Since moving to this country some sixteen years ago, I have lived in a tiny village about half an hour outside Bristol. Skins, Wallace and Gromit, half of the drum and bass tracks that would usually grace Park End’s rave room: many will already know that the cultural imprint the Capital of the South West has left on British culture is enormous.
Yet, for those who are more familiar with the city I now consider home, Bristol’s physical setting is equally iconic as its social offering. Picture colourful patches of painted townhouses interspersing the buzzing sprawl of urban grey, or gold-hued open spaces lined with memories of summer nights, or steamy coffee shops dispensing all kinds of craft brews, or cosy pubs whose history is rivalled perhaps exclusively by Oxford’s own alehouses . Picture whatever takes your fancy and this metropolitan, forward-looking population centre probably has it. Just avoid mocking the West Country accent.
To imagine Bristol quiet was, until recently, next to unthinkable. Whereas Oxford, my recently-adopted abode, possesses countless sleepy backstreets and tranquil university parks permitting weary students to come down to earth from their heady nights out; Bristol on the other hand is constant, restless, organic, exciting. It is like the warm brouhaha of a Christmas dinner with distant relatives. The faint rustle of buses, cars and pedestrians seeps through even the thickest of double-glazed windows.
Saturday 14th March, 2020. I am walking along crowded pavements in the direction of the centre, just a day after returning from Hilary Term, and I could just as well be in any other nondescript European capital. The water at the harbourside glimmers in the faint spring heat, the trees beginning to form leafy balls of green to the end of their bare branches. The prospect of change lingers in the air.
But unlike the coming and going of the seasons, unlike rain giving way to sunny spells, this particular change was of a kind that not one of the hundreds of thousands of people in this corner of the world could have seen coming.
Covid-19. Even the word sounds unnatural, abstract, pained. Strong enough to unravel every flat syllable echoing off concrete surfaces and tiled shopping malls and bar ceilings. And then suddenly, within the span of just a few brief weeks, very little of the Bristol I have described remains.
Of course, an echo of what used to be still struggles on, amidst the boarded-up shop fronts and within the golden reflection of the sunset on the harbourfront, yet it grows fainter each day. Because now, the streets are bare. The sound of cars has died down to the fearful, hushed tones of a whisper. Lone shoppers wait two metres apart – a distance that effectively shuts down most of that classic British small talk in queues. A scene of iron shutters, police cars, deserted bus stops and the occasional siren has all but paralysed the city’s fear-stricken, industrial heart.
Thursday 26th March, 2020. Up and down the British Isles, these scenes and a sense of an uneasy, faltering future have become the sad reality. As I write this sentence, the places so closely associated with friends, with long conversations, with normal life, have begun to slip behind this deceptively invisible veil of mist. A silent nation holds their breath for even just a single answer to the questions and questions of doubt. Weeks, or months? If you are reading these musings from the future, perhaps the benefit of hindsight can let you reach out from behind the screen and quench our insatiable thirst for something bearing the faintest resemblance of normality.
From outside, out of nowhere, a faint rhythmic, human thrum of activity begins. Even in my hamlet of less than one hundred, from the terraced houses of the estate, hands are clapping. Voices rise out in an uncertain, then steadily more confident, crescendo of pride. A round of applause for those who work late into the night under the strip lighting of hospital wards, in care homes, from call centres, in countless other corners taken for granted by most. Set into motion by a timely breeze, the trees mutter back their praise and agreement.
The coffee shops, the pubs, the communal spaces, the stage on which we play out our short lives; for now at least, all lie dormant and cast in thick shadows. But by giving thanks in small ways to those who have given and who will give so much, we may yet rekindle the warmth with which they were once filled.
Bristol may yet be the place that I, along with countless others, call home.