Florist in lockdown
Jane, Near Manchester, England
We’ve found an amazing butcher’s shop, completely by accident, I’m not saying it’s posh, but it’s got chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. All the chopping and mincing take place behind the scenes. The butcher is jolly, chubby and friendly, like a Dickensian character. It’s also got a bit of a deli at one end. Further up the road is a traditional grocer’s shop. We can’t pick our own fruit and veg, and can only stand just inside the entrance. The shop lady gathered all our wants and bagged them up, not allowed to hand over our own bag, she had to use one of her own plastic bags. “I know! We’ve just got all our customers used to bringing their own bags too!!” She says. I realised that I miss chitchatting about mundane everyday things. You can’t exactly wax lyrical about English asparagus to the teenage boy on the check out in Lidl. The whole shopping experience was a complete pleasure, so nice to have eye contact exchange pleasantries with folk! I think it will become the highlight of our week for the foreseeable. I am typing this (slowly) at the kitchen table, radio 4’s Woman’s Hour is on the radio. Listening to the plights of the women featured, I realise that I am so lucky to be able to buy good fresh healthy food, so many families are struggling to buy essentials on a shoestring budget, relying on income support and charities.
Deaths in care homes have doubled in five days according to the news this week. Fifteen care workers have died. PPE is still an issue. The government says it’s on it, but nurses don’t agree.
My tulips are still not in full bloom, so needing a flower fix, I ordered some flowers from a local flower farm, they were delivered this morning. It feels very self indulgent, then I remind myself I am supporting a local small business. I can’t wait to faff about with them! Hope you are all doing ok. Xxxx
Then and Now
Myth and memory
Ah, but I forgot. Before the war I was already attuned to lights in the dark ! Every year my grandmother’s maid, Evelyn, went to Blackpool and I was absolutely fascinated by the ‘Blackpool Illuminations’. Here is a card sent to me by Evelyn in about 1937 of ‘Fairy Wedding Tableau No. 2. Blacpool by Night. The Bride and Bridegroom. I could not imagine anything more thrilling - and I have still never been to Blackpool . . .
This is a historical record, so lies must be kept to a minimum. I think of the ancient Oxford Professor, who, asked if he had a final message to the world in his 96th year, said: “Well, my boy, I think my advice would be ‘Always verify your references”. Goes with Henry James’s final advice: ‘Be kind, be kind, be kind’. The salvo of Flying Bombs that Christmas Eve was launched from Heinkel bombers off Mablethorpe, aimed at Manchester. The first one landed at Chorley killing 30 hens and destroying a hencoop. As Milton put it: ‘They also serve who only stand and cluck’. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. To verify one’s experiences is salutary where possible, but when I wrote a book of poems - The Air Show - about my wartime childhood I realised that ‘the truth’ is always a bewitching compound, a witch’s brew of memory, false memory, other people’s memories passed on like smudgy photographs,, myth-making, imagination... But there are six kisses on the back of the Blackpool card, and the ‘love from Evelyn’ was true enough.
I would be fascinated to see what myths and memories the present crisis evokes in the stories of children - like the Macraes in this journal - sixty years on from now. How can one be faithful to the child whose experieneces were direct and simplified, despte the overlay of adult knowledge and experience. I enjoyed those years. The sunlight played on the garden in its season; steam-trains clanked and puzzled their way excitingly through the night; across Europe they went on quite other journeys. The bombers comforted me; their missions were not flown to give comfort:
Who do you see on Jacob’s ladder
When the rungs are blazing,
The children rise in ash,
Sifting the dark with faces ?
And all that I experienced was a superficial childish patchwork overlaid on an enormous suffering which was kept from me, or which was sloganed out of existence by jokes, cartoons and black-and-white patriotism. I cannot tell the childhood his enjoyments were false. They weren’t. But as Keats wrote in a letter: “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? A place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways...” It’s the same thought that my father expressed, when asked about his childhood in rural, impoverished Linclolnshire: “I was gloriously happy - and I wouldn’t lift a finger to bring that world back again”.
From St Just
Jane G, St Just
This was shaping up to be a rather bad-tempered entry. I turned on the radio partway through Daily Briefing yesterday and the talk was so entirely about military deployment that for at least 3 minutes I honestly thought we were at war as well as having the plague: literal war, that is, not the metaphorical one people keep rather sloppily talking about. (More crossness here: on the same programme someone said 'we ARE at war; the enemy is looking for our weaknesses' - whereas presumably it's just rampaging like locusts but more mindlessly & not particularly meaning to do anything at all.)
