Hidden world behind the houses

You’re walking down this suburban street. Technically it’s a village: it has a village green and an old church. But it’s attached to a city ­– there’s no countryside in between; so I think it’s fair to say it’s a suburb. It has a good bus service.

Anyway, you’re walking past these suburban-type houses, and suddenly there’s a track off to the right. It goes between a couple of the houses, and there’s an old down-at-heel notice that says you can get to the river that way.

You give it a shot. You’ve been in lockdown, and you need the exercise. 

A hundred yards down, there’s an old brick bridge – a rail bridge – and beyond it, round the bend, a house on its own. It looks abandoned, but it’s not. Old wood of various kinds is stacked up on one side, and on the other side are several vehicles the worse for wear. The house has two doors and two numbers – 1 and 2. There is a dim light in one of the rooms.

Another couple of hundred yards beyond the house there is a second rail line, but this one has a gated crossing. You open the gates, check that no trains are coming, and walk over. There is no sign of a river. Not yet.

The track continues. On the right are marshes, and a couple of very muddy paths – neither of them passable without a small boat. This should be beautiful country, but instead it seems dirty, with skeleton trees in the middle distance looking dystopian rather than stunning, and ditches brimming with unhealthy-looking water. There is no sun: the sky is heavy.

Eventually a very narrow path leads down to the river. It simply stops when it gets there, giving a river frontage of only a foot or two. On one side is a dilapidated dwelling, scruffy fencing and a large sign reading Private. On the other is a boatyard, apparently closed for the off-season. A few tired boats are moored nearby. The river is quite wide, and empty.

You return to the rail crossing and find a young family apparently train-spotting. The smallest child opens the gate for you, and you thank him. On the other side of the track a cyclist is coming through. You return by a side path, past a cemetery and, as you near a neater civilisation, a local Scout headquarters. 

You have lived within three miles of this hidden, layered world for more than 35 years without knowing it is there. You return to the car and drive home.

Toilet rolls? Panic buying? Nothing to see here

I am now locked down, though I don’t feel any different. Yesterday I took the car for an MOT, not because I was panicking but because that was the day I booked it in, about a month ago. I went for a walk while it was being done. Later I bought some toilet rolls.

Again, I was not feeling particularly panicky, but I was in the shop – a local convenience store – to buy something completely different, and this pack of toilet rolls was on the floor, saying “Please buy me” – or words to that effect. So I did.

It was at that point that a couple who live three doors down happened to come in the shop, and the husband eyed me suspiciously. I felt a slight amount of panic then, but not much. On the way home, another neighbour crossed over and caught me with my casual package of toilet rolls. I acted nonchalant, and pretended they were not there. But of course they were. As far as I’m concerned, it means nothing.

Another neighbour has a cupboard full of toilet rolls. He volunteered the information when six of us were having a drink in the street to mark the last day we could be seen together. Apparently he has 37 toilet rolls, although he says he’s not worried because he could always step into the shower instead. I felt this was too much detail.

I had to cancel a visit to my friend in Hickling today, because of the lockdown, but I phoned her instead. We did not mention toilet rolls at all. I don’t know if she was avoiding the subject. She did not mention the American elections either. But then I tend to agree with Richard Holloway, who used to be a bishop, that you can prove nothing from something that is not mentioned.

The man who gets my groceries tells me the supermarket has sold out of salted potato sticks. I should have bought a box of them last week. Perhaps you can get them online.

All we need is love, but will we avoid it like the plague?

I don’t get out much nowadays. I don’t even write letters to Private Eye, though I have been tempted. I don’t actually subscribe to Private Eye: our neighbour, a very kind man, lets me read his copy when he’s finished it, and in return I’ve taken to giving him our used copies of the Eastern Daily Press. Admittedly it is not so funny, but there’s more of it.

Anyway, reading anything is more fun than going out, because the world out there is becoming increasingly unrecognisable. Yes, there are people moving around as always, and for some reason there seems to be just as much traffic, but something is missing.

I conducted a number of studies on this, involving a variety of research groups at distinguished universities, and got a number of different results. This is not unusual, because no research group wants to be the same as other research groups, and whatever research group is most recent is inevitably right. Unless, of course, it isn’t.

