As lockdown rumbles on, my fantasies begin to revolve around journeys. I roll the memory of driving into the grey January dank on the Saturday A303 around in my head; the cushion of the seat against the back of my legs, the low chatter of the radio, the smell of the car interior; warm plastic and leather. And on the other carriageway an ambulance, lights and sirens going, speeding towards an emergency. I remember the ache to be in it, going, with purpose and intent, towards something urgent. I have flashbacks, too, amidst the indecipherable trickle, tick-tock dripping of days, to the glint of the 7.45am October sun on my windscreen as I pull up to the junction with Frog Street, looking for a gap to edge into as I head towards the office, feeling like I had a purpose.
During one of our now regular calls, my brother suggests that my car battery might be flat if I haven’t driven for weeks. I take the car out, to check, but also to remember what it feels like to drive. It feels alien, a relic from another age. I do a circuit of the village, driving the lanes I usually walk, waving apologetically as I creep past walkers and cyclists feeling like Mr Toad in his new toy, “Parp, Parp!”
Familiar thoughts crowd back into my head – I’d forgotten about that rattle, what was that? And wasn’t the MOT due soon, a service? It smells musty, a layer of dust and detritus gathered, in the crevices and footwells, from the perpetual toing and froing of life in the before times. I am relieved to lock it and walk away. I wonder whether driving will go the way of smoking in cinemas and smacking children and begin to plan its overthrow – I could sell it and buy an electric bike.
Putting on the clothes of the old life feels odd, too, like a game of dressing up. Were these my clothes? Was that who I was? I am? If it was true that we were composites of all the experiences we have had, the books we have read, the films we have seen, the places we have been, who was I now?
Except, initially, for work meetings, I have slouched in the same pair of leggings and comfortable, covers-all-sins, jumper since lockdown began. The leggings have holes through which you can see pink stretches of my overwintered legs. Holes which people pretend not to notice when I walk the dog. I realise one day, around the third or fourth week, once I have found a way to put aside my ethical concerns for factory workers and delivery drivers, that I could buy replacements. When they arrive I put them on and feel like new. The following morning as the cat licks at the front of my jumper, Glen suggests that both hers and the dog’s fondness for doing this might be testament to my sloppy eating habits rather than their affection for me. I peel it off and put it in the wash.
When it comes, our first journey beyond the bounds of Crediton is to a Covid assessment centre in Exeter. In our absence the verges have grown loose and baggy, wild with flowers; cow parsley, buttercup and campion flourishing in the silence of the council strimmers and mowers. I notice that the trees have grown full and broad, drawing up to their full height like lungs filling with green breath, shoulders down, chests high, reminding me how to breathe. Stretches of hawthorn make the view a flash of green and white and I think how easy it would be to stay on the road until it turned into the M5, the A303, and I was at Mum’s front door; Calum’s; Emily’s. All I would have to do was keep going.
The roads are empty as we make our way through Exeter at ‘rush hour’, a journey that would usually take the best part of an hour completed in 25. The absence of traffic reveals the outline of the city, dirty and abandoned, and I wonder what it is that we have made.
In the preceding weeks my world had shrunk as illness picked off my ballasts like tin cans in a shooting range. Walking? Take aim; gone. Working; gone. Sleep? Forget about it.
I inhabit the sofa and my bed, hoping that if I sit very still the restriction sitting on my chest and lungs, like a metal band tightening, might go away. Sometimes I climb up to the bench to watch the garden slip away from me; weeds grow, in a green creep, across the beds, the slow worms turn up, dead, on the lawn; my runner beans turn brown and wither, their green tendrils scorched by late frosts. The sparrows I have encouraged into the garden peck at the chard and spinach, reducing them to yellow and green stubs.
But the birds provide a welcome distraction, too. The robin brings in his fledglings as they try, clumsily, to master the art of flying. The male blackbird continues his daily ritual of bathing and collecting worms but now keeps up a regular shrill alarm call, hopping from branch to branch to shout crossly at perceived threats, sending us wading through the cow parsley in search of cats and squirrels. The finches bring their fuzzy feathered babies, one at a time. They vibrate on the bare branches of the dead crabapple tree, churring loudly, hopping after their exhausted parents in a way that makes me think of parents being followed around by their kids as they juggle work and home schooling, “Mum, Mum, Muuuum.”
I want to be cross with the cat who pees on the floor, kills the slow worms, eyes me contemptuously as she digs up my flower beds, shakes spools of warm dribble on to my face when she lands on my chest, but both she and Cooper have soothed me while I’ve been ill, especially in the middle of the night when I wake from beneath the viscous surface of sleep, trying to catch my breath.
