I’ve been thinking about memories, and about what on earth will remain from this time. On one level I feel a bit superstitious even entertaining the thought of after: it seems presumptuous. But when others talk about what might come next, it gives me a fillip of optimism, so I’ve decided to allow myself to consider it, occasionally. Live dangerously with me: let’s tempt fate for a minute and ask what we’ll remember of the Great Confinement.
For many of us, this is one of the most momentous events of our lifetimes, as memorable as 9/11, perhaps. For me, it far outstrips the weird, three-day terrorist lockdown I lived through in Brussels in 2015 and any number of my personal dramas.
The Second World War had Mass Observation, the social research project created in 1937 for which thousands of volunteers wrote diaries and answered questionnaires. The 480 diarists who recorded their war as part of the endeavour created a fascinating archive of daily life under the same, but different constraints: rationing, blackout, lost loved ones and long swathes of uncertainty. Some diarists became breakout stars: Nella Last was a wife and mother in heavily bombed Barrow-in-Furness, dealing with the daily grind of scarce food and danger, whilst increasingly frustrated with the straitjacket of conventional 1940s marriage. Jean Lucy Pratt, whose funny, wistful diaries were published as A Notable Woman, wrote her war – beautifully – as a backdrop to the more immediate dramas of her love life, losing her virginity in 1941 as significant as the Blitz in its own way.
The week has lost its punctuation: without Friday-night pizza here, what even is Friday?
Social media is our mass observation. Imagine the future PhD theses on virality in the age of the virus that will be teased out of an unwieldy archive of bread jokes, park picnic outrage and WhatsApp threads explaining Discord to grandparents. I bet there will be a few on the tiger as the lockdown’s breakout cultural artefact. Or how about “Background in the foreground: Zoom and domestic aspiration in the 2020 pandemic”?
But apart from mass records and the occasional meticulous diary keeper (I’m hoping David Sedaris and Alan Bennett have us covered), what will the rest of us remember? Will it just be a mood, the sensation of a beautiful spring exploding around us as we grappled with fear and grief and boredom? There will be birthdays and anniversaries; moments when something was supposed to happen but didn’t, but mainly days elide into one another. The week has lost its punctuation: my son thought Saturday was Tuesday and without Friday-night pizza here, what even is Friday?
I know my short-term memory is shot to pieces: I paid for the same TV series twice on different platforms this week; my inbox is littered with draft emails I’m certain I’ve sent. In hypothermia the body directs blood to protect vital organs and away from extremities; it feels as if my brain is doing something similar now. I can work, more or less, but I can’t remember whether I’ve brushed my teeth.
Synapses fried with listless scrolling, the weekly shop has become more baffling than quantum mechanics: finally allowed into the Co-op, I drift in confusion, list forgotten in pocket, past butter and cereal, leaving with two chocolate fudge cakes and another multipack of Twixes to join my inadvertent stockpile. “Where’s the kitchen roll?” asks my husband and I can only proffer jam tarts. What memories can a mind in this state possibly be forming?
I know what I’ll definitely remember this week, though: the abandoned lamb I discovered on my daily walk. A pathetic bag of bones, cold, tiny and alone. I waited and checked, I’m not a lambing rookie. Night was falling, so I scooped it up, tucked it into my jacket and headed home. It was silent and floppy, wiry head nodding with the rhythm of my steps, thimble-sized hooves tucked beneath it. I wondered if it was even alive: the difference between life and death seems marginal in something so small and new. It was still breathing when I got home, so the nearly-18-year-old became chief lamb monitor, persuading it to suckle from a pierced washing up glove finger and arranging it on hot water bottles.
Meanwhile, I drove around looking for professional assistance. As a townie in the country, the spectre of Bill Forsyth’s wonderful Local Hero is unavoidable when you’re dithering around with a broken animal: the bit where Mac, the US oil exec tells an impassive Highland pub landlord “We have an injured rabbit also”. Eventually I found someone to take our lamb in and dropped it off, tucked in an old cushion cover. Revived by my son’s ministrations, it was bleating indignantly and trying to stand: a hopeful moment in a dark time.
I’ll remember it because it was a strange and magical, but also because at the same time our next-door neighbour was dying. A lovely, vital man, not particularly old or vulnerable, incomprehensibly gone. The moment the pandemic becomes personal will be fixed in many of our minds: the more abstract it remains, the luckier we are.