This is the same basis that is used for creating Covid regulations. The result is that Covid regulations are universally ridiculous – or as some would have it, locally ridiculous. They are so ridiculous that only politicians could take them seriously – and of course the BBC. I am not going to explain why they are ridiculous, because if you don’t know, it is already too late.

My own research, undertaken entirely independently of universities, scientists, the NHS and Highways England, has uncovered something remarkable. The real threat to each and all of us is not a virus of any kind, but the removal of joy from daily life.

When was the last time you saw anyone smiling? Admittedly the lack of smileyness is partly because the imposition of masks prevents you from seeing whether someone is smiling or not, but is is also because they really aren’t. There is no longer any fun in popping into the city or going to a restaurant, or driving to the coast, because wherever you go there will be a lot of dreary people either carefully obeying the Covid regulations, or wishing they were in Benidorm.

What makes the human race human is our capacity for love. In most cases demonstrating love requires contact with other people, if only in the form of a handshake or a hand on the shoulder (thank you, Sergio Aguero). In extreme cases, it calls for a more thorough bodily contact, and it is no accident that more and more people are ending communications with the words “Hugs and Kisses” nowadays.

In the street, giving people a couple of metres space – apart from being impossible – gives the impression of avoiding them, or not wanting to risk contact. It is the kind of thing people used to do when they considered themselves superior to another race, or sex, or class.

One of the myriad “recent surveys” revealed the frightening suggestion that even when Covid goes away, 48% of those responding will continue to keep distance from people where possible. What sort of people have we become?

Separating people from their loved ones in care homes and elsewhere is not a solution: it is a move that should never be considered.

Covid is not the plague. It occasionally kills people, but so does the flu, and so do cancer and many, many other illnesses and accidents. Death statistics generally are no worse this October than they were last October. Covid may kill me: I am 75 and have been in hospital this year. But it probably won’t.

Whatever happens to me, the real measurement of death from this pandemic (if that’s the right word) can be found in the absence of love, the dearth of merriment, the artificial avoidance of physical signs of affection, and the care-worn eyes behind the pesky masks.

Missing our second home

Although I have many doubts about the Government’s approach to Covid, since the outbreak started I have avoided travelling to my second home in Scotland.

This is partly because I don’t have a second home in Scotland, but there is a place in Aberdeenshire that does feel enough like home for me to want to go there. It’s called Ballater, and we have been there almost every year since about 1990.

We started going because our next-door neighbour in Norwich came from Aberdeenshire, and once we had got attuned to his accent – it took a couple of years – we found that he had a sister who owned a cottage in Ballater, and she might be willing to rent it out to us.

She was, and she became a close friend. She introduced us to several different Highland Games – no, that’s not a euphemism – and introduced us to her friends. She fishes for salmon, and she knows the top people along the River Dee – not just the ghillies, but the landowners. She is well connected.

The “wee house” we stayed in was a former school house, with plenty of ground and strategically placed. More recently it has been sold, and we have stayed at other cottages in the town.

During Storm Frank at the end of 2015 much of the town was flooded, when the Dee burst its banks to the south and west of its centre – the water inundating the golf course and hurtling into shops in the High Street and buildings elsewhere. It has taken some time to recover.

This was a major change to the town, of course. But other changes happened too. The station, which had been redesigned as a museum commemorating the visits of the Royal Family (Balmoral is just up the road), burnt down. Again it has risen from the ashes, and the Prince of Wales – or the Duke of Rothesay, as he is known in those parts – has opened a swish new restaurant to assist in the revival of the town. We’ve eaten there. It was superb.

Still we can’t help hankering over the Green Inn, which was in the early days probably our favourite restaurant in the world, but was sold and became an Indian. A very good Indian, it has to be said, but not the same thing.

We also miss the Glen Lui Hotel – or will, because it too was hit by fire earlier this year, and the last we heard it was due to be demolished. We stayed there on a couple of occasions, but always ate there when we were in Ballater, because the food and service were so good.

