The coronavirus crisis has made most of us slow down and narrow our focus to what truly matters. Here nine writers reveal the biggest challenges – and surprising upsides – of lockdown
I have learnt that there are some things I really can’t control and all I can do is wait for the green leaves to sprout, for the bubbles to swell, for the crisp thud of a handwritten letter falling on the mat
‘Finally, I feel free from anxiety’
By scriptwriter and TV producer Daisy Goodwin
But the greatest discovery is that for almost the first time in my adult life, I feel free from anxiety
This morning I went into my greenhouse (a lockdown purchase that has replaced the libraries and film sets of my pre-virus life as a scriptwriter and TV producer as the place where I feel most purposeful and content) and saw a tiny morsel of green poking up from the soil. This particular green shoot was from a very grand tomato seed that came from a designer packet I had planted three weeks earlier. I had, to be honest, given up on the designer tomatoes, lowering my expectations to radishes and mizuna (a Japanese leafy vegetable), both of which seem immune to novice gardeners. But here it was, unfurling, and I was grinning like an Oscar winner. It may not seem like much, but in this stretch of time where every day is like the one before, apart from the numbers of lives lost to this cruel coronavirus, little things – such as growing a tomato plant from seed – mean a lot.
I am not a natural gardener, nor sourdough baker, nor even letter writer, but in recent weeks I have become all of those things. I am not usually in one place long enough to watch over seedlings, but now they have become my horticultural box sets – will the white chard succumb to the dreaded slugs, will I manage to pinch out the right tomato shoots and will my courgette plants ever find fulfilment? Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the warm place next to the stove is crammed with jam jars full of honeycombed sourdough ‘starter’ ready to be transformed into loaves, focaccia and even bagels. It may be disastrous for my waistline but there is something magical about watching flour and water swell into a great pillowy ball of dough. A sourdough loaf takes at least 24 hours to make – far too long in pre-virus times, but now I enjoy measuring my day by the size of the bubbles in my bread.
Between the germination in the greenhouse and the fermentation in the kitchen, there is the arrival of the postman, because receiving letters is now an event. My two digital-native daughters watch for the postman as keenly as the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice – a handwritten letter shows a depth of feeling that no text can ever match. And despite almost forgetting what my own handwriting looks like, I now write letters because I want to leave some record of how much I miss the people that I love.
But the greatest discovery is that for almost the first time in my adult life, I feel free from anxiety. Of course I worry about my beloved dad and other vulnerable friends, but I don’t feel that constant corrosive drip of ‘what next’?
I have learnt that there are some things I really can’t control and all I can do is wait for the green leaves to sprout, for the bubbles to swell, for the crisp thud of a handwritten letter falling on the mat.
‘It’s changed my mind about having kids’
By author Sophia Money-Coutts
Although the nieces continued to shout and leak and thunder up and down the house like very small elephants, I started appreciating the pure, distracting and uncomplicated joy of children
For a few years I’ve been weighing up whether I want children. ‘Would I like one of those?’ I’d think, squinting at friends’ babies as if they were a shirt in a shop window. Usually I’d decide that my friends’ lives seemed too horrifyingly altered from their existence before children and it wasn’t for me. What if I had a baby and didn’t like it? At least you can return a shirt.
I seemed so unlike many women I spoke to who knew definitively that they wanted to be mothers. Perhaps I’d become a mysterious and eccentric aunt instead, who’d often be travelling but breeze home for Christmases, dole out exotic presents and make inappropriate remarks after necking the cooking sherry. But when I turned 35 in February and remained single, I made the decision to freeze my eggs. For me, it meant keeping my options open, even though my biological clock remained pretty silent.
By March, I’d started the freezing process and had temporarily moved in with my sister, her husband and their two young daughters when we went into lockdown. The move meant I had to stop the egg-freezing drugs, since I wouldn’t be able to get to hospital for scans and my subsequent egg collection, but more alarming still was the idea of being trapped with a family, even my own family. I was more used to living alone and my nieces (seven and nine) are noisy; they chuck their vegetables on the floor to avoid eating them; the little one has regular nosebleeds because she’s a picker; the big one constantly farts; they forget to flush the loo and they’re prone to asking the same questions about Harry Potter again and again.
But as we settled into the rhythm of family life, my feelings changed. Although the nieces continued to shout and leak and thunder up and down the house like very small elephants, I started appreciating the pure, distracting and uncomplicated joy of children. I came to love them sneaking into bed with me to read stories, to enjoy our discussions about the tooth fairy and Dumbledore. Any glumness about lockdown is forgotten when the nine-year-old asks me to help her find ‘funny horse’ GIFs online, and I honestly enjoy asking, ‘Have you washed your hands?’ 93 times a day. In a shrunken world where the irritations of daily life have vanished and family is the only thing that matters, I’ve come to realise I would like a child very much.
