Wendy Jones in conversation with
Margaret Adjaye is the director of Upper Norwood Library Hub, which provides a wealth of services for the community in Crystal Palace, south London. Wendy Jones is a writer and journalist. They met three years ago when Margaret recruited Wendy as a volunteer teaching English to speakers of other languages (ESOL).
26 Weeks – Reflections
You have to work hard to extract the good things from a pandemic that has killed a million people – and counting. But they are there.
To state the obvious, we learnt things. We learnt about our vulnerability, our own physical and mental vulnerability, and society’s. The normal patterns of life were erased. Our old existence was wiped out. We worried about that happening decades ago during the Cold War. We worry about it for the future, with climate change. This was more subtle, more selective and for some of us full of guilty pleasures. Another meeting cancelled – yay! Time to grow veg, to think, to walk, to look at the sky. If this was the apocalypse, bring it on. But we were the lucky ones. We weren’t stuck in a cramped flat with children to home-school, an abusive partner and redundancy round the corner. Nor were we lonely.
We learnt what to value. We learnt to prioritise health over wealth, although the balance is complex and will go on being so – poverty is also a killer. We learnt that social care has been cruelly neglected. We learnt (eventually) that depriving children of four months’ education has longer-term costs than we can currently measure. We learnt that in our allegedly equal society, some people are still more equal than others. We started to learn to listen to others.
We learnt to respect science, to understand that, unlike political whim, it doesn’t bluff and knows its limitations. In uncertain times, it’s the only lodestar we have. We got a bit cannier about numbers and lapped up charts.
We learnt that we don’t need to fly round the globe to have a good time – sorry, travel industry, but it’s true. We learnt to be pragmatic, to make do, to postpone, to tear up plans, to improvise, to be bored. We learnt to say hello to strangers, to ring or email or even write letters to people we hadn’t seen for ages. How are you doing? Are you coping? I’d like to think we learnt to be kinder.
We learnt what we missed, probably the easiest lesson of all. Big things, little things. I miss my weekly trips to the library to teach English, a snatched chat with Margaret before the students arrive, never knowing who will turn up, who has left the area/the country and why. We moved to Zoom but couldn’t make contact with all the students. Some went missing. More lost people. We thought we might be able to resume real classes in the autumn. But that was never realistic. You can’t teach someone to speak English if you’re wearing a mask. They need to see your mouth, the shape your lips make for each unpredictable English pronunciation.
It took a pandemic (and 26) to get me to have a series of proper conversations with Margaret, someone I knew a little and wanted to know better – and now I feel I do. For that I’m grateful. I loved your persistence, Margaret, the exercise regime to keep yourself going, the grant applications to keep the library going, the optimism that the next generation may make a better job of things than we have. You have to be right. I hope so.