When anthropologists sift back through the raft of data we have created in lockdown, they’ll be able to see clear trends of social chaos, like gradients of mud dappled through ancient rock: the pre-lockdown toilet roll stampede; the post-lockdown banana bread era; that week we all installed Houseparty, because we thought it’d be fun; that week we all uninstalled Houseparty, because we believed a viral lie about data. We’re in a different season of lockdown now, one of clumsy hope, a widespread lean in to an idea of a new normal, that beach visits can be augmented with the anarchic thrill of shitting in a burger carton, and there’s a palpable shift in feeling that all this might be over, soon, and that our old life will return. It is only a few more days until pubs open in England, for instance. Nature is healing.
I think this is misplaced, though, for two reasons. One, the science, which is as absolutely grim as ever, it’s just they don’t do the daily coronavirus briefings any more so it seems slightly less bad. And, two, the fact that … well, was “normal” even that good to begin with? I think back to life before coronavirus and obviously I crave it – remember getting buses, and eating in restaurants, and hugging your family? – but also realise it was, for many, already punctuated with horror, before this particular horror came along. Be honest: how good was life before lockdown? Mine was all right, but not great. Six out of 10, maybe? A low seven?
I’m being rose-tinted about the bus journeys, because most of the time I got one it would groan to a halt mid-journey to let on 40 or 50 chattering six-year-olds on a school trip, and I wouldn’t be able to hear my podcast properly over the stinking sound of them tugging at their hi-visibility vests. I’m being wistful about restaurants, too, where for every life-changingly exquisite meal there would be three consecutive Wednesday nights where I’d somehow spend £26 on an underwhelming burger and some undercooked chips. I’m even being wistful about hugging my family, because we’re not actually that tactile, collectively, and it’s stupid of me to pretend that we are. Throw into that all the background horrors of life in Britain at the start of 2020 – the poverty, the homelessness, the wealth inequality, all that horror we talked about in the run-up to the election and then voted for five more years of – and you really have to ask: was “normal” ever that good?
I have a vested interest in life not going back to normal, because I am one of only six individuals in the UK still participating in a Zoom pub quiz every Friday. You remember pub quizzes, on Zoom, from the first three weeks of lockdown: friends that you’d forgotten you had invited you to them, en masse and constantly, five or six of them a day. The thing with the Zoom quiz is the quiz part was always exactly the same: the hosts would dress up in glittering outfits and wear a hat; they would ask you 10 questions about geography you didn’t know, and 20 more questions gleaned from the top headlines of BBC News; you would have to wave at another couple you are told you have met at a party, but do not remember meeting at a party. This happened for about 10 days, maybe two weeks tops. Then we all moved on.
The Zoom quiz is my new normal. I knew it would be a keystone point of the rest of my life the moment the host, Paul – one of my oldest and most cherished friends, and one I had, through years of distance and geography and the forking roads of our selective life paths, lost a little closeness with over the past decade – got really close to his phone camera and whispered, “What fruit am I holding right now?” Other questions have been similarly chaotic: he held up an onion and asked what it’s volume was, then measured it by dunking it in a water jug; a single slice of toast was shown on camera and we had to guess which setting on the toaster it had been cooked on (6). In lieu of the pub, Friday night at 10pm has become the one solid appointment my entire social life revolves around: I log on to Zoom, prop my phone up against a pile of books, and watch my oldest friends go bleary-eyed and confused as we all try to remember the five component parts of a Ferrero Rocher.
A couple of weeks ago we had to have The Talk: would we continue the quiz once the pubs reopened? It was broadly decided that, yes, we would. For now, pub reopening sounds “fun but doomed”: the first weekend sure to be dominated by a New Year’s Eve-worth of amateur drinkers; rumours abound of booking two-hour slots at pub tables and moving along once your time is up, our country’s cherished drinking culture turned monstrously into a whirling, infinite, bottomless brunch; the lurking feeling that an immediate R spike will lead to them closing again.
It will be a long time until drinking a pint in a pub feels like drinking a pint in the pub. Until it does, I’ve managed to find an alternative that has brought me closer to my oldest friends, made me laugh more than I think I’ve ever laughed before or since, and, yes, in the spirit of journalistic disclosure, I have won about 90% of the time. As “normal” settles on us like a shroud, I’ll be rolling my lockdown social life into the post-Covid-19 world. At 10pm on Friday, you’ll know where to find me: staring into my phone with five men I’ve known since we were teenagers, desperately trying to list the ingredients in a sausage.