It seems a lifetime ago. Tuesday March 17th. The coronavirus was well and truly closing in at that point, but I was yet to receive the clear indication that I would have to change my lifestyle so profoundly. Then came the communication from the nurse I see regularly over my arthritis treatment. ‘You fall into the high risk group because of the drugs you take’ was the message. Self-isolation for twelve weeks (actually longer in the end) was the consequence.
I keep a daily diary, and it’s sobering to read back over the week prior to that fateful Tuesday. I went on public transport on numerous occasions, I spent a day with students at the University of West London, I went to the gym, I ate out several times, I sat in radio and TV studios very close to other contributors (one of whom had a persistent cough), I visited supermarkets, and goodness knows how many times I touched something that was potentially harbouring the virus and touched my face moments later. Yes, I was washing my hands more frequently while being quietly dismissive of the need to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice as I did so, but the precautions I was taking wouldn’t have survived much meaningful scrutiny. In other words, I was almost certainly most at risk before I was told I was.
I make that point to help me put this week’s change into perspective, because on Wednesday I am venturing into central London to go into my workplace for the first time in nearly five months. It will mean a journey on the London Underground – not at peak time and I’m assured by others that it’s still pretty quiet whatever time you use it – and it will mean going into the BBC to present the evening Newshour programme on the World Service. I don’t mind admitting that the prospect is making me slightly anxious.
The anxiety is hard to pinpoint. I know, for example, that the BBC has gone to great lengths to make its main central London building as safe as it possibly can for those working inside it. I know, too, that the journey on the underground will be markedly less risky than the ones I took in mid March. And I know that work colleagues will be welcoming and supportive, and that if I walk up/down the wrong staircase at the wrong moment or fail to spot an unfamiliar arrow advising me of a newly imposed one-way system that I’ll receive nothing sharper than a kindly piece of advice that next time I should do things differently. So that’s all good (as BBC folk say in ‘W1A’).
No, it’s to do with familiarity. The next train journey/radio programme is inevitably more of a challenge if it happens a long time after the previous one. What one takes for granted because it’s a repeat of something done yesterday feels almost brand new if it hasn’t happened for several months….especially if a virus has crept into the storyline in the meantime.
When I was seven I fell off a bicycle that was too big for me, and broke my left arm. Weeks went by before I could get in the saddle again, and when I did….I remember making very uncertain progress around the nearby pavements and streets for a short while until confidence returned. I think all of us who are going back to work this week need to allow ourselves a little private wobble. Mine will hopefully have passed by the time the microphone goes live.