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Life during lockdown, part 2

20 Dec 2020

On 11 September 2020, I published a blog post called Life during lockdown, part 1. That date marked 6 months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic; the blog shared how Esther and I had changed our lives in getting through those months. My penultimate line was: “I appended ‘part 1’ to the title of this blog because the virus is still out there.” Now, 100 days later, a second lockdown has been and gone, yet the stakes have just gotten even higher. This was our ‘part 2’.

Finding a way

By late summer there were clear behavioural divisions across UK society. Those who lived in greatest fear for their health remained sheltered indoors, whilst others started capering about as though COVID-19 never existed. Most of us trod carefully between these two extremes, cautiously seeking new ways to enjoy bygone pleasures without compromising our own safety or that of others. Mental health was a big consideration too; our function as humans is to be rational and social. We have to strive.

The lockdown part 2 look.

The day after I published my first lockdown blog we re-engaged with the arts in a big way. Spencer Tunick was back in London to create a: “communal, social distancing, mask wearing, human artwork“. We were among two hundred and twenty volunteers who stripped naked to pose outside Alexandra Palace for ‘Everyone Together‘. This was more than just another mass nude photographic installation; it was statement of hope and possibility, tenacity and care, and it reunited us with old friends, safely.

© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick.

© Spencer Tunick / @spencertunick.

Everyone Together did not say now we can all carry on as in the past, but it did say we can find ways forward in the future, and that we must seize the moment when we can. Being outdoors was key. It felt healthy, free, with more possibility for safer social distancing from others. Esther and I continued cultivating our garden crops and going for long walks through the countryside. We visited our artist friend, Catherine Hall, in Margate and met London friends in open spaces whenever we could.

Esther harvests our first pattypan squash.

Wind-swept with Catherine at Margate.

Aside from participating in the arts, my other passion is travel. Throughout the year, I looked constantly for opportunities to journey abroad within an ever-changing narrow framework of restrictions. A planned trip to Prague had to be cancelled, so I turned to Naples instead. As the departure date got ever nearer it seemed the rules could shift at any moment and deny me once more. Restrictions tightened, paperwork had to be signed and forms filled-in online, yet I managed to get away on 27 September.

A bit nervy on a sparsely populated plane to Naples.

Me and The Seven Works of Mercy (Caravaggio).

By now Esther had embarked on a college course from which it was too soon to take time-out, so I travelled alone. I was sad not to be sharing the experience, but to miss the trip myself was unthinkable; I needed it badly, for my mind and my spirit. Visits to Herculaneum, Vesuvius and Pompeii were dream-fulfilment. I had my temperature checked almost everywhere I went, and was constantly hand-sanitising. Masks were commonly worn outside; in general, Italy seemed a lot more disciplined than the UK.

On the coast at Naples, with Mount Vesuvius for backdrop.

In the Building of Eumachia, ancient Pompeii.

Life drawing in the flesh

Tunick and Naples were to be high points in a desperate year. The travel corridor for Italy closed very soon after I returned, and there were to be no more art installations, though life drawing in person – in the room with artists rather than online – was back for educational settings and covid-safe venues. When I posed for LeNu life drawing on 22 September it was my first time modelling in more than 6 months. I’d lost a little flexibility and suspected my bones were slightly less visible, but it felt great.

Appropriately rusty, at LeNu life drawing.

I’m yet to find a place in my heart for life drawing online and still see it as a substitute of last resort rather than a desirable practice. In my last lockdown blog I criticised the ‘sexing up’ of life drawing that, as it appeared to me, seemed to accompany this shift online. Three months on as online groups have become better established and more confident, sexing-up has toned-down; but for me psychologically, the online format is tainted a little. Even so, I respect its importance for livelihoods and mental health.

Long pose at The Conservatoire.

I’m still not responding to life model call-outs or pursuing new bookings as I prefer to leave opportunities for those with greater needs. The few jobs I’ve accepted were all offered to me directly for differing reasons. In October I posed at The Conservatoire and Hesketh Hubbard Art Society. I had modelled for their artists almost fifty times in total over the years, but these sessions… they were both exhilarating and eerie. In each case, human interactions – connections in the space – were essential qualities.

Short pose for Hesketh Hubbard Art Society.

In mid-October, Esther and I attended an exhibition of quite magnificent paintings by Artemesia Gentileschi at the National Gallery. While we were queuing to get in, a chance encounter with artist and tutor Joanna McCormick got me another booking, in November at Brockley Adult Education Centre. I didn’t realise it at the time, but an increasing rate of coronavirus infections across the UK meant this would be my final booking of 2020. A fortnight later, the second national lockdown was announced.

Esther between of Artemesia’s Judiths.

National lockdown 2.0

It was Halloween when our atrocious, incapable, self-obliging oaf of a prime minister got up on his hind legs to decree, belatedly, that national restrictions lasting 4-weeks would begin on Thursday 5 November. Another lockdown. What’s to be done in such situations except apply face paint, put on vaguely sinister clothes and go to the pub? We spent that evening in the bohemian surrounds of The Railway Hotel, Southend, feeding and watering our sorrows at their ‘Public House of Horrors‘ night.

Halloween and the Public House of Horrors.

A witch! A witch!

On 4 November, the last night before lockdown, we returned to The Railway Hotel to catch a gig by musical comedy duo, Cumposers, with revelatory support, emotional and strong, from Ren Stedman. I had tickets for other gigs after the lockdown, but a tightening of local restrictions meant they were destined to be cancelled, so this was my last of 2020. It was a very special evening. We bought Ren’s T-shirt and CD, had wine, shots and a good meal, then retreated home to brace for the 4 weeks ahead.

The extraordinarily talented Ren Stedman.

Cumposers, riffing the Railway regulars.

The second lockdown, when it came, was quite unlike the first. Pubs, restaurants and anything remotely cultural or uplifting were closed or cancelled, but otherwise it felt as though life continued much as before. Supermarkets were busy, schools stayed open, roads stayed noisy and outdoor public areas were more crowded than before. For me its main downsides were a scuppering of holiday plans, colder days and longer winter nights, meaning I couldn’t go for cross-country walks after work. I was stuck indoors.

At Brockley Adult Education Centre.

At Brockley Adult Education Centre.

With schools and educational settings staying open, my full-day life model booking at Brockley Adult Education Centre was able to proceed on 7 November. It was hybrid, meaning some artists were present in the room whilst others painted online… my first taste of online life drawing, and one I felt was a valid compromise. Meanwhile, Esther faced either having to cancel her Spirited Bodies 10-year anniversary event or move online instead. After much agonising, she chose the latter course.

Lockdown life ~

~ at home with Esther.

As a warm-up practice before Spirited Bodies, she ran ‘Lockdown life ~ at home with Esther‘ – an online life drawing and performance event for a modest-sized audience, which allowed us to trial the best technical approach. This included testing the use of three webcams, though we stayed with only two for Spirited Bodies. The anniversary event went extraordinarily well with 40 people taking part, including Esther and seven others modelling. It was a genuine feel-good occasion shared with many old friends.

Spirited Bodies is 10 years-old!

Ursula poses and performs ‘Sea Too’.

Out of the frying pan

Although the shift in public attitudes and behaviours meant at times the lockdown felt like a lockdown in name only, it affected me more than the first one. This time I would see Esther at weekends-only and in between would sometimes not see another flesh-and-blood person for two or three days. Coupled with an intensification of my day job at home, I was quite relieved when national restrictions ended on 2 December; albeit London emerged from lockdown into the high local restrictions level, ‘Tier 2’.

Tate Britain in neon.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright.

We didn’t know it then, but we had just two and a half weeks before things would get worse again. Time was precious. We visited the Royal Academy Summer (Winter) Exhibition, went Xmess market shopping at ever-wonderful cave and accompanied friends, Marinella and Gaylyn in viewing the illuminated façade of Tate Britain. Most importantly, we managed to escape from the capital for a 4-night break in Penzance, Cornwall. No rules were bent or broken. We needed it; I needed it.

Esther at The Merry Maidens stone circle.

Atop Creeg Tol.

We arranged this trip only when November bookings to Sicily and Athens fell through. Little did we know at the time that after lockdown was lifted, Cornwall would be left as the only part of mainland England in the lowest tier of restrictions. We walked around the coast to Mousehole, visited Land’s End and best of all, discovered ancient stone circles and megalithic standing stones. Pubs and restaurants were open; we even ate a full Christmas dinner. It was a huge boost for minds, bodies, spirits and souls.

Support for Piper I megalith.

In alignment at Boscawen-Un stone circle.

On 17 December, the day after we returned home, London and the southeast moved into very high ‘Tier 3’ restrictions. So be it. At least we knew the rules for the next two weeks and could plan for Christmas. I immediately commenced a period of voluntary self-isolation so it would be safe for me to visit relatives on Christmas Day. So naïve! Two days later our crap prime minister declared a virus variant in the southeast to be much more infectious, so we had to go into a new ‘Tier 4’. Christmas was cancelled.

We go on

Disappointment abounds, but where there’s still life, there is hope. During the course of this year I’ve had twelve life model bookings, five holiday bookings and two tickets for gigs all cancelled. In-person contact socially has been minimal and for my day job has ceased completely. Since March I’ve seen my parents maybe half-a-dozen times, whereas previously I visited them weekly; I won’t now see them for Christmas. And in all this, I’ve been lucky. I’m lucky I’ve lost no-one to the virus. I’ve been lucky.

Midwinter performers – photo © Simon Bradley.

This evening Esther and Ursula Troche staged a ‘Midwinter Words and Plays‘ event online. It marked the longest night, and perhaps these are our darkest days. There is always a way through, though. With each new twist we must strive and seek and find the new way for ourselves and our loved ones. Our world is smaller for now; we don’t yet know what lies ahead, but there will be a way forward. The nights will get shorter, the days brighter. The light will come. We go on. Stay strong. Life will get better.

From → Art

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