The Coronavirus Diaries, 5th May 2022, Photos from the Weekend

Unfortunately I had accidentally switched my new pocket camera into video mode. I thought I had fixed that, but evidently I hadn’t so most of my photos from the first evening and Saturday are extremely short films. So we start with Sunday, my birthday as it goes, and our BnB, then our walk around Church Island and the bluebells with Cecilia. I don’t know if there’s an annual vote for most hospitable landlady, but my vote would be for her.

Then onto Belfast and the new bnb, where my favourite item was the coffee table made from a painted pallet set on casters.

Having not airbnbed before, I am unfamiliar with the styling guidance. We were surprised at the proliferation of fake flowers. Also signs with inspirational messages. Is this a thing? Cool table though. I want one.

The Titanic Quarter is photogenic, the wonderful exhibition is housed in a wonderful building. I use the word wonderful deliberately. A building and an exhibition which evoke wonder. So many of our words are overused and undervalued, it’s hard to find one that doesn’t sound stale or everyday. I think Belfast City Council was both brave and far sighted to approve the plans for this building. It could have been safe (no bad taste joke intended); it could have been demure; it could have been a host of things it isn’t. What it is is bold, beautiful, and defiantly representational. That prow. That iceberg. The magnificent ship meeting its match. Like a tragic hero. To my shame I should have to look up the architects. Surely we should all know who they are?

I am giving this a bigger space because it says so much. In the distance we can see the building I have just raved about. Belfast Marina is to the left. Celia is on the right walking past the saddest exhibit: that long sculpture, looking like a fish someone has caught, represents the Titanic going down prow first. That perpendicular position tells you all you need about the horror. There’s another picture of the sculpture in the next gallery. You’ll see it was quite dull and overcast when we went into the exhibition.

When we came out, it was a different story. The day had morphed into a bright, warm, sunny afternoon. We wandered. We looked. We sat. We contemplated.

The walk to the centre took us by Big Fish. I am fond of Big Fish as you’ll see. I also love the 1950s Unite Building close by.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 4th May 2022, a Birthday Weekend

Celia wanted to post her brother’s birthday card. No sign of a post box, but there was a postman in a stationary van. Celia waved to him and walked over as he started move. Is it just the one thing you want to post? he asked. Yes, she said. He reached out a hand. I’ll take it, he said.

In my head I could hear my mother’s voice. They’d only do that in Ireland, she was saying, probably correctly, proudly pointing out yet again how the country of her birth was far superior to anywhere else.

We were in Belfast. The centre, not the suburbs, a stone’s throw from City Hall. It was the end of the weekend we spent in Northern Ireland celebrating both our birthdays. Working backwards, yesterday we had been in the centre, meeting Fiona for coffee at the Linen Hall Library, a favourite venue of mine, then staying chatting for so long we decided to have lunch there and forgo our other plans. We had already had coffee at the Two Sisters coffee shop off the Cregagh Road. I also had a vegan brownie there and Celia had resisted a bag she would have liked to buy. If you are near this coffee shop I recommend you pop in. It’s lovely. The coffee is lovely, the goods on display available to buy are lovely, the staff are even lovelier. It’s spotlessly clean, welcoming and probably saved our lives on Monday when we first visited it bleary eyed after a bad night’s sleep in a cold Airbnb with inadequate bedding. We compared notes in the morning, discovering we had each struggled to get warm. each been convinced in the small hours we had Covid. There were no extra blankets, no hot water bottles. The heating system resisted our efforts to spring into action despite our following the instructions to the letter. Via email I requested help, blankets and hot water bottles. Someone would come to sort the heating later I was told. Twice more I requested blankets and hot water bottles, requests which bore some fruit as we found blankets on our return.

Not the best start to our only full day in Belfast. Still, we managed a good walk through a bluebell clad Cregagh Glen to the rath at the top, then back on the Cregagh Road we enjoyed a tomato and chilli soup at the café attached to the Museum of Orange History, and where my cousin Kathryn collected us for a drive round south and east Belfast which included visiting a property she intends to renovate. She suggested we spend the evening in the buzzy cathedral quarter. All we could think of was bed and an early night, both duly achieved. Thank goodness we both slept well.

