Lockdown Jottings – 05

You apricate if you want to; I’m staying in

Autres temps, autres mœurs – we’re learning to do things differently under lockdown. Meetings held by video conferencing, practising social distancing, and shopping just once a week where we can.

But these unusual times are making me realise we need to develop a new set of manners: is the wearing of plastic gloves in the supermarket something we should do, or something we should not do? Is it socially acceptable to not wear a mask?

If you pick something up while shopping, are you allowed to put it back or, rather like the admonishments in the antiques shop (‘If you break it, it’s yours’), do we need to adopt a new social code – if you touch it, you have to buy it?

I ask because I ended up buying something I didn’t mean to the other day. I didn’t realise until I had brought it home, so the immediate question of whether I could have swapped it or should have felt obliged to put in my trolley didn’t arise on this occasion, but the experience of picking something up you didn’t mean to buy is, I am sure, one that many of us have shared.

I wanted a tin of sliced peaches in fruit juice. Having identified their location on the shelf, I reach across, picked up a tin and put it in my trolley. It was only when I took it out of by shopping bag at home that I saw I’d actually bought a tin of apricot halves in light syrup. Clearly, someone had picked up the tin at some point and put it back in the wrong place. Hey ho, these things happen. It will be apricots for tea and no harm done. But the question is, would it have been appropriate to put the tin back on the shelf (in its proper place, of course) had I realised the mistake I was about to make while still in the shop?

Anyway, whether peaches or apricots, tinned fruits are a mainstay of any larder or kitchen cupboard, little pieces of sunshine in a can that can be eaten at any time of the year (supermarket stocks permitting) and because of the canning process they retain many of the health and dietary benefits of fresh fruit.

But seeing the word apricot set me thinking? Was it related to apricate I wondered? It would have been neat if there was a connection – but sadly no, the two don’t seem to be directly connected: the link is tenuous at best. The word apricot comes from the Arabic word Al-birquq, itself taken from the Greek berikokon which in turn comes from the Latin praecoquum meaning early ripening. Meanwhile apricate (to sunbathe or to bask in the sun), comes from the Latin apricare.

Talk of aprication, the act of sunbathing, couldn’t be more topical this Easter weekend with temperatures rising and the sun putting on a show. Under the lockdown rules, people are allowed out of their homes to exercise, but not to sunbathe. If you want to go to your local park (assuming it’s open) you have to keep moving; lying on the grass to sunbathe appears not to be permitted within the rules and people are being moved on. It’s all well and good if you have a garden or balcony which catches the sun, you can apricate to your heart’s content – but you can’t do it in the park or on the beach.

Personally, as someone who burns quickly, I’ve never understood the supposed joys of sunbathing: I find just find it uncomfortable. I’ve never booked a ‘beach holiday’ in my life. And don’t get me started on what I can only regard as bizarre practice of grabbing a sun lounger when on holiday – or popping out first thing to reserve one next to the hotel pool….there’s an essay on that topic alone.

If there’s shade to be had and I’m outdoors, the shade is where you’ll find me; if there’s a shady side to the street, that’s the side I’ll be walking on.

You apricate if you want to; chances are, I’m staying in.

Lockdown Jottings – 04

Measuring out our lives in coffee spoons

I love coffee, I love tea
I love the java jive and it loves me
Coffee and tea and the java and me
A cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, a cup, boy! 

(From ‘Java Jive’, composed in 1940 by 
Ben Oakland and Milton Drake)

It’s the Easter bank holiday weekend.

When I used to work full-time, the arrival of a bank holiday signalled that it was time to take a break, to relax, to have a rest. Yes, for me, bank holidays have always been a time to put my feet up, to catch up on reading perhaps, or maybe watch TV. I might be persuaded out to socialise with friends in an evening, but mainly I stayed home and kept out of the way. Not once did I think I might be missing out on something more exciting happening elsewhere.

Of course, some people might think that being retired would turn every day into a bank holiday, but I can assure you, that for me at least, it’s nothing of the sort. I’m still very much on the go and in the thick of things. A bank holiday is still a valuable time to take a break.

