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Berwick, North Northumberland: Food-Travel-Culture-Community

Archive for the category “2020”

Dove in the time of Corona

Sitting at my laptop in these Covid days is a bit like being in a panoramic Zoom meeting but with birds rather than people. The eldest daughter, up north when the lockdown switch was thrown, is happily shipwrecked in Berwick and inhabiting my usual workstation. So, I’m perched at a table that looks out on our garden and, most importantly, the birdbath the Husband gave me for Christmas – which is teeming with avian drinking and splashing.

The birdbath – with no avian action

Zoom has delivered undreamed of virtual freedoms and connectivity in these lockdown days. We had drinks with London friends recently. We’ve not seen or socialised with them for years. Why didn’t we hook up like this before coronavirus, after all, the technology existed? Perhaps social isolation heightens resourcefulness. Perhaps it makes us determined to show the world and each other we’re still here and still being ourselves. Morning coffee with Aussie relatives began for us as their wine-soaked evening took off. We parted ways just as I began to worry that my cousin might actually demonstrate his ten-minute-intensive daily exercise regime (it involved star jumps and burpees and other things I don’t even want to think about, let alone see someone do). And that’s another great thing about Zoom meet-ups. An hour’s enough. And everyone understands that.

Oh, no, that’s right. Everyone understands that except the Husband and his mates who have created a weekly evening in the pub (our local micropub, The Curfew, to be precise) complete with a barrel of beer which they purchase in advance and distribute between them in some convoluted, day-long, anti-bac drenched way. Finally, in the evening, they all drink the brew from the safety of their own homes. One chap even changes his Zoom background to outside the pub when he steps out for a smoke.

The Husband in the Curfew (not actually) – wearing that special Zoom face

Many of us are upskilling in this new home-working and learning environment. Over in the Husband’s bread factory, there was a little awkwardness after last week’s post poking fun at his sourdough creations. However, he’s raised his game (he received much advice from many quarters!) and delivered a loaf with lift, without the help of a Dutch oven – the chosen weapon of many sourdoughers.  Turns out Dutch oven has another meaning which the eldest daughter explained to us (pop ‘Dutch oven slang’ into your search engine if you’re that interested). Mind you, neither of the daughters knew what a Dutch cap was. We’re all learning this week.  

A loaf with lift

When I spotted a blackcap in my birdbath, I shrieked: ‘Guess what’s in the birdbath, quick, quick!’ No one came but yells of ‘an albatross’, ‘a puffin’ and ‘a golden eagle’ drifted through the house. And, when I showed them a picture of this delightful visitor? ‘Oh, it’s just a little brown bird.’ Just? Just!

For those interested, there is much to learn and take part in virtually. Local artist friends Katie Chappell, Helen Stephens and Tania Willis have launched a fabulous initiative: The Good Ship Illustration. As well as a fee-based course for creatives, there’s a free Sketchbookers Friend package which includes a weekly speed sketching session with the trio. I’m a total novice and found the idea a bit daunting but I joined a session and it was amazingly liberating and fun.

My favourite Zoom session each week is a church service. It’s a wonder to see all the faces popping up on your screen in their little boxes. People’s faces tend to be screwed up in concentration and fingers loom at you as technology is wrestled into submission (with varying degrees of success). Easter Sunday tapped into the painful reality of abrupt separation from those you love – particularly at birth, death, and times of hardship – just when you need each other most. Poignant and fabulous. Each week some of us struggle to find our mute buttons on the app. Those of you familiar with Zoom will understand that this means that whoever makes the loudest noise will dominate the screen of all those in the meeting. So, for example, you can quite unexpectedly get a view up someone’s nostrils just as the vicar is breaking the communion bread.

Birds are constantly stepping in and out of my window on the garden and battling for birdbath domination. A blue tit will arrive, to be chased off by a great tit or goldfinch, who’s usurped by a blackbird or thrush, who gets the push from a pigeon (or the dove of the title!) or crow. Sadly, I’ve failed to capture any of these visitors on camera, despite lurking in the bushes with the hen who patrols the base of the birdbath as if trying to get in on the action. Perhaps I should join my illustrator friends again and sketch what I see. Until then, I’m leaving you with a seagull on the ping-pong table… Except, at the last minute, I did capture a great tit on my birdbath!

