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Monday 30 March
Today, first thing I do is answer my emails. Since posting the first week of my isolation diary, I’ve had over sixty emails and a myriad of DM’s, messages, texts and phone calls. What’s remarkable is that I’ve had an email from almost every continent. We’re all in this together.
People have been so kind to take the time to contact me, to offer comfort and tell me their stories. I cherish every contact, and I take time this morning to respond to everyone. Each contact is a little bubble of buoyancy that keeps me afloat during these times.
There’s a morning routine developing. A bit of meditation, a cup of tea, and then I carefully wash the day’s fruit for eating later. Before Char returns, I spritz the door knobs with disinfectant. I try to alternate the days with different kinds of exercise. One day I’ll take a run or a brisk walk, another I’ll find a mind soothing activity. I’m an avid reader, but I’m finding it difficult to read at the moment, I still feel unsettled.
My accountant calls me and tells me I am eligible for the Self Employment Income Support Scheme, but after spending decades living off my instinct, tightening the belt here and there, working unpalatable hours - it’s hard to put the hand out for it. I’m just not of that mindset.
I’m part of a group called Sketchbook Social which is a collaboration between Bury Art Museum and our local coffee shop, Bloom. We meet up once a month and, over a glass of wine, we sketch and socialise. It’s a life saver and I miss it terribly. Whilst we hang on every word of the scientists that are battling to make sense of this pandemic, one thing is certain, our creatives will be photographing, painting and sculpting their way out of this crisis, producing responses that help others articulate their emotions.
Whilst out on my designated walks, I notice patterns forming in the behaviour of the people that I see.
The overly enthusiastic - clocks you twenty metres away, pulls out a telescopic broom, steps back into the embankment until tip of broom sidles up against the roadside.
The rule breaker - dark shades, hoody, no eye contact.
The panicked - head in smartphone, hurtles into the hedge upon meeting.
The ‘til death do us part’ couple - matching T’s and walking boots, holding hands, shorts, sharing a smoothy.
The ‘virus will tear us apart’ couple - walking in parallel, two metres apart, wax jackets, face masks, gloved-up.
The forgetful - shares a coronavirus anecdote and then tries to high five you.
The socialite - puffed up eyes, crying.
The anti-social - smug look, always heading home.
I ask the Sketchbook Social Facebook group if they have a response to my descriptions. Dennis Markus replies with some wonderful portrayals of my anecdotal observations.
The overly enthusiastic
The rule breaker
Tuesday 31 March
I wake up and jump in the shower - get soap in my eyes whilst dancing to Blind by Hercules and Love Affair.
Over the week, I’ve noticed some habits changing. Instead of news stations, I listen to music stations including Radio 2 and Classic FM. I can only absorb small nuggets of news. When news reaches a certain level of saturation, it hardens the arteries.
I eat far healthier than I did a few weeks back. Although I keep getting a craving for Holland’s meat pies and crisp butties. I’ve reduced my alcohol intake and I exercise more. I use my beard as a litmus test for sanity. Its growth is absorbing the stress. There ensues a weird beard battle, where I stare at myself in the mirror and tell myself that I need to trim my beard, but I can’t. My body is willing, but my mind won’t allow - there’s still more stress that it needs to absorb. Then, when the stress tanks are full, I become a rabid beard-trimmer. Pre-covid, I used to get it with my hair, feeling lighter and happier after the cut.
Char and I are still isolating from each other. Not sure whether it’s the right approach. It’s born out of the argument that we need to protect each other. For me, Char is a key worker, and it’s important to keep her out there key working. I’m surprised at how impacted I am by the lack of touch. There was a myriad of semaphore micro-touches that went on before covid. Greeting, hugging and comforting touches. Departing touches. Touches that remind and touches that show. Touches of confirmation and playful retaliation. Hoovering touches that remove a stray hair or a speck of dust. Thumbing away a tear or recovering an eyelash. Dotting her nose with my forefinger or running my fingers through her hair. Cupping her elbow in times of stress or touching her wedding ring for affirmation.
