Lockdown Log, Day 70

Tomorrow marks the start of the eleventh week of lockdown in the UK and although some further easing of the conditions begins today – with some children due to return to their classrooms – relatively little has changed in terms of the risks posed by the coronavirus. Those with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to infection will now be allowed to venture out once a day, but not to go to shops or to anywhere that would make it difficult to maintain social distancing. As I have regularly enjoyed the change of scenery offered by a short, almost-daily walk – or a trip to the farm shop or supermarket for food – I can scarcely imagine what it would be like to have been indoors for the past ten weeks, how depressing that would have been and, for at least some people, how difficult the prospect of that continuing must be.

The last week, in addition to its spring sunshine and blue skies, has been particularly interesting in a couple of ways. The furore over the breaking of lockdown rules by the British Prime Minister’s senior adviser dominated headlines for much of the week and will probably rumble on for some time. Of course, people will have broken the rules – any number have incurred fines for doing so – and where that was reckless and without apparent thought for the health and lives of others it is absolutely right that they should be penalised; this is, after all, why we are not allowed to drive under the influence of alcohol, or to carry dangerous weapons. Others, having been extremely careful of their level of interaction with other people – and knowing that they and their loved ones were all symptom-free – will also have bent the rules for a variety of reasons and that is perhaps understandable. However, the most distressing aspects of last week’s story were the deep and justifiable sense of betrayal felt by people up and down the country who have sacrificed never-to-be-repeated time with family members because that was what they were told was necessary, and the further loss of trust in our political leaders that has inevitably resulted. Public figures throughout the ages have always been just as vulnerable as anyone else to misbehaviour and that has often resulted in front-page scandal, but when the welfare of others is seen to have been put at risk, is it really naive to expect, from those in positions of power, a level of integrity that at the very least results in an apology? It is possible that my disappointment over these events has been coloured by having recently watched a really excellent docudrama series on Netflix about the fate of Czar Nicholas II and his family. The Czars clearly demonstrates the dangers of an unelected Rasputin figure exerting influence over those at the top. I am thankful that, a hundred years on, the reaction here has been far less violent than it was in Russia.

The second reason that I, at least, have had such an interesting week is, paradoxically, because the pandemic forced the cancellation of one of the country’s largest literary festivals – but the organisers came up instead with a wonderful online programme of events. From a wide range of speakers, and alongside viewers from all around the world, I have enjoyed Hay Festival sessions covering philosophy, history, faith and sciences including epidemiology, medicine and physics. It has been really good and, combined with three other online book events, has resulted in an expanded wish-list of titles and a number of visits from my local bookshop owner, delivering orders by bicycle.

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I read this week that one result of the limitations imposed on our usual activities in the UK – despite the surge in online shopping – is that consumer debt has reduced markedly. I can understand at least in part how this has come about because, although I regularly purchase certain things online, I have never been a fan of buying clothes, for example, without being in a shop and able to try things out. Somehow that is part of what makes the whole experience pleasurable. Having said that, and being someone who has campaigned against the environmentally damaging impacts of ‘fast fashion’, last year I did toy with the idea of joining the pledge not to purchase any items of clothing for a whole year. I chickened out – but was hugely impressed to read of friends who had succeeded. So, now I realise that without even trying I have not bought a single item of clothing since last year and, as a result, I am seriously thinking that if I have managed five months painlessly then there really is no good reason not to keep it up and make it through to the end of 2020.

I may have bought no clothes, but since the imposition of lockdown I have bought chocolate – something I don’t usually do because it is just too tempting to have in the house – and it has become an occasional evening treat: perhaps it is our way of celebrating wordlessly another few days without either ill-health or getting on each other’s nerves! I have also bought more books than usual – and I would find it almost impossible to contemplate a year without doing so, even though that might result in both rereading some favourites and starting some of those there has not yet been time to open.

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Finally, as many, many other people have been doing, I have been photographing some of the colours and shapes in our garden.

