Columns

Do we really want to go back to normal?

2 May 2020

9:00 AM

2 May 2020

9:00 AM

On the day our A-level exams began some wit wrote on the blackboard: ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.’ I thought of that again yesterday when a writer friend emailed: ‘Like you, I thought I would be much more productive but I do find it very hard to focus… and I still haven’t filed those boxes of books in the sitting room.’

The days fly by and the sunshine was a real bonus, for it is pleasant and surely good for the soul to sit in it, reading, dreaming, nodding off, and topping up our Vitamin D levels. I said here at the beginning of lockdown that I would finish the book I had already started, plus some short stories, this weekly column and the occasional book review. I would also dig out the information my horrid slave-driver of an accountant has politely, and then progressively less politely, been requesting. I have definitely read many books, but then I always do; and I have also written a couple of chapters, but at any other time I would have written ten by now, never mind during weeks when so many of life’s little interruptions and diversions have gone into quarantine themselves.

Talking of A-levels, I have not yet penned my last essay for the one in classical civilisation I am supposed to be taking, nor have I finished the cushion of a panel from the Bayeux Tapestry, rearranged old photographs in new albums, or culled the duplicates of my collection of Ladybird Books and re-shelved the remainder in alphabetical or subject order. If I were a Catholic I would go to confession with a sin-list not of ‘I haves…’ but ‘I have nots…’.


Do you recognise yourself in all this? ‘If only I had the time…’ Oh come on. The energy? Ah, now that’s another thing. One of the most energetic people I know, a reader, gardener, sewer, knitter, quilter, book blogger, long-distance walker, wife and mother, says she keeps sneaking off to lie on the bed or the hammock or the sofa and that the intended 15-minute power nap turns into an hour and a half of deep and dreamless. Others who would never think of taking a daytime sleep unless ill report the same. Who can explain this with scientific authority? A psychologist? An expert in biorhythms? Is it just a phase along the lockdown way? If our isolation continues for another three months will we suddenly become incredibly productive and cram a hundred achievements into a day?

Those awful people who want everyone to have houses as tidy and soulless as a show-home email offering to show me how to achieve this and, as their contribution to the national wellbeing at this difficult time, free of charge. Naturally they are on a hiding to nothing with me, as are those urging me to bake my own bread and make a three-course dinner out of a tin of tomatoes. But I fear that, for those very reasons we do not understand, thousands more will reject their siren call. We are not only failing to do all the extra things we planned, we are doing far less than in normal times and we’re still going to sleep anywhere and everywhere. I do not lead a life full of care and I often stand and stare, but perhaps even I needed to unwind further and so am not achieving much — but I have a new motto. Remember the song from the Disney film Frozen which every little girl knew by heart a few years ago ? ‘Let it go. Let it go…’ That.

Chain letters are touring social media, and although nobody quite dares to warn that you’re doomed if you break the chain, those who start them so enthusiastically have a good line in moral blackmail, and imply that if you fail to join the ‘Hokey Cokey’ line you are a meanie and a spoilsport. I had several invitations to continue a poetry chain. Send one to person A, B or Z whichever is the higher, remove the last or first name… I couldn’t be bothered to decipher the instructions and deleted the invitations, only to receive hurt messages from the senders. Why I was letting them down when they’d generously included me? Honestly, some people have regressed to playground mode.

I had already begun a list for this column of journals and letters, literary forms perfect for armchair or bedside table, to be read in long or short chunks. I have many, long-loved, on my shelves, by — at random — James Lees-Milne and Frances Partridge, Francis Kilvert and Gilbert White, Lord Chesterfield, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh. But then something happened. ‘Any man’s death diminishes me’ but I have felt especially diminished and bereft by the death of Sir Eric Anderson, long-time friend, counsellor and supporter, wise, clever, fine company, loyal, considerate, thoughtful, and also editor of The Journal of Sir Walter Scott. He often tried, always failed, to convert me to the novels, but Scott’s journals are wonderfully readable, unexpectedly approachable, often amusing, revelatory of a remarkable man. Even his jotted notes are elegantly written. You will find yourself drinking deep draughts of them rather than taking sips. Eric’s introduction is of the same standard. Two great Scotsmen, good companions. Good men.

Urban dwellers report more traffic and people about, taking the law into their own hands. The arguments about when and how to ease us back into normality are confusing if inevitable, but how much ‘normal’ do we want restored? Is it true that Covid-19 is a wake-up call and nothing can be the same again? I hope to God it is. Unpolluted skies, cleaner air, silence and space, empty city streets where cycling and walking are quiet pleasures again, great buildings revealed in all their glory, appreciation of family, friends, the unveiling of this wonderful spring. And in an instant, out of nowhere, the sound of many hands clapping.

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