The Coronavirus Diaries, 11th January 2022

I think it was still last year when I put up my last post. Maria very sweetly got in touch to find out if all was well I have been silent for so long. I’m fine.

I have been busy and a deal of that business has meant being in front of the computer, so when I stop there is something very liberating about shutting it down and being screen free for the rest of the day. I have also been out and about, taking pictures, making new contacts, and going to hear the ten shortlisted poets for the TS Eliot Prize on Sunday.

Celia is our convenor. She sends out an email in the autumn asking who wants to come, gets the tickets for all of us in our favourite row at the Royal Festival Hall (AA if you are interested, and actually even f you aren’t). It’s a great start to the new year every time. We lost a few of our number at the last minute. Three couldn’t attend after all due to geographical difficulties or family responsibilities. But last year it was on Zoom, so to be there in the flesh, to hold up the queue finding our COVID passes, well Cynthia and I did that, the others managed just fine, and so be queue jumped because of our incompetence by a COVID-pass p-ready Frank Skinner, meant it was already a red letter day.

Cynthia was back from Canterbury for the event. Nicola arrived with Martin from a different part of London, as did Tony. I haven’t seen Nicola for a year. A woman with long hair, wearing a blue beret above her mask, walked towards me smiling. I didn’t recognise her. “All that hair!” I said. “Your wild hair!” is what she said to me. She teaches voice and Kayo Chingonyi, one of her erstwhile students, was the tenth to read. He was good. Very good. We wondered if he might win. My heart was with Raymond Antrobus whose poetry shows you don’t have to use complicated images or obscure language to have depth. I loved Hannah Lowe and I definitely want to read more by Selima Hill. Joelle Taylor’s high octane performance alone was worth the ticket price. I felt blasted back into my comfortable seat.

Afterwards we headed for the ballroom bar. Viv had to leave as she had someone coming round early in the morning. Not that we were going to be late. The Royal Festival Hall is hardly a lock in venue. Martin had slipped out before the end to get a train which in the event he missed. The poets were at the bar. No book signings this year for COVID reasons, but as Ian MacMillan, who did a grand job of introducing each poet with his usual mix of wit, knowledge and humour, said, it’s the unsigned poetry books which are worth something due to their rarity.

So everyone I was with had received a copy of The Sun is Open by Gail McConnell as a Christmas present. This was my poetry tribe. We talked about the poets, who we liked, how we disliked the poetry voice (Cynthia and me), who we wanted to win. Someone questioned whether Antrobus’ poems were too much in the quotidian to scoop the prize, but Roger Robinson, a worthy winner in 2019 writes so much about his home, his family I didn’t think so. And why should a poem be thought good, or better than another poem simply because you struggle to understand it and sometimes never do? There is nothing wrong with accessibility. A poem’s ability to reach in and express something, a truth perhaps you have never considered, an emotion, a feeling you have never put into words, is powerful. Simple language is often all the more effective for its directness and clarity.

It was Nicola who wasn’t staying, but who in the end stayed as long as the rest of us, who asked what was with all the thank-yous. Yes, we chorused, what was that? The first poet did it – editor, publisher, mother-in-law, flight attendant on the plane from the States, barber, bus driver, Joe Biden, us the audience – yes I do exaggerate, but not by much – then they all did it. As Nicola said, that’s what you do when you have won, not when you have been shortlisted.

Finally we separated, Tony headed off to the North, and Nicola elected to walk along then across the river to her station. Celia, Cynthia and I made for the bus stop.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 28th December 2021, Countdown to 2022

It’s that slightly strange period between Christmas and New Year. This time last week people were buying last minute cards and wrapping paper. Today I saw those items on sale at half the price. I was hoping for fresh mushrooms but was not lucky.

A couple of weeks ago Octavia was telling me she has been trying to eat thirty different types of fruit and vegetables a week. She thought I probably already did. I was and remain more doubtful. I do eat a lot of fruit and veg, but I gravitate towards the same ones, so I have started noting my intake this week. I’m starting my list from Christmas Day. I haven’t totted things up before this minute, and I haven’t been trying to eat anything I don’t normally eat, so this list will be as much an eye opener for me as it is for you.:

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The Coronavirus Diaries, Christmas Eve 2021

I can hear rain against the windows, but the shutters are closed, candles lit, MasterB asleep on the chair, his nose tucked into his tail. We are cosy and warm. I am listening to A Mediaeval Carol Service from St Bartholomew the Great. It took place a few days ago, but is available to listen to and watch online courtesy of YouTube. I recommend it. Earlier I went for a walk before seeing Michèle for a glass of wine in her flat. She’s been home for over a week now, her ankle getting stronger daily, and she’s obviously loving being back in her own territory.

