It is a relief to parents that young children are allowed out a bit now as the length of the lockdown has wreaked havoc with tempers. Birthdays have been particularly difficult. Zoom parties, with every guest in their little on-screen box like stamps in an album, are a poor substitute for a roomful of overexcited kids eating jelly. My granddaughter was eight last week and at last could meet her best friend, who lives next door, in the new paddling pool. They have managed uncomplainingly via walkie-talkies through a window so this was a joyful reunion. But what about the other would-be dressed-up party guests, not to mention gift-bearers? Allow me to describe the drive-by: Birthday Girl stood at the front door while cars decorated with balloons drove slowly past, friends inside waving madly, shouting greetings and dropping off presents. The toooting horns alerted neighbours who emerged to call out greetings too. The NHS Thursday clap had nothing on this one-off birthday to remember.
Two other children I know, a girl just 13 and a boy, ten, have been entertaining themselves in a different way, thanks to YouTube, on which you can watch a demo of virtually anything, including how to apply make-up. This, to the delight of teenage girls who can thus be guided to do it properly instead of slapping everything on anyhow, as we did. But once you have done your own face a few times you seek a model, and who better than a ten-year-old brother? This boy happily wore a band to keep his hair back while experiments were performed using powders, lipstick, blushers and eyeshadows, with him critiquing the results in the mirror. Joy was unconfined when they discovered a TV programme called Glow Up: Britain’s Next Make-Up Star. The boy is also a keen cook and has found inspiration on the internet for that, too. While Dad has worked from home and Mum is gardening, they are safe with Nanny YouTube. Well, on the presumption that immersing a full tin of golden syrup in boiling water for 20 minutes is safe.
This year has been without public events to mark the seasons: no Boat Race, Grand National, Trooping of the Colour or Wimbledon. I never go to any of them but they all make great TV, and besides, it is reassuring to know they are there, like the Queen. Royal Ascot, which will take place behind closed doors, is always about the people as much as the horses, and one can’t miss the Royal Carriage Procession — it’s another sort of birthday drive-by. Every day you have to guess what colour outfit Her Majesty will be wearing: last year I got it right twice. If the Queen is missing it too, maybe she could go on Zoom every day with a different hat and coat so we could still play the game ?
We processed every Whitsun when I was at a Yorkshire convent school, and in Catholic countries, seven-year-old children take their first communion wearing white dresses, shoes and veils or short trousers with white shirts and ties. After the melancholy days of Lent and the gloom leading up to Easter Day, Whitsun was all sun, blue skies, light and air, doves and tongues of flame and also a longed-for bank holiday. When they brought in 1 May as an extra one, things were never the same, in spite of Morris Men and maypoles. My mother would have nothing to do with May Day, referring to it as ‘government Whitsun’.
Bishops come into their own at Pentecost, of course — all that confirming and ordaining. But apart from that, and much administration which could be done by more competent lay people, I now see no point in bishops at all. They ought to be spiritual leaders and comforters, guides for the perplexed, an ever-present refuge in times of trouble and distress, such as now. Almost 40,000 people have died in this country of the present plague, many alone and in frightening circumstances, and bishops could have been on television every night, thoughtfully reading out their names,or at least praying for them publicly and talking to us, the living, about how to face our own ends. So where were they? Being political, passing resolutions in Zoom meetings about bloody climate change, and telling clergy they could not go into their own churches alone to pray. I have known many good mitre-wearers in my time, including one or two great and saintly men, and there are surely some still like that, hidden away now. It’s the others who are the problem.
The novels of Anita Brookner seemed to have vanished without trace but they have all now reappeared in a fine series with new cover designs. My copies were old and battered so I have bought the set, because Brookner is one of the women writers I most admire, and re-reading her in new copies helps me consider them afresh. V.S. Naipaul despised her work, probably without having read it, but that is just an added recommendation. If you have been told they are ‘all the same’ — well, only in the sense that Bach’s organ preludes or piano variations are all the same, because Brookner’s works are indeed variations on a theme. Think of them that way and her genius will reveal itself over these wonderful novels.
If you tire of lobster bisque and want to chomp on a T-bone, go from Brookner to any of the tough American thriller writers such as Dennis Lehane or Michael Connolly, not only terrific plotters but creators of good old-fashioned hard-boiled detectives — and that’s just the women. Neither of them write as well as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett but those were the golden days — just as nobody dances like Fred Astaire or acts like Humphrey Bogart any more. But you can still see them on screen, any time you like. Did I mention YouTube?
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