I’m writing this post on the 23rd March 2021, the anniversary of the beginning of the first lockdown in the UK, and reflecting on the changes it made to my writing life.
In the beginning, we heard reports of a nasty virus that had hit the population of Wuhan. I’d never heard of Wuhan before but remember being horrified when I saw images of the sick being dragged from their homes by masked officials and chivvied along with batons when they resisted. Shocking, but Wuhan was a long way from here and we don’t eat birds, bats or pangolins so it wasn’t something we had to worry about in the UK.
Except that Coronavirus, as the mystery illness was called, liked to travel, and it came to visit Europe in January 2020. It was hard not to watch the news obsessively and images of the sick being carried away in ambulances began to disturb my writing process. Even then, if I’d been told that a year later, over 126,000 UK citizens would have died and countless others disabled by Long Covid, I’m not sure I’d have believed it.
I wasn’t too worried about the idea of staying at home during the first lockdown. After all, that’s how a writer works most of the time. I’m very fortunate to live in a spacious cottage surrounded by a garden and woods. I’d have my husband and dog for company and didn’t have to worry about home schooling small children while I was lost in my own little creative world. Since everyone was staying at home, I revelled in the complete absence of road noise and the birdsong was glorious.
What I hadn’t reckoned on was an extremely anxious husband who was convinced we’d die if we spoke to anyone or ventured into the supermarket. Fine. I decided to shop for groceries online. It was a huge time suck searching for a delivery slot, which had become rarer than rocking horse poo and I began to wonder how we’d manage. The worry of it sat like a vulture on my shoulder all the time. We lived out of the store cupboard for quite a while, then a younger neighbour kindly fetched us a bag of groceries. My son sent a marvellous present of a vegetable box and we re-ordered another when it was empty. We ate kale with everything. I ordered bread flour and made my own delicious sourdough. Mr B learned to eat lentils. Eventually, the supermarkets geared up for the massive increase in demand for deliveries and now it’s straightforward to order groceries online.
The general atmosphere of unease during lockdown definitely affected my writing. I’m self-disciplined and always show up at my desk at 9am and finish at 6pm but my head was full of brain fog and I found myself scrolling instead of writing. My concentration wasn’t helped by frequent interruptions from Mr B, who needed regular reassurance that we would, probably, survive. I’m usually an optimist but living with an anxious pessimist made me worried, too. Would I be able to finish and deliver my WIP to the publisher by the end of May? (I did.) Gardening, especially growing our own vegetables and walking the dog in the woods helped. There’s something very healing about immersing yourself in Nature.
Then the summer came and the lifting of lockdown. We made some cautious, masked, forays into the world, washing our hands when we returned home until the skin cracked.
My children organised a family garden party for my 70th birthday, which was wonderful, even though we couldn’t hug each other. In September we took a week’s self-catering holiday in Cornwall. Since my current trilogy is located in Cornwall, this visit refilled my empty creative well with the sights, smells and sounds of the Cornish coast and re-inspired my writing.
In October, a call came out of the blue offering me the opportunity of a long-awaited knee replacement operation. I grabbed the chance and consider myself extremely lucky to have slipped in under the wire before the November lockdown. After two days in hospital, I recuperated at home with regular physio sessions over Zoom.
Then we had The Christmas That Didn’t Happen. It was the right last minute decision but a hard one to make, not to see my children and grandchildren after all. Mr B and I sat in solitary festive splendour eating a turkey ordered for several guests. I think some of it may still be lurking at the back of the freezer.
Zoom is a, mostly, wonderful way to keep up with friends and business. It has its failings: drifting internet connection, Granny can’t turn the sound on, everybody speaks at once and, without Dutch doll-inspired makeup you look as if you’re hungover, but keeping in contact with friends and family make it all worthwhile. I rarely write a proper letter these days but almost daily email contact with writing friends became a lifeline.
The past year has been sobering and often frightening as we saw the death toll rise. Many of those who were infected have been left with life-changing side-effects. There are no words to sufficiently thank the medical staff and front line workers for their heroic efforts and it’s been wonderful to see how some communities have worked together to help the elderly and vulnerable. Hundred-year-old veteran, Captain Sir Tom, raised a vast sum of money for charity and inspired others to do the same.
And now we have the vaccine. I’m awaiting my second dose in early May. It may not be the complete answer to Covid 19 but I’m thankful we can look forward to going out and about in the world again this summer, albeit cautiously. Last March, three author friends and I were excitedly anticipating a writing retreat booked the year before but the lockdown forced us to postpone it. The pandemic isn’t over yet but now there’s sufficient grounds for hope that we may be able to meet in mid-June this year for our longed-for retreat.
Sometimes in the past I’ve wished the world would go away to leave me in peace to write but I’ve learned that writing is really hard when you’re forced to remain in the writing cave all the time. Meeting up for gossipy lunches with friends and family, attending conferences and writing retreats, giving library talks and chatting with my agent are the life blood of my creative life. I count myself extremely fortunate that my family and I have stayed safe during the pandemic and my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones.
My first novel was The Apothecary’s Daughter, set in plague-ridden London of 1665 and I can’t help but feel there are similarities from that time to living through a pandemic today. To read what it was like to live at the time of the plague click here