What's that online expression popular with millennial bloggers? 'Check your privilege.' It's deployed to remind others that the life they lead comes with certain privileges that don't apply to every other person or situation. So, first off, I ought to 'check' my own privileges: I am in stable employment and at no risk of losing my job or income; 95% of my work (research) can be done at home via a laptop and (occasionally unreliable) Skype headset; I am single and used to making my own entertainment. I last remember being bored in about 1998.
So I don't expect the next few months – and that seems the likely timescale – to be hugely disruptive. I have a pile of books to read and even a couple to start writing; I can finally begin a major piece of research connected to the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021, while my external activities, cycling and walking, are as yet non-prohibited. If I have challenges, they're of a first-world order: travel plans disrupted, a property purchase that might have to be delayed and, as the columnist Matthew Parris put it a few days ago, the 'bonfire of my diary commitments'.
Take travel. This I usually plan several months in advance, something that usually saves me money but in these circumstances could see me losing it. Just last Tuesday, I collected a visa from the Embassy of Guinea in Edgeware, which I suspected would be superfluous even as I handed over £90 and my passport. The cheerful consular officer seemed surprised when I expressed doubt at seeing Conakry in April. 'Guinea has only one case,' she told me proudly. 'A Belgian national, and he's in isolation.' It remains true that West Africa, where an Ebola outbreak disrupted another planned trip several years ago, doesn't have many cases, but getting there via Lisbon would now be impossible.
Most of last week felt like a relentless battle against time. There was a sense all over London of things closing down, so I engaged in a mad rush to do, buy and experience things which might become impossible the following day or week. But a lovely weekend motoring around Sussex and mooching around the Tate just ended up making me melancholy. Two Mondays ago, meanwhile, I engaged in some panic buying, but not for food. Hours after the Prime Minister first suggested that everyone work from home if possible, I secured a pair of running shoes and a yoga mat from largely deserted shops near Oxford Circus.
My local café in Walthamstow kept pace with this hour-glass feeling. One day, it was business as usual (albeit with hand sanitiser), next day, half its tables and benches had been removed to ensure two metres between customers, then it was takeaway only, and finally it closed. A fully-stamped loyalty card, which in peacetime would earn me a free Americano, now sits hopelessly in my wallet, probably never to be redeemed. I'll likely soon forget the taste of barista-made coffee, while the appearance of eggs or pasta at my local Co-op brings an absurd look of joy to my housemate's face.
Last Thursday was a particular rollercoaster. Midway through an online yoga class (old dogs are attempting to learn new tricks), a well-placed source texted to say that a London 'lockdown' would be announced at 5pm. Cue a mad dash to the supermarket to get what I thought might be a final, modest supply of fresh food, but when I tuned in to the Prime Minister's press conference there was no mention of an Italian-style lockdown. There followed perhaps my last 'normal' evening for some time, with dinner at a restaurant in Walthamstow Village – parts of which still feel like a rural hamlet – run by a Scot from Hamilton who was quietly confident his business could survive.
The Government's advice to avoid non-essential travel has finally got me back on my bike. I'd avoided cycling in London following an argument with a double-decker bus in Stamford Hill last October, so using it again felt like rediscovering an old friend, something made easier by warmer weather and fewer cars. My Brompton also came in handy once I'd resolved to complete the Capital Ring Walk (CRW) – a 78-mile route around greater London – while I still could. To minimise use of public transport, I cycled to Hackney Wick, locked up my Brompton outside the station, caught a train to Highgate and then walked back (10 miles) to collect my bike.
Most other sections of the CRW I'd done had been largely deserted, so I had hoped it wouldn't conflict with Government guidance. No such luck. Given the weather and the previous day's closure of cafes and restaurants, it seemed as if Londoners had resolved en masse to fill as many parks and walkways as possible. Some refuge was to be had on the Hackney Marshes, but it felt, as others have observed, like a heady bank holiday weekend. The following day, I again left my Brompton at Hackney Wick station while I stomped around unfashionable bits of Woolwich, but when I returned (having completed the CRW) it was gone, both bars of my apparently uncorruptible D-lock sliced through as if they were sticks of rock.
The timing was terrible. Just as I'd become more reliant on my bike, it was gone, and with minimal chance of recovery (the Met closed my case less than 12 hours after I'd reported it). Luckily, bicycle shops are exempt from even the latest restrictions, so on Monday afternoon I was able to secure a new hybrid road bike from a supplier in Leyton. As I cycled home, I felt the relief wash over me. And that's the thing about the current crisis, a small part of me is actually guiltily exhilarated at rising to the inevitable demands of the next few months. I like a challenge, particularly a logistical one, and there are surely plenty of those ahead.
David Torrance will be contributing a diary each week. Catch up with him again next week!