Place of writing: my grandparents’ house in France and my home in the UK.
While I was writing for Times Shifting, I was navigating the turbulent process of online schooling and trying to stabilise the work-life balance that had been thrown off- kilter. As with the rest of the country, I had to recede into the insular world that was my family and my home: luckily for me, my family were already my friends, and my home – surrounded by acres of empty woodlands – became a shelter from most COVID anxieties.
Emotionally, I was lurching between feelings of joy at the extended time with the people I loved, feelings of frustration with the vast quantity of unknowns that had been thrust into my previously predictable life, and feelings of bewilderment at the rapidly changing world around me, as viewed through a TV screen during the 6 o’clock news. Nonetheless, as we move towards a Christmas of spiralling statistics and ever-closer COVID cases, I feel a slight pang of envy when looking back at a lockdown filled with sunny days and consistency, even if that consistency was a restrictive one.
Writing was a good way of compartmentalising what I was feeling and of recognising the magnitude of adjustments in the lives of myself and those around me. It was great to hear the perspectives of other writers in other locations and to mirror their experiences onto my own – ultimately, it reiterated the sense of national unity that was created by a shared lockdown.
On the other hand, journaling allowed me to appreciate the combined beauty and ugliness of the time period, and it allowed me to connect with the reality in front of me during a phase which would otherwise have felt incredibly surreal.
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The world during COVID:
- The announcement came in the evening. Elbows braced against the kitchen table, I stared up at the TV screen in shock. In the space of a single speech, the Prime Minister changed my planet’s trajectory, sending it spiralling down a strange and unpredictable path. Although the notion of ‘lockdown’ still baffled me, I could sense its gravity – the noun is burdened with solemnity, and the feeling that history had changed in front of my eyes was unshakeable.
It surprised me that the world kept turning. It was as if someone had picked up the globe and tipped it on its head, shaking and shaking until the life fell out of it. The quiet was stifling, and a smog of fear polluted the streets. At first, it seemed like every interaction spelled confrontation: to bump into another person in the supermarket aisle, which may once have resulted in an awkward two-step shuffle, now called for narrowed eyes and strings of curses. Like a set from a post-apocalyptic blockbuster, the streets were deserted during rush hour – the only sound was the occasional thrum of car engines as commuters snuck the few metres from their front door to their car door, keeping their chin tipped to the ground as if to avoid being recognised by self-isolating neighbours. There was an uncomfortable juxtaposition between the need to shield and the need to work, with articles about economic downturn and virus deaths inducing muted hysteria. When breaking the rules meant risking lives, doors were barred against the world.
- I had never realised how natural it is to hug. Hugging is an automatic action: we hug our friends, we hug our parents, we sometimes even hug strangers who become familiar after a half- hour conversation. Now, even hugging the dogs in the park was socially unacceptable.
We had climbed the summit of the hilly golf course and were perched on the ridge of a bunker, my right hand gripping a water bottle and the other entwined with yours. In the Tupperware box in your backpack was a stack of cinnamon buns – our third batch proofed, rolled, and iced meticulously; a symptom of the lockdown boredom that turned a nation of Instagram- scrollers into amateur bakers. The lid of the Tupperware was steamed like the sky hanging over us, which was dusted with water vapour and a haze of confusion.
- At 17, we were supposed to be concerned only by teenage thoughts, with the dilemma of fake IDs and cheap hangovers at the forefront of our minds; but our generation had been stripped of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and left with stunned silence in its place. At first, this seemed like a theft of our identities: the juiciest pages of the Zeitgeists which we starred in had been cut from the final edit, and any chance of youthful rebellion had been confined to our imaginations. However, as we used this chance to take a pause from growing up and look at ourselves rather than those we surrounded ourselves with, I think we learnt lessons that would otherwise have taken us a decade to realise. If wisdom comes with age and a single day of lockdown seemed to comprise of 48 hours, then there is no doubt that we grew older and wiser in a matter of months.
Soon after it all started, the sky was healing. With the air no longer being slit by planes, the usual scar tissue of vapour was fading. The stretch between horizons was an unspoilt blue, interrupted only by buzzards wheeling through thermals and finches flitting between branches. As the buzz of the city dulled to a hum, the glint of store windows reflected ambling clouds instead of passers-by, and birdsong finally superseded the melody of traffic.
- This generation learnt how to communicate in a new way. The abundance of time brought families closer than they had been for years: when we were confined to our own four walls all day, we were forced to collide with the others who shared our space. Most impressive of our social adaptations were the weekly Zoom calls scheduled into the calendar, compelling us to bond over the frustrations of quiz questions. Maybe it was the prevalence of death, which was plastered in remorseless statistics over every news bulletin, or maybe it was the ache of isolation, which encouraged us to fall back on those we trusted for reassurance – either way, when we reached out for help in early 2020, we found those we loved again.
We had the privilege of falling in love over Facetime. We learnt how to touch without touching, how to feel close from afar, how to talk and how to listen. We realised that in a world where voices from southern Australia to northern Norway were communicating about the struggles of COVID, then there was no reason that 20 miles of separation should be a problem for us either. After months of leaning on one another, we built a strength between us that will be sacred as our worlds shift for the second time.