While I walked I was thinking about Christmas, this year and last, both shadowed by COVID but feeling very different. In 2020 we were making the best of things, not allowed to travel, so nearly all the neighbours were around. We were in it together. It was cold but dry and bright. We could meet outside, observe social distancing, exchange cards and gifts over a glass of something bubbly. But COVID has become a virus of attrition and it feels this year we are wearier, less inclined to find ways to be imaginative in our celebrations, more inward looking.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 20th December 2021, Omicron Christmas

Today has had all the grey tones of a wartime film. Brief Encounter perhaps. We have just over twenty four hours to go before the days creepingly get longer again. In the meantime I would welcome some blue skies, even if it means colder weather. I have candles and fairy lights in self-defence. Or maybe that should be protection. Those cards I send are all written and posted, the ones delivered by hand all pushed through letterboxes; a rare few parcels to addresses beyond walking or meeting distance went weeks ago, and the others have been wrapped, all with MasterB’s help – unroll wrapping paper and he sits on it – and passed into others’ hands. All except the one for my six-year-old neighbour who I shall see on Christmas Day morning. The flat has suddenly started to look festive. The sideboard is covered with cards and gifts. It’s weird how one moment it seems too early to be thinking about Christmas, the next a mad dash to get everything done.

Omicron has slimmed down the actual festivities. Drinks and nibbles are off again for the second Christmas running. I did a jigsaw at the weekend instead. I expect to do another, maybe a third. I bought a Radio Times, but the Christmas television schedules fail to inspire so far. We have lots of channels now, some of which I can access, but lots of channels seems to mean lots of dross. Why people want to sit and watch a bunch of celebs doing everything from building snowmen to buying antiques mystifies me. There must be the odd nugget in there somewhere, indeed I know there is as I have started watching Outlaws which is streamed on BBC i-player, but I am hardly spoiled for choice.

Last night was live music. Octavia and I went to St Bart the Great’s for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols which was sublime. Again I wished I had belief. The Christmas story is heartbreaking in its simplicity, in its promise of a better world, of redemption, a world saved by the innocence of a baby born in a stable. Peace on earth and goodwill to all people.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 5th December 2021

We’re getting good at this, and into something of a rhythm. I know it will be broken in a couple of weeks when the whole Christmas thing is at its height, but today Celia and I again headed out with boots, packed lunches, backpacks and waterproofs to a neighbourhood in London unlike our own.

Celia is the Walks Directions Chief, and today we did the walk backwards. I would have struggled with this, so fortunately my part was simply printing the route and putting it inside a plastic folder. While I was breakfasting the rain was hammering against the windows, and the wind was shaking the trees. A walk seemed unlikely. Then miraculously it stopped raining, the wind dropped and I changed my nightwear for leggings, several top layers and two pairs of socks.

A few weeks ago we were surprised to find ourselves watching a German Shepherd having a hydrotherapy session in a building we had thought was selling wine. Today we met a standard poodle called Lily who is having hydrotherapy at another facility following amputation of a hind leg due to cancer.

Lily

She wasn’t the only dog we saw. Along the river path there were lots of mucky, wet dogs. Dogs running with their owners, dogs rushing down to the water to chase the ducks, dogs sniffing at interesting things in the grass. Some of the owners smiled, a couple said hello. Others looked straight ahead as though we didn’t exist. Lily’s owner was the friendliest and chatted for several minutes about her pet’s ordeal, courage and the benefits of hydrotherapy. Her leg was amputated just fourteen short weeks ago. She’s nine, a sweetheart, a hero and her owners obviously love her to bits.

