The Four-Letter Word Is Love
Life for me before the lockdown was really rather strange. I had been married for 61 years, and my husband had died. My life suddenly turned upside down and I was left alone, and my son was in London, and my daughter in St Albans. I had never ever lived alone in my life before. At that time, I was 85 years old, and I am now 91. So I had been making a new life for myself. I moved from the village we lived in for 41 years, Holton, into Headington, nearer the heart of Oxford, which meant I could go to my favourite place, the Ashmolean Museum. I could go there in the morning and have lunch, and then go to a gallery. I loved sitting amongst the Impressionists. I just absorbed those pictures, they were wonderful. And then I would go to films and theatre. And then along comes Covid-19. When the lockdown came, I thought, ‘I shall know how to live alone.’ But it was very strange, because that kind of being alone was very different from the being alone that I was trying to get used to before.
I can’t go out and nobody can come and see me. And suddenly I realised I’ve got to draw on my own resources and live a life which was strange, isolated. I’m in a residential block of flats, retirement flats. Although we would usually meet up on a communal basis, we could no longer do that. As a community, we were isolated from each other. Moving from a flat to the front door of the building was difficult because if you met anybody in the corridor you would both behave as if you had the plague and hide in a recess until they passed. And then there were all the difficulties that you experienced - shopping, prescriptions, trying to arrange to get medical advice without going to see the doctor. All of these small everyday things became imponderable.
I did a lot of growing up. I had many tears when my husband died, and because I was away from my two children. I looked for something in my life that would give me a feeling of serenity and time for reflection and contemplation, that would somehow alleviate the loneliness. This applied when my husband died, and now it applied again. And I found it through reading. I did a lot of reading, of poetry too, and I listened to a lot of music. I read David Copperfield, I always turn to David Copperfield at times of stress. I like Mr Micawber. I like Betsey Trotwood. And I like Mr Dick, poor man. If he’d been alive now he would have been taken off to a special institution.
About three months before lockdown, we had a letter from Boots, saying that they would be charging five pounds per delivery. I also have a rather bad back, which I’ve had since childhood. All of a sudden, I was there, alone with my back, thinking, ‘Can’t see a doctor, can’t get out to see my physiotherapist, can’t get my prescriptions, what am I going to do?’ And then my lovely daughter started saying, ‘What are you going to do, Mum, about getting your prescriptions?’ Three or four days after that, she rang me and said, ‘I’ve registered you with the Oxford Hub, and I’ve said that you are a vulnerable old lady.’ And I said, ‘I am not a vulnerable old lady.’
Then one day I had a telephone call, just before my 91st birthday. It was from Oxford Together, asking how was I? Did I get everything that I needed? I said that what I missed, really, was my friends. And since then, I’ve had a telephone call once a week, and then there was somebody else who rang me, and said that she would pick up my prescriptions for me, and do any shopping I needed. I get a supermarket delivery every week, but she said, ‘I’m sure there’s some things that you forget or that you run out of, or that the supermarket doesn’t supply, and I’ll go and do that kind of shopping for you at any time.’ And bless her, she still is doing that for me, ever since April. I really don’t know what I’d have done without her. She rings me up if she doesn’t hear from me for about ten days and if I don’t want anything, we’ll just go on and have a chat. We talked last night for an hour. I said to her, ‘It’s absolutely wonderful, the good things that have come out of Covid-19. You’d wonder how anything good could come out of that, but something has. I have met a number of very nice people.’
As I’m growing older, there may be things that happen that I need help with. And before this I wouldn’t have known what to do, who to turn to in that kind of situation. Now I have got somebody to turn to. And they’re so good, I don’t feel embarrassed about turning to them. It’s absolutely lovely to meet people like that, it restores your faith in human nature, and we need that restoration these days. My God, I read the paper every morning, and it takes me another two hours of being extremely busy to get over the depression caused. But this makes me very proud of Oxford. What is wonderful is that you have a City Council who says, ‘We’ll do this, and we’ll make this kind of organisation, but it’ll be manned entirely by volunteers.’ The whole thing works on trust. If I didn’t trust the person contacting me, I couldn’t have accepted the help that I’ve got. You needed the organisation, it’s a kind of vehicle in through which people can express the things they want to express and do the things they want to do, can help others. The Council and the Oxford Hub have furnished the place, and people came and used the furniture.
What is more important than the practical help is what it’s done for me as a person. I know that there’s somebody out there who cares, now. These are people I’ve never met perhaps, or have only met over the telephone. And yet I know they care, and that they know something about me, so if we ever needed each other, or if I needed them, they would know me, and it would be like meeting an old friend. It was terrible before. There was no one to talk to. And the silence was deafening. But the loneliness that I experience is manageable now, because I know that I’m surrounded by people with whom I’ve got a relationship. And of course, I’ve made other friends in the building, and there are the friends that I had before I came here. They ring me up and we have nice long conversations. We’re quite political, so we rant and rave and tear our hair out.
I’m most distressed at what is happening to the arts. I think the arts are vital to human progress,
let alone human happiness – I mean true happiness, not the bubbly sort of stuff, but real deep contentment. The feeling that you’re doing something worthwhile. We don’t need to be taught skills so much, we need to be taught the reason for being here. And with the arts, we develop perception and conception and reception. Art brings us something which is lasting and creative for society itself. It betters society in the way that science bettered society when it discovered penicillin, but it doesn’t ever do to society the things that the atomic bomb would. The crisis, you know, just by depriving us of the arts, has shown how vital they are.
I think with the individualistic society we’ve got, it’s so easy for people to lose contact with each other. And if you lose contact with each other, you lose the perception of how a person can be feeling. You don’t see the misery in their faces. You don’t see the tears in their eyes. You know, you don’t see the laugh that covers something up. That kind of perception, it’s a sort of creativity that is within people, and it needs to be utilised. And in using it, it grows. When I used to lecture students at the University about young children in schools, I would give a final lecture and call it ‘The Four-Letter Word.’ And of course, this brought all of the students in. I would say, what you teach for is not just to teach something to somebody, you teach for the love of the subject, for the love of the child and for the love of passing that knowledge of that subject on to the child, in the hope that that child might grow to love it too. And so the four-letter word is ‘love.’ And I think that is true here.