First outing with a face mask

A few days ago, I put on a face mask for the first time. Although much of the rest of the world has been wearing them for weeks (and much longer than that in the case of some nations), here in the UK the habit has been slow to catch on.

The official advice has been against the use of face masks by members of the general public until relatively recently. Furthermore, there’s a certain cultural antipathy towards being seen to be making a fuss that perhaps makes Brits more reluctant than people in some other countries to adopt so conspicuous a measure. Although it has not been uncommon to see people wearing fabric over their mouths and noses in the last two months, the vast majority of those I encounter in and around my home town of Folkestone continue to go about bare faced.

When I’m outside, I’m the same. Careful to keep my distance and avoid busy places, I feel that a face mask is unlikely to add any significant further protection against the spread of Covid-19.

However, last week the government guidelines changed to state that people should aim to wear face coverings on public transport and in other situations where they might be unable to maintain 2m distance.

As a result, knowing that social distancing is impossible in the narrow aisles of my local convenience store, I took a face mask with me when I popped there to pick up some necessities a few days ago.

I felt rather self-conscious as I pulled up the snood at the entrance to the shop. As I predicted, I was the only one in the place wearing anything like it.

I was wrong, however, to imagine that this might trigger the resentment I have experienced and witnessed occasionally for trying to adhere to social-distancing rules. None of the five or six other shoppers expressed any disapproval at my decision to wear a face covering. Everyone went about their business quietly and considerately, doing their best to give one another space. After my initial awkwardness subsided, I even began to be thankful for the role the mask seemed to be playing in reminding me and others about the need to be careful (an interesting counter to the argument some commentators have advanced that masks might make wearers complacent about observing social distancing).

In fact, the most challenging thing was the limit the face mask placed on my ability to communicate. Used to smiling when I encounter people, I found myself hampered and cut off from those around me because of the fabric over my mouth. My usual facial signals were unreadable through the mask and so, instead of the general good-humoured glances I’m used to sharing in such situations, I found myself met with a procession of blank stares. (Although these may have been caused at least partly by the slightly mad effect pulling up the snood had on my hair!)

The experience was so odd that, in place of a smile, I found myself making a weak joke about having no plans to rob the shop when I got to the counter. ‘It’s all right, love,’ the cashier assured me wearily from behind her Perspex screen.

I came away feeling mildly embarrassed, as though by wearing the mask I had committed some minor faux-pas. Still, I resolved that I would continue to make use of them in similar situations: although it was awkward to feel that I might be making a spectacle of myself and unpleasant to be unable to interact as I normally would, the mounting evidence to show the role such coverings can play in limiting virus transmission at close range surely makes them worth a cringe or two.


Them and us

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK © Tim Dennell on

Yesterday marked the beginning of new measures in England (although not in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) aimed at starting to open up society in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown.

The new guidelines are set out in a 50-page document. Broadly, however, the main headlines have been the idea that those living in England can now take ‘unlimited exercise’ (including driving as far they like to do this), visit garden centres, meet one member of another household outside (so long as social distancing is maintained) and sit down in parks. There has also been a shift in emphasis to encourage those unable to work from home to return to work.

On the face of it, the changes seem relatively small. Their impact, however, has been significant. Controversy has broken out over apparent inconsistencies in the guidelines, which if taken to extremes, mean that it is possible to drive 500 miles for a walk and employ a cleaner in your home but not to see both your parents at once (if they don’t live with you). There have been angry debates and witty retorts, with some wags suggesting one way round the issue might be to employ your relatives as domestic staff.

There have also been more troubling repercussions. For some, the change in policy has provided an opportunity to push other agendas. The UK Freedom Movement, which (although claiming to be politically neutral) campaigns against hate-crime laws and in support of far-right activists such as English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, has capitalised on the growing frustration with lockdown restrictions to propose a series of illegal mass gatherings this weekend, including here in Folkestone.

But perhaps the most serious issue is the fresh divisions the guidelines have introduced. This is true as much on a personal level as it is between the four nations of the union. Instead of all labouring under one relatively simple instruction – to stay at home – we are now on a series of different trajectories, with certain groups of people obliged to take much greater risks in the interests of easing the lockdown.

