A dozen places you can go to be alone. WHICH WOULD YOU CHOOSE?
If you have recently come out of isolation, albeit briefly before we’re all in lockdown again, you will have noticed that shopping is now very different. Perhaps you will look back nostalgically to those months of cyber shopping. I got an email yesterday from the Co Op ‘We have missed you, please come back.’
I have been back, but they didn’t recognise me in real life; even with a mask on I am not quite the anonymous self who ordered twice a week. On line shopping with our local Co Op was fun, not at all like the big supermarket chains, more like a game. At the start you had to spend £15 to get free delivery, but could not have more than 20 items, this gradually increased to 30 items, but still delivered by scooter. There were always plenty of delivery slots and I though smugly of all those people staying up till Sunday midnight, desperate to get any slot with Tesco or Sainsbury in the coming week. Of course, with the limit on number of items the cosy Co Op was not likely to suit those needing a big family shop. The website was a challenging computer game; you could always get chocolate, but not necessarily what you needed for dinner. It was vital to think outside the box. Type in baked beans, no luck. It was weeks before I discovered that typing in Heinz revealed beans and such Covid comfort food as tomato soup. The website did improve over the months, with the layout involving less scrolling down, but keeping the fun of guessing whether you should tap onto ‘Get Inspired’ ‘Food Cupboard’ or ‘Bakery and Cakes’. If you forgot to check your emails with updates on how your order was progressing, there was the fun of not knowing if you would get everything on your list, or perhaps an unwanted substitute.
So what is it like at real shops now? Don’t forget the mask… the rest of the rules seem to vary from shop to shop; another game to play, with arrows to follow and circles with footprints to stand on. Don’t mix up the bottle for sanitizing your basket handles with the hand gel. Move out of the way once you have swiped you card ( cash is out, except at the greengrocers ) to make safe space for the next person. But that little row of chairs where you used to sort out your bags and make sure your purse was put away has gone; don’t have a medical incident, that was where shoppers who had a funny turn were seated as they waited for the ambulance!
How will you get on at shopping centres? Those benches where husbands were parked while waiting for wives to finish in the shop or come out of the Ladies are gone. There is nowhere to rest your heavy bags and meet up at the arranged time. In town will department stores ever be the same again? Restaurants and toilets closed, no meeting friends or relaxing with coffee and scones while you check you phone, or if you are a writer, do some people watching and scribbling.
It is nice to once again see what you are buying, but will you be going on line or out to the shops in the near future?
A piercing scream penetrated the calm of James’ office and disturbed his important conference call with New York. Every sound in the neighbourhood wafted through the back bedroom windows, but it was too hot to close them.
‘Everything okay?’ asked the managing director in New York.
‘So sorry, yes, fine…’
For a moment James wondered if he should investigate, he vaguely recalled his mother mentioning they were in charge of the twins today while his sister and brother-in-law went to Ikea and she might have to pop to the corner shop... None of them believed that he was actually working from home, that it was Friday and he had a great deal of real work to do. Strange sounds had emitted from his nephew and niece at regular intervals since their arrival yesterday, either because they were having fun, or more likely they were arguing. There was the possibility that one of them had been impaled on one of his mother’s lethal gardening implements, or perhaps they had accidentally killed their grandmother…
Eighty per cent of MPJ staff worldwide were working from home, but usually in their smart book lined studies, not from their mother’s back bedroom with sewing machines and ironing boards as a background for Zoom. It was hardly professional to interrupt discussion of the dreadful news from Beirut ( its importance to the shareholders of MPJ, not the suffering of the locals ) and disappear out of sight to lean out the back window and be heard yelling ‘JASON, JACINTHA what the hell are you doing now?‘
When his sister Julia had said they were going camping for their summer staycation he thought they meant a tent in a remote field, not a camper van parked outside his mother’s house. Julia insisted social distancing would be maintained, while her husband Jack queried whether social distancing was even a thing anymore. They did sleep in the van; James had not had time to look up council regulations and see if this was legal, but there was much toing and froing to the bathroom and the washing machine had been on constantly since their arrival. The twins weren’t that bad, not according to his mother anyway; they were just high spirited, Covid cabin fever and he just wasn’t used to children of that age, whatever age they were… he had forgotten and dare not ask, his family would be shocked at his lack of interest in the precious ones, his mother’s ONLY grandchildren as she liked to frequently point out.
