THE silence, solitude and slower pace of life that accompany some people’s lockdowns are potentially nurturing. Those of us who choose to live alone anyway do it because it suits us. Also, according to novelist Sara Maitland, ‘practised solitude increases self-knowledge and independence’. Several people I know have said that slowing down has helped to reduce their stress, and others report less anxiety: ‘“lockdown relief” has been especially pronounced in people driven … by keeping up appearances [and they have found] relief at not having to perform any more’ (Farrah Jarral).
In contrast, Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse agency reported a 700% increase in calls to its helpline on one day in April; UK murders linked to domestic violence rose from two to five per week in early lockdown. The reality of 24/7 co-habitation, loss of job and waiting for Universal Credit to kick in, providing all day entertainment for variously-aged children, and not having the luxury of a garden or any nearby green space is another version of ‘stay at home’. What of children’s development? What of enforced solitude for those with little stimulation? What mental health issues, currently hidden or suppressed by lockdown, await us on the other side?
I haven’t heard anyone complain about reduced carbon emissions or less traffic noise. Universally these seem to be good things, and a number of cities and towns are taking the opportunity, encouraged by movements such as Active Travel, to create pop-up cycle lanes and wider pavements. What’s not to like if this also results in a fitter nation, physically and mentally? Cessation of travel, though, is depriving many people of their holidays, often restorative; the stimulation of a simple change of scenery is lost to those shielding at home. Reduced travel and lockdown rules are also depriving some of proper contact with those they love, current rules creating confusion over which and how many family members might be ‘visitable’; and in what location.
Thank God for the Internet! or, perhaps, Tim Berners-Lee. We are learning to use it in increasingly inventive ways, and being forced to do so by the lockdown could have long-term benefits if virtual meetings take over permanently, reducing travel costs and emissions. Zoom and Teams allow us to keep in touch with colleagues, and even save a bit of time between meetings. The National Theatre is streaming past productions, you can learn to draw with Grayson Perry, or get fit with Joe Wicks.
I love the quiet, and I’m paying more attention. Limited choice means I get to know my running routes better, see subtle changes, and am more mindfully engaged in photography. I am fitter: race-fit, with sadly no races to go to. I’m keeping up with the garden, and enjoying it, and re-expanding my cooking repertoire, finding new things to do with the contents of the veg box. But I do miss contact with actual 3D people, and value hugely what I do get. It’s good to do video links and phone calls, but there’s a quality in real-life meets that just cannot be replicated in the virtual world, and it’ll be good to get it back.
EARLIER this week a diagram popped up on my Instagram feed detailing the amount of money that the UK government has spent on various recent schemes. £41 billion has been spent on Trident so far; £88 billion on HS2, the long overdue and over-budget north-south high-speed train line, aka the most expensive infrastructure project in British history; £133 billion was given to bail out the banks at the peak of the 2008 financial crash; and the current cost of furloughing is a relative pittance at £14 billion every month. Furthermore, the government has spent £3.2 million on temporarily accommodating thousands of homeless people and is pledging £76 million to support vulnerable children and victims of domestic violence and modern slavery. As we face potentially a larger financial crash than we did twelve years ago, this should be a time for economic revolution and ideological reform: we don’t need to return to a ‘normal’.
The boom of the gig economy since 2008 has resulted in an unstable, anxious and exploited workforce, all thanks to the Tories. I have too many friends who have been applying for Universal Credit (while they wait for government support that has been promised, but not until June) because of cancelled work during the coronavirus pandemic (due to the closure of galleries, music venues and theatres) and the instability of their jobs as self-employed designers, artists and arts workers. Sophie McKay declares, ‘Precarious work shouldn’t exist; no-one should be on an insecure contract – and the government has shown they don’t have to be. It is not a question of possibility but of political will.’
Surely this time presents a strong case for Universal Basic Income? I’ve been dreaming about how much better prepared we might have been for this current situation if Jeremy Corbyn had won December’s general election, but it’s not helpful to ruminate. When this is all over, freelancers, the new precariat, will be going from the frying pan into the fire: the competitiveness in employment will be higher than before, the need for financial support greater.
To focus on the positive, furloughing has been completely vital. The government has shown us that they can actually successfully support us (well, some of us and only 80% of the time) and personally, I am very glad to have been furloughed. Over the past two months I have kept my job and my health – I am very privileged to be stable right now. I’ve been enjoying lie ins, watching films every day, baking, connecting more with old friends via Zoom and finishing ‘The Sopranos’ (!). I have started running (something I thought I would never do) and doing ‘Yoga with Adriene’, which has helped me feel more mindful. I am reading more books and articles, applying for the course I’ve been thinking about for a while, and feeling more connected to the world around me. Of course, this is not everyone’s experience and it’s a simplistic, polished version of my own but I’ve been trying to focus on what and who matters most to me in my life.
The fish and chip shop across the road from me opened for business again this week and on Friday I went to pick up some fish suppers (with mushy peas) for dinner. As the owner handed me the warm paper bundles over the counter, he gestured at the phone saying, ‘We’re so busy!’ ‘Making up for lost time?’ I asked. ‘No, I don’t see it as lost time,’ he replied, ‘We have our health and that is the most important thing.’
