Clean, sort, tidy

Lily, Camberwell, London

I am a creature of habit and routine. In fact all four of us need our routine. Our small behaviours of family culture. The eldest must play Minecraft after breakfast while the youngest must watch the i-player before they move on with the day. I must have my coffee and toast and marmalade. And my husband must first have green tea and then a coffee. At meals we all have our set and favoured place to sit around the table. Our conversations take on special patterns of subject and repeated set questions that have secret special meanings stimulating the memory of when they were first asked. Perhaps nothing unique to us but they make us happy and we feel out of sorts if they are missed.


At night, before I get into bed, I must look out my bedroom window. I pull the wire down that suspends the muslin curtain so I can peek over it, half way up the sash window. Before the lockdown there would usually be some human activity taking place that I could spy on. A parked car with headlights on. Art students returning home (or going out, I go to bed early. A habit since having children). On Sunday nights the grandparents of the house opposite take back their charges for the week, they used to cry. A fox or two patrolling. Last night there was a broken branch, hanging, in the tree on the pavement opposite. The fairy lights in one of the houses is pulsing a new rhythm. And more windows are dark than in past weeks. Perhaps others are now going to bed early too. 


Of course, I must also tuck the children in before I can go to bed. On the rare occasion I have forgotten, and tucked myself in already, I have compulsively peeled myself up. The youngest is always asleep. Apart from some troubled early months of screaming. Constantly. He found the joy of sleep at 8 months old and takes umbrage if he is prevented from sleeping by 8pm. We thought we had spoiled this delightful habit when last week we all stayed up to watch a film together (a potential new habit), and on the following night he asked to stay up for a film again. While the youngest is splayed, sweaty headed in his bottom bunk the eldest will be tangled in his duvet and a dozen animal toys, awake, reading. We have a chat. Close the day. The routine to keep the closeness with my first born.


With the lockdown I have bedded in the routines and habits we needed to keep to make it safe, normal. To not have to work it out differently. We keep our weekday morning routine, as if it was a school day. Sometimes I hug them goodbye at one end of the house as mother and greet them in the kitchen for home school as Ms. Mummy. 


At school I was in a few short Beckett plays. I loved them. At university I finally understood the form and function (and satisfaction) of writing an essay when I got carried away investigating how Beckett’s characters lived in routine and habit; at once keeping them going and strangulating them. I clearly identified with those characters or could see them in those around me. Not with any pity. It’s the humour I like. It’s all ridiculous but so important. And there is a lot of that at the moment. 


I have given each day of our week a purpose, a task (and subdivided the day into: now it’s time to…). Otherwise I would not know what to do each day, I would be overwhelmed trying to spontaneously decide what is right or important to do. Without the definition or the choice of giving each day a priority there is conflict, well for me anyway. And please don’t ask me what I’d just like to do. It usually takes 5 days into a holiday before I can even settle into that. Which is why I had thought I might have settled into the lockdown by now. But unlike a holiday there is no set time to return home. The end is not nigh. But I suppose the point is that, when nothing happens there is still lots happening, there is change. I felt very ill yesterday. No energy. Dizzy. Like a lizard I needed an external source of heat to keep warm. Everything was a struggle. But today it’s different. I know it’s different because today I could do the routines and habits of the day. And I was back to my usual two cups of coffee. And then of course if my husband and I both get healthy again then we will have had the Coronavirus (probably, we think, maybe) and that is a change and we are not waiting (for Godot).


At Home

Nicky, Vermont, US

Today I stopped sewing masks. I’ve made about a hundred and fifty (but who’s counting?) for health care workers, for our local food coop staff, and for friends and neighbors. I’ve mailed them and I’ve dropped them off outside people’s houses. I’ll start sewing them again in the future but for the moment I believe everyone I know who needs one has one, and the local nursing homes are well supplied. I forgot just how much I hate production work until I started sewing them in quantity and counting the quantity. Seventeen for the Coop staff. There’s something stultifying about counting. I worked briefly in an apple sorting factory on a kibbutz and that drove me nuts too. I had to maneuver to be shifted to making boxes so I wasn’t keeping up with a production line. Or trying to. And there are various other short stints… I lasted a day in a plastics factory making nappy pins, the little pink and blue bunnies at the ends.  


