Ellah P. Wakatama, OBE is Editor-at-Large at Canongate Books. While exploring South London’s Sydenham Hill Wood during the lockdown, she remembers the past and imagines the unknowable near future.
When I was about twelve my family moved to the house that would be our family home for the next thirty years. It was in Tynwald, about a half-hour drive south of Harare’s city centre – part suburb, part farm land. We had moved back home from America where my father had been a mature student, gaining two degrees while, with my mother, raising four children.
This home was their dream – five acres and a sprawling single storey L-shaped house with room for us all and fruit trees: guavas, bananas, mulberries. The garden plot had mature rose bushes and the previous owner had been proud to tell my parents that she supplied local florists. My father and the gardener dug up the roses and planted maize and vegetables. Because, he said, we can’t eat flowers. In the back yard, tucked close to the house and next to the neighbour’s fence, was a tall tree with low-hanging branches. In the long stretch of days during school breaks our house was often host to visiting relatives, cousins. And while my brothers played rowdy games of football and my sister followed the housekeeper around with her baby doll tied to her back, I would slink off and climb the tree. First I had to grab the lowest branch and then hook my legs over, hanging upside down and then swinging up to climb the next branches. If I got it right, I could climb high enough that the leaves hid me from view. No one could find me. The difficult thing was being able to make the climb and not to drop my book. Because when I was a child, I read books. I never really wanted to do anything else.
Exploring South London’s Sydenham Hill Wood with my eighteen- year- old has become one of our favourite weekly lockdown forms of exercise. For two hours we are out – wandering from our house with the dog, up to the woods and trying out new paths each time. We come home exhausted, make supper, watch tv, listen to music, go to sleep. We enter the woods through the kissing gate at the beginning of Cox’s Walk, a gently sloping avenue of oaks. This is ancient woodland and almost immediately the noise of the busy A205 disappears and there is that heavy, living and breathing silence of the dense covering of trees and birdsong all around. Sydenham Hill Wood, I read on the Council website, ‘forms part of the largest remaining tract of the old Great North Wood, a vast area of worked coppices and wooded commons that once stretched from Deptford to Selhurst’. As we walk the paths, climbing as high as we can, we tell each other stories, make up lives for the people we pass at a polite social distance and try to imagine what our dog would be saying if he finally figured out human speech. We have been getting on well in this lockdown of two, my child and I – easy in each other’s company, comfortable in silence. And sometimes we find a suitable log and just sit and listen to the sounds around us.
As we walk the paths, climbing as high as we can, we tell each other stories, make up lives for the people we pass at a polite social distance
I haven’t climbed any of the trees … yet. But on these walks far away from that childhood home, I remember the tree in whose branches I found refuge on so many days over the years. My parents sold the property about five years ago now and the landscape is so very different from when I grew up. The house has been pulled down and I don’t know if my tree is still there. Now, sitting in the heady tranquillity of nature in Southeast London, surrendering to wildness that is so welcome in its beauty and disorder, it is somehow easier to come to terms with the chaos and uncertainty all around us. We listen to the daily public health reports and wonder when we will feel safe enough to venture out of our six-week bubble. We list the things we miss. We confess that really it isn’t too bad having these weeks of rest. We worry about the family separated from us and daydream about the next time we will see them all again.
In the relative great privilege of our isolation (enough money to buy the food we need and want, a garden to sit in, a house large enough that we can find space when we need it, access to technologies that allow for Zoom cocktails with friends) on most days this feels like a welcome if unplanned and unprecedented vacation from real life. Yet it comes with the terrifying reality of death all around us. There are numbers – daily in the hundreds – in the news reports. Statistics, curves and peaks. A neighbour is recovering from the virus, a friend’s son in Zimbabwe died, and an aunt who is an NHS nurse has just come out of hospital. But otherwise, our lives have not yet met with direct loss.
In the movies, when The End comes it is always much faster and noisier than this. And the running is always away from imminent danger or towards the hope of salvation. Each person for themselves. In our own virus apocalypse the only runners are the heavy-breathing joggers we skilfully dodge in the park. And instead of grabbing an emergency backpack and heading for the hills, my child joins the neighbours in the Thursday night clapping and banging of pots before we decide what we will have for our weekly takeaway supper. On those Thursdays I don’t join in. I confess that I am usually glowering in the safety of the drawing room. I am grateful that the crisis has not brought collapse. But I am wary of the words used as we speak about it. It is not a battle – the disease is a manifestation of nature at its most terrifying. We are not at war – we are trying to survive. And calling essential workers heroes and clapping once a week does not make up for years of underfunding services and undervaluing the contributions of the men and women in those service industries. Will we remember all of this in the After?
I am grateful that the crisis has not brought collapse. But I am wary of the words used as we speak about it.
Early in this essay I borrowed the title of Marilynne Robinson’s 2012 collection When I Was a Child I Read Books. In her contemporaneous review, Lauren Groff writes ‘the book’s foundation is a recurring argument for greater generosity’. Robinson is a writer I adore – for her precision and the profundity and openness with which she excavates themes of faith, love and grace. I think of her words in the noisy quiet of the woods as we discuss what, if anything, will have changed after all this is over. What will be our ‘new normal’? Will the experience mean we learn the value of taking things slowly and appreciating people and places? Will we engage in the political activity that is needed to ensure pay and working conditions worthy of those who have been out in the world caring for the sick and dying, cleaning our streets, stocking our shelves? Will we understand that when a tragedy is reported in numbers and charts, even when it is as far away as Wuhan or Zaatari, what is important is that each number is an individual human life deserving of memory and commemoration? Will we finally insist that our governments and leaders adopt policies that acknowledge that this Earth is home to all of us and that we cannot ignore or pretend that we are separate from the fate of our fellow humans and the other life forms that share our planet?
Here’s what Robinson has to say: ‘I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly … I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.’ This is the lesson I find myself trying to unravel, the truth I want to understand: What does that ‘imaginative’ love look like? How do those of us fortunate enough to be living through these days in health and safety take the precious gift of time to contemplate a better way of being in this world?
High in my tree in the back yard in Tynwald, under the canopy of leaves, I read books and imagined other lives and other places, the days seemingly endless in the way they are in memories of childhood. Now, on our woodland walks, I find myself suffused with a similar sense of suspended animation – a time to imagine not just the escapist ‘perhaps’ that I have always sought out in books but also to try and imagine the unknowable near future. Everything is uncertain and it seems impossible to plan. So perhaps the answer is to breathe in deep the damp woodland air, to let my thoughts wander high in the branches, to read the next chapter…
Ellah P. Wakatama, OBE is Editor-at-Large at Canongate Books. She is also The Creative Manchester Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for New Writing, University of Manchester and serves as the Chair of the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing.
This article was commissioned as part of City of Literature 2020 – a series of conversations, reflections and connections across one week in May. Presented by the National Centre for Writing and Norfolk & Norwich Festival.