We’re asking writers we admire to write for us, and we’ll be releasing them monthly throughout 2021.
January 2021 is Thomas Glave, a writer and Professor from Binghamton University in Upstate New York, who’s currently living in Birmingham.
What has this past month, partly a time of Covid-caused lockdown, been like?
‘Weird’, is how a Birmingham friend extremely fond of that word might have described it. But ‘weird’ is too vague, and doesn’t make room for all the specific moments. Moments like a walk I took one chilly dusk through Birmingham’s Brindleyplace, where, amidst all those tomb-quiet buildings, it was easy to imagine the opening scene of the zombie-apocalypse film 28 Days Later, that showed an unnervingly deserted London: ‘Hallo-hallo–hallo’, anyone could have shouted that evening, imagining the final-days echo: ‘Is anyone there-there-there?’
And what about the seagulls that flock through the West Midlands (and all the UK) throughout the year, hijacking unsuspecting people’s lunches? Didn’t they appear to be moving closer to the very few human beings out walking, as the darkness encroached and began to whisper, How’s this, you fancy this? And really, except for maybe one or two runners who darted past (and even they, so thin, might have been just birds or the ghosts of birds), there was almost nobody else about… nobody except a lone Brindleyplace security guard, who for a few seconds bent his head over a match’s flare to light a cigarette, before he disappeared behind one of those buildings as if he too had existed in real life only for a moment, then had been drawn back into the realm of dreams where security guards, cigarette in hand, wander alone forever, half-alive and half lockdown apparitions that melt into dusk in this city of hills and tall buildings and twisting stretching canals. . . on lockdown evenings like that one, the dusk always descended in time for the ensuing quiet to gather entirely around and wrap itself, its soft thick arms, all around your shoulders: the quiet of pandemic nights, of people gathered indoors and sometimes also isolated there, sometimes alone.
These past weeks were the unaccustomed quietness of pubs shuttered, restaurants stilled, railway stations and airports emptied, and all of us, the living and the waking, wondering what all this meant or could mean, and – often more insistently – when it was going to end. Simultaneously, if we knew people who had fallen ill, we worried about them, prayed for them, and did all we could to ensure that they wouldn’t leave us just yet: not leave like that. Not so suddenly, so intubated. Not whilst gasping for breath behind some sterile partition, sequestered in a fluorescent-lit hospital ward. Not like that, without our hands to hold and our face to stroke, as we in turn wanted to hold and comfort them. Through it all, as we thought of them and seasonal gifts like the sorely missed brighter-than-bright Birmingham Christmas market, there was always the cloaking dusk, and then the sound of our own footsteps. Our feet that, as the season progressed, began to mutter Slow down, won’t you….please, for goodness’ sake, you simply must slow down.
And out of the slowing down, if we listened to those feet, arose a kind of blessedness as well. The kind that might have moved us to put up festive lights a little earlier in the season, aware that the increased lights and colours may have helped to cheer our neighbours. The kind that may even have moved us in an era of global stress and anxiety to speak with neighbours a bit longer when we saw them, and with more solicitous interest than usual, especially the elderly and the vulnerable… although hopefully always at a two-metre distance.
Our warming planet, meanwhile, began to thank us for lockdown and our decreased travel and traffic. Birds, other creatures, and every tree and bush expressed and continue to express their gratitude, from the Jewellery Quarter to Acocks Green and all the way to Kings Heath, as nature raised its eyebrows at our actual ability to step back and take a breath.
Someone told me this week that I should listen carefully, in order to hear the sound of nature politely applauding our efforts. But if we can’t hear it, he said, this will be only because of the silence in between all other occurring things… the silence that assures that in spite of everything else, our hearts really are still in wonderful working order, still fond of us, and nowhere near prepared to stop.
What I’m reading now:
Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague
Michael B.A Oldstone, Viruses, Plagues, and History