Yesterday, I finally got around to moving my ‘home office’ – laptop, monitor, speakers, keyboard, mouse, external hard-drive, an old desk and a chair – from the bedroom to the spare room. Helped by Veronica, my partner – who hadn’t realise she’d signed up to this when she travelled up from Bristol to join me for the new Welsh lockdown – we moved it all as part of what I’d started calling ‘The War on Dust’. Work in the house a couple of weeks ago meant that fine plaster dust had got everywhere, and wasn’t doing my lungs any good. Initial attempts to remove that revealed – as pulling on a loose thread often does – serious enclaves of dust in every room, built up over busy months – and, I admit, years – during which dusting had been at the bottom of my list of priorities. I took the task seriously, hiring a commercial carpet cleaner from the local tool hire store, piling up all the furniture and working through every room. The carpets didn’t look so much different afterwards, but the black water and silt that the machine collected in its bucket was impressive testament to the state things had got to.
Now, the bedroom looks like a bedroom again, boasting a couple of extra house plants and some furniture from the spare room, and with all the electronic equipment removed. It was only once the desk and computer were gone that I realised how oppressive they had become, lurking at my bedside. The feeling of having a spacious, pleasant and work-free place to rest is calming. Even the spare room, complete with all the equipment we moved, seems now to be a space to retreat to, a place to work constructively and quietly. Being at the back of the house I can hear bird song while I type, the road more distant. At the front, the traffic heading to and from the building site up the road, where new flats are being erected with sweeping sea views and big price tags, had been distracting, as had the comings and goings at the fire station opposite. Yes, I could glimpse the Marina and look out towards the town and the sea but even that had, sadly, begun to seem mundane.
As usual, once the effort had been made, and with a whole day of work behind us, I asked myself why I hadn’t made the change earlier. Well, I reasoned, at first the lockdown in March had seemed temporary and so I didn’t take the time to think through where everything would go. Then I was working hard and didn’t want to spend a lot of time moving things around when I could be getting on with stuff. Like with any change to the system and structure of one’s life, whether a training course, a new home or a re-design, inertia and the drive to get the urgent and immediate done, get in the way of dealing with underlying issues. One ploughs on, knowing that a change for the better is possible but never quite taking the plunge, never quite choosing a day to break out of the routine, to put the daily tasks on hold and just do it.
I think I can be particularly bad in that way. Once a system is set and a structure is in place I get my head down and work within it, resenting the thought that I might have to stop and readjust, that this might not be the best direction. A metaphor for our collective behaviour: we’ve found out that fossil fuels and destructive cycles of production are killing us and the species that inhabit the planet with us, but any thought of stepping back, re-structuring and going again with a different system and structure and state of mind, is resented and feared.
We can’t get off the treadmill, not now – not with targets to meet, deadlines to achieve, bills to pay, fortunes to be made, the economic hit of Covid to be tackled. Although we know that our actions are undermining our productivity, our wellbeing, our leisure time, our environment, the people and things we love, the people and things we rely on, shaking things up is the last thing we want to do. Shaking things up would break our routine, undermine our security, put us behind in the race that we are all repeatedly told we’re in, although nobody ever mentions a finish line or an ultimate purpose. There’s always something to keep us at the grindstone, stopping us from pausing and working out what we are grinding and why, and how, and what is happening as a result.
At the top of society that something is the infinite drive for more that our human nature is prone to, if we don’t have the discipline to resist it. For the rest of us, even if we can control those infinite material desires – and many can and do control them, and enjoy their lives much more as a result – the machinations of capitalism itself, driven by that insatiable desire from the top, lure and force us on with threats and the wheedling promises of advertisers, with images of ourselves and others that require us to be in the race, that require us not to stop.
Those voices driving us on to unending and fruitless competition, have been raised even louder with Covid – why don’t we take away Sunday trading laws so we can make up for what we haven’t spent during lockdown? How can we get people to eat and drink and buy more? What will happen to you if you don’t keep up? How can we support the lenders who are only making hundreds of millions instead of billions? Voices emphasizing the risk to us and our families if we stop for a moment, voices telling us that if we don’t sacrifice more and work harder our children and their children will pay, that we are selfish even to want to be healthy, never mind wanting to be fulfilled.
The people behind those voices would really rather we didn’t work out how to do things differently, how to judge critically and carefully the dog whistles and lies and manipulations swirling around us, how to build a society that is sociable and caring and does not destroy the very fabric of the world we depend upon. Because that would stop them getting now the power and wealth they want to secure for themselves. And no matter if that power and wealth will be dust in the end, they want it and they’ll do whatever it takes to have it.
For lots of people, I think Covid has provided an opportunity to see through the hollow voices from above and from within, and to start to do something about the state our society is in. People are coming together in local communities, building stronger ties, helping each other, demanding a more sustainable and fairer world. They are showing that small scale change is possible – and small scale change multiplies up to large scale change. We can change not only what we do – which can only take us so far – but also the system and structure within which we do it. If we do decide to start moving the furniture around, if we start cleaning out the dark recesses of unchallenged assumption and accumulated prejudices, maybe we can find better ways to live, and turn our backs on the gaudy casino that is destroying people’s lives and undermining the natural systems that support us. Such change will be worth it if we can bring ourselves to do it, if we can overcome the inertia and comfort of what we have now. In retrospect our only question will be, why did we wait so long?