Another piercing scream rent the air. This time James did a few quick manoeuvres on the keyboard and the screen went blank; New York would either think England had been hit by a nuclear bomb or perhaps that his local wifi had gone down. He rushed over to the window and leaned out to see an arc of water gleaming in the sun. Jason was chasing Jacintha with the garden hose and this time she let out a screech of triumph as she ducked under the washing line and the family’s bedding hanging out to dry took the full brunt of the high powered hose.
If you have any sense you will probably have used the world wide pandemic to avoid socialising at all, thankful to avoid seeing your partner’s friends, your in-laws or your children and grandchildren. If you had any friends of your own, you probably have none left by now.
However, if you still feel the need for the occasional human company how do you work out who you can see and under what conditions? Government advice changes twice daily, whichever country you are living in, so the best policy is to not let anyone inside your house, this has the advantage of not having to do any cleaning or tidying up.
A picnic in the garden is ideal, especially if they bring their own food and drink. The thoughtful host provides welcoming signs, you can probably nick one from somewhere.
Don’t worry if it rains, you can use all those large Amazon boxes left over from your Compulsive Covid Comfort buying, ideal for making Wendy houses, though perhaps the over twelves might not be so enthusiastic.
Before you phone or message your visitors remember to keep up the pretence that you still cannot leave home, at all, for the rest of the year, despite what Boris may have said about August 1st. Your visitors are sure to ask if they can bring anything, take full advantage of this; today’s newspaper, your favourite chocolate you couldn’t get in your Tesco shop, the milk you forgot to put on your Tesco order and yes a bottle of wine would be much appreciated. Every guest is bound to say, when you ask how much you owe them, ‘Oh don’t worry.’ Added to the money you have saved by not going out, eating out etc, you should be making a profit by now.
The opening of pubs in England on the fourth of July might be welcomed by many, including characters in books and television dramas, but characters and their writers might be in for a shock. Pubs in fiction are where people meet, either by arrangement or propped at the bar chatting to a stranger. Large and busy pubs are also where characters good and bad like to lurk anonymously, looking out in case they are being followed or following someone. In the best stories our heroes and lead characters inevitably have secrets they must keep from family and friends; in dark corners of noisy pubs they meet up to exchange important information unnoticed.
Roving campervan detective, Tobias Channing, in my latest novel, regularly sought out popular chain Wetherspoons for a cheap meal where he would be unnoticed as the stranger in town. Fortunately his story is set firmly in 2014, pandemics are one of the few things he doesn’t have to cope with.
What of novels and dramas of the future? No one will be slipping anonymously into any establishment. At the pub you will have to give your name and contact details at the door, perhaps needing your passport to prove who you are. Inside you must sit down and wait to be served and you had better take a book to read or your phone to play with as you won’t get chatting to strangers. There will only be two or three other customers, all spaced well away.
And if you want to pop to the toilets to do a drug deal, sniff a line of cocaine or squeeze through a tiny window to escape the enemy you have just spotted, you are out of luck. You have to ask the bar staff for permission to visit the Ladies or Gents and they will be buzzing in one person at a time.
If this idea from Paris catches on it won’t do much for the street cred of a crime boss or super spy to sit with Big Ted.
Being in lockdown, isolation, shielding, what ever you like to call it, life has been different for all of us, some more than others; suddenly working from home, or not working at all. Even those who already worked from home, were stay at home parents or retired, still went out and about. How many of us are asking ourselves what’s the point of going out to work, what’s the point of ever leaving home at all? Will there be people who join the true agoraphobics and never leave home again?
If you live on a country estate or an outback station in Australia you probably rarely leave home; it’s a very long way to your front gate. If you live in a city centre with all life on your doorstep in normal times, you did not need to go far. But if you are among the millions and millions who live in suburbs, going out and coming home again is the natural order of things. For generations people have been getting on the train to go ‘up to town’ to the office. Cities are full of offices, new towers of offices are still being built, but why? When I was very young I asked my father what he did at work and he said ‘write letters’. That sounded very boring so I vowed to avoid an office job and I have, apart from a temporary job when I did commute up to Waterloo station for a few months. I’m sure lots of important things go on in offices, but my little temping job involved chasing up orders that were never ready and seemed unlikely to ever get to where they were supposed to and apologising on the phone to the people that were not going to get them.
