Spring, shopping and tennis: how the UK's cheering up

Artwork by British artist David Hockney at Piccadilly Circus in central London on May 1. AFP
Artwork by British artist David Hockney at Piccadilly Circus in central London on May 1. AFP

A few years ago I listened to an old soldier re-living his experiences of the Second World War. One observation of his has stuck in my mind ever since.

In 1945, he said, after six years of conflict, he woke up one morning and realised that he might actually survive the war.

It simply had not occurred to him that one day he would have to think about what to do in peacetime, when it was all over.

That old soldier comes to mind now as the mood in Britain has changed amid hope that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

There are obvious reasons for caution, which we will get to later, but as I write this on a bright and sunny May day, in the garden there are roses in bloom and there is a sense of a spring awakening after many dismal months.

My local tennis club has opened its grass tennis courts and it is full of children taking (socially distanced) lessons.

Wimbledon 2019, London, England. Getty
Wimbledon 2019, London, England. Getty

There is talk of being able to book holidays this summer. The streets are crowded with people carrying shopping bags. Retail therapy means happy faces behind masks.

This is after a bleak winter – 127,000 deaths from Covid-19. But Britain’s vaccination programme means that friends and neighbours have now had two jabs and many people over the age of 40 have had at least one.

There are still plenty of things wrong in the world, but many of them can be fixed by the things which are still right with the world

This change of mood could not come at a better time. Every day we read in British newspapers some new twist of the financial and other scandals that swirl around Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

We are told he – or his fiancee Carrie Symonds – ordered wallpaper for his Downing Street apartment that cost £800 for one roll. What is this wallpaper made of? Gold leaf?

Or there is the reported row in which Mr Johnson is supposed to have said he would rather watch bodies pile up than order another coronavirus lockdown. He eventually did order the lockdown, but only after infections from coronavirus began to rise significantly.

The prime minister denies making those insensitive remarks about bodies but the good news about coronavirus receding is like an anaesthetic, numbing us all to the knowledge that our prime minister appears to have no lasting relationship with facts.

And the good news is worth celebrating. The vaccination programme is going well. I’m being jabbed in the next few days. The number of deaths and hospital admissions has gone down significantly. That means Britain’s extraordinary cultural life is beginning to start up again.

A cyclist rides past the National Theatre, south bank, London, April 12, 2020. AFP
A cyclist rides past the National Theatre, South Bank, London, April 12, 2020. AFP

In London, the National Theatre is re-opening for live performances. Seating will be physically distanced, the website says, “grouped only for households and support bubbles”. Also, “to be admitted to the venue, everyone over 16 years old will need to provide contact details for NHS Test & Trace on arrival”. But still, it is a new beginning.

After a difficult year for all universities, at a (virtual) meeting with my colleagues at the University of Kent, where I am Chancellor, we have been discussing how we can get back to something like normal, and put the fun back into university life for students in the new term beginning in September. We are planning big cultural celebrations, which could all be grouped together under the heading “Let’s Cheer Ourselves Up”.

In August, the Edinburgh Book Festival is starting again with live audiences. And after the greatest economic slowdown in the UK since the early 1700s, shops, businesses and restaurants are hearing predictions of a massive bounce back in consumer spending.

An earlier edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Alamy
An earlier edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Alamy

There may be a political bounce back too. Despite all the scandals, opinion polls predict the sunnier national mood may well see Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party doing well in local elections all across England and Wales on Thursday. They might even exceed their modest expectations in Scotland.

And so, like that old soldier, contemplating his future after the War, and somewhat to our surprise, we may be putting the battles against coronavirus in the UK behind us, at least for a while. But as with all conflicts, the price of peace remains eternal vigilance.

As we watch the dire news from India and Brazil, and hear scientists talk about new variants, it is clear that however cheerful things may feel, with a mutating virus still a threat, the health of every one of us is connected to the health of all of us.

Even so, scientists, in record time, have done something extraordinary in ameliorating a horrific health problem.

There are still plenty of things wrong in the world, but many of them can be fixed by the things which are still right with the world. I’m about to celebrate in a modest way – with a game of tennis on grass courts in sunshine with friends.

I can’t tell you how happy that makes me feel. Win or lose, we can play again.

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National

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Published: May 4, 2021 09:00 AM

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