COMPETITION VS COOPERATION
I watch events in the outside world unfold, feeling like an observer on the sidelines; witness to the inequalities in our system disproportionately affecting the underprivileged and the vulnerable. I see a news report featuring a hospital cleaner, a woman of colour, a woman with family to protect, talk uncomplainingly of her work cleaning hospital toilets and Covid treatment rooms because, “somebody has to do it”. I feel a burning sense of shame and rage that the UK should charge her, a migrant worker earning minimum wage, £2,000 to renew the visa that will allow her to continue this work that most of us would choose not to do but which is to all of our benefit. I am sure I am not alone in feeling this way. I watch too, as the government tries to balance the arguments for prioritising public health, the economy and society and fail. While I sit at home and write about how poetry can help us in a crisis and feel indignant at the idea of lifting the lockdown, friends working in social care tell me about its realities, citing rising levels of child poverty, abuse and deaths. I read the British Medical Journal’s argument that, regardless of which political party is responsible, years of austerity, privatisation and the “decimation” of local and regional public health capacity has brought us to this.
But I also hear discussions about the flowering of kindness during the pandemic, how people are rallying to help each other, communities are strengthening and our new appreciation of the value of work previously labelled ‘low-skilled’. In a feature on Radio 4’s PM I hear the reflection that our new found kindness is akin to the Christian principle of treating our neighbours as we would like to be treated. It is interesting to think that the pendulum might be swinging back towards spirituality from the secularism engendered by our collective experience of the world wars; that we are looking for and ready for hope.
I find this reflected in the writings of Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman. In his new book Human Kind: A Hopeful History, he argues that humans are cooperative rather than competitive by nature; that most people are basically good. He sets out a way to arrange ourselves differently that makes me feel buoyed. He challenges the organisation of our society on the Hobbesian principle that people are base and competitive by nature, dependent on institutions to civilise us, and argues for Rousseau’s counter belief that man is basically good but that the institutions themselves corrupt us. He says that our understanding of ourselves as callous and uncaring has become a self fulfilling prophecy, that if we expect the worst of each other, then that is what we will get.
I believe that we are ‘good’ but am continually rattled by examples of how our fear can make us seem anything but. While we are being kinder we are also afraid. We are easily angered by those not sticking to the rules, reporting our neighbours to the police and being suspicious – complaining on social media. And it makes me wonder whether we are only ‘good’ when people are looking, whether we are judging others by the same rules that we apply to ourselves. I remember, as a 6 year old, leaving my friends in the playground to creep back into Miss Penny’s classroom, drawn there by the temptation of the Oxo cube John Rank has brought in to demonstrate the qualities of a cube for our shape display. I had to know whether it tasted as I imagined; like Mum’s french onion soup – meaty and rich, salty and sweet. I peel back a corner and nibble. It crumbles, disappointingly, in my mouth, bitter and dry. I spit it out. Feeling ashamed I try to reshape the foil to cover my crime. I can’t remember if, when the culprit was called on to confess, I put up my hand or consigned the whole class to staying in the following break time.
I remember, too, Juliet Reeves’ 8th birthday party; a Beetle Drive. Juliet’s family were glamorous, appearing, as I recall, on the sides of Bird’s Eye fish finger packets. We were arranged on tables, taking it in turns to throw the dice – get a 6 and you could draw a leg on your beetle, a 4, an antennae, a 1, an eye. I wanted to win. I threw a 1 but needed a 6. Nobody had seen, surely it wouldn’t matter if I just drew on a leg? But Juliet’s mum witnessed my misdemeanour. “No cheating,” she announced to the room while I turned crimson.
I talk to my brother, Theo, on his way back from work as lockdown is eased. He tells me that he can feel the sense of competition rising again in London, the goodwill of the preceding months evaporating as the old pressures return. I think of all those times I have come back from holiday thinking that everything will be different now. He already misses the time he had, the space to think. He tells me that everything has gone back to being done in a rush – walking the dog, making his sandwiches, getting to work. That it feels as if there is a mountain to climb in order to catch up. I think of the article I had read which identified the three stages of isolation (panic buying and confusion/honeymoon period/loneliness) and suggests that most people who have experienced long periods of isolation nevertheless are willing to return to a further period.
Of course not everybody has been at home. Some people have found that their jobs and lives are busier than ever. For them, the luxury of having an existential moment remains out of reach, but many of us who have found our lives slowing appear keen to retain some of the benefits.