Storm Frank didn’t just flood the town; it demolished roads outside the town (the main A93 was washed away at one point between Ballater and Balmoral: it took only 19 days to replace it, partly because Norfolk County Council had nothing to do with it) and bridges  went down too. A beautiful footbridge at Cambus O’May on the way to Aboyne was badly damaged and has been hit again in recent days by another storm.

One of our favourite spots, the Linn of Quoich, had its road bridge completely destroyed, meaning that walking to the Linn became much more of a challenge.

We still love it all, of course, but we are becoming wary. Other restaurants and shops have changed hands, and when we arrive in Ballater nowadays the first thing we do is look round anxiously to see if our favourite places are still there. It’s the same everywhere, no doubt, but when it’s your second home, the changes hit you harder. 

I’m a real nowhere man, looking for the middle

Yesterday I took a brief trip back to my childhood – to those warm and sunny days before the climate changed and someone invented speed cameras and drink-driving, and when you could motor down all the streets in my home town without worrying whether someone had closed them overnight.

Prompted by a photo feature in my local paper – yes, we still take a local paper – my wife and I travelled out into the Norfolk countryside, using only a map to guide us. It was as if satnavs did not exist. Happily we took a wrong turn at an early stage and went a different way instead. But we got there and parked by the church at Tunstall, which you may not have heard of.

It lies on the brink of the marshes that cluster round the River Yare as it wends its unhurried way from Cantley to Great Yarmouth. To reach Tunstall you have to travel through Halvergate – a village from which some of the marshes take their name – and venture up a lane that leads to nowhere, other than Tunstall. It is not on the way to anywhere, and to get back home you have to turn round and come back. Some people find this alarming.

The church was open to visitors. The ruins are open to the heavens, atmospheric and – like the former chancel that has been converted into a simple place of worship by bricking in the arch and inserting a solid door – without much adornment. To a simple soul like me, this is very much back-to-childhood. I was brought up in a free church which did not even permit flowers in case they were distracting.

I loved Tunstall Church, or St Peter and St Paul, to give it its full title. But I loved the countryside around it even more. This is quite surprising, in that my first love is mountains, and the countryside around Tunstall and for miles around has been described as flat. It is not quite flat: if it were sea, it might be described as gently rolling, but mountains or even small hills are conspicuous by their absence.

We walked on a path across a dry, ploughed field, then on a country lane that ended in – well, nothing really. It just stopped. You could park and try one of two paths, neither of which really seemed to go anywhere. It was the edge of the Broads National Park. The outer edge. The path I tried was soon overgrown. If I had gone far enough I might have found a stream, or a staithe. Or maybe that was somewhere else. We picked small blackberries, and ate them for supper.

We drove back across open country. There was no direct route: we followed the edges of the fields, turning left, right, left. I wanted to stop, just to look at the patterns of the sun, but I resisted the temptation. Eventually we hit civilisation. The only good thing about civilisation is that there are toilets. In this case there was also a hold-up, because they were digging up the road. Again.

Survival is not good enough

Bob Dylan once said: “I accept chaos. I’m not sure whether it accepts me.” He wasn’t speaking about the COVID regulations at the time, but his comment seems particularly appropriate as the virus-plagued summer of 2020 turns to mysterious autumn. 

Unlike Mr Dylan (né Zimmerman), I have never been happy with chaos, except as an artistic tool. In real life, I like to know what’s going on; that’s why I react so strongly against a bunch of anarchists stopping the newspapers being printed – among other things. 

It’s not just anarchists, though. No-one really has any idea what the Government will do next, because the coronavirus is as unpredictable as Boris. And vice versa. In looking for solid ground, one feels tempted to echo author Neil Gaiman’s words in his novel The Kindly Ones: “I would feel infinitely more comfortable in your presence if you would agree to treat gravity as a law, rather than one of a number of suggested options.”

Admittedly, gravity is not the issue here. Indeed, scientific laws are not really the issue, because although we are supposed to be following the “science”, what we really see is a number of scientists holding different views. Indeed, that is what science is about. That is why taking what “most scientists” say as gospel is a particularly dangerous thing to do. All those conflicting studies and all that contrasting research. 

