Visit my family
As soon as it safe I will be boarding a train to North East England where I will rush to my mum and dad and wrap my arms around them both. We would have been going on holiday next month and spending precious days together.
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I moved away from home when I was just 16 years old, looking for jobs and opportunities to get involved in feminism. It meant sacrificing time with my beautiful mother and missing out on so much that we could have done together as I approached adulthood. But Maureen, my mum, encouraged me to live life to the full, partly because so many opportunities, as a working-class woman, had been denied to her.
Over the years I haven’t seen my family as much as I have wanted. We are all very close, and everybody but me and my niece still live in the North East. Not only did my mum encourage me, despite the sacrifice to her, to fly the nest, she also started to bring my niece Jo to London to visit every year from the age of seven. Maureen knew it would mean eventually saying goodbye to Jo, but she wanted her to have better opportunities than the North East can offer.
The last two years we have spent Christmas together in London, but my dad is disabled and travel is difficult for him. I have long been wanting to spend more time with them, but something always got in the way. Whether it’s a long-haul trip to investigate violence against women, or another book that takes up my time and energy, that time was often on hold. It won’t ever be again.
I don’t mean this to be sentimental, but if I have any regrets it is not spending as much time with my mum in particular. We have had some wonderful times though: I took her to Paris for lunch for her 79th birthday. It was her first ever trip to the city. For another birthday I treated her to a trolley dash around TK Maxx and afterwards a tapas lunch where we examined her swag.
I already knew how much I love my family well before the pandemic, but it has made me realise how precious time is. In the future, my work trips and book deadlines will come second to my family.
Go to a restaurant
“When this lousy plague is over,” to adapt the First World War song of complaint, “No more lockdown food for me./ When the restaurants re-open, oh, how happy I shall be!/ For bland, thrice weekly pesto pasta, coronavirus thanks a bunch./ As soon as real life makes a comeback, friends, I’m going out to lunch.”
Already, only three weeks into lockdown, the diet is grinding me down. We’re eating hearty whole-family stews of panic-bought pulses and bland, thrifty, carb-heavy meals made of easily available ingredients and designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, aka my culinary fusspot of a six-year-old.
The house is a miasma of sloth and fart gas, table manners are chimp-style and the conversation — mostly centering around the weekly appearance of the Beano — makes up in volume for what it lacks in interest. And the cooking, the wiping, the clingfilming, the drying, the hoovering…
I shall never again take for granted the utter pleasure of choosing your own meal, in an environment where someone else does all the work: a meal where deep frying is expertly done and won’t burn down your house, interesting spices and unusual flavour combinations abound, and where you can linger past three o’clock, if you’re on the skive, in good company and with a glass of something in your hand.
Imagine a sushi splurge at Nobu! A plate of mince on dripping toast from the Quality Chop House, garnished with peppery watercress! A battery of crispy duck or salty chilli rice in a Chinese joint! A bellyful of K-Pop burger and Sichuan aubergine at Chick n’ Sours! Hell, at this stage I’d gratefully settle for a ginger chicken udon from Wagamama or an American Hot from Pizza Express.
With the likely and probably irrecoverable collapse of much of the restaurant industry, I realise with a pang that many of those places simply won’t be there when we emerge. To extend the analogy, it’ll be like coming home from war to find that your wife has run off with the postman while you were at the front, and that your mistress got bombed to bits in the Blitz. How I regret, now, every Pret sandwich drearily munched al desko: a never-to-return opportunity missed.
But as a matter of morale maintenance and selfless service to the recovery of the economy, I intend to lunch like mad. Friends — sorry, important business contacts…. — who’s up for it?
Return to Venice
When it is over, I want to go to Venice, to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, near San Toma vaporetto stop. I would like to go the whole way by water, from Penzance to Venice. I have been going to Venice since I was 17, at least once every two years, and I am enthralled by it, probably because it is preposterous, as people are preposterous. It’s a stupid place to build a city, especially a city filled with great art, and I find that touching. We make wars and genocides and plagues, but we also make this. We are strange.