We all like the cleaner skies, emptier roads and birdsong. But we also like medicine and progress and vaccines (though I appreciate not everybody is on board with this one) and research. We like things that make our lives easier, or longer. Research suggests that more people, given the choice, would like to continue with ‘blended working’, between home and office, after lockdown; an advantage which applies predominately to white collar workers, but which could potentially have benefits for everyone if it leads to less overcrowding, less traffic on the roads, more space on public transport and less pressure on housing in cities as those who can, choose to live further from the office. If we spent less on roads and HS2 I wonder, could we spend it on renewables and microbial research?
THERE AND BACK AGAIN
I find an echo of our new way of living and a reminder of the simplicity and hardships of rural life as I reread Lark Rise to Candleford. Set in rural Oxford in the 1880s it depicts life revolving around the village and an acceptance of a dependence on neighbours. Each cottage produces its own vegetables, makes its own bread, brews its own beer. When a neighbour falls on hard times those who are able send help, even though their means are limited. It also tells of how, in the wake of Lloyd George’s Old Age Pension Act (1908), recipients took presents for the post office workers who administered it, such was their relief at being kept from the workhouse.
Most households also kept a pig which was fattened over a year to be killed, the family experiencing the pain of its loss but accepting the necessary compromise and sharing the spoils with their neighbours.
I listen in my nighttime wakefulness to the world service and hear a report on Smithfield Foods, the biggest global pork processor. They have a unit in South Dakota, which is 5 floors high and employs 3000 people, mostly economic migrants. The units kill and process a staggering 20,000 pigs or ‘hogs’ daily. The work is hard and physical, employees working shoulder to shoulder on long shifts. The owners are reluctant, in the face of the pandemic, to close the units down, arguing that they are ‘feeding the world.’ The unit becomes responsible for 80% of Covid cases in the state.
The reporter speaks to a farmer who hasn’t been able to send pigs for ‘processing’ for weeks and is ready to start slaughtering his 3000 animals rather than have to continue feeding them. ‘This isn’t why I farm’, he says. And I think of Lark Rise and the sadness that the family feels over the slaughtering of their pig and how we have outsourced our upset, how our reliance on intensive rearing and processing, the economies of scale, are producing disease. Many of the contagious diseases of the last decades, such as Sars, Mers, AIDS, Ebola, Covid-19, have come from our relationship with other animals and the natural world. It would be naive to think that we could all grow our own vegetables and raise our own livestock, that city living is in any way about to disappear. But we can find solutions that will restructure our relationship with food and the natural environment to benefit everybody. Take for example the resurgence of micro abattoirs – mobile units that travel to farms, slaughtering a handful of animals at a time, saving animals from the stress of travel and the horrors of live export. There is hope, but we have to fan the flames; I learn that Lily Cole has a book out in the summer, Who Cares Wins: Reasons for Optimism in our Changing World and put it on my wishlist. We need reasons for optimism.
When I am well and get out into the lanes again I see how they are tipping towards an unravelling, the looseness and ribaldry of summer, all of spring’s newness and freshness, uprightness, peeling away, like the lockdown, at their edges. The hedges are growing taller, darker, like adolescents squaring up to their parents in a gesture of “Yeah? And? What you going to do about it?” They are dotted with newcomers; sorrel, pink and white vetches that look like antimacassars, bladder campion, herb robert, yorkshire fog, plantain, stitchwort and speedwell.
Timothy grass has shot up, like microphone busbys, forests of them, on silvery stems in the field behind the house. The nettles are heavy with pollen, a dust that bows their heads in purple faux coyness. As I walk home on Sunday evening the smell of other people’s dinners finds me across the fields. It smells of families and togetherness, tradition and I find it comforting.
The swifts are returned from Africa, their number swelling as May spreads itself out languorously.They come bowling in, the rapscallions of the sky, with a metallic, scalextric screech, from early morning until the light fades. They remind me of over excited children at the beach, refusing to get out of the water, “come in”, you call, “Wheeee!” they answer, passing so fast and close that you can hear the weight of the wind in their feathers, feel the air swooshing by.
In the evenings they dive against the 9:30 sky, washed out with the day’s heat, a pale crescent moon hanging above the house. They wheel and dive, turning circles, splitting into two squadrons in a relay of sound and stealth to pick off aerial spiders and flies, calling out coordinates to each other to dodge the chimney stacks. And I think of a postcard that I had on my wall as a teenager, with a saying from eastern philosophy that read, ‘As you and I are of the same self there can be no difference between us’.