Other single girlfriends have spoken similarly in the past few weeks too, but quietly, almost as if they’re ashamed of this desire. Because the trouble is, if you’re a single 35-year-old woman, publicly admitting that you want a baby is like standing on a street corner and screaming you’ve got gonorrhoea – potentially off-putting to men and liable to earn you pitying looks from others. But that’s a problem to solve after lockdown. Most likely I’ll do one round of egg freezing and then start looking for donors or a co-parent (in my situation, this would be a man with whom I could share a child but, liberatingly, not his bed). We’ll see. For now, the realisation that I do want the dementing, messy, loud, nerve-shredding and exhilarating experience of my own child is progress enough for me.
- Sophia’s latest novel What Happens Now? is published by HQ, price £7.99
‘My friends’ wit and wisdom have been invaluable’
By TV presenter and author Janet Ellis
Of course, we’ll pick up where we left off eventually, but I’m coping with a sizeable shift in the way I live now without the very people I’d usually rely on to get me through
Two years ago, when we discovered that my husband John had stage 4 cancer, there wasn’t a single friend who didn’t rally to support me. Don’t get me wrong, John and I have a close relationship, but there’s something irreplaceable about strong female friendships. If you add it up, I guess I owe my friends many thousands of pounds in therapist’s fees. It’s an imprecise figure, because they’re not actually qualified, but what they lack in letters after their names they more than make up for in unlimited care, counsel and company. Plus, unlike the professionals, they mix it up with information about their own lives, jokes, detours and plenty of gossip.
It’s a two-way street. I’m here for them, too. Over the years, we’ve sympathised with the difficulties and lows of our lives. We’ve given each other advice when it’s asked for and just listened when that suited better. We’ve celebrated plenty of highs and successes, too – and I truly believe only the best of friends do that. Factor in the priceless joy of long friendships – shared interests, plenty of eating and drinking together and, so very often, lots of laughter and hugs – and it all added up to a supporting, loving team that I’d begun to take for granted.
When lockdown began, along with all the other fears I felt, I had a very specific, horribly selfish thought: how would I manage without them? Like everyone, we moved on to screens and the background to our get-togethers is no longer a wine bar or café, but kitchens and sofas. We share any personal angst, but there’s time for more frivolous stuff, too. You thought we couldn’t do gossip in a lockdown? You underestimate us – there’s plenty.
But it’s not the same. Of course, we’ll pick up where we left off eventually, but I’m coping with a sizeable shift in the way I live now without the very people I’d usually rely on to get me through. I’m having to spend a lot more time in my own head, for a start, and I admit I struggled at first. My inner therapist isn’t one for easy answers and sometimes I wasn’t even sure what the question was.
There were additional difficulties, too – John’s chemotherapy was first suspended, then denied, then reinstated. Looking after him through treatment and recovery wasn’t going to be easy. I had to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth: not everything can be fixed. For a self-confessed optimist, looking on the black side rather too much was scary. Gradually I realised something that should have been obvious straight away – I’ve got a head full of my friends’ wit and wisdom filed away, ready for just such an emergency. Those guys have still got my back. My world might be smaller but it’s still the size of their loving hearts.
‘Freezing my eggs means keeping my options open’
‘I’ve become a cocktail connoisseur’
By journalist Sophie Heawood
My poor Greek lodger isn’t impressed, finding out he has to test another version of Aperol spritz where I’ve replaced the soda with some cucumber tonic and the Aperol with Cointreau
It was the Stanley Tucci video on Instagram that sent me over the edge. The way he held a silver cocktail shaker, tipped the ice into the glass and pressed the negroni into his wife’s hand with those come-to-bed eyes. Afterwards I roamed around the John Lewis website, yet couldn’t locate the section where you order Stanley Tucci’s marriage to be delivered to your house, so I bought a £15 cocktail shaker instead.
I got hold of some spirits, and some mixers, and finally became a person who Knows How To Make Cocktails. Except that I couldn’t get all the right ingredients in lockdown. Yes, it would be nice to have mastered manhattans and cosmopolitans and sex on the beach, but instead I now know what a margarita tastes like if you substitute agave syrup with an old jar of golden syrup. However, a can of fizzy rhubarb pop does indeed go excellently with vodka and a dash of red vermouth.
