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.

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.

03 – Tackling the ‘to-do’ list

What to do today?

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.

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, it’s 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.

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 out 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.

06 – The Easter Bunny fails to call

So that’s the Easter weekend out of the way. For some, today should have been a return to work and a resumption of routine, but of course, we’re in lockdown so many people will find today very much like the days which have preceded it. Stopping at home, trying to find things to do, keeping up to date with friends and news on social media – and watching the daily government press briefings, hoping for some good news in the latest statistics.

I don’t ‘do’ Easter myself (or Christmas for that matter). I’m not a theist so Easter has no religious significance for me, and I’m not that bothered about chocolate – so no Easter treats were delivered or consumed chez nous. I guess the Easter Bunny was also in lockdown.

It’s now just over three weeks since the PM announced the beginning of our own lockdown and it looks set to go on for a while longer yet. The number of reported cases seems to be levelling off a bit with ‘only’ 4,342 new cases added to the official UK tally yesterday (Easter Monday), a slight reduction on the previous two days but a considerable drop when compared with the number of new cases reported on Good Friday, when 8,681 new cases were added to the list. The daily count of people having died because of the virus has also fallen – 717 announced on Easter Monday down from a high of 980 on Good Friday.

It’s still too early to see these reductions as a trend; we’ve seen reductions in the numbers before only for a sudden spike to reappear taking us to new levels. There have now been 11,329 deaths attributed to Covid-19 and that number will go up again when today’s figures are published. It’s widely accepted that the figures being reported are not showing us the full picture as they only count the number of people in hospital where people are being tested for the virus. Deaths of people in the community, particularly in care homes, are not being added to the figures because there has, as yet, been no significant testing for the virus outside of hospitals.

So, the lockdown goes on – we’ve not yet been given any official confirmation for how long it will be extended but it will probably go on until at least the end of April and quite possibly into May. There are concerns that the lockdown will do long-lasting damage to the economy and that, because of this, lockdown needs to be relaxed early to get the economy back on its feet. No doubt there will be some phasing out of the current strictures but it will need to be done carefully to avoid the risk of a sudden upturn in new cases and yet more deaths.

I can see some sense in this – unable to work, people are suffering financially, and some businesses may never recover (an increasing number of retail chains are already going into administration and the future of these companies and what will happen to their workforce is at best uncertain). But there’s another major downside to the lockdown and that’s the stress it’s causing and the impact it’s having on physical and mental health – whether it be due to financial worries, or depression and loneliness triggered by self-isolating or, in some cases, domestic abuse (which is reported to be on the increase while people are being forced into close and unrelenting proximity).

Despite the problems, easing the rules around lockdown will need to be done very carefully. Some workers may have to be coaxed back to work – given assurances that their workplaces are safe and that social distancing can be practised while they do their jobs. If people are allowed out and there’s no upswing in the number of reported infections and concomitant deaths, then confidence will start to grow. However, until the virus is eliminated, or an effective vaccine is produced and a mass inoculation programme implemented, there’ll be certain sections of the population for whom lockdown may have to continue indefinitely. The elderly and those with underlying health conditions are obviously most at risk – but it’s not just about staying home for them, it’s about keeping their distance from the people they would usually come into contact with, including family and friends, while carers will need to continue exercising caution when in close proximity with the people they are looking after.

Lockdown will be even harder to bear for those people who have to continue with their own self-isolation once the rest of the country starts to return to anything like normal. There’s been a heart-warming upsurge in community volunteers offering to help neighbours, the sick and the elderly. I hope that such community spirit might continue for those who need it once the doors are unlocked. For some, such support has been a lifeline in these troubling times.

07 – Watching with Mother

I’m trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to wean myself off the 24-hour television news channels. Yes, they are depressing and repetitive at the best of times but even more so at the moment – the coronavirus story just isn’t unfolding fast enough for an hourly news cycle – but it’s my yearning for good news about a vaccine being discovered, or some other discovery that will bring an early end to lockdown, that keeps me tuning in. I have the television on in the background most days, sound turned down a little while I get on with my work but keeping one ear cocked just in case there’s some optimistic new development that will help to move the story forward.