What effect is all this chaos having on us? The three major constraints imposed on us at the time of writing are to wear masks in shops, in church and on public transport (plus a number of other places that I don’t remember at the moment); to not meet in groups of more than six – a pretty random figure; and to keep two metres (another pretty random figure) away from people you don’t know.

You can’t hug, you can’t smile (or be seen to smile), and you can’t sing. Is this sensible restraint, or is it taking away from us a large proportion of what it means to be human? To be human means to move towards other people; following COVID regulations is to erect barriers between us, like the Mexican border wall.

You can see your friends or colleagues on Zoom, but you can’t touch them. Is this really what we want? To be in their presence but not in the same place? Not able to read their body language?

I’m not suggesting ignoring the regulations, because that would be chaos. What I do suggest is that whoever is responsible for dreaming them up gives it some serious thought, because making us less than human is as destructive of life as any illness. Simply surviving is just not good enough.

My first illegal journey

I’m not sure if I should admit to this, but just over 50 years ago I was in the United States illegally. For a fortnight – and I hope that will confuse the authorities enough to let me get away with it, because Americans have no idea what a fortnight is.

It happened when I worked, fairly briefly, for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They had just bought a very old British newspaper called The Christian, and by an amazing coincidence, the previous summer I had been on holiday at a guest house in Minehead, Somerset.

Not an obvious coincidence, unless you know that a Scottish journalist with four theology degrees was staying at the same guest house. I don’t know why. Somehow, he and I got talking, and he discovered that I enjoyed writing. I showed him some short pieces I had written, and the following autumn he gave me a ring at my home in Norwich.

He had just been appointed editor of The Christian and was looking for writers. At the time I was training to be an accountant. I don’t think I would have been a very good one. Dr J D Douglas (for it was he) asked me if I would like a job in London, and I – or whoever was inhabiting my body at the time – said yes. I soon found myself in a bedsit with shared toilet and bathroom in North London. I was on my own.

It was the start of my journalistic career. I made my way each morning to Bush House in central London and reported on various meetings and events. The first press conference I went to was in French. Fortunately there was a translator.

J D eventually decided that it might be a good idea if I went to a writing school. The one he decided on was in Minneapolis, headquarters of the BGEA. It was my first flight. I had been outside the UK before, but only on school trips.

And there was some kind of strike. Instead of flying straight to Minneapolis, I had to travel via Prestwick to Toronto. From there I had to find myself a flight to Winnipeg – also in Canada – and from there a train to Minneapolis. It was not straightforward.

I did however manage to get a flight on a rather shaky old propeller-driven job from Toronto to Winnipeg. It went via Thunder Bay, which was appropriate, because there was a lot of lightning around at one point. Quite spectacular, if I remember.

It was about midnight when I arrived. I found a taxi and asked the driver, who came originally from Horsham in Sussex, to take me to a hotel near the station. I didn’t have change; so we had to into the hotel to get it. To my young and cynical eye, the hotel seemed rather less than trustworthy; so once in my room I propped a chair against the doorknob and put my passport under the pillow.

You may wonder where all this is leading. But no, I was not robbed – not at that point, anyway. The next morning I trotted over the station and bought a ticket to Minneapolis, which was pretty much due south, across a very large number of wheatfields. Just over 450 miles. The cost? Ten dollars. I was deeply shocked, and very pleased.

And of course during the rail journey I passed from Canada into the United States. I don’t know exactly when, because there was nothing to indicate it. But eventually the conductor came round, looked at my ticket, and I explained I would be here for a fortnight. There was a long conversation, and eventually I twigged that in the US, two weeks do not make a fortnight.

Probably confused by all this, he said I needed to sign some kind of form, and he would come back with it. But he never did.

So when I came to leave the United States, a fortnight or two weeks later, it could have been tricky. I did not have the paperwork. Thankfully, someone was looking after me. I met a man who knew a travel agent, and she sorted it out.

I have been to the Unites States since then, once via Canada to Florida, and twice directly there. I can recommend Captiva Island. It was all perfectly legal.

Why are we so keen to get out of the quiet rooms?

