We asked Catholic Herald friends and contributors what’s getting them through the lockdown
Fr Christopher Colven
Ministering in central London, I have been used to saying Mass several times a day and always with a fairly large congregation. It is a very strange experience to celebrate in an empty church. On Sundays, in common with many other parishes, we stream a Mass and the number of YouTube “hits” on Easter Day was around 3,000! Given that many of these hits involved families, it means that a result of the present lockdown, more people are “attending” Mass at Spanish Place than before.
Although there are many phone calls and emails, no one now comes to the presbytery door. This part of London is like a ghost town. I suppose what I am experiencing – along with all my brother priests – is the old slogan “it’s the Mass that matters”, which rings absolutely true. The Mass is the centre of each day, around which everything else revolves. May the church doors soon be open again so that the People of God can take their rightful place around the altar.
Man started out in a garden and it remains where we are most at home. In lockdown, a garden must be bliss. For those of us with an allotment the size of a kitchen table, it’s still possible to unleash your horticultural instincts. So for the last month, I’ve been growing runner beans in loo roll tubes (there has to be a use for them) and lettuce seeds in biscuit trays. Watching things germinate – easy-peasy with the runner beans, utterly futile in the case of the expensive pumpkin seeds – is compulsive. Some things sprout almost overnight at this time of year.
Watching them come up and seeing the differences between them is oddly fascinating. Adam was a gardener, and Christ appeared like a gardener after the Resurrection, so we’re in good company when we grow things. Seeds keep you sane.
Tip one for getting through the lockdown is to avoid all television news. It is execrable. One afternoon, I heard a journalist say “This virus is determined to divide us” – and I turned the telly off. It’s a virus, not Napoleon Bonaparte.
Secondly, I’ve had to learn to cook. Before the lockdown I ate out every day, and couldn’t boil an egg. Now I’m eating fresh vegetables and lots of steak and omelettes. I’m probably more in trim than ever. The only problem is that there’s no one around to appreciate it.
As for mental distraction, I am under contract to write a book – and you’d imagine that these would be the perfect circumstances for it. However, I wanted to travel for research, but now I can’t, and my mind is distracted by the cooking and the news I refuse to listen to. I am supplementing my book work by wading through Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, which is part of my growing appreciation for all things French. Last year, I discovered Montaigne and Chateaubriand; now I’m wallowing in the marvellous comedy of Combray. Given that Proust’s hero is a sickly shut-in who has only his memories for company, it’s the perfect book to read in a pandemic.
What’s getting me through lockdown is spring-cleaning parts of the house I didn’t know existed and patrolling rooms like a traffic warden armed with Flash spray, going squirt squirt squirt. I examine the result with a professional eye, and then address the target area with a damp cloth. I do one section a day (I just did the larder and found some Fray Bentos “Boozy” steak pies from 2011 which I am going to make my family eat for supper). Oh yes, I am also spending a lot of time Googling bidets or “shower toilets” online with the same drooling avidity that I used to read Ottolenghi cookbooks.
I’ve also stopped listening to The Archers which helps, since I’ve been trying to wean myself off my addiction for decades. Once Ambridge became the only village in England not to go into lockdown, I could not make the effort to suspend my disbelief any longer. It has released a whole 15 minutes of free time in an eternity of free time to do nothing in!
I’ve loved lockdown – but then I’ve had my key family in my metaphorical ark, I live in a beauty spot and it’s been good weather. We haven’t got enough food and so we’re thinner. It’s a different matter for my best friend, Jo, locked down in Balham, with no spleen and a diabetic husband. Her 28-year-old son walks from Brixton twice a week to bring supplies and sits in a plastic chair outside, chatting up to them at a window.
Meanwhile she’s reaped what she’s sown: all the neighbours she has been kind to over the years are now collecting her medicine and doing her shopping. It reminds her of the film It’s a Wonderful Life. She tells me that she loves Thursdays when the whole street claps for the NHS, and the thought that she is making Her Majesty the Queen happy by staying in lockdown.
And finally, the greatest sustainer of all in lockdown: no FOMO.
For the nine years I have lived in my London flat I have griped about not having a garden, “only” a fire escape. Only? Only!?! No André Le Nôtre, no Capability Brown, no Vita Sackville-West ever surveyed their parterres, their clumps, their roses with as much affection as I do my three-foot-wide strip of rusting metal. In these stifling weeks of top-floor lockdown that fire escape has become The Great Escape. In and out the bedroom window I go carrying teapots, literary supplements and whole roast chickens on Sundays. My husband Andy and I perch at a tiny folding table and chairs and admire our urban kingdom. When the sun shines we bake beneath the chimney pots, when the wind blows we snatch at napkins.
On Thursday nights at eight o’clock we bang saucepan lids and whoop the NHS. “What’s that?” Andy asks, looking at a silhouette against the sky. “A hawk? A kestrel? A kite?” That, I tell him, is a pigeon.
Fr Julian Large
A somewhat boisterous guest has proved to be a welcome diversion at the London Oratory. He is a Jack Russell terrier by the name of Cooper. A toddler (18 months old), he enjoys his exercise enormously, and his favourite pastime is hunting tennis balls in the shrubberies of the Oratory garden, so he’s able to entertain himself outdoors while the fathers are engaged in their priestly duties.
Cooper’s owner was visiting New York when the lockdown occurred, so he’s with us for the duration. Animals give us a wonderful insight into God’s creative genius – and Jack Russells in particular.
The office has been keeping me going. Every day, I’ve been bicycling from my Camden flat to the Oldie office in Fitzrovia. Occasionally I am joined, at social distance, by the Oldie’s terrific arts editor, John Bowling, and we have some soul-lifting chat.
Mostly, though, I’m on my own. Being in the office gives me the feel of normality – even though the surroundings are far from normal. The usually packed streets of central London are empty. A few forlorn, homeless people remain, plus a couple of shell-shocked local residents.
At times I feel like Jack Nicholson, the terrified caretaker overwintering in the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Otherwise, work and all the normal things associated with work – phone calls, admin, making sure the photocopier is working – keep me going.
Planning for the Other Side is keeping me going in lockdown. I have been researching the old way route taken by Chaucer’s travellers in The Canterbury Tales, ahead of our post-Covid Herald pilgrimage to Canterbury later this year to mark the 850th anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Becket.
I have also been helping spring clean our little Norman church of St Michael’s at home in Upton Cressett. I’ve swept out the winter bat droppings and picked wild primroses for the altar. The 12th-century church door is so ancient it has no lock or key, so we still get the occasional walker visitor. For more heavy-duty distraction, I have been chainsawing the dead trees in the medieval wood to create a new woodland trail to the church. There have been spring bonfires aplenty.
“Mustn’t grumble” as my Nannie used to say to me (before grumbling quite a lot). Even 80 years later, that seems to me quite a good message: first, remember those who are far, far worse off than you are before having your moan. Thus I imagine that St Elizabeth of Hungary observed with resignation non est querendum, when her husband caught her smuggling bread for the poor in her basket – only to find himself foiled since by a miracle: the forbidden bread had turned into roses.
At least St Elizabeth could put the flowers in water, and find another way to help the poor. Flowers are after all an enormous pleasure in lockdown, especially in this mockingly fabulous spring.
A classical scholar of my acquaintance suggested that after non est querendum came nunc est bibendum. And why not? Remembering others, enjoying the flowers, and sipping a glass of wine at the end of the day: this is a good way to get through lockdown.
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