Although the guidelines state that workplaces should be set up to enable social distancing and people are advised to avoid using public transport, it is widely acknowledged that this is impractical in many situations. As reports from London yesterday showed, simply travelling to a place of employment is forcing many to endure conditions in which it is impossible not to come into close contact with others.

Of course, the notion that we were all in this together was always problematic. Lockdown has affected people very differently depending on their material circumstances. Factors such as whether you have a garden, have children, are a key worker, are at risk of domestic abuse, are able to work from home or have lost income will have had a dramatic effect on your experience of the last eight weeks.

Still, as of yesterday, those distinctions have sharpened. It is now the case that many more people are being encouraged (and in some cases, depending on the attitude of their employers, required) to risk their safety in order to return to work at a time when the death rate is still twice what it was when lockdown began and when there is no information on the level of Covid-19 immunity in the general population. Because a lot of those unable to work from home will be in manual jobs, this means that the burden falls most heavily on people in the least well paid and most precarious positions. Meanwhile, those of us lucky enough to be able to work remotely continue to be insulated from the worst risks.

Cynics might say that ’twas ever thus. Crises always hit the most vulnerable hardest. That is just the way of the world.

Perhaps so. But it is still rather shaming to watch.


A shift in mood

Please Believe These Days Will Pass – Coronavirus (COVID-19) Sheffield, UK © Tim Dennell on

Last night, the UK prime minister addressed the nation, setting out plans for the next phase of the Covid-19 lockdown. Although little is set to change immediately, the speech proved controversial in many quarters, with the leaders of the UK’s three devolved legislatures, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, all refusing to adopt the new government messaging: ‘Stay alert; control the virus; save lives’ (a shift from the previous ‘Stay home; protect the NHS; save lives’).

Elsewhere, people criticised the statement for putting pressure on the poorer members of society by encouraging those unable to work remotely to return to their jobs – an injunction most likely to affect those in less well-paid, manual employment. Others highlighted the ambiguity and apparent inconsistency of much of what was said, with people being encouraged to take ‘unlimited exercise’ and even drive long distances to beauty spots while still being unable to see relatives and friends.

After the statement aired, the internet was awash with angry and sarcastic comments – a contrast to the Blitz-spirit tone that dominated in the early weeks of the pandemic.

From where I was sitting in my living room in Folkestone, two things seemed clear. The first was that there was a number of very legitimate reasons for people’s fury at the prime minister’s words. The second was that the speech was not the sole cause of the outpouring of frustration and vitriol.

The truth is that the mood has been shifting over the last week. For all the nostalgia and sentiment surrounding VE Day and the Queen’s claims that Britain’s empty streets are ‘filled with love’, tensions have been creeping in.

In addition to a noticeable increase in traffic and footfall, which suggests that many are no longer observing the guidelines as strictly as they were because of ‘lockdown fatigue’, there seems to have been a rise in altercations between strangers. These have been caused both by those expressing anger at people flouting social-distancing rules and those attacking others for being too cautious. (My own experience includes a pedestrian accusing me of being ‘frightened you’re going to get too close’ when I stepped aside to allow her to pass 2m from me, and a general awareness that I have much less patience with those I perceive to be hogging space and making it difficult for others to keep apart.)

These episodes are, in many ways, similar to instances of road rage – explosions of emotions that have been building over time and are generally only loosely linked to the trigger incident. We have all been under considerable stress for more than seven weeks now and the strain is becoming hard to contain.

This is compounded by the fact that the situation is unlikely to change materially any time soon. As reports drift across the English Channel of many European nations beginning to open up and return to normal, we in the UK continue to record hundreds of deaths each day.

In the face of this, the carrot of phased school reopenings and parts of the hospitality industry being allowed to resume trading some time in the next two months (presented by the prime minister with a series of Clip Art-style images and a sliding scale of risk that, as a number of wits observed on Twitter last night, bears an uncanny resemblance to the Nando’s flavour chart) looks rather forlorn.

‘Save lives,’ the government continues to urge as the current situation becomes increasingly unlivable. ‘Stay alert,’ it instructs a population wearied after two months of navigating changes to and curtailments of almost every element of public life. No wonder people are fed up.

VE Day

Victory celebrations unknown street © Hammersmith and Fulham Council on

Today marks 75 years since the victory of the allied forces in Europe against Hitler. In the UK, it was to have been a day of mass celebration, parades and street parties, with the early May bank holiday moved from Monday to today to allow people to get out and party.

The Covid-19 pandemic means the reality is rather different. Instead of physical gatherings, there will be small-scale, individual commemorations and virtual parades. The last major milestone in living history since that momentous series of events that changed the course of world history all those decades ago will pass quietly and bear little resemblance to the raucous celebrations of 8 May 1945.

I’ve written before about the problem with the wartime rhetoric deployed to get people behind the lockdown in the early days of the pandemic (interestingly, that is now shifting to tendency to belittle and infantilise the public, with talk of ‘weaning’ people off the coronavirus government support and claims from some quarters that the population was ‘a little too willing to stay at home’; instead of heroic stoics who are all in this together and are praised for our resoluteness by the Queen, we are becoming workshy infants who need to be taught not to depend on the state).

Today, however, the parallels with those who lived through the Second World War and those enduring the lockdown are foremost in my mind. For all the differences between that time and this, it strikes me that there is one major thing that the people of that time and those living today have in common: we have all seen how quickly everything we take for granted can change.

This is not news to many people: every hour visits this realisation upon certain individuals. Those whose loved ones die suddenly or suffer tragic accidents or lose everything through chance events experience the truth of this. And of course, there are millions of people living in other parts of the world who have much more recently experienced the abrupt break with everything they know that comes in the wake of natural disasters, political upheaval and war.

But in this country, at least since the Industrial Revolution, it has been relatively rare for all the structures we have been used to to be dismantled, rendered redundant or mothballed in a matter of days.

For the first four decades of my life, societal change has been a gradual, creeping thing. Often, it has been so imperceptible that it is only apparent when you look back at footage and photographs, and marvel at the haircuts, fashions and outsize mobile phones. Even momentous shifts – the coming of the internet, the banking crisis, Brexit – unfolded at a comparatively leisurely pace and did not shatter the way we do things overnight. In general terms, the measure of someone born when I was was bound up with technical, nerdy details, such as whether you know what a cassette tape is or how to work a rotary dial.

All that’s different now. Those of us who live through this crisis and eventually, hopefully, come out the other side, will have seen our reality abruptly changed. Like many of those who woke up on 9 May 1945, sore-headed and bleary-eyed with bunting littering the streets, we will have to ask ourselves, what’s next?



Are eye-contact rules changing?

Eyes © Anderson Mancini on

When I was studying English literature at university some twenty years ago, I took an optional module called ‘Varieties of English’. Looking at some of the many different forms of my mother tongue around the globe, it explored communication in numerous guises, touching on everything from swearing to body language.

I don’t remember much about those sessions now. One thing that did stick with me, however, was an observation about varying norms for the use of eye contact during conversations in different regions. In the UK, the lecturer explained, standard practice was for the listener to look fairly constantly at the person speaking, while the speaker looked around the room returning every few seconds to make brief eye contact.

If we Brits found ourselves talking to someone who didn’t look at us enough when we were speaking, we were likely to feel ignored. By contrast, if we entered into conversation with someone who looked at us all the time, we could feel rather uncomfortable (this, the lecturer suggested, could be one reason for the cliched British perception that, for example, Germans are serious and intense: in Germany, the unwritten eye-contact rules specified much more direct eye contact from speakers).

In the early weeks of the UK lockdown, I saw a number of posts on social media lamenting the absence of eye contact between strangers in the street. Many of us, it seemed, were playing the Londoner’s trick (observable in every packed Tube carriage once upon a time) of trying to make everyone else disappear by refusing to acknowledge their existence. (On the flip-side, I have to say I also observed an upswing in the number of friendly smiles I got while out running – possibly as a result of my own conscious efforts to buck the eye-contact self-isolation trend).

As the lockdown passes into a medium-term proposition, however, more changes in the way we look at one another seem to be afoot. With many verbal communications with those outside our households now taking place over video call, new patterns in the way we talk to one another are setting in. We are getting more used to contending with lapses in signal and the occasional pixellated image. It is becoming mundane to glimpse the interiors of co-workers’ and acquaintances’ homes. But perhaps most significantly of all, we are making a habit of talking at length with people who don’t make eye contact with us.

It would feel highly unnatural for most of us to stare into the camera when we listen. Instead, we tend to watch the screen with the result that, when the person talking checks in for the eye contact they would expect in a face-to-face conversation, they are confronted with an image of someone looking down or off to the side – traditionally (in the UK, at least) a sign that the listener is being rude, shifty or not paying attention.