But the main crossness was because people on Radio 4 keep saying that anyone who needs to should be attending hospital (with things other than the virus, that is), and that they're - quite rightly - concerned that death rates from cancer in particular will be significantly up because very few people are being referred. Their advice seems sensible. But my GP surgery (not in St Just) has told people not to come in for any reason and in The Cornishman last week there was a half-page panel of 'NHS advice' telling people not to go to their GP, not to go to A&E, and only to call 111 if they couldn't find relevant advice online. All of which rather confirms my sense that as much damage is being done by anti-virus measures as by the virus.
Today is so ridiculously beautiful, though, that crossness seems difficult. And even the various virtual meetings I've been in for most of it so far have been noticeably more good-humoured than they usually are. It's also been amusing to discover that a colleague I thought of as rather fierce is very gentle with their children (even when they turn up in the middle of a meeting) and that another has a chair straight out of a Bond villain's lair.
Dianne, Youlgrave Derbyshire
I am full of admiration for Nicky who has made 150 masks. Yesterday I made two and struggled to get them to fit snuggly and comfortably. There are so many patterns out there and different solutions for reducing the risk of becoming infected or infecting others. I don't know how successful my masks would be - I wish I did. My youngest granddaughter had to go for her one year injections. Her mother was handed a mask to wear before being allowed in the surgery. I would like to have seen them try to put a mask on Iris. Will we all be wearing masks when we are finally released into the world?
I am in 'making' mode. I wish I was in 'gardening' mode. The weather is perfect and another delivery of plants arrived today so I must deal with them. Still, it's too hot at the moment so evening planting is the best idea.
So back to making. I have a huge stash of fabric and wool which I feel rather guilty about so I'm not allowing myself to buy any more. I have sewn two childrens' dresses and knitted a sleeveless cardigan - not enough wool for sleeves. My neighbour told me that Sheffield Hallamshire hospital would like some small knitted blankets for their incubators. They have to cover the babies with towels. 80 stitches and 18 inches on size 8 needles in double knitting wool. So I've made one of those. What next?
I really hope the relevant people in the government get their act together and factories in the UK start manufacturing scrubs so we don't have to only depend on bringing them in from overseas. They have had so many offers. I also hope, probably in vain, that more of our clothing could be made here in the future.
From the black shed
David E, East Norfolk
Are dogs the answer?
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of Durham, two prestigious Russell group institutions, are jointly investigating whether dogs can smell covid-19. Maybe this is the answer to the problem of mass diagnostic testing, an issue which is central to government policy.
When you think about it this seems a perfect solution. There is no procurement problem (plenty about), no reagents are needed, no specimens have to go to the lab (small pun) and the result is instant- one wag yes, two wags no!
I suppose training will be the key but since most are now working from home there will soon be an on-line training programme. Your own friendly mutt can be sat in front of the screen for instruction, a supply of treats nearby to ensure concentration.
Alternatively I can imagine local clinics where we can all attend. The investigators say one dog can sniff 750 people an hour! The flow of subjects could of course be interrupted by competing odours, some less than agreeable, some impossible to ignore.
Then we get to contact tracing. I can see the return of the dog warden patrolling the streets to detain suspects.
They might also bring in the real experts, the explosives sniffer dogs. Lets hope they don’t get confused!
Ah well, we’ll see what transpires.
All is quiet
Tilly Wonham, Hertfordshire
I went to a funeral yesterday. I didn’t have to wear black mourners’ clothes or travel far. In fact, I sat in front of my computer screen after having done the supermarket shop. However, as soon as the service began I was fully absorbed as though I was sitting in the crematorium itself with its sunny views of hills and fields beyond the coffin and flowers.
The deceased was an old family friend whom I had known nearly 50 years when I was just a tot. My early years were spent in their home playing with their daughter, my bestie. Days of building Sindy doll houses (thankyou Blue Peter) and setting up veterinary surgeries for our unsuspecting cats and guinea pigs. Sometimes it was finding every pair of shoes in the house to sell in our pretend shoe shop or using a cassette recorder to capture noises in the house for endless quizzes.
