The Coronavirus has, without exception, changed the lives of everyone in our country in some way or another. The devastating impact is clear for all to see and our lives have been forced to alter — for many people, forever. However, this enforced lifestyle change has caused unexpected shifts in attitude and — metaphysically-speaking at least — geographically. The other afternoon, I was out for my daily exercise — a stroll with my 10 year old daughter, where she tends to skip off, chatter to herself and ask me a series of quickfire questions even Professor Whitty would struggle to answer. We wandered without a destination, hand in hand through the peaceful, sunlit streets of West London, towards the footpath by the River Thames. Throughout this fifteen minute amble, she remained uncharacteristically quiet. This 2020 world throws up a great deal to absorb for young, curious minds. It’s a place of killer viruses, absent friends, self-isolation and no extended-family visits. I figured it was my duty to break the silence and put her mind at ease. I pride myself at being pretty adept at calming the active and mind-blowingly empathic workings of my youngest, so I enquired.
“What’s troubling you, Lyla?”
“Do you know what the Coronavirus has done to people, Dad?” she asked.
Before I could deliver my reassuring, fatherly answer about pandemics ; what we need to do to look after ourselves ; why mum still had to go to work wearing a mask and overall — she answered her own question.
“It’s made everyone Northern.” I hail from the glorious city of Leeds, right in the heart of God’s Own Country. This year I am 22 years in London (half my life) and I fully endorse Samuel Johnson’s famous sentiment. Despite this, I consider Yorkshire my spiritual home and, much to my wife’s dismay, I still do not consider myself “a Londoner”. My kids love their visits north to spend time with Grandma and Grandpa, Auntie Jane and Uncle Bobbytastic, as well as their big cousins, great aunts, great uncles and third cousins who get called auntie — to make bonfires in Grandpa’s back garden, play out in the street, get mucky, charge around in wide open spaces, dash through the dense woodlands of Otley Chevin, clamber the ice-age deposits of Almscliffe Crag or take the short journey to a country pub for giant Yorkshire Puds soaked in ‘proper’ gravy. For me, it still feels familiar and just another part of my home. To my children, it’s a blissful Garden of Eden.
Burning stuff with Grandpa Rod
As Lyla and I continued down the river path, her verbal floodgate opened and the thought process unfolded.
“Everything is quiet. There are no planes. That group of men don’t hang around the shops anymore. The air isn’t smoky. We play in the garden now and do loads of stuff together. And you’re more fun. But do you know the main reason? Everyone smiles and says hello to each other when we’re out walking now.”
Coronavirus has made us all Northern.
Even after two decades together, my Londoner wife remains moderately freaked out by the frequency with which total strangers smile, nod or say hello when we’re out and about in the North. Many years back — on a hike out of Grassington — as every walker passed us, heading in the opposite direction, I would exchange a passing greeting and she would ask, “Do you know them?” each time. Even now, something about this open show of unconditional chuminess still doesn’t sit quite right with her.
For my kids, it’s slightly different. They’ve grown up knowing only all that’s best about the North of England; That rose-tinted fondness that comes with occasional visits to see Grandparents, where there’s nothing to do but play, visit adventurous places and spend time with different family and friends. But the observation by Lyla, from her 10 year old mind, was that the London lockdown had brought aspects of this Northern life to London. And she liked it.
Grandma B and Aron at Roundhay Park, Leeds.
We now live in a ‘temporary’ London, where our narrow, terraced street isn’t double parked with resident’s and commuter’s cars, where the raucous aggro from the pub up the road doesn’t wake her at night, where the Heathrow flightpath we live below is occasional rather than relentless, where we stand outside our front doors, chat to our neighbours and applaud our nurses and doctors, where we exchange pleasantries with strangers on our way to the shops, where we ask how people are and mean it, where we speak to and “see” friends more often and where we — as an extended family — spend more time “together”, even though we’re not together. For the last three weeks, we have sat down to meals as a family, worked together through schoolwork, watched family TV shows religiously each evening (currently Season 3 of Outnumbered), taken on creative projects (this week : self-portraits, Picasso-style), invented games in our small garden and spent the sort of quality time together we generally have to wait until a summer holiday to enjoy.
Karen and Ben — Outnumbered Series 1
Granted, the positive side-effects she is enjoying, as part of an enforced lockdown, aren’t exclusively ‘Northern’ (The North is far from being exclusively smoke-free open spaces with pastures green) and our ‘normal’ London life is friendly and fun with wonderful neighbours, but I totally get Lyla’s thought process.
We have been forced — as a consequence of a terrifying, killer virus — into taking on certain qualities from ‘friendlier’ places and simpler days-gone-by; Where time was filled, rather than simply passed; Where a person asked a neighbour how they were and actually listened to their answer; Where family spent quality time together; Where communities cared for each other that bit more; Where present-day anecdotes became the future’s nostalgic past. When this pandemic is thankfully gone, when we can return to the lives we led before March 2020 and we are free to go as we please, let’s all try — really try — to remain just a little bit Northern.