‘Look at this,” I say to my girlfriend. “Pretty cool, right?” I am slowly rubbing a mildly abrasive product called Bar Keeper’s Friend into the white worktop of our kitchen counter, eradicating an almost invisible stain. “It’s mildly abrasive, I guess,” I continue, when she says nothing. “You remember that coffee ring?” Silence.
Seven weeks into the first lockdown, my girlfriend and I have nothing left to say to one another. Every possible human experience that has occurred in this flat over the past two and a half months has been vocalised, analysed and wrung dry. One night before bed, she pleaded: “Say something to me!” and, in desperation, I started talking about a podcast I had listened to earlier in the day, but one I couldn’t remember entirely, so I spent 20 minutes roughly explaining the concept of Nikola Tesla before falling asleep. In comparison, ushering her to the kitchen to watch me almost remove a coffee stain is a vast improvement. “It’ll probably need another going over, but …” I trail off. “How much was it?” she asks. I’m electrified by the chance at having something new to say. “It was two pounds and 99 pence.”
This was in the midst of my cleaning phase, one of my many short-lived, bright-burning eras in Lockdown 1.0. For three energised weeks, in a complete 180-degree turn from my usual attitude towards dust, clutter and stains, I became an uptight cleaning demon, vibrating at a strange frequency that involved hoovering the skirting boards every couple of days. I would wake my girlfriend up with the words: “Can you move those jeans. Those jeans have been there for two days. You have to move the jeans or I will go even madder than I am.” And then, quietly, thankfully, this particular brand of mania eased its way out from the shore.
In Lockdown 1.0, I achieved nothing. I kept working, which was good, and I managed to read about 25 books – also useful – but I didn’t do anything; I didn’t self-improve in any way. I didn’t do anything in the second lockdown, either, beyond throwing three jackets out (a long-promised, never truly realised “big sort out”) and finally admitting this was going to go on long enough to justify buying a desk. Now, I am starting to take stock of that.
Ask most people what their hopes are for the start of a new year and they will settle into a few well-trodden grooves – adopt a healthier lifestyle, learn a language or an instrument, cook more – but the main thing stacked against them is a scarcity of time. Almost overnight, lockdown took away that excuse. With our commutes erased, our social lives condemned to Zoom and nothing to fill the hours between “working in the front room” and “rewatching The Sopranos in the front room”, it offered us nothing but time – and I didn’t do anything with mine.
Was it an opportunity missed? Did I waste one of the great hobby-starting eras of my life playing video games, “getting into craft beer” and cleaning the bathroom a bit too much for half a month? Well, yes, but not in a way I feel particularly bad about. I am not nagged by guilt, here.
My theory is that there is a peak age for hobby acquisition – somewhere between 28 and 31, when the 20s dwindle to a close, and having a Sunday morning when it doesn’t feel like someone tarmacked a driveway inside your head feels important. This is why climbing centres and pottery classes exist. This rule does not apply if you are fundamentally lazy, though, which I am, which is why I have never rubbed chalk into my hands or asked someone if, in lieu of Christmas presents this year, they could just buy me a big bag of clay.
There are peak life moments, too: a heart-shattering breakup; the smooth waters of late-3os financial stability; giving up smoking and realising stair climbing isn’t naturally exhausting. Lockdown 1.0 was just such a moment: a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get into gardening, or write a novel, or become what I have always been doomed to evolve into (a 33-year-old man who can’t stop cooking sous vide steak with an app). But it didn’t happen to me.
In a way, I am happy to have learned something about myself: the limits of my own unambition. Because, secretly, I have lived my life suspecting that I was capable of great ambition, motivation and self-improvement; I just needed the conditions to be exactly right. The money needed to be there, the deep pool of time available, plus the wind had to be blowing exactly correctly; I needed to be in the right “mood” before I could do it.
And then the exact, perfect conditions in which to do Couch to 5K came along and I did not do Couch to 5K. I did not use the skateboard I bafflingly bought myself in May, either (“How much was it?” “One hundred pounds!”), or do the 15km a day of cycle training I kept threatening to do on the balcony. I made a sourdough loaf two times, then watched my starter die. I followed a couple of vegan cooking accounts on Instagram, but didn’t cook from them. I borrowed a friend’s keyboard and learned where middle C is and nothing else.
So what? So what if I didn’t do anything? I bought a candle-making kit (“It was twenty-four pounds ninety-nine!”) but we didn’t make any candles, so now I just own wax. So what? This is how I would have been living my life without lockdown – tell myself I will do things, pulsate with fresh excitement about doing them, invest financially in them online, half take them up one errant Saturday then never touch the hobby again – and, in a way, it is honourable and true to form for me to continue to do so in such bizarre circumstances.
Lockdown changed how supermarkets, public transport and hugging your grandma works, yes. But it wasn’t enough to make me be proactive with my time. If a global pandemic can’t force me to “get into yoga”, nothing will. There is peace in coming to a realisation like that.