By Ian Burns
Facebook sent me one of those ‘A Year Ago…’ prompts this morning. In it I am travelling in the US, taking a train to Princeton. I took a photograph of a bust of Einstein when I had the privilege of being a guest in the library at the Institute for Advanced Study. It is sobering to think about our pre-pandemic freedoms, and to think about the power of ideas and the importance of study and education. In less than a year, attitudes to travel, to broadening the mind and to the joy of ideas have all been profoundly affected.
So, Christmas is over. Our government is celebrating a trade deal which is unlikely to get much scrutiny from Parliament. The predictable jingoism is evident in the usual newspapers but generally, as the country looks at rises in hospitalisation, deaths and thinks about a ‘new variant’, the pandemic is uppermost in minds. The pre-Christmas introduction of a new level of restriction on movement, tier 4, and the post-Christmas widening of the areas to which it applies, leaves a certain feeling of heaviness.
I have never been very observant when it comes to faith and I am a very rare attender of churches. I am sure that Christmas was largely unaffected for those who think more about Jesus’s birth than about shopping, present-giving and heavy food and alcohol consumption. For many others, though, it has been a difficult time. Plans were forced to be changed in the very last few days and it led to many more having to spend Christmas alone.
I was incredibly blessed. The changes meant that two of my children, who were planning to leave London to spend Christmas with their partners’ families in Sussex and Yorkshire, became tied to London. My son was staying with me. I had intended to spend Christmas alone, but instead I had company and we made sure we cooked a good lunch and consumed some lovely wines. I would not have shopped at Borough Market for my Christmas lunch or broken open an old case of Grand-Puy Ducasse, had my son’s plans not altered.
Before the tier 4 restrictions, I was able to travel to Ascot to see my parents and to catch up with my brother. Mindful of the best guidance, we went for a walk through the forest nearby and discussed our relationship, after I had highlighted to my brother the pleasures of a podcast called I wish I was an only child! We trod some new ground literally and metaphorically, as we walked. Many of my London-based friends are European and have either not been able to get home, or took the decision that it would be more prudent to not travel. One made it to eastern Europe because both of her parents had contracted COVID. Mercifully, her parents appear to have seen it off, despite other health conditions, but her mother had a time in intensive care. To see the strain in my friend’s face was to see a reflection of a much wider-spread traumatic response to the events of the year now closing.
If I started the year thinking about travel and horizons, ideas and study, I am ending it thinking about how the journeys have been made but differently: 2020 may have given us some things as it took others away. I am not the only person who has (re)discovered an enthusiasm for walking. I know my home city better than at any time in my fifty plus years and it has yielded up many pleasant surprises. Walking encourages thinking. Walking in company encourages conversation.
As we converse, we talk about how the events of the year have affected us. How they have made us feel. I find amongst friends a willingness to share thoughts and experiences that might have not been there before, because now conversations have time to develop depth. Travelling differently includes travelling within our minds and our imaginations. There is heartening evidence that book buying has surged this year.
My father introduced me to Singin’ in the Rain, many years ago, to marvel at the dance scenes and because he identified himself as a ‘legs man’ and he assured me that Cyd Charisse represented the apogee of feminine leggy beauty. This year I watched it with my son who had yet to see it. Ultimately, for all the awesome choreography and great numbers, it is about a girl who is not dazzled by the film star and woos him with her selflessness to ‘save’ his and his co-star’s careers. We watched “Grease” too, another joyful celebration of the girl who wins the guy, and does not allow herself to be knocked by teasing and bullying, but transforms herself to eclipse all around her.
Just as my father introduced me to many films, so this period allowed me to introduce my son to some. He had never seen the peerless Linklater pair of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Happily, he now shares my high opinion of them. In a way, they combine the themes of this year for me. Although the films are about physical travel – they meet in Vienna and in Paris – they are about walking, talking, philosophising and truly getting to know someone, through listening and reading non-verbal signals. As with Grease and Singin’, they are about good things coming to those who wait.
I think 2020 has been good for me. Even as I met a friend in the street today, and he noted how rapidly the virus is spreading around Tower Hamlets, where we live, and spoke about the death of a friend of his last month, we had some blessings to count.