How COVID Is Changing Us


A Bit Too Real

A walk through Central London is a shock. For the past four months it has been like a quiet country village – and despite a half-hearted effort to get people into offices, it still is. A great many of the shops remain shut. There’s a cat asleep in the middle of St Martin’s Lane. You don’t have to look before crossing a road. It’s quiet enough to hear birdsong and church bells.

After a brief, excited opening Soho’s bubble tea bars and coffee shops are boarding up again. In Dover Street, just off Charing Cross Road, my favourite butchers, which became an ice cream shop aimed at tourists, is now closed and gone. The butcher’s had been there for a century. What we’re being offered no longer reflects what we want. We can see now just how much of the city was aimed purely at tourists.

As the COVID picture becomes increasingly complex and long-term, fiction writers have another problem. If we win readers for reflecting real life, at some point we have to start representing our new world. But does anyone want to read about the pandemic? During the Great Depression everyone turned to escapism. Will the subject of lockdown fill theatres, assuming they ever reopen?

Production Assistant Not Wanted

Before the pandemic there was a huge queue for media-related jobs, but a media studies degree has lost most of its value these days. Just as Amazon became the new Woolworths, so Netflix aims to replace all other home entertainment, and independent production is dying away.

The new heroes are those who do something useful. Until COVID, Britain was the home of the ‘soft job’, with an ever-increasing number of workers in arts and the media. Now a nurse, butcher or plumber is perceived as being of more value to the community, and while my local electrician has a month-long waiting list of work, production companies have furloughed their staff.

What will it take to persuade a Gen Y media studies graduate to retrain? That generation was raised on the idea that the arts and the media were glamorous careers, and many find the fantasy too hard to let go. My local fish shop closed down because the owner’s son did not wish to follow generations of his family into fish but wanted to be a music producer. He is now out of work. It will be interesting to see how we adapt.

My Next Guest Is…

I’ve just finished doing some interviews for the new Bryant & May novel, ‘Oranges & Lemons’. Before, I would have gone into the studio, met the production team and been interviewed by the programme host. (I could easily live in the stunning studio run by ‘Monocle’ magazine in Marylebone.) The last time I went to BBC’s Broadcasting House for an interview I swiped myself in through the building, poured an automated coffee in an automated studio, listened to a disembodied voice and spoke into a mic, then left without speaking to another human being.

Now, COVID has brought a welcome change. I download an app, set up my own voice levels and do the whole thing at home. Different shows use different systems. Zoom isn’t broadcast audio quality so I add a second app to record my voice, and simply send it to the interviewer as a WAP file. No need to move from my sofa.

Podcasts and sites I’ve appeared on like Joined Up Writing, Tim Haig Reads Books and Writer’s Routine are changing the game with smart, sharp interviews and well researched pieces. But how long has it taken publishing to catch up and come aboard? Why don’t podcast reviewers get quoted on book jackets instead of some old duffer at the Telegraph?

17 comments on “How COVID Is Changing Us”

  1. Rich. says:

    I was wondering if there will be an audiobook of Oranges & Lemons? As all of my previous Bryant & May books are in paperback I wait until that is released to get my hard copy of each book – and get the audio version from Audible on release. If not I’ll read the kindle version instead.

  2. admin says:

    The audiobook will be delayed as our actor, Tim Goodman, is isolated away from humanity and needs to be brought in to a studio. I’ll let readers know as soon as I get news.

  3. Rich. says:

    Many thanks. I’ll probably end up getting it on kindle and the eventual audiobook – I do like Tim Goodman’s narration.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    To show how things are changing, the Argos Catalogue is going to end after 48 years. I think we had a Littlewoods catalogue at home, mail order long gone, shifted to online now.

    Office and Tourists for sure make up a big part of commerce, then there are the students I wonder what will happen with them. My niece is just starting Uni and is in halls, it will be interesting to see what happens.

    With lockdown plots and with people not being in the office a clichéd start would be when someone is unexpectedly called to the office… In some news there is talk of some offices in the suburbs, getting lost or waylaid would be a simple way in. Or a group of people have to go in and deep clean an office/factory etc. Or a cluster outbreak needs investigating…

    With the bit of the government I work in they were/are centralising with regional offices without a set desk, or that was the plan, Disability needs put paid to part of these ideas. Also it will be how desk sharing/hot-desking will be viewed. Will they be able to deep clean properly.


  5. Wayne Mook says:

    Oh I meant to ask, with books I usually allow 50 pages before I stop and put it on a pile to be read later, but how long do you stick with an audible book?

