With the end of 2020 fast approaching there is a temptation to focus solely on all that has changed, been missed, and lost in this extraordinary year. But I prefer to think about those things that were previously hidden yet in full view and only in 2020 did they emerge, rather like an ancient shipwreck lying beneath the sand until freak weather reveals it.
Had I done this exercise in December last year I would almost certainly have been grateful for another packed 12 months of mostly good things for me, my family, friends, and business. But this is an incomparable time in all our lives and here are seven things I certainly didn’t know a year ago.
Perhaps it is a streak of puritanism or simply the legacy of an upbringing that didn’t encourage idleness. Time wasting has never featured much in my life. If an unexpected hour presented itself there was always mild panic about not wasting it, with an inexhaustible list of things to do, to see, to achieve. But this year a lifetime of guilt got spectacularly upended. Suddenly days stretched out with nothing to do, no one to see, nowhere to go, nothing was pressing. Just hour upon hour of time to sit and listen and daydream. Thinking back to the beginning of lockdown it was probably the hardest thing to bear when the shutters came down. Now I realise it was a gift right under my nose. Wasting time is not a sin, regular idling is to be encouraged.
To say I’ve been a martyr to my feet the whole of my life would be to underestimate the gross discomfort I have tolerated in the interests of fashion, business expectation, whim, and downright foolishness. No new shoes have ever felt comfortable. I have always made purchases in the full expectation that the new footwear would do its best to rip and cripple my feet. I’ve had shoes which I have honestly feared were so unwalkable I was unsure I could cross a meeting room floor, shoes which caused me to hyperventilate at the thought of moving around at a party as the pain was so excruciating or footwear where the prospect of simply getting from A to B was a no go, or worse, when confronted with a cobbled street…! Then along came COVID. Being grounded at home and totally invisible from the waist down, suddenly shoes only mattered to provide comfort and enable long, pain-free solitary walks. I’m afraid there is no going back – heels have been binned.
I had only ever been peripherally interested in benches in public places and it was limited to them being good and useful memorials for both parents. Benches were filed away as something for later life when a walk would need the regular punctuation of a sit down. 2020 was the year the humble bench came into its own. As the destination for socially distanced meetings, the epicentre for precious rendezvous with friends and family. I have developed a terrific affection for the benches that circle the bandstand in Battersea Park, sufficiently distanced to fit the rules but easily within earshot for conversation. In the early days of April ‘accidental’ meetings on Saturday mornings kept me sane. Like a Cold War spy, I would arrive with my flask of coffee and separately packaged, home-made flapjacks or slices of lemon drizzle cake to ‘drop’ on each bench, ahead of my children emerging out of the shadows.
Of course, in those dark, early weeks even sitting down in a public place was forbidden, the nation on its daily walk had to keep shuffling in perpetual motion. There was one memorable spring morning when I met a friend in Kensington Gardens. Several times we tried to sit on benches and always a mounted policewoman would materialise from the bushes on a mighty grey to admonish us.
When outdoor meetings were once again legal, park benches become destinations, fully occupied with picnic baskets, champagne and canapes, coffee, and mince pies. Positively humming with friendships and a growing optimism that the end that was in sight. For these reasons, I will be forever grateful to benches which became such unlikely heroes of 2020.
I can’t mention parks and benches without recognizing the magnificence of Annie, the stray I found as a half-dead puppy in a ditch on a Greek island who adapted in a heartbeat to life in Chelsea. The companionship and purpose she contributes to my life has been incomparable. Infectiously enthusiastic and so easily pleased that even very long walks in driving rain don’t dampen her joie de vivre. It is no wonder so many people have taken the plunge and become dog owners this year. This is not to say, I didn’t appreciate Annie before, more that it is a reminder of how amazing dogs are and how they deserve their position in our lives.
For 50 years through school and work my day has begun with the jangle of an alarm. It was all part of a well-oiled routine that was never questioned. Then the world stopped and there was no pressing need to be up at a certain time – I am lucky I rarely oversleep. Now I have a minimum of eight hours of uninterrupted rest. There is no sense of it ever being a ‘school night’ and having to be in bed to get my quota. What utter bliss. When I think of the money, I have wasted over the years on under-eye concealer to hide the black bags of weariness and all that was needed was more sleep. Sorry, alarm calls, you are going the same way as heels.
Not a county I knew before this year. In the absence of any travel prospects, when the opportunity to take a long term let on a farmhouse in Dorset came up, I grabbed it. With technology meeting the challenge of circumstance, it makes little difference if I sit at my table in London or Dorset. Instead, I have sat for many weeks in the depths of this gorgeous farming county. What a revelation it has been. I have been made so welcome – interlopers like me are rare – Dorset is not a convenient destination for weekenders.
The air is like champagne, the starry sky is diamond bright unimpaired by light pollution. I fall asleep to the sound of an owl and wake to pheasants squabbling in the hedgerow. After rainfall, the mud is spectacular, the gates unwieldy, stiles slippery and fords hard to cross without filling your boots with water. Its tough – stacking 500 logs this weekend – or coaxing a bonfire piled high with damp leaves to burn takes patience. Being exhausted through manual activity and properly hungry for a meal because of the cold weather and exertion, are all reminders of how soft city life is in comparison. There has been the joy of being reunited with an Aga after 20 years, marvelling at its practicality for drying socks and warming towels, cooking cakes and puddings for Christmas. Or simply just leaning against with a coffee in hand.
Of remembering to drive with extreme care in the narrow lanes knowing that around the next bend could be a pony rider and a loose dog or a 3-storey high tractor with tyres taller than my car. It is another world that is much more than the 130 miles it is from London. Witness three recent posts on the neighbourhood WhatsApp: a pig had arrived unannounced in someone’s orchard, a hen had gone missing at dusk and there was fear for its odds against the local fox (miraculously, it was found safe and sound in the hen run the next morning having seemingly mastered the ability to both open and shut latches!) and someone received a parcel with an excess of bubble wrap which was going spare – there were no shortage of takers.
And, then there was the silence. When the world ground to a halt, silence fell like a blanket on so much of our daily life. The streets were empty and wind-blown, shops, restaurants and other gathering points lay vacant, the sky was hushed. The stark change in our circumstances was like sudden death, no chance to plan or tidy our affairs. It took me a while to adjust and then, slowly, space became available in my head to think and process the abruptness of this volte-face. Gradually, the fog of the confusion and fear began melting away and opportunity and insights emerged. Established thinking was reassessed, priorities re-computed and actions reflected this fresh calibration. I had no idea just how noisy my life had been and what I had been missing out on all these years. Only the gift of silence made it possible.
What 7 things did you not know a year ago?
10th December 2020