- I am heading towards my third pair of slippers this year but am still wearing the same outdoor shoes I had in January.
- Much as Covid-19 is unpredictable in its physical effects, so it is also erratic in its economic impact; while certain groups are more vulnerable than others, the financial brunt of lockdown has been borne unevenly, with little reflection of talent, effort or track record.
- My daughter thinks doctors are brave. ‘I’m brave like a doctor,’ she said recently. This is not a quality I would have associated with medics when I was growing up, despite being the child of two of them.
- When starting a game of shops, my daughter dons an imaginary mask.
- Perhaps this is more a reflection of my mood than anything else, but people seem more optimistic these days.
- Covid is rivalling the weather for small talk material in Britain. It has the same quality of providing background and colour to everyday events.
- Despite all evidence to the contrary, we still cling to the end of the year as a deadline for this crisis to end. Contemplating the clocks going back this weekend and the extra hour that switching to Greenwich Mean Time will bring, a friend said, ‘I don’t want an extra hour of 2020,’ as if we will all wake up on 1 January 2021 with a clean slate and the virus gone.
- Sometimes, when you encounter a person taking a markedly different approach to precautions and risk, it feels as if you live on different planets.
- I have barely thought about many of the things that preoccupied me this time last year in months. Which makes it that much harder to get worked up about things that seem important now.
- Beyond a brief sidelong allusion or two, I have not written Covid into the novel I am working on (at least not consciously). I wonder how long it will take for the changes in social interaction forged this year to show up in fiction that isn’t specifically about the pandemic. If mobile phones and the internet offer any comparison, it could be a number of years.
London marathon on sea
Years ago, I read a poem by the late British writer Adrian Mitchell called ‘On the Beach at Cambridge’. From what I recall, not having been able to put my hands on a copy today, it is set after some, probably manmade, catastrophe that has brought the ocean to the landlocked city of the title, and has an eerie, apocalyptic quality.
I thought of that poem yesterday when, walking along the gusty boardwalk on the seafront at Folkestone, we passed a woman running the London marathon. My husband, a marathon veteran, had told me that we might see one or two such runners: the postponed London marathon was finally taking place and, while the elite athletes completed laps of St James’s Park in the capital, amateurs had a window of just under 24 hours to complete 26.2 miles wherever they were in the world.
And now, here was this woman, race number pinned to her top, running with two non-racing companions into the wind gusting along from Dungeness.
Knowing what goes into training for such an event, my husband and I stopped and cheered as she passed, trying for a moment to represent the crowds that would have lined her route in any other year. The wind whipped our voices away and we must have looked rather mad standing on the shingle, punching the air and clapping as grey waves crashed a few metres off.
Still, the runner smiled and powered on. Perhaps she felt, as I did, the surreal connection of the moment – all of us performing roles in an event traditionally defined by location, taking place in diffuse fragments around the world.
Yesterday, I passed a woman running the London marathon along the seafront. That’s a sentence that, a year ago, would have made no sense. Now, however in this new era of remoteness, virtual interaction and distance, it does not surprise me.
Not quite ‘On the Beach at Cambridge’, perhaps, but a drastically altered world.
Picture: ‘Wooden Way: Folkestone Beach’ by Luke McKernan on flickr.com
Tightening restrictions (or will we get to Cornwall?)
An odd, fragmented time here in the UK. The rule of six came in on 14 September, banning social gatherings of seven or more people (with certain exemptions, including for those hunting or paintballing). As there is no age limit on these rules in England, with everyone from newborn babies upwards counting as people (unlike in some other parts of the UK), this has presented some challenges.
Effectively, two-parent families with more than one child are now unable to socialise with other families. Indeed, government ministers have gone on record to say that groups of acquaintances who happen to encounter one another in the street should not greet each other for fear of breaking the law. Others have actively encouraged people to report those who don’t adhere to the rules – promoting ‘sneak culture’, as Boris Johnson has called it.