The world post-COVID:
a prospective diary
The concept of ‘normal’ has been debunked. There is no way we can return to ‘normal’ because, as protested by Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, and all the activists in between, there is no ‘normal’ that we want to reclaim. The society of our past, riddled with its flaws and hypocrisies, has been scrutinised and uprooted; and the perspective gained with distance has taught us how wrong we have been. The Britain that wakes from its quarantine hibernation has a new energy, a new resolve. In the aftermath of WW2, Germany christened its new beginning as ‘Year 0’: the multitudinous errors of the last decade, though not forgotten, had been firmly relocated to Germany’s BCE era, and a new opportunity for growth was born. If we follow the trajectory of the war- ravaged nation from 1945 to 2020, the extent of their success is nothing short of remarkable, hence their history is credited as an ‘economic miracle’. 2021 is Britain’s ‘Year 0’ – a year for choosing the future that we want, and for finally navigating the path to get there.
- Day by day, the park refills with people traffic. The sloping meadow is lined with rows of sunbathers like paper people chains, their fingers grazing and sweat intermingling.
Christmas 2020 – I open presents under the watchful eyes of my grandparents from the other end of the table. I make excessive effort to show my excitement on my face, knowing that my gratitude can’t be shown through a hug.
- The New Year’s fireworks display is broadcast across the country, as it is on every December 31st. Every few minutes, the camera pans from the flashes of light to the crowds gathered below; crowds that squeeze the sides of the Thames and clamber over one another for the best view of a lit-up sky. This year, however, each smiling face is half-covered with a mask. Every year is deemed ‘remarkable’ in its own way, but this one has been a write-off; so, when the countdown ticks to zero, the excitement of being rid of a record year is tangible across the world. As we cross the finish line of the greatest obstacle course in recent memory, we do so as a team – as one united species.
By the time that my generation arrives in the world of work, it is in a different shape to the one that we had expected. Instead of being delivered monotonous office schedules, we are granted the freedom to alternate time between the home and the office to better balance our full lives. There is no longer such a thing as a ‘workplace’; instead, there are endless ‘places of work’, be they cafes or kitchens or company-owned desks. The new range of choices unplugs the productivity block that has been lamented for years – but, more crucially, it gives us the opportunity to embrace a true work–life balance. For mothers, the chance to work from home allows more time to feed the kids before school and pick them up at the end of the day. For those vying for competitive London jobs but confined to the suburbs by swelling house prices, it removes hours of wasted time sat on trains, let alone the vast costs of commuting. For those rushing from place to place with their eyes trained on gaps in the crowd, it allows the time to pause and truly see the things that their weary gaze had fallen on blankly. If time is money, the nation’s workers have been made rich, because the time that we save allows us to pace our lives.
- In 2020, we learnt how to cooperate on a phenomenal scale. Throughout the 2020s and 30s, this newfound ability to collaborate brings unprecedented innovation. Thousands of students, terrified by post-recession employment prospects and increased costs of living, bring enough drive and ambition to fuel hundreds of think tanks. The 3-month trial of meetings via Zoom created enough confidence for international businesses to collaborate on research and development, bringing together the brightest minds humanity has to offer so that renewable resources and Green technology is unveiled in time to stymie the next great disaster.
The middle-aged look back on the Year of Coronavirus as a personal triumph of endurance. When walking past an oddly-placed mask-wearer on the streets of 2040 Britain, it is common for their eyes to glaze over and their thoughts to veer off track as they exclaim: “that takes me right back to 2020”. Their children look at them with bemusement, wondering for the umpteenth time how the ordeal of wearing a mask and staying at home could have inflicted such trauma on their parents. By this time, it is common practice to wear masks on public transport, and although the choice of wearing a mask in shops or crowded streets is as divisive as the choice of wearing seatbelts on buses, the habit of carrying spare masks in pockets or purses has become so ingrained that it is hard to imagine an alternative.
- Schoolchildren faking illnesses to skive are reprimanded by their parents with the overused phrase, “in my day, we weren’t even allowed to go to school!” Anyone who had not experienced the crisis could be forgiven for believing that the peak of the Coronavirus epidemic had lasted for at least a year – but when COVID is remembered, it isn’t the virus itself that is bemoaned, but the cataclysmic shift in reality that wracked the planet from pole to pole. The deaths, the illnesses, and the mourning have been overshadowed by the shared memory of the daily struggle of quarantine to such an extent that although there are no plaques to honour those lost, there is hardly a child that can’t recite their grandparents’ every contribution to the ‘fight against the virus’ – but if there is one message to be derived from the fable, it is that the individual reactions to a global problem can determine the end result. The COVID generation eventually became old, frail, and vulnerable. They are not threatened by another pandemic, nor any other national struggle – but the community bonds that were taught in 2020 have survived into 2080. Neighbours check in on one another, prescription runners collect medicine for the street, and a friendly smile at passers-by has become the norm. Karma suggests that good actions given out will see good actions returned, so it seems natural that by creating a community whose members are unafraid to ask for help, we will reap the rewards of a society that functions as it should.
Empathy: we learnt it?
All writing, all images © The Imagining History Programme UK