A seagull drops by my garden Zoom screen

Living the Covid dream

Sourdough porn shots are flooding social media, and the Husband is getting more exasperated. His loaves are dense, he complains. He’s under-proving or over-proving or something. It takes him so many stages to get his loaves in the oven and out again. And it’s painful to watch his little crestfallen face when the ta-dah! moment is not quite what he’d hoped for.

It’s all a bit like having Boris Johnson back at Number 10 after his sick leave. A little bit flat. Mind you, Johnson says that we’re beginning to turn the tide on Covid19 (hurrah!). And maybe his presence will turn back another tide: the one of people getting gung-ho about lockdown. Obviously, no one’s mentioning the austerity tide which washed away massive parts of the NHS years ago – that would be bad form. So, the good news is that Johnson is with us as we wrestle Covid19 to the floor.

Wrestling is one exercise the family has not taken up during lockdown. Although I wouldn’t blame the younger daughter for throwing the eldest into a body press. She’s taken to calling her little sister ‘slut monkey’. Apparently, it’s a term of endearment. And, in fact, when I did intervene in one bicker-fest, I was firmly told by both daughters to butt out. Is this what it’s like to be Donald Trump, I wonder? He must always feel as if he’s in the wrong, no matter what he says. I mean, how could the President of the United States public ‘musings’ on ingesting bleach possibly be dangerous? It’s not as if he’s some quack leader making up rules and then actively encouraging people to flout them, is it? Oh, hang on…

I find the whole idea of facemasks slightly depressing. When we were lucky enough to go to Japan, they seemed like an exotic accessory: something you always noticed but tried not to stare at. So, when I overheard the eldest daughter saying she’d ordered some, I was impressed but also resigned. Now I’ll have to wear one when I go on my once-weekly shopping trip, I thought. Turns out we’d got our wires crossed.

The Husband’s sourdough saga is a weekly serial (see what I did there). Needless to say, we mock his efforts. My favourite way of tormenting him is waggling Instagram at him and saying: ‘Can we have one like this next time?’ We answered a plea for sourdough starter from a friend at the beginning of lockdown. The photographic evidence of the friend’s airy, soft, perky, plump loaves is particularly painful to the Husband. ‘That’s made with my starter!’ he wails. He’s just read this paragraph and said: ‘It’s more than weekly!’ It certainly feels that way to the rest of us.

The daughters have me out running (well, I shuffle and watch their firm buns disappear into the distance) every other day. They’ve both done the Run For Heroes Challenge to fund the NHS – Run 5, Donate 5. I’m up next. It’s lovely that we’re all raising funds for a national institution – just how we used to raise money for charities. In amongst the on-line Pilates, ping pong, mini-badminton, and endless training runs, I’m feeling primed and ready. Even so, I’m a bit anxious. Things can so easily go wrong, can’t they?

A shuffle in the Berwick sunshine. What could possibly go wrong?

Yesterday I knocked out a brioche loaf while the Husband went through the numerous and baffling sourdough steps. The whole process of creating a sourdough lasts two days. At least. Why does the dough have to go in the fridge overnight, we ask? Why do you split the dough between two tins? If the loaf’s not big enough, why not just put the whole lot in one tin? He retaliates by telling me I taste like a human-sized ready salted crisp after I come back from a run. But his taunt is rather endearing. Who wouldn’t want to be married to a giant crisp? I feel bolstered rather than beleaguered.

Look at the brioche on that!

It’s difficult to imagine Boris Johnson having any insecurities. He could turn beleaguered into bolstered by mumbling a few incoherent sentences. He’s very like Trump in his ability to shake off the most extraordinary statements and actions (things that would be self-sabotaging for anyone else). The kind of guy who could bounce back even after infecting loads of people with coronavirus by shaking hands with them. Mind you, they called Tony Blair ‘Teflon Tony’…

The Husband’s back in the kitchen today. I hear a little sigh. His loaf has fallen short of expectations again. However, as with all things, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And, despite our teasing, we devour his bread-offerings with gusto.

The hen is being needy. The barbecue explodes.