We set off from Hammersmith station, crossed Hammersmith Bridge, and spent a fair few minutes hearing coxes shouting at teams of rowers through loud hailers. Some of the crews were flying along, aided by the flow of the tide. The path was neither one thing nor the other, semi asphalt and quite tiring to walk along. The little fungi we saw was huge, as though to make up for lack of variety. It was a relief to leave it and walk on fallen leaves at the edge of the nature reserve we had managed to largely miss. Swans and geese gathered at the edge of the water. Why there, and in such numbers Celia wondered. Maybe that’s where people feed them. A flat had a model of a cow on the balcony. A goose sat sentinel on a tree.

It began to rain. Rain was not forecast. We grumbled a little, but not much, which was fortunate as it soon stopped, started again later, stopped again. We read plaques on benches, looked at door knockers, read information boards, admired Gustav Holst’s and Ninette De Valois’s houses, recrossed the river at Barnes, and had lunch in a shelter looking at an empty bandstand.

The notes told us to look for a sculpture of storks on a nest. It didn’t say why the sculpture was there. Anyway, we found it; then a sign to a food market where I bought some biscuits, Celia bought some radishes, Celia used the loo and I met Lily. To my mind, this was the point where the walk picked up and became more interesting.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 2nd December 2021

My work took me out into the cold of the day. I didn’t make any money, today was prep, taking photographs, making the most of the blue skies. Rain is forecast tomorrow. I walked between Park Lane and Bayswater, traversing Hyde Park. London is rich in parks, and although I have visited Hyde Park many times, I can’t truly say I know it. It is vast. I walked through bits I knew, then bits I didn’t recognise to more bits I knew. It was lovely.

After Bayswater it was back through the park to Belgravia, a part of London I don’t like much. It’s all big white houses which look alike to me. A bit of luck as I left the park, the Horseguards, Lifeguards in their red, were making their way back to their barracks and stables. These are sights I missed during lockdown. The daily panoply of pomp with beautiful beautiful horses.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 29th November 2021: Omicron Days

The woman intent on her ‘phone did not deserve the black Labrador politely nudging her leg to ask her to throw his ball. A less polite dog would have looked around the circle of grass and seen there were other humans paying attention to their dogs, throwing things for their dogs, talking to them, patting them, and left her to her little screen in search of a new significant person. Me perhaps.

Celia and I had finally found a spot to eat our respective lunches. She had a neat plastic box with sandwiches and bits and bobs, I had a falafel wrap I bought in a branch of Sainsbury’s just after we left Wandsworth Cemetery. We’d walked some way since then, following the Wandle Trail which is bizarrely almost devoid of anywhere to sit. There was one bench and it had a nice view, but it was in the shade and yesterday was cold. Just how cold I think we both realised when we stopped moving and sat down to eat our lunch. I’d vetoed a couple of places Celia had suggested. Somehow lunching with a view of a depot of refuse trucks on the opposite bank did not meet any of my criteria for fine dining. Then there was a depot of builders’ lorries. Fortunately Celia spotted the bench in sunshine just away from the path and we settled there. While we ate, a man, a woman and a child turned up and started planting bulbs beside us. This being Wandsworth not Walworth they did not speak to us, nor we to them. I was in Battersea today, also part of Wandsworth, and only one person responded to my smiled hello. A young couple with a baby and another black Labrador – black Labrador ownership seems very high in Wandsworth which has to be an indication of at least some good qualities – looked at me as though I might be an axe murderer disguised as a woman at the edge of her prime having a very bad hair day. The one person who spoke to me had two dachshunds. Wandsworth is also rich in this breed of dog.

The forecast for the weekend had not been promising. If you only had one word to describe it that word would be cold. Add sleet to Saturday’s forecast, and you’ll understand why we thought Sunday the better day for our excursion. The cold combined with increasingly short days steered our attention to a shorter walk closer to home. The Ramblers’ website turned up quite a few self guided routes, and we plumped for one between Balham to Wimbledon just over five miles long.

Balham has gone upmarket in recent decades. It’s a place of coffee shops, shops selling expensive baby clothes, a branch of Planet Organic. There is a branch of Aldi, another of Lidl, so not everyone can be well heeled, but it certainly gives off an air of comfortable middle classness nowadays. The charity shops are excellent.

