Yes, I felt an overwhelming wave of melancholy as PM Jacinda Ardern The Magnificent announced, in suitably serious tones, that the country would go into lockdown in 48 hours. I responded by racing out to grab two of the things I love most about living: 2kg of coffee beans (roasted by the maestro Stu Cross of Velvet) and a couple of pre-ordered LPs from Southbound Records (which had made it from the UK on one the few passenger flights available), where I had a possibly final conversation with Troy about why he can’t stand Pearl Jam (a clue: it’s Eddie Vedder, and involves the way he used to treat his first wife, who Troy knew personally). The melancholia didn’t leave me, even with two new records under my arm. Actually, it got worse. I was close to tears, to be honest—not for any particular reason, just the generalised but nevertheless deep sadness that comes when an entire nation is under siege. It wasn’t fear, at all, more a sense of national pride, perhaps, or sorrow about what I suspect could disappear forever over the next very short period: flirting with French girls in my favourite cafe; discovering new jazz records in my favourite shop; talking intense but frivolous philosophical bullshit with an artiste friend. Patterns of daily living that I have throughly enjoyed but also taken for granted, but which could evaporate, along with favourite businesses and places to hang out, if this real-life Planet of the Apes storyline continues for very much longer at all.
I’m also intensely aware of how much worse this could get for us, even with this looming shutdown offering some hope. There is so much more that could be taken away—not the least of which is our health—before things get better, and long before things return to a state of ‘normal’. My own suspicion is that things will never be normal again—and while we will get through it, as long as we stay well, there are people who are about to suffer through some terribly challenging times. Because we’re in this together, it means we suffer together too. Not for a long time has the potential suffering of our countrymen and women felt so close.
It’s not an unfamiliar feeling, for me anyway. I remember feeling it profoundly during the Falklands War in the first half of 1982, when England went to war against Argentina to defend its sovereignty over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. I was 14 at the time—young enough to still adhere to the ideology of sovereignty. Like the rest of the UK I was glued to the television every night as the Ministry of Defence spokesman Ian McDonald updated the nation on the latest developments. He was very much like NZ’s Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield on camera: calm, somewhat somber, but direct, reserved without being detached, not given to hyperbole or emotion. I’ve never forgotten holding my breath as he announced that HMS Sheffield had been struck by an Argentine Exocet missile, and then the next night when he confirmed the number of those killed. To watch this stoic Englishman waver as he tried to deliver the news unemotionally was a killer blow.
I felt it too when Diana died, and then again during her funeral. It wasn’t the same as being at war or being in lockdown because of a pandemic, but it felt like a national attack nonetheless—and worse, it was an attack against beauty or goodness or purity (she probably wasn’t any of these things, but they are what she symbolised). I was an Australian by then, and separated, for a brief time, and watched the initial breaking news chyron while looking after the kids so that Carolyn could go to church. I discovered that it doesn’t take very many words at all to make you feel very suddenly that nothing is right about the world or your place in it. Which turned out to be the truth, actually.
I definitely felt the same during the 9/11 attacks—from the moment of turning on CNN and watching live as both buildings burned, and then as the first tower fell, and then the second. We all felt it—unless you were on the other side. I know because it’s all people could talk about in the days afterwards: the enormous sense of grief and violation they had personally felt as the towers fell. I was studying theology at the time and remember thinking, as I had during other catastrophes I had witnessed, how useless traditional faith language is when it comes to the extreme edges of the human experience. Afterwards, of course, nothing was ever the same again. We had actually witnessed something that was beyond our capacity to fully understand—a level of ingenious evil that was truly paradigm-changing. We didn’t always have crazy airport security, you know. It began then, the day our apparent innocence was desecrated forever.
This pandemic resonates with all of those. The common element, I suspect, is the realisation that life will never be the same again, and that while some things will improve (because, let’s be honest, the world needed a reset), the things we lose will be those things that make our ordinary lives just a little richer. This is no doomsday prediction—but we don’t go through something as seismic as this without permanent change occurring throughout society. Even if we hammer the curve in the next few weeks, as Jacinda The Magnificent hopes, there will be a long period in which the pandemic will be need to be managed very carefully … and the cafes, the gyms, the shops, the businesses, the concert clubs, the schools, that we have woven into the fabric of our daily lives, might not be there at the end of it. And that will be an occasion for deep sorrow and significant adjustment.