It makes me wonder what impact this adjustment in communication mores will have if and when we are able to step out from behind our screens and interact in person once more. Will this new set of protocols remain in the virtual world or will it seep into real-life discourse? Will those of us used to talking to people who don’t seem to be looking at us find ourselves cowed and disconcerted when our interlocutors turn their gazes on us once more? Will the strangeness that I’m sure many of us will feel when we eventually see our friends and family face to face be exacerbated by an unpreparedness to meet one another’s eyes?




The point of no return

When I was growing up, I loved performing in shows. Musicals, comedies, revues and straight plays; angsty contemporary dramas in small rooms and massive extravaganzas. I put myself forward for them all (including Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’, from which the song featured above comes).

I loved the buzz of the rehearsal room, the discipline of learning lines and actions, and the closeness that came from spending so many hours with a particular group of people, all working towards the same goal.

After the curtain came down on the final performance (in truth, there was rarely a curtain, but that was the way I thought of it – I took it all very seriously), there was always a period of flatness. As the weeks passed and my normal routine took over once more, I found myself wondering this: when would the day come where the cast could no longer get back together and perform the show straight off the bat? Would mistakes start to creep in after a week or two? Would most people be unable to remember their lines a month on? When was the point of no return?

I never put my finger on the answer (which would have varied from venture to venture in any case). But I do remember, every so often, having a sad certainty some while after a show had finished that the point of being able to revive the project was past. A day would come where I would know that there was no way we could all resume our marks and deliver our lines without help. The play had got away from us. It was well and truly over.

Similar thoughts (albeit on a rather different scale) have been drifting through my mind recently. In the last week, as many European countries have begun to announce a cautious easing of restrictions, the conversation in the UK has shifted in the other direction. The deadline for coming out of lockdown in any meaningful way seems to be moving further and further into the future. First it was likely to be in May, then June. Now, people are setting their sights on the autumn for some sort of resumption of normality, with others looking even further ahead – on the radio yesterday, I heard a pub landlord arguing that those in the hospitality industry ought to receive government support to see them through the next nine months. Boris Johnson’s claim that we could ‘send coronavirus packing’ in 12 weeks feels like a statement from another age.

With this shift in timeframe, a new realisation is sinking in. When lockdown measures are finally lifted, the UK won’t be returning to life as it was, so much as moving on to something new. If society remains frozen for months, a point will come – impossible to say exactly when – when it will be inconceivable for those of us who survive the pandemic to resume our places and go on with the show just as before. The props will no longer be where we need them. The lines won’t come to mind and there will be significant gaps in the company.

If this happens, there will be sad losses. Beautiful and valuable things will fall away. Some people will never recover the prospects they had before Covid-19 struck.

But there will also be fresh opportunities. In time, a new project will take the place of the old. The rehearsal room will buzz with activity once more. And perhaps, in the long run, it will turn out to be better.

Post updated on 30/04/2020 to include the video of ‘Ladies who Lunch’.

Living in the eye of the storm

Hurricane Jeanne by kakela on

In recent days, I have received a number of anxious messages from friends and professional contacts in other parts of the world. How are we managing in the UK? they ask. Am I coping all right? Are things as bad as they sound?

Their concern is understandable. The official UK coronavirus death toll now stands at more than 20,000 (although the numbers of unrecorded deaths and deaths of people suffering from other conditions who have not received or sought the treatment they would usually get because of the pandemic are probably much higher). It’s possible that we could turn out to be the worst affected country in Europe by the time the peak has passed. What’s more, international press reports have been full of questions and criticisms about UK government policy.

These things are, of course, troubling and – for those directly affected by the disease, stripped of their livelihoods or locked down in dangerous, deprived or abusive situations – these are terrible times. All the same, the truth is that, for me, life is not too bad. Things are a little dull and it’s frustrating not to be able to go and do all the things I’d like, but I am lucky to have a comfortable home and a family I love being with. In addition, although childcare issues mean my time for work is squeezed, I am able to continue researching my next book much as I would have done before Covid-19 hit.

While the cumulative effects of what we’re living through are massive and will no doubt change society in many respects for good, my personal, day-to-day experience of this crisis is fairly humdrum. Although the storm may appear to rage furiously from a distance, at the eye in the centre, everything is calm.

