Words from Wood Lane
Susan Neave, Beverley
On Monday ‘non-essential’ shops reopened. In some cities there were reports of long queues outside Primark, and fights outside Nike. We left the town for the first time for 88 days, not in search of shops, but to drive a few miles to the coast. The beach was deserted apart from a handful of fishermen.
As usual it was a collecting trip. I’ve always collected things - fossils, the exotic papers in which oranges and other fruit were (and occasionally are) wrapped, fragments of blue and white china from the fields. As an adult this expanded into things that had to be bought, rather than found, but nothing very expensive. We’ve always browsed second-hand bookshops and charity shops for first edition Puffin paperbacks, Shell travel guides etc. Not quite as much fun now the internet exists, although bargains are still to be had. I have a particular weakness for ceramics, especially Regency tea bowls, delft plates and spongeware. Many of my pieces have chips or cracks, and cost very little. I’m not really interested in the perfect example. It’s the hand painted decoration and the years of handling that make these pieces interesting.
I’ve never lost my love of collecting pebbles and fossils. We are lucky to have easy access to a stretch of coastline that has both sandy beaches and bands of shingle. On a good day there will be a few tiny glowing orange carnelians, and perhaps an ammonite. On any day there will be sea glass and an unlimited supply of interesting pebbles of all shapes, sizes and textures.
It was a joy to spend a couple of hours by the sea on Monday. It was also very strange to leave the narrow world into which we have shrunk over the last three months.
Mary’s Projects Mostly
Mary Hildyard, Bristol
I am the sort of person who makes lists, sets goals, ticks off jobs accomplished. Something about this period of hibernation - this suspended animation - has frustrated my efforts to complete my projects. It requires more effort to get going.
In February I completed the first of three challenging projects planned for 2020. This was a silk scarf in navy with accents in a rainbow of colours. This turned out better than expected and I felt ready for more. It took more energy to begin the second project - a length of fabric for a garment in a complicated geometric design but in soft blues and greys. We had just entered lockdown and I found it difficult to keep at it but by the end of April it was woven.
As we enter this next phase of pandemic recovery, waiting and watching to see if we dare begin anything like a normal life, the third project remains. This is a curtain/wallhanging for Simon’s house in Devon. The challenge here is the colour palette, in yellows and golds, to match some wall tiles. This is not my normal palette; even with the added grey these colours seem too hot to handle.
I have begun by doing what weavers call “wrapping”. You wind yarn over a length of card to see how the colours might best work together as a warp. It also helps you accustom your eye to the colours. This exercise has the additional benefit of keeping you going. You only need to concentrate on one wrap at a time; you don’t need yet to look at the bigger picture. Exactly how I am trying to look at life in general just now: ride it out, one day at a time; don’t agonise about the bigger picture.
John Underwood, Norfolk
When things go wrong
Life throws you one curve ball after another. Sometimes a binding can go wrong, which is why I only very rarely bind books for other people. The leather might decide not to adhere to the spine of a book when you are re- covering; you might have the blind tooling stamp too hot and burn the leather that you are working on; a repair to a page might not work as well as you had hoped. These are minor irritants which can be corrected with care and time, and they have nil impact on other people’s lives. Getting a “world beating” app wrong (as we all drearily predicted would happen) is on a different scale altogether. I watched Newsnight on Thursday evening, and listened to a computing software expert telling us that he had written to the Government back in April to tell them that the NHS tracing app would run into exactly the problems that it has run into.
These days I tend to assume that money for chums is at the root of all the snafu’s that roll past us on the shabby conveyor belt of woe that is our government’s response to the Covid outbreak. I cynically imagine that some donor to the Tory party runs some company or owns some software or is owed some favour, or you fagged for him at Eton. Such a catalogue of disasters cannot be an accident, surely?
We have just fermented some Elderflower champagne, as we do most years. We will have bottled it by the time you read this. A few years ago, we had a bumper supply which was very lively as so often. We had got a little fed up of mopping up after the explosive effervescence and had left the last few bottles for a few weeks. One morning we came downstairs to find that one of the bottles (thick glass with flip top stoppers) had exploded in the night, scattering glass everywhere and leaving a sticky residue of elderflower champagne all over the floor. A mop and dustpan and brush soon sorted it out. We had a problem though. The bottle had been in a large plastic bin with a couple of others which had survived the explosion, and we felt that we should deal with them to avoid accidents. Having seen what could happen without any human touch, I was rather concerned about retrieving the bottles and opening them. It felt a little like defusing a small explosive device which could fragment at the slightest touch.