A couple of nights ago, the BBC broadcast a programme looking back to a gentler time. “From Andy Pandy to Zebedee: The Golden Age of Children’s Television” took me straight back to my own childhood and revived memories of watching TV at home with my parents, particularly my mum while dad was out at work.

I can still remember the day (if not the date) that our first television was delivered. It was during the spring or early summer of 1957 around the time my younger brother was born. It was a sunny day as I stood in the hallway of my parents’ home, clutching onto my teddy bear, from whom I was at the time inseparable. The set was delivered and set up in the living room while Teddy and I did our best not to get in the way. I can remember the delivery man tousling my hair and asking what my teddy bear was called…..

As it was our first television, an aerial had to be fixed to the chimney stack and the cable fed down the back of the house. A small hole was drilled in the (wooden) window frame to allow the cable to pass through into the living room. Once the aerial was connected to the set, instructions were shouted back and forth between the man setting up the set and the man on the roof so that the aerial could be adjusted to ensure we had the best picture.

Once they were satisfied, off they went, leaving us to admire the new arrival (– the TV set, not my new brother!).

It was a large cube-shaped affair, made by Baird, in a mid-brown polished wood veneer and stood atop a matching table. On the front, and beneath the square screen, were two cream-coloured plastic knobs, one either side of the speaker grille. One knob turned the set on and adjusted the volume, the other enabled the selection of channel – from a grand choice of just two: BBC or ITV.

The set (and the table) were supplied by Radio Rentals – for a weekly payment, you too could watch TV: sets were just too expensive to buy back then and many families with television sets relied on the rental companies. (DER – Domestic Electric Rentals – was another such company.)  

The TV took a time to come on – valves had to warm up – and when it did, the picture was in black and white. When you switched it off, the picture shrank rapidly to a little white dot at the centre of the screen which then took a few moments to fade completely away – and we’d sometimes watch it as it did (we took our pleasures where we could!).

One consequence of the time is that so many of my childhood memories are in black and white: TV programmes, films newspapers, family photos, all in black and white. (Even buildings came in soot-stained black back then.)

Occasionally, and right in the middle of a favourite programme, the TV would break down – and that meant not only that you missed the rest of the programme (not to mention the rest of the evening’s programmes) but also the possibility you’d be without TV for several days as you had to wait for a repairman to come out to fix it – a job that could take a few minutes or a couple of hours. Sometimes, the TV set would have to go back to the shop to be fixed and a loan TV would be supplied until your own could be repaired.

One of the biggest disruptions to my childhood television viewing was when the ITV television mast at Emley Moor collapsed in the winter of 1969, brought down by the weight of snow and ice that had accumulated on it and the power of strong winds. I seem to remember that we lost our ITV reception but could still receive BBC transmissions which came from the Holme Moss transmitter. Nearer to home, our own aerial blew down one evening in bad weather and we had to wait until someone could come out and put it back up for us.

My earliest memories of watching television still centre around the weekday ‘Watch with Mother’ programmes broadcast around lunchtime: Picture Book (Monday), Andy Pandy (Tuesday), Bill and Ben (Wednesday), Rag, Tab and Bobtail (Thursday) and The Woodentops (Friday).

Children’s television programmes were also broadcast in the late afternoon. Particular favourites from childhood were The Adventures of Robin Hood (starring Richard Greene, a name I always thought rather apt for a character meant to be dressed in Lincoln green), Ivanhoe (starring Roger Moore – on horseback! – later to go on to become The Saint and then, of course, James Bond), and The Lone Ranger (a US import). We also had The Forest Rangers (a Canadian TV series broadcast in the 1960s: I’ve just discovered some episodes are available on YouTube – and they are in colour, a revelation!), and Four Feather Falls, a puppet show produced by Gerry Anderson who was to go on to produce other puppet shows such as Supercar, Stingray, Fireball XL5 and, best of the lot in my view, Thunderbirds! Four Feather Falls was the name of a (fictional) town in Kansas where Sheriff Tex Tucker, voiced by Nicholas Parsons, kept order. Still in the world of animation, The Magic Roundabout, with Florence, Dougal, Brian and Zebedee (amongst others) broke new ground, shall we say.

