Overcoming fears, discovering nature … what I have learned from lockdown

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As lockdown eases, authors including Anne Enright, Mark Haddon and Sebastian Barry reflect on what they have learned – and what comes next

Anne Enright: ‘Disaster brings out the best in children’ 

I remember being at an airport gate (back in the other life and somewhere far away), watching a toddler run around like a charming lunatic, stealing the hearts of one waiting passenger after another, while being pursued by a pair of exhausted parents. I knew, even before I heard the accent, that this child was Irish. She was not a silent French toddler, not a Finnish child doing her homework while on the road. This was the kind of complete and cheerful non-compliance that Irish children call “having fun”. Of course it was the tension that made her bonkers; there is nothing like pushing your parents over the edge, in the queue for a 12-hour flight. 

I used to wonder at my own small human beings, as I tried to herd them across a public space, or park them outside a shop, or persuade them to let me work. Sometimes I tried to explain to them that, if I didn’t work, we wouldn’t have money for toys, and I would love to say that this tactic worked. It did not work. My children were tension magnets. As soon as I got thoughtful, they got provoking and, when times were hard, I really wondered how humankind had managed to survive, it seemed like such a piece of bad design. What if there was a war – would they then do what they were told? If there was a famine, would they pull their weight? If things got truly bad, would they just continue to make it worse? These catastrophic thoughts were a great self-indulgence, I know that now. I also know the answer to my question about my children, who are now teenagers, and global events. Disaster does not make them behave, but it does bring out the best in them – which is not the same thing. 

I bailed out of an American book tour in the middle of March and slept for two days straight, and my children decided that this was not the time to come in and put the dog treats in my ear, followed by the dog. A couple of days later, I paused outside two teenagers’ bedrooms and instead of the usual clatter of memes I heard them, each on their devices, listening to the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, address the nation. This was, for them, an entirely new kind of seriousness. It was world politics, happening in their own home, and they understood it. They did not take the imposition of social distance as a personal insult. They did not use the word “unfair” about the new reality, though it is their word of choice for everything else in life that feels onerous, negative or imposed.

I would love to say that they got out of bed before noon, took over the washing machine, or that no sparks flew. After the first stillness, there was a wave of anxious self-interest, a predictable and not always seemly scrabble for resources as parents and children put in the huge work of setting up online. After this, something new happened. I did not miss the pressure from peers that lockdown took away, but I did not expect the communality our teenagers began to make at home. The young people started, not to do the dishes, certainly, but to entertain, distract and reassure. They tried, more or less, to make things better for the people around them.

Teenagers get a bad press because, like toddlers, they don’t want to do what they are told. Not enough is said about how kind they are – usually to each other – how unguarded in their affections and hopes. They face the future with clear eyes because the future, for them, was always uncertain. This is what they are built to do, to refuse the experience of the generations that precede them and make their own path. Teenagers can be cynical or anxious, they can be wry, but they also have natural belief in a better world, they are wired for ardency. In another kind of global disaster, this is the age group that marches off to war. And it makes me very fierce to think what the world does with this readiness, this idealism, over time.

There is plenty to be learned from a pandemic, but I am tired of considering loss and difficulty as a learning experience. If I take anything away from these days it will be something I knew from my own teenage years but never turned around to the next generation – the fact that obedience and love are entirely different things. Also obedience and morality. You can not control your children; that is not what they were given you to do.

Alan Hollinghurst: ‘You learn to take short views and long walks’

At first it called for discipline, mental as much as physical: to take short views and long walks. The long views were too terrifying, and the nightly news apocalyptic. Certainly time itself was more precious, even if enjoyment of the passing minute was clouded by the fear of being dead within days. An obvious benefit, such as living near Hampstead Heath, became a great blessing, in those weeks when the underbrush was greening up and the first trees coming into blossom and leaf. Our regular walks were now anxiously purposeful expressions of being – and hoping to remain – alive.

Early on there was a flurry of solicitude, loving messages sent to friends living here and in countries worse afflicted (at the time) than our own. I spent all day writing emails – anxious for news, charmed to be back in touch. At home it was preternaturally quiet. Time, though precious, was also elastic and doughy, Sunday followed Wednesday and it seemed to be drinks time straight after lunch. I erased all events from my diary to spare myself the thought of annihilated plays and concerts, book fairs and birthday parties. We had our routine of practical measures, and beyond it a great empty space opened up – an invitation, which was really a requirement, to get on with writing a book.

