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What I’ve learnt from the year of lockdowns

The normally bustling area around the Bank of England during England's second lockdown - Credit: Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Playwright BONNIE GREER on what she is learning about herself, and society, from the year of lockdowns

On a recent appearance on Question Time, I mentioned that my husband and I had not been together since he decided to check in on his place in France at the end of February. The lockdown came soon after that, and we thought it best he stayed there because our West End London place is small and his ability to have his evening pint would be curtailed.

In the back of our minds, we thought that this situation would last a month or so. But it has not and he is still there and it is becoming a kind of life. I have had to upgrade my tech and learn Zoom and Teams and a whole new way of work, so that I can keep my connection with the person I had previously not been separated from for more than 20 years.

At one point, earlier in the pandemic, a strange pain developed in my left hip joint, so excruciating that I could barely walk. I couldn’t exercise properly but worst of all I couldn’t box. Correction: I could not do boxing training. I just hobbled to the shops and came home quickly.

Through my pain and inability to walk, I suddenly saw the world of older people. I became one, too, and there was something strangely comforting about it. Doors were opened; people opened up cash registers to check out your food items instead of insisting that you go to the dreaded automatic checkout. Younger people were kinder.

In my new existence, I found myself looking at young people with a mixture of pity and rage because most did not wear masks or social distance. In my neighbourhood there are loads of pubs, bars, coffee shops where the young met, carefree as if nothing was going on. I gave them a wide berth as I hobbled along, but in my mind I was carrying a placard with an imagined masked Ariana Grande on it – or anyone else who might catch their eye.

In my new life I was coping, which I saw as a kind of triumph. I was mindful and thankful of the fact that we are lucky because my husband has someplace else to live and therefore we avoid the risk of infecting each other.

But you can be as charitable as you want, the fact of the matter is that we all live inside ourselves and proceed out from there. And the virus was slowly becoming an entity. A Thing.

I decided to dismantle our apartment and throw stuff out and take the opportunity of being alone to do that. Nine months later looks like the first day that I started. 

I tried to investigate the joint pain, but nothing helped, so I made up my mind to re-train my boxing self online. Boxing is a sport whose sole purpose is to stop your opponent. You can look as beautiful and graceful as you like but this stopping the person you’re facing is No. 1.

Therefore it is not a nice sport to admit to. While others talk about football, rugby, tennis, etc, how can you announce that you like Mike Tyson? That you are happy that he is returning to the ring for an old timers’ battle?  Because Mike Tyson did time, he is no role model. It is awful to like him.

Yet new in my new lockdown life, I tried to understand why I do like him – what story about myself was he telling me?  My trainer – wherever he is now – was pleased when I told him that I liked Iron Mike. He explained that he was a short guy who walked right into the fight and was not afraid to take a punch.

I could understand this, understand that being ‘a short guy’, I too, had to learn to take a punch, learn to walk into a fight. Born and raised on the Southside of Chicago, I am streetwise, which means you are always prepared for trouble no matter what. I once held off a strong guy by simply not running away from him. I ran toward him. That unsettled him because he didn’t know what I had up my sleeve . His was an animal response and he got out of my way quickly.

Tyson walks into the punch, takes it, then does his work on you. That way  is a kind of revenge for him, I can see that now. The lockdown has made me see stuff like that, made me see stuff about myself.

So eventually my body got better and I started to see things a different way. I can see that young people are hard-wired to be together. Their’s is the most highly fertile time of the human cycle and nature puts them on display for the purpose of the continuation of the species. Now I understand; as I understand the Deliveroo guys whose rest stop is close by my place. I call it “Covid Corner”, but many of these men find a kind of solace with each other.  Human stuff.

I guess that I don’t understand why our leaders don’t understand that we need not only money but solace. Reassurance. Some shape to existence. Why don’t we have leaders who, like FDR during the Depression, came on radio at night to talk to people?  Maybe we don’t want a leader like that. Maybe we prefer to take them from the land of television, where Boris Johnson and Donald Trump came from. Because telly is real, somehow.

I like now that I can admit that this whole time is getting to me, while at the same time knowing my privilege. The virtual world is ok, but a screen is a screen. But it is now, too. Besides having a ‘meal’ with my husband every evening, I can see family and friends and colleagues. Yet not having a coffee with a friend becomes a kind of mourning. An exile.

Making the rounds of the internet at the moment is some brief film footage shot in Lyon in 1897 by the Lumière brothers, who are among the inventors of the movies. The clip is a colourised, cleaned-up 52 seconds of a snowball fight. That’s it. But it’s mesmerizing. Because I can see that those taking part in the snowball fight are no different from me; no different from us. They were human beings and I’m looking at them.

Some day others will look at us and this time and marvel, too, that we’re human beings. Just like them. This lockdown for me has unlocked some truths and it is still happening. Michelle Obama once said about the US presidency that it does not make you who you are. It reveals who you are. So does lockdown. 

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