“In London the streets were so deserted I could walk up Piccadilly and Regent Street and stand in the middle of Oxford Circus.”

Juxtaposition

Tracy’s Story

I am an intruder to Piddlehinton. My ties are to a rival village in the Piddle Valley, where we’ve had a second home for 16 years. Initially I was curious to read about Piddlehinton residents in Jess Morency’s 19 Silver Linings in a snooping sort of way, wondering how the village coped during this historical year. But I have ended up feeling really warm towards what sounds like an extraordinary community. The blog is a clear reminder that everyone has a story to tell; every person is interesting if you give them the time, and listen.

I have experienced lockdowns in both London and Dorset, and the difference has been stark. Mind you, the lockdowns themselves have been different anyway. As Jess has said to me, Lockdown 1.0 (March-June 2020) was something very special that we will probably never experience the likes of again. Schools were shut, most people worked from home, and stayed inside apart from food shopping and exercise. In London the streets were empty of people and traffic and there were no planes in the sky. The parks, though, were packed with people getting in their hour of exercise. Crucially, too, we didn’t know what was going on; there were few tests available and no understanding of how many people were infected, how easily and stealthily the virus could be transmitted, and how lethal it could be. No one had heard of Zoom. No one was sure of where their next roll of toilet paper was coming from.

We live in a quiet residential neighbourhood in north London, near Hampstead Heath. We’re within a mile of two hospitals with major Covid wards – one of them the Royal Free, the hospital featured in Hospital Special: Fighting Covid-19, the BBC documentary shown in May. In April ambulance sirens were especially frequent, and I never got used to them. A lot of friends and colleagues got the virus in the spring. Given the extremes we tend to hear about – either asymptomatic or hospitalised – people I know who had it describe the experience in an almost dreamlike way, dazed that they got off relatively lightly when others have fallen; the sense of a bullet whizzing past them. A few have Long Covid now, however, and two friends’ parents have died from it.

I went into central London a few times by bike to see what it was like. This in itself was unusual, as London traffic normally puts me off cycling. But the streets were so deserted I could walk up Piccadilly and Regent Street and stand in the middle of Oxford Circus. No one was in Trafalgar Square either – and few pigeons, since no one was feeding them. There were only police cars and empty buses doggedly following their routes in case an essential worker needed them.

I felt a bit like an anthropologist out making field observations. On my way home I surprised a friend by appearing outside her window – the window where she worked for many months. It was a delight to see a face IRL rather than pixelated by Zoom.

I knew a few neighbours in my street by name, more by sight, but many I didn’t know at all. The first time the street came out to clap for carers, a week into lockdown, it was as if we were emerging blinking into the light from a long hibernation. The street had been so quiet every day. Now suddenly there were neighbours at every door, in windows, staring out at one another. My God, I thought, there are actually PEOPLE in all those houses! Once the clapping began, tentative at first, then gaining in enthusiasm, neighbours began smiling and waving to each other. We could hear nearby streets making a lot of noise, and I held back tears I cried later in private. And so it went on, nine more times. Each week it was an extraordinary moment of a collective release of tension. 

People have been cynical about the gesture – instead of clapping, why not show appreciation by paying carers and essential workers more? I understand that sentiment, but I never felt that way, because I sensed that underneath it all, we weren’t clapping for carers, much as we appreciated them. We were clapping for ourselves, that we had made it though another week, separate and together. Once the clapping finished after ten weeks, the street organised to meet outside for drinks each month, holding onto the camaraderie for as long as the weather permitted.

And yet, as I read on this blog about the kind of Lockdown 1.0 that Piddlehinton had, I became a little envious. Food parcel deliveries. Hand-picked posies for carers. Weekly al fresco concerts by a professional opera singer. Bluebell walks. Ice cream lollies every Friday afternoon. Fish and chips takeaways from the pub. Organised protests that got people thinking and talking. It sounded magical. 

Of course I know it was hard for many; no one here has sugar-coated the experience. People felt lonely, isolated, depressed, angry, anxious, stressed. They lost sleep (I had a lot of insomnia in April until I learned to stop looking at the news after 7pm). They worried about not seeing their parents, about their children not being in school, about the jobs they might lose, about transmitting the virus to loved ones. We are still worrying about those things.

But there was also a lot of joy and fellowship; appreciation of family and neighbours, and especially of nature and of the incredible beauty of this valley. We are all so very lucky to have it on our doorsteps, and it was much appreciated by almost everyone on the blog.

By Lockdown 2.0 (5 November-2 December 2020), all of us – Dorseteers and Londoners alike – were no longer pandemic virgins, but old pros. This time schools remained open, which made things feel more normal, and also made it easier for people to go into work if they needed to. This was more of a lockdown on social life, as non-essential shops and hospitality shut down. You worked or went to school, you came home and stayed in, eating and watching Strictly or Great British Bake Off. Vaccinations were on the horizon for those sensible enough to want them. According to my London friends, there was lots more traffic than during Lockdown 1.0. And parks were packed again.

This time my husband Jon and I remained in Dorset, where we had mostly been since July, when we were able to travel again. Last March we had decided to spend lockdown in London so as not to bring the plague to the village, and also not to clog up a potentially overstretched Dorset NHS. (In the end, it coped admirably.) For Lockdown 2.0, though, we were happy – relieved – to be in the village, where social distance is a way of life. On our daily walks in Dorset’s beautiful hills and valleys, we rarely encountered anyone; in London we would have been dodging persistent exercisers every few feet. We tend to go out less at night here anyway, we both work from home, and our son is an adult. So it was easy for us.

I could hear my London friends’ spirits tanking while I walked contentedly up bridleways and at night read books and watched The Queen’s Gambit and Schitt’s Creek. I sensed the community spirit that had pervaded Lockdown 1.0 in London, Piddlehinton, and here in our village, was not so strong this second time around. We haven’t needed to lean on people as much for support, because our systems are in place. We all have enough toilet paper.

A lot has been said and written about lessons learned during the pandemic and particularly the lockdowns. Several people on the blog said they appreciated the enforced slower, simpler life and would like to maintain it when the pandemic is over. I too felt the draw of the simpler life. It reminded me that pre-pandemic, I was always delighted whenever I checked my diary and discovered I had a day completely free of meetings or receptions or expectations. My silver lining for this year, then, is that I understand how much I appreciate unstructured time. Going forward, back in the frenetic world when it finally opens up, I plan to create more deliberately blank days in my diary.

I think this blog has its own silver lining. The Covid pandemic 2020 may have been its genesis, but 19 Silver Linings has transcended that to become something much more long-lasting: an intimate slice of 21st-century English village life in all its glorious facets.

The oral history of a village is fascinating, whatever is going on in the world. Props to Jess for gently and skilfully encouraging people to tell their stories, then for bringing those words and her husband Pete Yendell’s images together so beautifully. If I were an historical novelist in 100 years’ time researching community and came upon this blog, I would know I’d struck gold. 

Tracy and Jess, December 2020

Tracy Chevalier is the best-selling author of ten historical novels, including Girl with a Pearl Earring and A Single Thread. She also bakes excellent cookies. www.tchevalier.com

2 thoughts on ““In London the streets were so deserted I could walk up Piccadilly and Regent Street and stand in the middle of Oxford Circus.”

  1. Wow! What a treasure of stories! Just the kind I am inclined to read about now. This post resonated with me here in Kansas. In adapting to the new common normal, I have found much worth keeping as we go forward.

    Like

  2. Pingback: rural vs. urban | Hetty Startup, public historian

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