As far as I’m concerned, this is not a year for travelling for a holiday. Indeed, given some of the recent events, there hasn’t even been time to take any sort of extended break. However, we have been taking days off to get some healthy exercise, on bike or foot. Staycationing is, I know, all the rage, so I’m just on trend (for once). And very pleasant it is to get out and about, at least when the weather isn’t either scorching hot or the country is being ravaged by apocalyptic thunderstorms.
What I’ve found strange, no doubt just another weird consequence of the pandemic, lockdown and our current extraordinary way of life, is how much every time I go out my thoughts wander off to far distant memories. Why, when cycling out into the countryside north of Cambridge and hearing jackdaws (hardly an unusual sound, even in the city) was I suddenly transported back to childhood holidays in Cheshire? I suspect in my early home in London there were none around; perhaps the visit to my great uncle’s house was the first time I’d noticed hearing them. What I cannot remember is whether this was before or after the 1962-3 winter, that winter known as the Big Freeze when snow lay on the ground till early March having first fallen (in London) on Boxing day. I do know I associate their call with the sound I heard when stones were thrown on the ice of the frozen ponds on Hampstead Heath that year.
Elsewhere, seeing a ruined farm building, my mind went back to all the bombsites that still occupied so much of the London of my youth. Somewhere near Kings Cross, on one particular site, my mother and I encountered a black redstart, to our great pleasure. I think they found these derelict areas suitable for their nests. A quick Google suggests, national rarity though they now are, they may still be found in that vicinity, even though the bombsites are long gone.
Collared doves are of course common across most of the country now. That wasn’t so in 1962 when one turned up in our London garden. It was so rare that most of the bird books we possessed didn’t even show us a picture to help our identification (no Google then to help us out), but we did eventually work it out. Now, no one would get interested in such an arrival in their garden, beautiful though they are (despite their maddening repetitive call), but somehow seeing one as I cycled past took me back to that childhood excitement.
I am sure there is some reason why this distant past is so intruding on my present. Perhaps it is an attempt to remember a time when life was safe and ‘normal’. Clearly bombsites are not a good record of that in a logical sense, but to a child that was just the way my world was. There were bombsites all over the London I recall. My mother, being part of that world when bombs in London were a daily occurrence, would regularly talk about those years, and walking through thick wartime fog in the blackout.
My brain – if not yours – is finding weird ways to try to cope with the new normal. The impact of the pandemic intrudes into my dreams, which is hardly surprising. What I resent more is the way it also intrudes into my reading. It doesn’t matter which novel I pick up, I find myself thinking: the couple shouldn’t be holding hands/getting into a cab together/eating in a restaurant, they aren’t from the same household, they’re putting themselves at risk. This is just annoying. That was then and this is now. And now is not a comfortable place to be.
Staycationing does offer some opportunity to get out and about in a desultory attempt to get more exercise. I am baffled why, since I no longer go up and down to London at least once or twice a week, since I don’t even have to cycle around Cambridge to get from one meeting to another, let alone attend the regular diet of college dinners (and I don’t just mean in Churchill but all over the collegiate university) that seems to go along with my job, time seems in even shorter supply than usual. I had hoped that, given the absence of formal dining and entertaining, I would be eating a healthier and lower calorie diet leading to the shedding of a few pounds. Unfortunately, the concomitant reduction in cycling seems on the contrary to have had the opposite effect. I may not have succumbed to eating frozen key lime pies straight out of the freezer, as seems to have beset one Guardian columnist, but clearly loss of exercise has won over the loss of formal dinners. The absence of extra time I can probably attribute to the plethora of additional problems to be solved when all our tried and tested protocols have to be torn up and new ones devised on the hoof. I’m not just talking about Admissions here, but everything the College does. Wonderful team of staff and Fellows that I have in the College, nevertheless I do feel I need to be on top of what is going on, even if they are the ones doing the heavy lifting on writing all our new plans.
It seems my brain is cluttered with a distant past which has come back into focus. At the same time, days rush by without much rest, yet the time I do spend on reading novels – as opposed to protocols about households, or returning students, or how to give a supervision remotely – is troubled by the mental clash between behaviour in real life up until about March 2020, and what is deemed acceptable and wise now. Sometimes it feels a battle to try to remain grounded and as content as possible. It often feels as if life has always been like this, the passing months just a blur of nothingness while we’re left standing still waiting for life to start moving forward again. Simultaneously, many of us have never had to work so hard learning new skills we’d never sought nor wanted to pick up. We all look forward to that uncertain date when face coverings, Zoom (or its near relation, Teams) and crossing to the other side of the street when another pedestrian approaches you, are not our daily fare. When greeting friends with a hug and being able to offer them a cup of tea, or something even stronger, while sitting at less than two meters is, well, just normal once more. In the meantime, it seems the old normal and the new normal will continue to clash and interweave in unexpected ways in my brain.