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The uncanny world of re-opening

This is a big week in England. The government yesterday announced the next stage of re-opening from our lockdown. After 3 months of relative hibernation, cultural sites, cinemas, pubs and restaurants could all be looking at opening their doors again.

The thought of eating in a restaurant does fill me with joy. Though it has been a great surprise to realise that I am an ok cook – not terrible as I assumed - I am really very bored of my own cooking. I can’t wait to meet friends and be served something tasty that I could never have produced myself. I long to wander aimlessly around a museum on an afternoon off, or to go to the cinema on a rainy evening and be immersed in a different world.

I was talking to some friends about this at the weekend (on a Zoom call, of course) and one mentioned that she’d been in a bookshop this weekend. She was excited to see it open, to go in a browse, but found herself confused and disappointed by the experience: Once browsed, books can no longer be returned to the shelf but have to be quarantined for 48 hours. Of course, she said, that is sensible and safe. But she suddenly felt uneasy, realising she could not browse freely like in the past, she didn’t want to create work or risk. Bookshops are back, and they’re the same, sort of. And yet – they’re not.

I faced a similar set of emotions at the weekend as we re-opened the small business I run with a friend. We trade regularly on a couple of markets in south London, and have done for years. We shut up shop with the lockdown and this Saturday returned to our regular pitch for the first time, equipped with PPE, a plan, a risk assessment. And it all went well - we managed to trade safely, and we had a busy day, full of warm conversations with regular customers about how good it was to be back, how we’d been, how they’d coped. Elements of the day felt full of joy, triumph even – a crisis overcome, normality returning.

And yet, everything was so different. Easy conversations are hard through face masks and visors, maintaining eye contact while also constantly calculating how close we are to each other. Young children used to get free handfuls of the popcorn we sell – no longer. In fact now, we have to protect bags behind barriers and police touching and distance. All needed, absolutely; and yet, like seeing friends and not being able to hug, to touch a shoulder in warmth, profoundly disorientating. Like a Zoom call over a drink: A facsimile of reality, far better than nothing, yet far lacking from the real thing in all its ineffable spontaneity.

It made me think of Freud’s notion of the uncanny – something uncertain yet familiar, strange yet vaguely known somehow. This is disorientating, so close to what is normal and understood, yet it is not. Think of a waxwork model. Eery.

And right now, how many situations are we grasping towards, hoping for the familiar, to take us back to a place before the virus upended everything? Like we’ve found with all those Zoom calls, meeting a reality of normal-but-not-normal is exhausting. We’re constantly adjusting our expectations, our understandings, responding to an environment that seems familiar and yet not at all.

At the same time many of us are asking about what we want from normal. Do we want something entirely different – for ourselves, society, our planet? I know I was woken up by a plane heading for Heathrow this morning for the first time in over 3 months, a return to ‘normal’ that I did not celebrate at 5am. As our roads fill again alongside headlines about record-breaking temperatures in the Arctic, I think many of us are in the midst of inner turmoil, the conflict of wanting a return of some kind, and yet also not wanting it too.

In this febrile context, as the summer heats up and the fury and grief of Black Lives Matter spreads across the globe, can we each choose to do something different in our lives – whether to be anti-racist, or to cut down on our carbon use? On a personal level, can we retain some of the precious space some of us found in lockdown – or, if family have claimed too much of that in these past few months, can we claim some of our own time back?

These are huge questions thrown up by the re-opening of our society, and the strange moment we find ourselves in. Acknowledging the difficulties as well as the joys feels important to me. From that point, perhaps we can take a step back and ask ourselves what feels important right now, and how we want to re-build.

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