Alwyn Gornall

A Far Off Place


The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers believed that to live a good stoic life one needed to live consistently with nature. In more recent times, philosophers have developed what stoicism means for subsequent generations. They have given us an overwhelming number of theories which provide new understanding of what modern stoicism means and many go to the trouble of splitting hairs about the subject. I don’t have the experience, or knowledge, to split more hairs so I’m not going to delve further into the matter, other than to use the basic principles of stoicism (a lot of it is common sense) to help me through this current crisis. However, perhaps more importantly, if we are to significantly change our approach to the way we live and govern, stoicism might be more relevant when the bad times are over, than during them.


This state of lockdown will mean different things to different people. I count myself fortunate to have a garden to relax and work in. Over the road, there is a small wooded area with links to the Tanfield Railway, which stops at Sunniside, and the disused section that forms a walkway down to Watergate Park, Washingwell Woods and over Marshal Lands Farm to Whickham. On most days, my wife and I take one of three local walking routes. We try to take a different one each time and change the direction that we walk them, so we have six options – I must add that we don’t follow a strict routine with this at present, although a spreadsheet could emerge in the future.


Lockdown has become a journey. It is more of a life journey than travelling to a new country, but I am having similar experiences. Instead of exploring new landscapes and cultures, I am looking at my local area, local services and other things, that I take for granted, in a new light. The traffic noise from the road that passes in front of our house is not as intrusive as it sometimes can be. Instead, I concentrate on and take renewed enjoyment from the birdsong that fills the day. I am thinking about the long-term wider issues of how we have selfishly taken from the natural world without mitigating the harmful consequences. How some countries still work in isolation when a more co-ordinated and collaborative approach would help in the efforts to reverse the negative effects that our actions are having on this unique world of ours. What we could use right now is a collective dose of stoicism.


Adjusting to the lockdown was quite easy for me because I had to self isolate the week before, on the advice of NHS 111. I had a persistent cough, like all the other persistent coughs I’d had previously, except this one made an appearance just as Covid-19 started its UK tour. That was it. No doctor, no test; stay at home.


For the first few days, my wife and I were trying to gauge what impact the lockdown would have on all the events and holidays that we had already booked over the spring and summer. We decided to leave the first response to the event organisers, and the hotel and plane companies, on the premise that, if they cancel, then it would be easier for us to obtain a refund. So far so good - we have had refunds for a trip to Stratford upon Avon, Matthew Bourne’s Red Shoes, The Harrogate Crime Writers Festival, and tickets for a re-scheduled Brian Wilson concert at the Sage, Gateshead in 2021. We are just waiting to see what happens to the big one – a trip to America in September to stay at Yellowstone National Park, then over to New Jersey, via Denver and Nashville, to stay with my wife’s brother and his family. One return flight, three internal flights and five hotels; hey ho, over to you Mr President!


The Crime Writers trip and Brian Wilson concert were two of my June birthday presents. Not that I am a major celebrator of birthdays nowadays, in fact, I keep telling my family that age is irrelevant as long as I have my mental and physical health – and my bus pass.


When we booked these events they were, naturally, high on our list of priorities, given that we were in good health and so too were other members of our family. And that is the point, isn’t it? We put trust in the hope that our well being will continue, and make plans accordingly. We also put trust in (or do we just hope?) that those governing us, and in control of major decision making, will act in our best interest and put partisan politics and corporate interests aside. The government makes a point of saying that they are following the science in their efforts to control and stop Covid-19. If only they would follow the advice of other relevant experts, as seriously, when making decisions about other aspects of our lives.


The biggest problem that I have in coping with the lockdown, is not being able to visit our two daughters and our six grandchildren, but this is where social media and technology really show their worth. Facetiming, whatsapping, emailing and sending videos helps us to get by without it being too tough. Every so often, though, emotion bubbles to the surface at the sound of a voice or the latest photo.


Despite missing our grandchildren, being restricted to the home has not limited me to an excessive degree, as I am able to keep myself busy. The occasional trip to the supermarket and going for a walk most days helps to relieve the monotony. However, having my freedom restricted does take its toll. I miss being in the company of other people, even though I may not interact with them apart from being courteous as we pass. Seeing and hearing their presence fills a basic need of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Being a physical member of a community lessens the feeling of being alone and contributes to my well being.


