When the post office and stores closed in our village on Exmoor in south-west England, my youngest stared out of the car window as we drove past and saw its dreaded ‘Closed’ sign and ‘For sale’ placard outside for the first time. ‘That’s my whole childhood,’ he wailed, ‘GONE.’ As an over-50 who’s had peak everything, I can’t complain — out loud anyway — but I find the losses for younger generations too painful to contemplate. No travel, no parties, no pubs, no clubs, no sport, no sex, no education, a life unlived online for the foreseeable. Given how badly Oliver took that one tiny but vital enterprise shutting up shop, I’ve been shocked and impressed by how well millions have adapted to the closure of the country. Lockdown has worked because, against all expectation, there turned out to be many more Accepters and Sufferers than Resisters (the three pandemic personalities identified by King’s College).
I am keeping a note of some of the less seismic adaptations. Everything is a family now. Priti Patel speaks of the ‘blue light family’ of emergency workers; Rishi Sunak of the ‘health and social care family’; journalists of the superior ability of female leaders from Iceland to Taiwan to care for the ‘human family’. Even my Shredded Wheat packet! ‘Meet the Shredded Wheat family — Honey and Nut, Spelt and Barley’ (which somehow makes me think of a litter of cute blond puppies). The ads that pop up on my screen are no longer for tea dresses and, for some reason, multivitamins, but plastic visors, rubber gloves and ‘fashion’ paisley face masks. PR emails no longer hope I’ve been enjoying the lovely sunshine, but that I’m safe in these unprecedented and strange times. Well, that’s one way of glossing how many of us have interpreted the wartime instructions to stay at home and save lives — by bingeing on banana bread and boxsets for six weeks, while forwarding funny TikToks on WhatsApp.
Amazon, Facebook, Zoom, Google etc are corporate ‘winners’, and Captain Tom’s one of the many heroes, but my friend Mary Killen of this parish is a nation’s sweetheart, starring as she does with her husband Giles Wood from their Wiltshire cottage — aka the ‘grottage’ — on Gogglebox. As we sit on our sofas scoffing our homemade banana bread it turns out that what we love is a telly program that reflects our own selves back to us, i.e. a nation of people on sofas watching a television show about more people on sofas watching television. This contagious solipsism has made our own Dear (surely soon Dame?) Mary the Vera Lynn of Covid.
Why is fishing banned, why are golf courses closed and public tennis courts padlocked, given that these are healthful and wholesome activities that can be enjoyed while accommodating health and safety guidelines? I asked my husband who used to work for the National Trust, which has closed its entire estate. ‘It’s the car parks,’ he said, ‘they’re worried people won’t socially distance on the Tarmac.’
While I see lockdown as a Go To Jail card, my husband regards it as a Golden Ticket. ‘I never want it to end!’ I overhear him chuckling on the landline to male chums, as I return from the shops laden with his wine, whisky, Fruit & Nut and cigarettes. ‘It’s so peaceful, not seeing anyone.’ We used to joke Brexit saved our marriage, as we were so united in the Remain cause. Readers must join me in Zoom prayers that what Europe hath joined together let not Covid-19 put asunder, especially when I hear him chuckle, as he lights up a Marlboro: ‘It’s what I’ve always wanted — I may never go back to London again.’
What I can’t do from Exmoor — where we have been since March, before lock was downed — is present my new radio show on LBC. Our wifi is weaker than M&S gin in a tin, and I wouldn’t know how. I have key worker status and can travel for work that I can’t do from home. Last week I left the West Country for the first time in six weeks and headed into a deserted Leicester Square, in a taxi that had a plastic visor to shield me and the driver from any diseased droplets. I was soon with my own muff (technical term) alone in the studio, everyone else sitting in the gallery. Halfway through they played a clip of the Kiwi ICU nurse who’d looked after the PM, and there was nothing for it — I had to say something about my brother’s life-saving treatment at St Thomas’s. I wish I’d said it better and said it differently and said more, but the key message was, thank you. I thought I would have to take out a large onion to show emotion, but the tears almost came to my eyes anyway. Oh yes, and I can’t count how many listeners started calls to me with the kind words: ‘Welcome to the LBC family.’ This week, no doubt, I will be accepting continuing congratulations for becoming an ‘auntie again’, which is all splendid.