from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: On Isolation and Hunger

July 2. Those of us in lockdown feel, of course, isolated from our friends and family.  We count the days, which in the present uncertainty stretch before us without limit, until we can share our lives with them.

This fragmentation of the population is reflected in other dimensions.  Sitting inside our houses, patrolling our weedless gardens, we don‘t see, literally don’t see, anything of how the rest of the country is experiencing the pandemic. Amongst the consequences of confining to their homes the fit and active of seventy and over is depriving the community of a host of active volunteers who could  both witness and respon to cases of need.

It is very easy to turn off our sensors and concentrate solely on our own misfortunes.  One effect of the lockdown is to throw attention onto the most trivial grievances.  The major event last Saturday in my household was the failure of Sainsburys to deliver the supplements in the weekend papers we had ordered.  No book reviews, no television guides.  It quite spoilt the day.

If you look for it, however, there is evidence that out there people are going without more than just newsprint.  There are those deprived of their income because they don’t qualify for the furlough payments.  There are the daily increasing numbers who are being fired in anticipation of the closure of that scheme.  There are those who legally have ‘no recourse to public funds’ because they have a right to live here but not to benefit from the welfare state.  There are those who had been barely getting by in the gig economy who are now wrestling with intricacies and inadequacies of universal credit.  There is the group described by the money expert Martin Lewis as experiencing a ‘financial catastrophe’ as their businesses have failed leaving them with no safety net of any kind.

The consequence is not just some kind of social poverty, but basic physical deprivation.  The Food Standards Agency has just published a report showing that since the pandemic began between 6.3 and 7.7 million adults had reduced their meals or missed them altogether because of lack of money, and that between 2.7 and 3.7 adults sought charity food or used food banks.*   The food banks themselves have found it difficult to meet the increased demand, despite a ‘Food Charities Grant’ the government has established to provide them with short-term assistance.

Just now, my wife and I are living in a two-person fenced community.  We must be grateful, I guess, that so far the material sufferings of so large a minority seem not to be reflected in the crime figures.

Add Mss 4.  OU brings down French Presidential candidate.  Further to yesterday’s discussion of the work of the Open University, the verdict has just been reported in the trial for embezzlement of the former French prime minister and presidential candidate, François Fillon, and his Welsh-born wife Penelope.  Up to a million euros were paid to Penelope over a number of years for office support that she never undertook.  The offence first came to light in a newspaper interview with Penelope back in 2007, when she admitted in passing that she was too busy to work for her husband.  The reason she gave for her lack of time was that she had just started an OU course in English literature.  She told the journalist that she was studying for a second degree because ‘her five children viewed her as “just a mother.”  She wanted to show them she was “not that stupid”’ (my own mother, in her time, took an OU degree in her sixties for much the same reason).  Both action and motive seem more than sufficient to acquit Penelope Fillon of the charge she faced.  As it is, she has been given a suspended sentence of three years.

*https://www.food.gov.uk/research/research-projects/the-covid-19-consumer-tracker 

From John in Brighton: Shielding – To be or not to be?

