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This year of isolation has forced us all to find our own answers

John Lennon in New York in 1977, with wife Yoko Ono and son Sean - Credit: Getty Images

BONNIE GREER on the weird dislocation that 2020 has brought, and how John Lennon has brought some perspective on it.

The weird thing about lockdown and isolation is that stuff starts coming into your mind that you’ve never really grasped; never thought about. And new things, too: new worlds.

For example, the highlight of my last office job was a deep discussion about John Belushi after he was found dead of an overdose in Hollywood. Suddenly, in this lockdown, I could remember me and my colleagues at our desks back then, doing our office grind while talking about Animal House and his work on Saturday Night Live.

By some quirk of fate, I have never worked in an office since. For four decades I have had no colleagues as such; have never commuted anywhere to work; never had an office party; never been to a retirement party; or sent greetings to anyone regarding a birth; a death; a marriage; a promotion. Nothing.

I read about people mourning the loss of comradeship and connection from being forced to work from home, and this is something that, on a day-to-day basis, I fundamentally do not know.

It is strange because I have come to understand that there is an artificial sharing that I have. That my real work relationship is with my pen, and pens don’t talk, so there you are.

My time is with friends and colleagues who are what are called ‘creatives’, too, and inside of myself, in a guilty way, I know that being alone is actually a great thing for a writer, or painter, or composer. As a result, work gets bigger and deeper and maybe, out of this thing that is happening to all of us, something good can happen. Maybe something new can be learned.

Memories can be sifted to discover something.

In my early days in New York City, when it was still gritty and broken and you could live pretty cheaply as an artist if you did not mind not having a front door, we all looked for John Lennon.

He was in town, at the posh Upper West Side apartment building considered so far away from the hub of the city itself that when it was being built in the 19th century it was decided to name it ‘the Dakota’. As if it existed in the Far West somewhere.

John was holed up there in splendid circumstances with Yoko and their baby, Sean. He was trying to get a Green Card which would allow him to stay permanently in the US. But there were forces opposed to him being in the country because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and just about everything else that he was and that he did.     We were still listening to The Beatles, still dreaming that they might get back together. Paul had formed Wings and was busting the charts. We sometimes wondered if John ever worried about this, ever worried that he might not be No.1 again, or something like that. My friends and I figured that he had to be worried about that – nobody with his kind of success could not be.

We would try and spot this famous recluse, try and see if we knew where his favourite bodega might be; where he might go to buy records. Did he take baby Sean to nearby Central Park? What the hell was he doing? How could anybody stay locked down like that and do anything worthwhile? Learn anything new?

I have been thinking about John and that period of isolation and creativity – and our own current circumstances – after recently reading a piece by a writer who interviewed him in those days.

“The air is cleared and I’m cleared,” he says to the writer, in his studio. He wanted to get away from “supposed to…” – “supposed to” have an album out; “supposed to” be on tour; “supposed to…

So Yoko had sent him away on a round the world trip and he realised, in a Hong Kong hotel room, that he had not been on his own since he was 20 years old. He just did not know how to do things like call for room service. His life had been controlled; shaped; built. Now he was remaking it.

Lennon came to see that there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. That maybe you can discover new stuff when you are alone. Discover what you need to find.
What I needed to find – living in isolation – was some of my own compassion.

In Soho, in London, where I live, social distancing and masking-up is pretty foreign. There are a lot of young people around and I guess that they must feel immune or something. Maybe they have no parents, nor grandparents, nor people around them with co-morbidities. Maybe they live in some space where there were just millennials and if they got infected, then it was no big deal.

And then one day, instead of being  pissed off, I watched them. I realised that, in a way, nature itself keeps them locked together. Nature makes them stay in each other’s faces, to long for a drink after work. It is nature. And it is natural. They are humans at the peak of their fertility. They are advancing the species.

his thing that they are enduring, too, must be frightening. The loss of contact and mates. Validation. They are educating me. And giving me a little compassion.

In my quest to understand, or maybe it is a quest to remember, I found some brilliant millennials on Twitter to help. These people are telling me what this crazy era looks like to them; what it is like for people who are isolated at a point in their lives where they have not yet had enough life to deal with it.

There is Blaire Erskine (@blairerksine) who pretends to be a “MAGA Teen”: “I think that Trump is a cool guy/I had to say that because my parents are nearby.” Rapping in a soft Southern accent, in this persona she tells about how she can’t go to school because her parents won’t allow her to get vaccinated.

There is Kylie Brakeman (@deadeyebrakeman), who talks about the Twitter DMs from middle aged guys to young women. Hilarious and appalling at once, I sometimes find myself spending time in her world, laughing at her precision and raging at the same time at what young women must have to put up with now.

And Jeff Wright (@JeffRightNoww), who is to some extent BLM’s next level. Jeff dialogues with an alien who looks just like him, but with a few adjustments. This guy has taught me more about the pressures that young African American men – young black men anywhere – are under now. His Twitter account is funny; horrible, weird and poignant. Now this stuff may be offensive to some; none of it is ‘correct’, so this is a warning. But like Blaire and Kylie, Jeff is asking me what the hell is going on and why.

Four decades ago, I would wait with my friends at the arched entrance to the Dakota, hoping to catch John, hoping that he would give us some answers about the world we lived in, the world that he helped make. Hoping that maybe his isolation with Yoko and Sean would give us some gift of knowledge.

I think that you have to find out what this isolation, this lockdown, means for you. On your own. By yourself. 

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