Part of the beauty of lockdown was the access it gave to the past, a perhaps half-imaginary past of unpressured thought and private activity. It took me back to summer holidays from boarding school, far from friends and, as an only child, living intensely in my head. My memory opened up, and I found myself writing long paragraphs which grew out of my childhood and into the novel I had just begun. I went back to old photos and diaries, and before long was haunting the roads where my aunts and uncles had lived in the 1950s on Google Street View. I re-entered moments of the past through books I had studied then. I read Middlemarch, with my first-year student’s pencillings all over it, and with almost no idea, after 48 years, what Bulstrode and Dorothea would do next.

I listened for hours and hours to music I’d barely heard since my Radio 3-tuned adolescence – I seemed to hear it both then and now, in the strange clarity of the present and in a more intimate haze of unexpected recollections. In this and other ways the anxious three months had an inner richness and reassurance to them.

When the rules were relaxed a little the other day I left my neighbourhood for the first time in 10 weeks and drove right across London to meet up with an old friend in Battersea Park. The drive there, and then back at about 9pm, was my first experience of what I had heard described, and glimpsed in the papers: the empty city. Something in me had been hungry for the vision of unpeopled streets, a suspension so rare that it was not to be missed. It was the townscape of five in the morning, but stilled further, with no tingle of imminent reopening. Walkers were scarce, and if there was traffic it was a junction or two ahead – the drive was really too easy and unimpeded: silent squares, long vistas down cross streets, slid by too quickly to be absorbed. So I stopped and parked and sat for a long moment staring at an ordinary street, shuttered shops, two locked restaurants, a lightless pub, while the little aesthetic insights and ecstasies of the lockdown experience tried to hold their own against the unignorable sadness.

Back home I saw from the kitchen window, as always, the great grey mass of the Royal Free hospital, a scene of barely imaginable effort and endurance a mere five minutes’ walk away. Oddly, we’ve been less aware of it, on these open-windowed evenings, since ambulance sirens have hardly been needed in the traffic-free streets. We have ourselves been at a remove from the trouble, through circumstance, caution and good luck. We’ve been able to seize the day while others were fighting for life. It’s a difficult feeling.

Diana Evans: ‘Home schooling has revealed the absence of truth for black children in our schools’

Although lockdown has occasionally seen me weeping at my desk, asking myself how long I will be able to go on being a primary-school teaching assistant, novelist and parent all at the same time, all in the same building, whereas before Covid-19 these roles had been compartmentalised in time and space, home schooling has given me a clearer window on to the terrible limitations of our national curriculum’s coverage of history. It has been two months on the second world war: the blitz, the evacuations, the gas masks, the allies, the axis powers, the rationing. Before that it was the Vikings. The wars of Britain, while overlooking the greatest war of all which never actually ended, which we are seeing now lighting up America and spreading across the world.

My secondary school child fled from history as soon as the opportunity arose after spending the entirety of year 9 on the first and second world wars. I’m not standing for this, she decided, and thereby severed the scholastic link with the past; and it’s a shame. History has so much potential for making us sturdy within ourselves, for unveiling both magnificence and guiding truths. It’s supposed to tell us who we are and therefore who we could be and also who we should not be. But the absence of truth in particular for black children in our schools, the presence of manipulated and selective truth instead, is a detriment to their arrival at wholeness and to meaningful sociopolitical progression, and lockdown has offered an opportunity to contravene that.

I said to my child, Listen, today we’re going to blitz the blitz and look at something else. He was saddened yet inspired by the story of Rosa Parks. We have been exploring the slave trade, Christopher Columbus and the meaning of colonisation, the bloodthirsty greed of the British empire, Jamaican independence, Nelson Mandela, the indigenous tribes of the Caribbean islands and the kingdom of Benin. Such study is, of course, an ever-present, ongoing project for parents of black and brown children, but this Covid-19 sidestep into the classroom has allowed it more structure and expanse.

I did not really understand a significant part of who I was and therefore who I could be until I learned the history of western exploitation and the subjugation of black, the careful arrangement of inequality in which we live. It’s a painful teaching that racism is everywhere, like sky. It seems to pose a threat to the innocence of children, but at the same time it is a building of strength, empathy and knowing, their courage to protect and protest, to stand up for others from whose suffering they have benefited, and to understand how that injustice happened in the first place. Real change is in widespread white self-knowledge, compassion and the sacrificing of privilege. The young, whatever their hue, must know this.

So that’s what I’ll miss most. More control over the deliverance of truth. The clearer skies were nice too, but the sky is never really clear.

Mark Haddon: ‘My world no longer feels so small’

I’ve done regular voluntary work for a number of years and it’s become an important part of my life. I’m especially grateful that I’ve been able to keep doing it over the last couple of months, not least because it gets me out of the house, it makes me feel useful and it keeps me in real-life contact with other human beings. As a result, I talk to many people for whom lockdown is just a continuation of the isolation that is a constant part of their lives. For others it is making difficult problems worse: abusive relationships; long-term mental ill-health; chronic medical conditions. I’ve talked to people who are terrified of catching the virus and a few who hope it kills them.

