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The longest five weeks of our lives: Three Belfast Telegraph writers reflect on the coronavirus lockdown


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Don Anderson (top left), Laurence White (bottom left) and Heidi McAlpin (right)

Don Anderson (top left), Laurence White (bottom left) and Heidi McAlpin (right)

Don Anderson (top left), Laurence White (bottom left) and Heidi McAlpin (right)

The delights of home schooling, online shopping disasters and not being able to hug your grandchildren... three Belfast Telegraph writers reflect on the lockdown, and discover they’ve much to be thankful for.

Don Anderson: ‘No, where we are with Covid-19 is not a joke, but smiling does help’

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New hobby: Don Anderson at work in his studio

New hobby: Don Anderson at work in his studio

New hobby: Don Anderson at work in his studio

What follows is a light-hearted wander through a lockdown diary, but the tone could be misinterpreted as downplaying the misery in so many homes in Northern Ireland and throughout the world.

Please believe that is not so. I start from a stance of respect and compassion and a wish to ease our collective situation.

Human beings are resilient and have used the capacity for humour to lift burdens and thereby to make everything more tolerable, more survivable.

I love cartoons and have my cartoon heroes, whose work I can access on my mobile. That's it - the mobile. That small machine has made such a massive difference to how so many of us are coping. In lockdown, its use has expanded exponentially.

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One of Don's artworks

One of Don's artworks

One of Don's artworks

For example, we've found out it makes an excellent isolation doorbell. I have not hitherto linked my phone to fruit and vegetables, but I have now, because there has been a small revolution in how high street traders are operating.

Newspapers have been chronicling for years how Amazon and the other big online boys have been squashing the local high streets. At long last, many small traders have taken a deep breath and embraced online.

The result? Clive, my local greengrocer within walking distance, has a small but competent website selling his wares. The prices are higher than at the online supermarkets, but the local produce is fresher.

More important, the delivery slots are within a couple of days, not like supermarkets whose time-scales allow for the planting of the tomatoes when you order.

Oh yes, the doorbell. When the van arrives, Clive's man calls the mobile to say the stuff is plonked outside. Now we've discovered a local garden centre doing the same thing, but only after making a bad online mistake.

We ordered a packet of wild flower seeds online (the garden doesn't know what's hit it). Only when they emailed the delivery date as the end of May did we realise that the small item was being dispatched from China.

But we must adapt. We will dig up some dandelions, daisies and maybe a young gorse from a roadside.

We're not alone. My son in IT makes no mistakes, but my daughter now has enough ginger for a decade.

My brother-in-law rang to say that he, too, had had keyboard finger trouble. Fourteen large parsnips and six jars of tartare sauce landed with him. He had made soup, more soup and yet more soup.

Did we have any further suggestions as what to do with a parsnip, perhaps dipped in tartare? I bit my tongue.

The phone has just dinged. Friend keeping in touch. Says he saw a news item about husbands in isolation being so disconnected from their wives they don't even know their favourite flower. He said to his wife beside him, "It's self-raising, isn't it?"

Up until now, my wife and I have regarded video-calling a bit of a faff. You need to have your hair combed and make-up (not me). A simple phone call can be taken in the bath. However, the new state of affairs has elevated the video call from frivolity to "for heaven's sake, get with it".

I had somehow collected two selfie sticks, hitherto unused because I'd rather stand in the hallway reciting, "Mirror, mirror on the wall..."

Now, the sticks emerge as valuable, preventing a worrying reduction in motor function from holding up the mobile to keep us in frame for an hour.

Friends and family seem to manage better. We do know that seeing them during a prolonged absence is a tonic.

I have been taking lessons from all these home video inserts on TV and borrowed books on philosophy, art, comparative religion, space-time continuum, Keynesian economics and horse-breeding to lodge behind us as a backdrop. Anything else new? I think many lockdown people are treading new paths. I've taken up sketching and am quite surprised to discover I can actually do it - not competently yet, but well enough to absorb for hours.

Again, the mobile, with its excellent camera, assists. I click and collect reference images when I cannot draw in fresh air. Sketching has taught me to look, really look.

No, where we are is not a joke, but smiling does help.

The precious mobile has lit up with a cartoon of a distressed man at home amid heaped empties, lamenting: "If they don't open the pubs soon, I'll end up an alcoholic."

And so to bed.

Don Anderson is a writer and broadcaster

Heidi McAlpin: ‘Our best-laid plans for lessons at home lasted about half a week’

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Heidi McAlpin

Heidi McAlpin

Heidi McAlpin

Five weeks seems a lifetime ago as I look back on my lockdown journey to date. It all began with furtive whispers between fellow parents about potential school closures.

Some were brushing off these wild rumours as mere conjecture, while I was leaning more towards the doomsday scenario of imminent shutdown.

Sadly, my worst fears were realised as event after event got cancelled and my diary turned into a big fat scribbly mess.

Then came the pre-emptive strike to cancel publication of my tourist magazine (tourists, what tourists?), followed by the inevitable early ending of the children's school year.

Of course, we didn't know for sure way back then that school really was out for spring. But, again, I feared my kids wouldn't return for the rest of their academic year.

And so began those best-laid plans of home schooling, as I attempted to keep the academic and physical momentum going.

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Home work: Heidi and Allen McAlpin with their children Freddie and Scarlet in 2017

Home work: Heidi and Allen McAlpin with their children Freddie and Scarlet in 2017

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Home work: Heidi and Allen McAlpin with their children Freddie and Scarlet in 2017

Up we all sprung for our 9am appointment with Joe Wicks. Furniture pushed to the walls, we star-jumped, squatted and lunged our way around the living room - and the somewhat perplexed dog.

Whiteboards were scrawled with lesson timetables and creative breaks to cook and craft were factored into our "working" day.

That lasted about half a week. Worms were safe from us early birds. Dressing gowns became de rigueur. Joe Wicks was all but a fading memory. The whiteboard was nothing more than a hallway hazard. And schooldays had shrunk smaller than our waning patience.

Meanwhile, baking was halted, due to the national flour shortage and "craft" was abandoned when the 1,000-piece jigsaw turned out to be a 996-piece jigsaw.

Rumours were reaching me of Zoom chit-chats and quizzes. I participated in a few of the former, emerging with an audio-glitch-induced migraine and have still to play along with any of the latter (how can people not cheat?).

At the start of all this lockdown business, my first instinct was "welcome to my world". As one half of a couple who works from home, my husband and I have had several years of, shall we say, close proximity.

The children are old enough to be amazingly stoical and self-reliant. My teenage daughter is chronicling her coronavirus experience via YouTube and my nine-year-old son is chatting and playing online with his much-missed mates.

What worries me most is the inability to travel, even throughout Northern Ireland.

And, once we emerge from this cruel exile, an overnight on Rathlin will seem like a round-the-world cruise and a day trip to Barry's amusements a fortnight in Disneyworld.

And then there's the sport. Saturday afternoons at Seaview to watch Crusaders are long gone, never mind the glimmer of hope that Northern Ireland could qualify the hard way for Euro 2020. TV sport is all "classic moments" and WhatsUp catch-ups with your favourite footballer in their millionaire mansion. Don't forget folks, we're all in this together.

Indeed, TV generally resembles a split-screen 70s Abba video, with sound courtesy of two baked bean tins and a length of string.

Speaking of baked beans, I have recently engaged in a couple of "queue dates", wherein I co-ordinated my grocery run with a friend so we could chat across two trolley lengths. What larks.

On Thursday I even went further and delivered a birthday card to a mate who shares her birthday with the famous Colonel Tom. At least her birthday was on a Thursday, so she could imagine all the clapping was in her honour too. Spare a moment for all those Friday to Wednesday lockdown celebrations that go unrecognised.

As for learning a new skill or utilising my enforced downtime for personal enlightenment, forget it.

If I can muster a hoover under the bed, or showering before Popmaster with Ken Bruce, it's a day of significant achievement.

