The Situation

I’ve been wanting to write a longer entry here for weeks, rather than just post Covid-19 links and the like, but the situation has conspired against me. Like millions of other parents, including my wife, I’m attempting to juggle working from home with home-schooling and entertaining two kids, and have had little time or energy to write anything for myself; but it hasn’t just been that. It’s that what I’d be writing about is both too personal, unsettling, and momentous, and, at a time when millions are sharing the same experience, too generic, ordinary, and obvious.

But one day I’ll want to look back over this blog to remind myself what we were all going through and what I thought of it all, assuming I’m still here. So I’ll try to capture some of it.

A month ago we were still fairly oblivious to what lay ahead, but the warning signs were already mounting. I spent a Saturday fitting some roof bike racks to the car so that we could go mountain-biking as the weather improved, but by the following Saturday any prospect of that was gone. My university asked us to work from home if possible after the 16th, which was my last day in the office, apart from half an hour of ducking in quickly to grab some books and gear before the closure of the building. For a few days I was driving my son to school to help him avoid public transport; and then the schools shut, and we all started confining ourselves indoors. Since Friday 20 March I’ve been outside the flat only once every few days, a few of those times only to empty the bins.

In the space of a week, everything had changed. Driving through Edinburgh that week was an unsettling experience, with few people on the streets even in the middle of the city, and a fair few of them wearing masks. Since the 20th, I’ve been in the car only once, after steeling myself to do the first big shop of the lockdown at Sainsbury’s. It was like driving on Christmas Day, with hardly any traffic and even fewer pedestrians. The supermarket had implemented a queue; it didn’t take too long to get in, around ten minutes, but as the first time I’d ever queued to get into a supermarket it still felt odd. Inside, the shelves looked worse than they had during the frenzy of the week before, when key items were disappearing fast. Now there was some stock of most things, although still with gaps (there was a full aisle of UHT milk for the first time in a fortnight, but I got the last packet of strong white flour), but everything looked half-stocked compared to before. Moving around the aisles was an anxious dance of hugging the opposite shelves to passing shoppers and circling widely around shelf-stackers. It was hard to keep your distance at the tills, but Sainsbury’s has now introduced an app to let you scan and pack as you go, which might improve that.

Last week I went shopping again, taking my bike out for the first time since the 16th to ride to Waitrose. Once again most things were available, and I managed to find some I hadn’t for a while, like rice, but there were gaps (tinned tomatoes, this time), and everything looked depleted. Everyone tells us that there are ample food supplies, that it’s just taking time for the stock levels to adjust to the new levels of demand, and there’s some evidence of that adjustment; but you have to wonder what will be available as this drags on. Some food companies are closing their doors during the pandemic—in Scotland, notably Tunnocks—so there will be less variety than we’ve been used to.

But never mind a lack of caramel wafers, this is what strikes fear into the heart of any expatriate Australian…

Empty Vegemite
Mouseover for more terror.

My last jar. I saw some smaller jars in a Waitrose on the other side of town a few weeks ago, and foolishly failed to panic-buy them. Now the nearby Waitrose doesn't have any, and jars are selling online for triple the usual import prices. I may have to buy some online anyway; it's cheaper than a flight to Australia, and that's off the agenda for who knows how long.

Getting through the coming months is going to be a weird mix of mundanity and anxiety, with every trip to the shops becoming a scene from The Deer Hunter. But at least it's a break from the confinement—those two shopping trips are the most I've travelled in a fortnight. As all of us now know in our bones, there's a huge difference between spending a day or two at home and having to spend every day at home.

We're lucky enough to live in a flat with access to a communal garden, so even if the police start patrolling the streets and stopping anyone who's outdoors without good reason, we'll still be able to get some fresh air, as long as nobody else is down there. On Wednesday my daughter and I went down to test out a homemade bottle rocket that used nothing more than a bike pump and water. It was more exciting than the last episode of Star Wars.

There's more to write about The Situation, but I might have to pace myself; there's a limited amount of personal news now that life has shrunk so much. We're anticipating a long road ahead. The schools will be shut until the summer, and we're not at all sure they'll open again in August; the Fringe has been cancelled, too. The start of the next university year will be far from normal, and 2021 offers no certainty. EasyJet had a seat sale last week, and I considered buying four return tickets to Lisbon for the February school term break, but if it's 12–18 months until a vaccine, even that could be too soon.

5 April 2020 · Events