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Diary: Catherine Fox

18 September 2020


Door and order

I REALISED a few weeks ago that, at some level, I cherish the belief that if I could only sort out my cutlery drawer, the global pandemic would cease. A weird spring-cleaning and storage-solution urge seems to have seized me. Household chores normally hold no charm, but the other day I actually caught myself wondering how to get my glass oven door clean.

To my knowledge, I’ve never wondered that in my life before. Oven cleaning is something you do when you’re moving house, because you don’t want the person moving in after you to think you’re the kind of person who never cleans their oven. That’s infinitely worse than actually being that person. Shame is a great motivator when it comes to dirty cookers.

I’m not moving house, however. This is why I put these bizarre domestic urges down to the pandemic. Organise your cupboards — control the virus! Stay alert — clean your fridge tray! It’s as though we think that micro-solutions will trigger macro-solutions, if we all pitch in and do our bit.

Buoyed up by my oven-door triumph, I watched a YouTube video on how to clean an Aga (which we also have). It involves heatproof gloves, cream scourer, glass cleaner, and a scraper that looks a bit like a Stanley knife. Well, I like a new gadget as much as the next slob, so I ordered one. The right gadget might take all the effort out of the chores I never do.

While I was at it, I sent off for an electric pencil-sharpener. Sharpen your pencils — save lives! This was the happy coinciding of Covid-cleaning with new-term-stationery-fixation. Who can resist the September notion that we can conquer the world with an exquisitely sharp HB Staedtler pencil?

One of the highlights of my working-from-home day is the surge of excitement whenever a parcel arrives. Look! A surprise mystery gift to me from my earlier self! How thoughtful. Whatever can it be? Oh, yes, it’s my pencil sharpener. I turn it over and over. Well, that looks like the blade there, but how does it work? Where do the batteries go? It looks much flatter than the picture.

Wait — this is my Aga scraper. Phew. The gadget world clicks back into coherence, and all is well with my soul.


Slow burn

I AM aware that those of you who are not fortunate enough to own an Aga to scrape are perhaps unaware of its many advantages. Quite apart from cooking on it, you can use it to dry clothes, or turn a forgotten slice of quiche into an objet d’art crafted from pure carbon. I’m considering selling my range of Aga art on Etsy.

You’ve heard of petrification, where ordinary household things — boots and so forth — are turned to stone after being suspended in dripping caverns in Derbyshire? Aga art is reminiscent of that process. Yorkshire puddings, baked potatoes, bread rolls — they are all slowly and lovingly vulcanised in the top oven. Of course, you could achieve similar results in an ordinary cooker, but the chances are you’d smell burning, rush to open the oven door, and ruin the artwork by taking it out too soon.


Name and shame

ONE of the other excitements of life during a pandemic is masks. When to wear them, how to wear them: it’s all so thrilling. You sometimes see people with their noses sticking out over their mask top. It’s important to remember that, although masks are mandatory on public transport and in shops, some people have hidden conditions, and are exempt from covering their nose as well as their mouth. They might, for example, be pillocks.

Alternatively, they might be mouth-breathers who never actually use their noses for respiratory purposes. We mustn’t be too quick to judge. Show a bit of empathy, people. It must be hard enough being a pillock, without people calling attention to it in public.

It’s become increasingly hard to keep track of all the rapidly changing regulations. Full lockdown was more straightforward. I was surprised to discover that it was only after 14 September that pubs and restaurants must take your contact details. I thought that that had been the case since pubs reopened, back on Super Saturday. It turns out that this was not mandatory. This means I will need to go back to a couple of cafés and formally withdraw my tut and glare.

Half the time, we’re watching everyone else to work out what we’re supposed to be doing. Judging from careful observation on a rare trip to Manchester last week, you are exempt from masks in takeaway queues if you are wearing either a hard hat or a lanyard. If you are wearing both — well, you’re probably still allowed to cough into your sleeve, like we all did back in March.


Rhetorical question

I ADMIT, there is a gruesome satisfaction in Aga fat-scraping, just as there is in finally managing to restore a dingy grey shower tray to sparkling whiteness. (Equal parts vinegar and washing-up liquid. Paint it on, go away and have a cocktail, come back and wipe clean. You’re welcome.)

But this is not a real and lasting satisfaction. Like the worldling’s treasure, it’s fading. Solid joys and lasting pleasure, none but Zion’s children know. How do they know it? Through prayer. Through Jesus.

This is the kind of “right answer” I have known to give ever since Sunday school. When in doubt, the answer is probably “Jesus”. That was certainly my younger son’s assumption, aged three, when asked who taught him the phrase “You silly bugger”.

But prayer is the answer. Jesus is the answer. Even when we don’t know what the question is other than one despairing howl of “Why? How long?”

Prayer during this pandemic has sometimes felt like a matter of trying to stop the frenzied pursuit of life hacks, and sitting still long enough to hear the words “Do you know that I love you?”


Catherine Fox is an author, senior lecturer, and academic director of the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University. She is blogging her new Lindchester novel at lindfordtales.blogspot.com.

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