There’s a friend of mine who likes to torture me occasionally. ‘I really don’t like to tell you this,’ she trills, ‘but I’m looking out on to a field of daffodils. In the hedge just outside the kitchen window there’s a blue tit nesting.’ If she wants to go for a walk, she heads into the woodland behind the house. She’s in her oather home in Wales (normal residence: Fulham) and rather fancies staying there, having got the hang of the whole working-from-home thing.
Another friend, who’s getting on a bit, is in her other home (this isn’t just a holiday cottage, but a proper estate that they’ve had for years) in Cornwall (normal residence: Chelsea). She called the other day when it was hot. ‘Isn’t it dreadful?’ she says. ‘We’re not really seeing the family but we do manage to get out into the fields, and then there’s the garden. I do feel so very sorry for those poor people in London stuck in awful tower blocks.’ ‘Quite so,’ I said bitterly. ‘It’s a bit like that at the top of a mansion block.’ ‘Oh!’ she said. ‘You poor things!’
This is the kind of conversation I’ve been having with an awful lot of my friends since the start of the lockdown. My husband works for the NHS (normal patients, not Covid) and so we’re stuck in London in our rented flat, without so much as a window box, let alone anything fancy like a balcony. It could be worse: I am 15 minutes’ walk from my allotment, which is the size of your dinner table, and if I break the rules about limiting exercise to an hour, I can make it down to the river for a walk.
But there’s no getting away from it: we are not in this together, not even close. Right at the start of the lockdown, it was apparent where the elite were going to end up. One friend, who’s in the Lords, headed to her colleague’s estate in Yorkshire, where they’re enjoying a Month in the Country. The first thing one senior politician I know did at the start of the epidemic was to drive his daughter down to Dartmoor; no cooping her up when she could be getting the run of a country house. As for another friend in Sussex, I would go to any lengths to self-isolate in her home, the one with a gallery, an enormous garden and an outdoor swimming pool. And heaven knows, one doesn’t begrudge the Queen a few acres, but it was hard not to reflect that her oddly woke address to the nation was delivered from Windsor, where she has an entire park to take the air.
We are going through the motions of group solidarity, and insofar as the virus is no respecter of persons, there is a common enemy. But our experience of self-isolation is radically, entirely different. Those in London and big cities who live in flats without gardens — most of us — experience the warm weather in an entirely different way from those who are, in effect, enjoying a country holiday, or who live in the country. That Scottish chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, who was shamed into resignation for nipping off to her second home by the sea, was only doing what her peers are doing, except unlike them she was meant to be conspicuously in Edinburgh.
This epidemic has, in fact, heightened all the class differences that already exist which relate to the association of class and money with space/gardens/land. Normally I don’t get all worked up about the fact that 30 per cent of England is owned by aristocracy and gentry and, more broadly, that half of the country is owned by 25,000 landowners — that was the finding of Guy Shrubsole’s book Who Owns England? That statistic, however, is sharply practical now, and I’ve turned into an actual sans-culottes.
In fact, the divide between the landed and the non-landed works right down the social scale in the gulf between the gardened and the non-gardened. There was an interesting report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ‘Social Housing in Britain’, about the changing fortunes of those who live in council homes. It observed a dramatic change from the cohort born in 1945, where the telling phrase is ‘most were houses with gardens’, to the latest generation, born in 2000, whose homes are ‘much smaller’ and more likely to be high-rise flats.
The virus has indeed exposed the two nations: those with land, gardens, space, open air, and those of us growing runner beans on a kitchen table in loo roll tubes. We must lump it. But when the lockdown ends and country folk re-enter the world, tanned and refreshed, they shouldn’t pretend to the rest of us that we were all in this together. We aren’t.
Melanie McDonagh talks to Freddy Gray, who is in lockdown on the Isle of Wight.