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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Mayer

2020 Vision, 5 May, 10:04

Lockdown limits our movements, but only in the physical plane. This morning I’ve wandered into a redbrick house, on the outskirts of Bunbury, Cheshire. It’s 1999 and I’m staring at a fridge.

The appliance itself is unremarkable, a workaday model manufactured in the Seventies and still more than adequate to the needs of its owner. Auntie June—“AJ” to her family—pays no heed to the burgeoning fashions for fancy kitchens and fancier cooking. She owns a mug tree but no knife block. Her tin opener, as old as she and black with rust, performs its role by ripping and gouging. We offer to buy her a replacement, but she is adamant; this one is perfectly serviceable.

There’s no point in arguing with her, any more than in pushing for additional heating for the frigid guest room. AJ will not budge. Every night in her house, Andy and I nestle against each other for warmth and as commanded by a mattress smiling with age. “Conjugal rights”, a term AJ applies to sex whether in or out of wedlock, is not on the agenda. I wear multiple layers to bed to ward off the cold and the slightest movement between AJ’s nylon sheets triggers fireworks of static.

Andy, who cares about his creature comforts despite (or because of) his years on the road, never complains about the mild privations of staying with his aunt. These speak to her character and history. She wastes nothing and flinches from nothing apart from waste. She has no truck with sell-by dates and serves us from tins and jars that seethe and breathe. Her fridge is a display case. The curator alone appreciates the value of the items that line its shelves. I watch as she carefully clingfilms a quarter of a tomato and a single slice of hardboiled egg, then places them alongside the other exhibits. The clingfilm itself will be preserved and reused.

My mother, AJ and Andy

“Hugh!” she says, suddenly. “Hugh-Ian-Martin-Andrew!” Always she scrolls through the names of her nephews before alighting on the right one. “Would you make the tea?” Andy and I exchange amused glances as he warms the pot and measures out the leaves. (Like aunt, like nephew: both of them insist on their own patented blends of Indian and Chinese teas.) AJ often makes us laugh. There’s the time she mistakes shampoo for mouthwash. We give her a mobile phone only to discover that she now carries it everywhere, uncharged. At her first, and possibly only, Japanese meal, we are too slow to prevent her from popping into her mouth a whole pyramid of wasabi. Not a single exclamation escapes her burning lips as a flush creeps up her cheeks and tears stream down them.

On a visit to Bunbury

Our laughter, however affectionate, is misplaced. We should know enough of her history to look beyond the Joyce Grenfell diction, beyond the mannerisms and mien of an Ealing Studios maiden aunt. (We should also be able to recognise in the comedy maiden aunt/spinster trope the pernicious cultural reflex that reduces older women to figures of fun or pity.) AJ has travelled widely and independently. Not for her the package cruise. She once took a freight ship to the Caribbean, explored Czechoslovakia during the Cold War, sailed around Iceland long before that country became a favoured tourist destination. This is a woman who overcame social expectations and the disruption of a world war to pursue a career as a teacher, first of people with disabilities and then at a primary school, rising to become its headmistress. Nor did retirement dampen her vigour. She used her new freedom to renovate a ruined barn in the Lake District, learned to keep bees and farm sheep. When rural living proved too strenuous, she and her long-time companion, Edgar, shrouded themselves in veils to drive the beehives and their occupants along the M6 to a new home in Bunbury.

So much she has done that is quietly impressive, so much she still does even now, entering her final decade—engaging with local organisations, flexing her killer skills at bridge—yet on some level, Andy and I assume ourselves to be better adapted to the modern world than she. Viewed from the physical plane—from our own kitchen, with 2020 vision—this might appear superficially true. In the first weeks of social distancing, I helped my 86-year-old mother, newly widowed and living alone for the first time, to grapple with touch screens and apps; I instructed her and more than a few friends of my age and older in the use of Zoom. Would AJ have struggled with these technologies? Rejected them? Perhaps, and she would lose out as a result. Digital exclusion is simply a newer form of inequality, depriving the unconnected from information, services, work, education, democratic, civic and social engagement. Yet however much we look to technology to find ways out of lockdown, we must not ignore its role in placing us here in the first place or the threats that come bundled with every opportunity. Nor should we overlook its limitations and its environmental costs. Forty-three days into lockdown, we’re all Zoomed out and AJ’s way of life appears not behind the times, but ahead of them. Behold on her meticulous shelves, in her careful conservation of resources, the expression of a value system and sensibility informed by collective trauma. AJ’s generation knew precarity and hardship, fear and loss, populists and profiteers, remote elites and the role of community as a bulwark against these things. She was a product of Wartime Britain, not the sepia-tinged version invoked by politicians—the all-in-this-together nation keeping calm and carrying on—but of a society already fractured, scarred by an earlier global conflagration and reeling from the Great Slump. AJ never forgot the lessons of her youth and never deviated from them. I think about her whenever people trade corona stories of toilet roll shortages and tragedies. I think about her whenever I hear the phrase “getting back to normal”. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. So are those who, like Auntie June, learn from history, but whose perspectives are marginalised by the leaders and institutions and the cultures that most need to heed them. As AJ lay dying, she discussed, with characteristic clarity, the subprime crisis and its repercussions, understanding this not as a new phenomenon but a turn of the wheel. Culprits would go unscathed, the blameless punished and everything would lurch on towards another crisis. There could be no stability in systems founded on unsustainable inequality and waste. She was, she added, ready to die and really rather glad not to live through more upheaval. I’m pleased for her that she missed these drear days, that she missed Andy’s death, that she missed the mishandling of another crisis. I’m pleased she missed being simultaneously patronised and written off by policymakers who look on older populations as problems, burdens, bed- and ventilator-blockers. But oh how I wish those policymakers could join me in Bunbury, in Auntie June’s kitchen. Now, more than ever, we need the wisdom of experience. Now, more than ever, we must translate our own experiences into wisdom and work to embed that wisdom in the foundations of the post-pandemic future. Yesterday I found a bag of rice at the back of a cupboard. The sell-by date: October 2009, the month and year of AJ’s death. I thought, briefly, about chucking it, then decided to cook it. It’s fine.

All words and images ©Catherine Mayer 2020 If you are interested in this blog, you might want to check out my mother’s: Tough Old Bird: the Anne Mayer Blog

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