This week brings further uncertainty. With case numbers doubling every seven or eight days and an increasing number of local restrictions and lockdowns spreading across the country, there is talk of a nationwide ‘circuit breaker’ – a two-week halt on all mixing apart from for work and education, with possible early closing for pubs and restaurants.
In our household, this has been the cause of some consternation. We are shortly due to be going on holiday with my parents in Cornwall. Depending on what announcements the next few days bring, we may need to abandon these plans. Of course, this is small beans compared to the upheaval affecting many people (not to mention the thousands of teenagers starting university under tight restrictions this week). Still, after six months of sticking close to home, and juggling childcare challenges and work, it is a shame to contemplate losing this chance to relax and have a change of scene.
Not that the scene around us remains static. For all the worry of this time, there is a strange sense of optimism and new beginnings in the air. For us, this has been most apparent in the number of friends and acquaintances trying to move to our seaside town. Although Folkestone has been a popular relocation destination for Londoners for some years (we’re known here as DFLs – ‘down from London’s), lockdown has accelerated this trend. We’re in touch with four or five people thinking of moving here and heard on Wednesday of the latest friend to have an offer accepted on a house.
For many, it seems, lockdown has either prompted or accelerated the decision that living in a big city is not as desirable or necessary as it once was. Like most things, this will have its positive and negative consequences.
My daughter and I experienced one of the possible upsides on Friday. Out for a walk, we stopped at a newly opened café at the entrance to the Leas Cliff Coastal Park. The café is in the 1885 Leas Lift Funicular Railway building (pictured at the top of this post), which has been derelict since before we moved to the town. Even with social-distancing measures in place, it was doing a roaring trade and the serving staff talked enthusiastically about plans to get the Victorian lift up and running again in the next few years. For now, the mechanism was proudly displayed in a room off to the side and almost everyone who came to the tables took the opportunity to take a peep.
Sitting in the newly restored building, looking out to sea much as Victorian daytrippers would have done more than a century ago, was a powerful reminder of the new opportunities that can come from old structures and mechanisms failing and being reimagined. In the face of loss and destruction, there are still grounds for hope.
The social dynamics of social distancing
This morning brings the news that lockdown restrictions will be tightened in England following an alarming surge in cases of Covid-19. The aim of the new rules, which feature a ban on social gatherings of more than six people, is, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, to be ‘super simple’ to make it as easy as possible for people to curb the spread of the disease. But, as Brian Bilston wittily expresses in the poem above, things aren’t as clear cut as the headlines would have us believe.
When I heard the announcement, my reaction was one of mild bewilderment. Wasn’t that already the official guidance, I found myself wondering. Or was that only for meetings inside? Or meetings involving more than one household. Or perhaps that was what the rules were in Wales or north of Hadrian’s Wall when the wind was in the east.
The truth is that there have been so many directives and counter-directives, so many local restrictions, and so many qualifications and adjustments to instructions over the past three months that it’s impossible to retain a sense of what is and isn’t allowed. The desire to get to grips with the latest round of Westminster commands is further undermined by the knowledge that, in a matter of weeks, these instructions too are likely to change.
As a result, most of us – yours truly included – seem to have been making it up as we go along, judging for ourselves what is an acceptable level of risk, according to our own needs and circumstances. This is all well and good in spaces and situations where you have control (with your family in your own home, for example), but it becomes more difficult when you host guests, or venture into shared spaces or onto other people’s territory.
In the case of shared spaces – shops, pavements and the like – a sort of majority consensus seems to hold sway. If most of the people in a given place don’t set much store by social distancing or mask wearing, it becomes almost de rigueur to ignore the guidance – and increasingly awkward for those set on wearing masks and remaining 2m from others to do so.
Having guests and paying visits to other people’s homes present a different set of challenges. ‘I don’t know how careful you’re being,’ is a phrase I’ve heard or said several times over the last couple of months, almost always when I meet a friend or relative for the first time since the start of lockdown and we try to negotiate the rules of engagement. In certain cases, this can lead to a sort of hyper-vigilance born of a desire not to offend or threaten the other by doing something that they may regard as unacceptably risky.