Suddenly though, and thanks to lockdown, every day does feel rather like a bank holiday except, whereas I used to choose to stay at home, today I am expected to do so. For those of us who are not regarded as key workers who perform some essential role, we do our bit by keeping out of the way. 

And that’s true for many of the people I know. No one rings up to see if they can pop round for a coffee anymore. Today, we drink our coffee alone – well, not quite alone in my case: I live with my partner and he knows how to use a kettle. Like many married couples, we have our little rhythms and rituals – I look up from my work (or my nap), look at the clock and see it’s time for a coffee break – and one of us (usually him) gets up to make a drink.

At home, it’s usually the granulated instant variety – spooned out of the jar and into the cup before adding the hot water. Instant is quick and convenient: filter’s fine, but there’s more faff and washing up to do afterwards. No milk, and definitely no sugar, thank you: I’m an adult who likes his coffee unadulterated.

I can trace my evolution as a coffee drinker all the way back to my early childhood. I was raised on Camp Coffee (I kid you not). Back in the 1950s, this sweet, coffee-flavoured drink based on chicory was no doubt a more palatable offering for a child. A spoonful of the dark syrup per cup, add water, milk and sugar to taste. (Some years ago, I bought a bottle to relive my childhood memories. Let’s just say that I wish I hadn’t. I still have the bottle, all but full, which I’m keeping as a future museum exhibit.)

At some point, I progressed to ‘proper’ coffee (‘I’ll have a proper cup of coffee in a proper coffee cup’), originally drunk with milk and sugar. But the sugar shortages of 1974 (caused by a severe drop in imports of sugar cane, the impact of the three-day week, strikes at the docks and housewives panic-buying sugar), saw me weaning myself off my fondness for sugar – you either had to drink your coffee without sugar or not drink it at all. Not long after that, I stopped adding milk to my coffee. Working in an office where tea and coffee making was often a shared responsibility, I learned not to trust the milk. In a hot office with no fridge, it went off very quickly in the summer, even when stored somewhat precariously on the window ledge outside (I worked on the first floor back then). Drinking my coffee black and without sugar actually marked me out as something of a rarity at the time (trendsetter, even back then!).

Today, my day is marked out by coffee (and tea). I have coffee for breakfast. It doesn’t matter whether I’m having just toast, the ‘full (vegetarian) English’, or something in between – it’s coffee that kickstarts my day. If I’ve risen early enough, then coffee might also make an appearance for elevenses. At lunch though, it depends where I am. If I’m at home, it’s always tea that I drink, but if I’m in a restaurant, I switch to coffee – without fail. I have no idea why; it’s just one of those things I do and I see no reason to change. Mid-afternoon, chances are it will be another coffee (unless scones come with it, when I revert to tea – and Earl Grey if it’s available, please).

What I drink at dinner again depends on where I’m dining. At home, it will be tea that ends the meal but if I dine out, it will be coffee again. Later in the evening, I might have another cup of coffee just before I go to bed. Some say you shouldn’t have coffee before going to bed (how many times have people expressed surprise that I’m drinking coffee so late!) – but I find it’s not having coffee before bed that keeps me awake! I lie in bed thinking about the coffee that’s not circulating in my system……

Anyway, time for a break. I’ll look up in a moment to see if my partner catches my eye – and if he does, and I hear the kettle going on, I’ll dig out that CD I have by The Manhattan Transfer – one of the best renditions of the Java Jive you could wish to hear and the perfect accompaniment to my cup of joe.

Lockdown Jottings – 03

Tackling the to-do list

I do like a nice ‘to-do’ list.

When it comes to getting organised, there’s no better way to give meaning and structure to your plans for the day, week or month, than writing out a fresh new list laden with hope, expectation and good intentions.

Sometimes, I start a new to-do list just for the fun of it, cracking open my notebook at a crisp new page and carrying forward uncleared items from an earlier list onto a new one.

