Just before 4pm I arrive at the swimming pool to discover that the university has painted new markings beneath the cloisters and up the steps to the front door in advance of the new academic year. For more than 100m, row upon row of neat white circles enclosing tiny feet and the words “stand here” have been stamped on the ground to help organise the queueing system before the students return. Six months into the pandemic, there are still moments that stop me in my tracks and make me feel like I’m living in a parallel universe or that I’ve fallen into the pages of a science fiction novel, and this is one of them.
On my way home, I cut across a silent campus for the first time since March following the freshly painted one way system that’s been put down for freshers’ week and beyond. A group of school boys from the local private school over the road are stood outside the law faculty building bouncing freshly fallen conkers and acorns off the concrete, blazers and rucksacks in a pile beside them, but there’s nobody else around. Staff House sits empty, the Friday Beers tradition abandoned for the foreseeable future.
Stepping down onto the canal, I glue my eyes to the railings in search of late season blackberries, the low golden light flickering through the metal slats and hedgerows as I head home.
It was in late winter as the vernal equinox approached and life as we knew it ceased to exist that the tape began to unfurl and snake out on the city streets before me. Yellow, white and red, usually shiny, always plastic, and hitherto mostly used at crime scenes and to control crowds at big events. At first, the taped lines were judicious and practical; marking out 2m for customers waiting in line outside the supermarket, illustrating one way systems in the shops that remained open, and encouraging customers to keep their distance from the tills to protect checkout staff from coughs and sneezes.
Yesterday afternoon I found myself in a nondescript motorway service station on the M1 somewhere between Nottingham and Chesterfield, waiting for Ed to buy a cup of coffee before we continued north for a much longed for day out in the Peak District to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Physical distancing rules meant that I couldn’t join him in the queue – it was restricted to one adult per household – so I stood by the exit instead, watching people come and go.
The streets are dusty and yellow, the first leaves fallen from the linden trees providing crunch under foot on my evening walk. The air feels thick and heavy with fumes again, as people choose to drive everywhere rather than risk the bus or train. On Elvetham, my favourite neighbourhood cat conducts a spot bath on the warm bonnet of her human’s car, left foot stretched out into the last of the day’s sunshine, toes splayed, oblivious to the comings and goings around her.
In the co-op, I wait for another customer to make his selections before entering the aisle myself, behaviour which feels positively retro by July’s standards. For the time being, the requirement for spaced queues outside supermarkets has been set aside, and personal space in shops has shrunk, too. Facemasks make people bolder and more willing to cast aside the 2m rule, a thin strip of cloth encouraging them to feel invincible. I wear my mask, but keep my distance too.
At the moment life feels much calmer, but I can’t help but sense that it’s a pause, not the end, and that ‘normal’ is still a long way off. These heady days of summer feel like a brief reprieve before we head indoors when the weather cools and the infection rate climbs again in the autumn. I hope I’m just being a pessimist.
I have decided to take some time away from Instagram while I try to sort out my thoughts about the platform. In particular, I’m concerned about the role that parent company Facebook plays in shaping dialogue in our increasingly polarised world.
I don’t use Facebook itself. I deleted my Facebook account in March 2012 and I’ve explored my reasons for that here. In brief, I decided to stop using the platform as it kept me artificially connected with ‘friends’ who were really just acquaintances, because I was fed up with the hollow performance of it all, and because of concerns I held about the direction the network was moving in as an advertising platform. 2012 feels like a long time ago now, in the life of the internet. Technology and society have changed so much over the course of the past decade or so, taking us further and further away from what the internet, in my opinion, should be: open and accessible to all, a tool that helps us to connect, to share information, and to solve problems by removing the barriers that stand in the way of communication and collaboration without sacrificing privacy, safety or democracy.