On Saturday afternoon, 23rd November 1963, I watched a programme such as I’d never seen before. This was the first ever episode of Dr Who starring William Hartnell. If truth be told, it was so unexpected that I didn’t know what to make of it and it was only later in the following week when I watched Junior Points of View and saw all the letters that the programme had generated that I realised how significant that first screening of Dr Who had been. The programme had got a bit lost, however, as it was broadcast the day after the assassination of President John F Kennedy in the United States and many people, it seemed, had missed it. This led the BBC to repeat the first programme and run it back to back with the second episode on Saturday, 30th November. From that moment on, I was hooked, and I’ve been a Dr Who fan ever since, even though some episodes terrified me as a child.

We stayed in black and white right through the 1960s. Our set was capable of receiving transmissions on what was called the 405-lines service – and sometimes, you could see every one of those lines when the picture broke down. Every so often, the picture would slip – you’d see the top half of the picture at the bottom of the screen and the bottom of the picture at the top, the two halves divided by a black line. And sometimes, they’d continue to slip as if someone was pulling a reel of cine film through the set with every frame individually visible. Usually, it took no more than a sharp slap to the side of the set to restore the image to how it should be.

BBC2 was launched in 1964, but you needed a TV set that could receive transmissions on 625 lines to watch it. Ours couldn’t do that, so we had to do without BBC2 for a while after that.

In the run-up to the wedding of Princess Anne on 14th November 1973, the first ‘modern’ royal wedding to be broadcast live, we moved up in the world and migrated to a modern, colour television on the 625-line service. So posh was it that it came housed in a large, floor-standing cabinet with sliding doors that could be closed when the set was not in use. And the world of news bulletins and other programmes came to life in full colour.

The TV was still rented from Radio Rentals, but when they collected the old set, we got to keep the table – and that continued in use for another twenty years as a slightly too tall ‘coffee table’.

Watching television was a pastime for the whole family. Assuming we were all at home, we would all settle down on an evening to watch TV. It led to some arguments, of course, over which programmes to watch but we had our favourites. One of my dad’s was All Our Yesterdays with Brian Inglis; for mum, it was Emergency Ward 10 and Coronation Street and we all liked Z Cars.

But whatever we watched, and so unlike today, you knew that broadcasting would stop each evening, the set would be switched off, the little dot on the screen would eventually vanish and it was time for bed, as Zebedee would have said.

Usually, the arrival of better weather and lighter evenings heralds the launch of Wakefield Civic Society’s programme of guided walks. These are usually led by me. They are a great way to show off my home city and the walks attract both people who live locally – who always learn something new – and people who are visitors to the city. This year, for the first time, I was planning to embark on a series of new guided walks in my own name, rather than under the banner of the civic society: you should see the plans I had for my ‘Carnival of the Animals’ walks!

Sadly, though, the coronavirus has kicked all such plans into touch, at least for the foreseeable future. This a great shame, not least because we were all set to resurrect our very successful ‘Historic Ghost Walks’ in the coming weeks.

At the end of 2018, I was contacted by Wakefield BID to explore the possibility of my doing some ghost walks around the city centre. It was pointed out that many cities have them and that they can be a big draw: ghost walks, I was told, are an increasingly popular way of finding out something of the history of a place while also having a bit of fun. Having been on one myself in York a few years back, I understood what was meant and I said I’d give the idea some thought.

The first problem was that I don’t personally ‘believe’ in ghosts! I also had the credibility and reputation of the civic society to consider so I couldn’t just make things up. What I eventually came up with was more a ‘Murder and Misery’ tour, telling the rather sad stories of the malcontents and miscreants, the misfortunates and the miserabilists, who inhabited Victorian Wakefield. And if ever there was a time to take off the rose-tinted glasses about the ‘good old days’ my stories certainly had that effect!

