Lockdown Land

24 May 2020

by Guy de la Bédoyère

Before we can undo Lockdown Land we must try to understand why it has proved so appealing to so many people.

I’ve done a number of jobs over the last 40 years, but by far and away the most full-on was retraining as a secondary school teacher at the age of 49. In some ways it was a superb experience, but in other ways it was a nightmare. The job was never done – there was always something else. Whatever one did it was never quite good enough. Targets were replaced by new targets. In short, it was like trying to climb up a glass cliff with melted butter in my hands.

In the event I lasted nine years, but for much of that time I was acutely conscious that had anything happened – like an accident – to take me out of work for several weeks or months, I’d almost certainly never be able to climb back on the travellator and resume my duties.

That was a job in education, but it could be matched by so many other jobs where the sheer momentum is what keeps it going: from the commuting, right down to worrying at the weekends, the relentless and merciless pressure of performance management and the status that becomes tied up one with one’s persona. The ceaseless frenzy becomes an end in itself and people become lost within it.

Many years before, I worked at the BBC. I was only 26 when I witnessed a decisive moment. A manager whom everyone feared and who ruled the place retired. We were all invited to pop in one morning for a drink and snacks to say goodbye. Her office had one large desk and three smaller ones for her underlings. She went at lunchtime. That afternoon I went back for some admin reason. Her desk had gone and the other three had been rearranged in such a way it was impossible to see how there had ever been room for hers. Her irrelevance had been instantaneous. I was transfixed by this and decided then that I would never seek or bother with promotion in the workplace. I have, I am happy to say, been very successful in that endeavour.

As it happens, I left teaching of my own accord in 2016 to resume freelance writing and lecturing on a part-time basis to lead into retirement. It was a fascinating experience to walk out that midsummer morning. All the responsibility and even relevance evaporated in a trice.

And that’s pretty much what happened to most of Britain in late March 2020. In a development no-one in SAGE or the government anticipated, large numbers of Britons were led into a delusional world of premature retirement. The spell was broken. The bubble burst. Status at work dissipated. No more clean shirts on Sunday night. People have discovered that the roof didn’t fall in when they were no longer at work, thrashing themselves to be indispensable.

Every dynamic of the workplaces was changed. The sheer force of habit was disrupted and everyone was led inadvertently through a door into what Fate decreed would be an unnaturally early summer that has seemed like one from childhood. A headteacher friend of mine says it has already become clear that some of his staff have enjoyed the lockdown so much they will undoubtedly struggle to go back to work in any capacity, let alone having to adapt all their working practices to the so-called “new normal”.

This is easy to understand when it involves people who have flogged through years or decades of work, but the other day I heard from one of my ex-students. She bust a gut through school and university to become a lawyer. She’s about 23 now, and like so many other people she’s been working at home in her job in corporate law. The experience has galled her. Stripped bare of what she called the glamour of working in a team and going to a busy office she has seen her job for what it is: a Dickensian drudge of Jarndyce and Jarndyce paperwork. This girl is a grafter and a person of real determination, but she has already come to the conclusion this is not something she can possibly do for the rest of her life. She might well have come to that conclusion anyway, but it has come a whole lot faster.

While I am on students, let’s not forget that, for children, school is their working world. It’s stressful for them too, just as much as it is for the teachers and indeed probably for some a great deal worse. I came to realise as a teacher myself that plenty of teenagers – especially – find the deadlines, the noise, the pressure, and the relentless preoccupation with the barbarities of social media to be a seriously debilitating experience, emotionally and mentally. For hundreds of thousands of them I’ll bet the last few weeks have included a profound sense of relief to be away from school. For some, even the journey to school by bus or the walk down the road to or from the school is traumatic.

The parents no longer have to struggle with turfing them out of bed, sorting out breakfast, making sure they have everything they need – and all with an eye on the clock. The same parents no longer have to experience the onslaught of exhausted and hungry offspring piling back in the late afternoon. And there are plenty of parents who hate the effect school has on their children.