“All of humanity’s problems,” wrote Blaise Pascal, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” 

He was probably not thinking of coronavirus when he wrote it, but it seems a useful observation in the current crisis, and one that Boris Johnson might find helpful as a variation on “Stay alert. Stay at home unless you go out. Wear a mask”, which lacks something in depth and subtlety. 

I’m sure it would help if more of us could sit quietly in a room alone and not rush off to the nearest beach in a panic because the package planes are grounded. Now that there are so many more things you can do in a room on your own – television, radio, video games, recorded music – it’s bit surprising that the urge to get out is so strong. 

I have always been attracted by Corey Ford’s dictum, “I’d go away if it wasn’t so far.” Perhaps we could adopt is as a kind of subliminal slogan popping up between programmes.

But there are many comments from the past that could be adapted to current circumstances. For instance, if you’re feeling the urge to travel unnecessarily, you might be influenced by this philosophy, which I believe came from the Peanuts comic strip, one of the world’s great sources of wisdom: “Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow. It might not be necessary.”

I wonder what motto is hanging on the wall of those who make decisions about our behaviour in Covid times. I feel folk singer Tom Paxton’s comment many years ago would be appropriate: “If I’m absolutely sure of anything, I probably forgot what it was.”

Or maybe this from Mark Twain: “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

Super-scientist Albert Einstein felt that when explaining complex problems you should “make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”. In the years since he said it, almost everyone in authority has routinely forgotten the vital last three words, and this has continued during the critical last six months, resulting in such conflicting idiotic instructions as “Go to pubs and restaurants, but not church, because that’s obviously much more dangerous, especially if you sing.”

But how do we – the locked in, masked and socially distanced – feel about the way the world is going? Poet Philip Larkin comes into his own with “Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives”

Or maybe another poet, Stevie Smith:
“I was much too far out all my life.
And not waving but drowning.”

The effect on us all is really one of disorientation. Before March this year we were comfortable, in the sense that we sort of understood the world and how it worked. We may or may not have liked it, but the familiarity of it made it bearable at worst and wonderful at best. The bits in between were understandable. 

But all that was just a delusion. Most of us didn’t really know what was going on – and as Donald Rumsfeld would say, we didn’t know that we didn’t know. Now we do.

Life, we now see, is unpredictable, and that must affect the way we approach it. Two vastly different writers saw this clearly. First, the singer Leonard Cohen, who described someone as “starving in some deep mystery, like a man who is sure what is true”.

And the writer and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge: “Some see that life’s a mystery. Others think it can be grasped.”

As we step wonderingly into the second half of 2020, the others must surely be shrinking in number. 

Impossibly out of sync with reality

Twelve years ago, when I was in hospital recovering from a radical prostatectomy (removal of prostate and accompanying cancer), I had a peculiar experience. More than one, actually – but one in particular.

I woke in the night, and I could see the clock clearly. Everything was wrong. For some reason, I was no longer in Norwich but in King’s Lynn, and this was quite frightening, because there was no reason for it. I tried to get back to where I knew I should be, but I couldn’t, because I was not connected. It was as if I had been shifted very slightly out of sync with reality.

A long sequence of bizarre events ensued, during which I seemed to wander round the ward, looking for a way back. The two nurses ignored me. At last, exhausted, I sank back into my Norwich bed, closed my eyes for a while and then opened them again. According to the clock, the whole tortuous episode had lasted no more than a minute – and that in itself was terrifying, because it was impossible.

I was reminded of this when I was in hospital again last week, on antibiotics for a problem with my gall bladder, and a stone stuck somewhere near my pancreas. Again, I woke in the night – one of many, many times – and had trouble recognising where I was. The curtains seemed familiar (or did they?), people moved backwards and forwards, and so did the room. I was struggling to connect. Was it real?

Eventually my brain slid into sync and I walked hesitantly to the toilet. But the impression I retain is one of confusion: was I slightly out of sync with reality again? What was going on?

The only other time I have felt anything like this was in the weeks following a serious car accident in which I broke my arm – less than a year ago. On at least one or two occasions while walking by the river afterwards I felt I was in some other reality. Had I died in the crash, or was I really here? Was the real me walking just behind me, catching me up?