Funerals are always sad, but I found this lockdown ceremony heart breaking for reasons beyond the obvious. The rows of empty seats. The 5 figures allowed to attend seated at a distance from one another. The brother and sister - son and daughter of the deceased – not able to share a comforting hug and now at either end of the front pew. Thank goodness she had been sharing lockdown with her parents and could be a total support to her father. It was visibly heart wrenching. The situation also pulled me back to 16 months before when my own mother died. How different her funeral had been. I watched through tears of love and memories.
Clarissa Upchurch, Wymondham
As the days move into weeks and weeks into months I feel the isolation more intensely than I thought I would when this new ‘norm’ began. But ‘norm’ suggests a settled way of living which I do not feel as my days are still punctuated by thoughts veering between a calm enjoyment and being very fearful for what lies ahead. There is so much speculation about what will happen to the economy, to the people sadly losing their incomes, to mental health, to the abused and so on.
An image of a lonely dog in the midst of a huge expanse of coastline came into my mind. It is Joseph Mallard Turner’s painting 'Dawn after the Wreck', apparently given this title by the art critic John Ruskin. The ‘Wreck’ could mean a ship wreck or maybe Ruskin saw it as a disappointing development in Turner’s output. It is a scene of solitude and despair. I looked up the image on the internet and zoomed in on the dog (let’s call him ‘Captain) in the painting. Not really sure of the breed but he does have quite a large head in comparison to a rather spindly body. The dog’s mouth is open as if it is howling, but the crescent moon is behind him which is also seen as a long sliver of reflection in the wet sand. The colours are extraordinary: most of the palette is in a range that moves through chrome yellow, orange and strong vibrant reds like vermillion to cobalt blue and emerald green. The emphasis is on warm bright colours. Turner painted this image about 10 years before he died. He was a private reclusive man, a bit like ‘Captain’ in the painting.
I wondered about the lonely dog, how it got there on that empty expanse of sand as evening was approaching. I thought it was isolation in the extreme, and there have been times when I have imagined myself howling in frustration and fear especially when I hear that we might be in for a whole year of lockdown or, at best, social distancing. I can imagine how this might also cause the population to experience a sick feeling in their stomachs, all the pub owners, cinemas, football clubs and others feeling that the end is nigh.
But there is a silver lining at least as the sun continues to shine every day. Sun is God. It is a world of extremes - from floods to dry heat, from crowds to isolation, from buds to leaf and flower profusion, from darkness to light.
From the Editor
Happy Birthday Shakespeare...
William Shakespeare: born April 23rd 1564
Here at Old Hall in Norfolk, we feel a particular connection to Shakespeare. Firstly, the house here was built in his lifetime, and the daughter of the house married one of his fellow playwrights. But that’s another story....
Secondly, from 2000 until 2009 we produced Shakespeare in the Garden here. Not every year but five times in that period. Always a comedy, starting in 2000 and finishing in 2009 with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In between, Twelfth Night, Much Ado, and As You Like It. Several of the company can be found in the pages of this very journal. We drew our cast from far and wide, some pros, local amateurs, students, some complete novices, such as postman Richard and electrician Tony, both of whom went on to become seasoned performers in local groups.
For ten days the house and garden became a Shakespeare Holiday Camp: everyone lived, ate and breathed the play. Rehearsals ran for twelve hours a day (as directors, Peter and I didn’t have many breaks), meals were prepared by teams of actors, and anyone from far afield stayed in the house or camped in the garden. Bodies in sleeping bags were everywhere. It was hard work, huge fun, and culminated each time in four or five performances to audiences of 60- 80.
Performed outside, sometimes promenade style, or making use of the tree house in the copse as a sort of Globe, there was a particular magic to these productions; the setting sun, the camaraderie, the delight of the audience, theatrical surprises such as Puck making an entrance from 20 feet above, in a tree, or a stray house cat crossing the acting area with a large mouse in her mouth.
Lately, we’ve felt too old to endure such a rackety process. Sad really. Instead we do a Poetry Picnic every summer, which is also delightful, without the need for long rehearsals, speedy word learning, making of costumes, quite so many house guests. It is, I suppose, doubtful that there will be a Poetry Picnic this year...
But, thank you, Shakespeare, for making Shakespeare in the Garden possible. Peter and I will toast you this evening, sitting in the Herb Garden where your bust presides. As with the plays we did here, we like to think of your ghost watching from behind the nearby trees.
‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’