Venice is a mistake: the people who became the Venetians ran away from the tribes pouring into Italy when the Empire collapsed, hid on sandbanks and, due to luck and situation, grew rich.
And, in this city of wonder — this paradigm, this error — the Scuola is the loveliest thing I have found. It is an early sixteenth century building of two stories in the classical style. It was a meeting place for wealthy Venetians, built in gratitude for surviving plague, and dedicated to Saint Roch, who offered protection from plague. It is small for a Venetian public building and quite remote. Most tourists, stuck on the track from St Mark’s to the Rialto Bridge, do not find it.
They should: it is filled with paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto. If you have not heard of him — for me, the painter of the Italian Renaissance — it is because his masterpiece is a room in an idle corner of Venice and cannot be moved to Paris or New York for exhibition. Most people call Titian the master — Charles V once knelt to pick up his paintbrush — and Tintoretto was apprenticed to him for a few days, then left to teach himself. Titian’s Assumption is in the Basilica dei Frari next door, and it is perfect. It is too perfect. Tintoretto is more grandiose and thrilling. His nickname was The Furious.
You walk up the stairs, and they are here, on every wall and ceiling. The room is shuttered and dim; the floor is polished. They seem to glow and throb, as if the bright paint is still wet: Jacob’s Ladder; God Appears to Moses; The Pillar of Fire.
There cannot be a more astounding room anywhere. If art is consolation — and this is consolation specifically from plague — there cannot be more of it than this.
Stay at home
Well I’m not going near the Maldives, I can tell you that for free. The world — When This Thing Is Over — is going to be doing, with knobs on, all the things we currently read are gone forever. My kids are already fretting about the purchase of new phone cases from Wuhan so all that piffle about No More World Trade will probably amount to not much, and of course for all the talk of hearth and home travel to exotic places will spike.
Not for me. I may go to Bath for the day and watch a rugby match under the floodlights at the Recreation Ground, with the Abbey for backdrop and the smell of wood-smoke and beery breath on the air. But otherwise actually I quite like this life.
Not, of course, the sadness, the fear about relatives and the knowledge that so many are suffering so much. But as a (lapsed) Quaker I am completely at home with silence and the simple life in which online groceries provide the only clue that we progressed beyond the Neolithic. Well, that and Netflix I suppose.
Anyway: travel is what I do not miss and do not want to do. I shall go nowhere when it is over, and thoroughly enjoy it.
Introduce my children to Old England
I can’t wait to get back to dragging my children round old stones in fields.
One chilly afternoon in January, in those far-off days when a disease outbreak in provincial China was the third-listed story in the foreign news section, I was sitting amid the ruins of St Augustine’s Priory in Canterbury with my two small children, trying to explain the Dissolution of the Monasteries. My account must have made some impact: on the train home my three-year-old daughter announced that on Monday she would tell her nursery teacher that Henry VIII was bad because he wouldn’t let people go to Mass.
I don’t know how much they took in at St Augustine’s. They liked the clever animation showing its centuries-long development from simple Romanesque chapel c.600 to vast medieval monastic complex with huge Gothic priory church and one of the finest scriptoriums in Europe. However, they did not seem to share my excitement about the graves of the early archbishops of Canterbury. Perhaps that will come.
Before coronavirus, I had intended the Priory to be the first instalment of a busy year of historical visiting. Having fulfilled the middle-class stereotype and left London for rural Kent in my mid-30s, last autumn I leaned into early middle age and bought an English Heritage membership.
We are now within striking range of several important sites, including a Roman fort, and my children are of an age where they can begin to understand Our Island Story. One of the gifts I‘ve always wanted to give them is to know that they are, so to speak, from Somewhere.
I’d like to help them to understand that this is an old country; to know that to be born in England is to be born into a magnificent, sprawling, globally important saga, and a rich heritage of art, architecture, language and landscape. I want them to be able to look at Dover Castle or HMS Victory or a Jacobean manor house and to know that it is in some sense theirs, a part of who they are.
