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Artillery Row

The joys of the virus

Can enforced idleness make us less stressed and more contemplative?

“I like the virus. I want the virus to stay forever.” My grandson Teddy was a few months off his fifth birthday when he said this and one can appreciate his position. Under the rule of Corona you get to be with Mummy and Daddy all the time and they give you their full attention. Teddy is just the tip of the iceberg in this respect. When I work in my garden I can hear two other families with small children. Almost invariably they are laughing or shrieking with delight. Normally, I would hear children struggling up the hill outside the house and whingeing or wailing a good proportion of the time. Now, when we went outside, there were happy family groups walking and cycling together. To be with your parents is what small children want; to be with your parents when they have time on their hands is very heaven.  Though, of course, being locked up with nice parents is very different from the alternative and being locked up with educated parents is more advantageous than the alternative. You can complicate these  thoughts in as many sociological theories as you like, but they remain simple truths.

However disastrous war and pestilence are on balance, however much Bentham’s aggregate of happiness decreases, there are always winners. There is much speculation in the business pages about who is doing well and who will do well. The member of my family producing a game based on “driving round a fantasy version of the UK” will not be having financial problems – unlike my barber, osteopath, local garden centre and so on. There always were trades which were “recession inverse” in that they did better when times were bad: “it’s an ill wind . . . ” as my grandmother used to say. There was a magazine about the countryside which I used to work for which invariably sold more subscriptions when times were bad and there are confectionery firms which report the same phenomenon. The list of who gains from the current situation as producers will be interesting, but I am personally more interested in how it will change consumers. Will people discover new pleasures or rediscover old ones as I have? I must insist that though I’m not worthy of much sympathy compared with my osteopath &c, two of my greatest sources of pleasure are travel and live performance (of pretty well any kind) so extended “lockdown” is massively depressing.

April 2020 was the warmest and sunniest April on record and began two weeks after the “lockdown”. Every day I would walk or cycle in the countryside. One of the charms of the temperate climate is that in a warm and sunny spring even the same walk or ride is different every day: the green sheen of the trees intensifies and new blossoms appear while earlier ones fade. I could not stop a George Formby great from running through my mind: Turned Out Nice Again . . . A favourite ride was out to the hamlet of Beausale which could romantically be described as being in the Forest of Arden and less romantically as being on the southern fringes of the Birmingham and Coventry Green Belt. It is remarkably unchanged country and in April 2020 looked the best I have ever seen it. There was no traffic and no longer any noise from planes going in to Birmingham International. It had an atmosphere of peaceful normality. Farmers farmed, lambs frolicked, pheasants squawked and various kinds of crow conducted aerial attacks on various types of hawk. Woodpeckers pecked: at one point I saw or heard seven inside an hour, a personal best.

But I was not alone. In the past I would choose that route and, once off the main road, see nobody at all whereas now all the country paths were full of walkers and the lanes were full of cyclists. Early in the “lockdown” on a Sunday morning I rode out on a route that I would often use on a Sunday because on a weekday there would be too much traffic. I would normally expect to see fewer than twenty people, but this time I saw over two hundred. That proved to be typical; it became a standing joke, not only that there were so many people out, but that there were new rules of etiquette about slaloming to maintain social distance. There were also strange thoughts about who was living in the real world. Government messages and statements seemed to assume, partly as some kind of attempt at self-fulfilling prophecy, that people were actually staying indoors whereas actually they were out and about in the greatest numbers I have ever seen. I should say I am talking only about Mid-Warwickshire, an area which is in any case one of the most lightly policed on the planet. But there was curious and disturbing pleasure to this dissonance. I had been previously in countries, like the Soviet Union, where the messages and apparent assumptions of the official media bore no resemblance to what was actually happening, but this was a first in my own country. As it happens I disapproved of “lockdown” and of the government’s strategy – though my disapproval was contingent on things I didn’t know but was only guessing and the policy was exactly what I would have expected from an elected government, especially as other elected governments were already doing it. Even so, the air of subversion one shared on realising that most Midlanders simply weren’t going to allow themselves to be cooped up was a good buzz. 

