Taking the positives out of a year to forget

Locked gate during lockdown

Lockdown even crept into countryside hideaways as a challenging Norfolk year unfolded - Credit: Trevor Allen

I feel like a football manager searching frantically for plausible excuses after a 6-0 home trouncing by the league’s bottom club.
“We have to take the positives out of that” hardly covers such a sporting debacle. Nor does it act as much of a fanfare for any attempt to salvage a few useful items from this dustbin of a year about to be carted off into history.
Still, the fact I’m still here along with most family and friends, many of them also members of the Vulnerable Brigade, nudges me towards a thanksgiving stance draped in genuine hopes of getting back to what it used to be like in Norfolk BC (Before Covid).
Since the first lockdown in March, I must have spent more time indoors in any calendar year since pre-school days in the late 1940s. I recall countless long hours amusing myself under the kitchen table with a first farmyard, listening to the wireless and trying to guess whose legs they were dangling from above.

Plenty of scope for sifting through domestic memories this time, of course, with reading, writing and ruminating taking turns for top billing. I am used to working from home, so that bit came easy, but I sorely missed regular coastal and countryside diversions .
Perhaps the biggest “bonus” to emerge from such prolonged confinements to barracks was the way nature took uplifting advantage, most notably when traffic all but vanished from our daily worlds. It brought new meaning to “essential journeys”.
Sweeter air, louder birdsong, quieter streets, slower pace … key ingredients, allied to renewed community spirit, when we sat quietly in back gardens or strolled round the block and dared to think of Norfolk’s environmental and social priorities tomorrow.
My personal appearance, attitudes and habits have altered considerably over the past nine months or so, a gestation period designed to wreak dramatic effects on the most notorious Norfolk stick-in-the-mud.
Some things just happen. I had no intention of growing a white bushy beard impressive enough to make me a useful contender for a tribute act in honour of Buster Merryfield, who bristled to fame as Uncle Albert in television comedy Only Fools and Horses.
It has rendered wearing an obligatory mask on necessary outings a highly precarious balancing trick, with whiskery tickles and elastic twists plus marauding scarf-making me look and sound more like Wurzel Gummidge before elocution lessons. That can disturb shoppers of a certain age and disposition.

Elder son insisted on cleaning up my sartorial presence for his much-delayed wedding last month. “With this trim, I thee invite” he announced with a buzzing flourish and sudden blitz on thick thatch around my noble chin. It was a privilege to make the select 15 for a ceremony forced to bow to heavy restrictions.
Younger son was best man and brought much-needed style and wit to the speech-making part of an occasion some might happily have turned into a rugby scrum or raucous masked ball.
I couldn’t resist a homely reflection aimed at strengthening bonds even more before the night was out: “ If this gathering represents cream of the crops from two proud Norfolk families, it does make you wonder what the rest of ‘em might be like…”
When my wife and I retired to our hotel room, it was time to turn on the telly. I hummed along with the still-catchy theme to Match of the Day, excusing such indulgence by pointing out this was symmetry at its best after joys of a family fixture to savour.
Yes, extra time for deeper musings during a year crammed with challenge and change. Closer links with family and friends to remind us what they’re really for. Unexpected bonus of discovering more about neighbours for whom the odd wave and greeting had sufficed until a common crisis demanded a new brand of togetherness.

And heartwarming kindness from strangers answering calls for voluntary help.
Perhaps old football clichés about building for the future, long-term planning and learning from our mistakes can find a more credible cause and place in what we hope soon to call a post-pandemic era.
In any event, we need to pay more than lip-service to heroic efforts and a dig-deep mantra that has kept us going through thick fogs of fear and uncertainty. They must stand as signposts to a genuinely more caring attitude towards each other and our precious environment.

Skip's Aside:  Last lap of my 37th successive year of keeping a comprehensive Norfolk daily diary. A few lighter extracts from dark and difficult times:

Tuesday, March 17: Uplifting start to life in lockdown. I misread my bedside clock and head downstairs at 6.45 am, I’m greeted by a blackbird singing beautifully at the back door. A chaffinch arrives to play a lesser role. It warms my heart before returning to anxiety over a virus-riddled world.

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Wednesday, May 13: The big release! We leave our home patch for the first time since lockdown began for a short rural diversion to buy farmhouse eggs and eat sandwiches on the edge of a field bathed in yellow and green. Norfolk’s countryside seems to have got on nicely without us.

Saturday, June 13: It’s 40 years since I met my wife Diane at a hospital disco in Great Yarmouth. Lockdown Liz, our wonderful volunteer shopper, gets my message to bring a big bouquet of flowers with latest provisions. I present them with a romantic flourish on the front doorstep. A neighbour comes out to clap.

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Friday, July 3: A Norfolk pub introduces traffic lights for its toilets to keep punters safe. Green light at the Sculthorpe Arms in Fakenham means customers can go as it tells them the loos are free. Cross your legs for red.

Tuesday, September 15: A local beach sometimes referred to as our region’s “best-kept secret” is named one of the finest on Earth. Gorleston beach, a regular haunt during my early reporting days on the Yarmouth Mercury, is listed in the top 10pc of attractions worldwide in the Trip Advisor Travellers’ Choice Awards.

Wednesday, September 22: Autumn begins with a fond salute to summer. I mask up for a sunny stroll into town and move on to a busy seafront for a big whirly ice-cream. Several others, following social distancing advice, are enjoying similar treats. I resist any kind of urge to call out “Lickdown!”

Thursday, November 19: Mundesley ranked in top 10 UK coastal locations for house price growth. Old friend who lives there rings to ask if I’d like to make an offer for his desirable residence. I tell him Cromer still suits me best.

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