Lockdown Log, Day 60

It is just over halfway through the ninth week of lockdown here in the UK, Friday before the late May Bank Holiday weekend and the sixtieth day of restrictions on all sorts of social and other everyday activities. Following the easing of travel limits almost two weeks ago, there have already been pictures in the media of south coast beaches – none of them currently overseen by lifeguards – with hundreds if not thousands of sunbathers and swimmers enjoying the unusually high temperatures and clear skies, not having to wait for a holiday weekend as schools are still out because of the pandemic. Such sights make it difficult to believe we are still in the midst of a global crisis, and who would want to deny those who are anyway currently unable to work the chance to spend time out of doors in the fresh air with their families. But the virus is still an ever-present threat and with the number of confirmed cases worldwide having passed five million, and the greatest number of daily new cases around the globe recorded just this week, there is certainly no cause for complacency.

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It seems that many people who have otherwise coped well with the situation since March hit something like a wall at around four to six weeks into lockdown, and in many ways this is hardly surprising. The school summer holidays are around six weeks long, and four weeks is about the longest stretch that anyone could take off work in a single go – so these represent the usual limits to the time that families might possibly spend almost exclusively in each other’s company. Beyond that point, every passing day reinforces the abnormality of life under Covid-19 conditions.

Even without being subject to a nine-to-five work schedule or school-day routine, I have also found a shift occurring in the past few weeks. Back in the first couple of lockdown weeks I had been crossing out all the events and meetings that were in my diary for the months from mid-March to around mid-June – and with little or nothing yet in place beyond then it was left virtually empty except for birthday reminders. Now, following what must have been a hectic period of restructuring and planning for events’ organisers, my diary is fuller than ever with online engagements and I have already used Zoom, BlueJeans, Microsoft Teams and Crowdcast as well as Skype. In the coming week alone – thanks largely to the Hay Festival, which I had never managed to get to before – there are fourteen things to look forward to. None of this can replace the real human contact of being able to meet up with people but it is good, nevertheless, and a reminder of how much worse it could have been if this pandemic had happened before we had the technology that allows us to connect online.

I have also been using my time in front of the computer to produce photo books of some of our travels. Having had to postpone what promised to be a particularly exciting trip this spring it was great to look back again at the journey we were able to make this time last year and that in turn prompted some digging through not only digital photos but also prints from earlier holidays stored in albums. Scanning pictures and reading through holiday diaries to identify dates, places and events has been hugely enjoyable and the task is not yet complete but it is certainly great fun to hit the ‘order’ button and then a week or so later to have another volume drop through the letterbox. I appreciate how extremely fortunate I am to be able to take advantage of these opportunities and also to be able to keep in touch with family and friends, and to be living in the countryside.

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A focus of recent online campaigning has been on petitioning our politicians to ‘Build Back Better’ as and when the pandemic is genuinely receding, and such a restructuring needs to ensure that all those groups who have been seen to be especially disadvantaged under crisis conditions are better supported and better provided for. This will be particularly important given the warnings continuing to come from experts in the fields of medicine and epidemiology that novel diseases sweeping around the world are likely to be a feature of life from now on, and that only with global cooperation on preventative measures and responses can we hope to avoid something even worse than the current pandemic. Big changes to how the world works will not be at all easy but are probably the only way in which both of the greatest threats facing all life on earth – climate change and novel diseases – can be tackled.

As a reminder of the environment local to me – and just one of the reasons I spend time on climate change campaigning – I took some pictures while out and about today (and pinched some that my husband took of our garden).

