plenty” — that falls apart when the virus hits, and yet in the end initiates something better: a society in which people are kinder and more mindful, and spend more time outdoors and with their families than on screens or at the office.
A fairy tale of sorts, it is peppered with wry lines that evoke family favorite Roald Dahl. “Why did it take a virus to bring people back together?” Cai asks toward the end. “Sometimes,” Roberts replies, “you have to get sick, my boy, before you start feeling better.”
The project, says Roberts, began as a way for him to entertain and teach his young siblings during the lockdown. It’s turned out to be a most effective — and affecting — home-schooling activity. In the weeks since the poem was released, Roberts has been flooded with requests and inquiries. His new fans include Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Aniston and Drew Barrymore. They, among others, have urged Roberts to turn his virtual tale into a bound book that parents can read to their own children. Roberts, who used to pay the bills making social-media videos for corporations, now has an agent at Creative Artists Agency and plans to have that children’s book published in the fall. As for the feature film he’d been working on before the pandemic — coincidentally about a poet who finds sudden fame — well, he hopes that, too, will soon find a rapt audience.
In a video call from his home, Roberts talked about his inspiration, his hopes for the poem — and his pleasant surprise at its popularity. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: What inspired this story?
A: I was feeling very strongly that the information I was consuming was deeply negative and full of fear. And I understand why: I’m not simple to the fact that this is an incredibly difficult time. So many people are suffering. At the same time, I feel quite strongly that if you don’t have anything to be hopeful for, your worldview can become one of despair as well. And I think if there are any steps we can take to avoid the tendency toward despair then they are worth taking.
The challenge I set to myself was: Is there anything we can look forward to? Is there anything positive that can be drawn from this — even if it’s really small? Lots of people are doing a very good job observing bad things, but I wondered: Is anyone thinking about what good can come of this? The best approach I could come up with was a bedtime story. While looking after my brother and sister, I read them stories about kings and queens and witches — and in these stories there’s something to be learned about friendship and trust and bravery and resilience, and so I was thinking: Imagine if the world before coronavirus was a world that seemed distant because we had made so many improvements because of the disruption it caused?
I kept hearing people say, “I hope things go back to normal.” And I thought, wouldn’t it be even better if instead of going back to normal it went to something that was even better than before? I think that would be infinitely more interesting. The objective was to paint a picture of a world that was more sustainable, progressive and kinder and fairer and to see if I could sell that as a realistic concept and make the period we’re living in feel like a fairy-tale bedtime story.
Q: When does the story take place?
A: I truly wish I had the enlightenment to answer this. I wouldn’t ever claim to be an expert in history, but generally speaking, whatever your time scale, the human race is heading in the right direction but not quickly enough, and maybe vast disruptions like this — as painful as they are — that effect not just one country but every country on the planet, maybe that can speed up the humanistic desire for improvement that crosses borders.
Q: How many years do we have to wait to have our Great Realisation?
A: Obviously I don’t know. My job as a poet extends as far as to ask a question and allow brighter minds than mine to venture answers. On a hopeful day, I would suggest the thing that is magical about hope — and optimism especially — is that if enough people choose to adopt it, the potential for good things to happen becomes more likely.
If you decide to believe that the world outside your window isn’t going to get better, I think the world outside your window will support your theory completely. On the other hand, if you decide to believe that potentially things could get better, you can start to make that happen, first on an individual level and among your family. If enough people did that, the change would ripple out exponentially.
Q: How did you come up with the lines: "Why did it take a virus to bring people back together? Sometimes you have to get sick, my boy, before you start feeling better."
A: Like every human being, I have no original ideas. All of them are an amalgamation of the things I have consumed. As for that thought, if you have just lost a loved one and go online and see a poet suggesting coronavirus is going to lead to a better world, you’re not going to feel enraptured, nor should you. The thought I was trying to get across is that there have been some incredibly dark times in human history that have been followed by lighter times: periods of war followed by periods of peace, pandemics followed by periods of wellness. In history we learn about horrible things that happen to humans — in World War II for example — and then there’s peace. I do think that it’s all cyclical — you go through this dark time and it can’t last forever; nothing lasts forever. What happens after is the reverse.
I was imagining that there was a little boy who would ask: Why couldn’t the people just figure this out for themselves, why did they need such a terrible event for them to reevaluate the imbalance?
Q: Your mother, father and older sister all work at hospitals. Tell me what they do there and how they are.
A: They are all doing just fine. My mom is a midwife, and babies are still being born. My sister is a doctor and so she is treating covid-19. My dad is an epidemiologist. In the United Kingdom, they have called doctors back into hospitals, so he is doing that. I have no doubt that when they go to work they see distressing things. But they don’t bring it home.
Q: What's your favorite bedtime story?
A: “Danny, the Champion of the World,” by Roald Dahl.
Q: Is it ironic that there's an anti-screen message to your poem, which can only be viewed on screen?
A: It would be ironic to suggest that people are spending too much time on screens and then release poems on screen, sure. The idea is not to stop doing things that are useful to us or that have transformed our lives, like going on screens. The idea is to do them in moderation. That idea of moderation can go into any argument I make in the poem: I’m not saying we stop going to work or disband big business but that maybe this situation has made us reassess our work-life balance.
Q: How political is this poem? You do take a shot at politicians and lobbyists, saying: "It's best to not upset the lobbies It's more convenient to die."
A: If a broke poet in his bedroom can’t take a dig at the lobbies, then we find ourselves in a strange situation! The lobbies will recover from anything I am capable of inflicting on them. I was just suggesting that if things that are harmful to people are allowed to continue because the people arguing for them have overwhelming financial weight, that might be something we could have a look at.
Q: Your story has a happy ending. How realistic do you think it is — or are happy endings just for stories?
A: We are living in a never-ending story, aren’t we? This life thing we’re all playing out — we’re not really going to close the book. It’s all just twists and turns. There are periods where it feels like the evil forces are surrounding you and coming at you from all sides, and then there are moments of light in the darkness. If you ask me what I thought, we are edging as a species toward improvement, and it’s not like a smooth line, it goes up and down — a bit like a stock price. A happy ending? I feel like there is no ending, but there are happy things.
Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.
Q&A: Tom Roberts