When I tweeted pictures of the children at St Augustine’s, a Twitter friend commented “What a privilege to grow up and play in the midst of such deep history”. That captures my feelings exactly, and I’m looking forward to showing them Old England up close when the current unpleasantness has passed.
To love cricket is to be as alert to the rhythms of the season as any ancient pagan. The year is divided into two halves: the months of darkness, of grey rain, when leaves lie thick on the outfield, and satellite television, with its sun-baked images of Australia or India, serves the cricket lover as a bonfire once did the celebrants of the winter solstice.
Then, of course, there is summer: six months when the patterning provided by a good fixture list can make life itself seem rich, and vivid, and dappled. To anticipate a match that has been played at the same ground, against the same opposition, on the same date, over many years, is to embrace the joys both of familiarity and the unknown: the reassurance that an English summer will always be an English summer; the promise that this year, rather than getting out for a duck or being hit humiliatingly out of the attack, everything will come together, and all shall be well.
Except that this year, of course, things are not going to be well. This year, everything that normally serves to herald the coming season — the warmth of spring sunshine, the song of returning birds, the back pages of a newspaper — serves as a kind of mockery. Authors CC, the team I play for, will not be heading to Wiltshire to play what for years now has been our season’s curtain raiser. Fixtures lovingly inscribed in diaries back in January will slip by unplayed. Our cricket bags will lie untouched in attics. Bats will remain unsheathed, whites unworn, scorebooks unfilled.
Of course, there are palliatives. Authors CC are currently in the midst of a virtual tournament, the Rathbones Cup, organised by the distinguished sportswriter David Owen, which has seen our various teams pitted against each other on WhatsApp.
The matches — which are determined by complex rules that nobody aside from David quite understands, but seem to feature a Gallimard edition of Proust, and can generally be done and dusted in 20 minutes — have us all properly gripped.
Yesterday, I am proud to report, my team of Anglo-Saxons triumphed over a 1990s Hollywood XI. Hengist took five wickets, and Alfred the Great, after catching Winona Ryder in the deep, then sealed victory with a quickfire 87.
It is not cricket — but it gives us a flavour of cricket. This, as clear blue skies look down on empty pitches, is the best we can hope for. A reminder of what has been — and a promise of what, when this hellish time is over, will be all the more precious for having been so very desperately missed.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
When lockdown finally ends, we will presumably be returned to normal life in dribs and drabs, with the most essential activities prioritised over the least. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) classes will, quite rightly, be at the very bottom of the list. This is a form of martial arts that demands intimate physical contact with your opponent — more than once, I’ve had another person’s sweat drip directly into my eyes or mouth — and right now it’s hard to imagine even shaking a stranger’s hand. Nevertheless I’m desperate to get back to a sport that is entirely incompatible with social distancing.
Full disclosure: I am terrible at BJJ. Six months in, I’ve learnt the hard way that strength and fitness will only get you so far. This is less a sport and more a mechanical engineering problem. The task is to work out how to use your strong muscles against your opponent’s weak muscles, and to do so both quickly and surreptitiously, with the goal of making them submit via a chokehold or a joint lock. Every session I get slightly better, but every session I’m humbled by how inept I am.
While I’ve been able to cobble together home gym sessions by taking HIIT classes on Zoom and squatting my grudging 36kg German Shepherd, there really is no way of replicating a BJJ class at home. Other people on my BJJ WhatsApp group (yes, there is such a thing) are desperate enough that they’ve been making ‘grappling dummies’ by stuffing an old gi with rolled up towels and jumpers. But thrashing around with a mannequin is a poor substitute for the real thing, in all its exhausting, joyful, disgusting glory.
Have some time to myself
I want to be alone. It seems churlish of me, when I know millions of people are struggling with loneliness right now. But loneliness is the one thing I know I’m safe from. There are six people in my household, three of whom are children and therefore have no concept of personal boundaries. The closest I get to isolation is the two metre separation in the queue at the supermarket.
So when this is over I want to go away for a whole weekend and climb in the hills, all by myself. Nothing challenging; I’ll be content wandering through the Malvern Hills I roamed as a child. Even the Worcestershire Beacon, the highest point, stretches to only 425m above sea level. But it’s not the climb that I crave. It’s the silence. The bracken and the trees and the gentle slopes.