I dressed accordingly. Several thick layers of jumpers and a thick coat; A suede leather hat with ear flaps. Goggles from previous building work. Thick leather building gloves. Wellingtons. The boots, not the bomber. It was the height of a hot Summer. I approached the plastic bin cautiously (the family were watching from a distance) and placed the lid on the bin. I carried the bin to the garden and laid it down so that I wouldn’t have to stand directly over it. I removed the lid and used a broom to poke at the bottles, hoping that if they were going to explode, they would do so at a distance. No joy. I decided to go for it, whatever the consequences, and marched up to the bottles and opened the stoppers quickly. No explosions, but much spraying of champagne. There was a collective sigh of relief, some raucous cheers and badinage from my family but no damage done.
Thoughts from the Suffolk coast
Harris G, Suffolk
Awoke to a fine morning today and realise it is Friday... where has the time gone this week?
On Monday - with more of lockdown eased - I decided to go into Norwich for the day. Before lockdown, I would visit the city a couple of times a month - so this felt like a normality returning. I drove, parked in my usual spot and then caught the bus. An interesting experience. The number of seats on the bus was very limited and of course the wearing of a mask or face covering is compulsory. I was just one of five people on the lower deck. It was a sunny day and although all the windows were open, as we sped along, I felt very warm. With my mask on, my glasses steamed up several times!
Norwich was as lovely as always. Quite a few shops were closed - especially smaller ones - but Jarrolds, the department store, was open. There were hand sanitisation stations at the doors and lots of smiling people welcoming visitors and guiding us all. It felt unhurried, friendly, safe and well organised. I bought a take-away coffee in the basement cafe and meandered quite happily. Everyone seemed to respect social distancing.
Later - I had a lovely picnic lunch in the park and then pottered about the antiques centres - recently “modified” with one-way browsing, restricted visitor numbers, hand washing etc. It was really rather “nice and normal”. On the news that evening, it said there had been long queues into many shops but I certainly did not queue for long or encounter any major crowds.
That was Monday. As upbeat as the experience was... the rest of the week I’ve felt generally flat and tetchy. Disenchanted. Sceptical. Unconvinced. Disgusted with the lack of vision, honesty and integrity among politicians.
U-turns over so many policies. Shambling, messy performances from leaders. Some progress has been made with drug treatment - Dexamethasone highlighted and thankfully, virus-related deaths are reducing. Yet, I don’t feel heartened or too hopeful.
Yesterday came the news that Dame Vera Lynn had died. Aged 103, a good age. R.I.P. I don’t think her death was due to the virus but just hearing the news made me feel like one more thing has gone, that we’ve lost yet another important piece of our well-being.
I’ve not been very creative or productive. The garden looks good and I’m pleased with the decorating we’ve done indoors. But I’m so easily irritated right now. I think I will explode if I ring and have to endure any more recorded messages saying that “due to the corona virus, call volumes are increased” or that companies are busy with their hundreds of vulnerable customers. What excuse will it be next year? Are some companies using this as an opportunity to bury their inadequacies? To reduce staff? To downgrade services?
Prior to the pandemic, we all know the culture of local services was already in decline. The face-to-face health and welfare services were saying they were struggling. Small independent shops were closing. Banks too - closing branches and offering their customers less and less face-to-face support. Getting appointments at the local health centres was difficult - it was more and more phone or internet contact. Home visits from doctors had almost become a thing of the past. Now, with banks open for such limited hours, GPs seeing less and less, internet purchases massively increased - we seem to be on a very slippery slope.
“Land of snap decisions,
Land of short attention spans,
Nothing is savoured
Long enough to really understand.
In every culture in decline,
The watchful ones among the slaves
Know all that is genuine
Will be scorned and conned and cast away”
(From Dog Eat Dog by J Mitchell)
Sorry for being such a misery. Feel better now I’ve moaned. The sun is shining. It’s a glorious day. I’m going out in the garden now... x
Eassan, Age 12, Pitlochry
A Rivers story
O mighty, wandering, twisting river
That surface gleams in golden shine,
Where have you been ‘for you came hither,
Tell me now the story thine.
Where have you mounted your silver banks
And taken land that was not yours,
Where has your water been shown much thanks,
Where have you raged your storming wars.
Now cometh here and show your gleam,
Let me hear your long found fable,
For tell me now in gold and green,
Where you will flow if you are able.
I wish I was free, unanchored and true
To leave this place and go with you.
From St Just
Jane G, St Just, Cornwall
Things are beginning to feel a bit different. This may be partly personal - today is the last day of the academic teaching year, which always feels a bit like the lifting of mental lockdown - but there have been real changes in town this week: it's small and enterprising enough never to have felt dead or hostile, the way even Penzance did the one time I ventured there in early April - but on Monday it was wonderful to see open doors all round the square, and to smell pasties baking at Warren's. I went into a friend's gallery on the way back from the Post Office: or rather, I stopped and surveyed the entrance the way Smokey surveys a room when I've moved the furniture around, and she laughed at me and told me to advance. I don't think I've ever before felt emotional about buying three birthday cards and a bar of soap.
In Banbury the Church Lane Gallery opened for the first time yesterday, & experienced pent-up demand: several customers said they had been holding off buying presents until it was back. We had long discussions on Tuesday night about sanitising card displays, the virtues of gloves vs tissues when handling change, and how to achieve distancing in a smallish space full of stock; Barry - who heroically did a complete restock on his own (of course) with a bad back - devised a cunning chessboard or hopscotch series of boxes to tape on the floor, so that people inspecting the ceramics don't inadvertently encroach on those contemplating the paintings. Or at least that's the theory - I can see there being some impromptu dos-a-dos and other unrehearsed moves.
Quite unrelatedly, I've been cheered by Seasalt pointing out that their handybands (stretchy cotton tubes that can be worn as scarves or as hairbands) triple as effective face coverings. I quite fiercely want to buy no face masks, make no face masks & in fact own no face masks. Ideally I'd like to see no face masks, though that clearly won't be an option unless I make mine a blindfold. But the Seasalt bandannas mean I can avoid having to spend either time or money on something I actively don't want; admittedly they make me look like an amateur highwayman, but better that than a deranged dental hygienist. And in future they'll tuck in among my other scarves in a most un-mask-like way.
This in haste, as I'm about to go OUT: to the Yew Tree Gallery, by appointment. This feels almost like real life. One thing all my students have been saying in the last week is how tired they are, and how it doesn't seem just to be normal end-of-year tiredness, but a dis-spiritedness induced by our 3-months-of-Sundays. This easing may be just in time for them, too. Though brilliantly, when I asked what if any plans they had for the summer, they all said 'read'.
Hello from Eastbourne
A few new things by Franklin Lewis Macrae
Today I am getting rollerblades! We went to the shops two days ago to buy them, Marli got her pair but they had to order mine in. I have been sneaking on Marli's but I won't have to when I get my own pair. I did get into trouble for using them inside in our hall. My mum says we will pick them up today and go to the beach with them to play down there. We're not allowed to use them indoors or in the garden. My dad says I will be like Frank Spencer from 'Some Mothers do have them' on the telly but I don't know who that person is and I don't know the programme. I'm good at rollerblading, I've tried them at a roller disco at school.
Dad has been making a desk this week for downstairs. He has bought a new computer for us to use for school work and it needed a desk. We have had to wait until dad had finished work in the evenings or weekends to do some of our homework. The laptop wasn't useful but this should help.
From a very small Island
Michael Johnston, Isle of Wight
I’ve been wondering how exactly I can do this weekly version of the journal. I’m sure some contributors consider this a minor issue, but there are various differing approaches that come to my mind. First of all, I thought I would only write on Fridays and produce something similar to the daily version. Then it occurred to me that I would thereby tend to emphasise the most recent events and thoughts that came my way, perhaps missing out a lot. An alternative would be just to continue the daily version and lump it together every week, but then I realised each entry might be overlong and create a burden for Sheila and Margaret without achieving much other than inflating my ego. Anyway I have decided that from henceforth, today is Wednesday in the first week, I will write a very few thoughts every day and then pull that into one entry every Friday. It gives me the joy of words each day and then the pleasure of editing every Friday.
