I think I'm beginning to enjoy the 'new normal'. Over the past week – mostly one of blue skies and surprisingly warm May temperatures – I've sunbathed in parks (now allowed), socialised with friends, also in parks but at a distance (also permitted) and even viewed a few flats for sale (ditto). It was as close to 'normal' as my life has been since the lockdown began, and has been accompanied by almost daily reports of further easing to come – National Trust properties, barbecues, non-essential shops. I hope it isn't all too good to be true.
This is except, of course, for viewers in Scotland. There, an England-style easing only begins later this week, although friends have observed that it's socially more generous than the new regulations south of the border. Whereas I am limited to meeting just one person from another household, once a day and in the open air, my Scottish family and friends can do the same with more than one person and, as far as I can tell, several times a day. Something tells me this distinction will mean less in practice than it does in law.
The English iteration can be a little awkward. On Saturday morning, while between flat viewings, I caught up with a former housemate in Brockley, whom I was conscious hadn't really seen anyone beyond his neighbours for more than two months. He pulled out all the stops, providing me with a delicious brunch and thirst-quenching lemonade at the foot of the steps outside his home. He sat at the top, looking down as I tucked in, while we caught up on life, the universe and coronavirus. Not once did my friend come within two metres of my personal space.
The following day, in the sprawling Brockwell Park, I met two colleagues for an afternoon of sun and chat, and we weren't alone: there must have been thousands of others doing the same, all in little clusters, all responsibly spaced out. I'm not the sort simply to sit in the sun and bake, I generally have to be doing something else, either listening to music or reading a book. This means sunbathing can be combined with work, for I'm currently devouring a series of memoirs written by Northern Irish civil servants during the 1970s. It seems that that turbulent decade provoked a lot of soul-searching by officials, but their writings are yielding several constitutional nuggets for a paper I'm preparing on Parliament and Northern Ireland over the past century.
Among the finest is Voices and the Sounds of Drums
by Patrick Shea, a public servant who became only the second Roman Catholic to reach permanent secretary level in the pre-1972 Government of Northern Ireland (to this day, Northern Irish departments each have their own 'perm sec'). Although he records blatant discrimination on grounds of his faith – a minister once vetoed Shea as his private secretary because he wasn't a Protestant – he also writes warmly of colleagues, both political and administrative, thus painting a more nuanced picture than many would have expected of Stormont between the 1920s and late '60s.
I'm also working my way through some fiction, which isn't my usual habit, although they all follow a political theme. There was a spate of novels published in the late 1990s and early 2000s which envisaged an independent – or nearly independent – Scotland, doubtless prompted by the creation of a Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the referendum two years before. I started with Douglas Hurd's Image in the Water
, a sequel of sorts to his excellent Scotch on the Rocks
(filmed by the BBC in the 1970s), and followed this up with State of the Nation
by Michael Shea, a former press secretary to the Queen.
Shea's book envisages a post-independent Scotland in which 'Reunionists' and 'Republicans' are battling it out for control of the 'National Assembly', and includes a character called William Torrance (spoiler: he dies). Tom Gallagher's more recent Flight of Evil
, features a nurse called Moira Torrance, who in narcissistic moments I fancy was a nod to my good self. Hurd's is the best written, but all are harmless fun. The local mosque in my corner of Hackney has started broadcasting its evening call to prayer because of the ongoing restrictions affecting places of worship. A letter was distributed in the neighbourhood saying they hoped no-one would mind. I don't mind at all. My household hears it most nights and it's incredibly atmospheric, reverberating gently and rhythmically around Clapton rooftops and reminding me of travels in the Middle East.
Talking of travel, the past week left me more optimistic on that front. As of 8 June, most of those arriving in the UK will have to agree to two weeks of quarantine at a chosen address, failing which they can be fined. This is one regulation which will apply UK-wide, though it'll be largely academic given most people are staying at home anyway. Meanwhile, lots of European countries – mostly those which rely economically on tourism – are planning to reopen routes and ease restrictions, doubtless to take advantage of the summer season. I have a flight booked to Malta at the end of August and while I'm taking nothing for granted, that aspect of the new normal is looking just a bit more achievable.