Thursday, 7 May 2020

Living in a Lockdown

A very quiet yard on a beautiful sunny day.
I’m back at work. I say back…I’ve been working from home for the last 6 weeks and probably putting in more hours from my garden than I have from the office; but needs must. There’s only so much you can do from home and whilst all paper work is now up to date and all the “missed” emails have been dealt with accordingly – mostly in the bin - I can’t deal with someone’s knackered lorry from home, which is a shame as I’ve rather enjoyed being incarcerated.

I was watching BBC’s Saturday Kitchen a few weeks ago when Stacey Dooley was the guest. The host Matt Tebbutt asked her how she was feeling during the Covid-19 lockdown and she replied “I am spot on, it is a bit worrying about how OK I am with self-isolating, because I am quite anti-social, so I’m good.” I was a bit shocked, not because she was coping, but because she said she was anti-social. I guess I had the same look on my face, as others have when I say “I’m quite happy during lockdown because I’m pretty anti-social!”

People often don’t believe me when I say I am anti-social, but I do prefer the company of animals to the company of people and I even find my own company tolerable.  I do feel a tidal wave of guilt wash over me when I make the mistake of reading Twitter and seeing how many people are not coping with this situation, but then I have had a lifetime of practice of sitting in a garden entertaining myself (usually teddy bear picnics or reading, or dangling over the garden pond watching the frogs and fishes and whatever wildlife decided to turn up. I’m not lucky enough to have the large garden of childhood anymore, but my small back garden allows me to get fresh air and pootle about and sit and watch the abundance of birds and bees around me. I cannot imagine how it feels to be stuck in a flat, especially with young children for weeks on end, with no outdoor space to sit and reflect in.

But lockdown is still infuriating when you want a change of scene, a quick trip to the ocean, or a wander in the mountains. I have both available a short drive away…but I can’t do that, it’s the same rota of visiting the supermarket (once a fortnight) going on a rare walk (and I mean rare) working, reading, pottering in the greenhouse and vacuously watching TV.

“There is something majorly wrong with your work laptop…”

The day lockdown started I was sent home with my laptop and told to work from home. Easier said than done as I.T. couldn’t get my work laptop to work from my house. Hmmm….maybe I can spend the next few weeks sitting on my backside doing what I want…try and locate the photography course I bought three years ago and do it, or maybe learn some Photoshop so I can finish those designs I have in my head and get them on my Redbubble store which is sadly very neglected. Or… alternatively the I.T. department could get the software which wouldn’t work on my work laptop onto my personal laptop and get me up and running on that instead. Well of course, good ole I.T. got it to work on my laptop! In hindsight I’m thankful the antiquated piece of rubbish from work was a no go, as my laptop has a larger screen (and a touchscreen) so not only could I see more easily, tapping the screen instead of scroll and click was also quicker. Sadly, unlike MPs, I couldn’t convince my boss to give me an extra £10K for having to use my own laptop for work (or any other subsidies that MPs wangle for themselves.) Have I missed going into work? Yes and no. I miss seeing the friendly faces and the yard cats, especially Bob, but I haven’t missed the daily histrionics that used to occur.

Bob the yard cat.
At work if I make a brew, I stand around chatting to people (it is after all a portacabin with limited floor space.) At home, I’ll put the kettle on and put a load in the washing machine or put the dishwasher on. Next trip to the kettle I’ll empty the dishwasher and put the washing on the line. Next-time, maybe give the kitchen floor a quick clean. My house has never been cleaner and tidier, and the irony is not lost on me that for the first time in 20+ years, my house is always visitor ready…AND I CAN’T ALLOW ANYONE THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR!!!! So not only could I get more office work done – but I also kept on top of the daily house chores.

First day back in the office I realised that I had lost my daily 48 min lie-in. I normally leave the house at 7:48 to be in the office for 8.  In those 48 mins I shower, dress, have breakfast, throw lunch in a box and head out the door. For 6 weeks I’d been getting up at 7:48, ambling downstairs, making breakfast and sitting at my desk ready for an 8am start. I am not naturally one of God’s morning people and sitting at a desk in my pyjama’s was lovely…until the boss thought it a good idea to install Microsoft office instead of just phoning me with queries. Fortunately, there was the option to switch the camera off so I could see him and not vice versa! The argument for working at home was a win win for me.