It’s funny how times like this can have you running back through your life and evaluating moments and events. When Grandad was ill and in hospital, he told me tales about how he and Nan (who died in her sixties) used to cycle all the way to Blackpool from Middleton on a tandem. Part way through his story, he broke down, and I reached out and touched his hand. He wasn’t a touchy-feely person, but I could tell that this simple act meant the world to him.
There’s a quote by Henri Nouwen:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.”
This disease is depriving people of the most powerful of human senses. For me, it throws an acute light on my pre-covid device addiction. The bland, brainless swiping has to stop, I will reach out and develop real human connections. I think that I owe it to those that have to say goodbye to their loved ones via video-link.
It’s late, and Char is back. We’ve taken upon sitting in the back, two metres apart, talking through our day. It’s a process of catching up and letting go, of unloading. I cherish these moments of communication, of human contact. Char starts to talk. I’m hanging on to her every word, its intonations, the drama and the unfolding narratives. Whilst we catch up, I notice a shift in the atmosphere, we’ve stopped focusing on each other, there’s somebody else in the room. Rising out from the radio at the back of the kitchen is a soulful, gripping melody. It permeates the place, hijacks our conversation. It makes me think of the sufferance of others, the mourning and the heartache.
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery
None but ourself can free our minds...”
It’s Bob Marley’s Redemption Song.
Wednesday 1 April
My hands are better - the eczema has disappeared. The overnight socking of my hands has worked. Fancifully, I imagine a burglar being confronted by my wielding, socked hands.
I bump into Steven on my walk. Steven is a regular dog-walker who drives up in his orange van and walks through the woods. He lives pretty much off grid. He calls me over and asks me if it’s all over.
He looks at me so desperately for affirmation, that I just want to say: “Yes, it’s all over - miraculously - they found a cure.” I just want to gift him a couple of moments of sanity.
“No, not yet, I say - you need to keep in touch with the news.”
“I do,” he says, “but I’ve seen so many people out today that I thought there’d been an announcement.”
It’s true. On my walk I see people playing ball games, a dog training group decked out in hi-vis vests, and kids working on their half-pipes in the skate park.
I’m having way more dreams than usual. Maybe it’s a pressure-valve response to lockdown. Monday night’s dream brought on a night-sweat of epic proportions. It’s only today that I put together the strands of reality that led to my reverie.
The first strand involves an art work by Stanley Chow, which shows Freddie Mercury in his ‘I want to break free’ wig and earrings. He’s bearded and grinning. It’s complicated - but in the same way that the number 42 is the answer to life in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - the answer to my wellbeing lies in this piece of art. Hugh Conway Morris says that art “can reveal the ensoulment of the universe.” Just one look at it lifts me. On Sunday night we touched upon it - discussed him and the utter joy of the man and his persona.
The second strand involves a time-travelling school in Bacup. In February, a heritage group asked me to talk to a primary school class in Bacup about their local Victorian church, which has been robbed-out and vandalised. Part of the lesson involved six inflatable time travelling globes. During the lesson, I tell the kids that spinning the globes anti-clockwise will take us back in time. When we start spinning - the screen behind me time-lapses key events in history until we hit 1864 - the founding year of the church.
The third strand involves a pangolin. I read in the Guardian on Saturday about how the increasing population in China has spilled over into areas that act like viral fire-breaks, halting viruses that might be harmful to humans. It mentions that one cause of the coronavirus outbreak might have been a pangolin that inherited the virus from a bat. To put it in layman’s terms, the bat bites the pangolin; the pangolin becomes infected; the pangolin passes it on to his human neighbour.
And my dream?
It’s one of those semi-clad affairs, set in front of thousands of people. I’m running across the stage at Live Aid, dressed in Freddie Mercury’s ‘break free’ garb, with an inflatable globe in my hand being chased by a pangolin.
