Last night at 8pm on the third evening of our semi-lockdown in the UK, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a national round of applause for the NHS. I live in a strong Labour seat, so I knew the clapping, whistling and fireworks were genuine and heartfelt. However, we are just a few months out from a general election where large swathes of the population voted for a party who have been carefully – and not so quietly – undermining, underfunding, and undervaluing the same health service they were stood on their doorsteps cheering for. Talk is cheap and easy, but I couldn’t bring myself to take part in an event which had been co-opted by people who refuse to pay a penny more in tax to fund the NHS, as well as the same government which has spent the past ten years destroying the health service they now celebrate.
As we approach the spring equinox, rush hour coincides with sunset. On Lee Bank Middleway at 6pm, a Mr Whippy icecream van crawls up the hill and the blossom trees and new growth are backlit by the crepuscular deep blue of headlights and the coming night.From my observations notebook // 18th March 2019
On New Street, representatives from every belief system stand on their soap boxes and behind their stress test tables preaching about the end times to curiously responsive groups of office workers and shoppers. For the first time in all the years I’ve called Birmingham home, they have an audience. At 5pm on Broad Street, the offices are empty and I sit alone in Oozells Square watching the cherry blossom dance and fall.From my observations notebook // 17th March 2020
Living in the centre of the UK’s second largest city, I am forever moaning about air quality, traffic, and noise. In the middle of winter the stench is often unbearable. Thick cloud, which often descends for weeks on end, traps the diesel fumes and makes the city feel very oppressive. Summer is no better, and hot still days in the middle of a heatwave are particularly sticky and acrid. Working from home, I keep the windows closed during the morning and evening rush hours because it coats windowsills, curtains, and no doubt my lungs, too, with a thick layer of diesel dust. The noise I don’t mind so much. After fifteen years in Birmingham I’m used to it and have found ways to drown it out. That said, the constant police sirens, honking of horns as cars drive the wrong way down my one way street, and the hum of idling engines outside my flat during rush hour is a kind of background noise I would be quite happy to do without.
In the swimming pool, all is calm. A normally busy afternoon lengths session is thinned to a handful of swimmers, and I have a whole lane to myself. It’s not yet the university holidays, so I’m surprised at how quiet and peaceful the sports centre is.
On my way home I head to the big supermarket nearby for a bag of bread flour and a few bits and pieces for dinner. As I lock my bike up outside the shop, I notice there are more cars in the carpark than normal for a weekday afternoon, and inside I’m met by apocalyptic scenes. Hundreds of terrified Brummies react to Johnson’s “sort yourselves out, and don’t bother calling us unless you’re dying” speech by skipping work and emptying the shelves of grains, tins, long life milk, toilet paper, and the supermarket’s entire range of cleaning products.
In the flour aisle, all that remains is a single bag of organic 00 pasta flour, the rest of the shelving unit stripped bare.
In Symphony Hall at ten minutes to six I trade places with the office workers making their way home from the city, using the ICC as a thoroughfare to avoid construction work on Broad Street. For once, the random bag inspection stations at both entrances remain unstaffed. In place of the spot checks for knives and explosives we’ve come to accept as a normal part of everyday life in the city, a single bottle of hand sanitiser sits on the inspection table, a defence against another hidden threat to our everyday lives and freedoms.
In the Birmingham and Midland Institute on Margaret Street I stand at the back of the meeting room, filming a set of academic talks on women in theatre. A member of the audience descends into a fit of coughing mid-event and gets up from their seat to pour themself a glass of water. My eyes scan the water jug, which I have just used to pour myself a drink. Whilst checking audio levels on my camera as a video starts to play, I plot the path between the room in which I stand and the street outside, picturing all of the door handles, knobs and buttons I need to interact with before I leave. All contaminated with whatever form of cold, flu, or twenty-first century plague the delegate has contracted. If they have come down with COVID-19, we all have. I resign myself to the inevitable and try not to touch my face until I get home and can wash my hands.