With the UK now in what I’m calling a ‘soft lockdown’, boredom is as much the enemy as the actual coronavirus is. We’re all settling into our new reality of being together at home, all day every day.
Enid Blyton never wrote a Famous Five book titled Five Try To Work Together in the Same House Without Killing Each Other. She really missed out on one there.
Tuesday 24th March
The morning after the night before. Day one of (at least) 21 of a UK lockdown.
According to the new regulations, we can only go out to shop for basic essentials, to exercise once a day, to travel if work requires it and for other emergencies. Not that there’s much reason to go out, given that most shops and all pubs, restaurants and leisure venues are now closed.
On the bright side, we’re saving a fortune.
I went out for my daily exercise first thing this morning and was slightly surprised to see as many people and cars as I did. Much quieter than usual, for sure. But not exactly 28 Days Later. Maybe it was just that initial surge of panic-shoppers flooding into town in response to the lockdown. I understand it was considerably emptier later in the day.
It’s a critical few days for the UK. On the one hand, I saw photos of busy Tube platforms and trains in the morning and stories of the police having to break up large groups barbecuing. But I also saw images of a deserted Paddington station and many reports of people carefully observing a two-metre separation in a way they hadn’t done previously. Who knows what the real truth is?
While it’s inevitable there will always be a few idiots who think the rules don’t apply to them/believe they’re invulnerable/’know’ it’s all over-hyped or a conspiracy [delete as applicable], if 98% of people comply, the spread of coronavirus will be contained.
At long last, people are understanding that the longer we resist the lockdown, the longer we will remain in it – and quite possibly under even tighter restrictions.
Are you not entertained?
I’ve seen a few people complaining on social media about how bored they are confining themselves to their own homes.
Everyone has a TV. Many have Sky, Netflix, Xboxes and – as of today, in a masterful piece of timing – Disney+.
Even if you don’t have all of these, how can you be bored? Most people at least have a smartphone with which they can access the internet. If push came to shove, I’m pretty sure Wikipedia alone would keep me well occupied far beyond the length of any lockdown.
The only logical conclusion I can come to is that, as a generation, we have become used to gorging on a feast of consumerism and consumption. We’re spoilt, entitled and we’ve forgotten what it’s like to not have the entire world at our fingertips. Although, quite literally, with phones and computers we do still actually have the world at our fingertips.
Instead, we’re facing up to the reality of returning to simpler times. Instead of going out to eat, we – or at least I – am enjoying getting back to basic cooking. The board games are coming back out. And, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we can still connect with people through Skype, Facetime and Houseparty. Isaac’s teachers are delivering material for his daily lessons via Microsoft Teams. Kara can still do her martial arts classes online thanks to Zoom, where she can follow her teachers and they can see all the students, at least in thumbnail size.
And then there’s fitness coach Joe Wicks, whose first daily ‘PE With Joe’ YouTube session on Monday was watched by 800,000 households. Let’s call that two million people in total, including four in our home alone.
There’s no excuse for the vast majority of us to be bored, really. Watch or stream something new. Exercise indoors. Cook. Or just read. If nothing else, this lockdown grants us the gift of time. We spend so much of our lives complaining about not having enough of it. Now many of us actually have time on our hands, it would be churlish to whine about boredom – especially when there are others working in front-line healthcare and other essential services who are working round the clock to keep the country on its feet.
We have no reason to complain. None.
Wednesday 25th March
In many ways, I now have a completely new work routine. There’s no commute, for starters. (No complaints here!) I’m dressed casually rather than in a shirt and smart trousers. Lunch is made fresh when I’m ready to eat, not boxed up the night before. Every teleconference starts with a 10-minute coronavirus update as colleagues share the latest situation in their respective countries. Nobody signs off emails with ‘kind regards’ any more; increasingly, it’s ‘stay safe’.
In many other ways, though, the new routine resembles the old routine. Familiarity is comfortable and settling, and I’m deliberately maintaining as many old habits as I can. I still wake up around 6am. Bacon and eggs for breakfast. A little exercise, although the morning walk has now been replaced by a quick blast on the cross-trainer. At my desk by 8:30. Stop for lunch at midday and try to take a decent break. And where my drive home used to serve as the buffer that separated ‘work’ from ‘family’, I now go out for a post-work run most evenings.
It’s now eerily quiet out. If it didn’t feel like 28 Days Later yesterday, it definitely does now. That’s a positive sign. I ran through the middle of town at 5:30pm and there was barely any traffic on the A4 and the Broadway was all but abandoned. Just me, some other runners, dog-walkers and family groups on walks or bike rides. And there’s very little conversation either. Most people seemed to be quite self-conscious about being out, as if bracing themselves to justify why they’re outside at all if challenged.
