In the Welsh mining valleys, the custom is to codify someone’s craft or profession with a word after their surname. Dai Green Peas. Ernie Spin and Dry. Evans the Damp. Jones the Sandwich. At my Uncle’s funeral last year, my aunt nudged me, and pointing at the funeral director, said, “That’s Jones the Box”.
I’m in Australia for this crisis, living in my brother’s house in Queensland. In one direction, it’s a short walk to a large, wide bay where all of the infinite blues of the world are created in its enormous slowly-turning cauldron. In the other direction, there’s an industrial estate, with business after business that shout on their signage a specificity that even the Welsh valleys can’t contend with.
There’s Allen’s Plastic Repairs (proprietor Allen). Roof Painters r Us, Positive Batteries, 24 Hour Gym (oddly open 9-5), One Stop Irrigation Shop, Wide Bay Soil and Concrete Testers, Handles and Knobs (based at the prudently-named Handle House). There’s a business called Food and Coffee. There’s another called Restaurant. Another is called Lifts and is inexplicably based in a one-story building. On the sea front there is a building called Mr Seafood, which as pieces of nominative determinism go, is pretty remarkable.
It’s the same principle as the one in the Welsh Valleys, except the owners don’t quite carry their badge around with them, like a sort of community-imposed honour..
Allen of Allen’s Plastics is the one exception. He has a name tag on his boiler suit in the corporate colours and his Toyota Hi Ace, I noticed, is also very much a showcase for the brand.
I haven’t yet seen an ad for Allen’s business on local TV (TV here is a conventional and affordable ‘route to market’. You can buy ad space and make your own, with you as the star, for not very much.), but if there was one, I’m sure Allen would front it in that slightly helium-enriched voice that proprietors use to pack as many words into the commercial as possible.
A bit further along Boat Harbour Drive, the main metal shed shopping road in this town, there’s a patch of car dealerships that, in a betrayal of imagination, give over their name to the town’s nickname, the Bay City. So we have Bay City Isuzu, Bay City Mercedes, Bay City Ford. Part of me wishes this to be late-in-life career change evidence for the Bay City Rollers and that Woody will appear on the forecourt of one in a sun-faded tartan suit, his head looking even more like a failed game of Ker Plunk.
This leaning to the specific in local trades has been on my mind in this time of global isolation. Starved of being just one ingredient in the mix in society, we’re now in our very own store cupboards, forced by circumstances to confront who and what we really are. I see evidence of people teaching themselves new things everywhere. Homes are now drowning in sourdough starters, more and more people are drawing or singing or playing the piano or guitar or other obscure instrument. We’re composting metaphorically and literally. Ideas are developing, passions are being given the chance to ferment as the second hand slows down and the large list of concerns simplifies. Maslow’s theories are being tested. What really matters is mattering more than ever before. If there are good things to flow from this crisis (and let’s face it, there are many bad things), they might be in the levelling. All those wheels that have stopped turning are affecting all of us. Yes, some even more starkly.
But even the wealthy, financed to the hilt, will be seeing and feeling fortunes lost. Some fortunes required perpetual maintenance, and without a system, they collapse into disrepair. But it’s the many, many of us who started this in poverty who will be hammered all the more by what is happening. In the middle it is disbelief and disenfranchisement often on a cushion.
How we re-form and potentially reform will be important. And vital to this will be the consideration of all society. Democratised healthcare, free to all, must be handed a lifeline by this crisis. After years of mutterings from the right, it has been gifted a reprieve from the carping through its vital contribution. I hope these ripples go further, into other essential connective tissue. The BBC, beaten with a stick by right wing politicians and libertarians, must have been handed decades of tenure and financial support by its pivotal role as the impartial informer and educator in this crisis. Without it, where would we turn? The same is happening in Australia, where politicised questions have arisen for years over the future of the ABC. The need for intelligent, impartial scrutiny and dissemination of vital information has never been greater.
I wonder, too, about the impact on our politics, especially, perhaps, in the UK. Boris Johnson, aided by the NHS finest, came back from the brink of death, and used his recuperation statement to praise in as human and passionate a way as I have heard from him, the incredible, expert and humane way in which he was looked after. He owes the NHS his life, he said. I noticed that at the end he singled out the work of two nurses, one from New Zealand and one from Portugal. Nothing in politics is accidental, and it did occur to me that he needn’t have done this, and that in many ways, not doing it would have protected our sense of his political ethos. He climbed to power by asserting the separate, by advancing the argument that Britain would be better off alone in the world. It always felt somewhat at odds with what I understood to be his center-ground politics, notwithstanding his years of making a living writing fiction about EU rules. It occurred to me that a crisis can be a gift for a politician in many ways, and perhaps it isn’t too far-fetched to theorise that he might be outlining a Damascene conversion, in which, faced with his own mortality, he understands that vitality of Britain’s connective tissue with Europe and the wider world.
This composting that we’re doing, this process of connected isolation, gives us the best chance in our lives to consider what makes us the individuals that we are when thrown back on our resources and at the same time to understand and appreciate the profound value of connection. I’ve almost filled an A3 pad with sketches during this crisis. I may come out of it as Hamish the Sketch, but also with a greater appreciation of and love for the people I am connected to.