Art and Resilience in the Time of Covid

Developed using London by Lockdown shownotes

09 September 2022

My two years in London was a mess from go to whoa, and in the end London broke me.

I arrived a month before London locked down. And while I understand neither the pandemic nor the lockdowns were in my control, the fallout took its toll. My partner Shona had taken up a job with a global human rights organisation a few months earlier, and our staggered arrivals were so I could finish my work in Australia. I was probably more excited about the move than she was: exploring an unknown city, meeting new people, discovering restaurants, galleries or bands, calling this place home for who knows how long. But when everything shut down — even with my podcast London by Lockdown in my corner, which I started the day lockdown began in an effort to connect me with the stories of the city, the communities and the people around me — at times I floundered. (We all turn to stories to make sense of the world.) London took my mental health and spat it out onto the ground and left it to desiccate. I would eventually feel fearful and anxious, and begin doubting my memory, my art, my sense of self. And as much as I search for a linear and coherent story about the pandemic, none exists.

I felt so much guilt and shame the morning I told Shona I had to leave, because she was absolutely crushing it in her job. I’d woken up in a panic attack at about 4am. (How do panic attacks even happen while you’re asleep?) Weeks and months of restless nights left me sleeping on the couch. And with so many of my thoughts crashing in on top of me and on each other, the only thing that was clear was that I had to leave. It took me two hours to talk myself down.

If you go to England, you bound to turn mad

— Olive Senior ‘I’m quite alright with that’ (Not Quite Right For Us), 2021

London sits in the Thames Valley, at the base of a bowl in a sedimentary basin, where over the years many of the smaller rivers and tributaries have been turned into sewers and all the forests cut down. When you’re looking up from the bottom of this hole, it’s hard to see beyond the rim. And yet, those rivers, they haven’t been completely silenced, because parts of London are sinking. Just down from our flat in Telegraph Hill, walking along Deptford’s streets, near the Thames, the streets inundate and flood in the rain. When homes and businesses are literally just staying above the water, it’s hard to do more than survive.

My memories of those first confusing weeks of lockdown feel thin. As a migrant I couldn’t get any UK government support, and all Australians unlucky to be overseas when it all hit were hung out to dry by the Australian Government’s 18-month border closures. Job hunting in a collapsed UK economy weighted down by both the Brexit binfire and the pandemic shitshow was hard. But the disintegration of my mental health wasn’t just about being unemployed for two years. It was the isolation. Without meaning to, I stopped speaking with friends and family in Australia. Sometimes I’d be so anxious that I couldn’t bring myself to chat. I don’t know why; even at the time it made little sense. Thing is, I’d always feel better once we’d spoken. (I stopped reading news, being on socials and taking in any outside information.) I turned to stories of that place, lost myself in novels, but even then, some of them were too intense and I had to stop.

In those confused early days, before the full dangers of the pandemic were revealed, we were house hunting. I remember having to shake off claustrophobic thoughts before going into potential homes for house interviews; the intricate combinations of smell and light and sound; the time before physical distancing. Our precautions came with caveats and weight: we didn’t shake hands; we did use hand sanitiser. As potential housemates, we discussed move-in dates, rent and bills, all without hashing out what ‘our house’ might look like if we, strangers, were plunged into indefinite rolling lockdowns, except that’s the one thing we needed to discuss. We spoke as if Covid was happening to characters in other people’s dreams. But Shona and I had a hard move-out date, the lockdown’s bottlenecks created myriad uncertainties, and the weeks were slipping away. So somewhat reluctantly we increased our rent budget, began looking further afield, and decided ‘no housemates’. We even sent a ‘Hail Mary’ email to Shona’s colleagues (when all bets are off…). A friend of a friend had a flat in SE London. So, on Day 1 of lockdown, amid confusion upon confusion, we moved: the removalists arrived at 7pm, four hours late, we didn’t know if there was an evening curfew or not, then we took an uneasy train trip across town to a part of London we’d never visited, holding an unsigned contract with landlords we’d never met, to move into a flat we’d never seen.