Although the walks were advertised as ‘Historic Ghost Walks’, the historic part was really that these were the first ghost walks to ever be offered in Wakefield (as far as we know!). We were also very clear in our promotions that there were no actual ghosts on the walks – well, none we expected anyway – and the ‘Ghosts not included’ strapline was prominently displayed. Despite this, the first batch of four ghost walks booked up solidly in a matter of days. We didn’t charge for the walks (thanks to a grant from Wakefield BID) and we had the usual problem of people booking and then not turning up (but these were compensated for in part by some people turning up who hadn’t booked!) but nonetheless over 100 people took part over the four walks.

So popular were the walks (and the demand expressed on social media was palpable) that I asked Wakefield BID to sponsor more walks, which they agreed to do. So, another four walks were offered in the autumn and they too were solidly booked, with bookings coming in within minutes of the walks being promoted on social media. A further 100+ people took part in the second set of walks.

The walks looked at some actual cases reported in the local press in the Victorian era and some original court records. Although we hadn’t heard of the coronavirus in the summer of 2019, Wakefield’s cholera outbreaks of the 19th century did get a mention on my walks, and we looked at the original location of the mass burial ground in the city centre (the remains were later removed to allow development to go ahead).

I didn’t have to do much original research of my own as the late Kate Taylor, a local historian and writer, had written a book (Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Wakefield) which contained many of the stories I needed (there are similar books in the series for other towns and cities written by different authors). All I had to do was to identify suitable stories, plot a route which took me past the crime scenes or where the stories had unfolded and then, on the night of each walk, help to set the scene by explaining some of the history of the buildings and the streets we were walking, adding some overarching social history about living conditions at the time, and tell the sometimes gory stories that made up the walks. A little embellishment and improvisation here and there, not to mention some occasional extemporisation, all helped to add colour.

Well, guess what? People loved it! They laughed a lot (yes, I know, people will laugh at anything!) and were very complimentary in their feedback. Hence our plans to bring them back in 2020.

Time will tell if it’s going to be possible to do that this year; I do that we can, but even if we don’t, I’m sure the walks will return when conditions allow. We all need something to look forward to and the walks were great fun, both for those taking part and for me to do. We may not have seen any actual ghosts last year, but I’d like to think that I raised a few spirits.

08 – Raising Spirits

I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!

Usually, the arrival of better weather and lighter evenings heralds the launch of Wakefield Civic Society’s programme of guided walks. These are usually led by me. They are a great way to show off my home city and the walks attract both people who live locally – who always learn something new – and people who are visitors to the city. This year, for the first time, I was planning to embark on a series of new guided walks in my own name, rather than under the banner of the civic society: you should see the plans I had for my ‘Carnival of the Animals’ walks!

Sadly, though, the coronavirus has kicked all such plans into touch, at least for the foreseeable future. This a great shame, not least because we were all set to resurrect our very successful ‘Historic Ghost Walks’ in the coming weeks.

At the end of 2018, I was contacted by Wakefield BID to explore the possibility of my doing some ghost walks around the city centre. It was pointed out that many cities have them and that they can be a big draw: ghost walks, I was told, are an increasingly popular way of finding out something of the history of a place while also having a bit of fun. Having been on one myself in York a few years back, I understood what was meant and I said I’d give the idea some thought.

The first problem was that I don’t personally ‘believe’ in ghosts! I also had the credibility and reputation of the civic society to consider so I couldn’t just make things up. What I eventually came up with was more a ‘Murder and Misery’ tour, telling the rather sad stories of the malcontents and miscreants, the misfortunates and the miserabilists, who inhabited Victorian Wakefield. And if ever there was a time to take off the rose-tinted glasses about the ‘good old days’ my stories certainly had that effect!

Although the walks were advertised as ‘Historic Ghost Walks’, the historic part was really that these were the first ghost walks to ever be offered in Wakefield (as far as we know!). We were also very clear in our promotions that there were no actual ghosts on the walks – well, none we expected anyway – and the ‘Ghosts not included’ strapline was prominently displayed. Despite this, the first batch of four ghost walks booked up solidly in a matter of days. We didn’t charge for the walks (thanks to a grant from Wakefield BID) and we had the usual problem of people booking and then not turning up (but these were compensated for in part by some people turning up who hadn’t booked!) but nonetheless over 100 people took part over the four walks.

