Managing mood in a pandemic
When my partner was released from his Covid cage, after two clear lateral flow tests and nine days of isolation, we both sighed with relief. I cooked scrambled eggs and he bolted them down, just in time for his first work meeting of the year. (Ever the model employee, he had timed his Covid to coincide precisely with his annual leave.) While he talked to faces on a screen, I dismantled the Christmas tree he had barely seen. It was his birthday and I was determined to give him a lovely day.
Why, then, did I huff and puff as I placed the stars and hearts and baubles in a shoe box, shriek when I pricked my fingers on the holly and stomp around like a scullery maid who vows revenge on her employer? Why, when we set off for a birthday lunch at our favourite café in the nearby town, did I sit in the car in sulky silence and then sound almost triumphant when I called, as he was parking the car, to tell him that the cafe was closing in five minutes?
Who the hell was this person who was behaving like a bitch?
We found a pub. We had lasagne. It was fine, or at least it wasn’t cooked by me. That night, we had dinner with two of my partner’s sons. They are lovely. We had a nice time. The next morning one of them texted to say that he had just tested positive.
I’m still not entirely clear about the etiquette. For the first two cancellations, I offered a choice: meet anyway, after negative lateral flow tests, or reschedule? Both opted to reschedule. For the weekend with friends in Devon, I decided to remove the choice. Lovely to see you, and here’s a little leaving present that will keep you thinking of us for at least 10 days. Pass the parcel. Pass the dominoes.
Two lots of friends had already bought the food. They would, they said graciously, stick it in the freezer.
So far, I have had the de luxe version of the pandemic. I’ve been safe. I’ve been well. I haven’t had to worry about the bills. But I seem to have started behaving like a bitch because I am sick of feeling that life is stuck in the freezer.
On Saturday, instead of being in Devon with friends, I met a friend for a cup of tea. We talked about the years when we worked together. It was at the Poetry Society, in a tall, thin building in Covent Garden, with a café on the ground floor that was also a bar.
On Friday afternoons, we’d all head down for “the 5.45”, for San Miguels and sauvignon in our favourite corner of the café. On sunny summer evenings, we’d take it in turns to talk about poems we loved while sipping margaritas on the roof. We had members’ dinners in the Poetry café. We had wine tastings for members run by our IT manager, who used to work in the wine trade. We helped Andrew Motion, the then poet laureate, organise a Golden Jubilee poetry competition for the Queen. The meetings were in Buckingham Palace.
Once, when a military band in the courtyard started playing James Bond medleys, I started laughing and struggled to stop. Every time I saw my colleague Martin’s mouth twitch, I had to clamp my jaws shut. I will never forget the pure, delicious, schoolgirl pleasure of getting the giggles at Buckingham Palace.
I didn’t like the admin. I never like admin. But whenever we had good news – of a new sponsor, a successful grant application, an increase in our Arts Council funding – I would nip out for bottles of cava and Kettle chips. We’d all stop and raise a glass and it felt like a party.
How often does work feel like a party now?
The last time I went into a newspaper office, it certainly didn’t feel like a party. That was before the pandemic, and everyone was in the office, but it might as well have been a library – or a morgue. If there was lots of witty banter going on, it didn’t seem to be happening at people’s desks. And there doesn’t seem to be all that much for those sitting at home staring at Zoom.
When I was tidying up my office last week, I found a pile of about 100 business cards, given to me by people I’d met at parties. I felt a pang of what I thought at first was nostalgia and then realised was grief. Grief for what we had and seem to have lost.
All work involves boring bits. What gets us through the boring bits is the company, the camaraderie, the human stuff. As Margaret Heffernan said in the interview she did for my podcast: “I will maintain to my dying days that actually people don't really work for companies. And they don't really work for money except to the degree that they need to keep body and soul together. What motivates people is their colleagues, their co-workers, their customers, their sense that they're doing something meaningful with and for each other.”
I think that’s true. And it’s a hell of a lot harder on Zoom.
For writers, freelancers, and all the people who essentially work alone, isolation is a feature of the job. It’s the price we pay for freedom and, if we’re lucky, for doing work we want to do. Many of us compensate by going out and making sure we see humans in the evenings. Or we used to.
So what do we do now?
Give ourselves a break, I suppose. It is, I suppose, normal to feel a bit antsy when all plans are provisional and when the only parties taking place seem to have been organised by and for the people who told you it was illegal to sit on a park bench. It’s normal to feel a bit fed up when your days get eaten up by the “boring bits” of work and there often doesn’t seem much time left for the stuff that makes it all worthwhile.
This year, my big resolution is to manage the “boring bits” better and do more of what I love. More of the work I love, and more or the other things I love: seeing friends, meeting new people, going to the theatre, going to concerts, going to exhibitions, going to parties. Please God, please Covid, please whoever, make this possible.
Oh, and I’m going to try to stop behaving like a bitch.
BOOK LAUNCH!!! Ok, it’s not an actual party, but I will be doing a launch event for my new book, Outside, the Sky is Blue, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly on publication day: Thursday 17th February at 7pm. And I’m absolutely thrilled that it will be chaired by Daisy Buchanan, host of the podcast You’re Booked and bestselling author of Insatiable. Her fabulous new novel, Careering, will be published in March. Here are the details of the event. And on Eventbrite here. Do come if you can!
PODCAST! “When people say do you know where you want to be in five years? No idea. But what I do know is what gets me out of bed in the morning.” Don’t miss my conversation with Joe Hildebrand, Managing Director, European Leadership & Culture Lead at Accenture. I met him on my coaching course and he’s fab. The podcast will be released on Friday.
Also, if you missed it, do catch up with my podcast with Johann Hari, bestselling author of Lost Connections. His new book, Stolen Focus talks about what has wrecked our attention and how we can get it back.