Back at the school in Bacup, I challenge the children to make some stained glass diamond patterns to replace the vandalised quarries. Whilst the kids are finishing their glass designs, I’m wandering around the class commenting upon their work whilst deflating the time-globes. There’s a tug on my elbow. It’s a girl with a quarry design in her hand. She’s drawn flowers, butterflies and bees. I tell her how striking it is, and ask her why she chose the bees, but she’s agitated. That’s not what she wants to tell me.
“Sir,” she says, looking anxiously at the flattened globe.
“Yes,” I say.
“Don’t forget, you left us in 1864 - you need to bring us back to 2020.”
￼Oh, how I wish that I had the magical powers that the girl had invested in me. I wish that, with the spin of an inflatable globe, I could take the children and the loved ones they might lose - their brothers and sisters, teachers, parents and grandparents - back out to a little island set in 1864. Just for a brief time, until all this is over.
Imagine if we could honour the future of that girl and her class at Bacup and travel back to the past - but this time with hindsight - spinning our globe anti-clockwise until we undo all the mistakes that we’ve made. We cherish the resources we have, halt the rampant excess, keep the viral fire-breaks by learning the difference between want and need. Then we spin it clockwise, forwards in time until we come back to the day the virus started early in December 2019, but under different circumstances. This time the viral fire-breaks remain.
Deep in a forest in China, a bat bites a pangolin. Next day the pangolin, foraging on the outskirts of the forest, starts to feel a bit woozy. With nowhere else to go, it seeks the comfort of the canopy, climbs a tree nearby, alights on a branch, feels dizzy and falls off its perch and dies.
And that’s it.
Thursday 2 April
Turns out that there’s a shortage of virus tests in the UK. There’s also confusion about the antibody test and the antigen test. When I speak to a friend, Steve Tomlin, he tries to explain the difference. He takes on a serious tone, and in his enigmatic way proffers an answer that’s worthy of a doctorate. After he’s told me, there’s a brief pause - then I ask him if it was antigen that married uncletony.
Mum needs groceries, so I head down to her on my bike. The journey was more like the Space Odyssey than covid oddity. There were times where it felt completely normal. Then there occurred the corona-warp factor phenomenon. It’s where several imponderables coalesce to make you feel as though you're living on a different planet. Such as at the junction in Heywood, where I’m waiting for a light to change. There’s nothing to see until, from both sides of the road, people emerge like the walking dead wearing face masks. At the same time, a double-decker bus passes me with people staring out at me wearing face masks.
Keeping in line with the Space Odyssey theme, arrival at mum’s felt more like a docking than a greeting. She’s stood in the front window waiting for me; then after taking a photo of me (no doubt for verification) - she runs out of the front door with her arms flailing telling me to halt whilst she opens the disinfected air chamber (garage). Inside the concrete box, there’s a single chair, a table with an anti-radiation pill (a marshmallow) and a bottle of hand sanitiser on it. Mum shuts the garage door so hard that my ears pop. I’m sealed in. As soon as that door shuts, after a few seconds, an inner door creaks open, and there’s mum smiling, in rubber gloves - sat on a chair deep within the bowels of the house. I’m tempted to speak to her via my phone.
I shout to Mum, “What would, Dad think?”
She hollers back, "He’d be out there, chatting to everybody, infecting them all.”
Dad’s no longer with us. But I’m keeping video and photographic records for the day we meet (which in the current climate could be sooner rather than later).
When we do meet, after hugs and tears, we’ll sit down and catch up.
“Why is your mum locking you in the garage?”
“Dad, err, you’re not going to believe this, but the entire world shut down because of something we couldn’t see, which came from a scaly mammal in a Chinese forest. Turns out it was caused by next day delivery.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Dad - you remember all the weirdo, hippy types that ate vegetables and kept bantering on about the planet population and global warming?”
“You mean the ones that I always said were cuckoo?”
“Err, yep - turns out it’s us mask wearing, self-isolating, social distancing urbanites that are cuckoo.”