As my son recently said, "Mum, you're setting your children a very bad example."

And as I snuggle under the sheets, sipping my milky coffee and getting stuck into my tenth online Scrabble game, I simply cannot argue with that.

Heidi McAlpin is managing editor of Belfast & N Ireland In Your Pocket

Laurence White: ‘There’s no substitute for being able to hug our grandchildren’

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New routine: Laurence White has plenty of extra time to write

New routine: Laurence White has plenty of extra time to write

New routine: Laurence White has plenty of extra time to write

It was a moment I will never forget no matter how long the lockdown continues. Shortly after the social distancing and stay-at-home rules came into force on March 17, two of my grandchildren, who live directly across the street from myself and my wife Eileen, were with their mum at our gateway.

As we emerged from our front door, four-year-old Katie shouted "Nanny" and "Grandad" and made to run towards us.

When we called on her to stop, the excited look vanished from her face to be replaced by one of puzzlement, even disappointment. It was obvious she did not understand why we were seemingly rejecting her.

She jumped into her mum's arms and buried her face in her shoulder. She was on the verge of tears.

That moment summed up how coronavirus has impacted on the closest family relationships. We have 10 grandchildren - we have only seen the three who live in Fermanagh and one in Carrickfergus online since lockdown.

The others can come to our home and speak to us from the roadway, but, without being unduly sentimental, that is no substitute for being able to give them a hug or sit with them and listen to their stories and questions.

Nevertheless, we are lucky. I cannot imagine how it is for people who live alone, or as a couple, but who are unable to even leave their homes for the daily exercise and who have no family to call on them, even electronically.

Yet, these are surreal days. For us, it means rising later than normal, having breakfast and going online to view daily Mass.

I certainly would not have been someone who would have attended church outside of the normal Sundays or Holy Days, but viewing Mass from a neighbouring parish gives a structure to the beginning of the day.

It is also a time for reflection and the belief that God can bring hope to a seemingly hopeless situation of a pandemic with no known cure and which has brought the world to its knees, both literally and metaphorically.

Eileen and I have been strict in observing the lockdown. No one has entered our home since it began and we leave only to go for a daily walk, most often around the area where we live, but sometimes a little further.

A surprising side-effect of the walk around the estate is "meeting" other people we had never spoken to before - that is, saying "hello" from a safe distance.

Strangely, people seemed more relaxed and friendly now that the pace of life had changed so dramatically.

The unseasonably good weather which accompanied the lockdown was a godsend. Had it happened in the preceding months, when it seemed we were living in a rainforest, the inability to get outdoors would have been much more wearing.

As it was, we were able to draw up a list of tasks to do outdoors.

A serious length of fencing was given a fresh lick of paint until it ran out and then we realised it would be easier to find gold at the end of a rainbow than even order a mid-brown fence paint.

I'm with Edwin Poots: re-open the garden centres.

Cutting the grass, digging borders and weeding all provided exercise, diversion and was surprisingly therapeutic.

Tune into Spotify and it was possible to pass a few hours with ease.

We are lucky in that a local SuperValu outlet runs a very speedy delivery service for the immediate neighbourhood. Simply phone in the order, pay over the phone and it will be with us inside an hour.

This is a tremendous service. Sure, it is not possible to see the full range of goods on offer, but it provides all the essentials.

We also discovered an online butcher. While deliveries took a couple of days, the wait was well worth it.

Every food delivery is accompanied by the ritual of wiping down the products, followed by rigorous handwashing, but it beats the trolley dash, which is the only alternative.

Online shopping for non-food products is a boon, but with inherent drawbacks.

Now, due to increased demand, delivery times can be sporadic, ranges curtailed and, as my wife points out, you cannot feel the fabrics, or see what the clothes, for example, would be like on a normal person, instead of a stick-thin model.

The new normal of life may restrict our freedoms, but the alternative is much worse.

Just ask any of the hundreds of families who have lost loved ones to the virus.

Laurence White is a freelance writer

Belfast Telegraph