NO sport on television. Pubs, restaurants, shops, theatres, cinemas all closed. No boozy lunches with visiting friends and family which leave everybody bloated and comatose for the rest of the day. No family jaunts into the countryside that turn into wretched rows about who let the dog run away or caused the kite to crash, before you sit fuming for hours in the traffic jam on the way home.
Sundays during lockdown have come to resemble the Sabbaths of my post-war childhood, when the entire country was given no choice but to stay at home between church services. Everybody who lived through that period will remember the stupefying boredom of that barren stretch of imprisonment. The lifting of those puritan restrictions in the second half of the century did feel like a liberation from a pious Establishment which knew what was good for us better than we could ourselves.
What I had forgotten, however – or was perhaps too young to enjoy – was the loveliness of savouring a day of rest which is separate and distinct from the rest of the week. This perception has been progressively borne in on me during the coronavirus crisis.
Every day during lockdown has been so much the same that everybody in our house and everybody I know has lost all track of time. This very morning, as we were getting up, my wife and I had to discuss the question and search our minds for a point of reference before we could agree which day of the week we were about to begin. Every single day is a work day, a home-schooling day, a gardening day, a log-splitting day, a cooking and cleaning and laundry day, a walking the dog day. There is no difference between any of them. They are all the same and equally demanding. Given this uniformity, it begins to feel deeply appealing to set aside a day for something completely different.
This recognition has seeped slowly into my mind during the weeks of lockdown. Partly it results from being so knackered by the full-on physical activities of the week that I need a day off for my weary muscles and aching bones to recover. Partly, it results from the evaporation of my normal Sunday habits.
For many years, my Sundays have run on rails of routine. Up for 7.30 to watch the best bits of the old man’s and little boy’s Sunday morning repeat of Saturday night’s Match of the Day. Shower at 8.00. Away in the car with my aged mother-in-law to the supermarket at 8.30 for her weekly shopping. Back at 9.30. Off to church at 10.30. Home for lunch. Into the garden for the afternoon or, if wet, watching sport on television – wasting gormless, idle hours while gorging on beer, crisps and nuts like Homer Simpson.
Those elevating routines have been shunted off the rails by the coronavirus plague. In their place, I have had to create an entirely new Sunday. What has emerged, however, has been something that looks a lot like a Sunday from the past.
At 11.00, as usual, I am at church – but sitting at my desk, watching on Facebook on the wide screen of my pc while the priest alone in the building recites the service (actually, I prefer to follow the text of the liturgy on screen so that I don’t have to watch in close-up while he breaks something that looks suspiciously like a ricecake and munches it to signify, implausibly, the online congregation’s collective communion).
For the rest of the day, I have progressively been giving myself less and less to do and allowing less and less intrusion into my space and my peace. The mower remains silent in the shed. The logging axe stands undisturbed in the wood store. While I have been steering clear of the news media, switching off the pc and the smartphone, abstaining from social media and email, Sunday has increasingly become a day of positive rest, occupied only with prayer and meditation, reading, listening to music and contemplating the mysteries of the universe from the comforts of the hammock. Sunday has thus become a little island of paradise, much as it was seen by George Herbert:
O Day most calm, most bright,
The fruit of this, the next worlds bud,
Th’ indorsement of supreme delight . . .
Perhaps we must admit that the ancients were on to something with their Sabbath observances? I certainly wouldn’t relish a return to the compulsory religious lockdown that was a British Sunday in the 1950s; at the same time, I wouldn’t want to return myself to the sterile squandering of time that Sunday had become before the coronavirus lockdown.