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.
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.
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.
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…
I’m not immune. Yesterday, prompted by a sunny walk and a lightheartedness that stems at least in part from the increased headspace that resuming childcare has afforded us, my husband and I started discussing the possibility of taking a holiday. Given our proximity to the Channel Tunnel and France, to which we have been known to pop for lunch in less complicated times, it was tempting to look into options for escaping abroad, if only for a little while.
In the end, this was a bridge too far for me. However, we did decide to explore the possibility of going away for a night or two somewhere local, possibly repurposing a birthday mini-break that got cancelled because of lockdown.
Such impulsiveness is unusual for me. Given that my diary is usually booked up several months in advance, and the fact that we have been largely housebound since lockdown began, it felt odd to be entertaining the possibility of disappearing somewhere at such short notice.
I also found myself wondering whether it was wise: the latest figures show that infection rates are ceasing to fall in the UK and my district of Folkestone & Hythe is listed in the top twenty areas in the country most at risk of a local lockdown. Was it foolish to be contemplating any unnecessary activities when things seem so finely balanced and, according to many commentators, a second wave looks almost inevitable? Or was my caution too great, given that recent days have brought news of numerous acquaintances testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies (showing that they have had the infection at some point) despite the fact they have little or no memory of being unwell?
Was I, as a person in a low-risk group, foolish not to take advantage of what might turn out to be a very brief window of opportunity to escape the soft form of house arrest under which most of us have lived since March? Or was I selfish and irresponsible to entertain the possibility of doing anything that might increase the spread of the virus, even if I was acting within the law and adhering to social distancing?
I don’t have definitive answers to these questions. Perhaps time will provide them. Or perhaps science and future histories of this period will reveal truths about the way the virus and society work that show up the folly of many of the choices we make in these strange days.
In the meantime, however, I still have to occupy this body and live inside this head. Over the past few months, like many of us, I have had to manage exhaustion, cabin fever, anxiety and the shrinkage and atrophy that starts to set in when skills go unused and the orbit of a person is restricted. Unlike those future commentators looking back on our choices in full knowledge of how this crisis played out, we have to live coronavirus from the inside and do our best to feel comfortable in our own skin, maintain our mental health and keep our stamina up for what may lie ahead.
Yesterday, I had to go to the bank. It was the first time I’d walked through the centre of Folkestone since the lockdown rules relaxed on Saturday, allowing pubs, restaurants and hairdressers (among others) to resume trading, and I was intrigued to see what I would find.
At first glance, you could have been forgiven for thinking that it was business as usual. The Old High Street, a narrow, cobbled thoroughfare lined with independent shops, galleries and eateries, was as about as busy as you’d expect on a dull July day. Many of the shops had their boards out as they would have done any other year.
It was only when you got closer and read the messages about social-distancing measures chalked up outside or sellotaped onto their windows that the reality of how things have changed became clear.
The same was true of the restaurants. My heart leapt to see that my favourite café, Steep Street Coffee House, a book-lined oasis halfway up the hill that does a mean blueberry cake, was open once more. A glance inside, however, revealed that all was not as I remembered: the place was a maze of Perspex screens, while the friendly staff were sporting heavy-duty PPE visors. It was a similar story at neighbouring Marleys, where diner-style booth dividers had been installed between each table.
This uncanny sense of everything at once being the same and yet different also prevailed in the modern pedestrianised zone. At first glance, the crowds of shoppers looked much as they would any other year – with few wearing face masks and some veering ill-advisedly close to one another, whether from complacency, absentmindedness or forgetfulness.
The queues outside the shops, however, punctured the illusion of pre-pandemic normalcy. With markers taped onto the pavement at 2m intervals and restrictions on the number of customers allowed to be in stores at any one time, the precinct seemed to be filled with lines of people waiting for invisible buses.
This gave rise to a fresh set of problems. While intended to maintain social distancing, many of these queues were making it difficult for pedestrians to keep 2m from one another: although some businesses had chosen to tuck their entry lines along their front windows, many had opted to have them running straight out from their entrances. This had the result that, when four or five people were waiting, those passing along the pavement sometimes had no option but to walk between customers standing 2m apart in a queue.
I was clearly not the only one alive to the ridiculous aspects of the situation. The woman who came to let me into the bank was quick to make jokes about her struggles with the automatic door, while the man helping me operate the paying-in machine (which, during the pandemic, has permanently replaced the counter staff), went out of his way to be jolly, regardless of the fact that my smile was hidden by my face mask.
We were all in this together, the underlying message seemed to be. Yes, there were some challenges and mistakes would be made, but – dear, funny, awkward beings that we were – we would make it through and get on with a way of life that ultimately wouldn’t be that different from what we’d known pre-Covid-19.
It was tempting to believe it. Yet as I headed back down the Old High Street, a sobering email arrived on my phone. A performance that I’d been due to attend at Folkestone Quarterhouse in May, which had initially been rescheduled to October, was now cancelled for good. Normal life in all its forms wouldn’t be returning any time soon.
