Diaries as time capsules of a moment can be invaluable and irrefutable evidence of what our real-time response was to something that distance and hindsight can judge differently. Perused long after the event, they’re often quite an eye-opener, for few things in life have the capacity to be as unconsciously revisionist as memory. Being a former diary-keeper who abandoned the long-term practice overnight in 2017, I’ve subsequently found it’s often difficult to pin down recent events to specific dates without the handy diary reference. In this respect, the Telegram archive can be the next best thing to an old-school journal. Bearing in mind we’re approaching the first anniversary of the day the drawbridge descended on the old normal, I was curious as to the order of events in March 2020 and decided to flick through the Winegum posts from twelve months ago to recall the countdown to closedown.
The first post of that month to focus on Covid, ‘Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases’ appeared on 6.3.20; the opening paragraph mentions approximately ‘160 confirmed cases in the UK’ and goes on to say ‘and so far there have been two fatalities’; there are references to the latest Bond movie being suspended mid-production and airlines going into administration, suggesting the spreading coronavirus was already beginning to have an international impact on big business. At one point, I mention that the only people I’d seen on the streets wearing ‘surgical masks’ were a group of Chinese students; at the time, they couldn’t have attracted more stares from other pedestrians if they’d been strolling around without trousers. It would seem precautionary advice was in the process of being issued – basic general tips about hand-washing and using handkerchiefs in public that should’ve been a given, anyway; but life was very much carrying on as usual in the UK.
Five days later, a post appeared with the title ‘The Ides of March’; the accompanying illustration of the famous costumed character with ‘the beak’ from the time of the Plague outbreak of the 1660s suggests the scale of hysteria had advanced rapidly less than a week after the previous post on the subject. This post contains various references to the melodramatic reportage of the MSM, especially where empty supermarket shelves were concerned, something I myself had yet to encounter at this stage (therefore wondering if the media were promoting panic buying in the hope it would become a self-fulfilling prophesy). Self-isolation was evidently being heavily recommended at this point – though still not enforced by law; the choice remained in the hands of the responsible autonomous individual, not the State. There’s a telling mention of the first Premier League fixture being postponed due to coronavirus issues, but otherwise it’s as you were, albeit with a dose of caution.
‘Read My Lips’ (13.3.20) documents my debut as a ‘performing poet’ as I describe reciting a trio of self-penned poems at a local open mic night in a nearby Arts Centre a day or so before. A crowded room, a shared microphone, no masks, no social distancing, no panic; everyone was aware of the rumours, but stoic scepticism largely governed discourse. The next open mic event was scheduled for a month’s time; uncertainty reigned, but most still couldn’t countenance the kind of clampdowns that were beginning to take place elsewhere. However, 24 hours later a post called ‘They Think It’s All Over’ discussed the suspension of the football season. This, for me, was the real sign that we were entering a far more serious phase. One’s interest in the national game was immaterial; the fact an English football season had only ever ground to an across-the-board halt twice before in its 132-year history courtesy of two World Wars said to me that this was a significant development. I remember making this point to a close friend as I accompanied her on her dog-walking duties, something we’d had as a weekly arrangement for over a decade; it could well have been the last such occasion we engaged in this social get-together, for it too – like so much else – was being indefinitely mothballed. The crisis was beginning to personally impact now.
The next post, ‘The Fallout Shelter Diaries’, appeared exactly one year ago today; I depicted Boris as the Grim Reaper in the photo heading the article and this is the first post to explicitly describe the sudden plummet into bona-fide pandemic panic as I experienced the reality of everything the MSM had been excitedly imagining for weeks. The situation had finally hit home; for some reason, toilet rolls were the target purchase as the country prepared to collectively crap itself. The Government was advising people to avoid the hospitality sector and theatres and cinemas voluntarily closed their doors as the State’s usual support network of police and paramedics at public events was withdrawn in a case of ‘on your own head be it’; news of the Grand National, Euro 2020 and the Tokyo Olympics being cancelled suggested we were careering towards unprecedented global suspended animation in which all the annual signposts in the cultural and sporting calendar that we’d taken for granted were coronavirus casualties; it seemed only a matter of days before the curfew was officially implemented.
‘Home Entertainment’, the post issued on 20.3.20 talks about ‘home schooling’ for the first time, so I can discern that the classrooms had been emptied as a prelude to the workplace following suit. Bit-by-bit, each successive post of this eventful month depicts another window closing. Three days later, ‘The State of Emergency’ speaks of Rishi Sunak’s first emergency financial package and there are ominous warnings of legislation being rushed through Parliament with little in the way of scrutiny, giving the Government unlimited powers to curb civil liberties at will; there are also salient warnings of how similar measures in both France and Hong Kong had brought an abrupt and effective end to the street protests that had proven to be such a thorn in the sides of those nation’s respective leaders over the previous year. It’s not too great a stretch of the imagination to suggest Boris, having successfully expelled troublemakers from his own party a few months before, now realised here was a canny way to crush opposition to his administration in its most basic, democratic form. One year on, with even peaceful public vigils provoking a physical response from the police closer to what we’d expect on an 80s picket line, we can’t say we weren’t warned.
On 23 March, the PM had his ‘Neville Chamberlain moment’ and addressed the nation across all TV stations from his Downing Street bunker; 27 million of us tuned in at the same time to receive confirmation that something we’d been expecting was now official – we were locked-in and locked-down. And we did as we were told; the days that followed this announcement saw traffic vanish from the roads and shops vanish from the high-streets. Four days after his emergency broadcast, Boris himself was stricken with the virus and by all accounts came closer to the Grim Reaper than even my Photoshop mock-up ten days earlier had imagined. For those members of the public uninfected, however, this was the tranquil ‘phony war’ of the lockdown, in which wild animals ventured into the desolate urban environment and nature quickly reclaimed the surroundings vacated by humans. The novelty of indoor leisure and the eminently sensible outdoor practice of masks being optional rather than mandatory made up for the supermarket shortages and the queuing. A brief respite in the summer was superseded by hardcore Lockdown 2 come winter and we are where we are – a surveillance state so subservient to authority that another draconian bill is poised to pass into law with the same unhindered ease as the SNP’s Hate Crime cobblers last week.
A year on, it’s still too soon for the true story of this remarkable twelve month period in our history to be told – indeed, it probably won’t be properly told for decades, if ever. We only have our own personal stories to tell. Lest we forget, there are 67 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.
© The Editor
2 thoughts on “COUNTDOWN TO CLOSEDOWN”
Contemporaneous accounts of any major and long-lasting event are fascinating if only because, at the time of writing, the author has no idea how it will work out or when.
There’s a comparison to World War II – three months into the war, my dad was called up and served six complete years, mostly as a ‘Desert Rat’ in the 8th Army, finally being de-mobbed on 1st January 1946. The comparison is that, for at least the first 5 years of that period, he had no idea how long it would last and, indeed, whether or not he would survive.
We all now blithely refer to it as the ‘1939-45 War’ but, at the time, they didn’t know that it was a 5-year war, it could have gone on for 10 months or 10 years or even longer – we have the retrospective luxury of knowing how it worked out and when, but those millions of reluctant conscripts had absolutely no idea of either. They had no way of counting down the days to when they knew it would end.
I seem to recall that, at the start of the Covid experience, Boris confidently predicted that it would all be solved in a matter of weeks: how little he knew! Similarly successful as the 1914 prediction that “It will all be over by Christmas”.
I suspect that, like Boris, those who engage in such event-predictions are simply offering themselves up as hostages to fortune – same goes for those who record their everyday views of an event as it happens. An interesting exercise perhaps, but exposing those views to later public scrutiny will usually only serve to confirm the naivety or limited perspective of the author.
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Yes, that’s a very good point re WWII. Those of us born long after the last shot was fired have grown up with it neatly packaged as a complete, fully-formed saga with a beginning, middle and end, as though it was a box-set delivered on the doorstep by Amazon. Yet, even in 1945, with East and West converging on Berlin and German capitulation inevitable with hindsight, who really knew at that precise moment? Hell of a lot of hope and favourable odds, for sure; but it could have taken another couple of years before we got to VE Day for all most participants knew. And as for the Far East, the moral quandry of the A-bomb not withstanding, only Hiroshima could have engineered Japanese surrender, no doubt about it. But it obviously wasn’t telegraphed to the world in advance, so most troops may have figured they could easily be fighting the 1939-50 War.
So, yes, whatever books are already being written about this ‘war’ are essentially worthless and will instantly date the moment they appear when the story is still a long way from ‘The End’. That’s why I found it fascinating to read through the posts of March last year, because that was real-time reaction with no more of a clue as to the denouement than politicians who try to convince us they can see a sunrise the rest of us can’t. If this medium is the next best thing to a diary, maybe that’s the only real way to write about it – i.e. while we’re living it. Hindsight is a luxury in the hands of the future.
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