20 June

How do you link “shielding”, a packet of biscuits and a sharp rebuke? The obvious answer is too much comfort eating but you’d be wrong. My daughter spotted gluten-free biscuits on the shopping list I gave her last week and leaving no stone unturned a third degree ensued on why (I’m not gluten-intolerant), who was coming over, indoors or out, how many people…? Definitely won’t be in the house I reassured her but had to hedge a bit that there might be two people. Cue for a reprimand and brief homily on safest option being total abstinence of any social contact. Floundering on the ropes I point out that since 5 June shielders can spend time outside with someone from another household. A bit of Socratic irony from my son “Do you trust everything the government says?” “Well no actually” and that’s as good as a knockout punch. Case won in favour of the prosecution.
Strictly speaking they are right and what is clear is that their sentiments are entirely well-meaning and out of concern for my health and welfare. But equally after nearly three months the shielding does take its toll and that’s despite my going out on my bike (with social distancing) to maintain my sanity. I’m blessed with a garden but even so the glorious weather exacerbates the frustration. And to rub a bit of salt into the wounds we see progressive relaxation of lockdown for swathes of people up and down the land. But perhaps that reinforces the importance of ongoing shielding – a second wave is always potentially waiting to pounce like an angry cat.
Some shielders and indeed some support groups talk of an increasing two-tier society and the shielders’ desire to return to some sort of normal life. There is speculation this week that imminent changes could include the abolition of the need for shielders to isolate at home from the end of July and based entirely on clinical evidence.. But let’s remind ourselves we are the “extremely vulnerable” (sic). I’m a pensioner with additional health risks and an article in The Guardian a month ago starkly demonstrated how age was a key risk factor. The over-65’s are 34 times more likely to die from Covid than those of working age and 88% of the deaths were in the over-65s. 
So I acknowledge my offspring’s concern and that extreme vigilance is still the only guarantee of safety. The down-tick of cases and deaths should not induce any feelings of security and the case is made for ongoing shielding – short term pain for long term gain one hopes. I haven’t claimed the food parcels nor the prioritisation at supermarkets – it’s much more fundamental than the “perks”, it’s trying to minimise risk and maximise survival. Prolonged isolation can impact mood and mental health and if I were following Socrates I might be seeking out the hemlock by now. Instead I’ll turn to the meditations of Marcus (Aurelius not Rashford although the latter is clearly wiser and more proactive than BJ) and I think his advice would be similar to the offspring. Better to be the also-rans in a two tier society and it’s the utmost caution for the foreseeable future – “Carry on Shielding” is the one they never made so where’s Kenneth Williams when you need him?

Susan D from Ottawa, Canada: COVID time – a reflection

14 June

I feel time is playing tricks, behaving like an elastic band.  Time seems to have stretched out: it feels like forever since we were enjoying ourselves in Paris.  Now each week dissolves, leaving hardly a trace.  I have finished my nightly meetings with Alec Guinness in his “positively final appearance”, but a bit from the December chapter stuck in my mind. “The days, they say, are drawing out. All that strikes me is that in spite of the slowing up of time, the weeks gallop apace; Sunday comes sharp on the heels of Sunday.”

At first, it seemed that enforced isolation would have one positive aspect.  Time without without socializing, shopping, travelling or hosting travelling friends would free up time to address some of those things one can always find a reason to leave for another day, month or year.  There is the basement, never sorted out after moving, and the perfect thing to do during the winter months of which Canada has so many.  Then there is the idea of learning and doing something new – writing a children’s book based upon a doll that belonged to my daughter.  When rescued from the garbage and cleaned up, he looked just fine as the main character for a story – perfect for spring creativity and increased energy.  Spring would also be a good time to address some landscaping at the front of the house, of which there is really none.  And then there are all those bookcases full of books, in fact, a whole library of unread books, good at any time of the year.  However, there is another side of COVID confinement – no cleaning help.  Now too much time is filled with cleaning a rather large house, and Monday comes sharp on the heels of Monday as the dust rolls down the halls and the cleaning cycle starts up again.  No new tasks get taken up.

Right at the moment, time seems to be collaborating with its colleague, the weather.  Early summer arrived with 30 degree days several weeks ago, but down jackets have been donned again, and tonight the temperature will descend to 6 degrees.  As Ontario has begun to open up further, although cases are still not falling consistently, the weather seems to be intimating that it is April or perhaps early May in COVID time, and too soon to be tossing aside so many precautionary measures.  I read a comment today that COVID is very young as a virus, mere months old, and we have hardly gotten to know it.  Nonetheless, the more than three months of self-isolating feel much longer: time is still playing its tricks.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Staying alive

June 10.  If we are to learn the right lessons from the pandemic, it is crucial that we are careful with the meaning of words.

