Monday 13 April 2020

Letters from Lockdown

An extrovert, trapped

The comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White fears that the lockdown is changing her personality… and Primrose Hill into a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale

The first week of lockdown was a nightmare for this extrovert. I had withdrawal headaches from the caffeine of humanity. Once I’d weaned myself off hugs and conspiratorial chats in dark corners of pubs, I began to find the new rhythms of my now-sequestered life underscored by Whitesnakes’ ‘Here I Go Again on My Own’. I had to make sense of this new abnormal. Blitz-spirited, facing-forward, sports-bra on – I plunged into running, making, doing and talking. Obviously, it is vital that I “make the most of this time” and find out how to put the whole of my 3D life – complete with more eye contact than others find entirely comfortable – onto the no-dimensional, anonymous internet.

This reinvention activity also doubles as “something to do with my hands” while my mind lets out a primal scream into the void. I am scared that people I love deeply will die. People I admire and some I know a little are already dying, or at least becoming violently ill. I know that medics exposed to a viral load are dying exponentially while trying to save you and me from our sun-loving selves.

All of this must be looked at briefly every day but not obsessed about because that will do no one any good – and any good is what I’d prefer to be doing. I know I don’t need to be productive. I’ve read six articles this morning telling me “I’ve got this” and just changing out of my pyjamas is accomplishment enough. But I notice all the authors of these articles about doing nothing are very busy writing and publishing and sharing their insights on how I should be comfortable not achieving anything at all.

I’m sorry but, like Lady Gaga, I was born this busy way. So, while many of my colleagues are learning the ukulele or reading the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse to avoid their increasingly undeniable mortality, I’ve got stuff to do – much of it on camera. I’m a feminist but I wish I’d invited someone who could do hair and make-up to stay rent-free for the lockdown.

Every morning I have an exercise class by Zoom. For those who’ve avoided it, Zoom is Big Brother’s answer to a comforting but vigilant nanny. Every evening I host a new daily show on Instagram Live called The New Normal (invented “on the fly,” where apparently we live now) on which I interview comedians and activists (people-people to a person) about how their quarantine is going. More conversations have dissolved into tears than haven’t. Some have combusted into hysterical laughter – which is just another valve to release high anxiety.

These daily bookends give me a reason to get out of bed and a reason to get back in it again. I’ve yet to discover a reason to make the bed, but I’m sure that by month three I’ll be organised as well as insular. This whole damn thing is rehauling my personality and, frankly, I’m scared this cosy cave is becoming so cosy that I won’t be capable of emerging back into my old life. At first I felt, “Who am I if I’m not dashing from a meeting to a show to a book launch to a meeting again?” And now, in my efforts to control something, anything, in my vacuum of a day, like, for example, the time I get up and have toast and coffee, I’ve discovered there’s a calm charm to routine. There’s an elegance to a 4pm daily government-issued walk.

The second I allow myself this ignoble thought in a global pandemic, I take said walk up Primrose Hill, and the experience is one of going for a lovely, sunny stroll through The Handmaid’s Tale. A police officer on a motorbike revs up behind me in the park and knocks me off the path by blaring his siren and shouting “Go home” at anyone who’s lingering, let alone loitering, even though no one seems to be breaking the spirit of the law or careering within six feet of anyone else. At the climax of my state-sanctioned exercise up the crest of the hill, a police car screeches to a halt to tell the climbers that they need to leave the scene of their own petty crime. I am aware that we mustn’t endanger any lives and they have a job to do, but the crying, frightened children around me make the walk less of a mental health boost than I was hoping. Is this how police states begin or am I being paranoid?

I walk home depressed and crash a “House Party” (an app where many can drink Margaritas in parallel solitary confinement and friends of friends can pop into the conversation without permission). A friend and her friends talk to me as the night falls and I walk through the bleak empty streets of Camden’s formerly buzziest ‘hood. Only one man walks near me and he’s wearing a mask. I cross the road to avoid him. Two of the people on the call have the virus and tell me of their symptoms through their feverish coughs. The most likely explanation for this whole day is that I’ve fallen asleep during an episode of Black Mirror. Or maybe I have the virus. The whole thing seems like a fever dream.

I phone my mother who is in Australia, where they’ve closed the closest state border, meaning that none of her children can get to her; and, as she is over a certain age, it’s illegal for her to leave the house under any circumstances. She makes jokes about her convent life, saying she’ll find a cockroach for company and teach it tricks. I order her some organic vegetables and DVDs online and try to imagine hugging her tightly again, because there’s no reason she’ll get it. Probably no one I love will get a bad dose, will they? The prime minister is rushed to intensive care. My phone autocorrects his name to “Virus Johnson”.

Soon it will be Thursday night and we will applaud the NHS again. We will applaud till our dry, cracked, over-washed hands are sore. We will become a little disconnected from our tribes and, in doing so, find a new vivid kinship with humanity. We will allow our planet to restore and repair and, in the end, perhaps, we will stop trying to win the human race. And the first Thursday after quarantine ends, we will come out onto the street to applaud the waxers.

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