Posts on social media about reclassifying music collections, organising book shelves, oven cleaning, greenhouse purging, and garage clearing have surged like the green shoots of spring. I find them rather demotivating. Instead of spurring me on to do the tasks – all of which need doing in my home – they make me feel rebellious and inadequate. The daughters say I’m being needy. They massage my ego: ‘You do loads. You’re the most active person we know… blah, blah, blah.’ Even so, I know I’m getting credit where it’s not due.

Our hen, Pretty, continues to be erratic. She escaped to B&M again – if you missed out on the account of her first leap over the wall, it’s here. It was the Husband and I who roamed Castlegate at 2am in our dressing gowns and slippers and wearily enticed her home. The following day we cleaned, refurbed and relocated the house the hen has shunned for many moons. The hen, as if the intervening years of outside roosting in trees had never happened, promptly entered her historical home, and settled down for the night.

A room with a view: the re-sited hen house – no longer abandoned

This whole immediate action on the hen house front was, of course, prompted by self-interest. It was okay when the youngest daughter had to lasso the hen in the small hours – less okay when it was us. But things that ‘need’ doing or ‘should be’ done? Often, I spend so long in the small hours planning the things I should do the following day, it seems a waste to spend the day actually doing them. I’ve even struggled to plant veg seeds this year. But I will regret my lack of commitment and preparation unless I get my act together asap. Even the seeds I have planted seem to be keeping their heads down. Maybe, like me, they’re feeling the weight of expectation: after all, we’ve all got to dig deep for victory in these calamitous days.

And so many people are digging deep. Friends are sewing scrubs, making masks from laminating pouches, stitching wash bags for PPE out of pillow cases, delivering prescriptions, returning to frontline jobs as pharmacists and medics, continuing as teachers, supermarket staff, and refuse collectors (let’s hear it for refuse collectors – just imagine how much worse this would all be without them).  And, in amongst this truly credit-worthy endeavour and fierce community spirit, Tory MPs keep telling us to ‘Protect the NHS, save lives’ (as if they invented the concept of protecting the NHS). Each time I hear them, I feel hot fury. Erm, who starved the NHS of funds? And what about opportunities to join the EU bulk-buy scheme?

At the beginning of lockdown, we decided to have themed Saturday evening meals – prepared by all four of us. We’ve had formal (complete with à la carte menu), slumber (pizza and popcorn), Mexican (tacos and tequila). Last weekend was barbecue night. You know, marshmallows, and campsongs by the glowing embers as the light fades. Our ancient rust-encrusted BBQ went to the tip before lockdown. The Husband was charged with creating a suitable outdoor firepit. I pictured a small ground-based stone-supported fire, our homemade burgers sizzling merrily atop. Turns out the Husband’s vision was different to mine. As his vision took physical form, I think I may have expressed some anxiety about safety.

Urban chic? The Husband’s barbecue

The hen, always at the centre of all garden goings-ons, showed no signs of fear when the Husband’s barbecue exploded – a slight hop and then more pecking. The rest of us, having established that the Husband was uninjured, mocked him and cooked indoors. Despite her resilience to household drama, the hen has become what the daughters again interpret as attention-seeking or ‘needy’ since her recent lockdown. A couple of days ago she had the audacity to leap up at the eldest daughter as we were having tea in the garden. This morning she was on my lap, for a crop massage (hen not daughter). Then, as if to keep us on side and claim credit for keeping the whole family machine on the road, she proudly produces a very occasional egg. The government’s daily briefings are more regular than the hen’s eggs, but do they, I wonder, have the same purpose… asking for a friend?

The hen’s progress… need or greed?

Stream of covidness

I wake up with a stiff neck this morning. I squish my shoulder up to my ear and press it down. No joy. I roll my head around and pull faces. I moan about it to the Husband. It still hurts. I go downstairs, feed the hen, put the porridge on and think about the day ahead. Others begin to emerge from the house like woodlice from a fallen branch. The youngest daughter decides to make her own porridge. I use one third milk, two thirds water: she likes all milk. The eldest appears and takes her porridge straight to her makeshift desk. She’s working 12-14 hours in a virtual office world that is a far cry from the tranquil Berwick environment she’s roosting in temporarily.

