Strange things have been happening to time, these past few months. When the UK went into lockdown on 23 March, it felt in many ways as though life had ground to a halt. Projects were postponed; plans were left hanging. Three weddings I was meant to attend were put off – two of them until roughly the same dates in 2021, almost as if 2020 itself had ceased to exist.
For those of us confined to our houses over the ensuing weeks, time has warped and bent in odd ways. For many, there is much more of it than we were used to – time to clear out cupboards and undertake long overdue DIY tasks, afternoons that seem to stretch as endlessly as they did in childhood. Finding myself in sole charge of my young daughter half the week, instead of the one day that was my usual pattern before lockdown, I often have to dig deep to think of ways to fill the hours productively and creatively.
But for many there is also not enough time. Not enough time alone. Not enough time away from screens. Not enough time for work. This has been my experience too – with far fewer hours in my writing room than I am used to, there is a frenetic intensity to my work periods as I scramble to achieve everything necessary, often returning to my desk in the evenings after my daughter has gone to sleep.
Meanwhile, the material coming into the house through the radio and television reveals other temporal cracks. There is the Groundhog Day effect of the government briefings – broadcast daily at around 5pm – which often sound interchangeable. Blasts from the past have come in the form of bygone episodes from popular soap operas such as BBC Radio 4’s The Archers, which went through a period of falling back on archive material before its production process was reinvented to meet social-distancing guidelines. In the absence of live sport, TV networks show footage from previous tournaments – including England’s 1966 World Cup final victory, broadcast on Channel 4 this weekend. In addition, publications run reviews of theatre productions from previous years, film versions of which have been made available for download.
In the past two weeks, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police in the US has introduced another layer into this year’s unusual relationship with time. Social media timelines are full of people looking back on history with fresh eyes and reframing stories they thought they knew in light of recent events. Even the fabric of our past is changing, with protesters pulling down statues of figures who championed racial discrimination and profited from the slave trade.
In amongst all this, it can appear as though time itself might be broken. And yet, of course, even in 2020, the earth keeps turning. Babies continue to be born. Spring moves to summer and the plums fatten on the tree in my garden.
Interminable though this period seems now, it is, in fact, a short spell. A flicker on the rolling film reel of human experience. Momentous and earth-shattering as it feels, it will, in all likelihood, one day, slot neatly enough into the chronological account people will tell one another when they try to explain how they got to where they are.