Lockdown Log, Day 50

Today we have entered week 8 of what, according to recent announcements, is at a level 4 lockdown stage, although tomorrow this becomes level 3. However, the adjustments that are proposed, some of which sounded pretty sensible on a first hearing, have turned out to be very confusing, poorly understood and in some respects more rather than less restrictive than what we have become used to. If our front doorsteps or gates are only around two metres apart then is it no longer going to be possible to stand outside on a Thursday evening to applaud the efforts of all our key workers? Was it, after all, breaking the ‘old’ lockdown rules for two households, each of two people and out on their daily exercise, to pause in an open park or on opposite sides of the road for a socially distanced chat? And looking ahead to the possibility of further lockdown easing in early June and early July – and here at least it was made very clear that this could only happen if the reductions in numbers of new cases and in the transmission rate were maintained – how exactly is it possible to maintain social distancing in an infant school classroom or at a hairdresser’s? Like many people, I am tempted to think that keeping going as before is probably the most sensible course of action, although the prospect of not being able to properly meet up, perhaps for some months yet, with family members who only live a few miles away is very hard. Nevertheless, I recognise that we are in a very privileged position, without the worries experienced by those whose jobs are in peril or who are having to cope in a crowded household with frustrated and anxious children who may not be able to get out into a garden to let off steam. There will certainly be some benefits from the level 3 guidance that people will be able to leave their homes more than once a day to get outside, and that others may be able to return to work if they can do so safely.

As if to reinforce the widely divergent effects that this pandemic is having in different places and among different populations, I have been struck by the contrast between two photographs that have appeared on social media recently. One shows a canal in Venice, where the cleaner water has attracted even a jellyfish to swim unhindered along the watery street; the other is of a dried-up waterway that has become a river of plastic waste in a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos. The Moria camp now holds around seven times the number of people it was built for; it has been described as ‘the worst refugee camp on earth’ and aid workers dread the very real possibility that an outbreak of Covid-19 might affect those struggling to survive there. I am appalled by the conditions that these vulnerable people are having to cope with, and by the fact that a clean piped water supply has not been established that could remove the need for bottled water, with its legacy of ghastly waste adding to the pollution of the already hazardous environment.

What a massive contrast between those surroundings and our town centre, quiet and uncrowded and where the memorial garden bed recently had a fantastic display of hyacinths in readiness for the VE75 commemoration. Having been put off, by some of the jingoistic and anti-European sentiments flying around, from marking the occasion I nevertheless found the excellent film produced by the local parish a very fitting tribute in lieu of the town’s public commemoration that would otherwise have taken place. With its contributions from children recounting their grandparents’ memories, a moving call for peace by the town crier and the loyal toast from the local brewery – still very much in operation despite the lockdown – it was thankful and thoughtful.

Lockdown Log, Day 43

Today is the first day of week 7 in the UK’s coronavirus lockdown and there is a growing realisation that it will be a long time before life returns to anything like a sort of normality, where normal includes being able to go out and about whenever you like, travel by train and other public transport freely and generally not have to think about whether it is safe to have real-life contact with other people. If anything, this serves to reinforce how we in the affluent nations of the global north have all taken such freedoms for granted. However, they have always been denied to certain groups of people – the severely disabled, the shut-in elderly, the poor, the long-term hospitalised, the imprisoned, or dissidents living under repressive regimes, for example. What study of the data concerning Covid-19 is already teaching us is that those who are disadvantaged in any way are also most vulnerable to something like a pandemic – and, of course, it is also the disadvantaged who will be most vulnerable to all the worst effects of climate change unless world leaders and heads of major multinational corporations can find the will to tackle that emergency with anything like the same effort and funding that is being deployed in the face of the virus. It is also becoming apparent that when such major and radical changes are imposed upon populations, albeit for their own protection, it creates a space – as if a worldwide pause button had been hit – in which people can more easily envisage just how much better the world could be in future than it was before. It is good to know that there are many people – politicians, campaigners, activists and others – all working hard to make the case for a brighter, cleaner and more equitable and sustainable future when the current restrictions ease.

I was fascinated to read recently that although the global and rapid spread of this disease is almost certainly unprecedented, the reactions to it and some of the outcomes are far from unusual. It seems that ‘over millennia, there has been a consistent pattern to behaviour during epidemics: the hoarding, the panicking, the fear, the blaming, the superstition, the selfishness, the surprising heroism, the fixation with the numbers of the reported dead, the boredom during quarantine’. This goes right back to the time of Thucydides, who wrote about a plague in fifth-century-BC Athens, and then in the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe wrote about the events of fifty years earlier when plague killed almost a quarter of London’s population in eighteen months. He recorded how the death toll might perhaps have been lower if the authorities had heeded warnings and put measures in place sooner, a criticism being voiced very loudly by some now, even as the current crisis rumbles on. It does seem that a knowledge of the classics and of history is very far from useless even when it comes to modern scientific and medical challenges.