“Bloody Hell - now that’s hard to believe, but if you say so, son.”
“Oh yeah, and guess what? Man City won the league last year.”
“Piss off - never in a month of Sundays.”
Friday 3 April
Overheard on the designated walk:
“I’ve run out of hand sanitiser, do you think I’ll be able to use VIPoo instead? I’ve got loads of that left.”
“Apparently it’s now more embarrassing to cough than fart.”
I tidy the garden. I put on my airpods and think what Dad might have listened to. He loved a bit of Hawkwind - so with some reluctance, (because it’s not my bag) - I Spotify The Hall of the Mountain Grill - Psychedelic Warlords (Disappear in Smoke).
OMG! Pre-covid it made me feel nauseous, but post-covid it feels relevant, energising. I dance around the garden with the broom as an improvised Stratocaster.
World turned upside down now
Nothing else to do
Live in concrete jungles
House block seven view
And that ain’t no joke
You could disappear in smoke
And that ain’t no joke
You could disappear in smoke
Dad! Now I get it! I completely get it!
I’ve heard on the grapevine that our meritocracy is in pieces. The wanton excesses of our celebrities are being called out - it’s no longer cool to showcase luxury - in fact - it’s quite distasteful. With the inevitable shunning of luxury brands over the coming months, I have an idea.
Like others are doing, let’s donate to the NHS. Let’s have their soap dispensers filled with Aesop. Let’s install stargazer ceilings in their refectories and build them swimming pools to wind down in. Why shouldn’t they walk to work with John Lobb or Jimmy Choo? Let’s give them vouchers for the Ivy, and most of all - because they’re worth it - let’s fill their shower rooms with L’Oreal.
Over the last few days retired NHS staff are flooding back into the hospitals to help shore up the system. I feel emotional about the risks they’re taking. But they won’t hear a word of that. In their heroically self-effacing way, they’ll tell you that they’re more concerned about the milk rota and who’ll buy the next jar of coffee.
Mischievously, I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the inevitable reunions. It will be full of bruised and abashed interactions between those that bought a leaving present and those that didn’t. There’ll be furtive glances between people that suspended their affairs upon retirement. And what about the disgruntled nurse that placed the enveloped doggy doo in their bosses top drawer on her last day? There’ll be an increased demand for zimmer frames - not for the patients, but for the NHS staff. And what if they come back with their 80s mindset: smoking at consultations, page three pin-ups and the return of the Hattie Jacques matron?
I can imagine some of the conversations between present day practitioners:
“Oh my God, did you see who’s back? She’s still got her 90s haircut!”
“Can you believe it? Dr Smith’s on the wards! Didn’t he say that he’d once met Florence Nightingale?”
Saturday 4 April
There’s a lot more light-hearted ribbing going on. Maybe it’s a surrogate for the lack of touching. I tell Char that she has something on her top lip. She pauses and tells me that it’s time that I knew. She (like Tootsie) has always had a 'petit moustachio’ problem and until covid she’d always had it bleached.
I stop what I’m doing, spit my tea out in astonishment. I feel bruised that I didn’t know this most intimate of secrets.
She laughs out loud and brushes her top lip. Turns out that it’s a bit of immune-boosting juice from the NutriBullet.
Dystopian futures: Spitting on somebody is elevated to manslaughter - football players rue the day. Animal sanctuaries become people sanctuaries. Bank holidays are cancelled to boost work effort. Bring a bottle and your own glass, plates and cutlery at unlicensed restaurants. Drive-in cinemas make a comeback.
My camera has a ‘heads up’ display. When I look through the viewfinder I can see information such as aperture and ISO augmented on the screen before me. I’m wondering if our house has had coronovirus on its surfaces. What if I could see it through the viewfinder - a coronavirus detector - showing it up as a day-glo green slime? Where would it be?
I take a guess: on the front door, for sure - around the letter box. Our postman’s always turning up with a cold. Even before coronavirus, I used to carry the post into the house as if a dead rat by its tail. Then there’s the door handles, through the vestibule and into the kitchen. I think of the ‘desire’ paths through the house - those places we touch that we’re not aware of. When I walk through the vestibule into the house, I don’t touch the door handle - I push the panel. After I’ve opened the freezer door, I don’t shut it with my hand, but with my foot. Can you get it on your shoes? If not, why all the footage of streets being sanitised?
As I’m writing this, I hear somebody cough outside. I duck, finger open the plantation blinds, and take a furtive look - they’re walking past Char’s car.
“Shit, we’ve got coronavirus hurtling along our motorways at 70mph.” I think.
It’s only for the briefest millisecond, but I think it:
“What if my lover becomes my killer?”
Char still goes to work each day, she gets the food - she’s most at risk.
Before coronavirus, my heart leapt with joy when I heard Char come through the door.
Now I jump for the Dettol.
Sunday 5 April
I pick up on some news that a GP surgery in Wales has sent a letter out to elderly and vulnerable people asking them to consider a ‘do not resuscitate’ option on a form. I’m horrified. Age UK calls pressure on people to sign ‘do not resuscitate forms’ morally repugnant.
It gets me thinking about my purpose. I want to be doing something, contributing to something. I haven’t realised it before - but whenever I use my camera, I always feel as though it has relevance.
I like to think that all my work has meaning. I even use the most mundane jobs to ‘crowd surf’ to opportunities where I might make a difference with my camera. The kids in Bacup don’t deserve to have one of their most beautiful buildings razed to the ground, so I photograph it with the singular purpose of showing them that all is not lost, that there is hope, and that they are an important part of that hope. The photographs are purposeful.
At the school, after we do our time travelling exercise and discuss the beautiful style of their church, I show them the photographs of the vandalised church. It isn’t easy viewing. So, before I show them, I tell them the story of Archimede Seguso, a glass maestro and co-owner of the Murano glass factory in Venice.
On a fateful day in 1996, Archimedi Seguso saw Venice’s beloved Opera House burn down. He had lived next to the Fenice all his life. I imagine that he often listened to the melodious vocals of the opera singers on warm summer nights. Instead of operatic tones, smoke spewed out ash and embers from the ancient structure. He stood from his balcony and watched it for hours, shocked and mesmerised at the same time. His family, being concerned for his safety, asked him to go inside - but he just stood and watched. Then, after the fire, he took himself to his workshop and spent hours behind closed doors making glass.
The glass that he made is some of the most sought after glass in the world, but that’s not the point. What counts is that this man, at 86 years old, had something to contribute, something to say, something never seen before, something that was remarkably purposeful. He had been through the depths of what it is to be human. Seguso, through his wisdom, showed us a way forward, a way of coping with tragedy. Anybody else might see the glowing embers of the Fenice with sadness and hatred, but Seguso infused their luminescence into the glass that he made. He tempered his future with the tragedy of the past and created art that communicates. He secreted within the glass a lesson for us all: whilst we sit and witness this human tragedy unfold, we should cultivate a meaningful future from our present woes.
Such is the power of art. In times like these artists become prophets.
In the classroom at Bacup, I show them the photographs of their church.
They are stoical and hopeful, they see nothing but the time they’ll be able to go and use it again after it's been saved. Then, in the spirit of Seguso, the children busy themselves with the task of creating stained glass designs which might one day be used in the renaissance of their church.
To think that somebody like Archimedi Seguso, somebody in their so-called twilight years, might give these children, these green shoots of our future, a reason to flourish and, in turn, help us rise like a phoenix out of the ashes.
Life in Isolation - Week Three
Link to: Life in Isolation
"Let's ring our bells. Let's ring them from our churches, from the rooftops, from our houses. Let's ring them at the same time of day, every day until we are delivered from this. Ring them in our homes and businesses, from our balconies, our radios and our devices. Let's not muffle them this time, but ring them aloud with muffled hands and faces." #RingTheBells
Link to: Ring The Bells