I will be staying away from popular places and well-trodden paths. I shall get up early to avoid even the hint of a crowd. I shall climb, and rest, and climb and rest, never fearful for a moment that a police officer will complain that I am not exercising hard enough and should stop relaxing. I shall roam the iron age earthworks at British Camp and feel the eternal presence of history. Totally alone and therefore able to hear the echo of thousands of years of humanity and our neverending battle to protect ourselves and survive.
I shall run down the steep slope of Happy Valley into the wooded pathways below, hurtling as I did thirty years ago at a pace just a tiny bit too fast to be confident of stopping safely. I shall remember the way my father used to catch us, arms open, at the bottom. And I shall remember that other people are not, really, a pain to be tolerated, but a blessing. One that I shall be ready to return to, after just one more night of solitary peace.
Go to my local second-hand book shop
Here in Texas there is a large chain of second-hand bookshops called Half Price Books, and I am fortunate enough to live within a short drive of not one, not two, but three of these stores. I visit them all regularly, too regularly in fact, and often swing by one of the stores in the evenings after work. But the typical half-price discount is not enough for me; I like to trawl their book clearance shelves, $1 CD racks, junk vinyl and “quarter bin” comic boxes.
Many are the strange and wonderful books I have found going for a song, such as James Ballou’s Arming for the Apocalypse, Sukarno’s autobiography, a super-rare album of photographs by a Stalin-era Uzbek photographer, and George Chapman’s translation of The Odyssey. The $1 CD racks contain lots of pop/rock dross — U2, Coldplay, Sting, Garth Brooks etc. — but I can usually find some exceptional recordings of classical music on prestigious labels; I discovered Mahler, Bartok and a great deal of other amazing music through HPB’s clearance shelves.
As for comics, I once found a complete run of Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! for 25 cents a pop in the quarter bins, not to mention a 3-D Steve Ditko comic, and some rare Richard Corben undergrounds that were worth a lot more than what I paid for them. Those are probably not names that mean a lot to many UnHerd readers, but if they do, you will understand the excitement I felt.
HPB tried to stay open when the shutdowns were getting into gear, but eventually had to close the doors of its physical stores. Currently they bombard me with discount vouchers for their online shop, but it’s not the same.
Successful browsing in a second-hand bookstore first requires the bookstore to be physical, and in addition is a skill that takes time to acquire and which must be practised often. It requires time, and patience, and knowledge of which types of things turn up in different neighborhoods. And I would like to get back to it, please.
Have a pint
I had a dream I was in the pub the other night. It was like an old gin palace and crowded with people, drinking, laughing and way within the government-approved distance of 2metres away from each other. It was so beautiful, when I woke up I wanted to cry. It was like that episode of Black Mirror where people suffering from dementia are allowed to head into a virtual reality world where they’re young and healthy again.
I imagine when I first head back into a pub I’ll feel the need to get down on my knees and kiss the ground, tears in my eyes.
I’ve spent a lot of time this past week wondering about where I’d like to go when this is all over, assuming anywhere is open and we haven’t resorted to barter or descended into a Mad Max-like dystopia. I fear I’m not very well-adapted to the 21st century digital economy but I imagine I’d be even less useful in a 5th century skull-based economy.
In a parallel universe somewhere, one in which mother nature didn’t strike us down with this disease, I was supposed to be in west Cork this week, close to the heavenly Gougane Barra national park.
It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever set eyes on, and the most spiritual; it’s associated with early Christian holy men and women. I’ve also promised myself I’ll take the kids to Italy again, but strangely the lockdown has also given me a real desire to explore England more.
I was tempted to join a friend in an insane-sounding bike ride from the Cumbria coast over to Whitby this month, and although I might not do the cycle, there is so much of my own country I haven’t seen. The thought of a walk around some Pennine villages followed by a pint, without having to steer into the road to avoid people or obsessively wipe down every surface like I’m Howard Hughes, sounds like heaven right now.
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