Whether you are a big or little cog in your company, we now know you can contribute from a lap top on the kitchen table. All those office blocks could be used to house key workers who at present cannot afford to live near their work and also waste hours commuting.
If the world of work has changed what about leisure and shopping? Will shopping have altered so much there will be no point? I haven’t actually been near a shop except the tiny pharmacy attached to our doctors to collect prescriptions. In our new restricted life even that has taken on an allure of adventure. But will shopping be an adventure or an ordeal now?
When our well known chain BHS, British Home Stores, collapsed, one commentator suggested it did not offer a focussed shopping experience, which is probably why I used to go there, I am an unfocussed shopper. The best buys are when you stop for lunch at a garden centre to break a long journey and end up buying a coat, new trainers and colourful kitchen items you didn’t know you needed. We did have a lovely shop in town that sold an array of colourful and very expensive items that made you want to throw out everything in your kitchen and start all over again. I only looked and didn’t actually buy anything, but they had a nice coffee shop upstairs, strewn with unhygienic cushions, where you could relax and check your social media or write. Where do writers go now?
Whether you enjoyed trying on endless clothes and sampling makeup, or browsing in the book shop before going to your knit and knatter group in that trendy LITTLE yarn shop, the shopping future looks bleak. I imagine only focussed shoppers will be allowed in, two at a time, no browsing, one way system, no turning back, straight to what they need and out again, no idling, no coffee and cake. Jumping casually on the bus, laden with bags of shopping, squashed in by people standing in the aisle, listening in to people’s conversations, observing strange people for your next short story? All that real life is gone; six people on board, strictly spaced out, wait for the next bus. You will be glad to get home and maybe never leave again, glad you have mastered on line shopping.
And what of the great tradition of visiting garden centres? As well as our travel adventures, we did visit our local centre regularly to actually buy plants, browsing through the reduced stands for ‘rescue plants’, wandering round the water features and overpriced gift section. Then there were the very popular two for one dinners on Thursday evening, masses of people, leaving Cyberspouse with his coffee while I made my final choice of plants. Yesterday’s email outlined the latest rules. Every adult must take a trolley so they keep track of numbers and the strange line ‘We prefer one child per adult and trolley’ … what if you haven’t got a child, do they hand them out along with gloves and gel or might you have to fit your six foot 35year old son in the trolley? I have had plants delivered by the greengrocer and have ordered some on line, but it’s not quite the same…
Are you planning to leave home any time soon? Can you see any point in going shopping?
A Pictorial Guide to Social Distancing
When I wrote on Silly Saturday exactly a year ago How To Cheat At The Chelsea Flower Show, I never imagined that the BBC would be cheating this year.
The presenters have been standing in their own gardens at home this week and showing clips of previous shows, because The Chelsea Flower Show is one of the many events that is Not On this year. We all know why, but I’m not going to mention Covid 19. Does it really matter? Thanks to television and television archives, unless you were planning to go and mingle with the heaving hordes, one flower show is much the same as the next on television. Lots of colour, same presenters, some more irritating than others and all that is missing is the scent of the blooms.
If you want to know what’s on this year, the answer is probably nothing. Those theatre tickets you got for Christmas and the whole season of your favourite orchestra you purchased months ago are all wasted. Nothing beats a live performance, whether you are squashed between two hefty modern patrons in a narrow row at a very old West End theatre or wading through mud at a pop festival, watching on television will not be the same. There are advantages to your humble or perhaps gigantic wide screen television such as comfort, no queues for the toilets, eating your dinner on your lap or enjoying a takeaway.
Optimistically the BBC has apparently delayed announcing the 2020 Proms till the end of May. Will it really go ahead with all those people filling the Royal Albert Hall, or will they have a spaced out audience of a few dozen and only soloists or string quartets dotted on the stage. They could dress orchestras in full protective clothing, but any safe option would rather detract from the festival atmosphere. Most concerts are not broadcast on television, the BBC could get away with showing a few old concerts, though music lovers might notice the difference if they broadcast a black and white 1940s concert with Sir Malcom Sargent conducting.
