June 15. So, the shops can open tomorrow – it will be interesting to see how successful it will be and who will venture forth.
It made me think how we will get into London when it’s time to go – public transport being off limits for the foreseeable future. We made a conscious decision to run a small car several years ago. It is great for city living, can be parked in the smallest spaces and suits us…. Or it did suit us. Faced with no trains, UK holidays and car travel to Holland to see the children do we need to think about a different option – slightly larger, more powerful and more comfortable for long journeys? It goes against our environmental philosophy to think about it but we are all being pushed onto the road again. I’m not sure how that will play out.
We moved a huge pot containing a Cornus Kousa (dogwood) up to the top of the garden today to finish off the design in that area. Having time to get the whole garden replanted and organised has been a joy and for the first time since we moved in, we feel as if the garden is now ours. All we have to do now is keep everything alive.
Relationships with lockdown and Covid appears to have changed considerably. Is it fatigue or a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to get us out of this mess? They certainly have lost the confidence of many- to the point that we no longer believe almost anything we are told. How could it have been handled better and why on earth wasn’t it?
June 12. The most famous literary description of lockdown is to be found at the beginning of chapter 3 of Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Arthur Clennam, a middle-aged businessman, has returned to London from Marseilles to close down his late father’s estate. He is gazing out of the window of a coffee shop, summoning the courage to visit his old family home:
“It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick and mortar echoes hideous. Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look out of windows, in dire despondency. In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round. Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world – all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again. Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up. Nothing for the spent toiler to do but to compare the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it – or the worst, according to the probabilities.” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857; Penguin 1967), pp. 67-8.
It should be noted that this was the perspective of a particular section of British society. That symbol of a more secular sabbath, the Sunday newspaper, had recently been invented – Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in 1842, the News of the World in 1843, Reynolds’ News in 1850. At the time that Dickens was writing, Henry Mayhew, whose surveys of food and flowers we have cited in earlier Friday diaries, was walking the London streets collecting material on the vivid, noisy world of the costermongers, which continued the week round.
Nonetheless it was a vivid account of the experience of the evangelical middle class of the time. As with the current lockdown, it was an essentially man-made event. In this case it replicated the response to a pandemic without the medical justification. And whilst the full observance of a day of church services and Bible reading was confined to a religious sect, their influence on the political process was such that they were able to impose their restrictions on the rest of society. What most annoyed Dickens was their success in closing the widening range of improving entertainments which had opened in the capital and elsewhere during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Working a six-day week for the most part, Sunday was the only time that the bulk of the London workforce could take their families to visit attractions which were both entertaining and instructive. They both deserved and would benefit morally from the opening of the British Museum and other venues.
In normal times, museums and galleries are now open on Sundays as are a host of more profane entertainments. But we continue to experience the Sabbatarian legacy, with larger shops closed before 10 and after 4 in order that we might attend a church service. As we begin to explore a return to a post-pandemic world, Sunday opening has become one of the many issues that were described in yesterday’s diary, where Government proposals are provoking argument rather than consent. In order to boost the retail sector which has been so badly hit, a Minister has suggested that the Sunday trading laws be suspended for a year. The British Chambers of Commerce is in favour of the change, but Labour argues that it would favour supermarkets over the smaller shopkeepers, as does the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores. USDAW, the shopworkers’ trade union, protests that “the last thing the retail industry needs is longer trading hours, there is no economic case for this and it will put extra pressure on the retail workers who have worked so hard throughout this crisis.” Then there associated disputes about whether any relaxation of social contact should be allowed, and if so, what distance should be kept between people.
We need a Dickens fully to describe the times we are living through. And we need a basis for agreeing change, without setting interest against interest, class against class.