It’s been wonderful though, making masks. I have felt like I was contributing despite being so isolated. And I got lots of e mail appreciations. Now I’m back to thinking about buying seeds and digging up the raised vegetable beds, even though it snowed today. And painting. And….  it isn’t hard to fill my days but I won’t have the same sense of purpose, or the sense of purpose I had until yesterday when suddenly the sewing was driving me nuts. 


It was also driving my ninety six year old aunt in Perth, Australia nuts. She lives alone, very isolated, and wanted me to have something much more interesting to talk to her about each morning when I call her. Though I’m not sure that gardening is of interest to her either. And she certainly doesn’t approve of painting. She spends her days listening to Jim Reeves. That would drive me nuts.  

And I’m working hard on not being driven nuts by not being able to go anywhere.


Yesterday B and I had a conversation about what we wanted done with our bodies. After death. Most uplifting. I want to be cremated and scattered to the winds. B. wants to bury me and have some kind of stone or marker. An avid genealogist, for B. it’s a matter of principal. We agreed to stop talking about it and instead watched the last episodes of 800 Words, an Australian show set in New Zealand. But I don’t like not being able to go anywhere now, and I don’t like the idea of being tied down to one place after I die either. Not that I would know about it but still.  

In the midst of the pandemic the conversation became more tangible. Of course, basically, I don’t want to die. And I don’t want B. to die either.


Rural Norfolk

Chris Gates, Norfolk UK

A row has broken out with Hancock at the centre over a missed opportunity for us to join an EU ‘collective buying’ initiative and so we now find ourselves in competition with the EU buying consortium. Hancock, economic with the truth as ever, says we have joined. It later emerges indeed we have, but not quite the right initiative, not for PPE. I remember the PPE offer, It came from Ursula von de Leyen to us in the UK personally, and rather charmingly including us ‘in’ even though we’ve left. It was late March. Hancock, in order to avoid confessing he may have cocked up back then has joined a second, less useful EU initiative relating to treatment and therapy - allowing him to say we are joined. Really, we have. No missed chances here. All very ‘Blue Parrot’ stuff. Joined, just not at the right time and not to the right initiative.  


The big news from the briefing is that we’re to give £20 mil each to Imperial College London and Oxford in a reassuringly quick off the mark decision to boost their vaccine research. Oxford in particular are well advanced and reckon they may start human testing this week. Imperial are developing a synthetic vaccine - 1 litre will make 1 million doses - so, ultimately cheaper and easier. The both say developing a vaccine is one thing, manufacturing at scale quite another, so it’s heartening to hear that it too is being boosted - now, by Min of Health - rather than later.


So, Capt Tom got to open the latest Nightingale in Harrogate, but from the safety of home, via a sort of video conferencing. Phew. I really thought they were going to drag the old boy up there. 

Thank you to Nicky, Vermont, for reminding me of ‘Three Men in a Boat’. I’ve got a copy here somewhere, it’ll do nicely to follow on from my current distraction reread, Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’. I’ve hundreds, possibly thousands of books collected over the years, but return again and again to a narrow selection, mainly wry humour - Bryson, Pete McCarthy, Tim Moore, and oft times Pepys. Anyway Bryson, preparing for his Walk, learned a thing or two about bears, mainly from the subtly titled ‘Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance’. It left him “...saucer-eyed in bed reading clinically precise accounts of people gnawed pulpy in their sleeping bags”. I guess you’ve a copy handy, Nicky? We live in a woodland clearing - if we had bears, I’d have several, handily by front and back door, one in the potting shed and one in the car. And carry a revolver.

Here, the most dangerous thing we have to contend with is, occasionally, a particularly fired-up cock pheasant. They get quite territorial and the nest I showed a couple of posts ago is right beside the front door. The last time this happened, the cock bird would scuttle around making freaky noises before getting behind you and raking the backs of your legs as you came home. All curiously unnerving from something so small, and it had to be stopped. I prepared a selection of kit, and then on one occasion let him get closer and closer, hissing an squawking (him, not me) and then dropped an old wire mesh supermarket basket over him. I secured that with a brick, then got a blanket and dropped that over the lot. Darkness subdued him and an hour later, having established a pecking order, I let him go and he was nice as pie, looking after the nearby hen but leaving us alone.


