Odd things are happening as we settle into the routine of lockdown. I’m missing the physical company of poets more than I thought I would – my grand-daughter once told a teacher that ‘the land of poets’ was Facebook, and I do indeed make most of my poetry contacts there, but I miss the coffees and gossip and actually buying books from people. I notice my cooking more, and I do it better, with more attention. Without trips to Glasgow and Edinburgh for launches and readings and editorial meetings, I don’t find myself forgetting things nearly so much, and this has been a big change. I used to feel as if happiness in my life came in with the breath, and it was buoyant and exhilarating. These days it comes up through my feet, like a slow peaceful wave or a seedling unfurling, much smaller, but steadier.Things like this
Some things, though, are in waiting. When all this is over, I think to myself, but then I realise that to be honest, I don’t think this will ever be over. It is going to create a lasting change, and we need to be vigilant that it is a change that we want to live with. Everyone on social media seemed to have an instant emotional reaction when the lockdown started, that this disruption was going to be an opportunity for the systemic reforms we’ve wanted for a long time. I’m reminded of how often my mother would be exasperated about our teenage behaviour and would shout, “There’s going to be some changes round here!” There never were. But because this situation is dragging on, and looks as if it will drag on for a good long while, we have time to get past the first wave of displaced anxiety and the second of grinding depression, and really think.
When I was writing Haggards, I was noticing patterns of behaviour among groupps of people who were worried about the climate. They would go in for nostalgia, religion, radical politics, creativity or a return to nature – and sometimes all at once. And I’m seeing them all again now. Art supplies have sold out on most mailorder sites, everyone is gardening or posting pictures of gardens and landscapes and wildlife on social media, on-line church attendance is much higher than the real-life services used to get, and there is talk all over the world about reconstruction to deal with the post-viral economy.
And then there’s the war analogies. So many of them, and, in reaction, so much wariness, for very good reasons. Brexit invoked the war-time spirit for its own purposes in a dishonest and manipulative way and the result was quite shocking to people who realised what lay behind it. But it was and is, massively successful. Why? Why?
I had a think about it when I saw the revival of land-girl fashion among some of the crafters and gardeners I know. I remember it from the first time (because not all of us could afford the new looks of the post-war period, and war-time clothes lasted a long time), so I found it quite off-putting, and occasionally frankly disturbing. But nostalgia doesn’t work in quite the way we usually think. I read about the first experiences of nostalgia among soldiers who were taken out of their home environments and served somewhere very different. They became actively ill and unfit for duty, and the only cure was to send them home. What doctors realised then was that the soldiers didn’t want to go home because they had a sentimental idealised memory of what it was like, which reality couldn’t deliver. Their minds generated that idealised vision of home precisely because of their profound and genuine need to be there.
So what we are doing, harking back to a period most of us don’t even remember, is visualising some genuine need that we locate in that idealised environment. What could it possibly be? War-time was terrifying, miserable, poverty-stricken, full of restrictions we of later generations are barely aware of. When I was young they would still test the air-raid sirens in case we needed them, and my mother would be almost hysterical with anxiety. But it is clear that Britain – at least England, as I don’t think we feel this quite so much in Scotland – has located some deep-felt need in that experience and will gang until it gets it.
The pandemic may have shown us what it is. We don’t, as the schemers behind the Brexit campaign seem to think, want to savour the glorious vistory, we don’t want to come together with an outsider enemy to fight against. What we want is comrades to fight with, a sense of a community to fight for. And now we have it. Neighbourhoods are coming together to raise money to cover the short-comings of government, to help out people who are self-isolating, to cheer up the children who are missing their friends. The community over the bridge organised a treasure hunt with clues posted in windows and on railings that families could follow last weekend. Our village organised a phone network so that isolated people could have regular conversations with neighbours. The clapping for carers is a moment when we all come to our front doors and check in with each other. Compliance with the social distancing measures is embraced even by people who clearly hate it (not saying we are all good at calculating two metres, or defining essential travel and shopping, though!).
Goodness knows there is bad stuff happening, and probably worse to come. But something is building from the ground up, and if we are wise, and hopeful, we can maybe help it on its way.