Creating a new list gives a renewed sense of purpose. It shows a determination to get things done! And that satisfaction obtained from ticking each item off as tasks are completed makes me feel that my day has been spent wisely; things have been accomplished!

I always write my to-do lists by hand – never on my laptop, tablet or phone. (It’s one of the few times I get to practise my handwriting these days.) But I’m a bit old-fashioned that way. (I also keep a pocket diary for my appointments. It’s a lot quicker to write things down and to see what’s coming up than logging on and opening some app or other. Trust me, I speak from experience of waiting for colleagues to do just that to see if they’re free to go for a drink, set up a meeting or come round for dinner.)

Anyway, this is supposed to be an article about the experience of lockdown, so let me return to my theme: procrastination in an age of lockdown.

I’m used to working to deadlines – nearly every piece of work I do has some sort of deadline attached to it, some immediate, others more relaxed. And, of course, I’ll have several things on my to-do list at any one time, each with its own deadline. As one piece of work is finished, I move on to the next. Keeping an up-to-date list of the things I have to do helps me to make sure I keep on top of things and meet the expected deadlines. My to-do list helps me to plan my working day. It gives it form and order: I might tackle some of the easier things first (quick wins!) simply because ticking things off the list early in the day gives a sense of achievement and progress being made but I can also keep track of the important things as well.

But in these lockdown days, the deadlines are fewer and even the ones which remain are less demanding. With so many meetings cancelled, the urgency has gone – and with it, if I’m honest, some of the motivation as well. Deadlines act as an incentive: they add urgency and impetus. They propel me forwards. With fewer deadlines, the get-up-and-go has got up and gone (it can’t have gone that far, though, given that no one’s allowed out).  

Don’t get me wrong: there are still things I must do, and I am doing them, just more slowly. I now have longer to do things and, because I’m no longer going out socially, my evenings are empty: I really do have more hours in the day. In a perfect example of Parkinson’s Law, the work to be done is expanding to fill the time available in which to do it.

Sometimes though, I just defer starting things on today’s to-do list to another day. Procrastination might be the thief of time, but there are books to read, TV programmes to watch, naps to be taken and red wine to be drunk – if not necessarily in that order.

If I tell you that I fully intended to write this item yesterday, I’m sure you’ll understand. Tomorrow, I shall write a new to-do list on a brand-new page in my notebook. I’m rather looking forward to it.

Lockdown Jottings – 02

Sinking In

Well, the big clear out of the diary continues apace: just about everything in my diary up to the end of April has been cancelled or deferred ‘sine die’, as the saying is. Some meetings are being switched to video conferencing while other matters are being cleared by email and telephone, but all the social engagements such as meals out with friends and trips to the theatre have been wiped from the diary. A couple of short breaks booked for May have also gone and it’s likely this trend is going to continue for some time yet.

All this is, of course, no more than a minor inconvenience when compared with what is happening elsewhere in the country (and, indeed, the world) at this moment. Spending so much time at home, it’s difficult to avoid watching the news. Minute-by-minute briefings on the numbers of people being admitted to hospital, being taken into intensive care and, in some cases, sadly dying, really do make one realise the enormity of the situation. It’s too early to speculate on how long this is going to continue, but there’s no obvious end in sight yet.

As I write this, it’s been nearly three weeks since, on 23rd March, the Prime Minister declared the country was going into ‘lockdown’. Although it had been much anticipated, the announcement still hit hard: it was important, it felt momentous, it was certainly going to be life changing. Suddenly, freedoms we have taken for granted were being curtailed by a government responding to unbidden events. At the time of the announcement, the call for people to stay at home was actually no more than guidance – new legislation had to be brought into effect to give it legal backing and confer powers on the police to enforce it, but I suspect most people could see the thinking behind the decision and I’m sure many would regard it as a sensible and necessary step, at least for the time being.

The full implications of the announcement take a while to sink in. Yes, social distancing means curtailing movement. Some of us are ‘old hands’ at this social distancing business having had a head start of a week or two by choice so it seems at first that it’s going to be more of the same. But this is different. What had been voluntary if recommended behaviour, now carried a government mandate enforceable in law (although it takes a few days for the paperwork to be completed, leading to some confusion, not just in the minds of the public but also, it seems in the instructions being given to some police forces).