Restaurants will take a triple blow: people will be poorer, more reluctant to be confined and they will have learned to cook

One of my sons, passing on his bike, ‘phoned me to open the door so that we could talk (from a distance, of course). “There are people cycling out there who can’t cycle,” he remarked. “And, for that matter, there are people walking who don’t know how to walk.” He was right: they knew how to put one foot in front of each other, but we did see people baffled by stiles and also people, often quite old, walking down the middle of a “B” road when there was a very nice path parallel to the road. Also people stomping all over a field of winter wheat, presumably thinking it was grass. The logic of this was simple: people desperately wanted to be out in the sunshine and there were no longer any pubs, shops etc to go to so they went for the simple joys of the local countryside. It reminded me of two twentieth century phenomena. The first was my parents’ sweet ration which they consumed completely and avidly until rationing was finally abandoned in 1953 at which point they gave up sweets and went on a diet. The point being that if government sets a limit to your consumption you are likely to consume at least up to the limit whereas if if they didn’t bother you might not. There’s also the question of the iron stubs on the wall in front of our house, the remnants of the ornate iron fence which the government ripped out in the early stages of the second world war, supposedly for the armaments industry; they were never used and mostly rotted away on railway sidings. All this activates the anarchist voice in my head. Governments, eh? Never doing the right thing, always needing to be seen to do something, however useless or illogical.

Our adjustment to the new circumstances was an extreme one. In the three days before stringent “lockdown” regulations were introduced we were on three different continents. In retrospect that was not a situation we would have chosen. A month later a cycle ride to Long Itchington felt like a trip to the periphery of the known universe, so great was the contraction in our sense of visitable space. Naturally, like most other people, we spent much more time on our own property and, equally naturally, in venturing into this interior we got round to doing things we had only the vaguest and most theoretical of intentions of ever getting round to doing. At the top of the house my study contains boxes of acquired and inherited documents. I did, at least, get them into some kind of order while scarcely breaking the surface of reading them. I still baulked at the prospect of going through my father’s correspondence to my mother in the war. They were separated for three and a half years after ten days of marriage and were more like pen pals than husband and wife. But the highlight, for the time being, was the testimonial written about my grandfather when he was twenty years old. It was written in the name of the Harrowing family of Whitby, owners of a shipping company, and dated the 9th of September 1901. It referred to Grandpa’s five years of service on the company’s SS North Sands as bosun and third mate. It offers an opinion on what Captain Hughson would have said about William Cole had he (Hughson) not died. He would have said that my grandfather was “most satisfactory . . . perfectly sober, diligent and reliable.” Within ten years he was captaining his own ship.

Forty something stairs below the study is the cellar, variously described as an “Aladdin’s cave” and “a mess”, but certainly containing lost treasures and hidden depths including various home made concoctions which would be long past their sell-by dates if they had ever suffered the indignities of a regulatory regime. But the star here was not home produced; it was a bottle of Aragonese Breca, ten years old and found in the “exotic and expensive” section. It didn’t fall into the pattern of any of our normal sources of wine; it must have been a gift. Anyway, at 15.5% and darker than the seas of Homer’s imagination it was as unlike the smooth, tastealike wines mostly drunk these days. It had a “Proustian” effect and took me back to the hot continental summers of my youth. Between the study and the cellar were bookshelves containing, among other things, the collected works of Chaucer, Pepys, Dickens, Wilde, Joyce etc. etc. : not much progress there, but I thought about it. And outside the kitchen garden with abundant supplies of broccoli, asparagus and more herbs and salads than you could list. And this year not much was wasted.

