In the shapeless days and weeks of lockdown, emotions have careered like a pinball all over the place. Nothing though prepared me for the tsunami of sadness that broke over me yesterday, on the realisation that in a parallel, Covid-free world, the Machynlleth Comedy Festival would have been kicking off today.
The gloom wasn’t provoked by the thought of the gigs I’d miss, much though I was looking forward to them. It came from fantasising about seeing crowds of punters bustle excitedly down the main street, with no sense of danger; of hearing chatter and laughter spill out on to the spring breeze; of waving at friends and neighbours across packed rooms.
Most poignantly of all, I fell into a daydream so vivid, yet so simple: of pushing open the door of any one of the town’s pubs, feeling that warm beery fug hit my face, and sinking into a corner with a well-pulled pint and a gang of people I love. The fantasy continued: a couple of beers, the sharp edges of the day blurred nicely into happy submission, and then a meal, cooked by someone else and with proper chips.
It’s not much to ask, is it? But right now, it seems so. For even when we tiptoe back into some sort of normal, it won’t be normal. That’s gone, probably for good.
Two years ago, we passed the moment when the Berlin Wall (1961–89) had been longer gone than it had been in existence. Yet still its baleful presence hangs heavy, and if anything, seems to be growing (and not just in the city itself. By almost any set of indices – economic, social, cultural, political – the divide between the former East and West Germanies are as clear as ever). Berliners refer to the Mauer im Kopf, the ‘wall in the head’, a psychological barrier that persists long after the physical entity itself.
Coronoavirus is going to leave so many Mauern im Kopf. There are going to be the small, personal ones: our physical awkwardness, even fear, with each other; its impact on our ability to be intimate; obsessive or compulsive behaviours that we struggle to control or shake off; a new sense of existential dislocation.
Up a level, the barriers in our immediate communities will take some dismantling. What chance the survival of so many businesses, my fondly-imagined pub and restaurant included? For all my idle daydreams, I can’t imagine wanting to go out much if we’ve all got to sit there in facemasks, or have to keep the tables and anyone not co-habiting at least six feet apart.
And while Machynlleth is the perfect host for numerous festivals (or indeed as the national capital – past and future!), the real lifeblood of the town is its huge weekly market, a cluster of dozens of small traders already operating on a knife edge and reliant on proximity of every kind. The market must be more threatened now than at almost any time in its 729 year existence.
Then there are the barriers being rapidly erected in the surrounding countryside, which threaten to be almost insurmountable Mauern im Kopf. Of course it is right to keep unnecessary visitors out of the area, but the speed with which some people have padlocked the gates, blocked off the parking spots, whacked up the officious signs and taken it upon themselves to act as law enforcers (and for laws so vaguely defined) is both telling and alarming.
There’s an uncomfortable sense of déjà-vu too. During the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak, paths snapped shut overnight, but took months, and in many cases years, to be reopened. Here, the boardwalks at Ynyslas beach and town centre alleyways in Aberystwyth and Machynlleth were closed off for months by emergency DO NOT CROSS tape – paths that had clearly never been used for the transport of animals (the excuse for mass closure).
Our rights of way network and our open spaces, things so essential to our physical and mental health, and so hard won over centuries, are perpetually under threat, from lack of finance or political support, but also from the selfishness and opportunism of some of the most landed and powerful.
It is all about power, at every level, right across society and right across the world. Barriers of opportunity, poverty, privilege and class, as well as endemic sexism and racism, have all been exposed by the harsh, unforgiving searchlight of this horrible disease.
Covid-19 is acting like a truth serum on humanity, for better and worse. On the plus side, there will be some excellent takes on it – as well as a fair few lame ones – at next year’s Machynlleth Comedy Festival.
Read more in Mike Parker’s series for Nation.Cymru below: