MUCH has changed since I last wrote for this Diary slot: I believe it was St Valentine’s Day (Diary, 14 February). That’s actually four years ago in Covid-19 years. Well, here we are again, fatter and hairier than we were pre-lockdown. All well and good for those of you who haven’t got a high-maintenance gamine crop, or who never have to appear on a video-conferencing call. You can experiment with a John the Baptist look. Alas for me that I favour a “fade” haircut.
You can picture the excitement here in Bishopscroft when the long-awaited hair clippers were finally delivered. I’d got their arrival in the same theological category as the Parousia: always imminent, but never actually occurring.
At some stage, we will set up our home-barbering station. What a trip down memory lane that will be. Flashbacks to those absent-minded maternal moments when I forgot to put the guard on, la la la, something that could happen to anyone. I can still hear a stern nine-year-old voice asking, “Mum, are you balding me?” “No, no, everything’s fine. We’ll just tell people you’ve had brain surgery.”
I WAS unwise enough to tweet the advent of the clippers. I was immediately spammed with advice from people telling me to be very careful, and check out the YouTube guides first.
“How interesting”, I thought. That’s a polite euphemism, by the way: it has a similar semantic range to my mother’s “I was faintly amused,” which she uses where other people might say “I was spitting tacks.” How interesting to note this reaction in myself. I was fully intending to check out YouTube, but now I find myself thinking “Why don’t you check out the helpful YouTube tutorials on ‘How To Fry Your Face’?”
Once, when I was about 15, my father told me that I would know that I had finally grown up when I did what I wanted to do, in spite of other people telling me to do it. This struck me as very wise. It was years before it occurred to me to ask whether, by his own definition, he was grown up yet.
I am by no means the most contrary person in the world. That title goes to a friend of mine. I once overheard someone say to her “The problem with you is that you’re counter-suggestible.” She replied, “I’m bloody not!”
I HAVE a theory that lockdown isn’t changing us so much as laying our personalities bare. It’s flipped us back to factory settings. Eeyores moan, Pollyannas play the glad game, nurturers go into nurturing overdrive. Hence all this sourdough caper.
I went through my sourdough phase back in 2012, when we moved to a grand historic house on Lichfield Cathedral Close. It had a walled garden and fruit trees, and about 14 pantries. The whole ambience demanded home-made everything. What an idyllic time — well, in the summer months, at any rate. The instinct to wear my coat indoors and forage in skips for firewood is still hard-wired.
I’m glad I got sourdough bread out of my system when it was safe to do so. Dentally speaking, this is a lunatic time to risk cracking your teeth on a concrete crust. Stick to sliced white. Ask any dentist and they’ll tell you that posh bread is the usual suspect when it comes to emergency repair work.
That’s worth knowing if you wreck a tooth binge-eating Bombay mix and Thornton’s Special Toffee. Just mumble “Sourdough?” and shrug helplessly. If this wise advice comes a bit too late, you can always buy emergency fillings online.
MY DEFAULT setting in a crisis seems to be a combination of sitting on a bench crying, and writing novels. After the experience of trying to blog a novel in weekly instalments during 2016, I vowed never to visit Lindchester again. But, after a lay-off, I sensed that I wasn’t quite finished with those characters and their storylines.
Last December, some impulse made me light upon 2020 as a good year to pick up the reins of fiction again. I mean, how bad could it get? The plan was to release the story as series of podcasts, but I haven’t got round to that yet.
The novelist Milan Kundera brilliantly defined the novel as “a meditation on existence, seen through imaginary characters. The form is unlimited freedom.” I keep coming back to that when I panic that Tales from Lindford doesn’t have a conventional plot. It’s an extended meditation on existence during the pandemic, seen through my cast of C of E characters. It helps me to process what I’m thinking and feeling, and find some consolation. You can find it here: lindfordtales.blogspot.com.
The podcast will follow later in the year, and the “proper novel” will be published in 2021.
Prayer of despair
HOW should we pray during lockdown? Oh, the subconscious! Its rivers teem with piranha shoals of shoulds and oughts. How would we know what we should do? We’ve never been here before. Better to ask: How would I like to pray? Or, perhaps, is there a way in which it still feels possible to pray on this particular day?
As I said, I find that sitting on a bench crying is a pretty good kind of prayer. There have been times in the past when I’ve wished that the special ministry of bursting into tears had been bestowed on someone else, but it seems to hit the spot in a pandemic.
How to pray for public figures we loathe and despise, though? That’s a stumper. Here’s what I’ve come up with. I adapt an old worship song: “All the riches of your grace, All the fullness of your blessing, All the sweetness of your love, You give to me — please give to X.” You might find yourself thinking of a particular X who doesn’t deserve any of that. I agree. But then, nor do I.
Catherine Fox is an author, senior lecturer, and Academic Director of the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.