Meanwhile, the heroic fundraising efforts of centenarian Captain Tom Moore have justifiably made headlines, and many others have followed his example to raise funds for charities in need of support at this difficult time. However, it is a great shame – and a sad reflection on our media – that the very similar efforts of a fellow centenarian, the Londoner, Dabirul Islam Choudhury, had received no coverage outside social media and the Islamic and Middle-eastern press until today, when one major UK newspaper reported on the story. He has also been walking a hundred laps around his garden, but doing so while observing the Ramadan fast and in order to raise money for a range of charities, some supporting Covid-19 sufferers in the UK and others sending aid to Gaza, Syria and Yemen. He at least has not forgotten that while the world battles a hidden enemy, innocent people are still falling victim to violent conflicts that are no longer making it into the main news reports. He will have missed out on a fly-past, on the hundreds of thousands of birthday cards that Tom received last week, and on the banners that adorn local buildings but he is just as much of a hero and when people are out clapping on their doorsteps tomorrow I do hope that some of them are thinking of and applauding him as well as all the key workers.

Lockdown Log, Day 37

I am sure it is the same for others – like a small child deprived of a toy they scarcely noticed before but who now wants it more than ever, I am missing some of those things I took for granted just six weeks ago. They are not huge things and are almost meaningless in the face of the hidden threat sweeping the globe: the chance to sit with a pot of tea and a newspaper in the supermarket cafe before heading home, because for someone who is usually home-based it represents a change of scene; knowing my teeth are still in good condition and are briefly super-clean when leaving the dentist’s after a six-monthly check-up – now postponed until who knows when; not having to wonder before every video call whether I look – as my mother used to say – as if I have been ‘dragged through a hedge backwards’. I am pretty sure that being dragged through a hedge in any direction would result in the ruin of one’s hairstyle but, like many, I am feeling the lack of access to a hairdresser.

Today, however, I did get to do something else that I realise I have been missing. In the normal course of events I probably travel up to London on the train around once a week on average, almost always outside the commuter rush and for a variety of enjoyable reasons: board meetings with colleagues, who are also friends; climate events; lectures; or theatre or opera performances. Unlike a number of my friends I also actively like travelling on the Underground, having never become sufficiently familiar with London bus routes to be sure that I will end up where I need to go, and having no problem with being in a crowd. So, setting off this afternoon to make what is classified as an ‘essential journey’ I was interested to see how the whole experience would feel in the very different circumstances that now prevail.

The first surprise came as I reached our local railway station and discovered that the very long-drawn-out building works had progressed: the new footbridge to the five platforms is now in use and the lift shafts have been given rather space-age roofs. The station carpark, which research tells me has a capacity of 508 cars and which is often completely full on a weekday, had only half a dozen cars in it in the early afternoon and there was only one other passenger getting on the almost-empty twelve-coach train; social distancing was no problem at all. A few people joined the train at each stop but it was still comparatively empty when we arrived at Euston station. Everywhere was quiet and none of the shopping outlets on the concourse was open; outside, there was the muffled sound of construction work for HS2 going ahead from behind hoarding but no one was in sight and the throng of people who would usually be there was noticeably absent. There was something very poignant about all the posters flanking the escalators, tempting travellers to West End shows that are no longer being performed, and the Underground platforms are all now marked with blue spacers reminding people to stay two metres apart. However, the staff – among the country’s key workers – looked as cheerful as usual and were not exactly rushed off their feet.

