“I’m enjoying a different relationship with planet earth”. It’s Thursday 2nd April and I’m in an online meeting with others in the advice team at Bristol Refugee Rights. We’re saying things we’re appreciating in our new reality. I’m wondering whether post-apocalyptic Bristolians will speak with the Bristol ‘l’ or will it be consigned to the dustbin of history like the profit motive and mass surveillance. My friend sends me a poem by Caroline Bird that hits well with me: ‘you thought you could ride a bicycle but, turns out, those weren’t bikes they were extremely bony horses… What if you thought you could tie your laces? But all this time you were just wrapping a whole role of sellotape round your shoe and hoping for the best? And that piece of paper you thought was your tax return? A crayon drawing of a cat.’ Social fabric is stripped away in the lockdown, lofty ambitions and plans are muted, or at least go into hibernation. I thought I had written a book but it turns out it was just a stack of flyers for pizza delivery. I was planning another trip to the Middle East but instead I’m in Eastville Park imagining that the pond is the Dead Sea. Bristol’s southern fringes are my Balkans: Hengrove, Bishopsworth, Hartcliffe, Withywood. Knowle West is my Albania. I wake one morning to news on the radio that the nightingale might be increasingly unable to make Britain’s shores. Its wings are becoming shorter due to changes in the climate, the heating of the Mediterranean, and changing seasonal weather patterns meaning that it might not be able to make the long spring migration from Africa to England. Is this the saddest story of the week, buried somewhere beneath the death statistics and offer to prisoners to dig mass graves? Brexit islanders and climate denialists might say good riddance and you foreign birds were never welcome anyway, coming over here from Africa, singing your most beautiful of birdsong, crowding out our indigenous monochrome birds, and the only nightingale we’ll be left with is the field hospital for thousands in London and the Queen will tell us to face it all with common resolve and a stiff upper lip.
March ended and April began and I’m grateful for the passing of time and the deepening of the spring, season of new beginnings and the celebration of new life. I hear news that my friend is pregnant, and we congratulate and life goes on. Then I get my bag and go out into the late afternoon sunshine. I start thinking whether it will ever stop being sunny and warm or whether we’re destined to live through these days in our houses looking outside at the best spring weather we’ve ever known. On the new cut bridge to Coronation Road there’s a guy sat drinking alone on the new cut bridge and shouting at no-one. When I come back around the second time a police van has pulled up and there’s three cops questioning him. Ignoring government advice to keep 2 metres from other people in public, two are close up to him, questioning him and asking him to empty his pockets. The government website says ‘this applies to everyone, including children’. But does it not apply to homeless people as well? Are the police aware that they’re endangering his health by talking to him within a metre of his face or do they not care because he’s just a down and out. Police are using corona state laws to ‘clean’ the streets of people who are homeless, using public health as an excuse. The language of sterilisation is easily turned on society’s undesirables in a public health crisis, in campaigns of ‘social cleansing’. Watch videos of the police in India spraying migrant workers with a chemical disinfectant after Modi’s unplanned lockdown unleashed chaos and a mass exodus of workers across the country.
After delivering pizzas in Clifton I take curries to Bedminster Down and Totterdown. When I’m getting the bag out for the second delivery it breaks and the box of dahl empties out. I stand there covered in dahl apologising to the customer that now there’s dahl all over me and their front path but they seem ok with it and also want me to stay a safe distance away from them. I do the rest of the shift with dahl all over my legs and feet but I’m not really that bothered. Beauty standards for a cycle courier are set at a low base at the best of times, and these are not the best of times. I’m seeing the city in a different light. It seems that the people who are out are also enjoying a new relationship with the planet earth, and with the architecture of the city. I see someone doing pull ups on scaffolding on Baldwin Street. A man is carrying a canoe and an oar down Gloucester Road. Further up an old man with a pastel green jumper and white hair is walking slowly in the middle of the road, forcing cars to follow slowly behind him. Last night a guy comes down East Street in a wheelchair with a small dog on his lap and a huge two-pronged wooden staff propped up behind him. When he approaches we nod at each other and he carries on past me. I take my kebab order and leave to deliver it in Hengrove. On the way I pass an accident on the road under the railway bridge by Bedminster Lidl near the Malago river. A boat is stuck there somehow and the fire service are trying to remove it. As I pass by hours later they’re still trying to winch it onto something to tow it away. How did a boat get stuck there in the road? Day passes into night and from a hill on the edge of Knowle West I can see Colston Tower in the city centre. The sky is the bluest dusk dark blue with faint hints of sunlight yellow at the horizon and venus is high on my left as I cycle for the final time from Hengrove back to the city centre, and home.
I consume media until my brain can’t take on any new information and I slow down. Isn’t there something to learn in the statistics, the grim daily calculation of death and distance and speed, and will we be like Italy and Spain or like China or none of those or worse? I tell my friend that I keep saying to myself that this will be over. I hopefully scrawl on my calendar on 14th April, ‘does it end?’ She tells me that she is saying to herself, what can I learn from this. The writer George Saunders tells me that ‘this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds.’ And Cheryl Strayed replies ‘there was always death and disease and destruction and loss. And there’s always beauty. And if we choose to be there to see that then we get to be the ones that see that.’ Ever an anchor in stormy seas Arundhati Roy tells me that the pandemic ‘is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.’ She reminds me that we can’t go backwards. We can’t unsee a video of police spraying a crowd of people with chemical disinfectant and we can’t unsee field morgues in New York and London when we thought we were masters of the universe and through it all the country is being held up by the former invisible classes and the least well paid and it always was. I’m longing for a return to normality when instead we might have to find new ways of living and being and relating to each other. Given that choice then I’ll drag a boat with me into the future and meet up with the man and his canoe and we’ll drift down the river Frome after Bristol sheds its cars that we couldn’t drive anyway after the last oil wells dried up. And the Malago will emerge from beneath the concrete and return to its former glory as more than a subterranean trickle and we’ll call out to the nightingales to come back to our isles and we’ll try harder this time, we promise.