I went for a walk in a London park with my friend S, and it was quite desolate, a lazy, half-arsed rain hazing the view of a mainly empty landscape. Every 10 minutes, a solitary person would walk past, shouting to themselves. Then it would turn out they were wearing headphones and shouting at someone else. Hard to say which was preferable. It didn’t matter anyway, because S is always in a good mood. She’s famous for it. It’s infectious. She’s like the Pete Doherty of going for a walk, the person funny things happen to and then they wake up in Oslo. Once she went across Hampstead Heath with the MP Margaret Hodge. It was duckling season, and adorable, all these little families waddling about. They saw a guy crouched down, with his hands cupped, and Hodge went over and asked him: “Have you found a lost duckling?” And he said: “No, I’m rolling a joint.” Then added, respectfully: “There are some ducklings over there, though.” I spend my life trying make something that charming happen on a walk.
We were talking about lockdown, because that’s what socialising is now – using the one thing you can do to talk about all the things you can’t. I said that people seemed to be pretty much resigned to nothing changing before April or even later, and this had altered the mood, from the dicey, hypocritical mutual policing of yesteryear, where we all strained on the leash of the rules while furiously judging each other for doing exactly the same, into something more like docile misery. “No, no, no,” she said. “You’ve got this completely wrong.” It’s amazing how many of her pronouncements start like this, and how often, when you really come down to it, the difference of her opinion is imperceptibly slight. One day I’m going to do an audit on degrees of wrongness, and determine once and for all the correct application of the word “completely”.
“You see, loads of my friends are old,” she explained. I thought it was the start of a rebuke. As in, people like me have no idea about the real fear of mortality – sharp, constant and inescapable; we are just worried about our kids being out of school, seeing their lust for life curling back on itself like an untended toenail.
That would have been fair, but that wasn’t what she meant. “They’ve all been vaccinated. Some of them are on their second. They’re absolutely overjoyed. They can’t wait to get back to the theatre.” We chewed this over a bit. Actually, the No 1 priority was grandchildren. Not teaching them the name of wildflowers by Zoom, but hugging them – hugging, tousling, wrestling, throwing them up in the air and catching them, pretty much all the manhandling you can do to a child without it minding. Grandchildren up and down the country need to be ready for this. There’s an army coming for them.
Along with all the pent-up desire for mainstream theatre, there is apparently across every generation, a hardcore who have really missed mime. My mum, who is more or less housebound for non-virus reasons, went on so much about the void in her life where mime used to be that I briefly considered commissioning some artists to go round and mime in her kitchen.
The vaccinated aren’t in docile misery, they are genuinely starting to see green shoots. Many will be waking up every morning with their hearts pounding out of their chests, not with angina, but with joy. I’m embarrassed by how surprising I find this obvious fact, and I’m blaming pollsters. Every week, there’s another survey, but it’s not taking the nation’s temperature so much as inviting an ever more elaborate patchwork of moaning and recrimination. Do you think 2021 will be better than/worse than/the same as 2020? Who do you blame for the high rates of Covid infection? How long do you think we will have to live under some pandemic restrictions? Then respondents are duly demographically sliced, to garner the insight that everyone over 65 thinks the future will be awful, it’s all young people’s fault and we’ll be living like this for years. I’m not saying rework the questions, to angle them towards the light (“What are you most looking forward to, between the pub and the horses?”), I’m saying, broad descriptions of demographic groups obscure more than they reveal. A poll might tell you your statistical likelihood of meeting a 79-year-old who thinks the government is doing a great job in difficult circumstances (medium), but if it simultaneously makes you forget that not all 79-year-olds think the same thing, except in so far as everybody, at every age, gets a lot more cheerful following a radical improvement of their circumstances, then you have to wonder how useful that enterprise was.
When I got home, I listened to the inauguration of the new US president, with the impossibly old Joe Biden and implausibly young Amanda Gorman saying roughly the same thing, Gorman more beautifully: “The dawn was ours before we knew it.” Now I’m seeing green shoots everywhere, and I won’t be vaccinated for months.