There has been much change this week. For me this encompasses both real joy and a little anxiety. I find so often that these emotions come along at the same time. Best beloved and I are now in a ‘bubble’. We are moving very gently on this, meeting outdoors so far and sometimes walking together, holding hands with an occasional embrace. What joy it is to touch one another chastely, when neither of us has done so for three months! Amazingly, neither of us has touched another human during that time, something that is unique in both of our lives. I find a small anxiety then grows in me bit by bit. I am by nature a fast mover. Once I decide to ‘go for’ anything I want it to happen at breakneck speed. Being now in our bubble, my instinct is to make it complete instantly, with the two of us involved together in all ways. Best beloved is wisely much more cautious, so I need to make myself slow down, and I find that hard; thus the angst. It’s a task that can seem gargantuan - I am not good at slow progressions. However, I truly believe that giving love is about addressing the best needs of the beloved. The reward then comes along on its own.
The other joy this week is my youngest daughter going into a bubble with her man after a period of aloneness very like mine. The two of them seem very happy.
It’s now Thursday and I am up and about making bread. This is a task to which I have taken since lock down began. Years ago I used to make bread with a machine. Now I make it by hand, and I find that so rewarding. There is some exercise from the kneading, good for mind and body. There is waiting, good for the soul, and of course gorgeous aroma, which permeates every corner of my home. What better way to start the day than this gentle exercise. I don’t indulge every day, because the craft baker that supplies my flour and yeast also makes very good bread and cakes, which can be delivered to my door. Happiness is loaf shaped!
Friday and yesterday became a mood dip for me after I wrote my entry. I don't know why this happens for me, but just for a few hours I seem to dive to a very dark place. It doesn't last long and I come up again. Best guess is it's a biochemical phenomenon, although that's not my area of scientific expertise. Anyway today seems good so far and I'm happy again. Life experience can be truly weird...
Notes from a factory in the Midlands
The steady recovery in sales continues, and we are predicting that June might be only 10% or 12% down on last year. One new topic of conversation amongst the directors is the impact on office staff of such a prolonged period of working from home. Many of these colleagues have not set foot in the building since late March, and government guidance continues to be that you must “work from home if possible”. Apparently many businesses are telling office staff to expect to remain working from home until the end of the year: this is what our son’s girlfriend has been told. We are concerned that this separation from the physical workplace is potentially bad for employees’ mental health and general wellbeing, so we are thinking about encouraging a modest amount of “bending the rules” and perhaps allowing our deskbound staff to work in the office for one day a week if they so wish. And we will remind them not to come in all on the same day!
Last night we had another zoom school governors meeting assessing how well things are going for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6. The Head reported to us her real joy at seeing the delight on the children’s faces as they returned to school. The attendance rate improved in the second week and we now have a remarkable 85 of the 90 children in these year groups attending school on the new timetable. It has been a very successful demonstration of both the commitment of the teachers and the trust of the parents. The “extra” we agreed last night was to set up arrangements for all the other year groups to have one day in school before the summer holidays. This will enable them to say “goodbye” to their current teacher, meet their new teacher and explore their classroom for next year, and hopefully be better prepared to return to school with confidence and enthusiasm in September.
In the garden a pair of collared doves has built a nest in a prunus tree quite near the house. So far they have successfully kept the magpies at bay and we are waiting for the eggs to hatch. The nest, by the way, is a shambles, just a few twigs wedged in a fork in the branches. And talking of things that are a shambles, I am going to resist the temptation today to comment much on the performance of the government and its ministers. But here are a few headlines from opinion pieces in today’s press: “The threat has passed, so why are our civil liberties still suspended”; “The country is fiddling while our economy burns”; “From now, policies must put young people first”. The first two are unsurprisingly from the Telegraph, whilst the third is Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. They all receive a tick of approval from me.
Bumpy landing on the south coast
As has become the norm, my days merge one into the other. If memory serves me right, the sun returned and it was on Saturday that I ventured into the park. It was a lovely day and there was a good number of people there, but now most are getting the hang of being sensible, so I enjoyed it. Even if the cherry blossom has finished, the flowerbeds are glorious. Folk are now using the tennis courts and skateboard park, so sounds of happy activity add to the visual delights. My highlight was peering into the pond to see how the tadpoles were doing and gradually realising that the activity was in fact above the water: brilliant turquoise damselflies were darting about, some procreating in lovely balletic poses, while an enormous dragonfly alighted on a leaf, wings outstretched to catch the sun.
