It’s been seven weeks since I last slipped the surly bonds of Saint Albans district, a brief walk in the new plantation at Heartwood being the height of my ambition since then. I love watching cities disappear behind me on trains and plains, even on the small stage of England. So I’m getting a bit delirious walking the same leafy avenues, looking out at the same tarmac and streetlights, and seeing the same few people locked in their own boxes. I’m missing hugging my friends, I’m missing the crowds of London, and I’m missing pub gardens like crazy. I’m even missing Thameslink. Okay, no, I lied about that one.
Yesterday was the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe, aka VE day (8th May 1945), an event which I’m trying to mentally re-evaluate. I have a knee jerk aversion to flag-waving and to the cult of nostalgia about the Second World War. People romanticising Britain’s past unity have to overlook so much (Empire, xenophobia, the class system, snobbery, spam) in order to inhabit these moth-eaten, pack-up-your-troubles, hang-up-the bunting, Keep-Calm-And-Carry-On fantasies.
Having said that, I know that this attitude is itself partial and distorted. I had one grandfather in Egypt during the campaigns against Rommel- he died when I was still a child, but I still faintly remember him singing some dubious wartime songs to me, and my dad giving me some context. He later ended up in Beirut, which by all accounts he loved. My other grandfather was a civil engineer who planned the dynamiting of bridges during the war; after it finished, he worked in Burma, managing Japanese prisoners of war, finding some limited common ground with them through gardening projects. Meanwhile on the Home Front, one of my grandmothers worked in payroll for the army down on the south coast.
VE Day celebrates the destruction of perhaps the cruelest regime in human history, and the freedom not only of Brits but French, Belgian, Italian and (briefly) Yugoslav, Polish and Czech citizens, not to mention those who survived the horrors of the concentration camps. It honours the sacrifice of ordinary British men and women who died, who lost loved ones, who were injured or suffered deprivations in the complicated fight against a monstrous ideology. Although their Britain wasn’t my Britain, I couldn’t be here writing this without them. So I shouldn’t have this attitude.
Nonetheless, England has spent the last few years navel-gazing over Brexit, becoming more and more blinkered in its outlook, and more focussed on its own myths and preoccupations. The COVID-19 crisis, by literally restricting our horizons, has sharpened this inward gaze. I’m increasingly worried that journalism doesn’t cover the outside world in much depth, and our politics seems more narrow and nationalistic than ever. We’re lurching towards a hard Brexit with no trade deal, and virtually nobody is paying attention. So while I appreciate the honest impulse, I’m uncomfortable seeing houses everywhere festooned British flags, with wartime tea sets on mowed lawns in front. The next time we celebrate VE day, it should be a more consciously international affair, a cultural festival in which soldiers and civilians from across Europe meet and share stories. It could be held in a different capital across the continent each year. Maybe they can even play a game of footy.
Bank Holiday Blues
Meanwhile, there are little signs that cracks are showing in the lockdown. The roads are getting gradually busier. Every now and then, you see a group of young people sauntering past, although to be fair they’re still few and far between here in the button-down Home Counties. Saint Albans may be square, but I guess when you’re saving lives in a pandemic, that turns into a superpower.
All of this is made harder by the weather, which is cartoonishly good. Anyone who has ever heard of the British Isles knows that we are not famous for consistent weather conditions. So the endless vistas of golden sunshine are making me suspect the intervention of one or other of humanity’s various trickster Gods1. I know this is a sentiment never before expressed in my homeland, but I hope it rains next Bank Holiday Weekend.
I think not knowing the new normal is the hardest. Unless you have a difficult home life, most people can manage a couple of months behind closed doors; but not knowing when we can go to the cinema or the pub or the theatre again, that denial of basic anticipation is draining. Nearly everyone I speak to is less productive than they’ve expected- faced with an endless expanse of time at home, they’re not learning the clarinet or designing an app or writing a coronavirus bildungsroman. Instead, they’re slumped in front of Tiger King. It’s paradoxical, but most people need limits on their free time if they’re going to spend it productively. I’ve had an idea for a novella, and planned out a few chapters, but it’s so hard to start writing.
So here we are. Seven weeks into lockdown, I’m about to go out for another walk in the permanent summer. I know that I’m incredibly lucky to live somewhere leafy, clean and safe, and I know that nurses are risking their lives every days to save lives. But despite the promises of a quick recovery, I’m almost certain that our economy will look radically different in a couple of years time. I’m increasingly doubtful that there’s a ‘normal’ for us to go back to, or that we even want to go back there. I suppose now’s as good a time as any to start addressing climate change, overwork and global inequality. I’m just scared of what we’re going to lose in the flood.
1- until very recently, I thought Loki was the trickster God, but it turns out the concept is durable and widespread- there are trickster gods from Arizona to the Balkans, Nigeria to Victoria. The idea that ‘the Gods must be fucking with us’ seems to be intrinsic to the human experience.