But in cases where there is a power imbalance in the relationship, coronavirus-avoidance measures acquire a fresh layer of meaning. I have, on more than one occasion, found myself obliged to bite my tongue or participate in a situation against my better judgement because I am unwilling or unable to challenge the people instigating it. The feelings driving my failure to stick to my principles in these cases have been many and various – fear of confrontation, a desire to be generous, polite and welcoming, weariness, apathy, compassion.
It’s highly likely that I in my turn have forced similar compromises on others. I certainly know that, for all my belief in the good sense of keeping my distance, I have failed many times to stay 2m from others in public spaces, often through absent-mindedness or cognitive overload. If I have inadvertently neglected to observe a precaution that a friend practices in their home, I’m sure many would be too polite to tell me. Hosting, after all, traditionally dictates that you defer to the whims of your guest. It’s difficult when manners and mores are hardwired into you to alter such patterns.
And so we blunder along, imposing and impinging on one another, doing our best to make sense of an insane situation, trying to balance conflicting needs and imperatives. And meanwhile the number of cases rises.
The end of summer
Today, in England, it’s the summer bank holiday, the last public holiday before Christmas. Although British Summer Time continues until the clocks go back an hour in October, for many people, this marks the end of the summer break and the point at which we start to turn our attention to the challenges of the autumn.
This year, the holiday feels like a particularly stark watershed. With many pupils set to return to school this week for the first time since March and the government urging office workers to resume commuting in an effort to bring life (and money) back to city centres, it seems as though we are on the brink of moving into a very different phase – one that, depending on who you speak to, could either be the start of a period of recovery and new opportunities, or the cause of a deadly second spike in Covid cases.
It comes on the back of a topsy-turvy summer, in which a lot people have been obliged to modify their habits. For many, the notion of holidaying itself has shifted. The latest word to have been infected by coronavirus in this country seems to be ‘staycation’, which has changed from its original meaning of ‘holidaying at home’ to ‘holidaying within the borders of your own nation’. British beauty spots and seaside resorts have boomed or been overrun (depending on which news outlet you consult).
Those who have ventured abroad have often found their holidays less restful than they hoped. With the government list of countries from which travellers must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival changing frequently, it has become commonplace to hear of holidaymakers engaging in mad dashes to get back to the UK before new deadlines kick in. (My favourite story was of a group of musicians who did a concert in France at 9pm and then chartered a fishing boat to get back to Britain before restrictions kicked in at 4am).
For those of us who haven’t ventured far from home, the rhythm of the weeks have changed. With Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme funding 50 per cent off at restaurants from Monday to Wednesday, eateries have been packed on what have traditionally been the quietest days of the week. Some businesses have reported more than doubling their takings for August and are even considering continuing the promotion at their own expense after the government funding ends today.
Not being a great fan of crowds, I haven’t taken advantage of the offer. However, I have ventured to two pubs, one café and two restaurants on other less busy days since the beginning of July.
These trips have been surprisingly pleasant. With tables spaced to allow social distancing, one-way systems in operation, and shields and screens providing protection, they have felt far less frenetic than going out for a meal sometimes does. There was no struggle to hear what my companions were saying, the waiters seemed less harried than usual and I was far less conscious of encroaching on the enjoyment of other diners than I often feel when eating out with a small child.
All the same, there was a slightly surreal, through-the-looking-glass quality to it all. At one restaurant, when I got chatting to the waiter, she told me that in many ways she preferred working in the current conditions – she had more time off and fewer customers to serve because of the social-distancing restrictions. It was easier. But it was also hard to see how the business model could be sustainable in the long term. The numbers simply didn’t add up.
This sense of a gap between what is projected and what is physically possible has been something of a theme this year. Cynics would say it is always so as far as politics is concerned. Maybe so. But it’s rare that so many people’s lives and livelihoods seem at risk of collapsing into the chasm between the two.
For now, however, there is no knowing how the coming changes will play out. And so, as the last British holidaymakers pack up their buckets and spades and prepare to head back to reality, we wait to find out precisely what that reality will be.
Best-laid plans: a lesson in chaos theory
There’s an odd provisionality to plans these days. Unlike the dog days of lockdown proper, when it seemed as though time itself had stopped and nobody who didn’t have to was making any commitments that would require them to leave their houses, people are starting to prepare for the future. There’s a difference, though, to the tenor of many of these arrangements.
My work diary now has dates in it stretching up to October 2021. But many of these come with odd caveats and qualifications. ‘Covid willing’, I’ve taken to writing in emails, in much the same way that more people in previous centuries might have written ‘God willing’.
All the meetings I have scheduled for the next three months come with the understanding that there is a considerable chance they may not happen. Local lockdowns or the need to self-isolate could force us back to the drawing board and everybody seems to accept this. Indeed, acknowledging our powerlessness in the face of the shifting tides of the pandemic is often a source of wry humour or camaraderie, providing the same sort of social glue that talking about the weather often generates in the UK.
Of course, in pre-Covid times, our plans were always subject to forces beyond our control. Cars crashed, trains were cancelled, people fell ill. There has always been an element of unpredictability to everything that human beings attempt. It’s simply that, for many of us living in the global North in the early-21st century, scientific advancements, prosperity and relative peace mean that we have been able to maintain the illusion of having control over our lives to a degree that would have been unfathomable to many of our ancestors.
I doubt the generation that comes after us will suffer from such delusions. Already, pupils at the UK’s schools have had a rough lesson in unpredictability. With GCSE and A-level exams cancelled this year (these are the high-school qualifications that determine whether students will be accepted by universities and other further-education institutions), A-level students discovered last week that almost 40 per cent of their results had been downgraded by an algorithm used to give final grades in the absence of exam papers. The situation was made doubly shocking when it emerged that the program was weighted against those at poorly performing institutions, meaning that, broadly speaking, those worst affected were people from deprived backgrounds.
Understandably outraged, many took to the streets. Finally, after Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all decided to abandon the algorithm’s decisions and use teacher predictions instead, the English government backed down and did the same. The decision came too late for some who had already made other plans after they lost out on their first-choice universities; for others, uncertainty persists. With institutions having to limit numbers to meet Covid-19 requirements and many having already given away the places lost by those who originally missed their grades, it is unclear how all these students can be accommodated.
Of course, there will be winners and losers in this situation. There will be those who look back on this moment and feel lucky at the unexpected course their life took. But there will be some to whom this cruel farce will deal a blow from which they may struggle to recover.
Thinking back to my 18-year-old self on A-level results day some 20 years ago, thrilled at the prospect that everything I’d worked so hard for was now within my grasp, I suspect I would have been in the latter camp, at least for a while. If nothing else, such an experience would have shaken my faith in many of the principles that underpinned my education – the importance of hard work, the broad logic and justice of the system, the need to play the game.
In the face of such chaos, I suspect I would have felt disinclined to make plans of any kind at all.
The resurgence of plastic bags
A while ago, in the halcyon, pre-pandemic days, when the most pressing concerns were Brexit and global warming, I remember having a startling thought: One day soon, I might run out of plastic bags.
Way back in the teenties, long before supermarkets started charging for them, I had stopped accepting plastic bags in response to reports of their impact on the oceans. I carried two or three tote bags folded up in my handbag at all times and used these for anything I bought. When we moved out of London and started driving to the supermarket, we put a stash of sturdy bags for life in the boot and took these in with us in the trolley.
Yet, there were still occasions when a secondhand plastic bag came in handy. If I was packing a suitcase, for example, I would always wrap my shampoo and shower gel in a plastic bag. In addition, in the early months of pregnancy, when waves of nausea washed in at inconvenient moments, it was useful to have one about my person for emergencies.
We kept our used plastic bags in a tote bag hanging on the door handle of the cupboard under the stairs. Over time, it became clear that the supply was dwindling. Sturdy, premium specimens were scarce and most of what remained were those flimsy, transparent sleeves from the fruit and veg aisle. Rooting through them one day in search of something that would be up to the task I had in mind, I experienced a stab of anxiety that I might one day raid our collection only to find that all serviceable bags were gone.
I no longer have such fears. Having spent the last couple of months surviving almost exclusively on online shopping and supermarket deliveries (which have become relatively easy to secure after the initial frenzy in the early weeks of lockdown), we are swamped with the plastic bags that are now used to deliver groceries that can no longer be carried into the house in crates because of Covid-19. Far too numerous for one tote bag, they are crammed on top of the cabinet in the cupboard under the stairs. In another month or two, there will be too many of them for even this space and we will have to start devising creative solutions for using them up – stuffing cushions, perhaps, or adding an extra layer of insulation to the loft. (Any suggestions gratefully received.)
The change is worrying – particularly when you extrapolate the situation in our house to wider society and consider all the disposable cups, utensils and other items that were gradually being phased out and have now been brought back in full force because of the pandemic. It is a reminder of how quickly positive changes can be reversed in response to circumstances beyond our control. Good habits may take years to form, but they can be undone in no time at all.
A trip to the dentist
This week, I had a dental appointment. At the moment, in the UK, dentists are operating a reduced service. Routine check-ups are on hold, but emergency appointments are available and dentists can use their discretion to see patients who they judge are in need of a consultation.
I phoned up my practice last week with a minor niggle. Within half an hour, I was called back by my dentist, who, after talking through my concerns, decided it would be a good idea to see me and arranged an appointment for 10 days’ time.
Given that it usually takes at least a month to get a regular check up, this felt rather extraordinary. I began to worry that my condition might be more serious than I realised.
A phone call followed from one of the reception staff, taking me through some of the steps I would be required to take to minimise the risk of coronavirus transmission during my visit. Then came two emails containing a series of instructions about not arriving early and leaving bags at home.
Finally, a few days before my appointment, there was another phone call from a receptionist charged with carrying out my Covid-19 risk assessment. This consisted of a handful of questions. Was I experiencing any of the main symptoms of coronavirus? Had I been in contact with anyone who had? Had I been self-isolating?
In light of what has been reported about the prevalence of asymptomatic cases of the disease, I found it hard to see quite how much reassurance my negative answers to these questions could offer. Still, as seems to be the general rule of thumb at the moment, the questionnaire was something practical that could be done to reduce – if not eliminate – the risk.
The day of my appointment arrived. As instructed, I presented myself almost exactly on time and rang the bell, anxiously patting my pockets to check that none of the things I would normally carry in my bag had fallen out.
A masked assistant let me in, ushered me to a hand-gel dispenser and instructed me to take a disposable face mask from a pile by the door. Then I went to sit on one of the two chairs in the waiting room that weren’t blocked by social-distancing signs. A wait of ten or so minutes followed, during which another patient walked in, paid and was shown out.
My turn came soon after that. Once I was in the dentist’s chair, the appointment proceeded normally. My dentist checked my gums and dispensed advice in her usual calm and reassuring manner. If it weren’t for her protective visor, I might have believed that this was an appointment in the pre-coronavirus days.
When it was time to leave, however, a strange thing happened. Instead of showing me out, the dentist told me to stay where I was: according to an alert on her computer, reception was at capacity. We would have to wait until a patient left.
And so we stood, the dentist and I, making conversation about the pandemic. We both acknowledged what a strange period it had been. I shared some anecdotes about people I knew. She told me about some of the many restrictions governing her work, which meant that she was now only seeing around five patients a day, with the consulting room needing to be cleaned down after each session and vacated for a minimum of 90 minutes after she uses the drill. It made me feel a bit guilty that I was putting the staff to such trouble for what had turned out to be a minor matter.
My main feeling, however, was one of surprise. I was used to dentists being busy people. While mine is always pleasant, she is usually brisk. Yet here she was, killing time, waiting for the all-clear from reception.
Something had changed. Before the pandemic, as the practice employees whose time was most expensive, the dentists were the ones whose timetables dictated the flow of people. Now though, with safety concerns rivalling financial imperatives, a shift had taken place.
Person-facing interactions were at a premium all round and, with guidance specifying that there should be no more than two patients in the waiting room at a time, the receptionists’ workload had to be taken into account as never before. Now, the dentists also had to wait for the receptionists to finish their work.
Just as has been the case with cleaners, supermarket workers and many jobs that have traditionally been regarded as auxiliary in other sectors, at the dental practice, Covid-19 has altered the visibility and even influence of certain roles. These days, pay grade and skills level are no longer the sole determiners of who is kept waiting. For the moment, time is no longer purely money but safety too.
Hate crime in the age of coronavirus
This weekend, my family and I went to the zoo. My daughter’s at an age where she’s really starting to be interested in animals and it seemed like one of the lowest risk and least stressful attractions we could visit, given that, with the exception of two minutes at the ticket desk, the whole experience would take place outside.
In actual fact, it wasn’t as stress-free as I’d anticipated. Although visitor numbers were limited to help support social distancing and a one-way system was in place, bottlenecks around the most popular enclosures (particularly the gorillas’) meant that it was almost impossible not to pass close to people at certain points.
In addition, there was the issue that many of the animals (understandably) had gone on strike and remained inside their shelters while clusters of noisy humans peered through the bars outside, trying to get a glimpse of them. With several enclosures empty on account of Covid-19 travel restrictions, which meant that the creatures who had been expected to occupy them were stranded in other parts of the world, there were long stretches of walking with little to see.
Still, after four months of fairly limited exposure to new places and experiences, it was pleasurable to go somewhere different. With a relative dearth of animals to observe, we turned our attention to people watching.
The thing that struck us all first was how strange it felt to be among crowds after months of minimal contact with other humans. ‘It’s very noisy when people talk to each other,’ said my daughter and she was right: when we approached one of the major picnic areas, the sound of multiple human voices rumbled and buzzed much more loudly than I was used to, putting me in mind of a giant swarm of bees.
The most memorable encounter with human beings in the wild, however, happened towards the end of our visit. Walking behind another family group, my husband and I were taken aback when the father in front leaned over to tell a woman he was passing: ‘Speak in English!’
The woman, who I think had been speaking Italian, was extremely quick-witted and broke off her conversation to call over her shoulder: ‘If I want!’ This clearly riled the already angry man in front, who let fly a volley of obscene abuse, focused on the foreignness, cleanliness and femaleness of the woman.
Luckily, by this stage, the one-way system had swept him far enough that it’s unlikely the target of his hatred heard what he had to say – although his initial comment about the language she was speaking had made his contempt for her plain.
Walking a few metres behind him, my husband and I found ourselves at a loss. I’m a great believer in the importance of challenging prejudice and supporting those who experience it. I agree with the many eloquent appeals that have been made in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests stating that silence is complicity when it comes to discrimination. Yet, in that moment, I was struck dumb.
Talking about it afterwards, we realised there were several factors at play. The first had to do with the extreme aggression of the man, who, judging by his body language was spoiling for a fight. Tackling him with our three-year-old in tow carried some risks.
The second was caused partly by the Covid-19 restrictions. Because the one-way system meant that the victim was already out of earshot by the time it would have been possible to challenge the man, much of the point of acting in that moment was lost. There would have been no way of communicating to her that someone cared that she had been abused and was trying to do something about it.
The third reason had to do with shock. In the moment of the attack and for some minutes afterwards, our brains were jammed. Disbelief made it impossible to think clearly. Although I have heard and read plenty of reports of xenophobic incidents in the UK, particularly in the wake of the Brexit referendum, I cannot remember the last time I witnessed such behaviour firsthand. I knew but had not felt the reality of it.
The experience was a violent one. In a strange way, my brain responded almost as if I were also a victim of the man’s aggression. On some level, it was as though he had assaulted my understanding of the world I inhabit. (Sadly, I suspect the woman he verbally attacked was a lot more familiar with such exchanges – and that this was one of the reasons she was so quick to react.)
We both felt uncomfortable about our failure to do anything and so, once we got home, my husband reported the incident to the police. It was unclear from the online form whether the event would be treated as a hate crime – the question relating to this focused on race and ethnicity, which weren’t at issue here. However, as my husband argued, the abuse was centred on the woman’s foreignness and difference. It was hate as far as those were concerned.
I doubt much will come of this. Probably the details of the incident will be logged and filed away. Maybe it will become part of a statistic wheeled out for people like me to shake their heads at in news articles now and again. I suspect it won’t do anything to make that woman feel more welcome in this country or that man any less likely to lash out.
Still, it has taught me this: the mental bandwidth that navigating the changed world of the pandemic requires makes it harder than ever to watch out for and protect the rights of others. The pressure that we are all under means that it is vital to have responses ready if and when prejudice rears its ugly head. I have got some thinking to do.
* Photo changed in response to concerns about racial connotations in the original image.
Broadcasting Covid-19 style
I’m lucky enough to have appeared on BBC Radio 4’s literary-discussion programme Open Book several times.
My first two appearances, coinciding with the publication of my non-fiction book Reading the World and debut novel Beside Myself, were exciting affairs. They involved a trip to Broadcasting House in central London, friendly off-mike discussions with star presenters Mariella Frostrup and Alex Clark, truckloads of wires and microphones, and a gaggle of talented producers and assistants running around to make sure everything was just so.
This week sees the broadcast of my third appearance on the show. This time the recording experience was rather different.
Instead of travelling to central London, I was in my living room, hunched in an armchair as close to the wireless router as I could get to try to ensure optimal signal strength. Rather than acres of expensive soundproofing, my noise-reduction techniques consisted of asking my husband and daughter to go out, and texting the neighbours to see if they might be able to hold off music practice for an hour. Instead of an army of technically savvy studio bods, there was only me and a recorded message being piped through my laptop telling me that I was connected to the BBC and that someone would be with me shortly.
My desk this time was my knees. And my microphone was a piece of kit I’d brought cheaply over the internet after the one built into my laptop failed.
Eventually, producer Kirsten came on the line, followed by the host Elizabeth Day and fellow guest Max Liu. We attempted the usual friendly pre-recording chat, but not being able to see one another and the slight challenge of microphones being faded in and out made it tricky to talk as effortlessly as we might have had we all been in the same room.
Then the recording started. Elizabeth Day was exceptionally professional and, after introducing the topic of travel writing, ably led us through the discussion, directing questions evenhandedly. Once again, not being in the same room meant that it was difficult to bounce off one another, giving the segment a slightly more formal, stage-managed feel than it might otherwise have had. I also found that I had to make a conscious decision to shut out my domestic surroundings in order to attain the heightened focus that being in the studio would have given me.
This was particularly the case when I discovered, mid-session, that the producers wanted to hear an extract from one of the books I had mentioned and I had to read it out unrehearsed. (Luckily, I had brought the copy down with me from my writing room.)
Nevertheless, we got through it without major disasters. In fact, it was fun. I was intrigued to hear Max Liu’s thoughts on the titles he had chosen, in particular, Johnny Pitts’s excellent travel memoir Afropean.
When I listened to the first broadcast on Sunday, I was pretty happy with the result: I don’t think it’s possible to tell that I was crouched over my laptop, crossing my fingers that no-one next door would start playing the piano or drums.
The programme repeats this afternoon at 3.30pm (UK time) and is available online, so if you’re interested, you can check it out and decide for yourself…