I scan the Covid news briefly. I’m finding it harder to look at it as time goes on. I don’t think it’s because I’ve lost interest, I think it’s because this is it. This is what we are living. I wonder how it feels to be lumbered with Trump as your leader right now. The youngest daughter and I discuss briefly whether he has an ideology – the Husband says not. I suggest it’s all about self-aggrandisement and project Trump. He has made it clear in the past that he believes anyone who doesn’t grab what they can and take opportunities to increase their wealth and power – even if it’s against the law or hurts others – is an idiot. So, I guess he’s living the dream. Why do people trust him?  Does anyone seriously believe that now is the optimum time for the States to withdraw funding from the World Health Organisation?

It’s a long time since the two daughters and the Husband and I have all lived together. The mini Trump in all of us is beginning to emerge. Instead of answering questions or responding to the point in hand, we toss casual insults at each other: ‘What’s he doing now?’ ‘Yes, look at him. Staring. That’s what he’s doing. Just staring.’ The girls lurch from hugging each other lovingly, to mocking each other’s knees, toes, noses, hair. They even bite each other. I am told to stop making everything into a lesson and accused of being over-sensitive.  It’s just like being a family again. We focus on memories of small injustices. Turns out the Husband tortured the eldest daughter by forcing her to have celery salt on her quail’s eggs as a teenager. What an arse. She hates celery in all its forms.

I hear the news on the radio that there are cases of Covid in the camps in Yemen. I feel sick and anxious. There’s a wobbly ceasefire there which is pretty much being ignored. The UN predicts that 93% of the population could become infected. I distract myself by pulling up some weeds in the garden.

A dear friend’s dog had to be put down yesterday. He had been poorly for sometime. I’m not a great dog lover but I did love Cuddy. I was one of his walkers – along with a stalwart crew of other locals who ensured he got his exercise twice a day, rain or shine. It will be hard for my friend not to have her lovely canine companion. I wonder if she will be able to get another dog and if I would help with walking it if she does. I’ve felt guilty not walking Cuddy during lockdown.

Farewell Cuddy: a wonderful companion and all-round super dog

The whole celery torture thing came up because I felt compelled to cook the celeriac mouldering on the shelf: it would be a crime to let any food go to waste right now. Although, why now and not before…? I’ve taken to gathering onion skins and other vegetable offcuts in a bag in the fridge and using them to make veg stock for stews, risottos, soups etc. We are also working our way through the ice-encrusted weird and wonderful offerings that the Husband has secretly stashed in the freezer over the years, hoping I won’t notice. Well, I’m finding them now! He froze yoghurt. Defrosted, it became a curdled liquid mush. We made him eat it on his porridge.

I squeeze my shoulder up to my ear again. Ouch! At some point my stiff neck will magically disappear but, until then, it’s really painful. As the pandemic continues, I wonder if more American people will notice the painful truth: Trump is as insane as any James Bond villain.

Berwick Lit Fest: a feast of words for autumn

The Friendly Festival in a Historic Walled Town 15th-18th October 2020 hopes to be something for us all to look forward to post Covid-19

Berwick Lit Fest’s seventh season runs from 15th to 18th October 2020. The programme for this year’s Festival is all but complete and looks set to have the widest appeal yet. From world champion slam poet Harry Baker to Borders historian Alistair Moffat; presenter and political correspondent Steve Richards to historian and academic Diarmaid MacCulloch; and garden journalist and social historian Ursula Buchan to poetry publisher and editor Neil Astley – it’s a programme to entertain, engage and provoke debate across age ranges.

Michael Gallico, Festival chair says: ‘The unpredictable nature of the Covid-19 pandemic means these are uncertain times for all events and festivals. We very much hope that our community – and communities across the world – will be through this terrible time by October, and that the Lit Fest might be something to look forward to in these difficult times.’

Mike Fraser, Lit Fest programme co-ordinator says: ‘The Festival has grown steadily since 2014 and we’re always seeking to attract new audiences. The Lit Fest is all about words – written, spoken, performed – a blend that’s drawn increasing audiences from across the Borders and beyond.’ Mike says that the Lit Fest seeks to attract more visitors from towns such as Newcastle, Alnwick, Hexham, Edinburgh and Glasgow – all within easy reach for day trippers or weekend visitors – and to engage more book festival and literary festival enthusiasts from both south and north.

