Notes from a ghost town: Canterbury in lockdown

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Even by my standards, I had a bizarre experience last Tuesday.

It was a deliciously warm and sunny spring afternoon, and I had to go into Canterbury city centre to run a few essential errands. In ordinary times, the place would have been teeming with people of all ages – not just residents, but students and visitors from all over the country and, indeed, the world.

That’s the Canterbury I’ve known all my life: a thriving university city, pilgrimage site and tourist magnet, full of vitality and boisterous hustle and bustle.

Instead, it was almost deserted.

Obviously, under current circumstances, this is a good thing: it means that most of my fellow Canterburians are doing their bit to limit the spread of Covid19.

It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, either. Not that I generally mind crowds or noise, but I found it oddly refreshing to have my home city to myself for once.

In these bizarre times, it’s important to draw whatever positives we can from what is, in most respects, a dreadful state of affairs. Even if our leaders had acted with impeccable conscientiousness and competence from day one (which, in my view, they didn’t), we’d still have had multiple deaths and far-reaching socioeconomic problems to contend with.

So if one of the minor positives in my life is an unusually serene and stress-free walk down Canterbury High Street, then so be it. You have to take whatever consolation and encouragement you can get in difficult times.

There are, of course, far more significant positives, not least the courage and dedication of NHS and social care staff, or the extraordinary multi-million-pound sums raised for the health service through the selflessness of fundraisers and the generosity of the general public.

It’s more difficult to find anything nice to say about the restrictions of living under lockdown. In this respect, I can only speak for myself, but losing so many everyday freedoms has made me realise how much I care about them. As Joni Mitchell put it, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

For example, I play in several bands and sing in two choirs, and I miss them terribly. I also miss my regular weekend football games. So when I’m free to play and sing and run around again, I think I’ll appreciate it more than ever before.

Even freedoms that I’ve rarely used in the past now seem more valuable than ever. I’m not exactly a regular theatregoer – my most recent trip was to see Measure for Measure at the Marlowe, and that was my first for many months. Now that I can’t go there, to the Gulbenkian or indeed anywhere else, I feel bereft.

Maybe once all this corona-madness is over, I’ll actually take advantage of the fact that I have two excellent theatres within walking distance of my house.

In fact, I hope we’ll all make the most of our freedoms and opportunities, both in this beautiful city and beyond it, once life has gone back to normal.

And I’m afraid it will most probably go back to normal. All those who think that this crisis will be a permanent ‘game-changer’ will be just as disappointed as everyone who thought the same thing about the 2008 financial crisis.

The NHS will still be grotesquely underfunded, essential workers will still be hopelessly overworked and underpaid, no one (except maybe the odd scapegoat) will be held properly accountable for any of the failures or inadequacies of our response to the coronavirus pandemic, and anyone on under £36,000 a year will be deemed ‘unskilled’ again.

Sure, we may carry on clapping doctors and nurses and caregivers for three to six months after the lockdown ends. We could even have a national holiday to celebrate them. But I doubt it.

So the world probably won’t change for the better. But maybe we can, if only by being more grateful for everything we have, and enjoying it to the full while we have the chance. There’s nothing quite like a deadly virus to make you appreciate how fragile our lives are, and how deeply we should cherish them.

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