I wanted to write a piece about hope. Yesterday I drove to Bristol and back, the furthest I’ve been since mid-March. Bristol has of course been in the news, mostly for encouraging reasons. Yet I didn’t go to the cool, exciting part of the city where the Colston statue was toppled. Instead I was destined for a tangled wasteland of superstores, empty lots and drive-through food outlets, where the dealership I bought my car from is located, to get it serviced. It was due a service anyway, I’d found it possible to book one just as if the entire world hadn’t been temporarily paralysed, and the aircon had stopped working. It seemed time.
I wanted to write about hope to counter the fact that mine is ebbing. For at least the last four years, I’ve felt as frustrated as so many people about living in the country I do. I want to love it – in my twenties I chose to stay – and yet it keeps letting me down. We elect shitty right-wing government after shitty right-wing government. We have left the EU. Seen from the outside, we are a small-minded, inward-looking population of xenophobes. Our provincial towns are often bleak, windswept places, where shops close down, people can’t afford to pay for adequate housing, and weeds proliferate on neglected patches of land that no one really wants, while seemingly they also can’t be used for anything positive or communal.
My trip to Bristol did nothing to make me feel differently about any of this. If anything, Bristol was looking even sadder than Wells, and Wells appears pretty bereft right now. (A few weeks ago I wrote about a vaguely menacing atmosphere around the town, and described being growled at and urged to run while out with the children by a man in the high street. The same man is now living in the porch of the theatre opposite my house, among a growing pile of bottles and litter. He seems to be drinking himself to death there, and although police and at least one ambulance have attended he remains, howling and shouting in utter fury.)
On the way back from Bristol, though, as I passed through yet another grey village with a shop that had lost some of its lettering, with the white lines crumbling off the roads, with a shuttered pub and the verges looking like jungles, it occurred to me that if things could look this much worse after just three months, perhaps it could, in theory, be possible that with three months of concerted effort (but by who? I know), things could be similarly altered in the other direction. For the better. It was a heady thought.
Somewhere near the beginning of all this, we used to wonder if we’d emerge from it changed, and in some ways improved. But as we stagger on through the sort-of easing of lockdown, in slow-motion, and with much ambiguity and confusion, I think it’s becoming clear that there’s not going to be any kind of definite end to this, or closure. We’re just not going to get that epiphany: Ah! It’s over. And I learned this, and this, and this, and now I can move on. Instead it’s going to be an endless cycle of things being somewhat worse than they used to be, but in really vague ways. Ways that are so difficult to pinpoint that we’ll forget that there was ever any other way of living.
As I handed over my car key to the man at the garage – carefully, into a little plastic bag so it could be whisked away and sanitised – I almost wept with gratitude when he told me that yes, I could use the customer toilets. Signs everywhere reminded me that I couldn’t be provided with refreshments or reading material while I waited in these unprecedented times, but I’d had the foresight to bring my own stack of hard copy proofreading, a flask of coffee and a banana. And so things were almost like they might once have been. Eighties rock poured out of the speakers. Young couples stroked sporty hatchbacks in shades of metallic turquoise and orange. All just about the same, but with a general air of mutual suspicion and zealous cleanliness. I even had the traditional woman-in-a-garage experience of mild gaslighting, as they kindly reported to me at the end of the service that my air-conditioning had been working fine all along.
Last Sunday morning, we went to the Tor. We hadn’t been together since mid-February, and my last walk up had been a couple of weeks after that, as the coronavirus crisis began to hit the UK, when I wrote about it. Technically we could have gone to the Tor a few weeks ago, but we’d waited for what felt like the right time, and last Sunday we agreed that was it.
The strangest thing was how, walking up, it felt that we’d never been away. It had been the longest either of us had gone without climbing the Tor in years, and certainly in the course of our relationship we’d been up together every couple of weeks or so. Even though an entire season had passed there unseen, and the trees were now in full leaf and crowding in at the foot of the hill, so little had really changed. The tower stood fast just as always. It wasn’t busy, because it was quite early, but you could tell it would be later. Families milled about on top, with some of the younger members completely oblivious to the concept of social distancing, and their parents unconcerned about reminding them. The sense of nothing at all having happened was dizzying. I even said up there that, for the first time in months, I had the first real hope that everything would be OK.
There was just one small sign that all was not quite as it had been. On the side of the summit, there was a woman clad in flowing, vegetable-dyed hemp, surrounded by all her paraphernalia, including a bowl containing a vigorously smoking bundle of herbs. Music trickled out of a speaker, and she had her arms open wide to the sky, head tipped back in apparent ecstasy. So far, so Glastonbury, And she was leading a kundalini yoga session, but her followers were not present. She was doing it via Zoom.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and freelance since 2008. She could have sworn the aircon wasn’t working.