Diary notes at the end of 2021

2021 was the year I began, with the best of intentions, writing a diary.

On a gorgeous mid-May afternoon, I vividly remember taking a lengthy lunchbreak; wandering out of the office and along the backstreets of Holborn, down to Covent Garden. After a long lockdown, this particular day had put a new spring in my step. The country was only half-way through its gentle release from restrictions (Step 3 of the so-called ‘Roadmap’ would come the following Monday). But the sound of laughter filled the square, as outdoor diners in fashionable restaurants enjoyed long overdue catch-ups. Masked shoppers drifted in and out of the boutiques. Carefully-tended planters added a welcome splash of colour. And, down from a perfect blue sky, the sun brought warmth and light to the cobbled streets that had stood cold and empty for so long.

It really felt like London was, at last, getting back to normal.

I took the opportunity to reflect on all that had happened in the last 15 months – from the sudden silencing of the city’s beating heart, back in March 2020, to the gutsy (some would say foolhardy) seeds of recovery that summer, exemplified through the Chancellor’s ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme. Coronavirus never went away, of course, with constant talk of regional restrictions and national ‘circuit-breakers’ (ultimately culminating in England’s month-long second lockdown, in November 2020). Little surprise, then, that you could almost hear the world breathe a collective sigh of relief, when news came of successful vaccines. At last: a path back to normality, it seemed.

Not so fast. That winter, within weeks of the first jabs being administered, hopes of the ‘endgame’ were cruelly extinguished when Christmas was cancelled for millions. The third national lockdown, announced in early-2021, thus had an air of inevitability about it. Billed by some as ‘one last push’ to defeat Covid, it felt at times like it was demanding actual, physical effort just to get through it. Within the gloom of monotonous days and long January nights, it was hard to find the warm public spirit and ‘things can only get better’ optimism which had so characterised the first lockdown. On our street, for instance, the initial ‘Clap for Carers’ of balmy spring nights seemed a distant memory, when it was (rather unsuccessfully) suggested the country should clap for Captain Sir Tom Moore, who died this February.

There was also another thing. In a country still sorely divided by Brexit came a new source of angst and consternation: vaccination. The early part of the rollout was extraordinary in its efficiency, aided by the eagerness of the patients. In vast numbers they came, to town halls and office parks, eagerly queuing for their own shot-in-the-arm. Seeking purpose and something to do over the dull and dragging weekends, Kristen (a trained nurse) volunteered to administer jabs at a clinic in Marlow. She described the excitement with which older people turned up; for many, it was the first time in a year they had dared venture out of the house, and it was not uncommon for the women to dress up in their finest frocks… sometimes to the detriment of actually rolling up the required sleeve. But the pace slowed as eligibility increased: roughly one-in-five failed to book appointments through either apathy or laziness, principled objection, or bogus science. (It must also be said that the Astra-Zeneca dose suffered something of an image problem when fatal blood clots were listed as a side effect, albeit in vanishingly rare cases.) Truly, the manufactured outrage on some murky corners of the internet – at pharmaceutical funding and the BBC’s supposed ‘propaganda’ – is one of the most depressing things to come out of the last year.

Yet there have also been moments of great joy. Easter celebrations made a welcome return, of sorts. Weddings were eventually allowed without limitations. And, though I’m not normally one for late-night dancing, I will admit to being encouraged when 6,000 partygoers filled a warehouse in Liverpool for a government-sanctioned trial event, ahead of the eventual re-opening of nightclubs.

It was under continuing restrictions, though, that the Euros began, a year later than originally planned. Amid pressure from Uefa, the government ultimately agreed to waive the quarantine requirement for VIPs attending the latter half of the tournament. That was initially viewed as grossly unfair: ‘it’s one rule for them…’, the familiar refrain. Yet, in a mark of how quickly cases were coming down and public opinion was shifting (as well as how surprisingly well the England team were progressing), resentment waned by the time of the tournament’s final, held at Wembley in front of 60,000 fans. In a nail-biting conclusion, Gareth Southgate’s men lost on penalties. It felt like a bitter blow at the time – but, as we have since learnt, it was perhaps a blessing in disguise: Baroness Casey concluded “we were close to fatalities”, given how woefully unprepared the FA, Wembley, and Metropolitan Police were for the pent-up aggression of drunk, drugged, and violent fans.

The ‘summer of sport’ was bolstered by the postponed Tokyo 2020 games – again, not without local frustration as Japan battled its own Covid outbreak – and the happy return of Wimbledon, where the unknown British wildcard Emma Raducanu burst onto the international tennis scene. In the end, she was forced to retire from her fourth-round match due to breathing difficulties, but fears of a bright star’s premature burnout proved unfounded: she went on to win the US Open. We have not seen the last of her yet.

We have, though, seen the last of the Duke of Edinburgh. Prince Philip’s death, in April, came at a strange time for the country. Almost as soon as the news broke, the public were being discouraged from laying flowers outside royal palaces, for fears of breaching the regulations of the day. By the time of the funeral, the Step 2 release of restrictions had gone ahead as planned, but it left unchanged (at 30) the number of attendees allowed. Thus the photograph of the Queen, standing alone, in an almost-empty St George’s Chapel, will surely remain one of the defining images of our age. Its solemness and sobriety only serves to increase the peculiar contradiction I feel: that, the evening before, I had (perfectly legitimately) enjoyed my first post-lockdown pint. Indoors the pub was closed; but it was very much open for business outside, making up for lost time with drinkers at socially-distanced tables arranged on the pavement.

Other periods of the last two years are more clouded in my mind. In a superb Sunday Times piece, Josh Glancy heard from psychologists who attributed our muddled memories to the lack of routine and regularity. “Our experience of time,” he quotes Duke Han, “is based on our experience of discrete episodes and events.” In other words, without annual ‘landmarks’ like parties and holidays, we lose track of how and when things happened.

It was my own dawning realisation of this, back on that mid-May afternoon wander, which prompted my diary purchase. My thinking: if we were indeed nearly ‘through the woods’ of the virus, and on the wishful assumption that we may never see its like again, then I’d like to have some private record of this extraordinary time. In my schooldays, grandparents showed their ration books and gas-masks, as evidence of living through WWII; might my grandchildren one day ask to see my collection of FFP face-coverings, as proof of the Great Coronavirus Outbreak? It’s unlikely. But they may well ask me what it was like – and I hope my battered old book may provide some jolts to my memory.

For better or worse, though, my little red journal will not provide future generations with a detailed, running commentary of the pandemic. I regret, dear reader, that I lacked the discipline to keep up regular daily entries. There are several weeks which went by without me recording anything of note. I did note my recollections of the day I tested positive for Covid, but true ‘highlights’ of the year (a bank holiday weekend in Cheltenham, our summer trip to Devon, and the birth of my nephew) went unrecorded.

But perhaps that’s no bad thing. After all, the gaps are most common over the busiest and best of times – when, entirely engrossed with enjoying each new day, there was no time for dwelling on what had already come and gone.

After all, life – as they say – is for living.

Andrew Burdett

Andrew Burdett is a twenty-something from Maidenhead in Berkshire, working for ITV News.