I was once threatened by a family of weasels.  No, really, I was - and it wasn’t a happy encounter. I was driving a little-used lane near home, and there were seven of them, gambolling in the sun. I stopped the car to watch, it was interesting for a minute or so, but when they chose not to move off and I got bored, I got out of the car to remonstrate. I thought a bit of gentle shoo-ing would do it, but they turned on me. They stood their ground and hissed in a particularly malevolent way and moved towards me. I got back in the car, sharpish. I don’t know what a weasel could do on its own, but seven swarming over you could be a bit testing.  

We do have the occasional badger - that could give you a nasty nip, but they’re shy, retiring things, unlikely to seek you out. Ditto foxes. Moles are reputed to be venomous, but only paralyse worms. Nothing much to worry about there.

Bears, though. In the back garden. After your compost. Coo.


Tropical thoughts

Paul Lowden, Malaysia

Forster's iconic statement about racial and social harmony may have been written with the fading Empire forces in mind but it still resonates today. Many of the posts seem to suggest that connections between and within families are the most significant thing they cherish; the same may perhaps be emerging within communities with a recognition that it is the little gestures of kindness [as Wordsworth observed] that bring a sense of purpose and value to life. Here on a very practical level there was a distinct need to connect - in this case the face masks around the back of the head for the Muslim [women] nurses. An ingenious solution was devised by some local pupils who then put their project into action. The little clips-amusingly called 'ear savers'- do the job and satisfy on so many levels. "Connecting" as EMF would have wanted, I'm sure! 


“Only Connect” 

Ear savers in the Sultanah Aminah hospital, Johor Bahru


Headscarfed, the ladies on the ward need help

To wear a mask. Ears tucked within prevent 

The safety straps securely looping them.

Regulations and religion state both 

Must be worn. Hearing the dilemma sent

Ingenuity to work at school; its

Lessons still online, youthful endeavour 

All focused as one until lateral 

Thinking unravels it, the conundrum 

Solved. A plastic link with hooks, connecting 

Science and faith, joined forces, elegant, 

Simple, easily done. The workshop hums.

Three bags full on time, arm’s length apart,

To nurses, the hospital’s beating heart.


Vie de château

Marie-Christine, Blois, France



Our present life is being different from anything we could have imagined. 

Quiet at home, outside uncertain and tragic in many places and many hearts. 


The vocabulary often read and heard is to me rather strange, everything has to be fantastic, great, magnificent, amazing... shocking for a french sense of measure, Victor Hugo said: "il faut appeller un chat un chat". It reminds me when our son was at school, if they were not enough words in the essay I will advise him to put one or two adjectives whenever possible picked in the dictionary and the job was done, usually the teacher happy with it. The other trick was, when he did not know how to end a story he had to write, that every body was killed at the end accidentally or not, just like in most of my daily operas on Metopera. Now he reads mainly short stories, no need for an end. 


A word appeared : Covidiot, a new concept, a person doing things which she would not have done in previous time, it has to be stupid, it could be funny, the only problem is that somebody may die, a friend or a carer.


Two words have disappeared: Artificial Intelligence and transhumanism. Probably because it does not seem relevant when you have to stay at home and feel so human.



John Underwood, Norfolk

Last night I finished binding the Aubrey’s “Miscellanies” that I have been working on, and this morning put in the marbled endpapers. They serve the job of tying in the boards to the text block and reinforce the hinges of the boards on the inside of the book, taking some of the strain off the leather.  


As a child I used to visit my grandmother’s house in Reading, a tiny rather damp terrace down the road from the gasworks. We were once or twice allowed to play on the stairs (quietly) and peep into a tiny box room at the top of the stairs, in which was a trunk which held very little - but it did harbour a rather broken copy of “The Travels of Cyrus” by Sir Andrew Ramsey in French and English, a new edition dated 1760. Because it was so old to us as children, and virtually indecipherable, we used it as a prop for our adventure games. My granny worked as a cook for a large temperance hotel in Grasmere for many years, before marrying my grandfather who was a barber. We have no idea where the book was picked up along the way - I can’t for a moment imagine my grandmother or grandfather reading  it at any stage in their busy lives. 


