December 2020

Now is the passage which leads to a new year, it is a blessed time of rest, and not a little indulgence. The earth sleeps. Midwinter. We look forward to a new beginning.

The signs are there already. The dawn is no longer silent. We go out, torch in hand, into the dark and cold, with Venus bright ahead in the south east if we are lucky. The owls are busy hunting, their eerie calls the first sound that greets us. On the Common we see the barn owl gliding low, pale and ghostly. Then the squawk and whirr of a pheasant disturbed; a blackbird’s call of alarm as we pass by. Light comes late and slowly, and now there is a constant twittering of small birds in the hedges. They know the year is turning. In the garden the spring bulbs have already pushed their green tips through the earth. Is it possible that light is seeping back?

Signs of hope. Never were they more needed.

Reader, many commentators are reminding us of the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.” The times are indeed so interesting, so darkly confused, so unlikely to yield certainties in this uncharted territory of pandemic, that any comment from me on them would be otiose.

However, in case some future archivist, fossicking through the internet offerings of 2020, chances upon these chronicles and requires some context, I will just say that December 2020 was the month when the pandemic just got a whole lot worse: a new strain (B117), virulent amongst the young particularly, has proved itself up to 70% more transmissible than its older cousin, the one which emerged a year ago and with which we were just beginning to feel familiar. It has hit us, with soaring rates of infection (as I write more than 53,000 in the past 24 hours), at a time when the United Kingdom is about to be dealt another ¬†grievous, but self-inflicted, wound: Brexit becomes a reality at 23h00 GMT on 31 December when the transition period ends. I weep bitter and angry tears of loss: the country I have called home for years, and whose literature, language and culture were more familiar to me than my own now regards me as an alien, a foreigner from a “third country.”

It could (just) be worse for there is a trade deal of sorts, but the wound comes from the limitations to our children’s future, to employment, to human rights, to freedom to work and travel, to security, to who we are in the eyes of the world, to our culture, to our heritage. And for what? For our “sovereignty” – which was never in question. We have become a small-minded island, inward-looking, xenophobic, mean, insular. Community always – always – trumps isolation.

I fear that lockdown and the Covid constraints of the highest level tier 4 produce an effect in microcosm on me – and doubtless on many others who live alone – similar to that of Brexit on our country. This year has taught me that community not isolation is essential if one is to be healthy, or ‘whole’ – a better word. Without this contact we are wounded, we do not flourish cut off and alone. For some this may be a mortal wound. Soon, I fear, going out ‘normally’ will be so abnormal that it will appear frightening for many; we shall have to learn again how to be social, how to behave without fear of infection, how to be in the company of others.

I find my Book of Common Prayer (1662) and look for the prayer “In the time of any common Plague or Sickness” (did they know how much worse it would be three years later?):

O Almighty God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of King David, didst slay threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest; Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We have already surpassed the three score and ten thousand deaths.

Of course most of us no longer believe that sickness is some sort of divine retribution visited upon mankind for sin (though I have met some loony Evangelicals who do), but we do know it is a consequence of our actions. Until we respect nature, no longer destroy the habitat of wildlife and cease to eat wild species, we shall continue to see these zoonoses develop, and some will be deadly. I fear this plague year will have taught us little.

Added to this grim picture here in East Anglia there have been serious floods. All along the river Waveney, which forms the border between Norfolk and Suffolk, unprecedented water levels have been recorded. The Shotford bridge on the road to Harleston (just in South Norfolk) was closed for fear of collapse as the river rose over it. I have never known that in the decades I have lived here. A friend at Bungay was evacuated from her home on Christmas Eve. Driving down to Fressingfield early that morning I was flagged down by a walker, warning me I should not get through the 300m-long flood where the beck had broken its banks.

On all counts I am among the lucky ones, truly blessed in that I can stay safe and warm in my home, with the company of a dog who keeps me laughing and an aged cat whose dementia drives me to distraction. Little need to go out except in my daily attempts to tire the dog, and I shall now start to consume the contents of my bulging “no-deal-Brexit” box, assembled over long months of apprehension. I am sitting pretty but alone, sovereign but solitary in my kingdom.

And so in these down days between Christmas and New Year, this liminal time of waiting while the earth sleeps in the depths and darkness of midwinter, I adopt my ‘normal’ practice and celebrate the feast. I do no work other than the necessary tasks of winter – carting logs, sweeping leaves, a bit of tidying up. We go for long walks, and although I think it wrong to drive in order to walk we go to the sea, the heath and the forest for a change of scene, to breathe different air, and to avoid…the mud.

The mud! Reader, I fully understand that sometimes I see my glass of blessings as half empty (a Facebook ‘friend’ chirpily reprimanded me recently), and I furthermore am conscious of the fact that any mud encountered on Suffolk walks is as nothing as compared to that of the trenches 1914-18. However, it begins to get one down. It comes in differing varieties: there is the liquid mud as slippery as ice, where keeping one’s balance requires intense concentration and a strain on the knees and ankles; there is the deep glutinous mud which sucks at the boots, holding them fast, dragging them from the feet, often leaving them behind, necessitating a filthy hobble back to retrieve the one which has disappeared into the morass. There is the claggy mud of a ploughed field where the farmer has not reinstated the footpath, and which results in a kilo or two of weight dragged on each foot. And then there is just…mud…acres and acres of it, churned by the passage of many feet, paws and hooves. I put the dog in the shower. She is not impressed.

Reader, what can be said that has not been said? We must let the past, and in particular this year with its losses, its bereavements, its sickness and strangeness, go.

I apologise that I have really nothing of value to say, other than to wish you a happy, safe and healthy new year. The road goes on.