Me? I make trebly sure by ensuring I leave the house in running gear, waving a Bag for Life in one hand and clutching an (empty) dog lead in the other. Just so people know I’m observing the rules, you know.
In theory, the UK lockdown could be over in three weeks. But I do wonder whether the short, sharp shock to our systems will lead to any lasting changes. Or will we simply snap back into our established habits?
As a household, I think we’ve become increasingly conscious of resource scarcity over the last few years. We recycle as much as we can. We try to avoid single-use plastics and reuse disposable items such as kitchen foil where we can. Both Heather and I hate to see food go to waste. Our fridge and freezer are constantly full of tubs of leftovers.
Over the past week or so, I’d say we’ve stepped up a level. Much of it is little things, such as being more sparing with using tissues. Some of it is re-evaluating what we consider to be normal. As Heather is constantly reminding me, I’m a terrible impulse shopper. I buy stuff without necessarily thinking about whether I need it. I think nothing of popping into Waitrose most days just to pick up something interesting. But these past ten days I’ve had to prioritise protecting my health over walking into town every day and returning with a backpack full of goodies. Out of necessity, we’re making do with what we have in the house and accepting that we can’t just buy whatever luxuries we fancy.
I’m even starting to enjoy my regular evening runs. As I can’t just go out to the gym and add on a couple of long walks every day, I’m making the most of whatever exercise I can do.
We’re so accustomed to expecting resources to be unlimited, even though they really aren’t. Will this make a dent in modern society’s obsession with conspicuous consumption? Will it make us more determined to reverse the climate crisis?
The cynic in me says we will soon lapse back into our bad habits – and I include myself in that assessment. The optimist, though, wonders if the severity of the current situation will make enough of us reevaluate our lifestyles enough to make a lasting difference. I hope so.
Thursday 26th March
I have a day off tomorrow, so today effectively marked the completion of two weeks working at home. It’s been surprisingly okay.
In fairness, it’s not a difficult transition for me. The nature of my job means I spend most of my day on Skype calls, which I can do anywhere. Travel isn’t a major requirement of my work. I’m strongly introverted by nature, meaning I’m comfortable working in solitude. All I need is a laptop, a decent broadband connection and ideally a second screen, and I’m good.
The kids are coping admirably well too. As someone who constantly needs to stay active, I feared Kara would fare worst. However, if anything, she’s coped best. It helps that she’s doing the Joe Wicks workouts and martial arts classes regularly to burn off energy, but she is proving to be pretty resilient.
Isaac is being kept busy with schoolwork. He’s usually at his laptop by around 8:30 and rarely finishes before 3:30. I think he’s missing face-to-face social contact the most, although he is constantly on calls with his classmates so he’s not completely isolated.
Toby is watching old episodes of Top Gear a lot. There’s a reason we call him ‘the sloth’.
In all seriousness, though, while it’s a challenge for Heather and I to balance the needs of work with attending to the children – something I’m sure other parents will be all too familiar with – the kids are doing well. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, by any means. But tempers haven’t frayed to anywhere near the extent we feared they would. (Yeah, I know, famous last words.)
It definitely helps that they’re all a bit older now – Kara is our youngest but she’s nearly eight – and don’t require as much constant attention. I’m not sure how we’d have coped with three pre-schoolers in the house …
It’s the monotony that will get us
The one thing I have found, though, is that I have now completely lost track of what day of the week it is. Even though office days are largely pretty similar, there are enough reference points to help me keep track. Traffic is heavier on Monday mornings and Friday evenings. On weekdays the office is my primary environment, whereas at weekends it’s home. And so on. Now, especially under lockdown conditions, both work and family time are spent at home, and we can’t just do big days out at weekends.
I’ve lost my weeknight reference points too. Every evening of a ‘normal’ week has a specific rhythm and timing. Kara has ballet training on Monday. She and Isaac have Brownies and Scouts on Tuesday, then she’s at gym on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Fridays are free and traditionally a time for a joint activity such as a family book club session. All that is gone for the moment.
If anything is going to unbalance my mental stability, it’s not going to be the fear of contracting COVID-19. It will be the shapeless monotony of one day being much the same as the next, week after week. It’s like Chinese water torture. Drip. Drip.
Which is why it’s so important to focus on our mental as well as physical well-being. Make time for exercise. Or gardening. Or taking the opportunity to learn a new language. We can’t be trapped by our own fear, or get to the end of this period and realise we’ve merely existed for weeks and months. Life is for living.