Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Silver lining?

Five and more years ago, as Brexit and other issues of the post-2008 crash world gathered an alarming pace, I like others found myself wondering, with some fear, what it was all leading to. It was not uncommon for parallels to be drawn with the eras pre-both world wars when things also seemed to be getting out of control. In a sense, we were right – something was coming – though of a nature that few suspected, and it was certainly something that cannot in its primary causes, be called a political crisis. Nonetheless, a crisis it was, and it certainly had a political dimension.

JB MacKinnon’s new book The Day the World Stops Shopping is part of a growing lexicon discussing what will be the shape of the post-pandemic world. He suggests that there have been several times in history where staring into an abyss was necessary to stimulate a ‘correction’ in the direction of humanity’s travel; maybe this is another. In which case, I suggest we have got off lightly – but I still hope he is right.

The Guardian’s architecture critic, Rowan Moore, has also picked up on beneficial changes that may come from the Flight from the Office. Just maybe, some good will come of this ‘new localism’ for our hitherto madly imbalanced and atomised nation. By way of examples, here are some ways in which we, and our small community in East Anglia have been affected.

Five years ago, health considerations forced me to leave full-time employment. Like many, I had commuted out of our town each day, to work thirty miles away. What I never saw until that point was how deserted the place was during weekdays – populated very largely and scantly by the elderly – and young mothers. When I was on holiday, it was by definition the school holidays, which were, themselves untypical of the normal situation.

Particularly when a local convenience store moved to the edge of the town, the centre which a few years previously had always been if not buzzing, then certainly occupied, became practically deserted for hours on end. Since many people started working from home, this has noticeably changed. The regular Thursday market has never been so popular, with several new stalls appearing in recent months.

The photos (top and below – taken on a rather dull day) show two recent developments.

The greengrocer was doing such good business that he has now occupied a vacant shop, renovated it nicely, and now has a seven-day presence in the town: a good, useful local addition that will hopefully endure. The local travel agent also closed during the pandemic, and has not re-opened. In its place, a group of locals has pooled resources and opened a café which also supplies artificial flower arrangements. They opened just before the latest lockdown – but an outside kitchen window – what became known as the Cake Hole (on the left in the picture) – meant that they were able to serve take-away drinks and cakes throughout, while also renovating their inside seating space. They have single-handedly revived the town centre, with outdoor tables and nearby seating pretty much continually occupied during good weather. Passing groups of walkers and cyclists are also making regular pit-stops, and they have further plans for being even more of a community hub. Our town centre once again is an actively ‘inhabited’ place.

Less tangible, but still noticeable, is the sense that somehow the place is less deserted during the week than it used to be. There are more people visibly working at home and popping out into the streets as they need. The whole place feels a little more lived-in, in the way one senses in more clearly vibrant places often not in the U.K.

Changes have also affected us personally. While I now go out to teach again, just twice a week, my wife changed her employment over the winter, becoming a civil servant. Her new employer is in Nottingham, some 130 miles or two and a half hours away. But it has been agreed that she will work permanently from home, with just the occasional trips to H.Q., thus allowing her to accept a position that would previously either been unviable or have meant an unplanned relocation. Others in her team are in Bristol, Newcastle and South Wales, and our home often echoes to a cocktail of (admittedly disembodied) regional accents…

In my own case, most of my non-classroom activity now takes place at home (as it often did, but not any longer during the evenings and weekends…) and I communicate with my students and colleagues remotely. I wonder whether there is a template here that could help to address the risks of burnout in the teaching profession, that ‘got’ me back in 2016.

I wonder how many times this story will be replayed over the coming years, and it may lead for many to improved job opportunities and greater job satisfaction, yet without the need to relocate. It is potentially very good news for all those small places up and down the country, that have been hollowed out in recent years to become dormitory settlements. My wife is now another person present during the day, while the loss of her commute means a combination of more productive time and more to engage in the community where she actually lives. We also (happily!) spend more time together, not least over morning coffee and lunch most days. And we no longer need to get up at ungodly hours.

Despite the social pressure during the last decade or two to claim that one lived for one’s work, it seems that these changes have revealed the truth: far fewer really relished office life or the long commutes that if often required. Maybe this is the opportunity we needed for a real, substantial improvement in the quality of British life.

In many ways, our work-life balance has improved hugely as a result; it is true that not everyone (including teachers) can work permanently from home – but the shift that has occurred has affected enough people that is has still has brought wider benefits, and may yet bring more, if it can become embedded. (It occurred to me some days ago that before the industrial revolution, many people worked at home, so in a sense, this is just a return to a much older way of doing things). We could go a lot further: MacKinnon’s book concerns much wider ecological actions; perhaps this is just the beginning. With any luck, this is the point at which we can start to appreciate the quality of life, rather than just the quantity, as he argues we need to, in order to become properly sustainable.

 Perhaps we have finally learned that life on the hamster wheel is neither very desirable nor beneficial. In which case, the pandemic will be proved to have a real silver lining.

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