Blog post by Laura Stringer

Lest We Forget – The Positives of the Pandemic
Laura Stringer

Looking back at photos of Christmas 2019 feels like looking back at a bygone era – nights out at The Red Lion or Queen’s Head with arms draped around friends, trips to Christmas markets, neighbours singing carols together in the Square, school halls and theatres packed with strangers, family huddled around the Christmas dinner table – how quickly things which seemed so normal became such distant memories. As Big Ben chimed us into 2020 we had no idea what was about to hit us! Covid-19 chanpged everything.

But as well as the sadness over the people we have lost, the funerals we couldn’t attend, the loved ones we couldn’t see, the weddings, holidays, exams, events and school trips that couldn’t happen, the businesses that had to adapt, the livelihoods destroyed, and the mental toll of almost a year of social isolation, particularly for those shielding or living alone, so many good things have come out of this year that are worth logging, lest we forget

1.A huge appreciation for key workers – naturally the medics, nurses, and care workers who have so bravely worked on the frontline treating COVID patients, but also the delivery people, the teachers and teaching assistants, the retail workers (thankyou Co-op, Spar, Tesco, The Market Garden, Golsby’s, Evenlode DIY and Eynsham Cellars), the bus drivers, the cleaners, the refuse collectors, the warehouse and factory workers, the IT infrastructure providers, the restaurants, pubs and cafes, and everyone who keeps our lives ticking along through hard, often risky public service. I also have newfound respect for the analysts, the health advisers, the NHS managers, the economists, the civil servants, the PR teams and the politicians having to make and communicate lightning fast public policy decisions to save lives and livelihoods. The government hasn’t always got it right, but I don’t envy our leaders.

2.  Renewed joy in the simple things in life:

– Spending quality time with my husband and girls

– A less hectic schedule (I didn’t miss all the chauffeuring and chaperoning to karate and gymnastics and dance and drama and triathlon)

– Creative cooking and entertainments – we had countless family theme nights at home from Eurovision and Lockdown Fest through to Grease, The Roaring Twenties, Japan and Thanksgiving, and the children set up pop-up shops on the kitchen island, selling cookie dough, smoothies and sandwiches

– DIY (after 5 years of procrastination, we finally painted our downstairs toilet)

– Listening to music (working our way through our vinyl collection, from Jim Reeves and Nina Simone through to Witney Rapture’s best albums of 2020)

– Getting to know each other again, away from the distraction of work, travel, school, and social life.

And, of course, we missed our family and friends outside of the household and overseas and remembered never again to take their presence, mobility or embrace for granted. Eynsham’s Lucy Traves offered a daily virtual hug service on Facebook, which brought a smile to many.

3.  Walking, cycling, sunsets, sunrises, rituals, and nature – it’s almost embarrassing how little we had previously explored our local area in the 15 years we’ve been here. It was wonderful to discover the loop to Pinkhill Lock, Eynsham Mill, the Wharf Stream Way, and the route to Pinsley Woods (soon to become Salt Cross Garden Village). We swam in the river near Farmoor Reservoir, and loved to cycle over Chilbridge to South Leigh, or along the river and across Port Meadow into Oxford (especially in the first lockdown when the city centre was deserted). Witney Junior Triathlon club kept us active with countless virtual challenges. We suddenly became so much more aware of nature and the changing seasons – of lambs, bluebells, blossom, poppies, wheat, lavender, sunflowers and Autumn leaves. When permitted, we went further afield, driving spontaneously to see the sunrise at Mudeford and Lyme Regis and splash about in the sea at dawn. It brought such relief to ‘see the edges’. We terrified ourselves by visiting the Rollright Stones at midnight on Halloween (I wouldn’t recommend it!), marked the Winter Solstice at the Devil’s Quoits, and witnessed spectacular light shows as the sun set over Worcestershire on Christmas Day.

4. Admiration for schools – I’d always quietly liked the idea of homeschooling my children, but I soon learned that there was a big gap between romantic notions of nurturing tadpoles or skipping through the Ashmolean admiring ancient Chinese vases and teaching a Year 5 fronted  adverbials, or dragging a Year 7 out of bed to assess the degree of treachery involved in the rise of The Tudors. At times it did feel like a privilege to share the joy of analysing Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman poem, or to help research the pillars of Sikhism, but mostly it made me realize that teaching requires knowledge, skill and the patience of a saint! And of course teachers had to adapt over and over again to new conditions – teaching online as well as keeping schools open for keyworkers’ children, while navigating GCSE & A-level chaos, and ensuring the environment was COVID safe. Teachers and TAs, I salute you.

5. Community, generosity and kindness – One of the best things to have come out of this year has been the strengthening of the (already brilliant) community in Eynsham. I was quick to get on board with the immodestly named “Eynsham Heroes” Coronavirus Support Network, which soon grew to over 600 members, divided into 10 neighbourhood WhatsApp Groups for mutual aid (and sometimes discussion of the neighbourhood woodpecker, black market flour deliveries, or the best source of Danish baking potash!). We also teamed up with Pam and Bob Thiele and the foodbank at Eynsham Baptist Church to establish the Eynsham Community Larder, which now supports over 40 local households whose incomes have often been affected by the Coronavirus crisis. 