London by Lockdown’s mission: a podcast about falling in love with a new city in a pandemic, remaining curious and open in strange times, and making it work — was also about holding on. And I did hold on; I held on and on and on until the city opened up again — but once I was out and about I didn’t fall in love. I found myself isolated and in-between, and exploring London’s streets often left me feeling empty. My disappointment felt so out of step with how I thought I was ‘supposed’ to feel about the place, that I did wonder if I was going mad. I thought that if this disconnection is the pay-off for surviving lockdown, then I can’t keep doing this because it’s not much of a pay-off at all. (Think PJ Harvey’s cover of Peggy Lee’s ‘Is That All There Is?’.) I did make some contacts, found freelance work, and made friends, but I couldn’t find a way in, a way to make it work. London felt more closed than open.

The difficulty in navigating London (and English culture more broadly) is that there’s a tilt to its familiarity; it was just askew enough to make everything well-known both awkward and confusing without my being able to put my finger on anything specific. Shona and I knew we were moving to live in the belly of the Colonial Beast before we left Australia, but I didn’t realise how ingrained colonial ways of thinking are in mainstream English culture, and how celebrated colonialism is — without too much self-reflection. (There are superb exceptions, like the Migration Museum in Lewisham, but their rarity only proves the point.) That might sound harsh, and I understand that post-Covid London could never be like the pre-Covid city, but the official city that elevates only certain artefacts of culture, art, knowledge or history — that city persists through time and thrives on the facade that someone somewhere in London is having a blast, while the rest of us, who are struggling to just get by, are somehow missing out. London’s lie is the opposite of terra nullius: a legal concept used by Colonial powers to steal ‘empty territories’ that were in fact not empty. London’s illusion is that there’s something more than there is. (It feeds off stoking FOMO.) I was caught in-between cultures, cities, times and stories.

As a non-Indigenous person born on the Australian continent I acknowledge I was born on Ngunnawal Country, near the Murrumbidgee River (“big water” in Wiradjuri). This article was written on Yuin Country, near the Pambula River (“twin waters” in Thaua), and over the years the Birrarung and Maiwar (Yarra and Brisbane rivers) have each held a special place for me. (Australian citizenship didn’t exist until 1949, and we were still considered ‘British subjects’ until 1984.)

When I couldn’t connect with London, I felt guilty and pained, and thought that I’d failed in some way; but now, looking back, I think otherwise. I hadn’t failed at all. London by Lockdown did exactly what it was supposed to do, and then some. Through my work I met, albeit remotely, an amazing array of poets, writers, historians, storytellers, film makers and activists who give voice to the under-represented and ignored stories of London. I read their novels, short stories, essays and memoirs; I listened to their music, spoken word and poetry; I watched their films and docos.

To truly trace the contours of a place, all histories are needed. For the UK, centuries-long
intergenerational migration to and from the colonies means British identity is as much the present as it is the past. As I explored the complex island nation, I saw art resist a skewed national identity by helping forge a more accurate one. Walking on the same streets and paths and ground as writers like Bernadine Evaristo, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Amina Jama, Jay Bernard, Maame Blue, George the Poet, Catherine Johnson, Shereen Pandit, Johnny Pitts, Nicola Williams, S.I. Martin, Pauline Melville — to name a few. The Race Today Collective’s fight for social justice; the Black Cultural Archives; the George Padmore Institute; New Beacon Books; Flipped Eye Publishing; Housemans Bookshop; AllanaMax. The blue beat punk ska reggae of 2-Tone (The Specials, Rhoda Dakar, The Selecter, Pauline Black); Poly Styrene’s punk-era call to arms as she sang her way into a world that didn’t hear or see her; and grime, that grungy garagey eletro jungle-dancehall-hiphop mix. I waded headlong into diverse worlds I didn’t know existed, and was absorbed by histories I’d never come across before from people who’s voices aren’t always heard.

These stories on race and gender flew in the face of any version of London I thought I knew, formal or otherwise, and in so many subtle ways, finding out about these other Londons did my head in when I finally got out of lockdown. It was through the generosity, trust and bravery of the people I met and the stories I read during lockdown that I was able to better understand a vibrant and caring London built on community organising, mutual aid, anti-racist activism, equality, radical empathy and resistance (and not colonialism). Viewed as a continuum, this work (and others I’m not aware of or can’t fit in this piece), provides a more detailed chronicle of what it means to be British. But even as I was soaking all these stories in, I knew in my bones they weren’t my stories.

