The View from Here
25 March 2020
This evening, I’m sitting in the kitchen. The dogs are on the sofa, Charlie’s cooking, it feels like any normal evening in Dorset. This was the view on our walk this morning.
But it is so far from normal that I can’t even begin to imagine where to start.
Yesterday, we heard the sad news that a lady in our neighbouring village has died from the virus; her husband is in hospital. This is the reality – and hasn’t it hit us all fast?
It is a changing, changing world, and what I realise is how quickly we become accustomed to utterly new normals, and realise how fragile the old normal was.
I have been troubled to even know how to put pen to paper (as it were), knowing that anything I’m thinking right now is utterly inadequate in response to the loss that people will be facing… and utterly irrelevant within hours, if not days, in response to how fast the news runs. Deaths without proper funerals (and how, how important were my parents funerals to me and my brothers, and to our family, and their friends, last year)… I cannot even imagine the heartbreak of that. And the collapse of so many livelihoods: I have spent the last week speaking so many times to our networks of small makers, suppliers, craftsmen with whom I have collaborated in our architectural and design practice, and the shop, whose world is falling down around their heads as I write.
There are many, many bright stories too – of the love and compassion that defines us – so, so much more than selfishness or hate. If you have read this blog for years, now, you will know my great, innate trust in the kindness of strangers, the intuitive sense of good people everywhere, the sacrifices that people will make at all times for the goodwill of others. And, I am convinced we will see this now more than ever.
As you can imagine, my life has been swept up in the immediate and practical crisis. A week and a day ago, on Monday evening, as the Prime Minister asked us all to work from home if we could, we took immediate action – as you will have read in the last blog. That day, Bridie and I closed the shop. Dear, wonderful Emily, our amazing shop manager (who the many of you that have visited the physical shop, may have met) has been really sick with the virus for a few days now – I know that you will all wish her a speedy recovery; today she’s at last getting a tiny bit better. Thank god. But, also, I said to Bride, a couple of nights ago, thank goodness that we took that decision as soon as we did…. stemming the flow of infection, as it were – it would not have been good if we’d been open for another 3 or 4 days. These are all practical things, but so important.
Bridie and I have taken the decision now to close the shop entirely – that includes the website. We know you will understand. We just don’t want anyone packing orders, we don’t want anyone collecting them. We need to all do our tiny bit to help. It’s terribly sad, we’d have loved to keep some semblance of normality in your lives and ours, but it’s not the right thing for us all right now.
I’ve been working the longest hours of my life – going to bed at midnight, getting up at 4, to sort the logistics of the gigantic move of our entire office to home working within a matter of hours of the announcement; calling long-standing clients, reassuring staff, putting plans into place that I believe will be in place for a very, very long time. Frankly, it has been utterly exhausting; I’ve been in a mode of alert alarm that I haven’t felt for a long time. I arrived in Dorset, pretty shattered, on Thursday night. Charlie has been like Florence Nightingale, if I’m honest – quietly administering, getting on with stuff, leaving me to it – and, of course, because I’ve arrived from London, in a quarantine too.
But there are consolations too. The same consolations I found and learned to trust when first Mum and then Dad died last year. The consolations of nature – of the walks that we have been having each morning with the dogs, who one would think would be ignorant, but actually, really are not – they can feel or maybe smell the tension in the air. The views have been so extraordinarily beautiful these last few days, as the clear hot days and cold, cold nights gently have settled over the south of England at exactly the right time. This is a beauty that is eternal. It teaches us to breathe, slowly, in and out, to be calm, placid almost, and above all, it’s a beauty that makes us look to the long view.
The view from here is not easy. I’ll be utterly honest – I think that we are in for a long, bitter, hard time. Our politicians simultaneously struggle but do a profound job, grappling with a conflict between protecting life, and livelihood. Doubtless, much commentary will be written over many decades as to the choices they make right now. For me, I’m totally and completely clear – we could never, collectively, have coped with the genoncide that the scientists and doctors have told us may have happened if we had carried on living our normal lives unchecked. I feel sure of that. These are not strangers, or hollow statistics; these people are, or would have been, our friends, our neighbours, our friends’ parents, or grandparents. We are making the right collective decision – of that I am sure. We can and will recover from the economic harpies shrieking down the quiet peaceful valleys of our ordinary lives…. we could NEVER recover from the bitter, unspoken shame of the alternative.
But – the harpies are still descending. Every day I have heard awful stories of people suffering almost total loss of trade, business, livelihood. Our government is helping, and doing what it can. But now, as never before, we need to help ourselves and each other.
I am witnessing the same struggles as everyone else, I’ll be completely honest; but of course on a slower trajectory than my great friends in the restaurant, hotel or travel business, for sure, for whom shut down has been instant and brutal – so – I am not complaining. Ours will be more gradual. I made a decision on Monday 16th that I would ask my office, my wonderful firm of so many superb collaborators, some with me for so long now, some very new into the practice, that we would stick together, showing love and clarity and get though to the other side ALTOGETHER. We will.
For the shop, whose trade has been totally shattered by events, as has that of so many of my dear neighbours on Lambs Conduit Street and Rugby Street, and beyond; the government package does seem to be focussed, superb and one which will ensure our survival at the other side.
I will be honest too. I think the view from here is, right now, rather bleak. My own view – and I will be thrilled – ecstatic – if I’m wrong, is that the disruption could last a very long time. On Thursday afternoon last week, the last man out, as it were, I locked the door of our beautiful studio and wondered when we’d all be back there again, happily chatting, business as normal. I have my thoughts and plans; I think it’s sensible if I keep those to myself for now. But I think it will be a long, long time – definitely not, for poor old ancient beautiful LONDON, a matter of weeks, which so many of my friends seemed to be thinking when I called them last week. Maybe our views on this are shifting day by day. The struggle was not getting the office to work from home, and sending emails saying “business (almost) as usual” – how many of those have you received. That’s actually quite easy. The deeper, longer struggle is now.
So, how do we get to the other side? My view is that we all need to be focused on that – this is a long-term place that we suddenly, unexpectedly, blinkingly, find ourselves in. The next few months are going to depend on absolute clarity about what is happening; about not just depending on the government; but being wise and aware; about being incredibly careful, but also incredibly generous and loving and kind too – and, fundamentally, about keeping abundant our confidence in our huge collective mutual abilities; about continuing to trust that you must commission people, and you must continue to trust that those who commission you will pay you, when they can. It is about recognising that not everything is worth cutting back. Our amazing cleaners, in the office, and our flat – Helen and her husband Fernando – have been with us for YEARS. I’ve seen their daughters grow up from children to beautiful young women. The very first text I sent ANYONE was to Helen, just letting her know that however long – however long – this goes on, she’s going to get paid exactly what she’s always been paid. Likewise, the window cleaner who keeps the windows of Pentreath & Hall clean and bright. These are the connections that need to be kept forever, and we’ll all find them in our lives right now. Love – and financial support where it is needed – now is more important than ever. These last sentences were not intended to sound smug, please don’t read them that way.
I am pretty nervous right for the small makers and craftsmen, the self-employed furniture makers, plumbers, electricians, carpet-fitters, wallpaper printers, you name it… the list is too long to even think of. I’m nervous that trade shows and events which are the life-blood of so many wonderful people in our world cannot happen, and I’m nervous of the results of that. Whatever plans I can cook up, our industry can cook up, to keep the ‘show on the road’, albeit a bit more gently, are going to be vital right now. As I say – I think that for us all to survive, we simultaneously need to be incredibly kind and incredibly alert to what is happening and for how long. This event is NOT going to be over in weeks. I know we’re beginning to realise it, but it’s much, much better to plan for the long haul – many, many, many months of deep restriction of normal life, and be pleasantly surprised if science gets us back to our most ancient principles – of phsyical human social and economic exchange – sooner than that.
But: the view from here feels optimistic too – those who’ve read my blog over these years will know that. The world will overcome this terrible shock – the health shock, and the economic shock. I believe that it will arrive at the other side smaller, and less frenetic, less wasteful, less addicted to cheap travel and more understanding of the things that are important. Of that we already know. We will form new habits that I believe will turn out to be good ones.
I believe we are in a change time – which has emerged out of the clear blue sky. And, in the absolute heart of that change, if you can find the epicentre in your own mind, is the calm in the middle of the storm, and that is the place that I would like to take you tonight.
I don’t know that I’ve ever signed off a blog in this way, quite, yet – but I really, really mean it: