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The other morning, I blew the dust off the wasteland that is my 2020 diary, opened it and contemplated the days ahead. Wednesday is marked in fluorescent highlighter, as if by a teenager swotting for exams: FREEDOM it reads in capital letters, and below it: RING HAIRDRESSER. Of course, we know now that liberty will not be ours precisely, but in tier 2, where I am, there are spots of hope. I will soon be able to walk around an art gallery again – and it looks, too, as if I’ll be in the audience to see Simon Russell Beale as Scrooge in the Bridge theatre production of A Christmas Carol. Most wonderfully of all, Handel’s Messiah at the Barbican, my most beloved annual ritual, is still happening. When my friend Jim wrote to tell me that it was back on, I heard the sound of distant trumpets and surprised myself by bursting into tears at my desk.
We all know what’s hardest about lockdown. We cannot see those we love or, if we can, we are forbidden to touch them. We’re worried for the health and livelihoods of our families and friends. We wonder what the future holds, our stomachs turning as we look at the worst-case scenarios – or even at the nearest high street.
But painful as they are, these things don’t make the rest of it any less important: the fact that we can hardly remember the last time we went to the cinema, our hand folded in the dark into that of another human being; that our longing to watch a football match, the crowd roaring in our ears, simply will not go away; that we would like nothing better at this point than to be able to turn to a friend as a curtain comes down and say: “Wasn’t that brilliant?”
With each week that passes, I grow ever more aware of what it means to lose, overnight, your hinterland. Beyond the ineffable loneliness we’re all experiencing – the missing-ness, as I think of it, there being no good word in English for what I really mean – I feel like a library whose shelves are bare or an old battery, oozing crystals of potassium carbonate. I’m depleted. My resources are scant. What used to come from without – energy, stimulation, new ideas – must now come almost entirely from within.
Hinterland. It’s a funny, slightly pompous word. For years now, it has been applied almost exclusively to our politicians, who mostly seem to have no such thing. In all the years I’ve been going to concerts at the Royal Festival Hall – about three decades, on and off, depending on funds – I’ve spotted a politician in the audience only once. The MP in question was John Hutton, a defence secretary under Gordon Brown – and, yes, I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I recognised him, because even in political terms, he’s hardly a rock star and what kind of nerd am I? Still, what I remember most powerfully about this semi-encounter is my amazement, not at my own I-Spy A Blairite prowess but at his unicorn-like presence. Standing at the bar, programme in hand, my mind filled with questions. Was this a one-off or a regular thing? Had he bought his own ticket? Who was his favourite composer?
Those of us who are apt to use the H-word have always taken it for granted that the lack of one is a bad thing – and yet, I’m not sure we’ve ever been able to explain why, exactly, this might be so. People mumble about Churchill and his painting. Didn’t Ted Heath play the organ or something? But we’re responding only to a hunch.
In truth, we’re not certain why it might matter if a politician – or any public figure – likes the theatre, or the opera, or is passionately involved with a sport. Nicola Sturgeon, whose love for fiction is not only clearly sincere but committed too – somehow, she makes time for books – may have something to do with why the public feels she’s easier to connect with (is more trustworthy, even) than her counterparts. But when we try to articulate the connection between the two, we end up muttering fuzzily about empathy until someone changes the subject.
The pandemic, though, has changed all this – for me, at least. As work has seeped into every part of the day, unbridled by my need to make sure I’m up and out and in time to slip into a red plush seat, I’ve developed a powerful sense of what it must be like to be someone whose interest in the world stretches no further than their front door, their office, their computer screen.
The most obvious thing is that it’s just so exhausting. The idea that you become, contrary to those who like to (mis)quote Malcolm Gladwell, better and better at something if you do it often falls to pieces when you’re at it 16 hours a day.
But there are more nebulous, and more vital, things too. The return of your sense of perspective. The strange connections you make when your mind finally floats free, absorbed in someone else’s thinking rather than your own. The problems you solve inadvertently while you’re thinking about – choose your poison – Bruce Nauman or JMW Turner or Artemisia Gentileschi. The way that shared experience connects you – binds you, even – not only to those you know but also to strangers. What matters to someone else? What makes them laugh or cry? What is their life really like and how might a better sense of it shape your thinking about your own? This is what it means to be in possession of hinterland and I want mine back.
• Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist
Source: The Guardian
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