Ben Chu, ‘How much does the furlough scheme cost, compared to 2008 banks bailout, Trident and HS2?’ The Independent 15 May 2020, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirusfurlough-cost-how-much-banks-bailout-trident-hs2-a9514231.html
Sophie MacKay, ‘Freelance work has always been precarious, not aspirational; coronavirus has made that clear’ Novara Media 7 April 2020, https://novaramedia.com/2020/04/07/freelance-workhas-always-been-precarious-not-aspirational-coronavirus-has-made-that-clear/
WE are now one week into deconfinement as they call it here (I prefer un-lockdown, but will go with the flow). There are still moments when I am out of the house that I worry I don’t have the right paperwork on me – and then I remember I don’t need it. What have we done differently this week? We’ve been out in the car to Narbonne and Beziers and been into shops. What we did not do is go out for a meal, or have friends round for a meal for my 65th birthday. So some normal has returned; but not all.
Confinement has not really affected my work, though it has affected my life. It has not affected my editing work in that I work from home, in front of a computer, and the books have kept on coming – I am currently on book number 28 for this year. However, I sense the flow is drying up and I am wondering if publishers are going to be using fewer freelancers in the future – are there going to be as many books published, will they do more work in-house? So, while things have stayed much the same for now, is the future recession going to affect my workload?
Confinement has affected my ability to make music with other people. Choir practice has been put on hold and will be for the foreseeable future – we are predominantly over 65, we stand close together when we practise and we exhale rapidly when we sing. The joy of choir practice is that we are close together and make a beautiful noise together – it is a corporate activity that we are all missing, and will be until a vaccine or treatment is secured that makes us safe.
I have also been unable to play jazz with others. As I emailed my guitarist friend, Jim, ‘I have been practising with the computer … but I am also learning that however much I develop playing on my own, I play better when I am playing with other people. I hear things [other people] do and it gives me ideas. OK, probably every jazz player knows this but it doesn’t undermine my excitement at finding out for myself that playing with other people is a very creative and supportive experience and that jazz is a social activity!’
As an introvert – I recharge my batteries through being on my own, not through being in company – the isolation of confinement has been a pleasure, most of the time, and certainly never challenging. Indeed, it has been good to have the (legal) excuse not to go out! As the above suggests, though, I do miss music making and eating out.
Confinement has, I think … kept me alive. That’s a big positive! No brushes with death for me, no ICU, but the knowledge that there is a virus out there that, apparently randomly, can take us at any moment, infecting us without our knowing, certainly focuses my mind on life and on making the most of the moments we have. That, and having a birthday!!
Two small, positive, footnotes: my sax playing has improved (listen here https://youtu.be/EcUZPRn7x1s) and, due to stretching every morning, I can touch my toes again!
LOOKING at lockdown in terms of pluses and minuses is, surely, a common preoccupation. Another approach is to consider what has either encouraged or depressed. As a supposedly elderly (65+) and vulnerable person the most encouraging thought is that I must stay at home as far as possible, probably for many months. In a sense I’ve been in training for this for some years – ever since my formal working life came to an unwanted, abrupt end. So be it; lockdown it will be for as long as it takes. The petrol bill will plummet along with my carbon footprint.
The public health crisis has encouraged a far more disciplined approach to life, now governed by carefully compiled lists: monthly non-perishable shopping and medication renewal; fridge shopping every 7–10 days; and other, very infrequent miscellaneous excursions. For this I have been preparing even longer. From the age of 7 or 8, I collected the names of things – cars, pub names, trees, you name it – and wrote them up in a ‘book of lists’.
And I’m grateful to the securocrats of the South African Cabinet who force me to exercise at dawn. It’s an ideal start to the day, although consequent hunger means I eat too many biscuits, and the city bowl viewed from the old racing circuit is both an interesting sight and a lesson in meteorology on autumn early mornings. With a radically reorganised day there has been time to do some serious and much-needed clearing in the garden, which has also had its therapeutic effects. Somehow there’s a new sense of urgency and a need and desire to get on with things; a foreshortened sense of future, perhaps?
The general peace and quiet has been a blessing, although it’s beginning to unravel as South Africans sensibly decide to unlock themselves regardless of lockdown levels and regulations. Nature must surely have benefited from an absence of humans and there has been a notable reduction of roadside litter with closure of takeaway outlets. At home I’m far more conscious of the need for cleanliness.
Personal circumstances mean that I’m very fortunate to be able to take such a laid-back view. For billions the present situation and feared future must be deeply worrying. For me despondency comes from the broader view. Either our government doesn’t know what it is doing; or, even worse, it does and the prospects are dire. The post-lockdown future looks bleak with a collapsed economy, a raging epidemic and a government inclined to act tough and think later. A number of informed and intelligent voices are now heard from all sectors of society questioning whether an official supposed state of disaster has not been succeeded by an unofficial state of lunacy. Some suspect millennial delusions.
The standard mantra is that the world will never be the same again. The handshake, said one contributor to the radio recently, is gone forever and can be replaced by bowing: so a Chinese virus will be followed by cultural colonialism. Not for me, it won’t. Even more dispiriting is the thought that nothing much of real import will actually change because of powerful vested interests.
Contributions as usual from Sheffield by Penny Merrett, Glasgow by Caitlin Merrett King, Sallèles d’Aude by Jonathan Merrett and Pietermaritzburg by Christopher Merrett. Picture of bluebells by Penny Merrett.