The River Peck, as described in Paul Talling’s meticulous book London’s Lost Rivers, is a tributary of The Earl’s Sluice, which meets the Thames at Deptford. Peckham is a Saxon name, meaning ‘village of the River Peck’. It’s mostly underground now; one of dozens of waterways that have been redirected into London’s sewers; it was enclosed in 1823. Here and there, though, it pops up to remind us: the stream in Peckham Rye Common; a shallow depression running alongside East Dulwich Road; a bubbling spring; or a brook through the cellar of a pub.

The more London opened up and we were told to ‘return to normal’ or ‘live with covid’ (which is actually cruel), the less grounded I felt; and the less grounded I was, the more the lockdowns and even the pandemic played out like a distant dream happening to someone else, even though I knew it was happening to me. It was like sleepwalking though a hybrid world punctuated by fatigue and insomnia that, dull and fractured, created No Time. Even now, I struggle to remember things that happened and exactly when. My feelings were there only in shadow. Sleep wasn’t peaceful either. (I’m not alone in this, lockdown spawned a world-wide epidemic of mysterious dreams.) Every night I plunged into the dark, violent and just plain weird. I’ve had a strained relationship with sleep and dreaming for decades, but my jumbled and restless London dreams scared me; I didn’t know I could feel such hurtful things.

When I was 16 I had a recurring premonitory dream over about two years. I’m sitting in the shallows of Lake Ginninderra (in Canberra). Thunder, lighting and wind convulse the water into a wave that lifts me and carries me away from the land. I’m lucid, unnerved, because a near drowning a few years ago means I don’t swim, but I can’t control the dream. Day turns to night, I’m at the opposite shore at a bonfire party of friends (current, future, past, lost — are these people manifestations of dreams within dreams?). I scramble from the water and make my way to the fire. I know everyone here, but recognise none. A friend hands me a wine. I scan the crowd. ‘We lost them at the beginning,’ he says. ‘Where have you all come from?’ I ask. He starts to answer, but — every single time — I wake before I hear him. (With each recurrence, there are less and less people at the party.) After my friend Kate drowns in Lake Ginninderra, I’m 18, the dreams stop.

In those final six months I’d wake most mornings at about 4 or 5am, with a tight chest, nausea, and racing thoughts clawing. Most nights, I’d sleep scrambled and restless, and as the pandemic lingers, my dreams become more intricate while making less and less sense: I’m doing a medical procedure on a dirty floor with cutlery and gauge something from someone. Blood and puss everywhere. I’m doing a theatre performance that ends with me setting the stage on fire. Burned charred skin everywhere. One morning I wake singing: ‘It’s 8.35 and Craig’s mum dies.’(Mum passed in 2013.) I’m in line to see a doctor, who pokes and scratches at my eyes in front of everyone — I can’t stop them and no one intervenes. A friend dies and I have to bring up two urchin kids in London. People I know I know appear in my dreams, but I can’t remember who they are (in some cases I haven’t thought about them in decades, and this gap in my memory makes me anxious and plagues my waking hours as well, sometimes for days at a time). A group of us are running somewhere ‘important’, avoiding surveillance — we’re in a city policed by spaceships (I think this is weird, but everyone else thinks it’s normal), and I see Melissa so we duck into a dingy bar where there’s a screening of an independent film she directed. I’m working in a science lab where we put people’s minds into organic tech that looks like garlic cloves, which we then place in test tubes filled with a milky solution, and attach wires that monitor their thoughts. For months my dreams pile on and on and on, and rip me from my sleep at all hours.

In a recent interview, Shane MacGowan of the Pogues (my favourite band), talks about suffering attacks of ‘horrible and nameless fear’ when he was growing up, the son of Irish immigrants, in London. I had that. I still don’t understand why I was waking up day-in, day-out trembling with panic attacks and a non-specific fear that sometimes rendered me unable to eat or function or focus on my work. I struggled to know which feelings were true and which were false. I still don’t know what scared me so. I lost weight.

