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Lockdown Lowdown

Throughout the spring and summer I have been keen to hear people’s stories, of how we have adapted to cope with the extraordinary difficulties of living under conditions that a year ago would have seemed the stuff of fiction. Not just adapting to the difficulties of paying bills but also of keeping a sense of structure to our lives, feeling close to loved ones and staying healthy in mind and body.

This is a short account of what happened to me and my work. I hadn’t thought of writing it until Anne, my intern and personal organiser, suggested it. So this is for you, Anne, and thank you for the idea.

In the week immediately preceding lockdown, as we saw Covid-19 cases being identified in the UK, it was clear that huge lifestyle restrictions were on their way, but I resisted the idea that the workshop would have to close. It seemed more realistic to assume that work would continue on a reduced basis, so I cut my working space by 50%, reducing my business rent, and carried on for a few more days with a mixture of temporary relief and slight claustrophobia.

There were still some customers dropping in at this point. I think we were all hoping that the looming nightmare situation would diminish. After all, the idea of the UK in lockdown was unthinkable. Life as we knew it just had to carry on, didn’t it?

Well, almost straight after that the lockdown measures went up like social storm shields and life as we knew it was, indeed, suspended. I like to think that bow repairing is essential work, but wasn’t sure I could really convince the authorities. I have the good luck to have a workshop neighbour who is not only a great luthier but a van driver. Johnathan Hill makes violas da gamba and d’amore, and we feel a sense of solidarity in a building largely devoted to non-musical crafts. It was Johnny who offered to drive me and some of my stuff home as the lockdown crunched into place on 21st March. Boxes and folding benches were brought back and placed behind my sofa in an attempt not to shock my flatmate with workshop detritus - until the next working day, at least. So, the flat became my place of work in a way that reminded me of when I had first started out in 2005, with a bench and tools in my bedroom in East Dulwich.

Thanks to our CEO at Cockpit Arts, the workshop rent was generously discounted with immediate effect while we were told to follow government guidelines concerning access. In the meantime, a few hardy clients contacted me to ask if I was available, and my doorstep at home became my new office and my flatmate became used to wood shavings and discarded horse hair on the floor.

The first few weeks of the crisis seemed surreal. The news was full of awful statistics, the health service and core workers were being tried to breaking point and yet I knew very few people who actually had the virus, and the only signs I noticed were the empty shelves at the supermarket. There seemed to be two distinct worlds - the world of shocking news bulletins and the slow world of social isolation. Neighbours varied in their behaviour, from hoarding food to a measured and self-regulated home isolation, or even to a blase rejection of all official information. There was judgmentalism and virtuousness shared on social media, and on the other hand, a sense of togetherness through Thursday NHS claps and the fundraising activities of some truly inspiring people. Highs and lows seemed to be more defined upon a background of official, grim uncertainty. My sense of morale was up one day and down the next, depending on what I’d seen and heard.

But, having said that, one thing seemed clear to me from early on, and it was that people would reconsider what was important to them now that they were forced out of their routines. It seemed plausible that we would find something new and useful in the way we adapted. And although my own discovery might seem small, it was significant to me. I found that I could prepare my bow blanks on my balcony. Instead of flinging open the windows in my studio, donning a dust mask and still feeling my asthmatic pipes constrict with the chemicals released by freshly-cut pernambuco wood, I could stick a workmate bench on the balcony and plane away to my heart’s content. When it rained, the balcony floor took on pink spots from a few unswept shavings, but the nasturtiums and tomato plants were unaffected. And it was the perfect weather for being on a balcony.

In all, I roughed out about fifteen bow blanks ready to make a mixture of violin, viola, cello and bass bows. Normally, I rough out around three sticks a year as I’m so busy with repair work, but this year it was clear that bow making would be taking a significant part of my time. It was hugely enjoyable to devote so much time to bow making, and once we were allowed to return to our workplaces, Johnathan noticed how much less stuff was going back into his van. I explained that my bow sticks would continue to be roughed out on my balcony, and so I have a pile of pernambuco and a portable workbench permanently in the flat.

The repair work continued throughout lockdown, but where there might have been fifteen rehairs in a week, now there was one or two. By mid-April, something had to be done to keep afloat, so to entice clients I decided to offer a discount for bow repairs starting in May. For two months, there was 25% off all bow repairs, with a gradual reduction in the discount each month since, in line with my rising workshop rent.

With so much time on my hands during the spring and summer, it seemed the perfect time to start things I had never got around to properly, like cycling for pleasure, learning French and learning the guitar. The results were pitiful. There are, at least, a few good cycle routes into Surrey and Kent that I discovered, but really, the extra time was not used efficiently. I think this was quite common, in fact. There were lots of good resolutions made and lots of comfort food eaten instead. But perhaps the important thing is to have got through in one piece.

Coming back to the workshop post-lockdown was not the same as coming back to work, of course. As soon as we were allowed to do so, I was back in the studio and making the most of my reduced workspace, making tools, jigs and fixtures that I had been meaning to make for ages. And meanwhile there was a steady trickle of clients who reminded me that we were all in the same boat, all striving to keep on going with imaginative ideas, and that the world had not been reduced to dismal headlines.

So, at the risk of stretching a pun, the coronavirus pandemic has taken the ‘busy’ out of business. [1] Instead we could insert another adjective, and come up with ‘uncertain-ness,’ or try a compound construction like ‘stubbornly-continuing-ness.’ But my trading name stays the same, albeit with rose-coloured specs on.

Just like your own situations, my working schedule is both vastly reduced for the foreseeable future and in every way uncertain. No one can say how long it will be before things return to normal, or even if they ever will, since there has been adaptation and new ideas of what is possible. Barring a widespread spike, I venture to suggest that we are over the worst and much of what we knew before will become available again, but personally I am expecting another twelve months of ‘economy mode’ before I can feel safe.

In the meantime, I wish you all well, and look forward to hearing your news when I see you.

[1] To stretch it further, it may also have taken ‘u’ out of business, ‘us’ out of business, the ‘bus’ out of business, and so on.

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