I’ve slipped into some strange time vortex…

But it wasn’t all plain sailing working from home. I thought if I was cooped up in the house for several weeks, I would devote some time to blogging and my various other hobbies. It seems however that I slipped into some strange time vortex. My days have just been filled with work – especially at the beginning as I had to devise a whole new way of working. Everything that had previously been done physically – reams of paper printed off, physical signatures sought for work and costs to be agreed, all had to change, and quickly.  I’ve had to document everything and save it in electronic files – which has meant sorting and archiving the unused mass of files that were on the system. Spreadsheets had to be set up to track what went where and whether a reply had been received. Emails started to be filed as an audit trail to prove agreed costs so arguments about budgets couldn’t rear up in the future. All that time devoted to establishing brand new systems and disseminating the new system to other users takes time…and so once done the laptop was put to bed. No blogging. No playing around in Photoshop. No laptop. Instead the workspace closed and it was time to read a book or sink in front of the TV.

To be honest, it has been nice sitting around catching up on stuff and not feeling guilty about what I SHOULD be doing. I’m not sure WHO decides what I SHOULD or SHOULDN’T be doing, but it seems an unnecessary burden I put on myself, although I’m sure many others must do it to themselves too. I have caught up on several films and box sets on Netflix and Prime that I’ve had stored for ages and not got around to watching.

First on the Covid-19 watch list was The Man in the High Castle (all 4 series over a period of nights and nothing else in between.) I wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy it, the only reason I put it on my watchlist was because it starred Rufus Sewell and he’s up there on the list of people I’m likely to start watching a programme because of who is in it. Fantastic show – must have been for me to have binge watched it as I did.

Unbelievable was an interesting watch – it was the true story of a rape victim who wasn’t believed, however, I read that the person the story was about had watched the program and thought it was well produced and reflected accurately the events which took place. On that basis, I watched it and it was a fascinating story of how a young woman accused of lying about a rape, gets discovered by two female detectives who are investigating a spate of eerily similar attacks across America.

2018 - BBC/Netflix Watership Down
Watership Down – the new version the BBC showed over Christmas 2018…yes it has been sat recorded on my Sky box that long and only just viewed. I was wary that it would be turned into a saccharine Disneyesque type film but no. I thoroughly enjoyed it (despite sobbing through half a box of tissues.) It certainly didn’t leave me traumatically scarred like the original 70’s version I watched as a child at school. In fact, thinking about it, I’m surprised I made it through childhood without needing to obtain some form of therapy…Watership Down, Tarka the Otter, Bambi, Black Beauty…no wonder I grew up preferring animals to people.

The New Pope. Disappointed. Really enjoyed The Young Pope – thought it a fresh and exciting programme. I found this sequel slow going and I kept getting distracted whilst watching it…although I still persevered to the end!

The Stranger. Based on Harlan Coben’s novel, a stranger tells someone who thinks he has the perfect family life a shocking secret. This secret exposes a dangerous set of lies as the truth starts to be uncovered. This was another binge watch series where once an episode finished, I just HAD to watch the next one. Bed just wasn’t an option.

Carnival Row. Hmm this was a peculiar one! A love story of sorts between a human detective and a refugee faerie. Following a war in which their homelands are invaded by man, an increasing number of mythological immigrant creatures try to co-exist with humans. The creatures however have no rights, they are forbidden to love or fly, and it is only when a series of gruesome murders take place that we see some change in the intolerant society. It was obviously a thought provoking watch as well as an entertainment series, the way in which immigrants are treated and of course why they are immigrants seeking refuge in the first place. (It was also nice to see some of the Czech Republic locations used again where The Musketeers had been filmed. It made me want to watch the three series again as I haven’t watched them since they finished on the BBC…but rewatching things are not a priority at the moment, I want to watch all the new productions I have waiting for me on my laptop first!)

I started to watch Picard however, other-half is a Star Trek “fan” and was surprised I’d want to view it seeing as I’ve paid no interest to any of the other incarnations he’s watched. Have had to break the news that it’s because Santiago Cabrera is in it (met him once at the theatre when I went to watch The Deep Blue Sea – what a lovely chap he is, we spent the interval talking about his son) so it’s become one of those shows we watch together and I can’t whizz through.

So when you add up the time spent on these, other productions I haven’t mentioned and perennial favourites such as The Great British Sewing Bee which has made a welcome return…it’s a wonder that I haven’t developed square eyes.

Madness takes it toll…

But then, in another dimension, there are the days when time stands still in lockdown. It refuses to budge. Melancholia sets in as the reality of not being allowed to jump in the car and drive to the beach or the RSPB reserve hits home. In England, recommendations were given about exercising. In Wales, a number of those recommendations were put into law. At the start of lockdown, I went for a walk. I did the same route down the old abandoned railway line I’ve done countless times before. 

Over the past few years, I have hardly ever met anyone out whilst walking – but for some reason, this knowledge didn’t put my mind at rest. I was sure I’d end up bumping into loads of people and getting arrested. An irrational fear, undoubtedly, but the Heddlu (police) were out in force – in cars, on foot, in the police chopper. Far less stressful to stay sat at home, which is why I have spent too much time watching TV or reading or working. I just don’t have the inclination to go out as much anymore in case I meet people on “my” routes; as routes which used to be quiet, are where people now congregate. 

Tidy, tidy shelves!!
One day, I felt I should do something productive with my time and for some hairbrained reason, it took the form of sorting one of my messy bookcases. THREE HOURS it took me to put the books in some semblance of order and then get them all to fit back in the cupboard. (Other half “helpfully” suggested a binbag. Other half has been told to keep his suggestions to himself.) I was going to tackle the other one under the stairs, but at twice the size, I’ve decided a better plan is to just keep opening the door to shove books in without looking until the door will no longer shut. When that happens, I will concede defeat and tidy it up.

I have gone through a spate of cleaning, even the tea cupboard has been tidied out. I’ve found some unopened teas I’d forgotten about, but alas also noticed how many of the tins are now empty. This is very depressing – I need to go visit some tea shops when all this is over and re-stock big time. 



Fortunately the drinks cabinet has fared a little better (although I did cheat and buy several bottles of gin in March) this was a good thing because most nights after work the wind down became a G&T rather than the drive home singing (screeching) out of tune to the radio. I suppose going back to the office is good news for my liver. Silver linings and all that!

In this rush to return to normal life, we should use this time to reflect what normal parts of life are worth rushing back to.

One thing I have been very blessed to do over these last few weeks is to spend an afternoon sitting on my drive with a brew, chatting to my neighbour who sits on her drive and does the same. No contact, just the opportunity to sit and have a natter. Before lockdown we started going to camera club each week; as well as a chance to learn about photography, it was an excuse for the pair of us to catch up with one another. With club activities on lockdown, it was nice to create a new sense of normal, and once we all go back to work, it’s something I’ll miss doing.

This weekly catch up has brought about a newfound enjoyment in baking. When I worked in a large office we would have “Bake Off competitions” for charity. Whilst I loved watching the programme, it never really inspired me to bake, it was just something I did when I needed to do it. My mum taught me to bake at a young age. I think we often reminisce with rose tinted spectacles and I had this grand vision my mother was a wonderful cook. It was only recently that my brother, who is several years older than me, told me she was a dreadful cook. She was good at baking, but dire at cooking.

I was reminded of her gastronomic repertoire…Sunday roast, Monday leftovers, Tuesday more leftovers and a fight over the bone, Weds/Thurs something from the freezer with homemade chips, Friday, yellow fish with mash, Saturday – sausage, egg and chips. Sunday the repertoire would begin again! I remember her stew and dumplings being very, very chewy, I had no recall ever of meat being tender enough to fall apart in the mouth. Wonder if that had something to do with me becoming a pescatarian?!

Garlic and Rosemary Foccacia 
She was, however, a good baker and I do remember standing on a stool next to her, pummelling bread dough and making mini cottage loaves. She would come into my infant school and teach us all how to make and ice fairy cakes, or make scones and shortbread. By the age of twelve, when she departed this earth, I had the ability to bake bread, cakes, even pies…however, despite a plethora of cookbooks in the house, baking has never become a regular activity. During lockdown however, I set myself the challenge that if I had done the fortnightly shop and I’d run out of bread…I would have to bake some until my next scheduled trip to the shop. If I fancied a pie, I would have to get off my backside and make some pastry…if I wanted to “meet” my neighbour for tea and cake…I’d have to get that mixing bowl out, and it has been an unexpected delight. The offerings, which may need a bit more practice, have been on the whole far tastier than the factory made stuff I buy and I hope that this baking malarkey remains a “normal” in my post lockdown life.

