A Short, Inconsequential Firsthand Report On Some Of March, 2020

March. It is still March, isn’t it? I’m writing this with nine days of March remaining, so it can’t claim to be about the whole of March, and who knows what will have happened by the end of the month. There might not even be an Internet any more, or electricity. “Remember all that time ago, on March 22nd, when I didn’t have to scratch my thoughts on a wall with this stick of celery, which I must subsequently eek out and consume in small chunks as meals, over the next fortnight?” I might be asking myself, by then. “Wasn’t life different, in those days?” Everything is accelerating at breakneck speed. March 13th seems a year or two ago, while March 4th feels a whole lifetime back, certainly further back than any March 4th has felt on any other March 22nd that I can remember. It was only nine days ago that some friends were still asking me “Fancy coming down the pub?” and I was feeling marginally like a cautious killjoy for saying no. “Let’s do something in a couple of weeks, when all of this has blown over,” a couple of others said. Such optimistic, carefree times, those, with hindsight. Yesterday, my dad went to get bird food, because he views the welfare of the birds in his garden as of equal importance – at least – to his own. For this journey, he chose spectacles rather than contact lenses and wore a scarf over most of his face. He waited in the car until no other customers were at or near the birdfood stand. “It’s a system,” my mum told me. “He dashes over, shouts the order, gels his hands and drops the money into a basket a good distance from both him and the Bird Man. The Bird Man gels his hands and puts the seed in bags and drops them in a neutral spot. Then your dad dashes back to the car.” Even this might look like wild, carefree behaviour, by April. On a country walk in a quiet part of Suffolk, I walked past five Herdwick sheep who had congregated around a scraggy old football and appeared to be worshipping it as their new god. As a long term plan, it made about as much sense as anything else does right now.

In the 21st Century, culture moves much more slowly than it once did, and much much more quickly. Music and fashion don’t reinvent themselves with anything like the speed they did for the last half of the 20th Century, but technology trounces its previous incarnations on a pretty much weekly basis. Social conventions are somewhere in the middle, speed-wise: it took at least a year before everyone, rather than just quite a few people, started beginning sentences with “So…” Saying “yeah” three times as a way of agreeing took a whole half decade to pass into the mainstream. But the last ten days have proved that, in a global crisis, social conventions can change amazingly quickly. Elbow bumps lasted a whole three days. Hugs? Ancient history. Maybe the UK had been getting a bit too huggy anyway. I’m absolutely down with hugging people I know well and feel close to. Love it. Hugging virtual strangers, though? It always seemed a bit phoney. But then I’m from Nottinghamshire and I grew up in the 80s and 90s. Most people I knew then would have kicked seven shades of fuck out of me if I’d tried to hug them, including most of my friends’ nans. Whatever the case, I and a huge amount of other people are probably going to miss hugging a lot in the very near future. 

So many are patently not cottoning on to where we have got to with this. Or they’re just massive bastards. Or both. Yesterday, huge crowds flocked to Snowdon and other well-known rural spots in the UK to “self-isolate”, which seems as much indicative of the ignorance and selfishness of a large section of the general public as it does of that same section’s belief that the British countryside consists solely of the four or five landmarks they’ve been arsed to find out about. It’s said that a global crisis brings about the best and worst in human nature, and it was possible to see a microcosm of this just in a small patch of suburban woodland near my house yesterday. I climbed a narrow path and stood far aside for a couple with a silky grey dog heading in the opposite direction. They thanked me and we all smiled at each other in a way that seemed to say “These are not normal circumstances, even for a suburban walk, but we will get through this as humans by joining together and being more pleasant to one another.” Even their dog was clearly not at all a twat, and was careful to observe social distancing advice set out in NHS guidelines. Less than a minute later, I encountered two groups of other dog walkers blocking the path. They were chatting, their faces close enough to exchange droplets of life-threatening spittle. I didn’t properly hear their conversation but you can pretty much guarantee it was of the “Well, it’s not going to stop ME from living my life” sort. They didn’t move so much as an inch out of my way as I approached and I tried my best to give them a wide berth, in the process running the risk of getting tangled in a holly bush and having to live there until autumn. As I did, their dog leapt at me, biting my jacket and casting loud aspersions in dogspeak about my sexual preferences. Its owner called it off, getting close up in my personal space as she did. She opened her mouth and I expected her to apologise for the dog. “Aw, did he not fuss you?” she said instead, turning to the dog. “Mean man.” I wasn’t out to get some fresh air, as when I have been doing that I’ve been doing it in much, much quieter spots. I was on my way to the corner shop, where I bought cat treats, eight broccoli florets and a Bounty bar. I hadn’t fancied the supermarket, but have, over the last week, been finding the near-empty shelves in those I have visited a good way of relearning to enjoy simple meals (e.g. four slices of beetroot and a crisp) and rediscovering foods I had begun to neglect for some of the wankier foods of the technocapitalist era. “Aren’t oranges nice?” has been one of many recent revelations. I’ve not quite panic bought yet, but I might panic forage, very soon, in some woodland, where hopefully no dogs will attack me or piss on the wild garlic. I’m saving the cat treats for about four weeks’ time, when I’m really hungry.

