Monday 23 March
Boris Johnson introduces lockdown. Most people to stay at home. Police have function to enforce the law. I had a job booked in for Liverpool tomorrow. Forced to cancel it.
Tuesday 24 March
I feel lost. My wife is designated a key worker, so we’re sleeping in separate beds. We’ve removed our wedding rings for hygiene. It’s the first time since we got married. I look at my gouged out ring finger and tell myself that the excess is due to end. We have a chat about mum. I’m worried how she’ll get food. We’re making things up as they go along. It’s too soon to make any concrete plans. We’re in a state of flux.
I finished photo post-production this morning. It’s the last piece of work I have in the foreseeable future. I can’t find the space to think, so I spend some time in the garden.
In the garden I remember Grandad. He lived in a terraced house with a veg plot that looked out onto a field of cows. Now and then, they’d break through and trample all over his vegetables. He’d laugh it off, shoo them out and patch up the fence.
I recall the time I called in to see him with one of those big shoulder-bruising video cameras. I tried to film him going about his business, but he didn’t get the concept. He stood and grinned, as if I was taking a still photograph.
Now, with all this going on, I’m wondering if it was the other way round. That I didn’t get him. That it wasn’t my world that Grandad needed to grasp, but his world that he wanted me to see.
As time moves on, it strikes me how I’m falling into his ways. Whilst out on a walk during the first week of restrictions, I find myself ending my sentence with “God willing”. Before Coronavirus, most of us perceived life as cast-iron guaranteed. It’s a mirage that leads to a kind of malaise - where we shrug about bingeing on Netflix for several hours. Grandad would have seen that as a waste of time, a displacement activity, a disconnect. His view of life was less certain, but more freed up than ours. Thirty-five years after my self approving attempt to film him, I’m frozen by circumstance, thinking that Grandad’s life, blessed by unpredictability, held more truth than mine.
Then there’s the garden. Like Grandad, I make a compost pile. It comes out of the need to find a place for the pruning I’d done. If I can’t take it out, if the tips are closed, then I need to find a way of hiding it. A compost heap is born. Then I start fixing things. Only a week after I’d planned on dumping it, I’m planning on rejuvenating the rusty old pizza oven. Its primary role requisitioned from being an incubator of window-dazed birds.
Activities are getting connected. There are micro- patterns forming. They are minor things, but they are connections that make me feel a little more grounded and in control.The composting ritual of breaking down each branch and chamfering off the twigs feels like the most human of activities. I look at the neat spindle of branches I’ve cut and I make a plan to store them as kindling for the pizza oven.
Flour and water, tomato and cheese. That’s all we’ll need for unadulterated pleasure.
I’m thinking like Grandad. I’m in the ruts of his mind.
Wednesday 25 March
I had the first good night’s sleep for a long while. The other night I awoke in the early hours shivering with a dry throat. These mini-bouts of health anxiety are increasing. I’m more observational about how my throat feels. I’m more judgemental as to how hot I should feel on a particular occasion.
I had a dry throat because I left the window open, and I was shivering because the duvet had fallen to the floor. I took my temperature, just in case. It was 36.38.
So, I awoke after a decent night's sleep and the first thing I do is to check in with our dystopian world. Whilst reading the headlines, I get the strange feeling that something is missing, that there’s an elephant in the room - there’s too many silences in the news reports. I've been screen-grabbing the daily flight patterns - the signs are ominous.
I whisper to myself: “It will never be the same again.”
I have visions of a new society emerging out of the crust of the old. Events by video-link, cafe’s with big signs saying - ‘ALL UTENSILS SANITISED WITH STEAM HEAT’. People wander around in terrarium headgear. Copper surfaces abound. Parcel quarantine boxes are attached to houses and their doors are converted to self-opening. There develops a viral apartheid - those with immunity and those not. Those at risk and those not. Time becomes a commodity, restricted and stratified. Face touching is socially frowned upon. The rise of the self-cleaning bot - available for social interaction, touchy-feely hugs and safe sex. Then there’s the pattern of human activity - out of the urban centres and into the countryside - with access barriers around the periphery - ticketed and rationed.
It will never be the same again.
It’s a process of calibration, of uprooting. After the cancellations of work I fall into the old habits at home - washing the pots, listening to the radio. Now and then, I’m jolted back into the present and I have an existential crisis. I’m being challenged by events greater than myself.
Lenin said: “There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.”
Without any work, am I still a photographer? I feel shame at not being able to tackle the question, not being able to protract a viable route through all of this. I don’t feel ready for it yet.
Thursday 26 March
About 1BC (One Year Before Coronavirus), I awoke at around 4am in readiness to head out to an architectural photo shoot in Ilkley. The building was north-east facing, and the only way of capturing it with the sun on its facade was to be there at sunrise. Before I set off, I had breakfast. There was a looseness and frivolity about my breakfast making back then. Touching all the surfaces without a care in the world, biting my nails, rubbing my tired eyes.