All of which can make me struggle to know how to respond to my international friends’ concern. Their consternation provokes in me an odd, tearing sensation that comes from knowing my experience does not match up with what they expect. I am faced with a choice of either talking in general terms about the terrible situation or else contradicting them and downplaying their claims.

The experience reminds me a little of a German exchange I went on in the early 1990s at the age of 12. As part of our introduction to our exchange partners, the teacher at the school in Offenburg asked the British students to stand at the front of the class and answer questions about life in the UK.

There were the usual mentions of red buses and black taxis and the Tower of London. What I hadn’t been expecting, however, was the number of questions about what it was like living with IRA attacks. Were we scared to go out? Was it dangerous in London? Did we feel safe travelling to school?

Standing in that classroom, I realised something shocking: to those shy and polite Gymnasium students who were looking at the UK from the outside, my home country appeared rather different  to the reality I believed myself to be living. Sure, I’d heard an explosion once and there had been a hoax call to our school on one occasion that had obliged us all to sit in the playground for a couple of hours while the building was searched for bombs, but other than that the Northern Irish Troubles hadn’t affected my life at all (perhaps my response would have been different if I had grown up in Belfast).

Yet my German peers believed that I must have been profoundly influenced by every event they had seen reported. To them, my classmates and I were personifications of everything they had heard about the UK.

The Covid-19 pandemic has reminded me of this human tendency to project all that we know about a situation onto someone nominally connected to it. When we look at news events or key moments in history, we imagine living every strand of that experience and running the full gamut of emotions such momentous happenings demand.

In reality, however, we individual humans are too tiny and too tied to our specific circumstances to inhabit all aspects of a massive, multi-layered crisis. Tragedy may be striking all around us and the very foundations of society might be trembling, and yet we may be going on quietly with mundane concerns, cooking dinner, pairing socks and writing birthday cards. Just as there were probably people who were bored during the Blitz and Londoners who sat twiddling their thumbs while the bubonic plague ran rife, so there will no doubt be plenty of people in the pandemic’s worst-hit regions who will pass through this period largely untroubled. Collective significance and personal experience are often two very different things.

Five things that have changed in a month

Wichtiger Tag rot markiert auf Kalender © Marco Verch on

So here we are: exactly one calendar month since the UK woke up for its first full day under coronavirus lockdown. To mark this milestone, here is a list of five things that have become normal in that time:

  1. Being grateful to supermarkets Although the rush of the early days of the lockdown has subsided as shoppers have adapted to the new rhythms of life and supermarkets have adjusted their ordering and restocking accordingly, shopping is a very different experience these days. The power balance has shifted. After several years of price wars and falling profits, supermarkets have a great deal more control than they did six weeks ago. The shopping bills have risen; we accept gaps on the shelves without complaint; and, instead of offers designed to tempt us into buying more, our shopping trips are punctuated with Tannoy announcements trumpeting what the business is doing to ‘feed the nation’ (although in many cases this still doesn’t involve providing staff with adequate protective measures).
  2. Suspending disbelief for realist, contemporary novels, soap operas, films and TV dramas The purpose of drama, Hamlet tells the travelling players in Act III, scene 2 of the play that bears his name, is to:

    ‘hold, as ’twere, the
    mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
    scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
    the time his form and pressure.’

    This is very much not happening now (and, judging by the uncertainty surrounding publishing, may not do so for a while). Characters in novels and on screen do lots of wildly unrealistic things. They hug people they meet in the street. They gather in crowded bars. They travel on public transport. They sit down in parks. When we attempt to lose ourselves in these stories, our brains now have to perform an unconscious conjuring trick, swapping one reality for another to overcome the cognitive dissonance that stems from seeing what is supposed to be our world functioning very differently. This has presented profound problems for many writers I know, who have seen their realist works in progress transform into outlandish fantasies overnight.

