Normal Service Will …

Covid-19 has hi-jacked our lives. It’s changed the way we live, and has brought new expressions into common usage: new words, new acronyms, new phrases.

One in particular interests me as a writer and reader. ‘The New Normal’ is a concept that only a few weeks ago we had no need for, no expectation of. It’s still a concept that invites speculation and guesswork rather than nailing down a meaning to any particular set of actions or intentions.

The New Normal is where, people are telling us, we will be going instead of the ‘normal normal’ we used to know, the normal that, for all I know, we’ll end up thinking of as the ‘old normal’.

The ‘normalisation’ of ways of doing and thinking is often the label of criticism for the way some development or other creeps into our daily lives: becomes normal. And the fact that the root word has been brought so vividly to our attention might give pause for thought about just what we mean by it.

It was an Anglican cleric, a Bishop I think, who, on Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ slot in the middle of April tried to initiate some sort of discussion on the back of a theologically-based assertion that ‘God’ isn’t interested in us ‘going back to normal’, but wants us to go forward to the ‘new normal’ of living the way we’re ‘intended to’. It’s a potent argument. Going back, he warned, would be to waste an opportunity to go forward.

Theologically and philosophically it’s an obvious discussion to have. Do we want to refill the skies with aeroplanes, and the roads with petrol and diesel driven vehicles? Do we want to go back to the endless and wasteful replacement of clothes that haven’t even been worn in, let alone worn out? Do we want to go back to the status quo of funnelling as much money as we can into the fewest possible hands, while making as many people as we can just sufficiently better off to not mind enough to do anything about it?

Do we want to believe that our lives and our livings have been merely hi-jacked and that, with a little effort and a lot of sacrifice, they can be soon returned to the way they were: consumerism, waste, pollution, inequality and all?

The New Normal, whatever it might be, has to scare the living daylights out of two groups of people that between them must represent the vast majority of humanity. One of those groups is the relatively rich, for whom change always brings the risk of becoming poor. The other is the relatively poor, for whom change always threatens the loss of what they are only barely clinging on to.

But what has that got to do with reading and writing?

Over the weeks since Lockdown commenced here in the UK, I’ve been putting up on my blog one short story a day, and I’ve pulled out one hundred stories, mostly from my back catalogue of unpublished pieces scattered over nearly twenty years of writing. There are a few new ones mixed in among them, and there will be one or two previously published old favourites of mine towards the end of the run. The idea came from my suggestion, as we moved towards Lockdown, that we should take the period of isolation as a chance to re-read, or read for the first time perhaps, the one hundred stories of Boccaccio’s Decameron, written after, but set during the plague in Florence of 1348.

An unexpected outcome of my little project, as I read through many more than a hundred stories, deciding which ones to include, was the realisation that in the world of the ‘New Normal’ many of them would be left high and dry, washed up on the beach by an outgoing tide of time. The issues that they addressed, were rooted in or tiptoed around, suddenly seemed of a period – their period – which might already have slipped into the past. The situations, events, technologies and social mores and agendas of the times and places they were located in, were already altered, and perhaps beyond reconstruction, at least in the same form. Covid-19, it seemed, had hi-jacked our stories as well as our lives.

One element only – and it flickered like an ember in some stories, burned like a flame in others – remained constant: that human fears and desires, though they may play out in new circumstances, have a normality of their own, and one which, though repeatedly renewed, seems never to be truly changed.

I wonder, if looking back from our future to stories written during this time, those stories will be seen as signalling the end of an age, or the beginning of a new one, or even as the ephemeral markers of a turning point between distinct periods of time. I suppose I’ll have to try and hang around long enough to find out!

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