Life without actual social contacts or living at a social distance from one another
Dear readers of my blog,
with more than three weeks gone after the announcement of the shutdown and Holy Week under way, I do feel the urge to depict in words my impressions of empty streets in small country towns when pedestrian areas are deserted but for market days when at least greengrocers, butchers, the odd fishmonger, baker and cheese merchant as well as now, once again, the seller of flowers and plants, allow people in Leer to queue in quite their own way before the market tents or trailers.
Last Saturday, for example, I observed several ways of keeping at a social distance from both the traders and the fellow customers. The usual way of forming a queue, people standing in line, to employ the American expression as a synonym, was not to be seen. And I should add that for years I have observed that particularly people of a certain age – those who have witnessed lean years during and after World War Two, that is – tended to either avoid standing in a queue or elbowing their way to the buffet table, so to speak, perhaps following an impulse calling for action and not to think of their bad experiences of yore as might have happened if they stopped to think.
Such people are still around, but I am not speaking of them now, for such behavior would run counter to the principle of social distancing to elbow one's way to the counter. So at the biological greengrocer's stall – the only one that also sells from a shop based on the farm should the market be closed down once again, which actually was the case on 14th March this year – there were eventually five different queues, if you like, people standing, that is, two meters apart and facing one of the five people selling fruits and vegetables. I did not stay there long enough to note more than two people standing in any one of the five positions at a time.
There was another funny queue in front of the Mediterranean food stall, for there it had been established custom that people stood in line in a long curve but on Saturday last some thought they might establish a more direct line while accepting to observe who was next, something I had more or less given up to think of in the last ten to fifteen years. On 4th April, however, the miracle happened, and a gentleman about ten fifteen years my senior had obviously seen my son and me having arrived before him, so he waved me along to the counter, waiting for his turn to come.
At our local post office – run by a local butcher since 2002 – things are quite different. There's a car park in front of the two shops, and once I stood there waiting for the post office to open in the afternoon, and people waited either in their cars or outside, sitting on their bikes, standing quite far away from the next in line, while only one person is allowed inside, so that with six people waiting, as I observed it yesterday when driving past in the car, the queue ended just before the zebra crossing of the next side street, which is about thirty-five meters away. Since the sun was shining, and it hadn't rained last Thursday either, no-one seemed to be complaining. People take it easy, it seems, though with temperatures up to 20 or even 25 degrees Celsius it is not likely that they are going to accept as easily a long shutdown with many more restrictions such as wearing a mask everywhere one goes.
You would expect me to turn to Oscar Wilde sooner or later in this blog, wouldn't you? It is true, I have been thinking up this blog for some time but once I get into a certain flow when writing, Wilde is never far away. So here are some aperçus on him in the spring of 1895, exactly 125 years ago.
As you might imagine, I do not always look up at my wall calendar, let alone study the online Wilde calendar on a weekly basis. Of course, I haven't altogether forgotten that from 3rd through 5th April 1895 Wilde went through the best-documented and first of his several trials in a London court room. With everyone in almost every country, however, kept at a social distance of at least 2 meters from his or her next-door neighbor it is anything but easy to think of anyone in particular who suffered from a similar fate in a different place at a different point in time. Wilde, though, is a pertinent example since he was such an eminently gregarious social animal as long as he was permitted to socialize. Once this pass-time was per definition out of the question for him, when he was kept behind bars, that is, and he was left to his own resources he apparently faded like one of the flowers he had loved to use as buttonholes if they are kept there for too long.
He did not go into sequestration or exile or isolation with many communicative gadgets linking him to the outside but once convicted he was allowed a letter every three months – mind, he was allowed to receive a letter rather than write one. So he was cut off from any exchange of mere words for most of the ninety days three months last. Time would pass very slowly if you were left to your own resources for such a long period. Passing the time of day does not take much time, you might think, but if that is what you can do without any danger, not only very young people, children, that is, who take fun in the very repetition of feats they have only learned to do a short while ago, might relish saying hello very often if the weather is fine and warm and they happen to see some people who, like them, had kept to their homes in the past few weeks.
All this was and is not allowed to anyone forced to spend time in prison. Most people now cannot receive visitors, nor assemble outside or inside to speak their minds, but we still enjoy the freedom of the press and of speech, we may communicate privately or publicly on the Internet, through letters to the editor, as well as contact our loved ones while staying at a social distance. We can even go to work, certainly do any work at home both for our daily job and any chores left behind because we have a kind of respite. Celebrations of any kind are impossible if we do not stick to the people with whom we live. This is certainly a restriction – but if you imagine you would never see your children again after such a shutdown of public life, which is similar to the effect a spell spent in prison might have on the convict, then you see that while our “spell in isolation” cannot be said as yet to be limited in time most of us are far from suffering the fate of a convict kept behind bars in a late nineteenth century prison.
I do recognize, however, that there are many who are worse off than those who live in the country with a small house and garden who can still enjoy their own four walls plus hortus conclusus with the lanes and ditches of the flat countryside inviting us to escape for some time the ever-close family circle and its ups and downs. The countryside outside Leer, East Friesia, lends itself to freetime activities spent alone, in pairs, or in family groups, so that last week when I suddenly heard three voices behind me I was startled, turned round and found three girls walking two dogs. It is surprising how one's observation habits change with such a situation. Used to watching the bunches of students meeting in a school yard, always ready to step in if something out of the order happens, I cannot but note how different life becomes if all you are allowed to do is go outside with one person who is close to you or alone and meet such a person. What was amorphous has become social life with a definitive structure, something any dramatist like Wilde, for example, would have found interesting as well.
As a prisoner, he didn't write anything but letters, and he kept up this habit once released from prison. The only other piece of writing he was able to do, the multi-stanza poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” not only tells part of his own story as a prisoner, it also shows that he had become unable to distance himself socially from the lot of his fellow sufferers. Before, he had been able to use allegory to write about poverty in his native Dublin which he didn't name in his tales. Once convicted himself, Wilde remained unable to use a metalanguage to write about the plight he had undergone himself. So he had to experience poverty and solitude, speechlessness and lack of contact in person in order to use two of the most personal genres of literature, letters and poetry, to write about them. His letters remained a private affair in his lifetime and many of them for almost a century thereafter, while he published the poem – not under his name, though, since he had become an infamous character, but as C.3.3, which was his cell at Reading Gaol. I am sure with many people now left to their own devices, the period we are experiencing now, will produce a lot of such letters and poems or other art works since if you cannot spend your life outside you need to find your inner self, re-encounter it and perhaps also reshape it while waiting for the storm to abide, the water to sink, the doors to social life to open once again.
I will you and yours all the best while tiding away the time the best possible way. Easter is a good period to think of how life after the confining period might be tackled differently. One idea would be to take democracy more seriously, take it by its horns as one might take a bull and make politicians think more of their tasks than of keeping in power when they restart talking about such matters as free trade treaties behind the EU and the UK after Brexit, for example.
Jörg W. Rademacher, 7th April 2020