This week marks something of a watershed in our house: our childcare arrangements have resumed. After three and a half months of juggling work and toddler wrangling between us, my husband and I are able to return to our normal office hours.
The feeling is extraordinary. Suddenly, there is time to breathe. There is time to think. There is time to do a second post on this blog this week. Work on the second draft of my new novel, which for the past month has been restricted to two hours snatched at 5am before the rest of the household stirs, surges ahead. Instead of every grown-up conversation being flooded with logistics, we can afford to entertain non-essential matters once more.
This sense of a huge burden falling away makes me realise quite what a strain the lockdown period has been (and I say this in full knowledge that I am one of the lucky ones and that I suffer on an extremely high level compared to many at the moment). It also makes me realise how clueless I was about the ways in which it would affect me when this crisis began.
Back in March, prompted partly by a wave of media and social-media discussions about how people were going to fill the endless hours cooped up at home, I made a list of useful tasks I could accomplish while under a soft form of house arrest. Most of these remain unattempted, with the exception of the simple, practical tasks that could be tackled or even turned into a game with a toddler in the room.
For the truth is that, instead of expanding, time has contracted in this house over the past few months. While I did lose some client work over the period, what remained was more than I could manage in the time I had to devote to it, with the result that evenings and rare stretches when my daughter was distracted were all pressed into service in the interests of getting things done. In the most extreme period, I started work at 5am and finally switched off my laptop at around 9pm.
The hours weren’t the main issue, however. I’m used to long workdays. Back during my year reading a book from every country in the world, such a schedule was par for the course. The difference this time was that, instead of choosing to impose such a punishing routine on myself, I was obliged to adopt it because of circumstances beyond my control. After 12 years of being my own boss, this was hard to take. And it’s only now, as I sit in my writing room with the day stretching out in front of me, that I am beginning to realise quite the toll it took.
That’s not to say that the past few months have been without their positives. There are things I will miss. Although I am already lucky to be able to spend more time with my daughter than parents who commute and work five days a week, it has been a privilege and a joy to have so many days with her. Looking after her for so long without access to many of the groups, facilities and entertainments that we are used to has expanded my resourcefulness and creativity as a parent: these last few months, the hoover has become a hungry beast liable to eat her toys if she doesn’t pick them up quickly enough; freak storms have erupted in the living room forcing us to scramble for cover; and we have learnt to look much more closely at the plants and creatures we pass on our cliff-top walks.
A lot of parents are still in this situation – still juggling work (or the stresses of worklessness) and childcare. For many with school-age children, the summer stretches ahead like a desert, coming on the back of nearly four months of having their kids at home. I can only imagine how tired they are.
Still, as the lockdown restrictions continue to ease, I have started to venture out in other ways. Last weekend, for the first time since March, my family and I left Folkestone together and went to a pick-your-own fruit farm near Deal, a place where, wandering down rows of heavy-laden cherry trees, social distancing was no issue.
Yesterday, we went on another adventure far from the madding crowd. This time, our object was St Thomas à Becket Church in Romney Marsh (pictured above). This historic building, the foundations of which date from around 1200 CE, has survived long after the disappearance of the village it used to serve and stands alone in a marshy field. Misty and waterlogged for much of the year, the landscape makes it easy to imagine Magwitch creeping through the marshes to accost Pip at the start of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations, which is set in these parts – indeed, the church was used as a location for the 2012 film adaptation.
In normal times, it’s possible to collect the key from the wall of a farmhouse some way down the road and let yourself in to look around. Covid-19 has put paid to that for now, but we were able to peer through the leaded windows and catch sight of the handsome box pews – perfect for socially distanced church services, as my husband pointed out.
As the wind whipped around the building, carrying the bleats of the sheep that roam freely across the grassland, it was possible to believe that we had dropped out of time. Daily life, other people, and the anxieties and stresses of the modern world seemed light years away.
Our isolation, however, was short-lived. As we picked our way back across the field, the next visitors were already letting themselves in at the gate. Another family seeking a trip out off the beaten track. Companions in the quest to be alone.
Situated on a T-junction, with only a few streets between it and the gusts of the English Channel, our house tends to get a lot of litter blown into its front garden. Over the time we have lived here, I have got used to picking up crisp packets, drinks cans and chocolate wrappers that have careened down the road facing us to end up on our path.
In March, this changed. For a number of weeks after the UK went into lockdown, our garden remained fairly clear. With the exception of deposits from a few local cats (welcome in so far as they seem to be keeping at bay the rats that have apparently been invading homes in search of food as many restaurants and takeaways remain closed), there was little to tidy up.
This is no longer the case. As the government continues to relax restrictions and the national coronavirus threat level is reduced, the litter is back. It looks rather different, however. Although wrappers and cans still feature, they no longer dominate. Instead, discarded face masks are the item I most frequently find myself picking up. (By the sound of it, east Folkestone is by no means unusual in this respect: one environmentalist has claimed that there could soon be more face masks than jellyfish in the Mediterranean.)
Interestingly, after several months of being confined largely at home, old habits seem to be returning. Whether consciously or not, a significant swathe of the population has reverted to the practice of dropping objects they no longer need on the pavement.
Unprecedented though it may have been, lockdown has not proved a significant enough disruption to rewire certain behaviours: now that they can get out and about once more, people are acting much as they always did. Although the profile of what they are discarding has shifted, the behaviour has remained the same.
Odd though it sounds, it strikes me that there is cause for hope here: human nature is resilient and old habits die hard; it may be that we lose less about the way we used to live than seemed inevitable when country after country shut down earlier this year.
But, of course, there is also cause for pessimism in this renewed slew of rubbish: human nature is resilient and old habits die hard; it may be that we improve less about the way we used to live than seemed inevitable when country after country shut down earlier this year.
As some of the people on the other side of the sea a short walk from my front door might say, ‘Plus ça change.’
The past few days have brought a greater sense of variety and divergence to life here on the UK’s south coast. With different lockdown rules now applying to different groups of people (for example, single adults are now at liberty to form a bubble with another household, while those deemed clinically vulnerable are still advised to isolate) and non-essential shops reopening for business, it seems that the apparently universal nature of the Covid-19 restrictions in England is crumbling. (Of course, this was always something of an illusion, with wealth, safety, physical health, and employment and family circumstances having a huge impact on different people’s lockdown experiences.)
Now, while some rush out to the high streets once more, others stay cloistered at home; and while many are back to full-time work, others remain furloughed or find themselves unemployed with little idea what the future will bring. All the while, question marks remain over whether the easing of the lockdown will herald a sharp resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
In such circumstances, it’s easy to be judgmental when others’ choices don’t mirror our own. Social media today has been full of sniffy comments about the pictures of long queues outside clothes shops. I myself felt my lip begin to curl at the news that a number of Primarks had opened their doors early in an effort to deal with the crowds.
But, of course, as with most things in life, there’s much more to these choices than snapshots can convey. While it may be very easy for me to sit at home in my durable jeans and scorn those jostling for bargains in ‘non-essential’ shops, that luxury is probably not available to those on low incomes who, for several months, may have had to clothe their families without the help of charity shops. As I discovered a couple of months back, ‘essential’ can mean dramatically different things to different people.
Similarly, while I may bristle at the crowds flocking to the beaches here most weekends – making social distancing virtually impossible – I can’t know what it’s like to weather lockdown in a home without a garden or easy access to outdoor space. Among those sunning themselves and thronging around the few open seafront stalls, there are probably many who have spent weeks under extreme pressure. Who am I to judge that their passing momentarily close to their fellow pedestrians in pursuit of a 99 Flake ice-cream is so irresponsible as to cancel out the benefits of this brief taste of freedom?
A week or so ago, I met a man while out walking on the Harbour Arm. It was clear from the eagerness with which he engaged me in conversation that he was lonely. He lived on his own, he revealed, and, the previous weekend, he had seen his six-year-old granddaughter for the first time in three months. The plan had been for him to come for a socially distanced visit in his daughter’s garden and adhere to the government guidelines to keep 2m apart, but when he arrived he couldn’t resist his daughter’s offer to give the little girl a hug. ‘I melted,’ he told me with tears in his eyes.
The truth is, by this stage, most of the UK has probably broken lockdown guidelines one way or another. Whether we’ve passed too close to others on a narrow pavement, allowed visitors to our gardens into our houses to shelter from sudden downpours or looked after friends’ children in emergencies (and, by the way, I’ve done all of these), there can’t be many of us left who have adhered entirely to the – sometimes contradictory – instructions that issue every few days from No 10 Downing Street.
As time goes on – unless and until a second wave of infections builds – it seems likely that this pluralism of interpretation of government guidance will increase, with more and more of us tailoring our behaviour according to our circumstances, needs and risk.
In this respect, we are perhaps making the same accommodation with the lockdown guidelines as we make with the law in general, with each person demonstrating varying degrees of compliance. For the truth is, few human beings live entirely within the law. Whether you break the speed limit on occasion, indulge in illegal substances now and then, carry a plank on the pavement or handle salmon in suspicious circumstances (yes, all these are technically illegal, along with a number of bizarre others, and, before you ask, no, I haven’t done all of them), few of us are entirely law-abiding. No matter how much we value the concept of the law, ignorance, impatience or sheer exasperation with it being ‘an ass’, as Dickens wrote in Oliver Twist, will almost certainly lead us to transgress at some point.
So where does that leave us as we emerge, at different rates and in different ways, from the extreme restrictions of the past few months? It’s hard to say. But I suspect many of us will have to get used to turning a blind eye, trying to see a little more kindly and agreeing to disagree.