I did wonder whether to post these diary entries this week. During lockdown, when people moaned about the restrictions on their lives, there were a lot of comments about how they should shut up because it wasn’t as if they were being asked to make the sacrifices that people make in war. And now we are all too aware of the sacrifices that actual wars call for. It puts all our concerns about lockdown in perspective.
As so often when I can’t make my mind up about something, I asked Twitter and Twitter said, ‘Don’t be silly. Life goes on. Run the post.’
So here we are with another visit to my wife’s journal from two years ago. (The last one was last Friday.) There’s no lockdown officially, but people are beginning to make their own decisions to shut down normal life.
Thursday 5 March 2020:
My first Thursday off. Officially I retire at the end of the month. So am I thinking seriously about the rest of my life? Like hell. Everything is in a stage of dislocation and disorientation, where we make half plans, not knowing if they will happen. My [birthday] party on 1 April? Taking the students to Parliament, now arranged for 22 April? Our ski holiday? I have a train and hotel booked for Exeter for Monday – but not for the following week.
I’ve been reading accounts of how a sophisticated multi-billion online advertising industry is deliberately making us distracted – on a daily and deeper level. I keep going to my phone to get the latest infection figures (now at over 80). But all the website actually does is tell us that something nasty is on its way and we should all wash our hands. Must buy more hand cream as my hands are getting dry and raw with all this washing.
Friday 6 March 2020:
To dance or not to dance [tango]? This is the big issue on Tom’s Facebook feed. Warren is closing his Mayfair milonga – followed by news that Mariposa is closing and (more of a shock) Carablanca. Only Martin from Tango Terra stands out. I don’t think it would occur to Martin that anyone would actually prefer a dance-free half-life to going out in a burst of glory, to music in a close embrace.
I sounded goody two-shoes by announcing that I was following Government advice, which was to carry on with normal activities. So on Thursday we went to Terra as normal – not as crowded as I’ve seen it, but pleasantly full. There was some hand gel on the bar, and I washed my hands before, but otherwise had a good time as usual.
We’ve just been to Aldi – postponed from 3 weeks ago when the car didn’t start. We got to Aldi early, and it was already full: the till queues went almost to the back of the shop. Tom and I persevered and filled our large trolley with an astonishing amount of food for £95. 12 tins of chickpeas, jam, mixed nuts. Peanut butter and rice cakes to put it on, so we won’t be reduced to eating it with a spoon. Aldi had a special offer on 24 roll packs of premium toilet roll, which was simply too good to resist. [At the time we were beginning to see photos of empty shelves of toilet paper and you could have taken such a picture in Aldi. What the photo would not have shown was the other side of the aisle which was filled with packs of toilet rolls that weren’t on promotion. Over the weeks ahead we would continually get contradictory stories about shortages. Some of them were true, others were not.]
“If we both die of coronavirus, you will appreciate this inheritance”, I explained to Mike on the phone. He didn’t sound impressed.
Saturday 7 March 2020
Last week in Exeter I obviously reacted badly to reading accounts of how new technology is subverting our lives. I managed to crack my laptop screen. And then tried to take a photo of the quay side in the cold. Fumbled and dropped my phone. So I have just taken it to the screen repair shop. Twickenham has its usual Rugby crowds (England v Wales), so no sign that people are lurking at home.
The phone shop has a big sign saying “face masks sold here”. But no suggestion they are selling any, or that anyone is wearing one.
A few things are disappearing from shelves. When I went to Waitrose, fruit and veg were looking as bounteous as ever. But towards the back – no liquid soap, no paracetamol, no tissues and a distinct shortage of toilet rolls. No couscous. No pasta. Good thing we bought all that stuff yesterday.
Friday 13 March 2020, 4pm
I don’t quite know what happened to Wednesday. Somehow it disappeared in a welter of distraction and uncertainty. My plan had been clear enough. Do some minor work. Pack for ski trip. Get toenails painted. Meet Mike [our son] for supper and see “Magic Goes Wrong” at the Vaudeville Theatre. Oh – it’s a hard life being almost retired.
Instead, I followed Guardian Live obsessively, full of university closures. Italy was in lockdown. Still, priorities: I did get my toenails done. “But no-one will see them” Tom said. Decided I would see them. And then, at 5.15 we got the train to Waterloo to meet Mike at Bella Pasta before the theatre.
Mike looked stressed – but more by ordinary life than Covid-19. When we suggested that Macron would close the borders, he just shrugged and said he hadn’t been following it. He worried that Gilly [his wife] might have to extend her stay in Northern Ireland. “The stuff I’m doing though, isn’t at all important. No-one would notice if we just send everyone home.”
The show was roll around funny. We laughed a lot, at all the obvious gags: the lady who gets sawn in half (buckets of blood); the guy who gets drowned in a tank. Brilliant staging and a lot of verve.
On Thursday, Tom decided that he wasn’t going dancing, so I rearranged to meet D for lunch rather than supper. Went to our usual café, which wasn’t full exactly, but giving the impression of normality. We vowed to keep meeting as long as we could – and asked the café owner for his phone number “so we could check if he is still open”. The owner looked bemused, and then worried. He is still carrying on by momentum and had not contemplated closure.
I called in at work, to chat to C and A about how things were going and picked up at lot of paper to read at home. J is in Geneva, but her big family reunion in the Turks and Cacaos is looking stuffed. Must ring her.
Then got a call from Tom. Martin is offering a free concert with no dancing: “but let’s get together anyhow”. Arranged to meet Tom there, which gave me time to do some last minute shopping. Went to the Algerian Coffee shop, where I lingered as long as possible, smelling the coffee. Then bought a dress from Urban Outfitters. An act of faith in my future life.
I met Tom at 7pm, back in Bella Pasta, where he had a two for one offer. The girl next to us, Charity, had come from Nashville to a Country music festival at the O2, which had just been cancelled. She asked about stuff to see. “If you are at loose end tonight, why don’t you come to a free tango concert,” Tom said. So we took her along.
[I remember walking with her through Covent Garden, usually buzzing early on a Thursday evening. It was eerily quiet. I think that was when we realised quite how much things were changing.]
The atmosphere at Terra was weird. I put on my new dress, and the shoes I just happened to have in my bag. Martin hadn’t moved the tables, as there wasn’t meant to be dancing – so we danced around the tables – with A and K and other regular partners.
“This is a mirage. I thought I could see dancing, but it is clearly a dream” Martin said. We felt we were dancing in the face of doom. As A said, “I’m over 70 and am told that I’m at risk, but you just have to keep going”. But lots of worries too. K played her violin and said all her work had dried up. V was stuck in London, while her father was sick in Italy. Old people die – that happens. But they shouldn’t have to die alone, frightened and isolated away from their families.
It was a night to remember. Dancing as an act of rebellion, as we challenged the fates to do their worst. And as an act of community, as we all embraced. But it will be the last for a while. I wonder what Charity from Nashville made of it.
More next week.
We can keep this up for two years (though I’ll have to start running my normal posts too). Let me know what you think of it.