When lockdown landed for the first time just over a year ago, everything felt alien. It was jarring for a lifestyle of modern convenience to suddenly stop; and a little shaming to realise how acclimatised many of us had become to immediate consumer gratification, only noticing when it was cut off.
I hadn’t faced restrictions on where I could go, who I could see, and what consumer goods were available to purchase, funds permitting, since adolescence. That not even the biggest retail behemoths, untouchable and under-taxed, could keep up with the demand for household goods like hair-cutting scissors or thermometers was quietly disconcerting, because if this need couldn’t be met, what other essentials might we end up going without?
I wrote then about my first trip into town for weeks, a pilgrimage to the pharmacy for a prescription. I excitedly anticipated venturing further afield than the route of my daily permitted walk.
At that point I hadn’t yet felt its features – a cracked slab, graffitied phone mast, tiny pretty, purple wildflowers, or an overpass I hadn’t taken before – shifting from novel observation to sign of how monotonous daily existence had become.
Getaway bus from ghost town
Then, there was a moral satisfaction in everyone paying closer attention to immediate surroundings, vaguely connected with the virtue of being content with my lot.
But it was also a lifestyle pose, tried on for Instagram a strange mix of piety and self-congratulation. Minimalism was in, craft baking was trending, and mindfulness was mainstream: it could all be hashtagged with the words blessed and thankful. It staved off the panic.
But the experience of seeing the city centre for the first time in weeks wasn’t what I’d expected. I thought it would get my mind going a bit, my work responsibilities having temporarily paused like thousands of others on furlough. I was used to so often being on a train somewhere, always on the go with a lot to look around at; I missed a busy visual environment. It was simply eerie.
I’d last been to the centre after one last mad dash to Waterstones to stock up on books, grasping for something to mop up the time, which I could see spreading ahead. Since then the city had ground to a halt, a cliched phrase that earned its deployment in this instance, with the normally bustling roads so quiet and empty, walkable where once they would have been a pain to cross for the constant flow of cars.
I couldn’t wait to get away from the ghost town. I hopped on a getaway bus and rushed back home to wash the feeling off my hands. Between this and the existential creepiness of the virus, deadly but lurking unseen, there was much on the frontline to react to. Big changes, and big threats to our safety; the straightforward, sad lack of family and friends.
Cake and books
Having had a year now, on and off, to reevaluate my relationship with the things I missed during lockdown, my perspective has shifted. My insight into why I miss what I miss has grown deeper.
I knew I missed cafes and pubs, especially as a writer, and as a publisher who worked from home before the pandemic, used to breaking up the working day with a stint anywhere equipped with coffee and wifi.
To me and many other freelancers they were temporary offices; somewhere other than the home office, with the lull of ambient noise that can ease the mind into the flow of a task. It is easy to miss places that serve cake and sell books.
But I realise now I also miss the feeling of blending into the bustle, part of it but a little detached. People watching is something I often set out specifically to do, but isn’t really possible when self conscious about movements, and warned not to linger.
Now we go from A to B, standing on the bus where the tape decrees so as not to hang around the driver’s cabin and breathe on them for any longer than is necessary. Now we stand in line to get into the supermarket, specific intervals apart.
But people watching is only one way to put this. It might not describe the entirety of what I’ve been yearning for. What if I’m expressing an emotional need as a professional necessity; and if so, how often do I do that?
Perhaps I don’t just want to feel enclosed by buildings and busyness, but also people. It’s easy to say the words "I miss friends”. Like “be kind”, which the internet stripped meaning of the second it became a catchphrase, it can be trotted out without really thinking about the feeling behind it, another bullet point of the rote response to anyone shallowly enquiring how we’ve coped with the pandemic.
I talk to friends every day online. But before lockdown, I wasn’t always good at initiating plans and following through with them, usually leaving that to someone else to do and being glad when they did.
The excuses were easy: a busy schedule, being somewhere else, feeling lethargic because of a depressive flare up, or telling myself I was a homebody and a grump to boot. Besides, I was always at work events or burned out from book festivals; events requiring me to be professionally sociable.
But in fact, my own social life hasn’t changed that much from before, despite all the restrictions on meeting. It has taken lockdown to realise this, and that I need to do something about it. That what I miss might actually be a need for closer connection I hadn’t been admitting.
I’m looking forward to the next easing up of lockdown restrictions; to go to restaurants and shops again. But if nothing else, this year has taught me to look deeper into my cravings, to ask why I miss what I miss.