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DIARY Distant socialising

Writer JAN WOOLF on the unique opportunity lockdown provides to use our imagination

THE INTERTROPICAL Convergence Zone is known by sailors as the doldrums or the calms because of its monotonous, windless weather.

It’s a bit like that in week 10 of lockdown — or lockjaw, as there are less people to talk to. I’m not part of the gradual, ambiguous, sort of vague easing as I’m a member of the Oldish and I choose not to be out and about just yet. But then I’m on pensions so it’s a luxury choice.

I can only imagine the agonies people are going through whose livelihood depends on paid work. The platitudes about education coming from government are tired and predictable: “Children need to learn … missing out … ” etc. does not take into account that they or their teacher might get Covid and die.

I can imagine how it might feel for a five-year-old who’s been in the family nest for two months and then, counterintuitively, have to sit at a desk two metres away from touch or intimate voice. Sure, there are some kids who’ve had it tough but these are the ones needing comfort, who would be most traumatised by such unnatural distancing.

This could present more problems. Can we not imagine other solutions?

I have been re-reading The Gist: A Celebration of the Imagination, edited by novelist Lindsay Clarke. This fascinating collection looks at all aspects of the role of imagination in our lives, its challenges and saving graces. At a time when we can’t invigorate through face-to-face conversation, books like this are nourishing.

Clarke writes of the active imagination as experiencing “a fullness of being.” He recalls teaching a workshop on creativity and, rather than pinning it down with abstract definitions, they “stalked it like a natural history unit, looking for the kind of habitat in which it thrives and spotting things likely to scare that wild creature away.

“These included authority figures who keep it under critical scrutiny, either outwardly in our lives or pontifical ghosts we have internalised from bad experiences on the past.” Ring any bells?

I find the vital signs of imagination after a night of vivid dreaming, like the galloping horseman in the distance that doesn’t get any closer — an image of suspended energy that will soon feature in a short story.

But what’s happening to our theatres? They should be furloughed to sit and dream in the dark while we get through this. We can’t do without live theatre and the collective experience of storytelling, or be civilised without it.

One that hasn’t closed is Pentameters in Hampstead, north London, where artistic director Leonie Scott Matthews and her musician partner Godfrey Old go every day, switching on more than the lights.

They’ve systematically gone through decades of left, or found, objects, including a surprising amount of dolls and soft toy bears, which they have sat in the auditorium.

Other things — books, tins, medals, puppets, trinkets and more have been arranged on stage to form a bricolage worthy of Kurt Schwitters. Every day they read and perform to their audience of dolls and bears.

Leonie and Godfrey are the moving, performing elements in their brilliant installation. This isn’t the short-circuitry of insanity but through an act of active imagination and setting up speakers to relay the performances to the street outside, the very opposite,

Passing Hampstodians, two metres apart of course unless ... blah blah ..., can have a live performance every morning between 11am and noon.

Their creative action has kept Leonie and Godfrey lively. Because the hand of the artist(s) is there, it makes sense, and Leonie can say, with her hand also on her heart: “Like the Windmill, we never closed, yet we obeyed the rules.”

As George Bernard Shaw remarked: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

This article first appeared in International Times, Jan Woolf's latest short-story collection, Stormlight, is published by Riversmeet Press.


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