The journey was joyous, tootling over the moors in the twilight whilst the horizon sucked in the warmth of the sun. As I descended into Ilkley, a cuticle sun appeared out of a fog bank, and I was confronted by one of the most life-affirming scenes. Silhouetted against the blazing sky of reds, oranges and pinks were thousands of rooks swirling, banking and circling over a farmhouse. A line of telegraph poles bore their fruit, swags of them, weighty and swaying under duress.
I was so taken by the beauty of it all that I didn’t photograph it. It was that good.
Back in the present, I tell Char that I’m heading out first thing on my designated exercise opportunity, to try and find the rising rooks in the hills nearby, to replicate the Ilkley experience. A bit of pre-covid nostalgia.
The route I take rises up through Chesham Woods, over the M66 motorway, through a farm and then up a lane into the hills. I’ve travelled it hundreds of times, but at this time of day the walk has a mystical feel to it. The atmosphere is unique. There’s an anticipation in the air. The birds know it.
About half way along my route, there’s a tree that’s sidled into a dry stone wall. Its branches are silhouetted against the pinky burgeoning of the sky. Beneath it is a curiosity that I’ve tried to photograph before: a lichen shadow on the wall that stretches under the form of the tree like a handlebar moustache. To the side of the tree somebody has dumped asbestos sheets and plasterboard in a passing bay. There’s more been dropped further up the lane at different points. They’ve taken advantage of the covid curfew, driven up the lane in the early hours, and pepper sprayed a mile and a half of country lane with asbestos.
My destination is a humped field that rises from the lane. It’s here that I’m hoping to see the corvids post-covid. I’m disappointed. There’s a few rooks dotted along the horizon, but not the massing that I’d seen at Ilkley. With the paucity of rooks and the abundance of asbestos, I’m in a depressed state.
As I head back I see the sun through a hole in the dry stone wall. It lifts my mood. Encouraged, I turn around and walk up to Scotland Lane and take in the view of the Rossendale Moors. Breathless, I tackle a farm gate with my elbows, and rise up the path to the most heart-warming of sounds. Fluting from the glowing orb itself is the melodious warble of a curlew.
“This was all worthwhile,” I think.
I tweet out a video with the sound. Tim Dee retweets, and his comment reverberates alongside the echo of the curlew:
“The poetry of the Earth is never dead... listen to this lovesweep of curlews and live..”
With the sun on my face, the sound of the birds, and words of comfort, I feel like Wordsworth in front of his daffodils.
I Facetime Mum, she’s sat in bed with a cup of tea. I share my view and she’s mesmerised after being in isolation for 9 days.
“Anyway, I have to head back, now Mum,” I say.
“Why - do you need a poo?” She says.
“I’m going to put that in my diary.”
I end the call and travel back along the lane in contemplation: from thoughts of Wordsworth, Byron, Keats and Shelley to pondering on the price of hand sanitiser, and wondering if there’s enough toilet roll left to cover mum's portent.
“The poetry of the Earth is never dead... listen to this lovesweep of curlews and live..” Tim Dee
“The poetry of the Earth is never dead... listen to this lovesweep of curlews and live..” Tim Dee
Friday 27 March
They have sealed the public litter bins. Bury Council has been in touch, they can no longer collect the waste food bin. We’ve been told to put all waste food and compost in the general waste for the foreseeable future. Is this how the cracks appeared in the Roman Empire? I have visions of a sentry at Vindolanda opening up his papyrus letter, notifying him that there are no sponges to wipe his bum with.
Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock have the virus.
I dreamt last night that I lost the kids. A fitful sleep where I kept waking and telling myself I was having a nightmare, that they were safe. It wasn’t helped by the fact that my hands were muffled by socks all night.
I found out yesterday that my son has been furloughed. I want to be with him, hug him and tell him things will be fine - gauge his response by sight. It’s the distance thing. I feel emotional. Has it really come to this?
There’s a cycle of ups and downs. I tell myself that I’m going through a kind of calibration - settling in to the new status quo. Despite my self-soothing, I’m feeling grumpy. With all the heartache out there, I feel so guilty. Is there a grumpy phase to the grief cycle?
Shock, denial, grumpiness, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance.
“Who the fuck’s that shouting at this hour in times like this?” I heard myself saying the other night, as somebody (breaking covid curfew) chortled in the woods opposite at 10pm.
Through the grumpiness, I’m seeing some positives. I’m writing more. I have the chance to finish a book that I’ve been working on since time immemorial. I love writing as much as photography, but I get too wordy and self-conscious and I’m using the time to listen to myself. I’m one of those people that slips into the conversation: “I’m writing a book,” or “There’s a bit in my book about that...”
There are other things happening that are far more selfishly pleasing. With everybody isolated at home, their dogs have stopped barking. I’m able to spend longer periods of time in the garden, or write with the windows open.
There are, however, far greater and less selfish positives than my peaceful back-yard. Alongside the sanity of the dogs, there’s a chance that the bees could come back, the sparrows might grace our dusty pavements again, and the smog be lifted from our cities for a short while. Imagine if the world had growth rings, like a tree. Cut it in half in a few millennia and you’d be able to spot 2020 a mile off.
Saturday 28 March
We ate out last night. Not in the conventional sense obvs, but out in the garden. We put up the gazebo and cooked a curry. For a brief moment, as the twilight shrouded our activities beneath a single pool of light, we forgot ourselves and the world we live in.