When the house was cleared, my mother asked if I wanted the book, and I kept it as a memento of those times . Years later when I learned bookbinding, it was one of the first books I practiced on. I bound it rather tightly, but didn’t make a terrible job of it. The original endpapers were fragmentary, but I saved them in the back of the book. I have just held the scraps of paper to my nose, and I was instantly back on my knees holding up the lid of the trunk, and peering in.  

I think that my binding teacher Jane must have told me about Victoria Hall who makes wonderful marbled papers by hand. I visited her Norwich  house, and saw first hand the process of marbling , buying a few sheets to use. Later, I was excited to realise that one of the papers that I had bought was an exact reproduction of the endpaper design in my grandmother’s book. Victoria’s papers are a wonder, she has matched dozens of eighteenth and nineteenth century papers exactly. Apart from the brightness of the colours in the newly printed papers, you would not tell the designs apart.


I have used the same endpaper in the “Miscellanies”, perhaps sixty years after I first saw the design in the back of Granny Purdue’s book. I think that as I have grown older I have become more aware of my mortality. As we are forced to contemplate a more rapid demise that we might have anticipated, and with the possibility of not being able to tell these little details of our life stories to our families, I am pleased to be able to write here about the link between my grandmother’s book and my pursuit of bookbinding today, and how insignificant things like the endpapers in a book can have meaning down the years from my childhood, through this journal, and into the future.


Words from Wood Lane

Susan Neave, Beverley

Our little street is gaining quite a reputation. Because it narrows to medieval proportions at the east end, the access to and from the town centre is only on foot, by bicycle (or possibly by motorised scooter provided you can steer round the bollard and don’t mind the bumpy cobbles). Years ago you were allowed to drive through the gap, but cars – even minis – are much bigger now. With no through traffic the street is a popular pedestrian route to Westwood, a vast and beautiful area of common land ideal for daily exercise. Once a year, on November 5th, there is a steady stream of people heading up to Westwood for the annual bonfire and magnificent firework display. I’m always tempted to set out a little stall by our front door, maybe selling hot drinks. But I digress. Over the years the local residents have got together from time to time for street parties and the like, but since the lockdown began things have become much more organised. We now have a neighbourhood WhatsApp group, a dedicated mobile phone with a number anyone can ring if they need help, a ‘green (or red) card in the window’ scheme, checked regularly on a rota basis, and a weekly newsletter full of helpful information and things to amuse (plus a regular piece from me about the history of the street). There are competitions, plant swaps and seeds to grow. I haven’t grown cress on a damp flannel since I was a child. In particular people have taken to decorating their windows, initially with rainbows but now with all manner of artwork, poems etc., not to mention the obligatory teddy bears or equivalent. Last week the street was featured briefly on the local BBC news programme, and now it seems people are choosing to make it part of their daily circuit, just to see what’s new. Someone described our street and its activities as ‘eccentric’. I’m happy with that!


Bristol Calling 

Simon Davies, Bristol

When this holiday from life began the main interest of our daily walks round the very different parts of Bristol was in the buildings. As the season has moved on our interest has transferred to the gardens. The daffodils and celandines have given way to cherry blossom and then to clematis , irises, lilac and, perhaps most dramatic, the wisteria that tumbles in profusion over the Georgian sandstone. All of these are made more photogenic by the gloriously bright sunshine particularly when the sun is lower in the sky which is when we take our walk.


From the street we see, of course, only the front gardens and these are almost invariably empty. It is very different in America where, before current difficulties, Mary’s sister in Florida would sit in the shade of the carport and chat to people she knew as they passed. If she didn’t know them she usually recognised their dog. They would often stop for coffee. Here in England we retreat to the privacy of the back garden and the taller and thicker the hedge the better. Unlike America it would be inconceivable to fail to mark the extent of your property with a hedge, a fence or a wall: a nation born for self- isolation.

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