I have felt something like this coming for a while. Or maybe that’s bullshit. It sounds like bullshit, to me, as I say it. But I have without a doubt had this odd and strong feeling, since about November, that the world and I were passing very tangibly out of one era, and into another, without quite being sure what that era would be. And what is going on right now, and more pointedly what it might lead to, seems to follow on from some questions that have increasingly consumed me over the last year or so: How much do I need? What is actually Extra, that I was convincing myself was Essential? How can I scale down, and slow down? How can I do more to help? What should I be more firm in boycotting? Some of these are questions a lot of us will probably soon have to face head on, are even already facing. We are already in a new universe. Adverts for lifestyle-enhancing products that did seem sickening now seem sickening and incongruous and weird. Sexual desire seems decadent. Tinned tomatoes have never felt more appreciated for the people they really are deep inside. Of course I’m scared: for my family and others close to me, for NHS workers I’ve never met, for the Second Great Depression potentially looming just around the corner, for my livelihood, for the implications of a potential lockdown on the 330 mile cross-country house move I’m supposed to be doing in less than three weeks. But right now, I also see a chink of hope amidst all the fear: not for a repaired society, perhaps, but for a few small changes, a growing awareness of injustices and what we’re doing to the planet, a collective realisation about where we’ve been going. It could, however, just be a phase of thinking, a period of acclimatisation, zipping by like all March’s other phases, before there’s something new to acclimatise to. “Remember when I felt like that?” I might be saying, in nine days. “Wasn’t it quaint and innocent?”


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7 thoughts on “A Short, Inconsequential Firsthand Report On Some Of March, 2020

  1. I’ve also been feeling a change is needed badly, and I feel a little guilty for saying to my family that when things are settled down again there are big changes coming to our household. It won’t just be me taking a stand, alone, and then them shrugging their shoulders and going about wasting things and buying thoughtlessly. I know it’s frustrating to watch so many people out at places like Snowdon, but maybe the positive side could be that more people think about caring for nature and both it’s power and frailty when this is over. It was the only “safe” place to go for a while, so that could be a collateral benefit? Just trying to be positive. Heck maybe I can convince even my household to be vegans with me? Maybe…..

  2. I get really conflicted at times like this. On the one hand, it gives good, caring people a chance to shine and show everyone what a human being should really be all about. On the other, it demonstrates unequivocally what a shitload of selfish, ignorant scumbags the majority of human beings actually are and it makes me question if we are even worth saving. I can’t help thinking that animals and nature in general would benefit so much if humans would kindly fuck right off out of existence.

  3. My only go to right now is, “Hey, it’s not Chernobyl.

    Rose Heredia
    Brooklyn, NY …. the most number of cases in the USA to date…

    Wish I could donate but, we are retirees, and husband’s retirement investments plumaged 20 US dollars…he told me to stop checking it or he’d change the password.

    Might order new book soon, but have so much to read as it is right now…and I honestly cannot focus. At the breaking point with Trump and Company at this moment.

  4. It’s true: every day is at least a week long.

    I spend a lot of my concentration on the small pleasures I know I can locate: the progression of color in a sunrise; a very small, quite strong, perfectly mixed cocktail; etc. It helps.

  5. Thank you Tom, for writing the first article I’ve read about the pandemic that has made me laugh. Out loud at that! I find a visit to your website a great antidote in these weird times.

  6. Hi Tom, just to say thank you for Ring The Hill and for this article.

    I work for a hospital trust (not clinically). Everyone I know has been/is working crazy hours to prepare for and manage this thing, people’s nerves are stretched taut and emotions are running high. Reading Ring The Hill last thing at night has taken me to a more mellow place and has helped me make sense of the day. Your last chapter on Dartington particularly resonated, as I read it with my rickety 14-year old cat snoozing deafly on the bed beside me. I have slept better these past few nights. Thank you so much.

  7. Hi Tom, I just finished Ring the Hill. You’ve given me a great desire to vacation in Totnes. Unfortunately I live in Queens, NYC so I am not going anywhere. I am lucky enough to live 2 blocks from a huge park with an oak forest, so I have gone there everyday to walk as well as read your book.

    When I left work on March 14th, I told my co-workers that the world has just changed, the same way it did on 9/11. I only hope we all learn from this.

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