Monday’s Guardian carried a disturbing headline: ‘Epidemic of Loneliness’.*  This was a phrase much deployed in the public debate about loneliness in the years leading up to the present crisis.  It had two sets of meanings.

The first was a general metaphor.  It just meant that loneliness was a large and negative event.  If we say that someone received in an ‘avalanche of complaints’ we do not mean literally that they were covered in a mountain of rocks, just that they experienced a lot of trouble.

The second was more serious.  It was at the centre of an attempt to medicalise a social condition.  linking the experience to other crises such as smoking and obesity.  By this means the effect was dramatized, and campaigners hoped to appropriate longstanding concerns with major public health issues.

Critics were concerned about this use of language.  Whatever it is, loneliness cannot be caught by someone breathing on you.  It seemed an inappropriate descriptor before the present crisis, and now it would appear indefensible.

But in the Guardian, no less an authority than Professor Martin Marshall, President of the Royal College of General Practitioners, was cited as saying:  ‘The Covid-19 pandemic is also creating an epidemic of loneliness, not just for older people, and sadly there are some people who will fall through the net.’

The story was actually about the tragic discovery of individuals who had died alone, either of Covid 19 or of another condition for which in their lockdown they had failed to seek treatment.  A pathologist cheerfully described them as ‘decomps’, ‘people found dead at home after not being heard from for a couple of weeks.’

There are many ways in which ill health can be exacerbated by the experience of enforced and unwelcome solitude.  It is known that those living alone are less likely to seek medical assistance, even in normal times.  Associated forms of depression, or melancholy as it was once termed, can lower immune systems and increase vulnerability to a range of serious illnesses.  Conversely, various kinds of disability can have the effect of turning chosen solitude into an imprisoning loneliness. 

It might be expected that these interactions will increase the incidence and danger of loneliness in the present crisis, although there remains little quantitative evidence that this is happening on a significant scale.  The Office for National Statistics yesterday published its latest report on the experience of coronavirus in which it confirmed that the numbers ‘feeling lonely often / always’ in the lockdown remained at 5%.  As in earlier surveys, the old seemed more resistent to this condition than the young.**

With the total UK death rate now passing sixty thousand, lives will have been lost in every kind of social setting.  The evidence so far suggests that locked-down interiors, whether care homes or private residences, present the greater risk.  A recent Wall Street Journal analysis of the US population found that the virus had spread more widely in the most crowded households, irrespective of population density.***  .

When the final calculations are made, it is likely that those dying alone because they are alone will be far exceeded by those dying in company because they are in company.  Solitude has its compensations, and staying alive may be one of them

* Guardian, 8 June, 2020.

* Source: ONS survey of adults aged 16+, 3 April to 3 May.  https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/bulletins/coronavirusandlonelinessgreatbritain/3aprilto3may2020

*** Ian Lovett, Dan Frosch and Paul Overberg, ‘Covid-19 Stalks Large Families in Rural America’, Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2022.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Here and not here …

June 10.  Too many of the accounts of our present circumstance draw a hard line between what we are doing and not doing.  We are inside our houses not out in public spaces.  We are permitted to share the company of certain people and kept apart from all others.  But it is the essence of our human condition that we are not confined to such binary choices.

We have imaginations, the capacity to create and inhabit worlds apart from the actual present.  We all know this.  In better times, it is how we deal with that reality, offering us escape, solace, explanation.  In the lockdown, the media are full of devices for getting us to places that we are currently forbidden to enter.  Books are recommended that will take us to the holiday locations we might have visited this year (headline in yesterday’s Guardian: ‘10 of the best Latin American novels – that will take you there.’)  Television programmes, magazines and digital outlets let us wander through the gardens and art galleries that are now closed.  Food and sport journalists recycle stories that can at least remind us of pleasures denied.  And the imagination for its own sake, more important than ever, is succoured by print and electronic media.

My wife and I, inveterate readers and consumers of film and theatre, are at home in these parallel universes.  Nonetheless we grieve the physical absence of our grandchildren, going through changes which we can only witness in weekly Zoom meetings.  Unless Johnson and company sort out the mess their incompetence has compounded, we will miss the first sight of a new grand-daughter in a couple of months.  Yet even this basic dichotomy of presence and absence can be bridged.

On Sunday we tuned into our weekly family get-together to find that my London-based elder daughter, her partner and her five and eight-year old children, had something to show us.  For some weeks past they had been secretly building a scale model of the house and garden of the parents and grandparents they could no longer visit.

Everything that mattered had been re-constructed.  The black and white house with cotton-wool smoke coming out of its chimney.  The car (a sportier model than our ageing Volvo) in the drive behind the gate.  In the garden were flowers (miniature versions of the actual flowers now blooming), fruit trees, a vegetable plot, a greenhouse, a paddling pool, a swing, a sandpit with real sand, two wigwams.  There was even a miniature wheelie-bin which the children help me fill when they are staying.  Around the perimeter was the River Severn, now alarmingly close to the property, but a reminder of its existence in our country life.  Rus in Urbis if ever there was.

They still want to come and see us.  We for our part felt still more strongly the pain of their absence.  But nevertheless, it was such a joyful achievement, such a demonstration of how the creative spirit can bridge the gap between what is and what is not in our locked down world.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Solitude and Loneliness

May 27 In my diary entry for April 8, I wrote that:

Enforced isolation has an ambiguous effect on the two experiences.  On the one hand it has made solitude a still more valued practice.  In families where the adults are working at home, the children are about all day long, the garden is small or non-existent, periods of solitary escape have become as desirable and unattainable as supermarket delivery slots … On the other hand, it has made loneliness still more threatening.  It becomes more difficult to make physical contact with such friends as the individual possesses.  Intermittent escapes from an empty home to shops, cafes, local libraries, public entertainments, are now forbidden.”  I concluded that, “Where the balance will finally be struck in these contrasting effects of isolation remains to be seen.”

Now the evidence is beginning to appear to answer this question.  The crisis has stimulated the creation of a number of major research projects across the social sciences, which have been planned, funded and put into practice in a remarkably short space of time.  One of the largest of these is the UCL Nuffield Covid 19 Social Study.  This is a questionnaire-based survey which currently has 90,000 respondents.  It is not a representative statistical sample of the population, but is large enough to generate substantial conclusions.  The research team, led by Daisy Fancourt and Andrew Steptoe, have a sophisticated grasp of the concepts and categories of mental health, and are publishing weekly bulletins of their findings.

The ‘Covid-19 Social Study Results Release 8’, on 13 May, was particularly interesting.*  Table 21 measured the incidence of ‘Loneliness’ on the industry-standard UCLA loneliness scale.  This was unchanged across the lockdown period at around 5%.  This is the same level as more cautious observers and social historians have projected across the entire post-war period, and about a quarter of the claims made in the Government’s current loneliness strategy.  Whatever else it is doing, the covid19 epidemic is not causing an epidemic of loneliness.

The team found that the condition was “higher amongst younger adults, those living alone, those with lower household income levels, and those with an existing diagnosed mental health condition.  They are also higher amongst women, people with children, and people living in urban areas.”  It was correspondingly lower than 5% amongst those over 60, those with higher incomes, those without mental health conditions, and those living without children.

Table 27, by contrast, measured ‘Activities missed during lockdown.’  At the top of the table, not surprisingly, were ‘Meeting up with family’ and ‘Meeting up with friends.’  Half way down was ‘Having time alone.’  This was the solitude measure.  The analysts broke down the emotion only by age.  The younger the respondent, the more likely they were to be lacking time alone.

What is really interesting is the volume.  Just over thirty per cent of the population were included in this category.

In other words, after an extended period of lockdown, solitude is being sought by six times as many people as are experiencing loneliness.

* https://mk0nuffieldfounpg9ee.kinstacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/COVID-19-social-study-results-release-13-May-2020.pdf

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Lessons in time

May 20.  Yesterday, the Today programme included a meditation by the novelist Ian McEwan on the coronavirus pandemic as ‘an experiment in subjective time.’  For those not engaged in vital work, or managing the minutely structured task of teaching unschooled children, the experience, he argued, has altered our perception of time: ‘Bleached of events, one day like another, time compresses and collapses in on itself.’  The consequence has been ‘an exponential growth in introspection, day- dreaming, mental drifting, especially about the past.’  We find ourselves ‘tumbling backwards through time’, achieving a new understanding of our selves as we embrace without guilt a stillness in the midst of our days. 

All of which is both eloquent and true.  Those who have erased their diaries for months ahead have to learn for the first time in their long lives new ways of justifying the use of time.  There are different kinds of choices in its management, and, above all, the choice of not managing it all.  As anxiety about the unfilled hour recedes, so we can, as McEwan argues, form a calmer sense of who we have become and what matters to us.

And yet.  There are contradictions lurking in McEwan’s eloquent prose.

In the first case, the form contradicts the content.  This was an exactly timed slot in the country’s premier current affairs radio programme.  It lasted precisely five minutes, sandwiched between an item on Brexit and another on government financing of industry.  The studio manager will have controlled the event with a stopwatch as the programme headed towards its nine a.m. conclusion.  McEwan will have been given the task of turning his prose into time – 150 words a minute is the BBC norm –  and by pre-recording the talk, the programme presenter was relieved of the task of disciplining the speaker.  Nothing can have been more time-infused than this disquisition on its absence.

And then there is McEwan himself.  His experience of time may have changed with the lockdown, but he remains a professional writer.  Unlike those who earn their living in more structured contexts, he has a lifetime’s experience of controlling the use of the unforgiving hour.  Finishing novel after novel requires, in P. G. Wodehouse’s famous dictum, ‘the application of seat of pants to seat of chair.’  You do not wander through the day, jotting down the odd sentence, waiting for inspiration to strike.  You devise a timetable that suits your temperament and circumstances, and stick to it all the more rigidly in the absence of external compulsion.  I don’t suppose for a moment that McEwan has stopped doing this, just because he can’t see people at present.  He will still be setting his clock, starting at his desk, just as he has always done. 

I am myself a writer, of stories with footnotes.  Three books published in the last five years.  I start relatively early in the morning, and work in 75 minute-blocks, stopping for a coffee and then starting again.  I did this before the pandemic and I am doing it now.  So, four minutes before the next break, this entry ends.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: a pattern of days – a second retirement

14 May. We both retired. 18 years ago. I found retirement was a process of adaptation. There were at least two years of adjustment as we settled into working out what to do. And we did get going, we got the message that this was a gift – time – valuable FREE time. So we… moved house; studied; travelled; planted trees; travelled some more with our local museum; bought a holiday home at the seaside; got a dog; planted more trees from our own seed; I wrote a short biography of my grandmother as requested by my 90-year-old father when he emigrated from South Africa to Chester, UK ; I wrote a longer biography of my father published after his death at the age of 97, and I wrote two novels about Africa.

And now, it’s as if a second retirement is before us, with a further consideration of what we should do. However, there are fewer options and in the background is the possibility of being stricken with Covid-19. Times have changed. We constantly hear that our age group bears the highest risk for hospitalisation and death. Especially so if you have a ‘comorbidity’. (Comorbidity is a word I have never used before. It ‘refers to the presence of more than one disorder in the same person’. I am assuming that old age is now regarded as a disorder, a ‘morbidity’.)

In Adelaide, South Australia, we have not been as constrained as many other major cities but still the flow of disturbing news has been a constant since early March … that’s two months for us to adapt to a second retirement from our first retirement.