My first priority, at the start of lockdown, was to identify things to do to fill my time. Physical activity, mainly, like jobs in the garden, in the garage and around the house. First, I took stock of all the spare, odd bits of wood that I had saved because, well, you never know when it might come in useful one day.


One of my projects for this spring was to erect a fruit cage over my raspberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants and blueberries. The bushes have been in the garden for two seasons and should be producing a decent crop this year. I had some netting and wire, but I needed two 2.4-metre-long posts to support the netting and allow me to get underneath to pick the harvest. I found four 1.5-metre-long posts hiding away in my shed, so I set about joining them together to make two 2.4-metre-long posts. All I needed now was some metal work and concrete to erect the fruit cage and install the netting. With some perseverance, and a couple of days trying to get on to their websites and queuing for a slot, I managed to click and collect these items from Toolstation and B&Q. The netting is now up and I am just waiting for the fruit.


At the beginning of April, I started filming magic tricks to send daily to my six grandchildren, hoping that they would find them amusing. Although the main reason, probably, was so that the films gave me a closer connection to them and, hopefully, gave them something to look forward to each day amongst homeschooling, crafting, exercising and watching TV. I started with some simple tricks, like the arrow that turns when you put a glass in front of it and fill it with water, the vanishing coin, and the magnetic pencil. I then stepped it up a level with vanishing ice cubes, sweets pouring out of a bunch of tissues (very popular) and, what became my obsession, three ways to levitate – these were crowd-pleasers, particularly the out-takes.


Towards the end of April we had a brief, unannounced, visit from our younger daughter and family to give us our wedding anniversary gifts. Whilst it was a wonderful surprise, it was bittersweet seeing them on the road at the end of our drive and not being able to give them hugs and kisses.


Another long-standing project of mine has been to build a birdhouse. About fifteen to twenty years ago I saw a good example of one (with detailed plans and illustrations) in one of those magazine supplements that came with the weekend newspapers. It had been tucked at the bottom of a drawer and had followed us through three house moves – now, I decided, was the time to act.


I made use of a large panel of OSB, Orientated Strand Board (I had to look that up). It was easy to cut and screw together and is reasonably weather tolerant. I made three houses out of the board, painted them with water-based paint and gave them a final coat of clear sealant. One is in my garden awaiting a tenant and the other two will go to my daughters when we are allowed to visit.


There are many positives to being in lockdown. In the absence of normal daily routines, I have more time and space (in my head) to think, particularly about writing. The slower pace of life and having fewer commitments brings less pressure and tension, and this makes me feel more relaxed both mentally and physically. I have time to appreciate those things that are always there, but I wouldn’t normally pay too much attention to in my daily routine, such as the paintings and photographs around the house, seeds germinating in the greenhouse, fruit forming on bushes, poems on Twitter, birdsong, catching up on episodes of The Verb and the new fresh growth in spring, bringing hope for a better future.


I have noticed that there is more sincerity in people’s actions and how they speak. There is less cynicism and fewer sarcastic comments in what they have to say (unless they are politically motivated). They are also more democratic when taking part in a conversation, paying more attention to what someone else is saying to them rather than selfishly waiting to get their word in. People are also more welcoming and courteous as you pass them while out walking or going to the supermarket.


According to a piece I read on the internet the Earth is also resting - seismometer stations are detecting falls in ground vibrations, to half of what they normally are, due to reduced human activity: vehicles, industry and footfall.


The garden is looking much smarter than normal and we tend to use the vacuum more regularly (around the house). The bird box has been up for four weeks now and, like the houses advertised to let during the lockdown, it is still awaiting a tenant. Viewings have been reinstated so I remain hopeful.


These challenging times of Covid-19 have given us the opportunity to refocus on what our main objectives are, on our valued relationships, and on who and what we are as individuals, as a nation and as a people of this one world. The Stoic principles of being courageous and developing self-control are helpful in this. To be successful, however, we need to be determined and consistent in our approach when the bad times end and be alert to our disposition to forget and relapse into old ways. We must take the road to that far off place where we will be more compassionate, more considerate and sensitive to the effects of our actions on other people and the natural world.





We pause,


to let the virus pass,

and in that window

of opportunity the

natural world breathes

a sigh of relief;


it begins to heal itself.