IN 1908, just short of 15, my maternal grandmother Elizabeth Smith began her apprenticeship to become a dressmaker. In due course she passed her skills to her daughters (once by throwing a half-made dress at my mother and telling her to get on with it herself). My photograph shows childhood teddy bears modelling clothes made by me about 60 years ago; I had started sewing, and knitting.
As lockdown began, various responses included: the need to make good use of this time suddenly gifted to us; and the suggestion to learn a new skill or to become creative – this drive possibly having an adverse effect on some who consequently felt guilty if they weren’t filling every second. We’ve also been given every opportunity to benefit from the experts turning to instruction on TV, for example BBC’s Get Creative (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0778tx6), though if we want to simply gaze in admiration at others, we have The Repair Shop and The Great British Sewing Bee.
I’ve carried on sewing and knitting, and added in photography (seeded by trips to the college darkroom with my father in the 1960s). Each project involves effort – emotional, mental and physical. The total immersion required to ‘do a good job’ and avoid error provides great distraction, while repetitive tasks become calming. It’s not just technical of course; the psychological process going on as a product emerges can invoke strong feelings of satisfaction, aesthetic pleasure, almost thrill sometimes.
Last autumn I took up wet felting, enabled by a couple of bags of wool roving (wool carded but not spun) left over from Caitlin’s A-level Art days. I enrolled on an online City and Guilds course, researching into various aspects of wool, and feeling a bit Year 8-ish as I did my written work and sent it off in PowerPoint form to my tutor. The physical practice of making felt grabbed me, and the Friday before lockdown began I returned to Wingham Wools in Wentworth, north of Sheffield, to stock up. It hadn’t changed in ten years, but I was still overcome by the sight of 144 different colours of merino wool roving which fill one of the sheds.
Felt is made by layering thin pieces of roving, wetting them with soapy water, then gently rubbing the small wool fibres to move and interlock with one another. Layering well is quite a skill, and getting a well felted piece takes time and patience, but becomes one of those calming repetitive processes. I have been devoting spells of time to improving technique, experimenting with other types of wool, blending colours, etc. For my assignment to design and make a bag, I enjoyed working out the mechanics of using the ‘resist’ process and giving it a different coloured lining – tricky but very satisfying. Now I’m on to my final piece for the course – a wall hanging inspired by Eileen Agar’s collage, ‘The Bride of the Sea’.
Being creative is part of the human condition … we need the chance to express ourselves … [but] it’s easy to forget … it’s not so obviously a vital need (Louis Theroux).
‘YOU’RE half way there. I know it’s difficult, but you can do it.’ The soothing sound of Michael Johnson’s voice glides into my ears and I press on trying to maintain some kind of rhythm in my breathing, focusing on the road in front of me. Yes, Michael, yes it is hard, thank you.
I’m running along one of my favourite roads in Glasgow, one with large houses set back from the road, long leafy driveways and well-manicured lawns. Huge creaking trees laden with white and pink blossom line the road creating a gorgeous canopy to protect me from the specks of rain that are beginning to fall. As well as Michael Johnson’s mellow tones I’m listening to a playlist of my own making called ‘run’, mainly featuring the legendary work of Grace Jones and Kylie, to keep me motivated and mildly distracted from how much my legs are hurting.
I started the Couch to 5k programme (courtesy of the NHS, thank you!) during the second week of lockdown and, in spite of my innate dislike of exercise (as previously mentioned) and despite a few weeks of sore knees, I’ve just completed week five out of nine. Over the last few months, seeing a few friends taking up running, I decided that I could do it too. I didn’t want my fear of exercise to stop me from doing something that is good for me. And now, with the continued help of endorphins and a new pair of running shoes, I am so proud to say that I am actually enjoying running!
My run is preceded and often followed by a Youtube yoga video with Adriene Mishler. In fact I spent the first month of lockdown doing yoga with Adriene’s 30-day yoga journey, aptly named ‘Home’ and released before lockdown in January, perhaps for those with the New Year’s resolution to be healthier and fitter. The ‘Yoga with Adriene’ channel was already very popular but lockdown has propelled the Texan yoga instructor (often accompanied by her dog Benji) to new levels of fame, as claims Marisa Meltzer in the Guardian: ‘She has struck a chord in these anxious times. By not doing too much, and not asking us to do too much.’
As for many people who are exercising in lockdown, for me running has been a way to get out of the house, to use up my one (now two in the UK) daily allowance of outdoors exercise (because it feels like we should be making the most of it, at least for the vitamin D) and to avoid boredom through the semblance of routine that going outside our houses now offers. But both yoga and running have really helped my mental health during this time. I feel more mindful and focused even though I don’t know when I’m going back to work or when I’ll be able to hug my friends again.
Indeed, as Meltzer acutely concludes, ‘Yoga is only interested in the present, an apt philosophy at a moment when the future is so uncertain.’