    I’m listening to Northanger Abbey and to be honest I’m finding it fairly dull. The problem is it’s read by Anna Massey who is really fine, I’m enjoying her narration no end but the story…oh no it’s raining in Bath, how could anyone get wet in ‘Bath? (Northern accent strikes again.) Supposedly making fun of gothic novels it’s nowhere near as much fun as The Castle of Otranto, how can you top someone being crushed to death by a giant helmet?


  6. Helen Martin says:

    I wondered what you would do about the Lockdown, but I think it will solve itself. I find that I am really reluctant to go anywhere and have been away from the house little more than just a half dozen times since March. Writing will reflect your experience and echo your new life rhythm. We aren’t going to go back to “before” and it will be interesting to see how our new patterns manifest themselves.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    Helen – I guess then it will be up to businesses and the attractions city to try and entice us out of our homes. There in lies another plot, a modern pied piper getting the older set to come out of their homes.

    I think eventually large crowds will come back several years down the line, more youngsters will congregate, we are social animals especially the young. It will be interesting to see how the new social cohesion holds.


  8. John Griffin says:

    We are getting some new congregations – all suitably distanced – alas, they are at car park food banks by churches etc. To realise how isolated some people are is shocking: I do delivery runs for those shielding in my town (as well as left-over food collection from the Coops), and there are some whose sole interaction is putting cleaned bags and containers out for me – I never see some older couples and singles, and neither does anyone else. Being a former social worker (decades ago) I occasionally open the letterbox and shout that I’ve delivered – I don’t do it to communicate, but to spot the stink of a dead body, which happened to me twice back in the day.

  9. snowy says:

    W, If you are not enjoying it after 20 minutes, I’d give it up.

    Northanger Abbey, like a lot of other books from the period suffer from being over-regarded as works of ‘Literature’. The status as a ‘Great Work’ means it is treated with too much veneration and produces horribly po-faced adaptations.

    In essence NA is the tale of a naive teenage horror geek brought up in the quiet of the countryside, who goes to stay with her slightly eccentric relatives in the most bustling and fashionable city in the world, and has adventures.

    Adapting it should be easy, it’s a rom-com, country mouse goes to big city, love triangle, love rivals, scheming minxes, comic misunderstandings, social satire and barking mad relatives are all there. But because it is a ‘sacred cow’ of ‘Literature’ all we get are plodding literal readings of the text with all the joie de vivre sucked out of of the book.

    [A bit of context I couldn’t work in:

    It is set in Georgian Bath, bawdy, rowdy and sexually charged in a way that makes a 2 week 18-30 holiday in ‘Magaluf’ look like a vicar’s tea party.

    Catherine Morland is a seventeen year old, naive country girl pitched into a social whirlwind, she should positively fizz with energy and excitement.]

    [There is an adaptation on Audible narrated by Emma Thompson, that is partly dramatised, this might come a little closer to the original spirit of the book, but I haven’t heard it.]

  10. Peter Dixon says:

    I think cities are having real problems – the lack of tourists just shows how shaky our economy is. We’re running a service economy and when nobody is allowed service then it all stops.

    Towns seem to be doing better because people are shopping locally and homeworkers spend money where they live, not where they are forced to travel to.

    An empty London may be a sad sight but if you live in the provinces it shows what a precarious place the city is.
    The fact that tens of thousands of commuters have to pay thousands of pounds to travel to work and employers are probably spending £20k +per desk in rent and rates means that everyone has woken up to the absurdity of the system.

    In the sticks London is regarded as a vampire that reduces once-great cities to bit-part virgins in a Hammer movie.

    The money spent on a mile of tube line is more than some regional cities get over 20 years.

    Covid has exposed the massive gaps in the economy that exist when you don’t actually make anything very much anymore and rely on ice-creams, perfumed candles and home-made fudge.

    Oh – and banking and finance of course.

  11. Mimi Paller says:

    Please convey my best wishes to Tim Goodman. As I get older, I find that I tend to skip over paragraphs in written books, so I listen to as many books in audio form as I can. Tim is such a wonderful reader that I can turn on any audio book in the middle and tell which PCU character is talking. He absolutely nails Arthur Bryant.

    Interestingly in the US, the audiobook usually came out months before the ebooks or real books.

    OK, I will order O & L from the UK and then get the audiobook when it comes out.

  12. Dawn Andrews says:

    I don’t feel our Jane was comfortable with Bath, probably for the reasons you mention, Snowy. I’ve always seen Northanger Abbey as a catty swipe at Mrs Radcliffe that backfired. I like listening tto stories on Audible, but I read them first, then you can rate the reader on nuance. Good fun. Tim Goodman is a 10, can’t imagine anyone else reading Bryant and May.

  13. ROCKETTE says:

    Totally agree about how Covid has exposed London as a city for tourists – without the tourists there is no City. My son who is a bankster working in Canary Wharf and cycles in from Wimbledon, or used to BCv, has been very struck by this.
    But he makes another point. It is OK for a company’s experienced staff to network from home, but what about the new and junior staff, how will they learn the ropes, find their way around, get to know other staff and network, with no office in which to do this. That basic knowledge and interaction level and learning it, is the company’s lifeblood.

    Still there are green shoots. One blessed relief in recent months has been the absence of celebs.infesting the media. Today I opened my newspaper, admittedly on-line, and there in front of me were three barely clad young women, one time stars of one of the more excruciating Reality TV shows, “enjoying the London sunshine”. In stilettos, or in one case silver boots with stilettos heels, very short shorts and minuscule tops, they posed awkwardly, flashing their false eyelashes at the camera. And let’s not forget Katie Price who is giving it her best effort at present. Can nightclubs be very far behind?

  14. Anne Billson says:

    “During the Great Depression everyone turned to escapism.”

    I’m not sure this is so. A lot of well-known films from the 1930s leavened their fantasy with hefty doses of realism, for example the Warner Bros gangster films, Gold Diggers of 1933, My Man Godfrey etc.

    A google search threw up this piece on the subject by my former Facebook friend Ronald Bergan (who died a few weeks ago RIP):

  15. snowy says:

    It is a nice article but a little short on… um… what’s the word? Can’t bring it to mind, the author doesn’t assert anything with facts to back to back up the assertion, [or something like that.]

    [So socks off, let’s go for a short paddle in the shallow end of the data pool].

    If we want to answer: ‘What did people watch?’, then we need the Box Office numbers.

    [Title/Year/Starring/Box Office Gross]

    Hell’s Angels (1930) Jean Harlow $8.9M
    Whoopee (1930) Eddie Cantor $8.3M
    Tom Sawyer (1930) Jackie Coogan $8.0M
    Check and Double Check (1930) Amos & Andy $5.4M
    Common Clay (1930) Constance Bennett $5.2M
    All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) Lew Ayres & Lewis Milestone $4.6M
    The Big House (1930) Wallace Beery & Robert Montgomery $3.9M
    Min and Bill (1930) Marie Dressler & Wallace Beery $3.8M
    Song o’ My Heart (1930) Maureen O’Sullivan $3.7M
    Animal Crackers (1930) Marx Brothers $3.4M

    [Add genre by X-ref, tedious manual process.]

    War Film
    Musical Comedy
    Comedy Drama
    War Film
    Prison Drama
    Comedy Drama
    Musical Drama

    [Overlapping sets so numbers will not easily sum to 100%]

    But from a very rough glance, 50% of the top grossing films for 1930 were Comedies of some form.

    [Usual caveats: one data point is not a trend – obv., the pool of regular cinema goers might be shrinking, so that audience may not be representative of whole nation, number of screens/cinemas may also be decreasing, etc & etc. It would take days and days to try to work out and then correct for all the possible factors!]

  16. Ian Luck says:

    I was always amused for the reason that Jimmy Cagney gave studio bosses why he wanted to get out of ‘Gangster’ movies – he was fed up of being shot at. You might think ‘If you’re in gangster movies, then there’s a good chance that the script says you’re going to be shot at’. Yes indeed. But it wasn’t that Cagney was bothered about. It was the live rounds being shot at him. Yes, really. In those 1930’s movies, the best way, before remotely fired squibs, to illustrate bullets being hosed about, was to get police marksmen to fire Thompson submachine guns at the walls, etc., of the set. And the actors ran about as directed. Madness! So when you see bullets hitting walls in movies like ‘The Public Enemy’ and ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’, those are real .45 shells just missing real people. Remember also, that the Thompson was not made for pin point accuracy – it had been designed for trench warfare, and was known by the descriptive name of ‘The Trench Broom.’

  17. Lauren C says:

    Tim Goodman does nail Arthur, but his Raymondo is perfect as well. The scene wherein Raymond announces that he’s had to take Crippen on his final trip to the vet was wrenching.

    The narrator is a make-or-break factor for audiobooks. With works of Great Littrachur, there are usually several versions available free online. I often use and [checking] see that there are four recordings of Northanger Abbey available. Sometimes switching to a different reader is the answer. Sometimes, you’re just not in the mood for that book.

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