The colonial story of Australia, the driest inhabited continent, begins and ends with water. The original colony, Kudgee (Botany Bay), didn’t have fresh water, so another site ‘with a run of water through a thick wood’ was found at Warrane (Sydney Cove). This was the ‘Tank Stream’ (named after the storage tanks cut into the rock). As the colony’s main water source, it was so fouled by the colonisers that they had to cart water in from a nearby wetland. When that ran dry, they ventured further west on the promise of a ‘Rio Grande’ or ‘Mississippi’, and on the back of the myth of an illusive inland sea. (Which is another story altogether.) Today the Tank Stream is lost under the streets of Cadi, Djubuguli (Sydney). I heard some version of these stories growing up, but I didn’t know that England had a rap sheet as long as your leg. After ruining London’s waterways they travelled to the other side of the globe only to repeat their mistakes.

If this sounds like I left England hating London, that’s not true and it wouldn’t be fair to tar all of the city with the same brush. My feelings are complicated and my experiences are complex. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love the place either, and, to be honest, I’m not indifferent — there is something about London that sends people mad, I’m sure of it. A friend I met there explained that for people who grow up there as she did, many have an innate understanding of how London works, so can navigate the oddities — which I suppose is true of many places. But, as I said, I found London’s tilt especially befuddling, and I’ve lived in three countries, three continents and nine different cities. In this way, London as illusion makes some sense. My curiosity and search for meaning during lockdown meant my imagined London was, in many ways, ‘better’ than the physical London I was exploring.

I didn’t think about it this way at the time, but London by Lockdown details the ills of exile — my exile. It spans the two years Shona and I lived in a one-bedroom flat in London, watching the UK (and the world) spin and spin and spin into chaos, as I tried to remain engaged and connected, and make sense of being alone and isolated on the other side of the world. London by Lockdown explores, in part deciphers, the mental and physical Londons revealing themselves during lockdown. Through intricacies and half-spaces I attempt to uncover the overlooked and unheard stories of our homes. I didn’t intend to make this type of memoir or art.

Ben Okri’s The Famished Road is one of my all-time favourite novels, it drifts between histories and worlds, truths and fictions. The simple enormity of it all: how one thing is in fact many.

I have a beautiful dog-eared and fox-blotched copy my sister gave me for my 21st, and it’s travelled with me through the decades across continents and countries. In it Okri asks whose stories should we believe: those told by people with self-proclaimed authority, or those we tell each other? Our local histories birth and sustain our homes, the places we live: material, self evident and layered; our daily battles prove we’re not as fragile as maybe we imagine — despite logical misgivings and insecurities; and our shared stories branch out to the whole world, continuing beyond each of us, not limited to one time or place. Soon after arriving in SE London, when we had to stay within 5km of our house, and could only be outside for an hour each day, we walked the streets, learning about the Borough’s fearless local history (the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ {when the community stood up to the fascist National Front}, the tragic New Cross Road Fire, the Brixton Uprising {when the community stood up to police oppression}, and how the New Cross Library was saved). I hadn’t realised before this, how important understanding sites of personal and community resistance is to me — no matter where I am.

Healing isn’t linear, either. Some days I wish we were still there and that I could have made a go of it. Sometimes I check out the socials, and when I see photos of the streets I used to call home or remember the joy of hearing all the different accents from around the country, I yearn to be back there. I begrudge that people are travelling now, visiting places I couldn’t. Then on other days I remember the Covid shitshow — which still has years to play out — or how London made me feel empty and lesser and disconnected, and I’m so glad to be on the other side of the world. I’m lucky, I’ve returned to the bush and the sea, and I’ve given myself permission and time to heal.

London by Lockdown, then, if I’m being kind to myself, is a beautifully fragmented love letter lament celebration: an accidental memoir contrived of both a podcast and a book of vignettes. So on those days when I was feeling more than a little anxious, as I languished, it was in the bustle of places like Lewisham, Deptford, New Cross, Peckham or Brixton where I found a calmness in anonymity (which sounds counterintuitive given part of my melt down was because I felt so isolated). These places — historically home to outsiders, and the sites of day-to-day actions of resistance — have a human scale that made all the stories London was trying to tell me, if only in those few brief hours, make sense.