After the Covid barriers come down, the psychological ones will take some dismantling
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:
Part 1: We’ve been told before that things will never be the same again – can we mean it this time?
Part 2: Last weekend’s pandemic-panic awayday was inevitable – but so was the visceral response
Part 3: Will we use this crisis to rediscover the value of community – or for more suspicion and othering?
Part 4: The BBC needs to start listening to doctors – not government spin
Part 5: In a pandemic, fake news can become a lightning conductor for our fears and frustrations
Part 6: Could the pandemic bring us all back together while keeping us apart?
Part 7: This pandemic is the moment tech giants have been dreaming of – even I’m shoveling my data online
Part 8: Will the pandemic change the superior ‘screw you’ attitude of entitled second home owners?
Part 9: Lockdown is making it even harder to escape from our online echo chambers
Part 10: How have we managed to turn thanking the NHS into a pissing contest?
Part 11: This pandemic has revealed which countries are being governed by grown-ups
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One thing that has changed in my mind is my attitude to China, which has become one big negative. I don’t believe a thing from them. This mental negative really began when sitting in a Chinese restaurant just after xmas, and a group of their tourists came
in and took over the place. Not waiting for table service, instantly demanding water, and generally behaving like a master race.
Sounds exactly like another bunch of tourists from not too far away who do exactly the same thing when they’re visiting another country!
That’s because that’s how many of them now see themselves. I recall TV coverage of President Xi’s state visit to the UK in 2015. As his entourage rolled through the streets of London, Chinese security apparatchiks ran along in advance of his car beating back anyone who even remotely looked as if they might offer any protest against the Sacred Personage. UK security personnal seemed to be back-stage, if not entirely absent. It struck me as a quite exrtraordinary turn of events.