OK – all this is weird. Most of the time, I think I have a fairly good grip on reality, as most people do. It is hard to express how frightening it is when this is called into question.

In hospital time itself distorts. Most of the time nothing happens, and happens very slowly. Without meaningful contact (especially in these coronavirus times) none of it seems to make much sense.

I’ve been here all day. How can it be 10am?

All I can say is that my wife’s daily visits just about kept me sane. Or did they? I’ll let you be the judge.

Pain, waiting and other personal problems

First of all, I’d like to make it clear that I’m very aware that there are many people who are in more pain than I was over the last couple of weeks, and even more of them are in pain for longer. The thing with pain is that it’s very personal. If you’re in pain, it doesn’t help that someone else is hurting more.

I woke up with a pain in my abdomen. At first it was sort of tight and gripping, and spread out quite a bit. It nibbled at my ribs. It kept me awake most of the night; eventually I took a Paracetamol and after a few hours got to sleep. The next day it was much better.

A couple of days later it came back again, only more precisely located. It was quite a different kind of pain, really, but they had one thing in common: they were strong and frightening, because I didn’t know what was causing them, and it all seemed to be getting worse.

Eventually, I rang 111. They told me to go to the walk-in centre, and the walk-in centre took it pretty seriously. They were quick, too. They said I should go to A&E if it got any worse. It did, and I did.

I do not like A&E. I know many people love it and seem to spend half their lives up there, but to me it’s just a massive waste of time, with no-one seeming to be in a hurry or connecting with each other. I’m sure that’s an illusion. Or it may be the IT system. I have been known to say I’d rather die than go to A&E, but that’s not strictly true. Obviously.

It was tortuous. Morphine didn’t affect the pain, but they eventually found something that did – about three hours after I arrived. I was moved here and there, had an x-ray and an ultrasound and eventually was taken to a ward by a nurse who thought I’d come from there in the first place. She was very nice. All nurses are nice. When I clap the NHS, I’m clapping the nurses and not the organisation.

The surgeon I saw a few hours later wasn’t sure what was wrong. To do him credit, he didn’t ask me to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I would have had no idea of the answer to this. I never do. It seemed pretty painful to me, but if someone was cutting my leg off without anaesthetic, I’m sure that would have been worse. I usually say 7 or 8. If someone were to try out the full range of pain on me and then ask, I would know, but I don’t really want that to happen.

The surgeon wanted me to have a CT scan urgently, but of course that wasn’t possible. It was Sunday, and there were lots of people who needed CT scans. He asked if it would be all right if he discharged me, and I came and had the CT scan as an urgent out-patient in a day or two. Foolishly, I said yes.

Still in quite a lot of pain, I waited patiently at home for a day or two. Then my wife rang the CT people. Yes, I was scheduled. Yes, I was marked urgent. It would be ten days or so.

This did not thrill me, but I buckled down, because the painkillers seemed to be working. I rang my GP, who couldn’t take my call but would ring me back. When he did, it was on a different number, and I didn’t answer it within 10 seconds. I rang back and was told I had to ring the following morning. I persisted, complaining about my pain and eventually got to speak to him. Rather reluctantly, I thought, he prescribed some more painkillers. It wasn’t my usual GP, of course. It wasn’t anyone I had ever spoken to before.

Anyway, with the help of the painkillers the pain eased, and when I went to get my scan, it had departed – for a while, at least. I should mention that during all this post-hospital time I had been eating a fat-free diet on the instruction of the surgeon. It would have been easier if I didn’t love fat so much: butter, cheese, steak… Now I had naked bread, bits of fruit and salad, boiled eggs and some jam or honey. I wasn’t hungry anyway.

I asked how long I would have to wait for my scan results, and it turned out to be two weeks or so. Probably. As it was urgent. I did not get upset with the radiographer, who was very pleasant, or with anyone else, because I suspect they’re all trapped within the system and don’t know how to get out of it.

The radiographer wasn’t sure why I was not eating any fat. But I have lost half a stone, which can’t be bad. Or can it? I don’t know. There’s no-one to ask.