The Lockdown Diaries 2

London, Observatory

Excerpted from ‘Paperboy: A Memoir’

‘My formative years were filled with orderly lassitude, like those of a soldier posted to a peaceful backwater. They were days of strawberry jam on white bread, the squeak of chalk in hushed classrooms, Hancock’s Half-Hour, cold mutton on Mondays, back-fence arguments, kicking about in the garden and walking alone through empty, silent streets. The most exciting thing that happened that spring was the tortoise waking up. If someone bought a car, all the men in the street came out to look at it.

During weekdays the men were all off at work and their wives were busy waxing the linoleum in cool, shadowed hallways or in still, dead front rooms where even the dust hung motionless in the air. You could smell coal and lavender polish, cigarettes and steamed vegetables, mildew and fresh-cut grass. It was all so quiet and safe, full of purposefully pressed lips and chapped hands. The passing summer days were sensible, predictable and becalmed. Housewives’ Choice was on the radio, and the choice was always the same. There was very little noise. Mangles were turned by hand, workmen dug roads with pickaxes, houses were swept with brooms. On Sundays it was so quiet that you could hear your neighbours cleaning their shoes next door.

I felt that even here, behind the dullest daily routines, there was a dark and unruly strangeness that might somehow find a way to surface. It lay just behind a wooden fence, over a wall or through a hedge. It was hidden behind net curtains, in rooms where adults sat smoking in silhouette, in kitchens where wives washed up and whispered, in railway alleys where lovers clung guiltily to each other. It was tucked away just out of reach, on top shelves, in the backs of cupboards, deep under the stairs.’


Life under Lockdown has plunged me into a parallel world, so that the city of my childhood and the present have now disconcertingly overlapped and merged. The chimes of St Paul’s Cathedral ring clearly in the air to reach my kitchen window over two miles away. Someone’s radio is playing a Spanish guitar piece. On the pavement opposite, a heron beats blue-black wings like a pair of umbrellas to dry them, its head-ruff stretched forward, being stroked by the sun. The only clouds above us have formed ripples like sand on a wide flat beach at low tide, there being no contrails to disturb them. This is a childhood summer of unending heat and light and lassitude, five weeks of crystal skies and warm brick and windows that must be shaded between noon and four. When we began the Lockdown, the trees were black and skeletal.

The huge, rowdy family next door have laid an astroturf lawn and appear to have placed the entire contents of their home in their garden, chairs and tables, trampoline and roundabout, grill and paddling pool, day bed, toys, drinks trolley, much of it plastic. So have most of their neighbours, the exception being the Indian family who glanced at the rampant buddleia in their garden and simply decided to sit down in it. This being London, our exclusive, expensive little privately owned glass boxes are butted against their utilitarian brick houses, DINKies and low-income families respectively. We say hello but don’t socialise, the awkwardness being mostly on our side.

I did meet one neighbour once. When the incredibly heavy, lethal lid of our barbecue (too fashionably designed to ever be of use) was storm-tossed down into their garden, the amiable dad returned it, saying, ‘If you’d been a couple of feet further over you’d have taken my old woman’s head off an’ done us all a favour, har har.’ If the situation had been reversed, someone in our building would doubtless have prosecuted them. The middle class residents fret. The working class residents laugh. When a homeless person pitched camp on our building’s doorstep the flat-owners were torn between making him soup and setting down spikes.

Life under Lockdown is affecting the two groups differently. The big families are simply getting on with it without much change of habit, going to work in essential services or as drivers, builders, supermarket cashiers, watching TV as night falls or drinking beer in the garden. Without interior lives the flat owners are suffering. They’re used to being late, keeping cabs waiting, heading off somewhere before going on somewhere else. Now they’re busy blacklisting farmers’ markets that are failing to deliver, fighting for Ocado slots, unable to get refunds on flights and theatre tickets, unable to land any work as freelance media-whatsits, unsure what will happen when the money runs out and the world folds its arms against them, deciding that it needs a hospital cleaner more than it needs someone who does PR for an in-house magazine owned by a fashion conglomerate.

We watch the news. The freedom of release is receding, being regraduated into a series of concessions that will deny us the pleasure of celebration; a few stores will open here, a park will unlock there. Social distancing will breed a destructive, insidious suspicion that feels as if it has been intelligently targeted at undermining our social fabric. I watch old films for scenes set in pubs, restaurants, cinemas and sporting events with a sense of loss and nostalgia. We turn to each other and say; ‘Remember how we used to do that?’ Pre-Lockdown will become a term like Post-War, conjuring an unimaginable era of plenitude.

That was then. This now may be forever.


28 comments on “The Lockdown Diaries 2”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    Try reading someone with a sense of humour. It can’t be doing you any good to reminisce and start on a nostalgia kick. Keep that for Arthur Bryant. And do look after yourself, depression’s contagious! Don’t spread it around…..I’m speaking from experience here.

