ON MY study wall, there are photos of my maternal grandparents. I’ve just been staring at them and thinking that they couldn’t possibly have imagined the past year. Then I realised that they’d have been much better placed than I was, a year ago, to grasp what it takes to live through a pandemic. Spanish flu and its aftermath must have shaped their childhood. Back then, quarantine and fear of infection were all part of the normal vocabulary when it came to illness.
If you, like me, have whiled away stretches of lockdown by re-reading early-20th-century Angela Brazil school stories, you will already know all this. You will be aware of the sheer number of girls who ended up having ripping adventures in the hols at friends’ houses, when they couldn’t go home because a younger sibling had measles. If it weren’t for the strict quarantine regulations a century ago, a great deal of Anglo-Saxon treasure, and secret passageways, would still languish undiscovered.
Species of confusion
MORE than a year since the start of the first national lockdown, we’re still struggling to comprehend and process what’s happened to us. It’s as if the past 12 months have been happening in an alternative reality — or perhaps not at all.
I was remarking on this in a Teams meeting at the end of last term. One colleague agreed, and confided that she’d been having a warthog day; that, indeed, it had been a warthog year. We pondered this. I stared at my screen, and a mosaic of perplexed faces stared back. “Do you mean groundhog?” I asked eventually.
Yes, yes, of course she meant groundhog! We all laughed. Brain fuzz. All part of daily life on Planet Pandemic.
SINCE then, I’ve found myself pondering the merits of having a warthog day. I know very little about warthogs. The last time I allowed my curiosity about God’s creatures to get the better of me, I ended up with a broken toe.
That was a woodlouse-related injury. First thing one morning, I caught sight of something creeping along the edge of the bedroom carpet. Being extremely short-sighted and not yet having my contact lenses in, I got down on all fours and peered very closely. Yes, a woodlouse. As I got back up, I somehow bent a toe and fractured it.
I recognised the sensation immediately from my days of mistimed foot sweeps on the judo mat. If I’d been a heroine from an Angela Brazil book, I would have hopped about clutching my foot and yelping “Hello, what grisly luck! Hold me up, there’s a duck. I feel fearfully rocky!”
Back in the day, headmistresses used to gather up contraband Angela Brazil books and burn them on account of this kind of dreadful slang. I’m happy to say I didn’t indulge in it on this occasion. No, I am a bishop’s wife; so I merely said “Ow.”
This may surprise you. But think: Shakespeare didn’t find it necessary to use swear words. It’s a sign of a small vocabulary. As a Christian, you can always a find another way of expressing yourself. I will always be grateful to the people who have taken the trouble to point this out to me, either via Amazon reviews or in person, by handbagging me as I sign books after an event.
PERHAPS a warthog day would be one of those shockers when you find yourself giving way to a very narrow vocabulary indeed (I’m convinced they do more than just prance about the savannah singing “Hakuna matata”). It emerges that the common warthog is “a wild member of the pig family”.
Well, we can probably all call to mind wild members of the church family. Natural habitat: Twitter. Metaphorical tusks bristling from their mouths, which (as Wikipedia notes) are not used for digging, but “for combat with other hogs”. Yes, it’s been a bit of a warthog year on social media, all right. Yet, despite the double tusks, the warthog’s primary defence is “to flee by means of fast sprinting” (and renouncing Twitter doom-scrolling for ever).
Fight-or-flight: our body’s brilliant survival mechanism. When a threat occurs, it kicks in without hanging about to get clearance from the cerebral cortex. I recently watched footage of a prankster dressed as a shrub going “Boo!” at passers-by. They all, without fail, leapt aside with a scream. A second later, they’d processed it — idiot covered in foliage, not a threat — and they clapped a hand to their heart and laughed.
For more than a year, the world has been navigating a sustained threat in the form of Covid-19. Even the rolling out of the vaccine hasn’t yet brought us to that moment of laughing with relief. Small wonder we’ve been giving way to outbursts of tuskiness and warthoggery.
Air sea rescue
IN THE past year, I’ve found myself plunging down storm drains of terrifying anxiety, in which introspection and prayer time only seem to make things worse. Probably that’s normal. If you’re walking on water in a storm, you’re bound to sink, because the task is humanly impossible. All we can do is scream over the wind and waves “Save me, Lord!”
Save, Lord. Sometimes, hosanna is a mere gasp away from drowning. But blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, always reaching out to haul us up into resurrection life.
Catherine Fox is an author, senior lecturer, and academic director of the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her husband is the Bishop of Sheffield.