Mike explains that each day of the Festival’s run has a themed strand that both day and weekend Festival attendees can track – for example: poetry, history, and writing and environment.  ‘Comedian Katie Brand pulled in an eager audience in 2019,’ says Mike. ‘It’s great to schedule events that attract a cross-section of ages. Slam-poet Harry Baker’s quirky, poignant poems speak of today’s world in a modern, accessible form. Whilst local journalist and author, Christopher Ward, will dip into the world of the Titanic via the story of his grandfather: a violinist in the band that continued to play as the tragic vessel sank.’

Berwick Lit Fest prides itself on the use of the town’s historic sites as venues – from the Guildhall to the Berwick Visitor Centre (the former Methodist Church). Local community engagement and support is also an integral part of the Festival. Michael Gallico says: ‘From day one, the Festival team looked at anchoring the Lit Fest in Berwick – we’re hugely fortunate to  live in such a historic and attractive town – and we aim to help visitors to enjoy every aspect of our location, whilst developing a compelling programme offer. Clearly, we want our visitors to attend our range of fascinating events but it’s also an opportunity for them to get a taste of our town’s beautiful riverside, coast, and historic sites such the unique Elizabethan Ramparts.’

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A historical reenactment on Berwick’s historic ramparts
Berwick Lighthouse at sunset with the town silhouetted behind
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The Royal Border Bridge across the River Tweed with Berwick Castle and the driftwood boat sculpture popular with walkers, children and would-be seafarers

Part of ‘anchoring’ the Festival in the community is the schools programme, which includes events and workshops in local schools; a partnership with Berwick Rotary Club ensures a well-subscribed story competition for children to enter; and poetry reading in local care homes is a fundamental part of the Festival’s community offer.  

For up-to-date information on events, speakers and performers visit the Festival website and find it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The hen vanishes. And a rat appears.

I am hunter gatherer. The Husband is of an age that lets him off supermarketing during lockdown and the daughters can’t drive: so the shopping list is all mine. It’s a big responsibility and my endeavours are judged the second I wrestle the bags into the house. On the drive back from the supermarket, I decide what to hold out in triumph to distract from the longed-for items missing in action. No, no pasta. But look at these grapes! That said, last week my trophy was the last two bags of strong white flour (actually the last two bags of any kind of flour).  The Husband’s been begging for strong white for weeks. The woman behind me gazed at the flour-dusted shelf. Did I offer her one of my bags? I didn’t. This week, there was no flour. But, huzzah! Oh, precious gold dust: quick yeast! I took the last two remaining packets, glancing guiltily around as I did so.

It’s easy to get spooked in the supermarket. I psych myself up to go. When I’m there, I turn away, hold my breath and mutter ‘two metres’ if my fellow shoppers aren’t honouring my personal space. Today the lovely checkout worker chatted away merrily. And all I could think was that the screen was there for a reason and maybe it would be good not to keep leaning out from behind it. Also, I couldn’t stop wondering if a film of spittle was settling on all my shopping during our merry badinage. I’d torn one finger of the plastic gloves I was wearing… I made sure to use the other hand as I packed.

It’s hard not to feel that everything is, if not infected by Covid-19, then certainly affected by it. This week, something spooked our hen. She went over the wall. Pretty (that’s her name) is eight years old, the pride of our garden and a home body. Having said that, she gave up on her hen house long ago and prefers to roost in a tree for the night. In the early hours of Sunday morning, the youngest daughter wondered why she could hear clucking in her bedroom. Turns out the hen was on the pavement outside B&M, shouting just like the drunken youth that usually stream past our windows on a Saturday night.

The evidence of the hen’s outing

Not wishing to wake the whole household at 2am, the youngest fearlessly went into the street in her dad’s shoes and her PJs, armed with crisps to lure the escapee back home (the hen always enjoys a crisp or two when we have a glass of wine and nibbles in the garden).  

