I LIVE on a side street off one of the major arterial roads in Sheffield, this particular bit being a hub of bars, cafes and restaurants. It is a Sheffield thing to ‘go down “Eccy” Road’ on a Friday or Saturday night, and I am used to the gentle hum of voices floating over in the evening, and the frequent sound of the pedestrian crossing and passing traffic during the day. These days I go into my garden and often all I’m aware of is silence, to the point where I wonder and sometimes worry about how my neighbours are. It feels like other parts of the world are asleep. We are cocooned in our separate boxes, and it can be difficult to believe there are actually other people on the other side of the wall.
As social events, and other planned activities, were cancelled, and the usual structure of my life sort of dissolved, I was struck by others’ varied reactions to future contact, ranging from some apparently wanting a complete stop ‘until this is all over’, through to very proactive arrangements of regular connection – WhatsApp, FaceTime, Zoom … even the rarely used landline. The landscape of human contact has changed; who and how. There’s a lot of waving going on. And there’s something going on for me because I rarely interact with proper faces anymore – it’s a weird feeling I don’t have a name for.
Then I enter my world of work and the atmosphere is suddenly a touch unnerving. I’m working from home in a makeshift office/therapy room (my spare bedroom). My landline handset is primitive, no speakerphone (so a strain on hand and arm), and a whole new way of working (no visual cues, especially difficult with new clients). I am now accessing my emails every day (although I only work a day and a half) to keep up with the volume of information. We are changing to a new record system (5.5 hours’ worth of training asap), and we might get video link for meetings with Zoom (no, scrap that, bad security), Skype for Business (hooray! we can just download that on to our personal laptops … no, sorry that doesn’t seem to be working …).
Back to my garden. The weather in March and now into April has been such a contrast to the wind and rain and devastation of February. It is still, and dry, and the sun seems suddenly present, the quality of light much clearer and brighter. Pottering around, it is easy to think that all is well, the plants that should be are flowering, the frogs that should be are mating. Nature is putting on a smiley face, apparently all benevolence, while innocently tempting wavering isolators out into the stunning countryside and onto the beaches. And somehow, incongruously, there is a potential killer, just as much part of ‘nature’ as I am, sinister and invisible, multiplying and uncontrollable.
TO completely contradict last week’s comment about chilly Spring weather, it seems that April is actually glorious. I have spent large portions of the last two days sitting out on the 60 cm wide flat bit of roof between the back windows of my flat and the pitched roof of the pub below. I feel incredibly privileged to have my own small green space where I have planted up some pots with seeds and made a small bench. Some children giggle and play tig in a garden, a couple are sprawled on a blanket reading books and drinking bottles of Becks, and I see a person and a ginger cat leaning out of a window having a conversation with one of the parents of children below.
Just a few streets away are many flats occupied by multiple families ruled by dodgy landlords. Previously home to a large Irish immigrant community, Govanhill now houses Britain’s largest population of Roma people, forced to live in these cramped conditions and persistently scapegoated. There is concern in local area Facebook groups that information about Coronavirus is not being disseminated sufficiently in languages other than English around areas like Govanhill and worries about excessive and racially prejudiced law enforcement. Indeed, 50% of the Romanian Roma population is reported to have returned to Romania due to fear of Coronavirus and because of misinformation and prejudice-based racialised abuse. We talk about communities coming together to survive at the moment, but racism is very much alive and we all want someone else to blame.
With slow-to-be-enforced government guidelines and still some haziness and rumour around social distancing regulations, nationwide paranoia has developed. Sitting on the roof, I worry about all the kids playing together in the garden (are they from different flats?) and about those holed up in crowded flats (are they ok?). I’m not alone in my concern. At Friday night’s Zoom ‘party’, we discuss failures in social distancing and the public shaming happening on the news and social media, but we continue to share examples of how other people have failed to observe the 2m. rule (see my last blog for mine), followed by complex feelings of fear and embarrassment over being somewhat high and mighty. We are afraid and following by example as Matt Hancock berates us for not following the rules, threatening stricter measures if we don’t behave better.
At the end of the road is Queen’s Park, a place that everyone in the community enjoys on a sunny day. But, of course, it’s been busier than usual, with runners and pairs of police attempting to navigate each other safely. I am glad that we all have this space available to us to escape from cramped or difficult environments, to exercise in, and to see friends even if from afar. These public spaces are so important and I worry that later today, when we are due to have a government update on lockdown, that like many other countries (and in parts of London already), parks will temporarily close.
So I stay sitting on the roof. Yesterday as I read my book, the sound of magpies and children cheeping away gradually became drowned out by the distant wail of sirens and two police helicopters overhead. The sound is overwhelmingly loud, perforating my oasis of calm and reminding me again of the outside world. I recall this moment to my flat mate who sombrely and suspiciously retorts, ‘what are they doing out there? I suppose it’s for atmosphere’.
