Digested week: I get to see my mother for the first time since March

Monday

You can’t help but feel a little sorry for Grant Shapps’s family. After all, if you can’t trust the transport secretary not to ruin his own holiday, then who can you? Back in April, Grant told the Today programme that he definitely wouldn’t be travelling abroad this summer, but some time between then and last Saturday he must have changed his mind after having negotiated safe “air corridors” between Britain and various countries.

What happened next is unclear. Either Shapps knew that a 14-day quarantine period was about to be imposed on people returning from Spain and decided to go anyway for fear of looking as if he was acting on inside information. Or no one in government bothered to tell him about the new restrictions and it was only after he landed in Spain that he found out his family was going to have to self-isolate for a fortnight on their return.

I was initially willing to give Grant the benefit of the doubt and believe he had taken one for the team. But his subsequent decision to cut short his holiday and fly home early on Wednesday rather leads me to the conclusion that he had been kept in the dark. Why else would you bother to change your plans unless the plan had been changed without you?

Tuesday

I am not an entirely disinterested observer in the new Spanish travel quarantine restrictions. It had taken several months of indecision and constant updates on infection rates and Foreign Office travel guidance for my wife and me to agree to spend a week with friends near Granada in August. But with the air travel corridor open and the infection rate in Andalucia lower than most of Britain, we booked our flights about 10 days ago. We chose to fly – more expensively – from London City airport as we reckoned there would be fewer travellers in the departure areas and the plane would be much smaller. Now, of course, we are totally screwed.

By no stretch of the imagination can our holiday be classified as “essential travel” and even if it was, neither of us can afford to do the 14-days self-isolation as we had already arranged a break in Norfolk for the second week after our return from Spain. So we now have a week’s holiday in Britain in which we have nothing arranged: other than to be kept on hold for hours on end by BA as we try to see if we can get the money back for our flights, which may or may not still be going to Malaga with no one onboard.

Wednesday

The Man Booker judges – I still have no idea why the prize’s remit was extended to include US authors who have plenty of awards themselves – announced their longlist this week and for the first time in decades I hadn’t read a single title. No great surprise there, as my concentration levels have been so poor since the start of the pandemic that the only book I have managed to finish over the last four and a half months was a Scandi-noir thriller that had come highly recommended but turned out to be not very thrilling. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood. More of a surprise was that I had actually only heard of two of the 13 titles on the list – Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road – as more than half the books were by first-time authors or had yet to be published. So I’m in no real position to pronounce on the judges’s choices – though friends whose taste I trust are amazed Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet didn’t make it. I can’t help wanting Mantel to win, based on nothing more than the fact her previous two novels in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy deservedly won the prize and there would be a pleasing symmetry to a hat-trick. But the judges may be reluctant to award her the prize for just that reason. I will still be taking The Mirror and the Light with me on holiday on the off chance I find the stamina to get into it.

Thursday

Melania Trump has copped a lot of flak for her plans to restore the White House rose garden to how it looked back in 1962 when the horticulturalist Bunny Mellon designed it for JFK. Some have accused her of being a latter-day Nero, fussing about rose blight while the US burns. I’m not normally one to defend the first lady, but on this occasion I find I have some sympathy for her. For one thing, it must be handy for her to have a project that gets her time away from Donald; for another, since when did trying to make your garden look a bit better become a public hate crime? My own front garden is one of the cornerstones of what passes for my sanity. It’s one part of the world on which I can seek to impose some control. Almost every time I walk up the path, my spirits lift as I do a quick check on how each plant is looking. The one giving me most pleasure is an echium I was able to move. For several weeks it looked as if I’d killed it as its leaves had died, but shortly before I was about to dig it up for compost, it sprang back to life. A minor miracle. And so much more life enhancing than wondering who is going to get the 100k a year job of lying on the government’s behalf at the new daily televised press briefings in the autumn.

Friday

I last saw my 96-year-old mother back in early March when I visited her in her care home. I told her then that the coronavirus might make future visits more complicated, but I didn’t want to worry her so I didn’t make a big deal of it, and even someone as naturally pessimistic as me had no idea just how difficult things would soon become.

Within a week I had put myself into self-isolation and shortly after that the care home put a ban on all visits. Neither I nor the home were prepared to wait for the government to finally get round to imposing lockdown restrictions that were clearly going to be at least two weeks too late and we took matters into our own hands. Since then communication with my mother has been restricted to calls on a landline: my two sisters had bought her a mobile phone about 15 years ago but she never used it, insisting she was far too old to learn how to use new technology. She has also in that time managed to catch the coronavirus and – remarkably – recover from it.

But this afternoon I will finally get to see her again after five months as her home has re-opened for visiting in a limited, highly responsible way. A single one-hour socially distanced visit per resident, per week. My elder sisters saw my mum first and today it will be my turn. It will be a strange, emotionally dislocating experience for us, sitting 2 metres apart and wearing masks, but one that will mean so much to me.

Quite what we’ll talk about I’m not too sure since so much, yet so little, has happened in the intervening months. My mum has not been out at all – for about a month when she was ill she was confined to her room – and I have largely been confined to home myself, yet the world has changed out of all recognition. My guess is that, if I can stifle my natural urge to go on about the government’s mendacity and incompetence – only Boris Johnson could go to Yorkshire for the day without bothering to say he was planning on locking down large areas of it within hours – we will talk as we normally do, mainly about the past. In particular her childhood and wartime experiences. We will also say that we love each other: almost as regular punctuation marks in the hour-long conversation. What won’t get said is that we hope it won’t be another five months before we can meet again.

Digested week digested: More lockdown chaos

The Guardian

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