Our theatres, especially our smaller venues, are going to need people more than ever before…

I know a lot of people, including some of my friends, are suffering out there and finding this confinement hard to deal with. Sometimes it’s hard to connect, because however hard you try, a video chat with someone is never going to be the same as the real thing. On a video link you feel compelled to talk – but if you’re not going out or doing anything exciting, what do you talk about? TV? Life in lockdown? What is a comfortable silence when you’re at a friend’s house, suddenly becomes amplified and a bit unnatural.

Frankenstein performed @ Theatr Clwyd
One Thursday, a friend suggested that we went to the theatre together like we used to do. We were both supposed to be visiting Manchester to see a play in a few weeks. Instead we both sat down with a drink and watched NT at Home on YouTube - Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the monster. We WA each other as the play progressed sharing our thoughts on it. We also had an interval at 8pm to clap essential workers, grab a choc ice and a comfort break and take our seats for the second act! I suspect the fact that we were on WA during the performance suggests that neither of us were grabbed by the production. 

For me, I don’t think it had anything to do with the fact I was watching a play with me feet up, my slippers on and a cup of tea in my hand, but more to do with the fact that I’d finally just finished writing up my blog notes for the production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which I had seen at Theatr Clwyd in January. In that play I was captivated from the very beginning; in this one I got fed up of watching the monster writhing about the stage for 20 minutes. There’s slow burn…and then there’s slow burn. I perhaps need to watch the second version where the role of the monster is played by Jonny Lee Miller before sharing any further thoughts, especially as I know so many people loved the production.

It was enjoyable to have the opportunity to be “back at the theatre” and to discuss, albeit briefly, what I was watching with a fellow friend and theatre lover. OK – so it wasn’t the same as leaving the theatre and heading to the bar (or the chippy) to unravel our thoughts, but it was better than nothing. Normally I only watch parts of a play on the laptop if I’ve been to see it and I need reminding of something I can’t remember fully before doing a write up. I don’t tend to watch the productions I have because I’m not getting that full theatre experience and so I’ve been wary of lying prostrate on the sofa, crisps and drink in hand as though I’m at the cinema. On reflection, this is a stupid reaction, I couldn’t travel to London every two minutes before Covid-19, so would visit the cinema to see a NT Live production…surely watching it on the small screen is the same as the big screen? Not exactly…in a cinema you still get an audience reaction from those sat around you, which is why it’s often nicer watching a film at the cinema than at home…if you don’t have an annoying chatterbox sat next to you!

TV theatre will never feel the same as being IN a theatre, watching a live show and seeing THAT production unfurl before your eyes – because with theatre, every performance is unique, the recorded version will always be the same however many times you watch it. It seems strange that it has become the norm for people to sit on the sofa watching a play (or opera or ballet) on the TV. It is heartening to see how many people are watching the various streams which have become available and the joy it is bringing to people who are finding times in lockdown hard. It is interesting how much the various art shows have brought the best out of people, I just hope that if this initiative has brought new audiences to the fore, that they will continue to support the arts long after lockdown. Our theatres, especially our smaller venues, are going to need people more than ever before, as can already be seen by the unfortunate announcement that Nuffield Southampton Theatres has gone into administration.

When lockdown was announced, I still had tickets for four shows at Theatr Clwyd…as each one was cancelled, I received an email offering me a refund, leaving it as a deposit towards future shows, or to give as a donation. The cost of all the tickets was donated. I wanted to help futureproof “my” theatre. I do hope those that were able, donated their ticket costs too, holding onto the same view of keeping the theatre alive. Theatre is not just about a bunch of actors entertaining you for a couple of hours; it is the heart of a community, it brings people together, it teaches them things through storytelling, it opens minds, it makes people question what goes on around them. If you love your theatre, you’ll look after it whatever way you can and I hope its use in helping people get through lockdown will be remembered and appreciated in the times to come.

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