The post gets left in the vestibule now. I kick through it with my feet and leave it until I have to pick it up. I can’t keep washing my hands - they’re red raw. My eczema has come back, I’m sporting fissured knuckles. Am wondering if I’ll get my rings back on after all this is over. I’ve been smothering my hands in coconut oil and covering them with socks for the night.
To reduce the impact of hand sanitiser on my eczema, I’ve refined the washing process, but it has its pitfalls. For example, when I come in from my designated walk I always wash my hands. Sometime later, I need a wee and have to wash my hands again.
Now, after I return, I go for a wee whether I need it or not. That way I’ve covered two bases in one wash. Today, feeling smug with my new found efficiency, the horror of it all dawns upon me - there’s a flaw in my plan - I might have contaminated my wotsit. There’s no getting around it, I’ve got to wash my hands before I pee and after.
I look a mess at the moment. My hair is out of control. I’m thinking through what I’ll do with it. Shall I have the long curvy, always pushing it back with my hands, look? Or shall I spike it up to new heights? Or shall I just have Char shave it all off? I prefer the latter - but for my ears. I’m very conscious of my ears. I think that they’re lop-sided. My glasses are at a constant angle. My ears are causing me more trouble than they’re worth.
It all started on a midsummer’s day in 13BC, whilst driving along the A59 from a day out in Skipton. At first, there was a thumping in my right ear and then a vibrant high-pitched scream. I’ve been living with tinnitus ever since. Lockdown seems to make it worse.
The only way of dealing with it is to accept it. Once that’s done, there develops an uneasy relationship where at my most active times it stays in abeyance, but when I want to wind down, or fall asleep, it comes howling back with a vengeance. I’ve developed a way of teasing the silence back into my head by focusing on an ambient sound, like the wind or the chatter of magpies. Inside the house, there aren’t any chattering magpies to keep me focused, so I tend to have the radio on, or keep the TV on low in the background. Other than the dogs, it drives my other-half mad.
Today whilst anxiously checking through the larder I’ve got tinnitus TV on in the kitchen. Normally, I don’t bother as to what’s on, but increasingly I get snagged up in the activities - especially if those activities are sociable ones. This time, there’s a programme on about strangers coming together and cooking for each other. They meet and greet and hug in the hallway. They sit in the same room, inches apart, laughing and chatting. They drink from the same cup and pass finger food around as if there’s no tomorrow.
I watch it longingly.
“Lucky bastards,” I say, whilst carefully cradling our last box of eggs.
Sunday 29 March
I wake feeling refreshed. Molly, our cat, sits on my stomach and I stroke her. There’s a little groove between her shoulder blades that she likes me to massage. She purrs, and I can feel her peace in droves. I don’t know why, but it helps to know that she’s oblivious to all that’s going on. Her life continues as normal. There’s a poem that captures the feeling. When I read it, it drops the stress levels down a notch.
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry.
I read it again in bed.
Outside my window, there’s a half-mile run of Cherry trees along the boundary of a field. In my isolation, I’ve noticed the birds that congregate there. Long-tailed tits, blue tits, blackbirds. Today there’s a charm of twenty goldfinches flitting through the branches. They move along the trees from left to right. Whilst the roads and motorways sink back into silence, there are other highways coming back to life. When the goldfinches alight from their route, I notice a magpie working its way through the mulch at the bottom of the trees. It travels a good twenty metres before its forced into flight by a passing car. It’s the same for hedges. I’ve read somewhere that plants and other biota pass along nature’s super highways at the speed of one metre a year.
I’m thinking that our suffering has something to do with the goldfinches and the magpies and our desecration of their world with our asbestos hurtling lives. I could be wrong, but instinct tells me that what we’re going through has something to do with the plastic in our oceans, the bingeing on Netflix, the next day delivery of parcels, the laughing gas. It isn’t the individual acts themselves, but the cumulative acts of excess that threaten our existence.
After a little more thinking, I’ve changed my mind. It isn’t our excess that’s the main problem. It's me. Only yesterday, I had a next day delivery from Amazon, a plastic bottle of mouth-wash.
I feel that I know the answers but I continue to participate.
It’s upon resolving that conundrum that the future of humanity relies.
I tell people and they tell me that I’m very lucky. That my job as an architectural photographer isn’t a job at all. I’m always saying to others that I get paid for doing something that I love. Whilst going about my everyday business I have a concrete idea as to who I am, where I’ve come from and where I’m going.
Until last week I had a thriving joy of a vocation full of travel and interaction, of discovery and learning.
On Monday 23rd March all that stopped.
Whilst my body has adjusted to the physical constraints of my home, it will take much more time for my mind to understand what’s going on. There are far greater challenges ahead. The emphasis this week has moved from dealing with the angst of unemployment to investigating the nature of my identity, of who I am.
I’m questioning whether I’ll ever raise my camera in anger again; whether I’ll continue my vocation when normality returns.
Perhaps that’s something I’ll be able to answer in the coming weeks, God willing.
Life in Isolation - Week Two
Link to: Life in Isolation