I’m acutely aware, therefore, of how lucky I am. But there is one thing that I hope to take away from lockdown, something that is more equivocal than cycle lanes or nuthatches on the bird table (both wonderful things). I was, for a very long time, terrified of flying. The fear is less crippling than it used to be. I no longer feel sick and angry for weeks before a flight. I’m no longer convinced that both engines are going to fail and that we’re going to glide for five long minutes towards certain death in a flaming tangle of shredded aluminium on some godforsaken mountainside. I no longer have to wash my Valium down with red wine. But getting on a plane is still a very unpleasant experience indeed.

A life in which I have avoided flying wherever possible means a life in which I have travelled less than almost all of my friends. I’ve never been to South America, to Australia, to New Zealand or to anywhere in Asia (unless you count a ferry trip across the Bosporus). Sometimes I’ve had to stay at home while my family visited these places. I tell myself that it’s better for the environment, that parochialism is narrow-mindedness, not a lack of foreign travel, and that the landscapes I like best are the ones I can get to by train. But I can’t help feeling that my fear has made me smaller.

I look up now at those empty, blue skies and realise that everyone’s air travel will be curtailed for a long time. Airlines will fold, travel restrictions will be tighter and fewer people will want to share the same air as 200 strangers for eight hours. My reasons for not visiting Beijing will no longer be that shameful fear. I will be doing the right thing, the ordinary thing, the safe thing.

I realise how selfish this is, to get comfort from restrictions placed on other people’s lives. But there’s another way of looking at it. In ordinary times we are constantly being made to want more. It’s how the economy works. Advertising generates a constant, nagging absence which will be solved by spending more money. Except that it isn’t. But something has changed. Those of us who can count ourselves as lucky have more than enough. We can live with less: less eating out, less driving, less international travel, fewer shiny new things. 

I no longer feel so small. The nagging absence has gone and I’m more content with my life than I have been for a long while. I hope that carries on as the world tips slowly back towards normality.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave: ‘Since lockdown, inequalities are glaring’

It turns out that a decade of depression prepared me relatively well for a pandemic. No contact with the outside, days spent inside with my husband and cat, global and generalised anxiety about the state of the world? I spent my entire 20s under these conditions. 

Of course, I’m being glib. But a year ago I did not want to live, and took action to make it so. I wonder now how I would have fared if I were still in that place, under lockdown. Not well, I suspect. I know so many others are there, sunk inside themselves, and will not survive because of it. Even a year ago, the waiting time for an NHS mental health assessment was six months. If the three months of lockdown have felt long, imagine that. The enemy not outside, but within.

Medication, therapy and dumb luck keeps me steady, and I have thanked the gods of serotonin every day for that. Even a very early-stage miscarriage midway through lockdown has not dented my hard-won health. It felt almost good to be able to mourn the loss of potential, to acknowledge that pain can exist within a manageable boundary, that life can go on. That after sadness, happiness happens.

Those of us lucky enough to have treated this as a retreat from normal life can do little but blink around in wide-eyed astonishment. Of course I’ve missed my family like a physical ache, of course when my 30th birthday rolled by under lockdown I wished I was at the pub with my friends. Of course I’ve experienced that wave of dread, of fear, of anger, that arrives out of nowhere. But compared to the cage of mental illness I spent years of my life inside, I can’t complain.

What lockdown has taught me is to notice. My luck, yes, and also the many blessings of where I live. There was all the talk of birdsong in the early days, but now I know where the blackbirds roost in the lilac. The female is so dark I thought she was the male until early morning light picked out the faintest dapples on her breast. I know how many hours my cat spends wistfully staring up at them, how she follows the sun that tracks from the garden to the gate, belly up and legs outstretched. I know within an hour I can be on top of Hinksey Hill with the best view of Oxford’s honey-coloured spires below me. I know in 10 minutes I can be swimming in a quiet stretch of river, which at night buzzes with insects swooped on by dozens of bats.

I know I love my husband, that our life together is especially blessed. By contrast, so many have experienced the worst time of their lives these past months. Hard lives are made harder, issues such as poverty and racism are exacerbated. In a national crisis, the most vulnerable are the most impacted. The recent PHE report on the disproportionate deaths in BAME communities is startling reading that demands immediate action. An assistant headteacher in Grimsby walked five miles a day so his pupils would still be fed at lunchtime. Care workers and frontline staff are labelled heroes to justify it when they die. Inequalities are glaring, and I am complicit. There is work to be done, now I’m out of my own personal hell. Lockdown has shown me I’m well enough, willing, and ready to do better.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is published by Picador.

Sebastian Barry: ‘I would like to take with me the sense of being wholly in the wood’

Maybe it comes of reading a lot of Marcus Aurelius in lockdown in Wicklow, coupled with a startling little volume called Our Universe: An Astronomer’s Guide by Jo Dunkley (Pelican). Maybe it comes of being gradually obliged to examine one’s life in this new light, or new darkness, as if the lockdown were a version of the prison cell, and the heavy tread of the hangman prompts a fleeting film of hitherto jumbled existence.

Whatever is the case, the small mountain behind our old stone house here in Wicklow, or sequence of subtle hills – Shielstown, Ballycurragh, Slieveroe – has taken on greater and greater force. A force that seems, as an act of mercy or even pardon, to drench the mind as I walk there with tentative, steady steps, as if each lead weight of thought is temporarily taken off its hook.

That will be the brief sonic realm of the cuckoo that was there in the woods in March – a bird that steadfastly will not show its face, and yet carries in its scrupulous call a whole freight of memories, of skinny-legged childhood, of poetry read sonorously to me by my grandfather. That will be the Irish hare, crossing the track in front of me, ever on her way somewhere, in her elegant coat and her barbered ears, not glancing back at me and the four dogs at all, confident of her speed. That will be the families of deer not just startled, but annoyed, to have us come in a dodgy cavalcade around a turn, and disturb them confiding in each other. The dogs holding back out of strange respect for their sleekness, their sharpness, their airborne exits. That will be the parliaments of the chaffinches, the great tits, the blue tits, the blackbirds, the thrushes, the kites, and that will be the fierce raven who follows us all across the mountain, calling down to us harshly to quicken our steps, to hurry on, and be gone, as if we were only damnable interlopers. And that will be the trees themselves, the much-reviled dark spruce, commercial trees in their prison rows, no doubt lending each other information and assistance through their touching roots. That will be the numberless mosses under the older plantings, with the painterliness of their darker spaces, breathing down on me with their purest breath. Those abundant trees – and of all the creatures, deigning somehow to glance at me and the dogs with a corner-of-the-eye curiosity, though, like the cuckoo, they never quite show their eyes, their faces. 

These things cascading down on me like a blessed medicine, like the first benediction of the world, or the last. 

This is what I would like to take with me after the lockdown, the sense of being both wholly in the wood, and in danger of being excommunicated from it. To remember to put that cuckoo’s importance high above the machine that comes to raze its kingdom, and to remember the meagre blue tit is infinitely more than myself.

Michel Faber: ‘We are all living through a different reality

People have died, lost loved ones, seen their livelihoods fall into a hole. But for me, the pandemic and the lockdown have made very little difference. Sure, all my public engagements, teaching gigs, and a month-long residency in Amsterdam got cancelled. I might have enjoyed them, but then again, I’m always in two minds about saying yes to these things and Covid-19 may have helped me out by saying no. And, sure, there have been some genuine pangs of disappointment. My girlfriend has been self-isolating in London and I haven’t seen her since early March. Both our birthdays have come and gone. But mostly, I’ve just been getting on with my life, shut inside my study as I habitually am. I sit in a chair and type; that’s what I do. I miss going out for coffee every Saturday with John, the manager of my local Oxfam bookshop. I wash my hands after I’ve been outside. Apart from that, I carry on as normal.

Absence of upheaval, however, has meant that I haven’t experienced the epiphanies so many other people are talking about. I haven’t discovered the joys of baking my own bread. I sleep through the magical dawns. I am not knitting, or growing vegetables, or learning to play a musical instrument, even though my girlfriend’s guitar is propped up in my sitting room, slowly going out of tune in the sunlight. I do not practise yoga, meditation or mindfulness. I don’t have a family to spend more time with. 

It’s spring but I’m not cleaning. The cardboard boxes of Stuff That Needs Sorting are exactly where they’ve been since I moved house in 2016. I’m never going to get around to reading all those classic books that other people are tackling, because I’ve got 10,000 hours of music to listen to first. I got rid of my TV years ago, don’t have a radio or a DVD player. In moments of low self-esteem, I deplore how stuck in my ways I am, how resistant to the brave leaps of evolution that my fellow humans are making. I sleep, I wake, I resume my accustomed tasks. It seems a pitifully constrained existence. 

If there’s one thing I hope to carry away with me from this strange period, it’s an enduring awareness that we’re all living through a different reality, despite the media rhetoric about how we’re in this together. Some people in the second world war had “a good war”, in the sense that they learned new skills, were emancipated from sexist constraints, went on adventures, even made money. Others had a very bad war, suffering torture, bereavement, the destruction of every dream they ever had. We mustn’t presume we understand what this pandemic was like for another person until they open up and tell us. 

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