Whatever happens, the Sun will surely rise on June 21st BUT
‘This year’s summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge have been cancelled because of the ban on mass gatherings prompted by the coronavirus.
Senior druid King Arthur Pendragon said it was disappointing but unsurprising. The sunrise will instead be live-streamed on English Heritage’s social media.’
It won’t be quite the same.
Bournemouth Air Festival has been cancelled so don’t come round to my beach hut in August this year. Air shows are best seen live. We may watch the Red Arrows doing a fly past over Buckingham Palace on television, but I’m sure it’s more exciting watching from the balcony of the palace.
What events will you not be going to this year?
Some of you may be coming out of isolation, some of us are still in confusion, but it is imperative that you have completed this list of ten goals to achieve before re-entering the world.
1. Share on Facebook, one a day, the covers of thirty books that have shaped your life. If you have not even read thirty books in your whole life you have time to read them now.
2. Share on Facebook, one a day, the forty music albums that had an amazing impact on your life. Think carefully about your street cred and decide what image you wish to project.
3. Train your dog or any pet to do amazing tricks and post them all over social media. Not got a pet? Now is the time to raise a puppy, cub or foal while you are at home all the time.
4. Upcycle just about anything to plant plants in and post smug pictures to demonstrate your green credentials.
5. For the more ambitious, design and create a totally new garden with a wow factor that will mean you never need to go on holiday, or even out again. No garden, no problem. Create a hanging garden on your balcony. No balcony, no windows? Create a terrarium. But don’t forget to post the pictures.
6. Create new dishes from scratch and share one a day – share on the internet, the good news is you don’t have to actually share the food, you can eat it all yourself.
7. Macro photography is ideally suited to your new insular life. All you need are a few flowers and endless patience so you get shots of bumble bees, butterflies and dragonflies that are superior to the millions of others on Instagram.
8. If you haven’t tried them before, take up cycling and jogging and be sure to post regular accounts on Facebook of how far and fast you have been. You may even get a starring role on social media if your picture is taken by walkers complaining on the local Facebook group about the idiot cyclist or jogger who breathed too heavily when they sped past.
9. Laid up with a sprained ankle after number 8? No excuse for not taking up sewing. By now you should have made at least a thousand ineffective facemasks out of your old Tshirts or flowery sundress… And also created the longest rainbow/ hearts / We Love NHS banner in your road so you will be ready for number Ten.
10. The only time you see another human will depend on which country you are living in. Perhaps you are out every evening clapping for something or someone. In the UK we are out at 8pm every Thursday clapping and banging saucepans for the NHS and anybody who is actually out working. But that is not enough. You must get your road or block of flats on the local news that night, or better still the ten o’clock national news. You will need one bag piper marching down the street signalling it is eight o’clock, a string quartet playing on the front lawn, lots of cute children glad to be delaying bed time and an out of work opera singer leading a rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ Just make sure everyone is two metres apart to avoid a media storm of disapproval.
Have you achieved any of these goals?
Writers can still keep writing in isolation and quarantine, but what of photographers? No more traveling to local beauty spots, let alone visiting exotic locations, no more turning up at weddings and social gatherings to take formal and informal shots. One of our local award winning photographers has still been busy; Emily Endean has been using her daily exercise to walk to the homes of volunteering locals and snap them at their front door or in the garden – while staying at a safe distance on the pavement. A piece of everyman history, recording what we hope will be a unique year, not the new normal.
Gardens were already important to many of us, but have taken on a new significance in isolation for those of us lucky enough to have one. Are they a zoo compound or is your front garden your own little stage where all life takes place? We stand in it to chat safely to neighbours or passers by; on Thursday evenings we stand at 8pm to clap and bang saucepan lids for the NHS and all carers.
Hopefully a few or more flowers will brighten the daily walks of others. No one could have foreseen back in the autumn, when we were planting bulbs and wallflowers, how much time we would spend enjoying the splash of colour. With garden centres closing there has been dismay among gardeners looking forward to getting their bedding plants; we like to fill in gaps as spring flowers fade and plant up pots and patio tubs for the summer. Luckily our local greengrocer’s has been delivering plants; tidying the garden and planting is perfect for fresh air and exercise.
I had my chance to take part in Emily’s project on Sunday. If you want to stroll around peeping at homes and seeing who lives there, visit Emily’s website here.