My poor Greek lodger isn’t impressed, finding out he has to test another version of Aperol spritz where I’ve replaced the soda with some cucumber tonic and the Aperol with Cointreau. And a bit of Fanta. He only wanted a beer.
‘I’m reading the news from my front room’
By Sky News anchor Sarah-Jane Mee
The extra challenge is sharing a workspace with Ben
I thought I had plenty of time to make the most of my last few child-free weeks before my due date at the end of June. There was a baby shower to plan, engagement celebrations, a house move, long Sunday afternoons browsing John Lewis’s nursery department and new mum friends to make at NCT classes. My fiancé Ben and I were even going to squeeze in that ‘babymoon’ we’d heard so much about – a last couple’s holiday before we became a three-piece.
Turns out the universe had other plans for us. The Prime Minister’s first daily coronavirus update that Monday night in March would change my world beyond recognition. After advising against unnecessary travel, he then declared pregnant women among the most at risk from COVID-19. I was suddenly in the vulnerable category. And here I am today in the same front room with a whole new reality. As a news presenter for Sky, I’ve swapped a fancy state-of-the-art TV studio for a home broadcast kit and camera that I’ve managed to set up so that it crops out my messy kitchen. Now I am not just a journalist but a camera operator, sound engineer, lighting director, hair and make-up artist and – hardest of all – tech support.
The extra challenge is sharing a workspace with Ben. He runs his businesses from the computer next to my homemade studio and we fight each morning over who gets to use the wi-fi. We don’t have outside space and the front room is both my ‘studio’ and where we spend our downtime.
Lockdown has been a series of peaks and troughs, and I’ve had huge highs and nasty lows sitting in exactly the same spot on the sofa, from feeling my baby kick for the first time during the first week, to not seeing my mum and dad while sharing the excitement of the final countdown to their first grandchild. But what I’ll take away from this whole period as we hopefully approach the end of lockdown is how little we require to be truly happy. Essentially, we just need a good dose of love and each other. The stress of this situation is real, but so is the realisation that we have so much to be grateful for. I can’t wait for this baby to enter our small world and become our whole new one. I’ll tell him or her about the biggest global news story that was unfolding during their arrival. They probably won’t believe it.
Sarah-Jane Mee hosts the Sky News In This Together podcast, out each Friday, available for download from the usual outlets
Nothing special would happen this year, I told myself, as my 45th birthday approached
‘My simple, no-pressure birthday was the best ever’
By writer Clover Stroud
It was a good day, and a valuable one, too, as it reminded me how little we really need to be happy
Just over a year ago, I gathered 30 of my closest friends together and had a party. It was my 44th birthday and I wanted to celebrate. My cousins cooked and after supper we pushed back the tables and danced until 5am.
But this year, I realised, sometime in late March when the reality of lockdown kicked in, would be quite different. My birthday is on 16 April so I often use it as an excuse to celebrate the promise of spring sliding into summer, and the parties and fun that will follow. More than anything, birthdays are an excuse to gather friends together or splash out on a trip somewhere special. For my 40th I had a big tea party with my best friends which turned into drinks in the garden. Two years ago, my husband Pete organised a weekend in Seville. The year before that, when I was pregnant with my fifth child, we had a big lunch in a local pub with lots of friends.
Nothing special would happen this year, I told myself, as my 45th birthday approached. Perhaps it would slip by like all the other days in lockdown, which have arrived, then vanished, without leaving a distinct impression. After all, every day now is framed by nothing more exciting than a chaotic attempt at home schooling, yet more meals to cook, a few hours of work and piles and piles of laundry.
But I am a grown-up, I could live with that. And maybe it was that absolute lowering of expectation that made it so special. Because with nowhere to go, no fancy party to dress for and no special guests to entertain, it was, unquestionably, one of the happiest days of my life.
Isolating at home with my children – Jimmy, 19, Dolly, 16, Evangeline, seven, Dash, six, and Lester, three – and my husband Pete, there were small surprises. The children made me a birthday breakfast table, covered in handmade cards and bunches of greenery picked from the hedgerows near our house. Pete had surreptitiously bought some of my favourite bath essences and a necklace with the children’s names on it. I took my younger children for a walk; we had lunch in the garden because it happened to be a beautiful day. That evening, Jimmy cooked kebabs which we ate with a big plate of salad and flatbreads, and Pete mixed negronis. We played a card game together and then the children ran around in the garden as the sun went down. And when the younger children were in bed, Jimmy projected The Rocky Horror Picture Show on to a wall.
It was a good day, and a valuable one, too, as it reminded me how little we really need to be happy. Rather like lockdown itself, my birthday was a chance to concentrate on simpler things, and enjoy what I really love, which is nothing more than being around my family on a sunny day in the garden.