Youngest daughter and hen safe after their night-time adventure

On Sunday the daughters went for a swim from Greenses beach here in Berwick. We incorporated their dip into our exercise hour. I found myself hoping no one would see us. Were we breaking rules? Would someone think we were irresponsible? A couple walking their dog came down to the beach as the daughters waded up to their knees, dunked their shoulders, and flapped into a shivery swim in the shallows. I imagined the couple tutting under their breath: ‘reckless behaviour… coastguard… selves and others at risk…’ etc. They probably didn’t, but that’s the world we’re living in.

On Monday, the hen was at the back door as usual. Tap-tapping on the glass, wanting her breakfast. I fed her at the far end of the garden as usual. Five minutes later, I returned to visit the compost heap. I squealed. There was a giant (I kid you not: giant) dead rat, lying right in the middle of the grass, where previously there had not been a giant dead rat. I’m no Miss Marple, but that rat had been dead some time: it was stiff as a board. How had it arrived there? What did it mean? Was it a judgement: the flour, the swim, the yeast?

The Husband dealt with the rat (I do the supermarket: it’s only fair). The hen clucked at my feet. ‘Passenger,’ I hissed at her as I gave her a few grains of corn. ‘I bet you didn’t even think of kitchen roll when you were hanging out at B&M.’ She blinked at me. Inscrutable.

And the most exciting thing since…

I have to win at table tennis

You’d have thought that spending more time with your family would be a positive thing – and for many of us it is. But it’s amazing how small things can cause domestic discord. According to reports from home and other countries, lockdown will see a huge increase in cases of domestic abuse and many of us are already planning to divorce our partners: ‘when this is over’.

If you’ve not read Italian novelist Francesca Melandri’s piece in last weekend’s Guardian: ‘Letter to the UK from Italy: this is what we know about your future’, it’s worth a look. It’s a raw insight into the emotions and actions of a lockdown society. And the foibles and contradictions of human nature under duress.

Our table tennis table made the journey when we moved from north London to Berwick-upon-Tweed 10 years ago. During the spring and summer months, ping pong became a tea- and coffee-break activity for the Husband and I when we paused our desk-based work activities. The battle of the table continues to be as epic as the battle of the skies: as soon as we wipe the table down a marauding flock of screeching herring gulls craps on it. And the Husband’s out with his hose cursing and fist-waving. One day, the gulls got him twice in a row – the second when he was fresh from the shower after the first. Once, three of us were chatting on the lawn and a gull scored a simultaneous bullseye in all our cups of tea.

The freshly hosed table just before the Husband’s victory this morning

The Husband has now retired and taken up activities such as badminton. He has become fleeter of foot and, as if blossoming back into the primary school child he once was, improved his hand-eye coordination. I’m not saying I’m not pleased about this turn of affairs. But I’m happiest when he’s fighting the losing battle of the gulls and I am maintaining my rightful place as Queen of the Table.

We bought the table as a family bonding exercise – specifically for our then teenager (now 32) to enjoy. Purchase day was fraught: Finsbury Park in north London to Surrey Quays south of the river is not a jolly journey at the best of times and, what with the toddler and the teenager in the back of the car, it definitely wasn’t jolly that day. But good things do come from inauspicious beginnings. Once home, that table tennis table delivered above and beyond. It took over most of the garden and was the centre of gatherings: from baptisms to birthdays. It was played on and under; it was eaten off; and, on one memorable occasion, became a racing track for snails. It’s not something I’m proud of: the snail thing took place when we were in a South Korean reality TV show about families coping with no TV for a couple of weeks. A screen lockdown if you will. And, let’s face it, it’s amazing what you resort to to fill in the gaps. In our defence, we put the snails back on the ground when we’d finished.

Nowadays, the table tennis table is a firm feature at our Open Garden event here in Berwick (beginning of June but postponed this year). Children often enjoy a game while their parents peruse the garden. Then the parents wander back, grab a bat and thrash the kids – a là Competitive Dad from ‘The Fast Show’ – just to show them who’s boss. Or perhaps to remind themselves they’ve still got it in them. Anyway, there’s usually tears involved.

