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Lockdown: die Ausgangsperre / le confinement / el confinamiento

When I was growing up, a regular part of any Sunday was the afternoon walk. Being fortunate to live in a green and leafy countryside area there was never a need to drive somewhere for a walk, and no shortage of walks from which to choose; additional sections could always be added to extend the basic route of the walk.

Various routes had different names within the family: there was “round the lane”, “across the common”, “over the fields”, “through the woods”, “by the stream” and “through the farmyard”. The woods in question were either the remnant of ancient beech forest in one direction or more recent forestry plantations of conifers in the other direction, both equally and dramatically atmospheric in their own way. The lane in question was, in part, one of those ancient trackways popularly called a “green lane” that had been used for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, a place that was seasonally blessed with fruits, nuts, berries, flowers and mushrooms for little hands to forage.

Whatever the time of year, whatever the weather, we walked.

As little legs grew longer and stronger, the need to be carried for a rest part way through the walk no longer happened. The walks, too, grew longer, going further afield, further from home.

The shortest of the regular early childhood walks used to end up re-entering the top end of the village across the fields by the church. However tired we claimed to be and however much we were “grizzling” (my father’s expression for our moaning and complaining), knowing by taking this route where we were going to next gave an enthusiastic boost to tired legs and an added flush of anticipation to little faces.

Opposite the church was one of the two village pubs and a row of old terraced cottages, one of which had at some point been turned into a small provisions shop (the entire, somewhat cramped, downstairs room was the shop, and the upstairs room which would originally have served as a bedroom was the stock or store room) which sold … ice cream! At that time, shops were rather like tied public houses: the tied pubs stocked one brewery’s beer, the small shops tended to stock ice cream from one supplier. There was another small shop / Post Office at the other end of the village – that was where you went for Wall’s ice cream. The cottage shop by the church stocked Lyons Maid ice cream. Wall’s had the Split, whilst Lyons Maid had the Cornish Mivvi – both essentially a variation on the same theme: fruit flavoured ice-lolly filled with a centre of vanilla ice-cream.

Sadly, Lyons Maid as a brand and producer seems to have been relegated to commercial and social history. Many of their products, I remember, were cleverly connected to once original (but by my time regularly repeated) children’s television programmes such as ‘Stingray’, ‘Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’, ‘Thunderbirds’, ‘Joe 90’, ‘The Bionic Man’, ‘Space 1999’. Who can forget the Haunted House ice cream? Or the Orange Maid, the Fab, the Bananaman, the Jelly Terror, the Mr Men, the Orbit, the Cider Barrel or … and this is the reason that has triggered this somewhat self-indulgent trip down memory lane … the ZOOM!

* * * * *

A padlock and chain around two posts

A parishioner asked me what I had missed most during lockdown and whether there was anything I would miss about the experience of lockdown when it is over; something of a throw-away question but one which I’ve been pondering ever since.

It’s much easier to say what we may have missed during lockdown (perhaps contact with family and friends, eating out, trips to theatre, concerts, museums and art galleries, holidays, etc., would all be likely answers for most people, I suspect) but what we might miss about lockdown once it has ended is much harder to answer, or at least so I thought initially.

* * * * *

Growing up, ZOOM was an ice cream; ZOOM was a noise that insects or aeroplanes made, a sort of continuous buzzing hum; to ZOOM was to go rushing or running pell-mell about the place; expensive cameras had ZOOM lenses. More recently, as someone who quite often watched the early series of ‘The Big Bang Theory’, I associate ZOOM with the character of Sheldon Cooper, dressed as the D.C. Universe comic character ‘The Flash’ and manically running round saying, ‘Zoom! Zoom! Zoom!’

However, use the word ZOOM today and the immediate thought is of a (I can’t even any longer say “new” or “novel”) way of interacting digitally rather than socially, a means of communication, a method of conducting business meetings and interviews remotely.

What will I miss about the lockdown? I’m not sure I will miss ZOOM meetings, indeed, I fear that they are probably here to stay as a feature of life post-COVID. Even so, a sneaky part of me would grudgingly have to admit to almost quite liking ZOOM meetings for what you may think is a rather perverse reason. Consider the sometimes seemingly endless round of deanery, parish and other committee meetings: a ZOOM meeting means not having to travel to interact with others physically and socially. There’s almost no effort involved, all done from the relative comfort of one’s chair. In the Christian spiritual life, some people gain energy from interacting with other people, some don’t, finding energy instead in Nature, silence, or solitude. I’m definitely in the latter category.

Another thing I will miss from lockdown is something which I am already regretting the loss of since we have moved from the more rigid experience and application of the first lockdown. Then, there were days without noise: not a single vehicle on the roads, no planes, no noisy, chattering groups of people. Nights were more properly dark. There was a slumbering stillness. On a number of occasions walking for my hour of exercise at deliberately varying times of day, I had that exhilarating, exciting, slightly heady experience where one imagines oneself to be the only person alive, there is no one else in the world, it is just me. I found that to be a real gift and something of a relief from the way that life tends to be in more “normal” circumstances. Yes, I will definitely regret losing that feeling.

Lockdown has also provided some insight into what a satisfying experience retirement may offer in the future. I have to say, I’m greatly looking forward to it!

It sounds perverse but amidst all the populist bleating and loud complaining about restrictions and denials of civil liberties, I’ve discovered what for me has been an experience of true freedom and an inner sense of personal liberty during lockdown – and the loss of that is something I shall regret but I shall at least have the memory of it to treasure.

* * * * *

Two literary works have been at the edges of my mind from time to time throughout the last year and the repeated experiences of lockdown.

Firstly, some words from the well-known, and perhaps over-quoted, poem by Richard Lovelace, ‘To Althea, from Prison’ (1642):

Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for a hermitage.

If I have freedom in my love,

And in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above,

Enjoy such liberty.

Secondly, the absurdist, existentialist (some might say atheistic) novella, ‘L’Étranger’ (1942) by Albert Camus, which recounts the experience of a man, Meursault, before and after he murders a man, with his trial, sentencing and imprisonment.

Having read this at school, exam gobbets of text (in both French and English) are still accessible within the recesses of memory:

“When I was first imprisoned, the hardest thing was that my thoughts were still those of a free man.”

“I hadn't grasped how days could be at once long and short. Long, no doubt, as periods to live through, but so distended that they ended up by overlapping on each other. In fact, I never thought of days as such; only the words ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ still kept some meaning.”

“I found that the more I thought, the more details, half-forgotten or malobserved, floated up from my memory. There seemed no end to them. So I learned that even after a single day's experience of the outside world a man could easily live a hundred years in prison. He'd have laid up enough memories never to be bored.”

“In the long run one gets used to anything.”

Both this poem and this novella, it seems to me, have had pointed relevance and applicability to my own experience of lockdown which, in general, has been far more positive than negative. These writers seem to capture the experiential essence of lockdown as something that can be joyful, not something to be merely endured.

No doubt, you will have made connections with other things that speak to you and perhaps console or comfort you as an individual.

It remains, nonetheless, an interesting question for each of us to consider: What have you missed most during lockdown and what will you miss about the experience of lockdown?

Fr Alistair

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