We’d arrived in Belfast by bus from Castledawson at lunchtime on Sunday. Our very lovely B&B landlady having left us at the stop after also coming for a walk with us around Church Island in Bellaghy, a walk we had hoped to do on Saturday but it had rained most of the day, and was raining particularly hard at the time we thought we might walk. We caught another bus out to our airbnb, dropped our bags and headed straight out again to the Titanic Quarter and exhibition. I think it was only when we came outside again that Celia believed my assurances that I was more than happy to go the exhibition again. Since I visited it a few years ago I’ve wanted to return. Celia is now where I was then. I am now ready for visit number three. The exhibition does everything only the best exhibitions achieve. It informs, awes, makes you think, has an emotional impact.

It had been overcast when we went into the exhibition so to emerge to bright sunshine was an added bonus. Fortunately I checked my phone as we sat looking at the water. Petra had sent a message saying she could after all join us for dinner. However, she thought we were still in Bellaghy, and was intending to travel down to Co Derry. I called her to say we were in Belfast and Home was the restaurant, not a reference to our Airbnb. Disaster averted. Home is a great place. My friend Jo, who we were also meeting there, introduced me to it last summer. The food is excellent and the service friendly and professional. Celia was impressed by the level of customer service she was experiencing. We had a great evening. Lots of chat, lots of laughter. The craic, as they say, was good.

Jo and I have known each other most of our lives. By one of those freak coincidences she was buying vegetables in the supermarket near the airport at the same time we were shopping for provisions after Cecilia (our landlady) had picked us up on Friday. That woman looks like Jo, I thought. Then, that woman is Jo! She had been at a flower show in Antrim, and had left her car at a park and ride by the supermarket.

Friday the weather was amazing. Blue skies, warm sunshine. A contrast with the grey skies and low temperatures we had left behind in London. Saturday not so much. It started with drizzle and became rain. But we spent most of the day at the Heaney Homeplace, first at the exhibition and enjoying the new digital archive in the renovated library, having a snack lunch in the café so we weren’t exactly inconvenienced.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 22nd April 2022, An Away Day to Essex

I like Wivenhoe. I like Wivenhoe a lot. Today isn’t the first time I have swapped the grime and pollution of my beloved Walworth for the fresh air and calm of this Essex town. I never seem to visit it in bad weather. Someone did once tell me it’s the place that gets the most sun in the UK but I don’t know if that’s true.

It’s certainly friendly and there are a wonderful lot of dogs to greet and pat as you walk about. The Norwegian Baker isn’t open on a Friday but I found an excellent alternative with the Bolivian Baker. No photographs I’m afraid, everything has been consumed.

Today I went for a walk outside Wivenhoe, heading to Arlesford where B&J have some very lovely friends. No I didn’t visit them. For starters I don’t know their address. If I had I might have been tempted. I don’t think I saw the bit of Arlesford where they live. I did see a lot of houses, a lot of bungalows, one pub, a handful of shops. I was impressed by the railway station garden, and surprised by the safari, and Shaun the sheep, in the front garden of an ordinary house.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 30th January 2022: Birthdays and Poetry

Today is B’s birthday. She got lots of jolly cards and she and J were off to a pub for lunch when I saw her earlier. They had also been to her native Bedfordshire yesterday for a catch up with school chums which was postponed from December.

Coincidentally, Celia and I have been planning a birthday treat. Celia’s birthday is 26th April, mine 1st May. We met and became friends through the poetry group which was a monthly affair at our local library. It was, as I have written before, cemented in 2013 by the awareness of other mothers’ increasing fragility, and then by their deaths. Before the summer had ended we were both orphans. In the autumn we went on a Dead Mothers Walk, a few miles of time out and blackberrying picking. We got lost, of course we did, but it was refreshing and we picked a lot of blackberries. It remains a stand out moment in my memory of that year: sitting on the ground, eating as many blackberries as we put into the containers we brought with us, often silent, being. I don’t actually remember much about that year at all. Death is like that. It is so consuming that when you look back things are a blur. So I am pleased my memory has hung onto that day.