Sunday provided another joy: I moved back into my (albeit still temporary) bedroom, having deemed it virus-free after spending four nights on the study floor. A small thing, but hugely pleasurable. Extraordinarily clean and tidy room, fresh sheets stretched tight, room to sprawl - what more could a girl ask?
Also over the weekend, the Juniors and I had a Proper Talk about Things (I took a chance and alluded to some of my own difficulties, too, over the three months), and they have been nicer since. They also stepped up their home-hunt, although that has been hard work as things are snapped up the moment they are advertised. J1 is also, I think, a bit reluctant to go because there is an underlying fear of impending motherhood. But it is in the natural order of things for them to have their own home again.
Infused with this new sense of energy, J1 and I worked hard on Sunday, tidying and sorting the garden. It is a constant repository of fallen leaves from the trees above (though less poop since the young rooks fledged), which had been getting her down. Sweeping them up is quite a job. I also dismantled the collapsed bench (frighteningly easy - what catastrophe did we narrowly miss while still sitting on it?) and we used part of it to make a support for two of the tortoises’ outdoor cages so that they could be stacked on top of the larger, senior tortoise’s, cage, thus freeing up more ground space. The more reticent of the two younger torties, who is nearly blind, really came out of her shell (!) with the change, and charged around inspecting everything. (Tortoises like to be sure of their own patch, the sighted ones patrolling its perimiter daily.) New light and smells and vague shapes were very exciting for her. The second youngster, who is already a seasoned adventurer, took it all in his stride. J1 and I also took the senior one for a walk up the road while she delivered to neighbours some cactus offshoots from her large old plant. He can generally be persuaded to go in a particular direction by the prospect of flip-flop-shod toes to bite, but this time he was rebellious and veered all over the place, so it took a long time. (Did you know that tortoises can run like the clappers when the mood takes them? Like the old Citroen cars which used to ‘pfffff’ themselves up off the ground when it was time to move, torties stand right up up on all four legs and off they go.)
For four days we had no kitchen tap, which had given up the ghost and leaked all over the place. After much tedious running up and down to the bathroom for water, we belatedly realised on Sunday that if we fed the garden hose in through the kitchen window we could have not only water (albeit cold) but a spray attachment, for which people pay good money. Anyway, on Monday the plumber came back and fitted a shiny new tap. These days, little things give such great pleasure!
On Monday, too, I had to go on an expedition (or so it felt) to Boots in town, where I marvelled at the precision of the layout, floor directions and strategically placed staff. Emboldened, I continued for a little mooch around the town centre: the sun was out, people behaving nicely, and I had my thickest mask on, so felt OK. I marvelled still more at the scene outside nearby Primark, newly-opened that day: one (bouncer-controlled) queue at the door, a second queue waiting to join the first, and a third, waiting to join the second, all three dotted around the (indoor) mall. What a waste of a lovely day! Instead, I discovered a pedestrian street full of charity shops, still all closed but with promise of enjoyable browsing to come. J1 has earmarked this coming Saturday - if they are open by then - for a she-and-me outing there, as she is bursting out of her few maternity clothes.
On Tuesday I went back into town, because I am fed up with not having a map (yes, I know I can use my phone, but I like a nice tactile booklet in my hand). It was a timely purchase because I then had to gallop sharpish up a long hill to an unknown road, having been invited by the Js to accompany them on a viewing of a flat for rent, for which the time had at the last minute been brought forward. It is a nice flat, and in a perfect location. They had wanted a house and garden, but that seems impossible to find at the moment, so this was a compromise (it has a large balcony). On our return it was pointed out to me that I had left the tortoises outside, where they are vulnerable to theft, and I felt dreadful. Having already lost one tortoise for the whole winter (plus, nearly, the wretched snake) the narrow escape from losing all three knocked the legs out from under me, and I wasn’t quite myself for the rest of the evening. But J1 was very gracious about it, still conscious of Being Nicer to Mum.