Oxford Circus is normally a hive of activity at any time of day and in any weather but today it was almost deserted, with very few people about. The contrast between London and at home was very marked – we have recently got used to being greeted across the street by strangers or at the very least acknowledging others out for daily exercise but those people who were out on London’s pavements avoided eye contact as well as keeping their distance. I had a successful visit to donate blood, knowing that the need for this has not gone away while the lack of other medical provisions are making the headlines, and there was a great atmosphere in the donor centre, where all staff were wearing surgical masks but making the best of the difficulties they caused for communication. They were also apologetic about not being able to provide the usual cup of tea. Like all the other key workers up and down the country, they are doing a great job.

Euston almost empty at 4pm on a weekday was a strange and rather desolate sight – it reminded me of a journey on the M25 one year at around 1am on New Year’s Day – so empty that we were really did wonder if we had somehow strayed onto a road that had been closed.

I cannot really say that I felt too worried about making this journey as all the indications were that people are adhering to the Government’s instructions and are taking things seriously. But I do look forward to the day when I can jump on a more crowded Underground train and not have to think about how far away the other passengers are.

Lockdown Log, Day 32

We are now well into the fifth week of lockdown in the UK and all the signs are that it will continue for some time to come, with social distancing possibly being a feature of life for the remainder of the year. The global death toll now stands at more than 190,000 and it is the uncertainty about when things might begin to change for the better that is beginning to take its toll on even the most positive and hopeful people. That and the lack of physical contact – especially the inter-generational contact of parents with their children and grandchildren. Online meetings are all very well but, as a friend said just yesterday: ‘It is great to see a screen full of the smiling faces of friends but then after a while someone has to hit the button, you all disappear and I am on my own again.’ And for the families of those who have died during this period – whether as a result of Covid-19 or for any other reason – there is the awfulness of not being able to mark the death of a loved one with a shared commemoration. My church family is mourning the death of a dearly loved 93-year-old who had been poorly for a few months and died a week ago. The matriarch of a vast extended family as well as a pillar of the local community, she deserved to have a really great send-off and for her family to know how appreciated and valued she was; the thought of that memorial service being postponed for many months, which will leave her closest relatives in a state of suspended grief, is very hard indeed.

Back in March – which seems in some respects so long ago and yet, because so little of note has happened in our enclosed worlds, it could almost be yesterday – we could cheerfully postpone travel plans for a year and could look forward to getting together with family and friends in the coming months if not at the weekend. But now it is beginning to sink in that such optimism may have been misplaced and that we may be waiting, together with people all around the world, for a tried and tested vaccine to be widely available before it is possible to travel safely abroad or have proper gatherings again.

Nevertheless, it is important to pair that realistic assessment with a good helping of gratitude and thankfulness: we are well; our family is all well; we have space, sunshine, food, shelter, glorious views over the local countryside and some of the most wonderful spring weather. What is more, we have the luxury of time to devote to a whole range of activities. There is useful work to be done for charities and community groups who are busier than ever in the current situation; the climate crisis is ever-present, and keeping abreast of how the two global emergencies are overlapping and affecting each other is an interesting challenge; and there are opportunities to make progress on projects that had been postponed, and to catch up on missed films and the reading pile – which seems to be growing ever higher thanks to the local bookshop’s deliveries.

Whether an easing of isolation is weeks, or more likely many months, away, let’s continue to make the very best of whatever our present circumstances are, cherish the new appreciation we have of those who work in key sectors – health, social care and food provision and the emergency services – and not forget that when the threat of the virus has passed we should keep hold of and build on the good things it has brought about. There will doubtless be a need to learn from mistakes that will have been made in tackling Covid-19, but also to try and understand what aspects of life pre-virus need to change for good in order to make further such pandemics less likely.

