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Our social lives are on the bench this pandemic year

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I want to thank Jill Franklin (1928-1988) and her family for providing me with my new favourite social hang-out. Jill has a memorial bench high above London on Hampstead Heath. It’s a lovely spot but quite hidden, and it’s where I like to sit with one friend and chat and drink tea to numb the weirdness of 2020. 

We’ve all been meeting outside for months, of course, but until the end of October, Londoners were allowed to sit outside a pub with up to five other people. I did that a lot. Now the prospect of sitting under a patio heater while drinking and hooting with laughter seems as remote and alluring as a five-star beach break. 

Winter lockdown has given the most popular bits of the Heath — north London’s finest outdoor space — an authentic festival vibe: mud, crowds, happy groups of drinkers and frequent public urination. Away from all that, and with our own private view of London, Jill’s bench is perfect for non-rule breakers like me. 

Current UK rules allow us to socialise with just one other person in an outside space, so benches represent my entire social life. I am not alone. I see pairs of friends everywhere, roaming the parks of London in search of a good, sheltered place to sit — something we haven’t done since we were teenagers carrying contraband cider and cigarettes. 

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A bench, it turns out, is exactly the right length for two people to sit socially distanced from each other. We face ahead, looking at the view. Why, I think, didn’t we do this before? Watching the sun come up or go down over my beloved city is wonderful. 

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And talking while facing straight ahead (looking towards the view, not each other) encourages a surprising amount of intimacy. This, I belatedly realise, is why parenting books tell us to have serious talks with our teenagers while we are driving. People often open up more when they are not locked in eye contact. 

The power of the humble bench as an easy way to foster connection is well documented. Anyone who has been heartbroken to see their child alone at breaktime knows that primary schools can be lonely places. Many playgrounds now have a “buddy bench”, and any child sitting there alone will be joined by a designated volunteer. It works for adults, too: the Friendly Bench initiative in the UK is just one of many groups in communities worldwide which encourage people to sit together with the aim of reducing social isolation. After 2020, we might see even more of these groups spring up. I hope so.

I’ve bought a flask for the tea that fuels my new social life and, sometimes, I bring biscuits. The other must-have accessory is a plastic bag to sit on, because November benches are always damp. The cold — the sort that gets to your core, even when the temperature is mild — is always with us. While I miss the thrill of winter swimming (outdoor pools and the Hampstead swimming ponds are shut in London’s lockdown), it’s good to drink hot tea without manoeuvring around the clumsy, numb fingers that come after a November dip. 

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Last week, I saw a pair of middle-aged friends on a bench, wrapped up against the persistent drizzle, sharing a bottle of red wine and a large bag of crisps. They were talking so intently that they seemed oblivious to the rain.

The same thing happened to me: I have just had a rare “in-person” catch-up with one of my team on a bench overlooking St Paul’s Cathedral. The normally bustling square was empty, and as we sat talking about our work, the rain started to pour down. We barely noticed, so carried away were we with the novelty of our not-Zoom meeting. Perhaps we are all a bit hardier now than we were in March. 

Finally, and perhaps most pleasingly, I can still have a bench-lunch with one person at a time from our small band of fellow office-goers. There’s a verdant garden just outside our building — in the Before Times it was full of Pret-a-Manger-munching workers, but it’s now so quiet that we can hear birdsong and watch the foraging mice. 

We can still approximate normal office lunchtimes: swapping gossip and tips and news of promotions and mutual colleagues and their children and of life, now lived remotely. We are keeping the wheels of office culture in motion — and the benches warm — until our much-missed colleagues can join us once again.

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