Last week was a week of lasts. On Monday, I went for a final swim underneath the Victorian arches of the Camberwell Leisure Centre; on Tuesday, I lectured half a dozen socially-distanced undergraduates at Brunel about parliament and devolution; and on Wednesday, I had a last supper with a friend at the Traveller's Club on Pall Mall, which rather underlined that I wouldn't be doing any of that over the next month.
My pandemic timing proved fortuitous. As readers of the Scottish Review
will know, I recently spent a week in the wilds of Lewis at a writer's retreat, which was followed by a quick trip to Edinburgh to see my parents for the first time in eight months. I boarded a train south just hours after the Prime Minister announced a second (English) lockdown, and just hours before the Scottish Government strongly urged anyone in Scotland not to travel to England.
This highlighted one of the main differences between the second lockdown and the first. Back in April, pretty much the same restrictions applied across the whole of the United Kingdom; this time everyone is moving at a different pace. Just as England locked down on 5 November, Wales was emerging from a 'firebreak' and Scotland remained on a tiered system I'd experienced on my recent trip. An American friend commiserated on 'the UK' entering a month-long lockdown. Not the UK, I corrected him, 'England', for the pandemic has highlighted the increasingly quasi-federal nature of the UK.
Talking of Northern Ireland, I had been due to spend a week near Downpatrick on another writer's retreat, this time more closely related to my day job. I'd already pushed this back to mid-November, and then again to 2 December, although one suspects it will probably not happen at all. Beyond that, I didn't have much of a diary to clear. There was a time when my activities were planned up to six months in advance, now I take each week at a time.
In that sense, the second (English) lockdown has been much less of a shock than the first. We're now some of us old lockdown hands, so instead of shock and bewilderment there has been resignation and some black humour. Initially, I didn't even notice. I'm in the closing stages of renovating a new flat in Peckham, South London, and not only am I grateful for my own space but the distraction of replacing windows, waxing doors and rearranging hundreds of books is an effective coping mechanism.
On Saturday, I went for a long walk around what Jonathan Meades called the 'museum without walls'. Peckham is architecturally diverse and full of interest. Just off the Old Kent Road, I found an island of Victorian houses on Canal Grove, thus named because they once overlooked the Grand Surrey Canal. My basement neighbours recently removed a large tree which now means I can (just about) see where another branch of the same canal would once have flowed. I imagined my predecessors watching masts glide by, accompanied by shouts from long-dormant timber yards.
Amidst a US election binge – I've been thinking a lot about 2016 and the last campaign, which I covered when a journalist – I discovered that both President-elect Joe Biden and former President Ronald Reagan share a Peckham connection. Admittedly, Biden's is more tenuous: his great uncle was a bus driver in the borough. But, remarkably, he formed part of the same Irish community as Reagan's grandfather. A quick google suggested that both their homes, and indeed their streets, no longer exist.
The reality, therefore, of #lockdown2 only really hit me on Sunday. That morning, I found myself craving a nice brunch in the more gentrified part of Peckham around Bellenden Road which, of course, won't be possible for at least another four weeks. So, I've resolved to approach the second lockdown as I did the first: as an opportunity.
I now have a month in which to paint, sand, tidy, organise and also think. The headspace I enjoyed a few months ago was a tonic, and hopefully will be again. I also have one book to finish (that begun on the Isle of Lewis) and another book-length project to begin (on the centenary of Northern Ireland). It seems unlikely I'll get bored, but for some reason I've found settling into a lockdown rhythm harder than it was at the beginning of the year.
Just as I was beginning to feel a bit gloomy came the vaccine news. I guess I should have felt cheered (colleagues certainly did) but instead I urged myself caution, just as the Prime Minister later did with the UK. What about the 10%? How long will it take? Won't the politics of distribution all get a bit messy? Instead of dwelling on all of this, I decided to put it to one side. I'll follow developments on that front closely, of course, but I'm not going to start working to perhaps quixotic timescales.
I've also just remembered that I have a Dalek to finish.
David Torrance is
an author and contemporary historian