“GANAWA BACK! GA FARDER OOT!” If you walk the Lakeland fells, you may hear these cries from a shepherd directing a dog as it gathers a swirling mass of Herdwicks and guides them towards a gate or sheepfold.
Those words have become a lockdown measuring rod for me. The cumulative experiences of shock, fear, anxiety, dislocation and loneliness, to name just a few of the unknowns which crowded upon us, were at times overwhelming. Finding a point of perspective amongst so much of which we had scarcely any previous points of reference was demanding. Theories were not of any great use and when we are close up, we see less. So this is an attempt to revisit and to stand back. Not to pretend that I had any particular insight during the chaos of a rapidly unfolding situation during which, beset by trepidation for those that I love, for my neighbours and for myself, I could not venture much upon analysis.
The first two Covid cases in the UK were announced on 31 January 2020. At that stage, it seemed no more than a nagging presence at the edges of consciousness. It soon began to close in. Cases increased rapidly in Italy and lockdowns were imposed in the worst affected regions on 22 February. Then, on 4 March, a woman in her 70s became the first person to die with Covid in the UK. Cases rose above 100. A few days later, the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic. When Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, told MPs that keeping the total number of Covid-19 deaths under 20,000 would be “a good outcome”, it became impossible for most of us to fool ourselves that this was all happening somewhere else. ‘Pandemic’ was a whole new ball-game: the slow burn and the safe distance were over.
When Boris Johnson – looking genuinely and uncharacteristically shaken – instructed the nation to “stay at home” on 17 March, it felt almost a relief. Despite a sense that this should have happened a month or so earlier, we knew – or thought we knew – what we were now facing. Thus the complete closure of schools which followed the next day did not seem surprising. At this stage, no one had really started to consider the immense strain that this was to place on children, parents and teachers, nor the long tail of its effects.
This was the start of the ‘new normal’ and now, up to the beginning of the vaccination programme in December 2020, we lived an edgy and, at times almost hopeless existence.
Almost, but not quite. There were strangely beautiful consolations, the silence of empty roads, birdsong heard not just near at hand but also coming from greater distances. The air seemed amazingly clear and the sky a more vivid blue than I had ever seen in this country as the emissions of motor vehicles and aircraft fell away. The 40 minute exercise period permitted outside the home became piercingly precious. I slowed down, began to look at things more closely and for longer: tiny ‘hoggies’ appearing on evergreens, a beech hedge suddenly burning bronze as the sun set, delicate outcrops of lichen on a flint wall. Quality of perception became so much more important than miles covered.
People chalked messages of gratitude to key workers on their paths and door steps. Tiny words of hope and greeting were to be found on painted stones placed in hedgerows and we waved across roads and fields at people we had never met. What we had in common became important and dear – a sense of commonality and consolation in the bleakness.
I count myself fortunate to have been able to work from home during lockdown, to have a garden and to live in a rural area. I have never been a party animal and only very occasionally a pub-goer, so I was not suddenly bereft of things which were part of my life’s fabric. That so many did not have such ameliorations was an added anxiety. Were we ever going to ‘get out’ of this? Would those the most affected be able to endure? And if they did, what would their futures be? What would be the responsibilities of those who had been more fortunate?
As we did our best to adapt to this changed state, I found some things oddly disturbing. Chief among these were reminders of just how much was changed. Radio programmes bore little resemblance to schedules and as live programmes were produced and delivered from the homes of technicians and presenters, a good deal went wrong. I realised then how much I had depended upon things being dependable. Going for the weekly shop was unsettling – a clear reminder if we needed it – that we had now to accept the unpredictable and sometimes difficult. The queues to get into a supermarket, marked out by two metre logos on the path. The security staff on the door, who let people out in controlled groups before admitting the next bunch of customers. The shortages on the shelves (remember tussles over toilet rolls?) and the mounting anxiety of trying to ensure nutrition without succumbing to hoarding. This last was an exercise of conscience for which I remain grateful.
It was easy enough to fall into to a kind of neurosis in these early days. New discoveries were being made about the ‘novel virus’ all the time. We initially thought it was transmissible by touch, so cleansing and sanitising took precedence over effective mask wearing. I find it odd now to look back on leaving newly delivered mail outside for a few hours and wiping down tins and shopping bags with soapy water.
Opportunists and price gougers did well out of our anxiety. Small bottles of hand sanitiser, previously costing 99p, went on sale for £25. All kinds of ineffectual and eye-catching face masks were on offer until we got wise to airborne transmission and FFP2 protection. If we became too lax too soon as the pandemic wore on, we were certainly nervously and rigorously observant at its start.
Standing back from the uglier manifestations of personal and corporate behaviour was essential. To be consumed with rage was to consume oneself to no end. Observing, reflecting and trying to understand the different ways in which we manifest fear quickly came to be important. ‘Ga farder oot’ was to me, in that time of compulsory physical distancing, both a survival technique and a sign of hope for compassionate co-existence and future well-being.
Similarly, the daily televised press conferences in which Boris Johnson’s failure to prepare well was regularly exposed by the courteous corrections of experts personifying everything which the Prime Minister was not: serious, well informed, restrained and precise, became a ritual of anxiety as I tried to form a picture of what was happening in a rapidly changing and deteriorating situation. For a time, I logged in daily to sources which provided graphs of steep gradient representing hospital admissions, infections, patients on ventilators and deaths. It was a grim experience and one from which I eventually learned to ‘Gan awa back’ for my own mental health. Judgment overset by obsession is not a good place in which to linger. Another lesson to remember.
No one close to me died during this awful time, though the terror of friends who had clinically vulnerable family members was ever present. The white-faced grief of one friend whose mother died alone in hospital and whose funeral had to be simply an unattended disposal will remain with me for a long time. The hope of being able at some later stage to celebrate her long life with a ceremony of love and dignity seemed a far-off and uncertain comfort.
So many experienced this anguish and it is life-changing. Too many of our politicians failed to recognise it. Their sense of entitlement and careless hedonism has altered, both radically and for ever, our relationship with those who govern us.
Being an introvert who had lived alone for some time, I was taken by surprise at the manner in which loneliness came upon me. When single households were permitted to form a ‘bubble’ with another family, it taught me to cherish even more deeply the friends who chose to link their lives with mine on a different level. The sharing of anxieties, anger and sorrow were ameliorated by laughter and foolery and by picking each other up in the down times. The sense of being blessed by this is still with me. I hope never to forget it.
Before we were locked down, Zoom had been an occasional work tool, now it became a standard for meetings and discussions. The platform also came into its own as a means of being with family and friends and of worshipping together. The idea of a Quaker Meeting on Zoom puzzled many of my acquaintances. A largely silent hour passed in small rectangles might seem odd, but for me, it was spiritually nourishing and invaluable in keeping our community together. The adaptation of old habits and the adoption of new ones was an underlying and positive strand of lockdown. It speaks of resilience and inventiveness and is a sign of promise for our futures.
And what of that future? It was plain enough during lockdown that our society was deeply and often lethally unequal. There was talk of ‘building back better’ and of what that might mean in terms of housing, town planning, and pushing back at the evils of racism and poverty. Of how important it was to learn from our unpreparedness and of how much we owed to science and to the NHS.
Many employers and employees have re-thought their approaches to places of work and the new opportunities offered to many through the uses of communication technology. I found myself more willing to ‘have a go’ at unfamiliar work practices – something which I hope to carry forward into an increased sense of adventurousness beyond the workplace. There is a danger that a safe competence may, over time, become restrictive, fostering a complacent inflexibility. Freshness may be stimulated in unlooked for ways.
There was also an awareness that we had to hold onto a new-found sense of solidarity and kindness, acknowledging the common helplessness that we had experienced in the darkest weeks and months.
Some of this was doubtless a kind of survival mechanism. But it should not therefore be packed away: it was a window into ‘better’. In our eagerness to ‘get back to normal’ we have, if not repudiated these authentically progressive movements of heart and mind, perhaps forgotten a constructive remembrance of them.
It is for that reason that I have returned in this piece to my remembered experience. I believe that we have to do this with humility, recognising our own weaknesses and failures and refraining from trying to fit it all too neatly into our chosen ideologies or those of our peer group. If we are to grow and to be part of future change, we have to face discomfiture and challenge. There is too much at stake to mess this up with conclusions of wishful thinking or amnesiac relief at the passing of the pandemic’s acute phase. We must remember with integrity.
It was said of the early Quaker ‘Publishers of Truth’ that “they were changed men themselves before they went about to change others.” This is not easy for anyone. So, back to the sheepdogs…
© Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, The Friend and Reform, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and is now Ekklesia’s Contributing Editor. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen
This article is part of Ekklesia’s ‘Pandemic Humility and Hope’ series, originally launched to coincide with the third anniversary of the first Covid lockdown on 23 March 2020. See also Everyday Sacrament: Visual Meditations in an Age of Pandemic (review), Scotland After the Virus (review), Beyond the deadening grip of the ‘old normal’ (article) Rediscovering the sacred during lockdown (article), ‘The pandemic: an issue of life and death’, (article) Backwards or forwards? Chronic illness, lockdown and levelling (article)