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1 July 2020

I now flinch at the world that used to invigorate me, and I wonder if this change is permanent

 This heightened awareness, this sensitivity, this flinching at the world’s cruelties – has it always been here inside me, but covered up by habit and distraction? 

By Tracey Thorn

It’s a beautiful summer evening – midsummer night in fact, the long slow end of the longest day of the year – and Ben and I are sitting indoors in front of the telly watching episode one of Chernobyl.

How we came to make this terrible decision I can’t quite remember. Like everyone else, we’ve been working our way through films, and box sets and reruns, and when this series came up on a recommendations page Ben asked me what I thought. I’d watched it already, but he had avoided it, fearful of the horror, and now he was asking my opinion, and it was here that my mind played a trick on me. For while I remembered it being great – moody, gripping, atmospheric – I somehow hadn’t remembered that it was also bleak and terrifying.

As we watch I realise my mistake. Outside the sun has dipped, casting green shadows over the lawn, and I can hear the blackbird in his usual tree, and the faint voices of people, sensible people, passing by on their way to the heath. Meanwhile here we are in the fading light of the sitting room watching a man hang himself, and another man suffering radiation burns, and children playing in the fallout dust. I look across the room at Ben and he is looking at the floor.

Within seconds we have come to our senses, turned off the telly, and are out walking in the twilight, arms linked, saying almost nothing, soaking up the gentle dimming of the day.

But I kept thinking, how had I forgotten the horror? How had I filed the programme away as just “a really well-made piece of telly” without remembering the emotional effect? And it linked with a thought I keep having at the moment: have I changed? This heightened awareness, this sensitivity, this flinching at the world’s cruelties – has it always been here inside me, but covered up by habit and distraction? Or have the past few months actually made some kind of alteration to my consciousness?

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A day or two later we drive to a friend’s house, our first time out in the car, a short trip of only 20 minutes, into west London. Speeding along the Westway is usually one of my favourite things, and makes me feel at home, happy and excited to live in London. But today it feels like an assault on the senses, everything louder than usual, and faster than usual, and somehow relentless.

I think of the hilarious quote attributed to actor Ernest Thesiger, who on being asked after the First World War what it had been like in the trenches replied, “Oh, my dear, the noise! And the people!” I can’t keep up this level of fainting couch hysteria every time I leave home, and I don’t like the fact that out there in the city I love so much I now feel small and vulnerable. The city’s energy seems to threaten rather than invigorate me, and I ask myself whether the change in me is permanent, or only temporary, and how I will re-engage with my old life. Or whether there will be a new life, a different one.

The complete isolation is coming to an end – for now, at least – and I meet up with friends, but all any of us has to talk about is The Situation, our response to The Situation, how we are coping with The Situation, what we think will happen next in The Situation. I start to fear that, along with becoming sensitive, I have become boring, but perhaps we all have. God, what did we used to talk about, I think.

Walking through the churchyard on yet another morning, I notice a headstone I haven’t spotted before, and it bears the Latin phrase post tenebras lux – after darkness, light. I think of Chernobyl again, and how my initial response to it was so in keeping with our age’s reverence for “darkness” in art; how we reserve so much of our respect for work which is “harrowing”, or “chilling”, or “unflinching”; how comedy doesn’t get much of a look-in at the awards. 

I’ve become afraid of the dark, maybe because I don’t know what’s in it at the moment, what’s hiding there. And so I keep being drawn to the light; to the sun filtering through the trees, the reflections on the surface of the water, the kindness of friends. I might have to watch Detectorists again. 

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This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis