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Locked down landscapes

Two years (and a couple of days) since the first lockdown. Time for some memories of lockdown and place….

The extraordinary silence and warmth that accompanied the first lockdown. The whole family at home. Treating every gatepost and shopping bag as if it was infected. Our quiet, Tory-ish village coming out every Thursday to make a total racket in support of the NHS.

Total dependence on delivery drivers for daily needs: the new, insecuratariate on which we depend at once more at risk than anyone and more essential than ever to our survival.

Discarded gloves in hedgerows: first signs of an incoming tsunami of plastic waste – masks, shields, protective equipment, LFTs, much of it manufactured on the other side of the world.

Yet the only form of international transport visible to me is a single plane that daily crosses the once-busy sky: and this plane, the internet tells me, carries mail, not people. This more than anything reminds me that the whole world is caught up in this.

Cyberspace, meanwhile, fills with information, from the essential to the dangerously made up.

This virtual space becomes crucial. As restrictions ease, a brief business visit to Bristol cathedral reveals a lone verger apparently talking to himself: in fact, he’s in a meeting.

Daughter Ann, quarantined in the shed and streaming her gigs, has breaks that would never have come her way if she’d carried on performing in physical space.

For all the kids, place is reduced to home and daily walks from it. A single trip to Swindon creates nerves. Yet May misses out on two years’ of events: exams, proms, other rites of passage. And

Lily has literally not had much of the stimulating stuff one usually shows a child in the years between 8-10.

Thankfully there are upsides to this new, home-based focus. It so happens that we love each others’ company. And Lily retreats into a virtual world of books which I suspect she will explore and lose herself in for the rest of her life: printed literature as a kind of pre-internet Cyberspace.

How much of ‘normal’ life we waste simply getting from A to B, burning fuel as we do so.

Chemo in empty hospitals, administered by nurses utterly sheathed in plastic.

To London for scans: Covent Garden in shutdown, long-favoured businesses given up the ghost.

This includes an entire morning walking around/working on a bench in a freezing Hyde Park: there is literally no space anywhere that is open, public and heated.

Here there are people everywhere, but as all of them are taking their one-hour walk there is a strange aimlessness about these crowds. Against a London norm that is centuries old, no one is heading for anywhere specific. And it remarkable how much less rewarding people-watching is when the lower part of every face is hidden.

Local footpaths at home, places I consider my special secret discoveries, suddenly known by everyone.

As a subset of this, those place where tarmac leads and no one goes become mysteriously findable. There are now often cars parked in these hidden locations, and as I cycle and walk I detect three groups of users, each perhaps dependant for their inside knowledge on some WhatsApp group or other.

Firstly, there are the teenagers, gathered illicitly outside their bubbles, windows up, cars shaking and smoke-filled.

Then, at first more mysteriously, there are groups of well-heeled looking Asians: I suspect these are software workers and graduate students, so cut off from any wider community that they reasonably consider it safe to gather together, but want to be discrete about it.

And most common of all, delivery drivers, taking a short, adrenaline fuelled break. In fact I don’t see them: they don’t stop for long enough. I just see what they leave behind: great piles of hastily discarded Greggs wrappers, bottles for energy drinks: crap fuel for crap jobs.

Trip with Liu Hong and May to Yorkshire after the second lockdown: no one, including staff, is masked in our Bradford hotel: yet these are people meeting strangers for a living.

Bradford city centre has a kind of normality: but suburban shopping streets, which before were just-hanging-on rows of charity shops, tattoo/vape parlours, curry houses, halal butchers and corner shops, have totally given up the ghost, as if the whole of the litoral of this city has been through a war zone. Even post-Thatcher it wasn’t like this. And that’s before the Brexit/Ukraine/cost of living crises that have followed.

Churches, the one place a community might turn to at a time when one needs spiritual space, solace and silence, almost universally locked.

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