â€œWeâ€™ve been lucky I suppose â€¦ think of all those families without a garden, really cut off.â€
This has been the recurring theme of conversations with my crumbly neighbours. It is hard to imagine what life is like for a single parent with two kids living on the 10th floor of a high-rise, but we try to do so: after all, we need reminding of how fortunate we are where we live. Itâ€™s a sort of elderly enclave, not dissimilar to a geriatric Butlins, each of us with our own chalet-type dwelling. Just over a dozen of us, cut off from the outside world, yes, but isolated? Not on your life.
We have been in constant touch with each other, not literally of course, but we could hang out in our handkerchief gardens and chat over fences, as well as telephone and electronic contact. But we really miss the personal contact, especially the volunteering, which was crucial to our wellbeing.Â Golf and tennis donâ€™t really do it for us, and the recent relaxation on â€œcongregationâ€ simply re-emphasises how draconian were the previous restraints. Itâ€™ll take more than a barbecue to get over it all. Although being allowed out is welcome, it still feels like weâ€™re being treated like naughty schoolchildren.
Itâ€™s the internet that has been the big winner from the crisis. We could not have done without it, we would not have come through without it. Letâ€™s hope we can move on without it, now that we can bring whole families together and meet up with more than one other human being â€“ off screen.
Mind you, we know whatâ€™s going on without the internet. Most of our news feed is analogue and authentic: itâ€™s from real-life contacts. We know the traffic is increasing because thereâ€™s a main road outside; we get the town gossip from a postie whose social skills could probably resolve the war in Syria. One of us knows someone who empties the park rubbish bins so weâ€™re up to date with whatâ€™s in on the alfresco drinking and eating front â€“ itâ€™s dry cider, vodka and Dominoâ€™s.
Another has a grandson who opens the public toilets â€“ there are 4,500 in the country, most have been closed, not ours. Itâ€™s the same with snitching: all of us know someone, who knows someone who has been the victim of being reported for breaking the rules, and weâ€™ve all had unpleasant moments in the street or supermarket from accusing looks, questioning our geriatric right to be out. We are viewed with even more disapproval if we wear a mask. Madness.
Nevertheless, we hope these are exceptional and that coronavirus-generated neighbourliness will persist, because weâ€™ve come to recognise that neighbourliness takes some working on. One of the â€œconditionsâ€ for being offered a place in these elderly sanctuaries is the social literacy to get the balance right between respect for the privacy of others and social accessibility. The lockdown has enhanced this. Before the crisis, we lived in harmony: as members of the moribundi, we know too well that lifeâ€™s too short for feuding, and we practised sociability with what could be called emotional distancing. The shared experience of the crisis has shown us that neighbourliness is not just saying hello and enquiring after health, itâ€™s about engagement.
The crisis has also made us more â€œalertâ€, although not in the way our prime minister means. We may not have reached the eighth age of the zimmered nincompoop but we know that the reaper is never far away; we may confront him with haemorrhoid humour, but in our serious moments, longevity and dying receive due vigilance.
We also share some strong opinions about the NHS. Naturally we joined in the Thursday clap, but we donâ€™t get dewy-eyed over the NHS. The hands-on people â€“ nurses and doctors, cleaners and porters â€“ they totally deserve heroic status. It is the professions we applaud, not the institution.
My major concern as the rules relax is that people have become so dependent on the electronic connection that it could become our default setting for sociability. The bard was right: the world has indeed become a stage â€“ well, a screen â€“ and the internet has made actors of us all. The problem is that virtual engagement doesnâ€™t work in the way that real contact does.
It may work for good news, although its virtual bonhomie and forced joy smacks of egocentric desperation to be â€œlikedâ€. However, it is of no use whatsoever in bad news transactions; when it attempts gravitas, sympathy, consolation, it comes over as pompous, mawkish and sentimental. It is incapable of expressing emotional literacy.
So I truly hope that we can wean ourselves off the convenience of e-connected affability and restore the less comfortable but essentially more comforting vocabulary of emotional engagement.
â€¢ Stewart Dakers is an 81-year-old community voluntary worker