Returning to the Shire


Tangoed legs in peaty river shock

Too much thinking time uncovers dangerous patterns of thought. One effect this global crisis has had on many people is to open up vast tracts of what would have been the working day and make a gift of them.

‘So what are you going to do with US?’  These hours seem to say to the bewildered office worker on furlough, the under-employed self-employed journalist, the tourist guide with no tourist industry.

Even the workers who never stopped working have spare hours they would have spent in cinemas, theatres, pubs and family gatherings just sitting there, waiting to be filled up.

I’ve lost count of the weeks, (never mind the hours) but I reckon it’s something like Week 20 now since total lockdown. Most places are vaguely, lethargically open. The British Museum will open on Thursday (27 August 2020). My little local cinema opened 10 days ago. I even have a shift there on 2 September, so I will feel like Shakespeare’s ‘whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail/Unwillingly …’

That will be weird, going to an actual workplace instead of repairing to my attic study every morning. My other employer, Secret London Runs, has also re-instated private running tours of London, and I’m leading one of those in a couple of weeks.

So far, so industrious, but there are still empty hours in which to brood, and to dream up alternative lives to the rather unsatisfactory one that Covid 19 has left us with.

Last week, my friend R and I hired a car and drove up to Sedbergh, just within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. She is minded to change her life, and has spent many of those Covid -scoured hours looking at new homes, where the air is fair and people don’t dump chicken shop refuse in your front garden. We looked at a couple of strangely proportioned houses with thick stone walls.

Our northern break saw me haring, then scrambling, up dales and dipping in rivers and watching clouds scud over great big skies. It was lovely.

My attention was increasingly caught by isolated small barns and tiny cottages flanked by craggy fells, which will be snow topped in winter. From there I could reacquaint myself with fell running and become a lean, hardy old biddy running with her Border collie every day. I would live alone (with fantastic collie), bake bread and write my novel. I would swim in rivers and one day, in, oooh, say 25 years, they’ll find my little body curled round some wind blasted hawthorn tree and my spirit will roam the dale from that day forward. Ghostly Marathon Gran. She got better with age.

R listens to these flights of fancy patiently, then goes on looking at sensible-for-the-airbnb-market dwellings in the well-to-do town. I find the whole multi-bathroom thing a bit depressing, but I am old school. And this old house I live in, here in Catford, has had many a flood owing to a badly plumbed attic shower room.

R says she feels a magnetic, atavistic pull to Yorkshire, owing to the fact that she was born there. In fact, Sedbergh is officially Cumbria, but being part of the national park makes it Yorkshire for R’s purposes. We discuss often, these days, what the point of London is, given the pollution, the rubbish and the lack of open libraries and charity shops.

And I too, still feel a pull to the Shire of my birth, the rolling green hills and cottages that aren’t unlike the Hobbitty settlements that made Elijah Wood’s big blue eyes brim in Lord of the Rings. My big sister still lives in my Shire, a stone’s throw from my old school. Last time I ran round the hills and tracks I met no-one. I could buy a little slice of cottage in the market town near the village where I was born…

Then I remember  the last time I cycled into the quiet West End of London and had a pleasant wander about Bond Street and found myself in an Andy Warhol exhibition in the Halcyon Gallery, sketching and discovering stuff I never even knew I was interested in. That’s what happens in London, it’s unlikely to happen in the Shire, even if the beer is cheaper. London can still fill up those empty hours until term starts, and who knows, a British Museum visit, booked online, maybe all I need to shake off this malaise.





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