After a year of quiet nights in, will a crowded night out ever feel safe enough?

WHEN will we be free to see who we want, when we want, where we want and do whatever we want with them?

That is the question everyone is still asking. Another question that might be worth posing is this: Are we really as ready to be free as we think we are?

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I often used to meet a mate for an early pint in a local pub. Seems a rather quaint idea now. Sometimes the pub would be deserted, other times it would be packed, with not a seat to be had.

Either way, we’d go on in. I now wonder how long it will be before I will feel entirely comfortable going into a rammed pub like that.

I think it will be a good while yet, probably long after the rules have changed.

And what about a sold-out cinema come next winter? If things are back to normal by then there’ll be drinks slurped, crisps crunched, noses blown and coughs stifled.

In the unlikely event of me being in there, I can’t imagine I’ll be able to relax and enjoy the film.

'READY TO RISK IT'

The same with theatre too, and gigs.

I’m a bit long in the tooth for gigs, admittedly, and of the age where the dad dancing needs to be a solo activity.

But I still love the wild abandon of a band giving it their all in a small, poorly ventilated venue while we all work up a sweat dancing or, in my case, keeping perfectly still to avoid attracting attention.

There are some bands I’ve wanted to see for years. If one of them were to tour, I really don’t know if I’d be ready to risk it any time this year or next.

How will we ever be ready to touch each other again? At first I enjoyed a break from touching. It wasn’t that I never liked it, I suppose I kind of liked it too much.



I’d like a hug, a handshake, a kiss, a double kiss or even the odd treble kiss. I was up for them all, I just never knew which one, or which combination of the above, to go for with whom.

Not infrequently, I’d get into a right old tangle of handshake, kiss and hug. That was embarrassing but at least it wasn’t, as far as I knew, a health risk.

When that elbow-touching business started replacing the handshake, I thought it was daft. By the time I’d got used to it, and even enjoyed it, elbow-touching itself was deemed too risky.

What I wouldn’t give now for a little rub of someone’s elbow.

In the past year the only physical contact I’ve had with a stranger was with a Geordie lad in York last summer who seemed to have been on the lash in the city for several hours.

'PACKED OUT'

My partner and I were minding our own business enjoying a quiet stroll when this chap saw me, recognised me and, before I knew it, had me in a clinch and was planting a kiss full on my lips.

I was loath to appear rude by shoving him away but my appalled girlfriend set about prising us apart like a boxing referee separating a couple of fighters. She didn’t go near me for days.

So what now for simple handshakes? When will Whitty, Vallance et al say they’re safe? And when they do, will any of us fancy one anyway?

To think, this time last year we’d say of a night out: “Yeah it was great, packed out, the place was jumping.”

Now, whatever the rules say, it might well be that after a year of quiet nights in, all we’ll feel safe with are the odd quiet nights out.

Life is like a movie

Fact being stranger than fiction is a maxim so old that carbon dating wouldn’t work on it.

That’s because it’s true. If you need any convincing on this matter then do please consider the film Contagion. It’s about a global pandemic, you see.

Yawn. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great film, but given what we’ve all been through, it doesn’t really work.

Stories like Contagion’s are as old as storytelling itself: A terrible monster, or monstrous event, threatens to overwhelm us but, against all odds, good triumphs over evil in the nick of time and we all go home happy.

The monstrous being is generally implausibly exaggerated, but if the story is well told we are persuaded to believe in it and be terrified of it.

Omens of doom

Perhaps as recently as a year ago, Contagion would have been in this category, a depiction of a horrendous event that, terrifyingly, could just about possibly happen but deep down we knew to be a fantasy.

It’s such a weird feeling to watch it now. I imagine it would be like watching The Day Of The Triffids at such time as an aggressive plant species had been busily gobbling us up for a year or two.

Or sitting through Independence Day after an alien race destroying us has, as our Prime Minister might have put it, been sent packing.

Or watching The Omen when you’ve already spotted that the troublingly strange kid next door has 666 etched on his head and has turned out to be the devil.

The whole watching experience lacks something crucial – the fear we have of the unknown. We understand this stuff only too well.

So as Kate Winslet stands at a whiteboard explaining what the “R” number is, instead of thinking: “Wow that’s interesting” all we’re looking at is whether she’s got it right or not?

Being there is key

The pictures of a tearful Prince Charles leaving the hospital where his father languishes were moving.

You’d need a heart of stone not to sympathise although, on Twitter anyway, a good few people seemed to manage it. That said, for the tens of thousands of people who’ve been forbidden from seeing their own ailing parents, I can understand their sorrowful rage.

A lot of tears have been shed and many words written about the horror of loved ones having no one with them as they die. I was talking about it on the radio when a former Special Forces soldier texted me. He said he went about his extraordinarily dangerous work without any fear for his life.

He didn’t fear serious injury or death at all, he said. The only fear he had was of dying alone. This has stayed with me.

I get this, obviously, but something equally important has been denied the poorly and their loved ones, just being able to be with them in hospital.

No comfort for patients

You may well want to file this thought in the folder marked Bleeding Obvious, but it had never occurred to me until my dad got ill a couple of years ago.

I organised lots of friends and family to see him in hospital and he liked that very much, but short visits aren’t without stress.

The patient has to summon up the energy for conversation; a busy hospital ward is a noisy old place, so even if no one’s especially hard of hearing it can be tricky to communicate.

It became clear to me that what really worked for him was someone – me, my brother or whoever – just sitting there quietly, neither doing nor saying very much at all. I don’t think we’ve ever really felt closer to each other.

This kind of unending source of quiet comfort hasn’t been possible for anyone in hospital over the past year. I think of the millions of hours of simple companionship lost to so many and my heart breaks a bit.

Spector Spoon-Fed

I interviewed Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London, about his new book.

You’ll have come across him in the media talking about the pandemic.

He’s the man behind the influential Zoe Covid Symptom Study app, which is well worth being part of. But his book, Spoon-Fed, is about what we eat.

It’s subtitled Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told about Food Is Wrong.

He thinks the whole business of calorie counting is flawed, that fish isn’t as healthy as everyone makes out and that processed, sugar-free foods and drinks may not be a safe way to lose weight. I can’t fault his science, since I barely scraped O-level passes in any of the subjects.

What bothers me is the feeling I get that this is a guy who generally didn’t eat like the rest of us in the first place. He just doesn’t look the type to have ever downed a tube of Pringles in one, ten papadums before the Indian meal has even arrived or a bargain bucket of KFC all on his own.

When I challenged him on this he came back with a horrifying admission – that every now and again he binges on piles of cashew nuts.

Honestly! Such gluttony! Shame on him.

Dentist on the pull Jen’s a hoot

There’s plenty of laughter in my life, I’m happy to say, but rarely, as I get older, do I find myself laughing so hard that it hurts.

You know, when your eyes water, your ribs hurt and you’re slightly struggling for breath.

On the rare, precious, occasions this happens it’s generally something a mate has said or done, rather than anything on the box.

So it was a real joy to chance upon a film called Horrible Bosses this weekend, free on Amazon Prime Video.

I laughed so much I frightened the dog. I love anything with Jason Bateman in it, but Jennifer Aniston as a sex-crazed dentist, is quite something too.

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