For us, it’s still a daily routine to grab a game or two of table tennis to distract us from whatever we’re meant to be doing. Or whatever’s going on in the world. But something’s shifted. The Husband’s upped his game. And I’m feeling the strain. It’s like a rainy day versus a sunny day. Beating him makes me happy. Losing to him makes me grumpy. And if I’m grumpy, family wellbeing could be at risk. I know some of you will be thinking this is overt competitiveness or even sour grapes. But it’s all about domestic harmony. I have to win at table tennis.

The world is in chaos and the hen is eating my meadow

I am trying to create a tiny meadow in my garden, but my hen is eating it. I know I could try to fence her out of the area but, right now, it seems sort of apposite to feel powerless in the face of her overwhelming desire to eat seed.

A young colleague who I’m working with on a little book asked me if I’m keeping a coronavirus diary. It made me feel rather guilty. I’m not really writing anything, I explained. The newly launched magazine I was writing a column for is in aspic for the foreseeable: how do you publish a local, lifestyle magazine when all visitor attractions and events are cancelled, and advertisers have nothing to advertise? Events and organisations I’m involved with are either postponed or holding their breath.

The self-justification continued: Who am I to add to the corona-word-mountain? Mind you, that didn’t stop me adding to the heap of cancer words when I had bowel cancer. And, actually, this self-isolation is a bit flashbacky. During chemo I isolated myself and spent hours in the garden, desperately trying not to pierce myself on a rose thorn and develop septicaemia. It felt lonely. However, this is now, and the whole world is in it with me. Besides, I am not ill and not pumped full of drugs. Frankly, being able to lay my hands on some paracetamol would be a fine thing.

This morning I went to the supermarket. It was the first time I’d been to the big supermarket in a fortnight. Last week I did my shop in Berwick. We’re lucky enough to live next door to Iceland, have two great local butchers, and the feisty organic Green Shop down the way. However, yesterday a friend was in touch. She’s a nurse and has Covid-19. Her mum lives out of town and there are no home deliveries to be had this side of Christmas.

I was happy to do the mum’s shop at the same time as I did my own. Her order was easy compared to ours and did not involve huge quantities of wine. I felt like a naughty schoolchild when I was told I could only have six bottles. It was hard to choose which four bottles to say goodbye to.  I also couldn’t understand why people kept coming so close to me. I think I may actually have said, ‘back off’ to one woman. I’ve just tried saying ‘back off’ to the hen who’s still pecking what has become bare soil but, a bit like my fellow shopper, she’s giving no quarter.

This hen’s not backing off

When I dropped off my friend’s mum’s shop, I felt guilty leaving it on the doorstep. That guilt was nothing compared to how I felt when the elderly woman appeared at the door, leaning on a stick. From my social distance of five metres along her path, I shouted to her that the bag was heavy and that she should carry the items in a few at a time. And now I’m haunted by a vision of her wrestling a giant honeydew melon from the bag with her walking-stick-free arm and somehow transferring it to her kitchen.

I’ve never been a big fan of warfare discourse when talking about illness. It’s always felt like a huge burden to place on the sick: as well as feeling crap, they’re supposed to show their mettle by battling down their illness and winning through. Presumably the alternative is to be a wimp and die. I acknowledge the fight formula works for some and, apparently, is particularly good for fundraising. ‘We’re going to thrash the living daylights out of this cancer/Covid-19!’ Woop-de-doo! Yeah! Let’s annihilate the plague! Meanwhile, those who have it will carry on dealing with it any way they see fit.

Having said that, war as a metaphor for illness and vice versa has a strong literary pedigree. According to a piece in the Guardian, Albert Camus’ 1947 novel ‘La Peste’ (‘The Plague’) is selling in extraordinary numbers. The plague of the title was symbolic both of the Algerian cholera outbreak of 1849 and of Nazism. It’s a book about individual and community responses to the plague of the title – heroic and selfish – during a time of lockdown, quarantine and self-isolation. I studied it for French A level and was profoundly moved and disturbed by it. But I can’t say I fancy reading it right now.

The fact is, I’d rather concentrate on feeling irritated with my hen’s obsessive destruction of my tiny nascent meadow. And, while she feasts, I am wondering whether or not I will rouse myself to fight back.

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