So popular were the walks (and the demand expressed on social media was palpable) that I asked Wakefield BID to sponsor more walks, which they agreed to do. So, another four walks were offered in the autumn and they too were solidly booked, with bookings coming in within minutes of the walks being promoted on social media. A further 100+ people took part in the second set of walks.

The walks looked at some actual cases reported in the local press in the Victorian era and some original court records. Although we hadn’t heard of the coronavirus in the summer of 2019, Wakefield’s cholera outbreaks of the 19th century did get a mention on my walks, and we looked at the original location of the mass burial ground in the city centre (the remains were later removed to allow development to go ahead).

I didn’t have to do much original research of my own as the late Kate Taylor, a local historian and writer, had written a book (Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Wakefield) which contained many of the stories I needed (there are similar books in the series for other towns and cities written by different authors). All I had to do was to identify suitable stories, plot a route which took me past the crime scenes or where the stories had unfolded and then, on the night of each walk, help to set the scene by explaining some of the history of the buildings and the streets we were walking, adding some overarching social history about living conditions at the time, and tell the sometimes gory stories that made up the walks. A little embellishment and improvisation here and there, not to mention some occasional extemporisation, all helped to add colour.

Well, guess what? People loved it! They laughed a lot (yes, I know, people will laugh at anything!) and were very complimentary in their feedback. Hence our plans to bring them back in 2020.

Usually, the arrival of better weather and lighter evenings heralds the launch of Wakefield Civic Society’s programme of guided walks. These are usually led by me. They are a great way to show off my home city and the walks attract both people who live locally – who always learn something new – and people who are visitors to the city. This year, for the first time, I was planning to embark on a series of new guided walks in my own name, rather than under the banner of the civic society: you should see the plans I had for my ‘Carnival of the Animals’ walks!

Sadly, though, the coronavirus has kicked all such plans into touch, at least for the foreseeable future. This a great shame, not least because we were all set to resurrect our very successful ‘Historic Ghost Walks’ in the coming weeks.

At the end of 2018, I was contacted by Wakefield BID to explore the possibility of my doing some ghost walks around the city centre. It was pointed out that many cities have them and that they can be a big draw: ghost walks, I was told, are an increasingly popular way of finding out something of the history of a place while also having a bit of fun. Having been on one myself in York a few years back, I understood what was meant and I said I’d give the idea some thought.

The first problem was that I don’t personally ‘believe’ in ghosts! I also had the credibility and reputation of the civic society to consider so I couldn’t just make things up. What I eventually came up with was more a ‘Murder and Misery’ tour, telling the rather sad stories of the malcontents and miscreants, the misfortunates and the miserabilists, who inhabited Victorian Wakefield. And if ever there was a time to take off the rose-tinted glasses about the ‘good old days’ my stories certainly had that effect!

Although the walks were advertised as ‘Historic Ghost Walks’, the historic part was really that these were the first ghost walks to ever be offered in Wakefield (as far as we know!). We were also very clear in our promotions that there were no actual ghosts on the walks – well, none we expected anyway – and the ‘Ghosts not included’ strapline was prominently displayed. Despite this, the first batch of four ghost walks booked up solidly in a matter of days. We didn’t charge for the walks (thanks to a grant from Wakefield BID) and we had the usual problem of people booking and then not turning up (but these were compensated for in part by some people turning up who hadn’t booked!) but nonetheless over 100 people took part over the four walks.

So popular were the walks (and the demand expressed on social media was palpable) that I asked Wakefield BID to sponsor more walks, which they agreed to do. So, another four walks were offered in the autumn and they too were solidly booked, with bookings coming in within minutes of the walks being promoted on social media. A further 100+ people took part in the second set of walks.

The walks looked at some actual cases reported in the local press in the Victorian era and some original court records. Although we hadn’t heard of the coronavirus in the summer of 2019, Wakefield’s cholera outbreaks of the 19th century did get a mention on my walks, and we looked at the original location of the mass burial ground in the city centre (the remains were later removed to allow development to go ahead).