  3. Raising money for nationally funded institutions Few people in the UK won’t have heard of Captain Tom Moore, the determined and charming 99-year-old Second World War veteran who walked laps of his garden to drum up what ended up being more than £23m for the NHS. It is, of course, a marvellous effort. However, all the media furore, calls for a knighthood for the good captain and copycat ventures are drowning out an uncomfortable truth: the National Health Service is a centrally funded organisation (the clue is in the name). A month ago, the idea of private individuals fundraising for it would have been absurd. That we now accept and celebrate this concept shows a shift towards accepting the idea that the government may not be solely responsible for supporting it. If we’re not careful, this could stop us holding politicians to account, in much the same way that the well-intentioned #ClapforCarers movement risks glorifying the inadequacies of the protection given to workers on healthcare’s frontline.
  4. Getting excited about seeing a plane The skies are so quiet now that when a plane flies over it feels like an event. The sharp reduction in air travel (as well as in the number of cars on the road) has already had a dramatic impact on pollution levels in many places. It’s clear that there will have to be careful thought about how much we ought to be flying when this crisis is over. Still, when a plane passes overhead, I now find myself feeling the same prick of excitement that I did as a child in the playground, stopping to wave as Concorde roared past.
  5. Speaking to our neighbours Before lockdown, we knew one of the families whose gardens adjoin ours. Now we’re on regular speaking terms with three. We have exchanged news, shared advice, thrown balls back, commiserated over minor frustrations and chuckled about some of the sillier aspects of what we’re living through over the garden wall. From what I hear from friends in other parts of the country, this experience is part of a pattern that many are noticing. This new-found neighbourliness has to be one of the most positive aspects of the way in which this crisis is changing our society. I hope this is something that will persist when we come out the other side.

The need to be seen to be doing things (or please click like)

Social Media Logos © BrickinNick on

Since social-distancing measures came into effect in the UK in March, my timelines have been full of impressive things. There have been countless pictures of homemade sourdough loaves, lovingly tended gardens and impressive craft projects, and films of exquisite musical performances.

There have also been a whole host of pledges, promises and statements of intent. These have included people resolving to spend the lockdown learning a new language, pictures of towering stacks of books that will be consumed in the coming weeks, and discussions about the best apps for those keen to get into running, cycling or one of the other government-sanctioned modes of exercise for which we are still permitted to leave our homes.

Judging from my newsfeed, we are all using this time at home furiously productively. (And I’m hardly one to talk: I started this blog shortly before the lockdown came into force and have been sharing the posts with the best of them.)

Not everyone approves of this very public flurry of productivity. Already, I have seen a number of articles criticising this trend and emphasising that there is no need to spend the lockdown doing anything other than getting from one day to the next. It is, after all, an exercise in survival and if that’s all you manage by the time you get to the end of it, then you have won.

These are fair points and yet I can’t help wondering if these protests quite get to the heart of the issue. Maybe what makes many of us uneasy about the wave of proactivity that has engulfed the virtual world in the early weeks of the pandemic is not the things that other people are doing but the impulse to broadcast them.

In recent years, there has been a lot written about the negative impact of social media. The picture-perfect snapshots of our lives we tend to share online have been acknowledged to be inaccurate and anxiety-inducing, presenting an idealised image that reflects no-one’s reality. Encouraging us to compare our insides with others’ outsides, relentlessly sunny and self-congratulatory social-media posts can engender feelings of inadequacy and insecurity in those who see them. At a time when most of our contact with those outside our households takes place online, this problem has the potential to be particularly acute.

Yet, although social media is relatively new-fangled, the issue is not. Human beings have been uncomfortable with others trumpeting their abilities and achievements for millennia – centuries before the World Wide Web was a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. Global cultural heritage is thronged with characters disliked or made ridiculous for showing off – from the stock Scaramouche clown figure of the commedia dell’arte to Daffy Duck.

Jesus even mentioned the problem in his Sermon on the Mount. ‘When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward,’ he told his followers, before going on to advise them to practice piety ‘in secret’.

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I’m not sure it is necessarily hypocritical to advertise what you’re doing (even if it’s praying). Indeed, there can be some very positive things that come from publicising your attempt to achieve something. As I found in 2012, when I set out to read a book from every country in the world, the accountability that comes from knowing that others are following your progress can be a spur, urging you on to do more than you might have managed alone. In this respect, documenting a project online is somewhat akin to seeking sponsorship – you are asking others to buy into your effort in the hopes that their enthusiasm will keep you going when your willpower flags.

There is also great value in the exchange of ideas that often comes from sharing your experience. This is very much the case with this blog. Already, I have been delighted to receive messages and comments from people experiencing lockdown in a wide variety of places and situations. Your input has broadened, challenged and enriched my understanding of what we are living through in a way that would never have happened if I had simply recorded my thoughts in a private diary.

Of course, there are some less noble elements in the mix too. The narcissist in me gets a kick from seeing what I’ve written liked and shared. You reading this now will give me a thrill when I next log into my stats and see that the numbers have risen. As an author who sometimes has to wait years to see a project in print, my ego gets a boost from watching my work find an audience seconds after I hit publish.

Is this an attractive trait? No. Is it a human one? Most definitely. Is it a problem? I don’t think so – not unless seeking this affirmation becomes the main driver of what I’m doing.

And I suppose that’s really the point: if receiving praise is the sole motivation for a project, then it is a hollow undertaking. If the handsome sourdough loaves and deft artworks lighting up screens around the world are inspired purely by the thought of how many comments they’ll garner, then, presumably in much the same way as prayers uttered purely for show would appear to an omniscient deity, they have little value; the posts showcasing these achievements on social media are at best shallow and at worst toxic.

But if congratulations are a by-product of an earnestly intended effort to use time well and bring others along for the ride, then it surely doesn’t matter if the poster gets a little ego massage in addition to the satisfaction of having achieved what they set out to do. It may even be a very good thing at a time when many other opportunities to use our talents and have our work appreciated are on ice.

So go ahead – bake your loaves, weave your tapestries, learn your instrument. And please click like.

A new relationship with death?

Highgate © Andrew Gustar on

Years ago, when my other half was working there for several months, I spent a week in Malawi, in southern Africa. The visit was thrilling and challenging in equal measure: in my short time in the country, I was bombarded with new experiences, new foods, and assumptions and ways of living that were very different from my own.

There was too much to take in and process properly. One thing that struck and stayed with me, however, was the much closer proximity of death to everyday life. In this country of patchy healthcare provision, where an ambulance may or may not come if it is called and simple treatments are beyond the means of many, a lot of people had a very different relationship with risk.

Things that I was used to thinking of as carrying minimal danger could be life-threatening. Cuts and splinters, minor complications in pregnancy, common maladies – all these could spell disaster, even for fit, young adults. If you were unlucky, everyday pastimes could prove fatal.

When coronavirus arrived in the UK and social-distancing measures were introduced in March, I found myself thinking again about that Malawi trip. For the first time that I could remember, that sense of risk lurking in quotidian activities – going to the supermarket, passing someone in the street, running your hand along a metal railing in a park – was folded into British life. Looking out of my window, the empty streets assumed an eerie, menacing air, riddled with threat.

Of course, my previous perception of the safety of everyday life was part illusory. Death has always lurked in the background here. The wonders of modern medicine and the National Health Service notwithstanding, people continue to have a nasty habit of dying now and again. Although many of the maladies that ravaged previous generations can be vaccinated against or treated easily, heart attacks and strokes still swoop in to claim victims, cancer can still strike down a seemingly healthy person in a matter of weeks, suicide is a perennial issue, and there is always the chance that the number 37 bus might knock you down.

All the same, in recent decades, it has been possible for many people in the UK to live well into adulthood without experiencing the loss of someone close to them.

Coronavirus is starting to change that. I don’t yet know anyone personally who has died from it, but the awareness hangs over me like a Damoclean sword that it may well be only a matter of time. For others, there have already been multiple, devastating losses.

And we are among the lucky ones: although the UK death toll is already alarmingly high (and probably conservative, given the problems there have been registering Covid-19 deaths), most young, fit people in this country can be confident that they will receive the best treatment available to give them every chance of beating the disease should they fall seriously ill.

We do not face the desperate situation in places like Nicaragua, where the president disappeared for a month, having claimed the virus was virtually non-existent in the country. Or Belarus, where people have been forced to crowdfund to fight Covid-19 in the face of government denial. Or, indeed, Malawi, where there are fears 50,000 could die because a lockdown is still not in place.

Nevertheless, those of us who live through this crisis will probably be changed by it. It is hard to imagine the blitheness (in regard to matters of health at least) of the early-21st century returning any time soon. It is hard to imagine the somewhat naive societal approach to death persisting once – if – Covid-19 is brought under control. This may not be a bad thing: there were no doubt unhealthy, immature aspects to the British relationship with mortality. Even so, this knowledge will have come at a high cost.