It was while going through the rigmarole in WH Smith, earlier, of sanitising not only map book and hands but also my debit card (the old-school pin-number variety: I long ago sent my unrequested contactless one back as being too vulnerable) that I decided enough was enough, that this is the way things are going to be for the foreseeable future, and that I must replace my card with a contactless one. Surprise! There is no section on the bank’s website for this kind of change of mind. So I phoned up (after getting the free number from saynoto0870.com - a wonderful tool) and - another surprise! spoke immediately to a helpful, intelligible girl who fixed it all up. So now I’m all modern.
On Wednesday we learned that the Js have secured the flat; they are very happy. References now have to be followed up, but they are hopeful that there is no significant stain on their previous rental character. Unusually, I had the house to myself the entire day, and enjoyed the steady pace of it, getting jobs done but also reading and just being. The previous night and this, Wednesday, morning I ran the gamut of emotions - tortoise-related dismay, pleasure at the Js finding the flat, concern over whether J1 will manage, and serious guilt at my relief at getting my home back and all the cross thoughts I have had over the three months. I was glad of the peace to let the feelings settle. Sadly for the Js, the deposit needed by, in the first instance, Nationwide for a home of their own has today gone up to 15%; doubtless other lenders will follow. I don’t remember the percentage when I bought my first home, but I also don’t remember any difficulty in saving it. Mind you, it (a one-bed flat in Luton) cost £39,000… It was handy for commuting into central London.
Yesterday, Thursday, I took myself off, new map in hand, to explore the area around the new flat. It is a very attractive area and thus enjoyable to mooch around, peering into windows and gardens and down inviting lanes and twittens. Because of a wrong turn I serendipitously found a wonderful little square of workers’ cottages, clustered round their gardens, road unmade-up, with a hand-painted sign saying no cars, but walkers welcome - so I took it at its word and had an extra lovely wander round the square. Following my nose, I then found myself on the South Coast Path, passed an insouciant sunbathing small tortoiseshell butterfly and teetered along the edge of a steep wooded drop, apparently hanging over the shore far below. Everything seemed motionless. It was an unexpectedly joyous moment as I stood still, listening to nothing but birdsong and whispering grass and looking out over a startlingly blue sea, broken only by the faraway dot of a sail, brilliant white as it caught the evening sun. (The orange miasma is just beginning to creep back, but not yet enough to spoil the view.)
Floating home high on the lovely moment, I was deliberately charged by a couple of sweaty, puffing but conversing joggers who pounded across the empty road to do so, leaving me almost nowhere to swerve to avoid them. Life is like that, isn’t it?
Musings from self isolation
Billy Hearld, York
Pulling on my familiar school jumper, worn a thousand times, threads pulled on the sleeve, seemed suddenly alien and, as I laced my shoes and shouldered my bag, I realised quite what three months felt like. Things once monotonous were now deviations from what had become normal. Walking the route to school that I knew so well, it was odd to see the streets devoid of their usual thronging gaggles of other pupils, some riding bicycles, some walking, and instead utterly silent and empty.
Upon my arrival at school, I walked up the drive and was instructed to join a line, being sure not to step over the lines, painted at two meter intervals, which crossed the carpark. Having queued for a few moments, I washed my hands at the new hand washing stations which flanked the doors like strange robotic guards, and was directed inside, where the carpets were marked with tape and the walls bore an array of posters detailing ways in which the virus was transmissible and various prevention strategies. Once shown the way to my classroom along with the other eight pupils assigned to the same bubble, I was surprised by the desks being turned widthways and spread out at two metres apart. Arranged on our desks were tissues and alcohol wipes alongside a miniature white board, a pen, pencil, and whiteboard marker, a folder and several sheets of lined paper. Having been acquainted with the teacher who was to be conducting our first lesson - notably from within the confines of a box marked out with tape on the floor, we were talked through a PowerPoint detailing the new rules and welcoming us back.
For the time being, we were told, we would be undertaking lessons in only Maths and English, with our four hour fifteen minute school day being divided into two lessons, each two hours long, with a fifteen minute break between them. The lessons themselves were uneventful and pleasantly normal, and the break between, despite the social distancing, felt wonderfully close to how school breaks had run before, with groups of people, albeit more spread out, chatting away.