  2. Jo W says:

    On our exercise walk yesterday,down to the local convenience store ( which has been doing us well) we noticed that one or two of the restaurants were advertising that they were now doing ‘take-aways’. One curry place and the other a rather good indie Italian. Well,we thought, now that’s a start. Then we saw that the chippy was also opening – take-away obviously but ‘phone to order first. Alan couldn’t have been happier. Plaice,chips and mushy peas for him with bread and butter and a mug of tea, he might have been dining at the Ritz!
    Little things but they are showing a chink of light down a long, long,dark tunnel.
    Hope the treatment isn’t too awful yet,Chris, big virtual hugs to you both.

  3. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I have just finished reading I Saw Two Englands by H. V Morton, and was struck by the similarities of the beginning of WW2 and our current situation.
    People adapted. A new normal appeared. People learnt to appreciate what they had.
    It won’t be forever.
    Hope you are OK.
    Five minutes at a time is good if a day at a time is too long.

  4. Brooke says:

    What Liz T said. Listen to some Agatha Christie audio–BBC today or YouTube anytime. It’s so silly you’ll laugh aloud or have something to be angry about. Good ole’ M.C. Beaton is also someone to listen to..

    That you can write daily shows how strong you are. Hugs.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    I think we should bring back Air Raid Sirens to tell us when its safe to go out and make sure we’re all back at home by 9pm. Maybe alternate shopping days so you can go out one day if you were born in an even year and the next day if you’re from an odd year. Covid masks and ration books, Sam Spud and ITMA. Home conjuring, beetle drives and rabbit pie – ooh, err, jumpers for goalposts, of course it was hotter in those days – you never had to lock your door.
    Sorry, I’m starting to hallucinate.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    Everyday now seems like a Sunday in the 1950s. Therefore I automatically think of the immortal “Handcock’s Half Hour” sketch. But instead of it being about a boring Sunday, think lockdown instead.

  7. Roger says:

    “On the pavement opposite, a heron beats blue-black wings like a pair of umbrellas to dry them…”
    Do you mean a cormorant? Cormorant dive for fish, whereas herons are waders and paddle around tentatively. They don’t get their wings wet. The problem is that I’ve never seen a cormorant on the ground: they stand around i trees to dry out.

  8. Richard says:

    Blimey, you’ll be at the poetry at this rate. Try some audio books with your feet up and rest your eyes. Anything involving Dirk Maggs generally improves things.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Cormorants around here sit on logs floating in the Fraser as if they were either masts with sails or peculiar figureheads. They are strange birds, but then most birds are strange if you watch them closely.

  10. John Williams says:

    Back in ‘those’ days, nobody locked their doors. I brought this subject up with a friend as to why this was? His reply was there nobody had anything worth stealing. Fair comment.

    I’m actually able to save more money than ever, as I’m not socialising or travelling much. I’m so relaxed now and finding time to do the things I enjoy. However, I’m getting fraught with readjustment to normal life. I thought I might give myself a travelling treat, but where can one go that is attractive, interesting, reasonably priced and not overridden by tourists?
    I have this hankering to go to New York, but that fails on two counts. Despite failings on two counts, Paris is nice.

    Some of the nicer places I’ve visited:

    If a place promotes its nightlife, that’s a negative to me, suggesting there’s not much else.

  11. Liz Thompson says:

    Ration books, beetle drives….yes, but NEVER rabbit pie. My father had nightmares about mixematosis which I think I’ve misspelt. Nostalgia is a snare and a delusion during a pandemic!
    During WW2, train drivers in Leeds, running up to Carlisle, used to throw off coal as they passed certain houses or signal boxes. In return, rabbits (deceased ones) were thrown back!

  12. Jill Q. says:

    Maybe this was a bit melancholy, but I enjoyed the way it evoked a time and place I could never know.

    I hope the world realizes it needs hospital cleaners, and truck drivers and grocery store workers etc. after this. I hope, but I’m not too optimistic. I’m an American and a little bit more cynical about the “American dream” and how eager everyone is to look down on someone making less than them as automatically undeserving. Not just undeserving of a living wage, but sometimes undeserving of even common decency and respect as a human being. I think eventually the virus will be contained and there will be convenient mass amnesia about these people risking their lives.
    Sorry, that’s my pessimism for the day. Probably not the best thing to share in a gloomy time, but there it is.
    Best wishes for health to all.

  13. Brooke says:

    @ John W: Toronto or Montreal–not NYC, which you will not like. Most US cities have taken on a certain ugly sameness that is off putting. (I am US resident). Add Cordoba and Granada to list. Anywhere in Portugal and Andorra. Also think local. Friends, ex-pat UK citizens who have returned home, are enjoying Scotland and England–the parts that Londoners never venture to.

