I’ve just got home from Edinburgh, having done a reading and interview at the city’s International Book Festival. I feel like a small creature that has crept back into its shell. The whole trip was both exciting and daunting, reminding me how my habits have changed, how things that used to feel so normal now feel so extraordinary.
I started to pack my suitcase and realised that I had no idea where my make-up bag was. When I dug it out from the back of the bathroom cupboard, where it has languished since last spring, I rummaged through it as though it were full of unfamiliar treasure. Creamy foundation, palettes of eyeshadow, an eyebrow pencil, matte burgundy lipsticks – I’ve had no use for any of these things. My daily routine has dwindled, and is now nothing more than a dab of tinted moisturiser and a smudge of sheer lip colour. But now I was going on stage and I’d have to paint a face back on, with which to face the world.
The world has changed though. I know we keep saying so, but it’s the small differences that continue to be striking. Hotels aren’t what they were, and though I don’t quite understand the principle, it seems that a universal Covid measure has been to empty all bedrooms of any “unnecessary” extras. So the minibar is bare, while the tray above it has teabags, but no teacups, just disposable paper beakers, and wooden stirrers instead of teaspoons. It’s all rather spartan, and the bleakness gets me down. Frivolous creature that I am, I like the unnecessary extras, they are what make hotels fun. So I go straight out to a nearby supermarket and buy milk, grapes, biscuits and crisps, and I stock the minibar with a couple of bottles of wine, and it immediately cheers me up.
It’s not just the hotel that’s changed though. I have too. I make up my face and I take a selfie but then can’t be bothered with it. My face and hair look the way they always do, and the lighting is fine, and normally I’d post it on Instagram with some kind of modest caption, but when I look at the photo I just think, “Who cares?”
It’s quite hard to shake this mood once it takes hold of you. I enjoy my book event, especially the reading, which comes to life with an actual audience, and is energised by that human response you get – a murmur here, a ripple of laughter there. But halfway through my interview I have an awful moment when I seem to disengage, and I hear myself talking and it sounds like blah blah blah, and I suddenly feel like a fraud, like a bore. “Who cares what you think about this subject?” says the voice in my head, and I have to work pretty hard to make it shut up.
I feel – only briefly, but sharply – split in two. The private bit of me, always fairly dominant, has taken over completely since last year. The self who walks and gardens and reads and has endless internal conversations, who doesn’t much care about make-up or clothes, who hasn’t, in fact, bought anything new in a year – that self has crowded out my public self. So the one who likes a train journey, and being away from home, who enjoys an event and the drunken silly chat of a night out – that person is still in there, but a bit cowed, a bit hesitant. She’ll come back to life I suppose, with practice. Or maybe she won’t, maybe I will have moved on to a new stage, which requires a new balance of personality.
I end up back in my hotel room in the evening, having been unable to find a restaurant with any free outdoor tables. I eat a Sainsbury’s sandwich, and drink a mini bottle of rosé, while watching Alex Polizzi’s Hotel Nightmare, and although I can see that this is slightly tragic, it is in many ways, a hotel dream for me. I always enjoy an indoor picnic, and even more than that, I enjoy any TV programme about home or hotel renovations going completely tits up. On the screen Alex and her mother fret and agonise over planning permission and fabric choices, builder’s mistakes and staffing issues. “It’s a NIGHTMARE,” they both keep saying, and I heartlessly chug my wine and smile.
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Eternal Empire