Yesterday, I felt too miserable to write. Everything was supposed to be better. Everything was supposed to be sorted out. All the questions were supposed to be answered. We Britons were supposed to, in the words adored by the political class, move on.
And everything just got worse.
There was shouting. The Twitter pile-on started, which always makes me uncomfortable. Tribalism reared its ugly head. Everyone seemed to be more furious and upset than ever.
I plunged into a deep gloom. I’m still not entirely sure why. I live five hundred miles north from all the drama and it’s very peaceful here and Scotland is definitely another country just now, with different rules. (We are still comprehensively locked down, so there are no complicated decisions to make.)
I slept and slept and slept, that kind of sleep that you need after a death. And then I woke and castigated myself for being a drama queen. I rang a sensible friend. ‘I know this is not all about me…’ I said. Before I could finish, she started roaring with laughter. ‘Of course it’s all about you,’ she said, stuttering with merriment. Then I laughed too, at my own absurdity. And I felt human again, and reconnected to the sane world.
Now I’m in the still of the evening and the storm has passed, I can sort of see why these last turbulent days have been so upsetting. It’s the thing I’ve been writing about since the lockdown started. It’s the John Donne deal. It’s that no man is an island, and no woman either; I send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for me. Every death diminishes me, because I am part of mankind.
So when so many people are so authentically hurt, I can’t wall myself off from that. It’s not even a question of what was right or wrong, what rule was bent or broken or obeyed; it was how it felt, and how it appeared. The people writing to their MPs or emailing the BBC or tweeting their dismay were not embittered Remainers, finally getting their own back, or furious Corbinistas, having a tribal whack. They really were the non-ironic version of the Ordinary Decent Briton.
Their decency and sacrifices were finally acknowledged, but it came too late. It felt like lip service or damage limitation. The HMS Authenticity had sailed, putting out to sea with a contemptuous toot of her horn. And people minded.
I’d love to say that I did understand, last night, that it was not all about me, but of course I didn’t. I broke open the bitter vermouth and had a little pity party. Sixty-four damn days alone in a silent house, with not a regulation even slightly bent. I felt idiotic for having been such a goody-two-shoes. How the mavericks must be laughing at my bourgeois ways.
I could not get out of this feeling of sadness and folly. Then a friend started messaging, and another joined in. The first friend is going through one of those crushing life events that would leave a less resilient person entirely annihilated. It’s one of those things that you don’t have words for. She’s on the other side of the world, so I could not give her a hug even if I were to get in the car and find the correct regulation loophole.
My fingers faltered over the keyboard. ‘Wish I could do something for you,’ I wrote, pathetically. ‘Sending so much love.’ But then the other friend, who is a wise woman and a person of the land – she farms sheep and she lives in the valleys and there is no nonsense about her – fell to swearing and gallows humour. I work with wounded veterans, so the one thing I know is gallows humour. And before you know it the three of us were cussing like fishwives, railing at fate, effing and blinding and putting all the stupid, ghastly unfairness of life in CAPITAL LETTERS. WITH EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!
Special advisers felt very far away in the face of real human agony. My heart breaks for the grief of my distant friend, but it was oddly cathartic to be with her, in type and in spirit and in cussing.
And then today dawned and I spent the day deep in work. I wrote twelve hundred words on the mysteries of the great sentence, for the writing group I run. If you are a prose wonk like me, that is one of the most soothing things you can ever do. I talked for an hour to a young friend about the second wave of feminism. (More wonk heaven.) I did my HorseBack work.
The world shimmered outside the window, green with spring growth, alive with sunshine. The vet came, to do the horses’ teeth. This might sound like the most let them eat cake kind of non-essential work, but in fact it is vital, because untended teeth grow long and sharp and cut at the inside of the tender equine cheeks.
I had an actual human being standing in front of me, at a distance of only twelve feet! I almost fell over with happiness. Even the mares seemed delighted to see him, despite the fact he was going to stick a socking great drill in their sweet mouths. We talked and talked, as if we were the last people on earth.
And then I got my dear stepfather on the video and took him for a tour of the apple trees so he could see the blossom. He, too, is confined alone, and he misses my mum. The apple trees are the least I can do.
‘What do you think about all this?’ he said. ‘I really do find the whole thing most peculiar.’
I’d been miserable and raging but the use of the word ‘peculiar’ somehow took the sting out. The old school can do that. They’ve seen so much in their long lives.
Then I actually went to the actual shop and bought some smoked haddock and made it into a ridiculously delicious soup with celery and saffron and mascarpone. (My young friend had been talking about privilege this morning. I am acutely aware of mine. I decided I might as well bloody exploit it, so fancy pants soup it was, in my mother’s proper china.)
Restored, I finally dared take a peek at Twitter. And what was so lovely was that the shouting had stopped. The fury had been expressed, and the British were doing what they do best, which is making jokes. The humour had the last fumes of crossness in it, and some of it was pointed and close to the bone, but it was properly funny. It was wry and ironic and clever.
Those are my people, I thought, a great roll of relief running over me. I sometimes think that it is the great British talent – to find something to laugh at when things seem at their most bleak. I’ve been reading a book about the Second World Way to try and summon my Blitz spirit, and there were a lot of jokes then. After Dunkirk, after France fell, when dear old Blighty stood alone, as naked as King Lear in a thunderstorm, some wag wrote, ‘We’re in the final! And this time, it’s being played on home ground.’ This referred to the fact that everyone truly believed that invasion was imminent and people were on the watch for German parachutists dressed as nuns. (I never really got the nuns thing, but apparently it was a thing.)
The stepfather’s father fought at Dunkirk. I’ve seen his medals. That generation got through horrors my generation cannot imagine. Of course I can take a few weeks in a silent room. And anyway, it’s not silent. I’ve got Van the Man on the stereo. He’s singing, ‘When that foghorn blows, you know I will be coming home.’ Van has been with me through every heartbreak of my life. And he does not desert me now.