There was also the matter of downcoupling as it might be called. Or, perhaps, repartnering? Easter Sunday was unusually warm and calm. We put a table out in the garden and ate our roast lamb with some formality including proper cloth napkins and cut glass for the aforementioned Aragonese wine. It was entirely different from the normal dinner on that date. Our immediate family is fourteen people and there would have been a certain amount of chaos: “Why’s she got three Yorkshire puddings?”, “I’ll get another bottle”. “Is that mint sauce fresh?”  “Get him a beer glass”. (All said at once.) The calm was strange, but it was what it was and enjoyable in its way.

The questions about the consequences of the pandemic and its supposed remedies seem immensely complicated and are already much discussed. As a guideline for the general direction of the argument I would take the events of 1348-52, the “Black Death”, and its effects on areas and trades which I once researched as background for an article. This extreme pandemic which wiped out about a third of the population seems to had effects in the medium term which mainly exacerbated and enhanced existing tendencies. If a place or a trade was already in decline then the decline accelerated, but where there had previously been prosperity it returned quite quickly. Thus, perhaps counter-intuitively, I would suggest that the travel business, steadily on the increase before the pandemic will recover completely in the medium term however reluctant I (and nearly everybody else, I guess) is to get on a train or a plane or a boat at the time of writing.

Surveys suggest people want to change, history suggests they won’t

I can’t help but consider the egocentric question of whether people will become more like me. All my life I’ve loved the countryside and hated shopping whereas much of the rest of the world seems to take the opposite view. Now, after weeks of heading for the country because there were no shops to go to will people retain the habit? And what of those who did go to the country, but did it by getting in the car and setting off for some brand-named “beauty spot” such as (in our case) the Malverns or the Cotswolds? Will they now be content with our local fields and woods?  Also I have come to dislike eating in restaurants increasingly as I’ve got older. I do have to eat in restaurants quite often and I usually manage to enjoy it, but I never choose to do so, disliking the lack of genuinely fresh food, the pretentiousness of menus, the obsequiousness of waiters and, above all, the insistence on playing recorded music. Now it would seem that restaurants will take a triple blow after these events: people will be poorer, they will be more reluctant to be in confined spaces and they will have learned to cook better. (I have been surprised by the range of people who have asked me about my herb garden.)

And then there is the increase in cycling. I’ve cycled all my life and I’ve never seen anything like the number of bikes on the road as I have in 2020. Was there any period – the 1930s, perhaps – when there were more bikes on the road? The actual cycle tracks and bridleways became intolerably crowded, but the roads had less motorised traffic on them. I was left wondering whether someone was making a fortune out of delivering bikes ordered online. Or were they people who had already bought bikes, but barely ever used them? Cycling is wonderful: it’s exercise, but has a positive impact on the joints and is excellent for both contemplation and the observation of nature. Having said that most of the cyclists were distinctly the wrong type from my point of view, having helmets and sunglasses, wearing lycra and streaking round the landscape at enormous pace without giving themselves time to enjoy it. They are much better equipped than me, but, annoyingly, almost invariably lack the one piece of extra kit you actually need which is a bell. At least somebody appreciated me: there I was pausing in town on a coldish day with my cloth cap and cycle clips on when a young man who had taken drink or two approached me. “You look great,” he said. “Proper old geezer.” Then he turned to the rest of the world and bellowed, “I hate old men in lycra.” Quite!

The broader question is whether people might learn from their enforced idleness and domesticity to be less stressed, less instrumental and more contemplative, to treat things, as eighteenth century philosophy liked to put it, as ends-in-themselves. As we (some of us) have been hoping this would happen since time began and many false dawns have been announced it would be ridiculous to be optimistic, though a few people always change. Surveys suggest people want to change, history suggests they won’t. On the other hand there must be, at least in the short term, a greater appreciation of normality. The thing about banging your head against the wall, as we have always been told, is that it is nice when it stops. As a friend I walk with emailed to me, “One day we’ll be walking across a sunlit meadow towards a pub – and the pub will be open.”  One day I’ll walk into a football ground. Our dreams used to be our realities.

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