Observation and isolation.

Have we become more observant since lockdown?

That’s one of the claims I keep hearing in the media. The evidence offered is that many of us have been getting a lot closer to the natural environment. In Britain, it is said, more people are going for walks, cycling and gardening than ever before.

The sudden loss of mechanical noises certainly allowed nature’s voice to be heard more clearly, and like many people, I’ve been fascinated to see the range of creatures reclaiming spaces they are usually pushed out of by crowds of humans. Internationally, my favourite photo, so far, has been a dolphin swimming into pristine waters in Venice. True or not, that image is now embedded in my mind. But the wonder of what’s on our own doorstep is not easily dismissed.

Ah, climate change, my favourite band-wagon. ‘Surely,’ hope says, ‘now that we’ve seen how quickly the damage we cause can be turned around, we’re going to make some changes.’ That was certainly the supposition of the interviewee on a radio programme, early in the week.

Meanwhile, this talk of our improved powers of observation has set me thinking. Some of my favourite pieces of poetry and prose depend on an adept use of detail.

Take Wuthering Heights, for instance. Emily Bronte conveys setting and climate in a sentence.

Pure bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.

Later, when Cathy is raving, she pulls feathers from her pillow and identifies the birds they came from: turkeys ducks, pigeons, moorcocks and lapwings. These are what are called ‘telling’ detail. They not only demonstrate the state of Cathy’s mind, they provide a glimpse back to her childhood. They link to a specific moment when she and Heathcliff were roaming the moors together.

Emily Bronte, I feel confident in asserting, didn’t just take note of her environment, she thought about it. We know that she, too, spent a lot of time walking.

You might say that she practiced isolation. How did that work? I think it provided thinking time, and that’s the other way I read this statement about our powers of observation. Many of us have been forced to stop rushing after a busy schedule, and maybe for the first time, have given extra time to noticing our home environment.

In Emily Bronte’s case, doing this resulted in a piece of fiction that has endured for one hundred and seventy two years. No pressure, of course, but I do like to think there will be more than one positive outcome from this strange moment we’re living through.

Taking time for art

I’ve just caught up with a report created last year, by Daisy Fancourt and Saoirse Finn, that confirmed something I’ve long-believed: we should all be actively participating in arts activities. I’ve not read the whole one hundred and thirty-three pages of the WHO (World Health Organisation) publication, the summaries have been enough.

Results from over 3000 studies identified a major role for the arts in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health, and management and treatment of illness across the lifespan. 

At the moment, as isolation becomes a watchword for so many of us, this might be even more relevant than it seemed when it was researched and written. After all, if we’re going to get confined to homes, we’ll need to find things to do.

‘I’m going to catch up on a lot of reading,’ Judy says, echoing my own initial thoughts.

Anna wants to try an embroidery kit she was given a couple of Christmases ago. ‘I’ll be able to concentrate without interruptions,’ she tells us.

Here in the UK, we’re still free to move about unless we show symptoms. That doesn’t mean everyone is continuing as usual. A lot of people who are vulnerable, or in close contact with someone vulnerable, are already opting to limit their contact with the general public.

The majority of the rest of us have adopted a Lady Macbeth approach to hygiene, and are practicing safe distances as we wait for the next development. Journalists looking for a fresh angle for discussion are beginning to consider the perils of isolation, as if it’s a new thing.

I suppose it will be for many of us. On tv, I watch shots of empty streets in other countries. Our Government Advisers warn that when the time comes, we will be ‘locked-down’ for months, not weeks.

As a tutor in Further Education, I’m used to providing a possible solution to loneliness. My colleagues and I offer a massive range of subjects, and draw students from a variety of backgrounds and situations. People sign up firstly, because they want to learn, but the social aspect soon becomes important, too.

As our classes are delivered in hired halls, we tutors meet only rarely. Our students create links between us, drawing references with other classes, often opening new angles of investigation to discussions.

Adult education classes are friendly places. Shared interests draw together people who might never have met in any other way. In the break, over coffee, the conversations extend and new friendships blossom.

Humans are, I believe, a social species, deny it as we sometimes try. This week has been brightened, for me, by the video-clips from Italy of quarantined people sharing music and song, often from their balconies.

This seems to chime with that WHO report about what ‘the arts’ mean to us, and maybe offers a clue to that question of how we cope with isolation. After all, here I am, discussing the situation with you on-line. Maybe this is a moment when technology comes into its own.