And how has our life changed? For a start, each day is much the same as the previous day. Small, hardly noteworthy differences: driving to walk the dog in the park and fetch the mail; sometimes a big supermarket shop in the early morning … etc.

So, most of the time is spent in the house or our garden. And somehow the day goes by very fast. We have ordered three vegetarian meals a week from a service called HelloFresh. The box is delivered to the door on Monday and consists of the ingredients for the meals plus a comprehensive guide to the process of cooking. This is entertainment as much as anything else, for these are meals I would not normally cook: roasted sweet potato risotto … pesto, roast pumpkin and fetta risoni …

My husband complains about the lack of MEAT. Since I am verging on becoming a vegetarian, this is not what I want to hear. During the week, there are 4 other dinners that can feature meat. The trouble is that the meals from HelloFresh are generous and we have leftovers. There is a definite greater interest in food and home cooking during this new retirement. We used to eat out 2-3 times a week.

The phone: we are spending more time talking on our mobiles (we don’t have a landline). We catch up with family and friends and since two daughters live in the USA, another daughter lives in Sydney and a son settled in South Africa, these calls go on throughout the day.

The computer is a huge resource and gobbler of time: for emails; Zoom meetings of my writing group and my husband’s geology club; for bridge games and lessons; for watching movies on ‘demand’. We are indeed lucky to have such a marvellous array of entertainment.

the Serengeti National Park

Every night, on YouTube, I watch the ‘Serengeti Show Live’ show for 30 odd minutes where Carel Verhoef and Sally Grierson show us their camp in the Serengeti and take us on a game drive. In 2018, we spent a week with their company, Great Migration Camps, on the shores of the Mara River. Watching these episodes, I can immerse myself in the landscape of Africa. And soon Serengeti Show Live will take us up Mt Kilimanjaro and then to Zanzibar. (Once upon a time in Africa, I lived in the shadow of Mt Kilimanjaro and then moved to live in Zanzibar).

I belong to the Adelaide Lyceum Club, a women’s club that was begun in London in 1903. (‘Clubs for women interested in arts, sciences, social concerns and the pursuit of lifelong learning’). We gather in interest groups called ‘circles’ and one of the circles I joined was the film circle. Our members have joined the Zoom brigade and meet to discuss certain films which are available online. Our SBS on Demand and ABC iView channels provide hundreds of films and TV shows free. Quite distracting in fact.

Don’t forget the dog! Roy, aged 11 has his own program, more insistent now that we are around almost 24/7. He wakes at dawn at 6.45am and goes out to check if any koalas or kangaroos are around. Whether they are or not, he wakes the neighbourhood with a morning bark. I am growing accustomed (as winter comes for us) to spend more reading in bed before a short program of yoga. This laziness delays breakfast as well as Roy’s walk up the long drive or in the local park.

Home maintenance and gardening fill in the holes in the day. April and May are planting months in South Australia as the rains arrive. I have paid more attention to edible plants this year – there’s nothing quite like picking your own herbs, lettuce and spinach for an evening meal. I have given up on actively growing potatoes but remnants are doing well. We have planted 20 trees that will give joy one day. I am reading City of Trees by Sonia Cunningham, a series of absorbing essays about our urban landscapes and how we are losing forests. Sonia Cunningham was a speaker at our Adelaide Festival’s Writers’ Week in March this year.

So, our new retirement is OK; we have lots to do, lots to entertain us. Soon we will be able to travel within the borders of South Australia and in July they might open up to other states … and one day maybe New Zealand will be included.

Second retirement is not so bad, so far.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: a box of provisions

May 6. Each Monday morning, before we are out of bed, an emissary of the government delivers a box of provisions to our front door.