Back to our birthdays. When I was in NI for Uncle Bill’s 100th at the end of October I was also able to attend the John Hewitt Birthday readings in Belfast. All three poets were great, and one knocked my socks off. Gail McConnell reading from her book length poem, The Sun is Open. Several of my friends received it as a Christmas present. I’m on the Heaney Homeplace mailing list, having been, in my small way a regular, if distant and sporadic supporter since it opened a few years ago. I saw that Gail McConnell was going to be there 30th April, talking to Jeannette Winterson.

Several years ago, again with Celia, I went to hear Winterson talking about her then new novel The Gap of Time. For those of you who don’t know Winterson, she’s not one of those shy violet types. The event started with incredibly loud music. I don’t recall what it was, but it signalled this was to be as much rock show as literary evening. We were hyped up before she walked down the aisle, a diminutive figure in jeans and a white shirt, a huge smile on her face and owned the podium.

Oh my, I wanted to be at the Homeplace 30th April. Snag. It’s close to where I stay with Cousin, but she will be just returning from Australia after visiting two of her children and their children – including a new granddaughter – for the first time since the start of the pandemic. So not possible to claim her hospitality this time.

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The Coronavirus Diaries, 27th December 2021 Boxing Day Plus One

I thought today was Boxing Day as it’s a Bank Holiday and the day after Christmas Day is called Boxing Day and is usually a Bank Holiday but this year it was a Sunday, so the Bank Holiday is today, but Boxing Day was still yesterday. Confused? Join the club.

I was working yesterday. It was outside and first thing in the morning the rain was pelting down. I was wondering how my clients would react if I turned up in waterproof over trousers but fortunately, as promised by the weather forecast, the rain eased off.

Some people are lucky and they love their work. On days like yesterday I am one of those people. I just enjoyed the whole day. Then at home I read the paper. Finally it appears people are waking up to the reality of Boris Johnson, liar in chief and total disaster for this country. Maybe I should be happier that the truth is dawning on so many who have chosen to follow his lies, but the fact that they have so eagerly believed his nonsense makes me wonder what sort of country I am living in. And heaven help us, there are still some who think he’s doing a good job and that Jacob Rees-Mogg is a gentleman. The future does not look good. Also if BJ goes, who is in line for the job? Liz Truss perhaps, Dominic Raab, Rishi Sunak, or maybe Michael Gove who has recently been very silent, suspiciously silent in my opinion. None are examples of politicians who put country ahead of personal ambition.

I strongly believe no one should be able to be a representative, elected to the Commons, or nominated as in the Lords, who does not pay their full share of taxes to the treasury, has offshore investments, hedge funds, owns or has shares in companies who practise tax avoidance, has money left in trust funds to make sure their funds remain intact, or at least very lightly taxed, for future generations of their family while the playing field for others becomes less and less level. If you are in position to make decisions on how taxes are spent you need to pay them. Actually, even if you aren’t in that position you need to pay them. We need our roads, our hospitals, our schools.

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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, 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, 25th November 2021

Brrr. We have had such a mild autumn the sudden drop in temperature which makes it clear Winter has arrived is an unwelcome shock. Cold weather is seldom something I enjoy, but this year with hikes in fuel prices it is even less welcome. I don’t like a hot home. I prefer to add layers rather than strip off in overheated rooms, and the climate crisis makes such choices greater than wondering if I can pay the bills.

The very idea of climbing into a fragile, overcrowded boat and crossing even a narrow river in this weather would terrify me, and I don’t think I’d be alone. So what horrors are people who are prepared to try to cross the English Channel in such conditions fleeing? It really doesn’t take much imagination to understand that if you are ready to take such risks, you don’t have a comfortable safe home to return to. Yet our government and many people in these islands talk of migrants and refugees as though they are heading for the UK attracted by the idea of a welfare state that will care for them, that it’s a considered choice and one that is casually taken. Refugees are fleeing situations where they face torture and death. Norman Tebbitt MP famously told people in this country to get on their bikes and look for work outside their home area. It’s a refrain reworked with similar words by politicians today. Unless of course your search for work and a living wage means you come to the UK from elsewhere. Then you are an economic migrant, a phrase loaded with disdain. Nobody climbs into an overcrowded boat to cross the world’s busiest shipping lane in winter to come to the UK if they have positive choices at home.

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