    @Jill Q. I’ve been attending big name universities’ webinars (you know who on east and west coasts) and your point is being made over and over again–wage suppression and maltreatment of “frontline” workers has to stop. I’m the worst sort of cynic–but I’m getting in line with others on an action agenda–including voting in primary and in November.

  14. Jill Q. says:

    @Brooke, definitely agreed. That’s my plan too. Fingers crossed for luck.

  15. admin says:

    I’ll add a few to John’s list shortly in an article, but I’d probably include:

  16. Peter Dixon says:

    Jill Q. I have to agree with you; we ALL NEED rubbish removal, sewerage, clean water, food, carers for the sick and elderly, nurses, police. What we don’t need is an endless list; nail bars, tattooists, luxury chocolatiers, scented candles, estate agents, those people who stick lots of leaflets through your door, the people who print the leaflets, anyone who tries to sell you anything on the street, P.R. companies, people whose job titles are a set of initials you don’t understand – they all exist but you don’t actually need them, they are barnacles on the hull of society.

    Mr Fowler – do get better, we need you.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    The printers may not be essential the way care aides are but they print more than just those annoying flyers, you know.
    Does this agitation among our USian members mean that there will be a flood of voters to the polls in November? That should prove interesting.

  18. Brian Evans says:

    Admin. my partner went to Tallin for a break and loved it.

    Brooke, he lived in Portugal, near Lisbon, for 2 years and couldn’t stand it. It’s not my fave place either.

    However, you are spot on about Scotland. It’s a fantastic place.

  19. Michael Pitcher says:

    Being an old wrinkly I remember 50s 60s 70s as a time with more freedom quietly decade by decade drip by drip we are losing our freedoms nanny state / offended millennials and now covid , oops starting to rant, still I have the new Bryant and may to look forward to in july putting in my order for it in the morning Best wishes for your future health

  20. Frances says:

    I stopped watching television weeks ago. First was the endless stream of pandemic films which were too much like the news, both depressing. Someone mentioned the BBC audiobooks of Agatha Christie. That is where I took refuge. Youtube is full of them. Also found, Margery Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers, P.D. James. If this world is unrecognisable what does it matter that the world in those books is also unfamiliar. I found that murder, fictional murder, is relaxing and being read to, as children know, is wonderful.

  21. Rachel Green says:

    Cheer up, mate. Worse things ‘appen at sea.

  22. Agatha Hamilton says:

    I think this is a brilliant post, not depressing at all. Clear-sighted social and class observation.

  23. Kim Froggatt says:

    How have I gone through my life without ever meeting you before, Mr Fowler? I can only imagine it might be because I moved overseas from the UK in 1993 and haven’t lived there since. Unfortunately, that is no excuse for my complete lackadaisical effort at trawling masterful, funny and off-the-wall murder mystery type novels to keep me amused! All this time I thought I was doing well until three days ago when I spotted Bryant and May #17 on NetGalley, downloaded it and almost choked on my tea when I read about Raymond Land gluing one of the Ark Royal’s radar masts to his eyelid!! I’m totally hooked. Unfortunately, I have ordered the backlist, become a bit of a stalker of your blog in the last few days and am besotted with the books. reading the first and the current books at the same time. Thank you so much for the laugh out loud moments. I do hope you are doing well and staying strong. Please keep telling stories and doing what you do so well.

  24. admin says:

    Thank you Kim, that’s very kind of you. You see, readers? This is how to butter up an exhausted mid-list hack at the end of a trying afternoon. Excelsior!

  25. Peter Mathers says:

    Could I recommend “Talking Pictures” TV? Freeview 81. In the past few days we’ve seen black & white films featuring Googie Withers, Miles Mallinson, William Hartnell (pre-Dr. Who) and Barbara Murray. Wonderful.

  26. John Howard says:

    Bloody hell. I’ve always known why you are the writer and I am the reader…. I was with you when reading Paperboy and I am yet again standing beside you when reading this.
    Isn’t Kim lucky that she has all that stuff to discover….. and i’m lucky that i have all that stuff to re-read. Stay safe..

  27. Jan says:

    Dunno how I missed this Chris. (Employment probably it’s a nasty old business )

    Best thing you have written for a day or 2. Yes really good stuff.

    In some daft sort of a way lockdown is like being thrown back into your early teens when you couldn’t get to go into the places where u really wanted to be. Consequently you felt like you were missing out on something or other. I

    Well EVERYONE feels that now most of us not being 100% sure of what it is we’re missing exactly …..

  28. Ed DesCamp says:

    Lovely post today – as usual, your writing makes pictures in my tiny mind.
    @ Helen – yes, November WILL be interesting for us USians – I have high hopes for a good turnout, and then we can turn him out. As a wrinkly in my own right, I’ve had to live (as an adult) through Watergate and the loss of anything resembling government aimed at making things better for everyone, rather than just slagging away at the opposition. Damn, now I’M depressed…

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