The NHS vulnerable-stay-at-home-at-all-costs letter that I received at the beginning of the lockdown was accompanied by an instruction to log into a government website giving details of my situation.  I filled in the electronic form, and the next week, to our surprise and embarrassment, we received a free box of food and other necessities.  By this time, we had found our way into the supermarket delivery system, but there appears to be nothing we can do to stop this charity.   I have revisited the government site three times, ticking the box to say I have an adequate supply of food, but with no result.  Amidst all the shortages and failed targets, this service is working like an unstoppable clock.

A neighbour takes the unopened box to a local food bank.  There is thus a small subsidy taking place from the State to this necessary local facility.  Otherwise the contents of the box, which vary only slightly each week, represent what an individual (I don’t think the machine knows I have a wife) officially needs to survive on for seven days.  This week’s box contained:

500g pasta

2 kg potatoes

500g white rice

2 litres of skimmed UHT milk

1 litre apple juice

5 clementines

5 apples

1 ¼ lb of carrots

185g tin of tuna chunks

200g tin chopped pork [last week it was corned beef]

Large white sliced loaf of bread

6 mini bars of chocolate chip cookies

450g Ready Brek

2 x 500g Bolognese sauce

3 x 400g tins of Heinz tomato soup

2 x 425g tins of Heinz baked beans

800g tin of mushy peas

8 sachets of Maxwell House instant coffee

12 breakfast tea bags

500ml Dove bodywash

1 Dove hand soap

2 loo rolls

Historians in some future time may examine these boxes as evidence of what the government thought people should be eating at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century.  Apart from perhaps the pasta, rice and Bolognese sauce, I imagine something very similar was prescribed during the second world war and its immediate aftermath.  Vegans, vegetarians, allergy sufferers, weight-watchers, religious minorities, might never have existed.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK. What we might have done …

May 4. All of us, especially those in complete lockdown, spend quality time wondering what we might have done when we had the chance to do it.

In Britain we had perhaps six to eight weeks when we knew that coronavirus was not something that just happened in far away countries.  We had a week to ten days when it was clear that an imposed lockdown was coming.  What use did we make of this precious time?

Visiting the hairdresser is so obvious and so universal (except for those no longer burdened with a thatch) that it is not worth mentioning.  A friend sent us a cartoon.  A sex worker is leaning through a car window.  ‘I’ll do anything you want for £50.’  A voice from inside the car: ‘Do you cut hair?’

For us the major regret was not attending a family celebration of my wife’s birthday in London.  As it happened this was arranged for March 14, just over a week before the closure.  My wife and I were still considering that we might travel when we received fierce instruction from each of our children.  They addressed us much as we did them in the most irresponsible phase of their adolescence: ‘What you are proposing to do represents an unnecessary threat to your health and wellbeing.  We have a duty of care towards you, and you will do as we say.’ Thus, the tables were turned, perhaps for good.

Since then, the risk register has evolved.  Dying has become one of the activities to get through before the shut-down.  On Sunday we had a grocery delivery, and fell to talking (at a safe distance) to the man who had pushed the trolley up the drive.  He said that he had lately lost his father.  We sympathised with his coronavirus suffering, but he explained that his father had died, much to his relief, just before the outbreak.  He had been in and out of hospital for a year and would have hated to have his treatment sidelined by the pandemic.  His family had been with him during his final hours.  And they had a good funeral (he also explained the difficulty of arranging it in the midst of severe flooding in our area, but that is now a forgotten story).

The last funeral that I attended myself before the crisis was of a cousin.  He too had been undergoing hospital treatment for a year.  He too died in the company of his wife and children.  He too had a great send-off, at which his grandchildren and a university colleague spoke movingly of his life. 

The widespread stories of final hours being spent only in the company of medical staff, of tight restrictions on attendance at funerals, of cancer appointments falling by three quarters, of cancelled treatments for a host of serious conditions, reinforce the tale told by the delivery man.  For those who still have time ahead of us, better of course to stand and take our chance.  But for those for whom the grim reaper was already at the door, better he entered before all this happened.