The Eynsham Heroes’ steering group, under the leadership of Sean Grace, met weekly by Zoom to discuss strategies and processes to ensure that help was made available to everyone who might need it. I created newsletters, wrote articles for Eynsham News, made posters and flyers, co-ordinated social media, and did everything I could to spread the word that there was someone on every street happy to help. Foremost Print generously printed our publicity materials. Working alongside the wonderful volunteers at Eynsham Good Neighbour Network, we answered e-mails and co-ordinated help (particular thanks to Claire Phillips, Robert Barry and Janet Stewart), picked up prescriptions, delivered newspapers and newsletters, dropped off medical equipment, did shopping and ran errands. We even co-ordinated a “Keep Summer Tidy” litter picking campaign with Eynsham Litter Pickers. We raised over £15000 for the Eynsham Community Larder (as well as being awarded a grant), some £5000 of this specifically through a Christmas Appeal which enabled us to give the Larder households Christmas food boxes, gifts (including dozens of science kits donated by The Curiosity Box), and vouchers to spend in Eynsham’s shops and eateries. I really hope no-one found themselves suffering alone.

And of course as well as all this, we all clapped and banged pots for the keyworkers every Thursday in the first lockdown, Eynsham Community Primary entertained us with a virtual May Day parade (and the Eynsham Morris woke us at the crack of dawn on May Day with their own parade around the village). We celebrated VE day with distanced neighbours, saw the cheerful starter upper on what-should-have been carnival day, and the preschool and primary school PTAs did their best to keep the youngsters entertained with scarecrow, Halloween and Winter Windows trails. The indispensable Eynsham News went monthly, keeping us all in touch with what was going on and providing some much-needed light entertainment.

6. Health – In the lead up to the pandemic I had been undergoing a series of operations in Germany for a condition called Lipoedema (a painful, progressive fat disorder affecting the adipose tissue in the limbs) – the surgeries and recovery were gruelling, but I was otherwise healthy and well, unlike the millions who suddenly found themselves having to shut themselves away for the year with underlying health conditions which made them even more vulnerable to COVID-19. Prior to this I had never really spared much thought for the friends and neighbours with diabetes, severe asthma, lung conditions, and auto-immune or inflammatory disorders which meant they had to take extra special care of themselves. I am so grateful not to fall into these categories, and deeply in awe of those who had to find the mental strength to shield themselves for so long. I am also very sad for those who didn’t know they were vulnerable, or had no choice but to expose themselves to the virus through work.

7. Change triggers change – the hiatus in normal life brought on by the pandemic made us reassess our behaviours, our traditions, the way we spend our time, and the way we treat our planet and each other. Whilst David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg opened our eyes to the harm we were doing to the natural world, the murder of George Floyd and the growth of the Black Lives Matter Movement forced us to acknowledge our privilege, face up to our uncomfortable past, and think of how we could create a better, fairer world for black people (who have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic), and for everyone. I found time to read Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie, watched David Olusoga’s documentaries about black British history and the Windrush generation, and cried along to the National Theatre’s Live Stream of Andrea Levy’s Small Island. This will be a marathon, not a sprint, but it feels like times really are changing.

8. Flexible Working – for decades families have struggled to juggle working and commuting hours with school runs, breakfast clubs and after-school care. Even when working part-time, I ended up making countless grovelling calls to Willow Cottage and Earlyworld to apologise for being caught in traffic and late for child collection. With a travelling husband, working full time simply wasn’t an option – there just wasn’t enough wrap-around care available to cover a full working day and commute. I was lucky that my managers fought to give me part-time contracts with some homeworking, but I was in a minority. Many employers were just too suspicious of remote working. It took the pandemic to force widespread acceptance that you can work really efficiently and achieve just as much (if not more) when trusted to work remotely, flexibly and from home, at the same time as being there for your children. Obviously this is still a privilege of office workers, and feeling obliged to homeschool or look after babies and toddlers at the same time as working was really stressful for many people, but hopefully the acknowledgment that we all have lives outside work is a positive step to achieving balance.

I am also so grateful to the schools and clubs who were so agile and worked so hard to keep children learning and training remotely – especially OSTMA karate, Small But Mighty Theatre, Jill Stew School of Dance, Bartholomew, and Eynsham Community Primary School.

9. Science and Technology – back in May my book group read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of The Plague Year, which was hard going in places (!) but really resonated. The Coronavirus pandemic still differed enormously from the Bubonic Plague though, not least because of science and technology. At the speed of light, scientists (including those at Oxford’s own Jenner Institute) and pharmaceuticals companies developed, tested and produced vaccines to protect us from Covid-19. Meanwhile technology facilitated remote working, Zoom quizzes and reunions with family and friends around the world. The National Theatre kept us entertained with complimentary virtual theatre on YouTube. Live streamed and Zoomed theatre performances from Creation Theatre, Wise Children, and streamed gigs from the likes of Tim Minchin, DC Fontaines and Nick Cave meant we didn’t have to suffer from fear of missing out syndrome, and helped a few of the millions of unemployed performers and support crew find a source of revenue.

10. A shared experience, globally and locally – “We’re all in this together” sung the world in 2020, and this was partly true. It was surreal to see news footage of people in Buenos Aires in masks, to see friends on Facebook in lockdown in New Zealand, and Australia, to watch videos of people singing on balconies in Valencia, and to discuss stats, safety measures and toilet roll supply with family in New York, Houston, Muscat, Scarborough and Bolton. We might all have had different exposure to risk, or faced differing degrees of difficulty, sacrifice, pain or loss, but the pandemic underlined our common humanity and vulnerability.

And while the world shrunk and became closer, so did our immediate horizons, and with it my appreciation for Eynsham grew: its rich history (I devoured Mollie Harris’ From Acre End and gleefully uncovered curious connections with previous residents of my house on, its shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants, the natural environment, the community and our neighbours … and I sincerely hope, as things get back to ‘normal’ we never forget how lucky we are to live here and to have each other.

Author: Eynsham Lockdown Editor