Life comes at you fast.
That’s what they say.
Like much of what people say, you’re always a little uncertain about what they mean. Well, you think, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. But in the spring of 2020 life comes at you fast. It comes at you faster than anything has ever done before. You thought you knew about life but you didn’t. You only knew about life as it was. As it was before you and everyone else in the world found out about a different kind of life, and a different kind of death.
Now, when you think about the late months of 2019 it feels as though you are thinking about a time before your second life began. You can recall endless rain in England’s south-west. You can recall driving to work – this was a time when, weirdly, you still went to the office for five whole days in each week – and you remember going down to the Village Hall to vote in the General Election. It was raining.
Then it was January. That weekend when the rain stopped and the skies turned a deep shade of crystal blue and your barometer went higher than you’d ever seen it. These are your fractured memories of a time when you weren’t living through the end of the world.
The TV is on in the background. An Australian man is reporting from China about a virus which is killing people. The streets in which he stands are mostly deserted, but in the foreground some people are getting on to a bus. These people are wearing masks. Masks of the type you only saw or even thought about when you visited your dentist or saw film of an operation, or pictures of people in far eastern parts of the world about which you knew little. But these people are not protecting themselves from polluted air; they are attempting to protect themselves from chronic illness and death. Your reaction to this is unspoken; indeed, it is isn’t even consciously considered. But it is that we live in Europe; we have seen this sort of thing – SARS, H1N1, Ebola – before and this sort of thing doesn’t happen here.
Until it does.
Soon you are travelling through London. You pass through Paddington and take the Circle Line to King’s Cross. You think nothing of who you sit next to or where you put your hands. Nobody is wearing a mask. Later on you reflect on this, for it is only a few weeks before the shutters come down. Although the virus is still just about suitable for flippant post-pub remarks, in retrospect it is certain that it was already spreading.
A week later someone phones you to say that they were in the presence of the first person in your county to contract the virus, two days before they were in the presence of you. They tell you that they are ‘isolating’ for two weeks. You worry a little, take advice, call 111 and wait.
Two weeks on and you are heading home from work. You know that you won’t be back for a long time, but you don’t really know what that means. Before you leave you say farewell to someone you have worked with for 29 years who is about to retire. In past times you would have shaken hands without a thought, but now you think about it and you don’t.
As the weather settles you spend time in the garden. During the day there is endless sunshine; in the evening, once darkness has descended, there are stars. On many evenings, increasingly late as daylight extends towards the summer solstice, you go out and look up. You are no astronomer, but you have done this before in places where there is even less artificial light than here. In the vast heart of Texas, on the Isle of Skye. Skies like this always engender a positive sense of awe and wonder. It is the reverse of the negative, frightening sense of awe and wonder which the prospect of the pandemic creates, and it provides a brief respite for your tangled thoughts.
At other times you walk the lanes and the commons that surround your house. One morning around Easter you walk down to the main road, which is usually submerged by traffic, especially when improving weather entices people to the nearby beaches, and in ten minutes you see just a couple of cars pass. As April becomes May it feels as though the whole country has ceased to exist.
Normally at this time of year you would be watching cricket. The nearest you get is sitting in the sun listening on the radio to a match which happened fifteen years earlier. In its own way this is great, but it is not enough for you or for the game itself.
As July bleeds into August bleeds into September, then October, cricket resumes, and for a while it feels like a zephyr of normality has parted the arid layers of unreality. In these times of emotional paralysis it is reassuring to discover that the game is as it always was, although outside the boundary things are different. Nobody is watching.
One morning in July you take a break from the work you are doing and go downstairs. You know that the summer’s first Test match between England and the West Indies has begun. The television goes on; Shannon Gabriel and Kemar Roach are bowling to Rory Burns and Joe Denly. You watch one over, then two, then three, four, five. Then you realize, at first on the delicate cusp of conscious and unconscious thought, that you are really enjoying what you are doing. You never ever thought that you would have to rediscover cricket, but this is what rediscovering cricket feels like. Cricket, for all its often intangible beauty and humanity, its perceived layers of meaning, is fundamentally a game of bat and ball. There is no crowd at Southampton, the game’s context is, like everything else in Covid time, uncertain, but no matter. This is the game.
Even though it is truncated, the summer’s cricket throws up many moments, all of which are lived vicariously. Some are exciting, others revelatory, others poignant. In a time such as this, when everyone is desperately trying to adjust to an altered reality which few expected and fewer still understand, it is the poignant ones which leave the greatest impression.
One of these is the retirement of Ian Bell.
Many people have compared the retirement of players in many sports to a kind of death. For the players themselves it is the death of expectation, the death of ambition, the death of a depth of enjoyment which can rarely be replicated in the real world. The moment when the rest of their life stretches out before them. And, if they have been successful enough to be admired around the world, it is certain to be more mundane than anything they have known before. For fans it is often the death of part of their youth, a reminder of their mortality (as if one is needed these days), and the death of hope. Sometimes this is as fleeting as the hope that a win against old rivals will be achieved; but at others it is the unspoken hope that someone will turn out to be a great player. One of the greats.
English cricket is constantly yearning for external validation, for people to recognize it as the great game some of us know it to be. This is what leads desperate people to devise things like The Hundred. Part of this yearning is the desire for great players, and, while English cricket has had its greats, in the modern era they are often the subject of equivocation.
Ian Bell was once destined to be England’s next great cricketer. Anyone who follows the game closely remembers when they first heard about him, or read about him, or saw him. For one reason or another, he never quite became the player he promised to be, or that people hoped he would become, but this is not to doubt the neatness and elegance and unalloyed quality of his batting or his central role in one of the greatest teams England ever had. As with anything that forms a personal tableau of experience it can take very little, especially during the bleak mental landscape of a pandemic, for the mind’s eye to scroll back to better times. If I think about Ian Bell, I think about being on the Lord’s pavilion balcony on a day in July 2013. It is crazily hot, and Ian Bell is taking Australia for his second century in successive innings. Then the mind strays to that time in 2010 when Ian Bell won a trophy at Lord’s for Warwickshire off his own bat, for once giving the impression that he appreciated just how good he was.
In September, during the pandemic’s false dawn, you see film of Bell being applauded to the wicket in Cardiff at the start of an innings which concludes ten runs short of a final first-class hundred. You, and he, and many others, know it’s over, and it is a shame that he is applauded to the crease by players alone as no spectators are allowed to attend.
The metaphorical comparison with death can be made but at this of all times it seems facile. A professional sportsman – someone who was lucky enough to have the natural ability to do what he did, let alone experience the things that came with it – has retired. His life hasn’t ended, and, unlike so many, nor have ours. We don’t yet know where or when, but we will be able to watch cricket again. The moment is, perhaps, sadder than usual because of the anxiety, and the isolation, and the paranoia, but we should get through that too. Cricketers come and go, but the game endures, as will we.
On the last evening of the year, freezing and still, you go out of the back of the house and look east towards Fire Beacon Hill. The moon is partially obscured by cloud, but it is very full. The hill has seen many things – even other pandemics much worse than this – and the moon and stars have seen the entire evolution of human society. You are concluding the year as you began the second half of your life in March, looking at the night sky.
The desire to do this feels instinctive and primitive, the need to consider something uncertain and unknowable and beautifully endless as a means of coping with something uncertain and unknowable, but far from beautiful and which, you hope against hope, will not be endless.
But it is cold, so you go back inside and wait.