Further + contextual reading
Catriona Stewart, ‘Claims 50% of Roma group have fled Govanhill after false Covid-19 rumours’ Glasgow Times 11 April 2020; https://www.glasgowtimes.co.uk/news/18373662.claims-50-roma-group-fled-govanhill-false-covid-19-rumours/?ref=ar
Siobhán McGuirk,‘The politics of Covid-19: ‘busy’ parks and public blame’ Red Pepper 10 April 2020; https://www.redpepper.org.uk/the-politics-of-covid-19-busy-parks-and-public-blame/
FOR the past nine years I’ve lived in a small bubble inside a slightly larger, but also small, bubble. Over the last four weeks both bubbles have got a lot smaller. Let me explain. I have worked from home, at my computer five or six hours each day, editing books sent to me over the internet from the UK. That’s my little private bubble. The slightly larger bubble is that of my village here in the south of France. I go out into the village and greet people as I walk the dogs or do the shopping; and meet other people from this village or nearby villages when I go to choir practices or go out for meals together or play with my jazz groups.
Over the past four weeks, under lockdown conditions, my smaller, familiar bubble has stayed the same but slightly retracted and I fear the work is drying up as the book industry is taking an involuntary nap. The larger, but still small, bubble of village life has shrunk to nothing. We are used to villages being shuttered up, with empty streets, in the middle of the day – that is rural France. But now the roads are empty all day, the shutters are down all day, the streets are quiet, eerily quiet, all day.
If we venture out, people avoid us and we avoid them. We can see people zig-zagging with their dogs all over the vineyards as we struggle to avoid meeting. In the supermarket (where I have just been) we don’t go down each other’s aisles and the gloves and facemasks are both literal and metaphorical protection as we avoid each other’s gaze. We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in the street outside our friends’ houses so we don’t make contact, yet still make some sort of recognition of each other’s humanity. Even though we have the correct paperwork, the sight of the police van touring the streets and the canal side makes us reroute our steps to avoid confrontation.
So, what’s the mood like? I feel that people in general are taking it all very seriously and appreciate that lockdown is necessary to address the virus. Maybe some are going too far and fear is making them take unnecessary precautions but then who knows, who will ever know what is/was necessary or unnecessary? And I feel that people are focused on the now, getting through this, living with what is essential for the moment and not thinking at all about the future – what is the world going to look like after coronavirus, if there is an ever-after at all?
And me; my mood? Well, I feel I am a pretty isolated individual in a pretty isolated community, so don’t feel too threatened by the situation. But I worry about the world and what it is going to become. The threats of nuclear war, global warming and so on have been nebulous and distant before, in my lifetime, but this virus is a very real threat to me and my family and to the world as a whole. This experience could make us all rethink the world and our priorities and how human society works; or the post-virus world could be switched on and we all go back to the way it was before. I know which I fear and expect.
WALKING in my suburb (in search of essential food and medicine, of course, in case our minister of police should read this), I’m reminded of Simon and Garfunkel’s song, ‘The Sound of Silence’ from those halcyon days of the mid-1960s. It’s taken on new meaning in these extraordinary times of urban lockdown (a horrible word – wish we could coin another). There are obvious reasons for this stillness: for a start, fewer cars on the road, although the number increases every day as does their speed. The background hum of a big city audible from the hill where I walk has ceased. And the airport with its contribution of light aircraft noise is closed for what has now become a 35-day shutdown.
All that was to be expected, but what has surprised is the general hush of the suburbs, which has sunk into the permanent atmosphere of early Sunday morning. South Africans have a reputation as outdoor people and early autumn is a particularly engaging time of year in Pietermaritzburg: sunny without the oppressive heat and humidity of summer. There is an occasional sighting of people exercising in their gardens and sounds of invisible children playing somewhere. But most doors and windows are shut fast as if the occupants believe the virus is floating around in the ether seeking them out. Stay indoors seems to have been over-interpreted as lock yourself in.
Normality here is noise. Many neighbours generously want to share loudly with us what they regard as music, which reaches us as a sequence of ugly thumping sounds. But there has been little of this, surprising when you might expect people would crave ordinary distractions even if working from home.
And then there are the dogs; or rather their apparent absence. Almost every property has one for security and normally they are a vocal lot. When I first arrived in South Africa in 1974 I asked why the local dogs were so noisy. A colleague with a droll sense of humour explained that a dog barking in Cape Town would set off a chain reaction of canine noise over hundreds of kilometres that would eventually reach us. It was, and has remained, an intriguing thought. But Covid-19 lockdown seems to have removed dogs’ barking mechanisms. More likely, owners are at home providing unusual amounts of essential companionship. And normal, often raucous, street activity from municipal employees, recyclers and general loiterers has ceased. No reason to bark, then.
Reduced to our little patch of suburbia, now seemingly an island unto itself, we have little knowledge of what is happening elsewhere in town. Whether lockdown is actually achieving its aim, we don’t really know yet. But it seems to have reduced the suburban population of this city to invisibility and silence. It’s an atmosphere that invites comparison with the stillness of the grave … precisely what we are hoping to avoid.
Contributions from Sheffield by Penny Merrett, Glasgow by Caitlin Merrett King, Salleles d’Aude by Jonathan Merrett and Pietermaritzburg by Christopher Merrett.