We all know the scene, the deserted cottage on the Moors/up the mountain. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
We’re all familiar with the scenario. When pestilence sweeps through the land or the zombie apocalypse hits, our heroes head out of town and try to find somewhere to batten down the hatches. In John Wyndham’s classic The Kraken Wakes husband and wife reporter Mike and Phyllis Watson try to make it to their remote cottage in Cornwall as all other hope fails. Similarly in Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids sanctuary is found and hope of a normal life are found in a rural location. In Terry Nation’s 1975 series Survivors, sanctuary is found outside the cities away from infection. The first series shows the main characters searching for somewhere remote to hole up and subsequent series see them forming a community and getting back to nature. This is what one is supposed to do in a pandemic. I’ve had many a conversation with friends about the perfect blot hole for when society finally came crashing down (what can I say – I belong to Generation X), what it would look like, where would it be. But that was all fantasy, the reality is very different.
This weekend scenic spots all over the British Isles saw heavy traffic as people ignored the warnings about gatherings. The government has issued specific guidance for the owners of holiday homes and second homes that heading for the hills does not count as essential travel. The problem is that, while this might be the course of action that characters take in fiction, in reality, going to that isolated cottage is going to put extra strain on communities that really don’t have the resources to cope. All over the weekend community leaders and police forces have been warning out-of-towners away. It turns out that, in reality, if you are going from an area with a high rate of infection, to somewhere isolated with less infection, all you’re doing is potentially bringing infection with you. Actually, this salient fact is in the fiction. In Survivors, for example, there are numerous storylines where infection is brought into isolated communities. But those stories are talking about a truly cataclysmic pandemic. While Covid19 is bad and we need to do all we can to flatten the curve and make sure the NHS can cope with what’s to come, this is not the end of society as we know it. Yes, this is a once in a century event and it will shape the rest of our lives in ways we don’t yet know, but this is something we will get through – as long as we look out for each other and don’t act like assholes.
Personally I’ve been too busy getting ready for teaching to resume this week to go gadding about the countryside – oh, and I don’t have a holiday home. I had my first online seminar today. It’s going to be a huge adjustment for all of us but I’m just hoping my students feel supported enough to get through this disruption to their education. Starting university this year has been a roller coaster for any first-year students and my heart goes out to final years. It had already been a turbulent year before we had heard of coronavirus and social distancing. It’s hard not to feel helpless as this thing keeps smashing through our daily lives. All we can do is get through day by day. There’s very little that I can say that won’t sound trite because this is simply too big.
As well as teaching I’m also helping to organise our first online PhD game night on Wednesday. As I wrote yesterday, Twitter has been brilliant with help on that. But there is something about this time that almost feels like the early days of social media all over again. We’re looking at how to connect, how to stay together, in more meaningful ways I think. This isn’t about social media as a utility, it’s about social media as a lifeline. That’s what it was for introverts or scattered families and friends when it was new and shiny. Then, as it became ubiquitous, we began to shun the alwaysonness of it all. I even want to talk on the phone these days. Times really have changed.
We live in a strange new world. A world where a delivery of toilet paper is anticipated almost as much as the new Hilary Mantel, where a silence has fallen on sports grounds and cinemas and more people are tuning into the nightly news than Strictly Come Dancing. We have all learned how to wash our hands all over again and now lots of us sing while we do so. We are learning new uses and combinations of words – social distancing, cocooning. It is like living in a sci-fi film.
The university made the decision to move all teaching online on Monday. I’ve spent most of this week working out how on earth I’m going to deliver teaching without actually being in the same room as my students. I worked remotely for two years for a company where my teammates were sometimes in three different countries, before that I was freelance for a decade. Working from home doesn’t bother me and technology doesn’t phase me but there is something exquisitely infuriating about realising that even though it’s a while since I’ve done either, the technological solutions are no less annoying and just as apt to wig out when they are actually put to the use they were supposedly designed for. In case any of those students are reading this, don’t worry I’m not talking about the stuff I’m going to be teaching you. The first few days passed in a flurry of panic, trying to assess the new reality. After weeks of being told the coronavirus was a concern but under control and nothing to worry about suddenly we’re all at DEFCON 1 and life as we know it has come to an abrupt pause. Nothing is as it was but for those of us that worry every flu season because the wrong dose could potentially mean months of incapacitation, there’s a strange sense of vindication. I’ve been paranoid about touching door handles, cash machines and public transport for months now, it’s kind of nice to know that most people are now on the same page – even if it does mean you can’t get toilet roll for love nor money.
If you are someone who has spent most of their lives waiting for the end of the world – and that does tend to be the scenario I catastrophise to, then there is a sense of familiarity with all of this. I grew up in a time when the threat of nuclear war seemed very real indeed. The early 80s was a period of intense sabre-rattling between the US and what was then the USSR. In 1982, the Home Office was running practise scenarios for a nuclear strike on Britain. Between 1984 and 1986, TV programmes like Threads, Z for Zachariah and When the Wind Blows shaped the cultural imagination. Being a kid at that time you knew something was up. Even the children’s programmes showed death and disaster – I particularly remember Dramarama Spooky, which ran in 1982 and featured an episode where a schoolkid is haunted by the girl who died when his school was hit by a doodle-bug bomb during WW2. There were the outlines of a family on the pavement outside the town hall, which I stepped over every morning. I knew they were just paint but I’d seen enough and heard enough to know that they represented all that would be left if a nuclear bomb hit. As if to reinforce the sense of impending panic, the fire station that stood beside my school had a habit of testing its old air raid siren every time we had a class with the windows open. I grew familiar with a noise that my mum and my grandmother had left me in no doubt meant death. It was around that time that BBC radio did an adaptation of the War of the Worlds and I discovered John Wyndham. These stories shaped my imagination, they became a genre I have sought out ever since. I’ve always loved a good dystopia.
So some of this feels familiar. The idea of having stores of food is one I’ve had all my life. My mum was a war baby and always had her tin cupboard well-stocked. I’ve spent too much of my life in in not particularly well-paid jobs not to know a thing or two about buying in bulk and making things last. That doesn’t make any of this less scary. I’m worried for elderly and vulnerable friends and relatives. I’m worried for myself but there’s always a little voice in the back of my head telling me “it’s ok, we know how this goes”. It’s an annoying little voice because yes, we know how things go and that why I’ve been avoiding door handles and obsessively washing up after using public transport for weeks!
As I said yesterday, this is a personal blog. It’s my way of getting this all straight in my head. This seems like a time to shout into the void so I’ll be doing it as often as possible,