‘I’m like a teenager again… at 36’
By journalist Anita Bhagwandas
Lockdown has given me a deeper sense of appreciation for my tiny flat, and it feels like a luxury to know I will go back to that space
When lockdown was announced I had an important decision to make: stay in my beautiful but tiny London flat (without any outdoor space) or go back to my family home in South Wales with my parents. The latter is spacious, with a garden, and comes with unlimited amounts of South Indian food. But I haven’t spent longer than a week there since I left for university at 18 – and that was 18 years ago.
Back in Wales, I felt a sense of relief to be out of London, to have fresh air, to be with my parents who are semi-retired doctors (and could cut through the scaremongering headlines) and are nearly classified as a ‘vulnerable’ age. I didn’t factor in any difficulties with moving back; I’m an only child and we speak most days. In my head, life at home would just be an extension of that.
For a few weeks, it felt pretty novel. I took over the menu planning and embarked on a cleaning and organising spree of their house (which didn’t go down very well). I Zoomed with my friends every night, did online dance classes and bathed in any kind of free entertainment or wellness practice I could. In the end, I actually didn’t see my parents that much.
But, a month in, watching TV shows in gym kit – without any personal space and my usual accoutrements – I realised I’d reverted to semi-teenage behaviour: leaving my dishes in the sink and clothes on the floor; midway through a digital date (with a man I’d met pre-COVID-19), my mum burst into my room to demand her phone charger back. ‘Wow – you sound like an angry teenager,’ he said as I roared, ‘Mum, I’m on the phone!’
It’s far easier than you think to fall back into those old patterns. But my parents have struggled with having me in the house as a grown-up, too; I’m quite bossy these days, and that ‘you must do as you’re told’ vibe that’s de rigueur in Indian families just doesn’t work for me any more. They miss their dining room, which has become my messy workspace. But I now realise that this is time with them I’ll never get again. I’ll never be able to spend a weekend learning to cook with my mum – which has been one of the best things about being home. Or meditating with my dad outside in the sun. I’m behaving more as one of the family, rather than like a lodger, cooking for them and being a part of things more.
Lockdown has given me a deeper sense of appreciation for my tiny flat, and it feels like a luxury to know I will go back to that space, where I can truly be myself. But, it’s also a luxury knowing there’s another – albeit very different – home I can retreat to if I ever need it.
I realised I’d reverted to semi-teenage behaviour: leaving my dishes in the sink and clothes on the floor
‘I didn’t expect to get stuck in rural isolation’
By writer Flic Everett
During the day, remembering not to throw myself at him for a consoling hug, or flop beside him on the sofa, is equally tough
‘As long as I go back every month’ was my mantra when I moved to the Scottish West Highlands from Manchester four years ago. With my entire family there – Mum, Dad, adult son and much-loved ex-in-laws, along with all my friends – leaving my home city to live with my partner was only an option if I could always return at a moment’s notice. I met Andy in 2014, through a mutual friend. He likes fly-fishing, red wine and eating meat. I enjoy reading novels and am a teetotal vegetarian, but we fell in love and maintained a long-distance relationship for almost two years. When I was made redundant from my job as a magazine editor and returned to freelance writing in 2016, he tentatively suggested I move up to his isolated rural cottage, to ‘see how it goes’.
It was immediately successful, but I hated being six hours away from my other favourite people and I knew my situation would only ever work with monthly trips home. I filled the visits with family get-togethers, catch-ups with mates and a full evening of offloading with my best friend. It all topped up my emotional tank and I’d return to rural isolation happily reset.
But then coronavirus set in. My last Manchester trip was in mid-March and I realised that I needed to go back north before lockdown began. When Andy met me at the station, Glasgow was already lacking its usual raucous bustle. I knew I may not be going south again for a while – I thought maybe a month – and the idea of being forbidden from returning, even for that long, was alarming.
Due to his various autoimmune conditions, Andy has been designated as a ‘shielded person’. We’re now in separate bedrooms, and can’t touch at all. I find it impossible to sleep by myself; I lie awake worrying about my family till 3am most nights.
During the day, remembering not to throw myself at him for a consoling hug, or flop beside him on the sofa, is equally tough. For five weeks, I was the designated shopper, driving the 16 miles to the supermarket each Thursday for Andy and his parents and returning to spend two hours disinfecting everything. The bonus, however, was the brief excitement of human communication – a masked chat with friends who run the deli, the wry humour of a discussion about loo roll in the garage. Now, we’ve finally got an online delivery slot, which is safer, but I miss the shops.