We turned away from the tube station and into a network of roads I have never visited. Some very grand houses. We looked. I stared. Then in minutes we were down a track and walking parallel to the railway on a part of Wandsworth Common entirely new to me. The skies were blue, the dog walkers were out, we were wrapped up. All was well.

Celia got a cup of coffee and I used the loo at a café we both agreed we would not be visiting again. Then more Wandsworth Common, more blue skies, more dogs, and a bench to sit where Celia finished her coffee and we both watched a group (a flock? how many birds does it need to be a flock?) of pigeons having a communal bath, a tern watching them and looking bemused.

From the walk notes we learned the common was despoiled by Spencer family, as in the Earls Spencer, the current one being the brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they set out to exploit the common as thoroughly as they could, cutting down trees, extracting gravel, creating illegal enclosures. One oft repeated claim made by the landed gentry is that they protect and preserve the land. Wandsworth Common may be the exception which proves the rule, but somehow I rather doubt it.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 21st November 2021

I have just reached for what is probably my oldest poetry book, or rather the one I have had the longest, When We Were Very Young by AA Milne. Some lines from a poem in it I liked when I was a child were going round my head, but I couldn’t quite remember how it went. The poem is Puppy and I. When I reread it I knew why it had it been in my thoughts.

Celia and I went walking yesterday. It was a dull morning and it got no brighter as the hours went by, but that didn’t stop us enjoying our walk, and we met a lot of puppies. Puppies and adult dogs who were all expressing their joy in that uniquely canine way; a joy that is gloriously infectious. You’d have to be pretty jaded not to smile. My favourites were a young yellow Labrador called Zelda who would have liked to say hello only there were so many wonderful, interesting smells that she simply had to investigate first, and the older golden Retriever who on seeing Zelda, approached her on the leaf strewn path in a semi crawl, her tail wagging furiously, finishing with an ecstatic play bow.

We left Waterloo on the 9.30 train to Guildford where we changed platforms to travel one stop to Wanborough. A claggy footpath across a field left our boots (and my trousers, Celia seems a cleaner walker) filthy and heavy. I used my walking pole to keep me from slipping. Celia would probably have used hers too had she not left it on the second train. We spent a few minutes at the end of the next field cleaning some of the mud off. Then it was just a step to Wanborough’s Great Barn and church. The church was open and tiny. It looked as though it was still lit with gas lighting. We read the leaflet, mooched in the churchyard, gazed at the Manor House next door, a house opposite it, and then set off again.

The next section was up a slope, through an avenue of yew trees. At the top we faced a daunting task, crossing a dual carriageway to a central section and then another dual carriageway on the other side. The traffic was steady. We were joined by a man who was more comfortable with the crossing than we were. We all survived, but had the morning be shrouded in mist or low lying fog, I think I should have happily turned back.

Once across though we were in the Greyfriars Vineyard. The man strode ahead while we read the information panels and admired the view. We dawdled through the vineyard stopping to see which grapes were grown where. There was a sign to a shop. Neither of us felt prepared to buy a bottle of wine this early in the walk to carry home, but Celia had the bright idea that they might sell wine by the glass. We were so intent on this we missed the sign about the vet rehabilitation and hydrotherapy referrals, so were somewhat surprised to find ourselves looking at a swimming pool where a German Shepherd was being encouraged to exercise. It seemed reluctant at first, but toys did the trick, and soon it was reaching a paw out to the physiotherapist when she stopped to talk to its owner to nudge her into more play.

The shop was open, but alas wine not sold by the glass. Celia got into shopping mode and bought several champagne stoppers as Christmas stocking fillers, and we both bought small bars of organic vegan chocolate. The young woman who cheerfully invited us in despite our mud encrusted boots told us how the vineyard had been started as a hobby by two vets who had the practice some thirty ago.

A few squelchy bits of path followed, but nothing like the early field. Then through some woods, over a manicured golf course, more woods and past a house called Questors which looked like it could feature in an Agatha Christie novel, and onto the North Downs Way. We were heading for the A3, but fortunately we went under it rather than risking our lives crossing the carriageway. Before long we reached Watts Gallery where we ate our packed lunches at the picnic tables before going into the café for cake, and in Celia’s case, coffee. We managed to resist buying anything in the shop, though I rather fell in love with a coat I definitely don’t need.

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