During the first lockdown, that one hour a day was all about staying sane. Walking, thinking, watching the seasons change – it was the most normal part of those extraordinary first weeks. I walked hundreds of miles, yomping over the South Downs, through Kingley Vale, up Levin Down and Hat Hill. Fourteen months on, and the pathways are busier. There’s a hum of traffic in the background again, the birds are singing louder.
At the moment, my favourite walk is Chichester Canal from the heart of the town to the harbour at Birdham four miles away. This year, blackthorn is everywhere, misting the hedgerows white. Bushes shiver with sparrows, whitethroat and sandpiper; there are moorhens and coots and the craziness of wide matted swans’ nests, like inverted sombreros. In the past weeks, the cygnets have hatched, and ducklings and cootlings (surely, they should be called that) have gone from fluff to feather.
The canal will celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2022 and the Canal Trust does an amazing job keeping it usable and free for everyone. I stop a while at Hunston Bridge to admire the celebrated view painted by JMW Turner in 1828 of Chichester Cathedral from the south, then walk on, before doubling back along Salterns Way to Dell Quay, Apuldram and the Fishbourne Marshes, where I spent much of my childhood. The rain splashing down on the narrow waters of the canal is silent and the world feels still.
A subject close to the heart
Most of my writing is inspired by place – Carcassonne and Toulouse, Amsterdam, South Africa, Sussex – and the notion that a story comes, in part, out of the landscape, that mixture of history and folklore that gives voice to the past and brings it to life. Imagined characters, inspired by those who could have lived, are set against the backdrop of real history – the Cathar Crusade in the 13th century, the Wars of Religion in the 16th century, the arrival of Huguenots in the Cape in the 17th century. Not this time. My new book is a memoir about being, for the past 12 years on and off, a carer. It’s a tribute to three extraordinary people – my father, my mother and my mother-in-law – and the most personal book I’ve ever written. I wanted to capture the privilege and joy of caring, as well as the grief, the exhaustion, the love that goes with it. It can be a hard gig. Despite being an old hand at this, I’m finding the build-up to publication hard. I’m feeling vertiginous, short of breath.
Caring in plain sight
I’ve never been a confessional writer, but the point of this book is to be part of the discussion about social care and how we have to start caring for our carers. There are 8.8 million unpaid carers in the UK. We’re every where, hidden in plain sight, and we save the UK economy some £132bn per annum. There are possibly as many as 800,000 child carers aged between five and 17 too. A woman has a 50:50 chance of being a carer by the time she is 59 (the odds for men don’t kick in until 75). In other words, my experience is normal. Like everyone who’s a carer – or who works in the sector – I turned on the Queen’s Speech with cautious optimism, believing that after the year and then some of pandemic, the government would finally make good on its promises to reform social care. The Dilnot Report was published in 2011, social care was included in the Queen’s Speech in 2015 and has been part of the election promises of 2017 and 2019.
[see also: The UK’s social care system is an outrage: will any government ever reform it?]
Thanks to our brilliant NHS, people are living longer and healthier lives, and this should be a cause for celebration not complaint. But it means that we need to have serious conversations about the provision and funding of social care. It’s one of the biggest issues facing society and we need to ensure that dignity at the end of life is something we see as a given. But there’s nothing in the speech. Bluster and platitudes, no timescale, no funding – the can has been kicked down the road again. It’s irresponsible and insulting. I turn the television off in a fury and go for a walk.
Wettest May since Major
I’ve read that it’s been the wettest May since John Major was in power. That seems a pretty odd way of putting it, but it’s true that it’s been pretty miserable. Windy too, the sort of horizontal rain that sneaks under umbrellas and into shoes, and disappointing. Going to London, for only the fourth time in a year, I was looking forward to a bit of urban walking, and swapping fields, hills and estuary for pavements and tall buildings. Despite the rain, I enjoyed myself. There’s a sense of things coming back to life and I start to remember those evenings of rushing for the last train home with fondness. But then the train breaks down. We stand on a very open, cold and windswept platform somewhere south of Gatwick for over an hour. I have no umbrella.
Without any irony or modishness, I’ve remained loyal to Eurovision. It’s old fashioned family viewing of the sort I grew up on in the Sixties and Seventies: Lulu, Cliff Richard, Brotherhood of Man, Bucks Fizz and Terry Wogan. And later, I would watch it in damp rented houses, a heap of friends sitting cross-legged on the floor drinking beer and eating crisps. Now it’s pyjamas and a cup of tea, but there’s the same sense of subversive excitement and delight at the kitsch. Graham Norton is a wonderful mixture of gentle surprise and appreciation, always kind, not spiteful. I like Ukraine, Lithuania, Iceland, Malta and the Netherlands. The UK gets nul points, though it’s handled with good grace. Italy steals it at the end on the public vote, snatching victory from a fabulous French chanteuse who’s a mixture of Piaf, Barbara and Brel.
The next day, there’s a faux-outrage social media scandal about whether or not the Italian lead singer was snorting cocaine… that’s rock ‘n’ roll for you. The first reviews of my book are in. I take a deep breath and go for another walk. And get rained on. Again.
[See also: Ukraine’s 2022 Eurovision song – explained]
“An Extra Pair of Hands” by Kate Mosse is published by Profile/Wellcome Collection
This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism