Everyone needs something that helps them feel normal – mine is my homespun “cinema”

Before lockdown I went to the cinema with an almost religious regularity every Sunday night. These days the ritual looks a little different. 

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The “new normal” does weird things to people. I, having once been the kind of person who refused to run for a bus, have become what my fellow columnist Nicholas Lezard would call “a jogger”.

Whereas my previous levels of crafting might be labelled “a hobby”, they might now be more accurately described as “a problem”: I spend my weekends flitting from the sewing machine to the KitchenAid to the easel and back again at a feverish pitch. I’ve developed an addiction to fake tan, though there is no one to admire my bronzed limbs, in an attempt to trick my brain into thinking I’ve recently returned from holiday.

To counteract all the strangeness, we do what minor things we can to retain some level of normality. One friend refuses to leave the house without wearing lipstick. Another has taken to leaving her flat at the end of the working day, closing the front door behind her, then opening it and coming back in; honey I’m home! And on Sunday nights I go to the cinema.

It has been five years since I started going to the pictures alone. It felt strange at first, but mostly only because other people told me it was so. I quickly came to enjoy how unbridled it is: there is no one else to tell me what to watch, no one huffing at me to hurry up while I linger too long over the snacking options. In the half-light of the trailers, I enjoy picking out the other solo heads above the backs of chairs – my people.

Before lockdown I did this, with an almost religious regularity, every Sunday night. I have been known, if the showing is a little later than I’d like for a school night, to take off my make-up, trade contact lenses for glasses, and walk to the cinema in my pyjamas, just so I can roll straight into bed afterwards. These days the ritual looks a little different. 

There are four rules of Sunday night cinema. One: pay for your film. Subscription services have made us fickle viewers. If you’re not feeling it after ten minutes you can switch to something else, or else you end up half-watching – nothing invested, nothing lost. Curzon Home Cinema has become my closest ally in this, as well as – of all things – the HMV website. I’ve discovered new films (the symbolism-laden Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an English grad’s dream) and savoured old favourites: the warmth of infatuation and an Italian summer in Call Me By Your Name; the brilliant precision of The Handmaiden.

Rule two: normal cinema etiquette applies. You must make the room as dark as possible, and you must turn off your phone. The only exception is that in this establishment you are allowed to put your feet on the seats. And third, snacks are mandatory. Popcorn has become a mainstay among the “essential supplies” of my weekly shop.

One of my favourite things about going to the cinema has always been the journey home afterwards, when my mind is hazily divided in two: half dealing with the immediacy of the search for my house keys, half left behind in an entirely different, fictional world. As a child, I remember darting down the road with my brother after watching Mulan, twirling and jabbing at each other, eking out the fantasy. As an adult, the sensation is somehow more poignant. The music in my headphones is a soundtrack. I move more slowly and deliberately; the ordinary contortions of my hands seem novel. It’s a similar feeling to leaving the pub early enough in the evening to be just the right level of drunk: happy, grateful, a little pretentious.

And so the fourth rule of Sunday night cinema is this: after the credits have rolled, you must unfurl yourself and head out into the dark for a walk around the block. As with everything, it’s a poor approximation of the old normal, but I need that feeling of suspended reality more than ever. It’s a brief respite – like the sweet moment just after waking when you haven’t yet remembered again that everything has changed.

If nothing else, it’s my own version of closing the front door and opening it again at the end of the working day. A way to mark the passing of time; another week over, another begins. And so on it goes. 

Next week: Tracey Thorn

Pippa Bailey is the New Statesmans chief sub-editor. 

This article appears in the 08 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain

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