I didn’t have to do much original research of my own as the late Kate Taylor, a local historian and writer, had written a book (Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Wakefield) which contained many of the stories I needed (there are similar books in the series for other towns and cities written by different authors). All I had to do was to identify suitable stories, plot a route which took me past the crime scenes or where the stories had unfolded and then, on the night of each walk, help to set the scene by explaining some of the history of the buildings and the streets we were walking, adding some overarching social history about living conditions at the time, and tell the sometimes gory stories that made up the walks. A little embellishment and improvisation here and there, not to mention some occasional extemporisation, all helped to add colour.

Well, guess what? People loved it! They laughed a lot (yes, I know, people will laugh at anything!) and were very complimentary in their feedback. Hence our plans to bring them back in 2020.

Time will tell if it’s going to be possible to do that this year; I do that we can, but even if we don’t, I’m sure the walks will return when conditions allow. We all need something to look forward to and the walks were great fun, both for those taking part and for me to do. We may not have seen any actual ghosts last year, but I’d like to think that I raised a few spirits.

09- No cause for alarm

Tick tock

So, what chronotype are you? Are you a morning lark who gets up with the dawn, full of vim and vigour and a smile on your face, or a night owl who is just coming into your own as the sun sets over the horizon and who views early-risers with suspicion? Or are you someone in between, happy to rise and go to bed at what might be considered ‘reasonable’ times of the day?

One of the advantages of lockdown is that, for many of us forced to stay at home, it no longer matters which type we are. For the duration of lockdown at least, we are all free to follow our own natural circadian rhythms. We can get up and go to bed whenever we please. Even if you’re working from home, you don’t have to be up and dressed to tap away at a laptop. No one can see you when you’re sitting on the sofa unless, of course, you’re invited to one of these new-fangled video conferences that everyone is using now – but even then, you only need to dress the bits that show up on screen – just take care not to stand up while on-line…..

I don’t think anyone would describe me as a morning person. It’s not that I hate mornings – I actually quite like them and I’ve seen the sun come up many a time, even in the summer months when it comes up very early. But I’m almost as likely to welcome the dawn while on my way to bed as greeting it as I wake up. Yes, I’m one of those people who stays up late, cracking on with things while others sleep, and who then goes to bed just as the sun’s coming up. I am what you might call a creature of the night.

Being nocturnal has implications of course. I’ve been subjected to the tyranny of the early start for most of my life. The world is organised for larks, not owls, and it’s the owls who have to make the compromises.

In my school days, I found it hard, particularly as a teenager, to get up, get dressed and get off to school on time. To arrive late at the grammar school I attended (with an 8.45am start), meant being sent to see the headmaster to explain one’s tardiness. I avoided such encounters by not being late, but I owe that much more to my parents’ constant nagging than to my own willpower. If it hadn’t been for their persistent urging to get up, I suspect the headmaster and I would have been on very familiar terms.

The early starts continued into my working life. Being someone who worked in an office, I had to be at my desk by 8.30am. As people arrived, they had to sign a register. At 8.30, a red line was drawn across the page just beneath the last person who had signed in. The manager would inspect the register mid-morning and anyone whose name was signed in below the line was called into his office for a reprimand and one of his ‘motivational chats.’ Again, being a good boy, I am pleased to say that I was never called in.

Flexible working hours, introduced in the late 1970s, and then homeworking which really became possible around 15 years ago for me, changed everything. The demands of the early start was still there when working from home but at least, when I didn’t need to go into the office, I was spared the daily commute – heck, I didn’t even need to get dressed! (I feel I must now offer apologies to any colleagues from back then who are now picturing me sitting in my pjs while taking part in those telephone conferences! Yet more apologies may be due when I tell you I don’t wear pyjamas….)

Today, video conferencing has necessitated a re-think to what to wear. I do think one has to make an effort: the implications of ‘Come as you are’ really don’t bear thinking about when you can see and be seen from the comfort of your sofa. I might be talking to you from my lounge but this is no time to be seen in what I think stores call ‘lounge wear’.

Since I retired from full-time work, my alarm clock gets very little use. I can’t quite relegate it to the back of the cupboard as I still have to get up occasionally to go to meetings. Most days, though, I can sleep in if I want to and I often do. I can, at last, deal with the world on my terms. Now, I don’t even answer the telephone before 11am.

One of my pet hates is people who ring me up at 9am (or even earlier) and begin their remarks with “Did I get you up?”. Some of them even sound faintly surprised to hear my voice, fully expecting to go through to the answering service (so why not just phone me later?). I try not to signal my irritation but give me strength! Sometimes I tell a downright lie. “No, I’ve been up ages”, I’ll say, stifling a yawn, or “No I’ve been out and just come back” and so on. It’s a bit harder to come up with an excuse for not answering the phone under lockdown without giving the game away: I can hardly say I’ve been out, can I?

Occasionally, I think I might try scheduling a meeting for 2am, just to see who’s up for it, or giving one of my morning lark friends a call at, say, 3am? “Did I get you up?” I would ask, in all innocence.

10 – Are we still dressing for dinner?

As someone who regularly works from home but who keeps irregular hours, the time I actual shower and dress varies from day to day. I might get up with good intentions, but then I find myself engrossed in my emails or reading articles on-line or the phone will ring and suddenly it’s lunchtime and I’m still in a state of déshabillé and looking, let’s say, somewhat less than kempt. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve opened the door in my dressing gown (*) to take delivery of parcels too big to go through the letterbox or to unexpected visitors who have a habit of turning up, well, unexpectedly.

(*) – I don’t actually have a door in my dressing gown, in case you were wondering.

Obviously, if I have a meeting to go to, then I’m up, dressed and ready to go, smart as a button and with a noticeable spring in my step at whatever time is required but, since lockdown, with all meetings cancelled, things have definitely changed! Let’s just say standards have slipped. Or they had, until video conferencing became the new normal and suddenly people expect you to be in front of your screen where they can see you – and often at a moment’s notice (an email arrives – “Are you free for a Zoom conference, now?”). Decency and professionalism mean that I have to retain a certain sense of decorum, even to sit at home, but, to don a shirt and tie, let alone a suit, seems a tad de trop when everyone can see I’m sitting on my sofa.  

To be honest, I actually miss dressing in a more business-like manner. Keeping up appearances is still important to me: manners may well maketh the man, but his apparel oft proclaims him (as Polonius advises his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – see, I’ve done my homework here!).

I know a lot of men hate wearing a tie, but I was brought up to wear one and, although I don’t wear them as often as I did when I was in full-time employment, when I donned one every day, I still like to look the part when I’m going out, whether it’s for a business meeting or for the smarter social outings such as dinners, theatre trips and so on. Putting on a jacket and tie adds to the sense of occasion and that’s before we start talking about wearing the full rig of black tie and tux for those formal nights when medals, if you have them, can be worn. Ties can add a splash of colour to the otherwise rather limited colour palette of men’s suiting.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t dress for dinner every night! I only do ‘black tie’ for the ‘gala nights’ at the theatre, some charity dinners and, of course, when I go cruising (although even there, the requirement for black tie has been relaxed in recent years, much to my chagrin), but it’s the comparative rarity of these opportunities in my engagement diary that make them all the more special. There’s nothing quite like seeing a restaurant or theatre brimful with ladies and gents in their finery, especially when you’re on a glamourous ocean liner heading across the Atlantic to New York! (And it’s so much easier for men on cruises: one tuxedo covers every formal evening whereas women tend to pack a different cocktail dress for each formal evening – and matching accessories to boot, of course.)  

But in thinking of cruising, I’m getting carried away, lost in my reveries, and I digress. Although dressing up of any kind, whether in casual or smart attire, is something most of us enjoy doing, the fact that we are not going out is taking its toll on the manufacturers and retailers of clothing. Without the excuse to dress up, people don’t need to buy new clothes (even if they still have an income to go shopping on-line with). This season’s fashion is definitely going to be dressing gown and slippers.

Right now, getting dressed for dinner, whether it’s putting on one’s finery or just a clean t-shirt, is entirely optional. Who’s going to see you (unless you’re having one of those Zoom dinner parties)?

Chic or shabby? It doesn’t really matter. Tonight’s dress code is very much ‘come as you are’.

But I think I might just swap out of my dressing gown first.