MY earliest musical training was as a cathedral chorister – the best training in the world with two practices a week and three services on Sunday. At the same time my music teacher, Mrs St George, was encouraging me to play all sizes of recorder and even loaned me her flute to try out.
Aged 14, I bought my first flute, using £50 given to me on the death of my grandparents – a Boosey and Hawkes beginner’s model. Two years later I bought the flute I still have, 49 years later – a wooden-bodied flute with a silver and gold head joint. Aged 19, I went to university and read music for four years, ending up with a master’s degree in composition.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that my tastes in music are classical, serious music. Starting from when I was eight or nine, through university and then on through many years of playing with orchestras, singing in choirs, directing musical groups – the emphasis was always upon playing the notes accurately, reading the music, playing only what was written, playing in time, getting it right!
I have always, however, listened to jazz. And always been fascinated by what it has to offer in terms of freedom and improvisation – the opposite of my experience, possibly. I had a tenor saxophone for a few years but never moved beyond playing with the Brussels Big Band – playing a kind of jazz and learning how to play in swing rhythm. But it was still playing from notes and following the direction of a conductor.
Last summer I bought an alto saxophone – and wished I had done it much sooner! I have tried playing jazz on my flute but never totally satisfactorily – the sound I had always cultivated on the flute is not a natural jazz sound. The alto saxophone, using the technique I acquired with the tenor, has given me the chance to make a new sound, one that is jazzy, one that is at home in jazz, one that is flexible.
People often think of jazz as being about freedom, about syncopation and playing off the beat, of being liberated from the ties of music theory – ‘just play it!’ But if you listen to good jazz performers, they know all about music theory, they have put in the hours of practice and though they shift around (they play before, on and after the beat) they know exactly where the beat is at all times. You cannot improvise on the melody until you have learned the tune accurately. You cannot improvise on the harmonies until you have understood the chord structure and progression, the relationships of chords, the construction of chords.
So whether it is classical or jazz, there is still the need for musical education, with some crossover between the two, and still a need for a theoretical underpinning and understanding before quality music can be made. It is not enough just to ‘want to do it’; it requires knowledge, understanding and values. It takes practice, time and commitment – lockdown has offered me the time, I have just had to provide the rest.
‘YOU walking?’ said the policeman as his car drew up alongside me. Resisting a strong temptation to make a witty reply, or ask whether he was making a statement or asking a question, I happily lied my way out of the situation. Producing a plastic bag, I told him I’d gone to my nearest supermarket, Spar, to find it closed. As I knew full well, but fortunately he didn’t, it shut over a year ago. ‘Okay,’ he said and drove off.
That was on day 29 of the level five lockdown and I had walked on 26 of the previous days, something that bizarrely could have earned me a criminal record. Almost every day I saw at least one cruising police car. On one occasion there were five; on another I walked within conversation distance of an officer booking a motorist for some lockdown infringement. Fortunately, by day 36 the ANC commissars from the command centre, war room or whatever had decided we could exercise in the cold of winter dawn from 6 to 9 am.
Exercise is an essential part of physical and mental health for many people and a civil right. It shows how far along the road to a police state South Africa has come that it is still criminalised for 21 hours a day. In my case I had a serious heart attack nearly nine years ago. Recovery has been excellent based on medication, annual check-ups and daily exercise of at least an hour of vigorous walking in hilly terrain.
Deprivation made it feel as if someone was trying to kill me; far more alarming than some Wuhan virus. However, once I have rolled reluctantly out of bed each day at 5.30 I am now enjoying the dawn patrol on the old racing circuit high above the city that is fortunately well within the regulation 5 kilometres of our house. It gets rather crowded after 7.00 and I am beginning to lose patience with families walking five abreast, cyclists moving in herds at speed, and joggers hogging the centre of the track. Physical distancing seems not to apply early in the morning.
However, it’s a small price to pay for liberation from the anxiety of illegal walking. And it’s particularly good to see the local community coming alive. This is municipal land that has not seen a formal motor race since the early 1980s. But for some while it was leased to a Johannesburg consortium that had big development plans including a museum and the reintroduction of racing six times a year. For a while it demanded payment from anyone wanting to exercise there and was even patrolled briefly by an aggressive woman in a pink tracksuit.
The businessmen involved fell out in spectacular fashion over predictable allegations of bad faith. The pink lady has long disappeared and now Covid-19 seems to have liberated the area for good: there are other development plans, but it’s hard to see these coming to anything.
Viva the right to exercise and the use of neighbourhood facilities by the people. And it brings home more and more the fascinating realisation for a geographer that this public health crisis is fundamentally about territory, space, distance and density.
Contributions as usual from Sheffield by Penny Merrett, Glasgow by Caitlin Merrett King, Sallèles d’Aude by Jonathan Merrett and Pietermaritzburg by Christopher Merrett. Photographs by the writers.