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21 October 2020updated 12 Oct 2023 11:37am

Lockdown’s fragile idyll, the 10’o’clock habit, and crossing the border for Waitrose

Although my NS series on Europe is having a long sleep, I have visited a foreign country six times since March: mostly just to do my food shop. 

By Matthew Engel

I have spent the past seven months hefted to my home in south-west Herefordshire, more closely than at any time in the 30 years we have lived here. In douce weather, in the lee of the mountains, on the edge of Wales, the experience has often had a tinge of idyll. But idylls are always fragile: one false move, one unwanted caller, and the protective bubble we think surrounds us could be pricked.

My mind keeps turning to Eyam in Derbyshire, where in 1665 the village tailor ordered a batch of cloth from plague-ravaged London. The cloth was contaminated, the tailor’s assistant died horribly. More decisive than some modern leaders, the rector of Eyam (pronounced Eem), William Mompesson, persuaded the villagers to accept a lockdown to contain the spread. The figures are flaky, but between a quarter and three-quarters of them died; nearby villages stayed safe.

For more than a year food was left at Eyam’s boundary stone by merchants, and church services moved to a quiet spot where Mompesson preached to families standing in their own groups, self-isolating. One woman buried her husband and six children. One girl regularly exchanged mating calls with her lover in the next village, until the week his call went unanswered. The entire story moves me more than anything in the annals of war.

Eyam is set in scenery even more rugged and evocative than our own. When I last visited, however, this inspiring place had been desecrated by tourist signboards full of idiocies and exclamation marks. (Can someone please assure me these have now gone? If not, Bonfire Night is coming.)

So far, and touching wood, our own experience of 2020 has been the reverse of Eyam. We hope to keep the disease outside, not inside. To that end, we trust those we know well, are cautious with those we don’t. We benefited from the skill of the nearby care home, which refused to accept untested patients. Early on, a few locals showed symptoms but also good sense. The mantra among us all is “We are lucky to be here”, and it is said even by those who have found life hard.

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Personally, I feel that offering advice from this vantage point is like a pampered staff officer barking orders to men in the trenches. But what Eyam says to me about 2020 is that moral courage is the greatest quality of leadership; that the first priorities in an existential crisis are to minimise death and suffering in that order; and that economic consequences are problems for another day.

The daily downer

After a lifetime of newspaper addiction, I now find the dailies depressing, and am allowing them to pile up then binge-reading before Recycling Thursday. I try to watch the news every night. But whose version?

The BBC News at Ten has become mannered and formulaic, addicted to here-we-are-in-Wolverhampton journalism: choosing a town at random, doing a few establishing shots, finding one person who says one thing about an issue, another who says another, offering no weighting or context and then getting the hell out. I can bear it no longer, even for the pleasure of watching Jon Sopel from Washington, DC, with his half-smile that says, “I do know Trump’s a dickhead; I just can’t say so.”

I have tried Channel 4 but it’s too early for me. And, while the American three-second interview (usually cut before the word “but”) is loathsome, the C4 ten minutes can seem like an eon. However, Gary Gibbon is the best instant interpreter of Westminster bar none.

I have sampled Sky’s ten o’clock and even something called Channel 5. But after many years of absence I have gone home to the original ITV News at Ten. In the meantime it has become a bit eccentric. It starts when it starts, sometimes (scheduled) at 10.30pm, sometimes (unscheduled) it’s News soon after Ten. It seems to have a very small staff, since the reporters are regularly referred to by first name only. Tom Bradby’s bits of editorialising are perforce bland, often tangled and quite unnecessary. But the whole thing still has something of its old zing: authoritative correspondents and smartly edited packages. ITV should love it more.

World-beating broadband, and prices

In case my first item has tempted any reader to move to Herefordshire, hear this. A cutting on my desk says the Culture Secretary has announced a huge superfast rural broadband programme, which will give Britain “the best broadband network in Europe within three years”. And our little patch is at the head of the queue. Yay! Alas, that cutting is dated 2012, seven culture secretaries ago. Our internet is still disgraceful and getting worse. 

But wait. British Telecom, a TV sports broadcaster which dabbles in phones and stuff, has now sent a letter promisingly headed “Universal Service Obligation”. BT has said it would allow us to jump the queue for fibre broadband free of charge if it costs it less than £3,500 – with us paying any amount above that. So I applied and it came up with a quote. Cost to me: a mere £113,193.06. I do like that sixpence, a humorous touch.

If I accept, it will arrive in 18 months, which in BT-speak means about 2050. Others, some within spitting distance of existing fibre cables, have also been quoted obscene amounts. There is a rumour of one figure above £200,000. Words can change their meanings over the years. It happened to “gay”. Now it is “universal”, “service” and “obligation”.

Bourgeois border crossings

There are, however, certain geographical bonuses. Although my NS series on Europe is having a long sleep, I have visited a foreign country six times since March: four trips to Waitrose, Abergavenny, and two to Hay-on-Wye. Even these little adventures are at risk from the Welsh lockdown. But I think of Eyam and count our blessings thus far, while yearning for gossip and parties and internet. 

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This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic