I am not on Instagram and am not, particularly, a reader of the tabloids or glossy magazines. But they pop up sometimes, on the newsfeed – the photos. Selfies, smiling, pouting, the ‘leisure wear’ cashmere and linen, make-up immaculate, of the celebrities and the not-so famous wannabes. Their captions self-mocking the artful disarray of their supposedly ‘disastrous’ hair; sighing at the impossibility of the ‘naughty scamps’ their children are being, those impeccably-dressed moppets by their sides.
We hear a lot of the dangers of this, of comparing ourselves to this ‘Instagrammed’ perfection, the risk of feeling inadequate, of developing an unhealthy body image. Receive regular reminders that this picture of perfection can be deceptive.
But it’s not the clothes that hold my fascination, nor the make-up, nor even the lissom limbs and tiny waists. I am peering into the background in wonder. Because the houses are spotless! The floors agleam, paintwork fresh, that fluffy Pomeranian pup freshly clipped. How, in lockdown?! In normal times, the answer may be straightforward: staff, servants, home help, call it what you will. Are these people locked in with their masters? If so, one can only hope that this is a voluntarily arrangement, not part of the domestics’ contract. And if not, then how on earth do these glossy folk have the time to keep that big house so orderly? Or perhaps it’s not only those symmetrical faces that can be deceptive – perhaps behind the camera there’s a stack of discarded pizza boxes and dirty dishes?
Whatever, here at Paley Palace, the housework has become ever more Sisyphean, what with all of us, me and the kids, here all day every day. It’s my fault. The offspring are not sufficiently well trained. Even that which is supposedly washed-up by them retains an orange oil slick of vestigial pasta sauce. The fridge is subject to many raids of locusts – what else can explain it, account for the fact that our daily exercise allowance becomes a laden trip down to the grocery shop? Between all this and full-time work, I have no more time than ever I did.
Don’t get me wrong, we are in a very blessed bubble—our health, most of all; a regular full income; rooms where we can go to work, to be alone in, and the same rooms meaning we can be communal, to gather in. Even our tiny back garden, with its receding hairline of a lawn, the twisted lilac tree finally stumbling into blossom. And it’s been good to see more of the children. The shiniest of silver linings. What’s more, I work up here at my desk, safely tucked inside— no front-line risks, no working around social distancing rules on a building site or in a factory.
But. And yet. If I hear one more person in the media yapping on about how much free time we all suddenly have, I will throw something at the radio. Why don’t we take up macramé; upcycle a bike into a bookshelf; de-clutter the whole house; learn by heart the name of every native wild flower; study the Múra-Pirahã vowel system? Then there are articles featuring the successful literati, like this one here, recommending all the cultural pursuits we can enjoy during quarantine–National Theatre plays that are streamed on YouTube; online painting tutorials; box sets of arthouse movies; Zoom cocktail parties; and, of course, addressing the piles and piles of books we’d always meant to read.
Sounds wonderful. I’d love to, thanks. But seriously? When?
What losing the commute has given me is taken away again by family exercise and, I admit, a little more sleep (well if you didn’t have to get up at 5.30 every day, would you?), and by the tyranny of those dishes in the sink. A good day is getting to read, never mind to write.
Still, the guilt is there. I should be using ‘all this time’ better. I should be writing more, starting a new project, creating.
There was a flurry in the media several weeks ago when someone called Jeremy Haynes (an ‘entrepreneur coach and digital strategist’, apparently) tweeted: “If you don’t come out of this quarantine with either: 1. a new skill; 2. starting what you’ve been putting off like a new business; 3. more knowledge, you didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline.” Massively, arrogantly presumptuous, it goes without saying—of people’s occupations, incomes, personal circumstances, values, preferences, motivations… And just about everything else you can think of. As you can imagine, there was an indignant howl of mass response, not least a riposte from JK Rowling.
Even for those of us who are not ill, not grieving, not wondering how to put food on the table, getting through this may have to be enough. If we manage to come out of it still healthy, still employed, untouched by bereavement, then lucky us. And if you do have a spare hour or so on your hands, remember the old proverb: The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time…
So we haven’t redecorated the house from top to bottom, nor perfected the Dalgona coffee, not drafted a couple of novels… Let’s all agree not to feel guilty, shall we?