We are urged only to leave home in certain prescribed circumstances – such as to shop for essentials such as food and for medical reasons, to exercise, to go to work but only if it isn’t possible to work from home. Businesses not regarded as essential have closed their doors, moving their business on-line where they can. Theatres, cinemas, restaurants and bars are all closed.

And when we do go out, we have to keep a distance of two metres from other people who are not members of our own household. Suddenly, even talking to neighbours over the garden fence is conducted at a ‘safe distance’, hailing each other in loud voices or waving to each other rather than chatting casually with our elbows resting on the fence.

The two-metre rule causes some interesting distancing manoeuvres at the supermarket. These days, we have to queue to go in. Despite markings on the floor every two metres to show people where to stand and signs showing that two metres is roughly equivalent to the length of two shopping trollies, there are some, it seems, who either have no understanding of how far two metres is or are just playing it very safe indeed. Gaps in the queue open up – what is two metres to you and me turns out to be closer to something around 15 feet to others.

Once inside the supermarket, where the aisles don’t really lend themselves to keeping the full two metres between shoppers, people try to observe the guidance: they wait politely for each other to make their selections from shelves, trying not to show impatience when someone lingers a little too long in front of the canned veg or tinned fruit (how long does it take to choose a tin of peas?). Then, items selected, they move on, continuing their elaborate cotillion, trollies pirouetting around each other at arm’s length as they mark out their territory.

Lockdown Jottings – 01

And so it starts

My ‘lockdown’ began a few days later than some, a few days sooner than most. For me, it started on the evening of Thursday 12th March.

My partner and I went out for a meal with an old friend (by which I mean long-standing, just in case she’s reading this) at Duchniak’s Restaurant in Wakefield, one of our favourite restaurants. We had a lovely meal and a delightful time chatting about this, laughing about that, as you do. But on reflection, the writing was already on the wall, so to speak, if not actually chalked up on the specials board. Other people, it was clear, were already deciding to stay home; we were the only customers in the restaurant that night.

The day hadn’t started like that. In the morning, I’d been out overseeing the fixing up of three blue plaques for Wakefield Civic Society – we use a professional builder for this work as I’m not trusted up ladders. In the afternoon, my partner and I had done the usual weekly shop at the local supermarket. Life was very much business as usual. There was no ‘panic buying’ back then and shelves were still full. Happy days! There was even a slight sense that those who’d already decided to distance themselves from others were, perhaps, just possibly, over-reacting.

The week had begun as normal. Being president of Wakefield Civic Society and chair of YHACS (the Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Societies), I have no problem finding things to do. My diary was brimming over with society commitments and social events as well as talks and walks I organise in my own name. I had a booking to give a talk about the Orient Express to a community group in Morley on the Monday morning, a meeting of the Wakefield Civic Society Design Award judging panel on the Monday afternoon and a talk to give to another community group in Netherton on the Tuesday evening about the blue plaques of Wakefield.

Wednesday proved similarly busy and even in the quiet moments between meetings, phone calls and talks, I had emails to deal with and respond to as well as keeping up to date with social media. I guess, thinking back, it was through Twitter that I first realised the mood was changing. People were starting to talk about the Coronavirus more and more.

By Friday morning, things really started to change. People were beginning to feel nervous; they were getting in touch to cancel events. In fact, I soon found I too was having to cancel events that I’d organised, both for Wakefield Civic Society and for others including myself. By the end of Friday afternoon, my diary was starting to thin out considerably – my social calendar felt more like a social colander as event after event and meeting after meeting just leaked away.

I’m not sure if it was a conscious decision or something that just dawned on us, but by the end of the day (somewhat inauspiciously it was Friday the 13th), we too were playing it safe. Yes, we were practising ‘social distancing’.

A week that had started out full of confidence and vigour was to end somewhat darker and more hesitant. We had become people who were not going out.