I have cried a few times, though I’m never normally a weeper. When the dogs disappeared for over an hour recently and I thought they’d been stolen, I sobbed so hard I couldn’t breathe.
Their joyous normality is a lifeline. I imagine, like most of us, I have a well of unexpressed grief – for normal life, for everyone in danger, for all the people who have died and lost loved ones, and for the future. I miss human touch and human faces. Most of all, I miss my family. I feel guilty too, as currently my son is devotedly looking after two sets of grandparents, while I’m idling uselessly, far away. Even Zoom calls aren’t helping; after the first flurry of excitement, I found it was leaving me feeling emptily sad, rather than fulfilled. Like switching off an old TV, my world has shrunk from busy, colourful and loving to a tiny pinprick of light.
For now, I’m focusing on the small good things: the dogs waking me up, a book on my Kindle, a parcel arriving, a funny message from a friend. It’s not enough, but it’s far better than some currently have it. We have had our lives switched off, but if we’re lucky, at some point soon, they will be switched on again, and normal service – or at least a version of it – will be resumed.
‘Quarantine is agonising for my autistic son’
By novelist Kathy Lette
My own vivid 29-year-old son Jules knows more about Shakespeare, the Beatles, tennis and movie stars than their own mothers
Mothering an autistic person is like trying to put together a jigsaw without the picture on the box – there’s no owner’s manual. But it’s been especially difficult during lockdown. Quarantine is gruelling enough for we neurotypicals, so just imagine the excruciating confusion for those suffering from anxiety.
People on the spectrum may struggle with communication, OCD and chronic anxiety. They are often also Wikipedia with a pulse. My own vivid 29-year-old son Jules knows more about Shakespeare, the Beatles, tennis and movie stars than their own mothers. These days he also knows a lot about plagues – the bubonic, the black death, sweating sickness, zika, ebola, smallpox pandemics, influenzas, typhus, typhoid… you name it and he can tell you how many millions died and in what agonising ways.
The mother of a special-needs child has to be his bodyguard, legal advocate, executive officer making every decision on his behalf, scientist questioning all medications, and now, during the coronavirus crisis, also full-time shrink. The unfairness of the world’s plight rears up like a tsunami and crashes down upon my son’s head on a daily basis. The brutal death toll, the loneliness of the months ahead, his ruptured life including the enforced separation from his girlfriend and postponement of his job as an actor on the BBC medical drama Holby City, has him endlessly fleeing down some descending labyrinth of the mind. While many of us can self-medicate with chocolate or wine and lose ourselves in movies and books, for Jules the anxiety is always with him. His angst is constant, like tinnitus. It’s just always there. Living with him is like living in a minefield – I never know what will touch a tripwire. And after weeks of lockdown I could qualify for a PhD in worry. Yet despite his dark moods, his quirky humour provides welcome relief from quarantining stress. He makes us laugh a lot. Ironically, despite government-enforced self-distancing, my family – like many others – has never felt closer. Jules may feel he’s drowning in his own brainwaves but love and laughter is our life raft.
How will our world look after lockdown?
It’s looking unlikely that we’ll be jetting off on summer holidays this year, so operators will use VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) to deliver virtual holidays and digital spa experiences. Seaham Hall, a luxury hotel and spa in Durham, is one of the first in the UK to roll out a series of live and prerecorded wellbeing sessions via YouTube and Zoom.
As make-up counters introduce no-touch policies in store, consumers will turn to digital consultations. Charlotte Tilbury’s Magic Mirror Makeup online app allows customers to try on products virtually, or you can upload your picture to Mac’s website to experiment with its range of lip or eye colours.
Food and Drink
With restaurants and food sellers focusing on bringing the dining experience to your home, Greek favourite The Athenian is live-streaming cooking classes on Instagram, while Wagamama is teaching viewers to ‘wok from home’ on its online channel.
At-home workout platforms will become the new normal, driving brands such as Barry’s Bootcamp, Peloton and Core Collective to stream classes via IGTV (which hosts longer videos on Instagram) or their own websites or apps.
People are already using digital platforms such as Houseparty, Zoom and Google Hangouts to take part in virtual social gatherings, from digital dance raves to remote book clubs and even virtual weddings. Wedding website Hitched predicts a rise in ‘micro-weddings’ – gatherings of fewer than 20 people.
As businesses are investing in working-from-home tools, Twitter recently informed its employees they can work from home ‘for ever’ if they wish – an announcement described as ‘era-defining’. Previously, Google and Facebook also said staff can work from home until the end of the year.
Additional reporting: Charlotte Vossen. Contributing research by strategic foresight consultancy, The Future Laboratory