Therefore, I’m not one tiny bit surprised that so many people think that Lockdown Land is a nicer place to be. For a start it never rains. Well, hardly ever. There are no heaving commutes to work on nightmare trains. For the victims of Southern Rail the last few weeks must feel like Paradise Lost has become Paradise Regained. No more getting up at the crack of dawn, the last few hours of sleep a fevered agitation in advance of hurling oneself out of bed.

For those lucky enough to have a decent house and garden, their loved ones mostly in residence as well as being furloughed, the Land of Might-Have-Been has turned out, at least for the moment, to be the Land That Actually Is and “far more mercifully planned” than the one they know.1“The Land of Might-Have-Been”, Ivor Novello (1924). “Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” said T.S. Eliot, and he was right. It’s why Lockdown Land has proved so dangerously beguiling.2Burnt Norton (1936).

Even better, in a remarkable and unexpected nod to Ancient Rome, the Annona has been revived. The Annona was the Corn Dole. Not every citizen of Rome was entitled to it but a very large number were, and the effect was that about half the huge city’s population depended on it. What this meant was that all you had to do was loaf around in Rome and occasionally go and get your handout of free food. And if the Roman government failed to deliver then there was hell to pay, even if it wasn’t the government’s fault that storms or pirates had compromised the shipments: riots erupted when the crowd got hungry. The emperor Claudius was confronted by an enraged mob when only a few days’ supplies were left. His solution was to “ramp up” the administrative and harbour arrangements to ensure an improved supply. It was politically impossible to run the scheme down – another ominous portent that goes alongside the rent and mortgage holidays.

And now, having done all that, our beastly government is trying to get people back to work. It’s an absolute swiz but luckily it comes with a trump card, and everyone has one. Since the government reliably assured the population of Britain that to step out of the front door would either mean dying oneself, or causing someone else to die, or both, then there’s a spectacularly good reason to continue to stay at home.

Of course there is also a terrible side to all this. The Ruin of Britain is staring us in the face. The money will run out soon. Not only that, but also Winter is Coming. It’s easy to forget that we are less than a month from the summer solstice. Then it’s all downhill to the dark cold months when not having a job, or any income, or any security, will sit uncomfortably alongside all the normal physical ailments of the northern hemisphere. Hundreds of thousands of people and their families will be confronted by genuine destitution, deprived of the ability to earn their modest livings in zero-hours contracts or with their vulnerable businesses. Right now, many of them cannot afford food. In five months’ time they’ll be struggling to pay fuel bills, too.

None of this was thought about by the government or its advisers – or if it was, they reacted like Scarlett O’Hara who always said she’d “think about that tomorrow”. No-one ever considered the possibility that, by throwing a switch, so much could change in a population’s psyche, and so quickly. We are of course stuck between a rock and a hard place. The virus is a fact of life now, but so and always was our need to earn our living. The Earth owes us nothing.

What matters in life is not what goes well, but what goes wrong and how we deal with it. So far we have not dealt with this particularly effectively. We have replaced one problem with another and a far bigger one at that, like burning a house down to deal with a water leak. If we are to solve this new self-inflicted problem then the government’s responsibility now – and it is all our responsibility – is to move as fast as possible to rid this country of its new-normal mindset that hiding behind the front door is the path to our salvation. We are living in an entirely false state at the moment, like inhabiting the basket beneath a hot air balloon with the fuel about to run out but obliviously continuing to enjoy the ride.

Not long before the virus crisis took hold my three-year-old granddaughter was supposed to be going out for a walk. “I’m not ready,” she said. It soon transpired that this was not a statement about not having her coat or shoes on but a more metaphysical observation of her state of mind. “I’m not ready” meant she was not disposed to going out at all. Ever. She would therefore never be ready.

I am reminded of that every time I hear someone saying “I’m not going back to work until I feel safe”, or “I’m not sending my child back to school until it is safe to do so”. Such sentiments are conveniently couched in rational terms, but in reality they cloak an emotional reluctance ever to return. Right now they represent this country’s biggest obstacle to recovery. The world has changed and we can never go back to where we were, but whatever we do we have to face up to the realities to which Lockdown Land has closed so many people’s eyes and not hide beneath the bedclothes where we might suffocate instead.

There is much good luck in the world, but it is luck.
We are none of us safe.

C.S. Forster, The Longest Journey (1907).
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