Growing up in Grimsby on the northeast coast of England in the late 60s / early 70s, the sound of Radio 4 programming was the constant background to our family life. The little wireless radio in the windowsill was turned on in our kitchen when the sun came up and didn’t go off again until the family sat down for supper in the evening. It was our mother’s primary source of all knowledge, rather like me and NPR today. Family life clattered around it with the radio fading into the background when we came through for breakfast, after school hellos, just hanging around or hunting for snacks.
The only time of the week that our noisy comings and goings took a backseat to Radio 4 was at 9am on Sunday mornings when Alistair Cooke delivered his weekly “Letter from America“. It was like church in the kitchen for those 15 minutes every week.
He would would speak of a topical issue in the US, tying together different strands of observation and anecdote and often ending on a humorous or poignant note. As ex-pats living in the pre-internet, CNN, Skype, WhatsApp, etc. era, I’m sure my parents were eager to hear any deeper commentary on the news from their home country. I can still hear his distinguished voice speaking into that quiet Sunday breakfast gathering around our Formica kitchen table.
Today, on a Sunday morning, another lifetime later, I connected in Zoom with five of my high school friends from that period of my life. They are now scattered across England, and I’m in the US. I felt as hungry for connection to what’s going on with them this morning, as my parents must have been seeking in Alistiar Cooke’s letters from America — especially during times of crisis as their home country dealt with assassinations, riots, a war gone wrong and even an impeachment.
I realized this was my Alistair Cooke moment.
This morning I wanted the threads still connecting me to that part of my life to tell me how they were doing with the coronavirus back in England. What were the restrictions? Were people following them? What were their new routines? How were they coping? What is the general mood? Are they getting tested? Zoom put us all together in one virtual moment in time.
We jumped around from being serious to giggly, upbeat to gloomy, to joyful and comforted. It was as much fun as the last time we gathered three years ago for several days of reminiscing, sharing of laughter and tears, and reflecting on the passage of so many decades.
We were amazed on either side of “the pond” at the dramatic differences in how the pandemic is being handled. The most notable aspect of their reports to me was how similar, consistent and aligned they were in their understanding of the national messaging and the responses each one of them was taking personally. The only point of some dispute – really more of a discussion – was whether you could go out for longer than a 30-minute walk each day. A finer point, which seems trivial compared to much larger questions of intent and interpretation here at home. Otherwise, it all sounded very similar from Dorset to Yorkshire to Leicester to Lincolnshire.
It was pretty simple: Only go out once a day for exercise and do not leave the house otherwise — unless it’s necessary to purchase food. Work from home unless otherwise deemed essential or exempted. They also all seemed to be tuning into the 5pm Daily Briefing, which sounds similar in concept, if not actual execution, to our “White House holds Coronavirus Task Force briefing”.
I can feel the pressure to get back to work building up in the national conversation here, so I was struck by the fact that they are all expecting to be in isolation like this for 12-14 weeks — until early June. And nobody seemed to take issue with it – no questions asked. In fact, they are prepared for the June date to be extended. They understand that this is required to avoid a disastrous spread and complete collapse of the health system. One of our group had just returned to the UK after living in Italy for the past 40 years. She’s very close to what is happening there. Daily videos and messages from Italy leave no doubt as to what the UK fate might be if they do not heed the government restrictions. I did not expect this level of unanimity from a group that had expressed different emotions over Brexit a few years ago.
On a lighter note, they were all getting involved in the various online choirs being organized, music lessons and regular coffee morning visits on video chat. Several of them are newly besotted with a Joe Wicks’ exercise program online – apparently he’s very easy on the eye. I will definitely have to check that out. I was also introduced to some new Netflix series and was left feeling uplifted, connected and hopeful about our future.
We had so much fun that we scheduled another gathering next Sunday.
It took a pandemic for us to even think about this. We are wondering why?