Consider these panels.
I have just painted them. Together with more than fifty other panels in several rooms in my house.
They stand for virtue postponed. It is a decade or so since last I carried out interior decoration on any scale. After the beginning of the first lockdown their neglect has been a continuing reproach. The pandemic, if ever, is the time to set about such a task. But the months have passed without activity, only partly excused by the need to attend to the garden as spring gave way to summer and what has been a long-flowering autumn. Finally, as Christmas approaches, I have run out of excuses not to clear the rooms, buy supplies of sail white emulsion and assemble my collection of brushes and rollers.
They stand for absorbed attention. All of us locked in our houses have been seeking occupations that will take our minds away from looming dangers and postponed pleasures. Hobbies and handicrafts have been embraced not so much for the outcome as for the distraction of their practice. One of the consequences of living in one end of a cruck-framed medieval house is that routine maintenance demands serious concentration. Over time, the oak moves fractionally one way with variations in heat and moisture, and the plaster in another. Minor cracks open up which have to be meticulously repaired (hence the pollyfilla delivery in my last entry) and then the edges of each panel have to be slowly painted, keeping clean the surrounding oak beams. There is no particular skill, just great care and patience as the brush is drawn down the edge of the plaster. The hours pass, amounting to almost a week for our bedroom alone and its thirty-odd rectangles. Radio 4 reminds me how often its programmes are repeated.
They stand for the domestic climate-heating disaster. The exterior panels consist of a single layer of brick, plastered on either side. Heat passes readily through them. Only some new panels in the gable wall are filled with a modern take on an ancient practice – chopped French hemp, a light, warm equivalent of wattle and daub. Most of the current housing stock is of course better constructed, but almost none of it has been designed to be carbon neutral any more than it was in the fifteenth century. Johnson’s new green strategy will fall at this hurdle. It is just too late and too expensive seriously to reduce the energy footprint of every residence from the latest Barratt estate box to the remnants of much older domestic accommodation.
And they stand for hope deferred. I set out on the task in order somehow to increase the prospect of a family Christmas. What, after all, is the point of such an effort if it is only to be enjoyed by the two of us? But as I put back the furniture and tidy away my paints, the lockdown rules for the festive season are announced. It would be possible for my children and grandchildren to join the Gadarene rush out of London two days before Christmas and back three days later, but the balance of risk is against travel, whatever the regulations. Rates of infection and death show scant sign of declining. School ends too late, the parents cannot fully self-isolate. Our age-group is just as vulnerable as it was, and with the vaccines coming in the New Year, there seems no case for letting our guard drop.
All that can be said is that on Christmas Day we shall have clean walls looking down on our quiet pleasures.