20 May. After seven weeks of “shielding” (a euphemism for imprisonment for the uninitiated) this last weekend represented a couple of baby-steps back towards normality for me. I’d better own up that I have dumped my shield numerous times – but only to cycle ten miles along the seafront as I deemed the benefits to mental and physical health justified the miniscule risk. There was a positive feel – football was reappearing albeit German and with cardboard cutouts, Eurovision was all but cancelled (seriously good news) and the weather was set reasonably fair. But it was bumbling Boris’ baby-steps and a case of needs must that really did it for me. First off meeting a couple of friends for coffee. Confession number two it was in the back garden not a public place but we’re not stupid and pursued social distancing so I feel not an inkling of guilt or worry. No hugging, not even a handshake. If it’s any consolation to BJ the nip in the air ensured that we stayed alert. After years of NHS guidelines and policies I conclude that those that work best are clear and concise with no grey zones and brief enough to be manageable, no one reads a series of fifty page documents. Two-thirds of the public find the government’s new rules unclear apparently. The lack of logic and confused messages from bulldog-spirited BJ and his cabinet of spaniels makes me think that we should use our common sense as our Pole Star rather than any parliamentary edict. Returning briefly to football I am reminded of a well known chant albeit less heard since VAR took the ultimate control “Yer don’t know what yer doin'”. Anyway bearing in mind that one difference between humans and primates is our better-developed language it was really good to have an hour and a half of conversation in vivo, a bit of culture to add to my already lengthy reading list and to share the machine-gun trill of a rather vocal wren. And in case you’re worried the boys in blue (is that a bit Sergeant Dixon era, should it be persons in blue?) were obviously too busy patrolling the beach to worry about any geriatric misbehaviour.
Sunday’s baby-step was a case of needs must as the DIY click and collect system was unavailable. Not Wickes or B&Q but the arrangement whereby I click a list, daughter shops for it and we meet and I collect. Works a treat if you haven’t tried it and all for the price of a bar of chocolate and a few satsumas. But she was busy, so armed with my new-found liberation I opted for the elderly and vulnerable slot at Waitrose. A real life allegory unfolded in lieu of the deficiency of church sermons at present. Being my first visit in lock-down and because the queue bent invisibly round a corner I spent ten minutes oblivious to the formalities whilst hanging around the door. Come opening a woman bellowed at me that there was a queue – instead of just watching me couldn’t she have told me that before?
By this point it was half way across the car park, heart-sink…..But a kind lady with whom I used to natter back in normal times agrees to let me in, the lady behind seconds the motion and like a game of snakes and ladders I’ve shot up from 26th to 5th in the blink of an eye. My goal is to get round and out as fast as possible and the only potential hindrance is that “she who is aggrieved of queuing” is visibly surprised and put out to confront me – “how did you get in?” she asks clearly concerned that a grave injustice has come to pass.
What is the matter with some people? Doesn’t she realise she could be on a ventilator or using a food bank? But maybe she is stressed for some other reason and so I opt to stonewall rather than engage in messy discussion. Get to the checkout by 9.50 for a ten minute wait but I’m still only second in the queue. First is a young oriental lady and she turns and asks if I’d like to go first, almost insistent – presumably because I look suitably geriatric and vulnerable. Inculcated with the proprieties of queueing and so taken aback that anyone should make such a kind offer (unprecedented as per the current demotic) I decline despite her repeated offers. I’m out by ten past ten, no one sneezed or coughed on me and so hopefully all will be well. But the experience was valuable on two counts – got a few bits for sustenance and more importantly The Observer which was the primary purpose of the mission. But an unanticipated spin-off was to experience the stark contrast of human nature between the angry and rude as opposed to the kind and considerate. It reminded me that the latter is the camp I need to be in. We’ve seen outpourings of community spirit during the loc-kdown and long may that live and on a small scale I hope to emerge a kinder person and for more than the seventy two hours or so that we reduce our driving speed after passing an accident.
It’s over fifty years since Neil Armstrong took his “small step for man” but with my two baby-steps I’m over the moon. I still have reservation that there could be a second wave of virus and will be very selective in any external activities but the tips are reopening in Brighton and the lure of clearing several crates of garden waste may be my next baby-step . Need to ensure that I stop it becoming a baby-toddle at this stage but if hairdressers get the kiss of life then the temptation may be too much.