In trivial domestic news, I have managed to use a very old set of hair clippers – repaired by my handyman husband – to cut his hair without inflicting serious injury (which my sons may say, with a good deal of exaggeration, is better than I ever managed with them!) but I am not risking a return of that particular ‘favour’, despite what is happening to my own neglected head of hair. We have continued to explore and exploit the far reaches of our food cupboards and, with the ongoing scarcity of bread flour in the shops, some rather old flour and seeds have today been used to produce some excellent bread. Rather less tasty, but perfectly edible, a chunk of black pudding that had been lurking in the freezer for probably a little over four years was recently disguised among other ingredients to add to a mixed grill – a rare departure from our largely vegetarian diet. In attempting to restrict food shopping to once a week, we are more often being inventive with what is already available at home and, when the time comes and restrictions are eased, not only will we enjoy being able to eat out or with others, we will also have a much more streamlined stock of things in our cupboards and freezer. However, it seems that no amount of extra time makes it more likely that I will actually get housework done!

 

Lockdown Log, Day 27

It is hard to believe that it is very nearly four weeks since the UK lockdown was imposed and while it is difficult to be physically separated from family and friends our situation is very easy indeed compared to those who have been bereaved in recent weeks, whose jobs are under threat or who are having to juggle work alongside home-schooling their children. In fact, every few days I have to remind myself that, had we not been ‘grounded’ by the virus pandemic, we would have been separated from family and friends for a month anyway and would currently be somewhere in northern China on a train heading west towards the border with Kazakhstan. Distracted by all sorts of other enticing reading, I had not got around to any of the various books about the Silk Road that we had acquired as background reading and I now realise that I have been given an opportunity to rectify that and to do some vicarious travelling before we are able to take our postponed trip.

But there are always other books to tempt me away from good intentions: a quick scan of just a couple of our laden shelves suggests that, even of the fiction titles, there are perhaps one in every twenty or so that I have yet to read. So, I was really pleased recently to discover that the Japanese have a word for this trait that is well over a hundred years old: tsundoku is ‘acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them’. The word is a combination of terms for piling things up for later and leaving them, and for reading books. So tsundoku can be translated as one’s reading pile. I do have a reading pile but it is relatively modest, comprising newly bought books or books received as gifts that have yet to be read and, crucially, that have not yet been allocated a place on a shelf. I know for certain that there are other books – particularly large volumes that might threaten to overburden my bedside table – that also fall into the ‘yet to read’ category but that have already been found a home and are on my mental ‘to read’ list. The latest doorstop from Hilary Mantel is among these and I am currently watching again the television adaptation of Wolf Hall in preparation for a mammoth read of the second and third parts of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

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Meanwhile, I am nearing the end of a paperback novel – I periodically search the brilliant local Oxfam bookshop for books by favourite authors or titles from my ‘wishlist’ that I can get at a bargain price – but have also just had delivered a real treat of a hardback book. Our new local independent bookstore has, with every other bookshop in the country, had to close its doors to customers but fortunately it had been open just long enough to gain a loyal following. Offering a really wonderful service that included author events and book signings, and an inaugural book festival last autumn, it has gone fully online in recent weeks and is managing to take and process orders and then deliver them to doorsteps. It has been great during the lockdown to have twice had a phone call telling me that an ordered book had arrived and would be on its way later that day and then, when the doorbell rang some hours later – and after leaving an appropriate pause before opening the door, to find a brown paper bag sitting on the step and bookshop owner Ben on his bicycle, panniers laden with books, making sure that the book would be safely taken in. We had a socially distanced chat about my latest purchase, a title that had been on my wishlist for a while but that he had not come across before. It is a booklover’s delight, a book that celebrates tsundoku in all its various forms. I am already enjoying it and know that, when I have finished reading it, I will love dipping into it again and again. Biblio-Style: How We Live at Home with Books is fabulously illustrated and very cleverly arranged, with the private libraries of book collectors set alongside specialist bookshops and archives, all according to the way in which the owners regard their collections. Are they haphazard or organised, do they have a dedicated space or are they everywhere, does the owner collect all sorts of books or do they specialise? I have yet to work out exactly where our relatively modest library would fit into the author’s categories, let alone where this book will find its home in our collection.

My lockdown log of things that I am particularly grateful for has not been in any order at all – family and friends would have taken first place – but if it had been then books might well have been on the second day.