Life

The Lockdown 1 Nostalgia Has Begun

Post-pandemic life is on the horizon – and yet some of us are choosing to reminisce about sourdough, 5K runs and 'Tiger King'.
HF
illustrated by Helen Frost
March 24, 2021, 9:00am
The Lockdown 1 Nostalgia Has Begun
To mark 12 months since the first UK lockdown, we're looking back at the year that's been.

It’s March 2020. I’m in my university room, packing up before I leave for lockdown. I’m not enjoying my Masters and am perversely excited by the thought of going home early. When my parents arrive we go for lunch at Franco Manca, which feels like it shouldn’t be allowed. Back in my room, we dither about whether we should take home my gigantic Monstera plant. Eventually we decide to leave it, concluding that it should be able to survive a few weeks without water.

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I go home and the UK remains in a strict lockdown for three months.

Like many others, I whiled away the time by binge-watching Normal People, wasting hours on Houseparty, and chain-baking banana bread. I was fortunate enough to be locked down in my parents’ house in Worcestershire, meaning my daily walks were in a literal AONB. I was also very, very lucky in that no one close to me became seriously ill or died. I wouldn’t go as far as saying my experience of lockdown 1.0 was “enjoyable,” but, at times, it was weirdly idyllic.

Robyn, 23, had a similar experience: “I was spending a lot more time outside, taking the dog for lots of walks,” she says. “And because it was sunny I was feeling a lot more energetic. I definitely feel the seasons affect my moods and I was just a lot happier and optimistic in the first lockdown.”

Will, 18, is another who looks back fondly at lockdown one. He even made a TikTok video showcasing the cultural hallmarks of the first lockdown, featuring dodgy DIY haircuts and Tiger King. It currently has over 1.5 million likes. “I miss the [novelty] of the first lockdown,” he tells me. “It was very new to everyone so it was kind of exciting – even though it was also scary at the same time.”

Dr. Meghan Tinsley is a sociology researcher at the University of Manchester. She says it’s “telling” to see how people remember the first lockdown, one year on. “There seem to be two themes. One is lockdown as a holiday: people talk about sleeping in, sunbathing, discovering new hobbies, watching Tiger King,” she says. “The other is lockdown as solidarity: people remember a sense that everyone was in this together, doing the same things, from the NHS clap to Houseparty.”

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It’s important to note that not everyone spent the first lockdown making sourdough and going for 5K runs. “It’s unlikely that people who directly experienced loss during that period are feeling nostalgic about it. No one is nostalgic for the inability to visit loved ones in A&E or attend funerals,” Dr. Tinsley stresses. 

Will adds that the pandemic has made him a lot more empathetic for this very reason: “I have a much more positive outlook on life now, because I’ve seen positions that I could be in and realised just how privileged I am.”

Will is right to acknowledge his privilege. During lockdown, many were trapped with domestic abusers. Many cared full-time for vulnerable relatives. One and a half million people were told to shield in March 2020 (this has since risen to 2.2 million). Key workers grappled with increased instances of verbal and physical abuse, while NHS frontline staff risked – and lost – their lives. Most tragically, 38,156 people died of COVID-19 in the UK between March and April 2020. 

Izzie, 21, was one of the 1.5 million clinically vulnerable people who received a letter instructing them to shield in March 2020. She doesn’t look back on the first lockdown quite as fondly as the others. “People are forgetting what it was like at the start, when we were panic-buying and cleaning every item that came into our house,” she says. “It wasn’t actually as good as everyone remembers.”

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“But I do get it,” she adds. “It does feel tougher this time round.”

Dr. Tinsley says that it’s unsurprising so many people are finding the third lockdown harder than the first. “The global death toll is 2.6 million, nearly a million people in Britain have lost their jobs, and we seem to be trapped in a cycle of lockdown, reopening and COVID spikes,” she says. “In the midst of all this, it’s hard to see lockdown as a temporary measure that serves a purpose.”

She continues: “Perhaps what nostalgia for the first lockdown really tells us is that for many people, the current lockdown seems unclear, monotonous, and isolating. Nostalgia doesn’t really tell us about the past at all – it tells us about the present.”

Despite the UK’s rapid vaccine rollout and a clear end date for lockdown, collective optimism is a lot more scarce than it was in March 2020. And for some, the news about the 21st of June isn’t exactly welcome. Robyn in particular feels anxious about lockdown lifting. “I feel like I’m totally out of touch with socialising because I haven’t seen a friend properly since September,” she says. “I feel anxious that I’m going to get left behind.”

Izzie is also apprehensive about the proposed end of lockdown. “I don’t want to get COVID,” she says. “I feel like my anxiety about being around people is going to be a lot worse as I’ve not even been into a shop. I’ve got so used to lockdown now that I really can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when it ends.”

The general public aren’t the only ones who have been looking backwards, not forwards. Dr. Tinsley makes the point that it is unsurprising that the government, under fire for mismanaging the crisis, has appealed to nostalgia.

“Two of the most pervasive, public forms of nostalgia in Britain today are Blitz nostalgia and imperial nostalgia. Both of them fondly recall periods of horrific violence, death and destruction. The only way to feel nostalgic about the British Empire, or the Second World War, is to rewrite history,” she says. “And that’s exactly what nostalgia does.” Arguably, looking back at the first lockdown with fondness is precisely what the government wants. If we focus on clapping for the NHS and the resurgence of “Blitz spirit”, we’re prone to forgetting the PPE shortages, the failed track and trace system, the fact that Johnson missed five emergency Cobra meetings.

Dr. Tinsley adds that “nostalgia also provides a distraction from the scale of death.” So, while it may be tempting to yearn for the comfort of daily walks and Tiger King marathons, it’s vital that we keep alive the memory of the 126,000 people that have died in the UK as a result of the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.