Lyndsey Ayre reflects on common ground, coronavirus, and the values of the labour movement. The image is of a piece of embroidery by Melanie Kyles
This must be the beginning of change. Whenever we reach the other side of this crisis – whenever and whatever that might look like - we must begin to plan immediately for a better future. We must count the dead and hold those to account who failed them. And we must stand together and say: enough. Things cannot be allowed to return to the way that they were. The way that they were was the problem.
We must remember the people who worked tirelessly when so many of us stayed indoors: the checkout workers, the nurses, the refuse collectors, the teachers, the doctors, the librarians, the postal workers and delivery drivers. These are the people that we should value the most. These are the people who should be honoured, and whose salaries should reflect our gratitude.
We have lived in a culture of endless greed: of belligerent hedge fund managers, grubby-fingered billionaires and sneering, public schoolboy politicians. Though we dress it in the lineaments of modernity, beneath our filters and slick user interfaces is the same system: moth-eaten, broken, old.
The way that things were was the problem. This must be the beginning of change.
It is 8.30am and I am walking down silent suburban streets towards Newcastle’s Town Moor. The morning is bright and cool like a whistle. The main road that runs in front of my flat is usually thronged with cars and busses, commuters rushing for early shifts and hectic parents on the school run. For several weeks now, it has been empty. Sunlight shines on red brick and daffodils, on faded chalk hopscotch daubed on cracked paving stones. Rainbows beam from high windows. Curtains are drawn. English Ivy reaches above garden walls, trailing wistful fingers towards the cherry blossom.
There is nothing. There is no one. The day is draped in a veil of yellow and blue. I’m looking for common ground.
It has been over 100 days since the Chinese government declared an unknown pneumonia had been detected in the area around a wet market in Wuhan. In the weeks and months that followed, the world has been brought to its knees by what we now know to be the coronavirus named Covid-19. Previously titanic industries – oil, air travel – are at the edge of collapse. Businesses, large and small, have been forced to close their doors, with thousands of people furloughed. Arts organisations – scoring low on the list of public sympathy - face turbulent and uncertain futures. At the forefront, of course, the human cost: the days tick by with little to differentiate them other than the bleak death toll. 759, 823, 449. Every one a person. Every one a history: a favourite song, a favourite scent, a way of smiling.
At present in the UK, we are still allowed to go out for one walk a day. I’m grateful for these trips outdoors that afford respite from the trek between bedroom to the dining room table, where my work computer looms over the room. In many other countries, access to the outdoors was cut much earlier on. People across the globe find themselves legally confined to their own homes. We’re a world under house arrest.
Still, well-meaning Instagram videos tell us, that doesn’t have to be so bad. We may not have freedom to do as we please, but there’s one thing that we do have an abundance of: time. Finally, we can take up baking, learn a new language, plant strawberry bushes and tomatoes in our gardens and yards. There are worse things, after all, than to find yourself confined to the safety of home.
Newcastle's Town Moor. Photo: Chi Onwurah MP
Yet home is the first frontier against inequality. Contrary to the wartime rhetoric adopted by some commentators, this is a virus that discriminates – both in the pre-existing conditions and geographical factors which can make a person more vulnerable to serious illness and in the impact of self-isolation on a person’s physical and emotional health. Poorly-maintained, privately-rented property; anti-social neighbours; small, cramped living conditions and blocks of flats still wrapped in lethal cladding. It is a mental health timebomb, and with every day that passes the problem intensifies, threatening to swamp the already submerged NHS even further.
Access to the outdoors is a lifeline to so many people – people living alone, people who do not have backyards or gardens, people who need to exercise for their mental or physical health and those who face the danger of domestic violence. Since lockdown began, Refuge reported a 700% increase in calls to its helplines in a single day. Hotels across the UK wrote to the government to offer their rooms to victims of domestic abuse. At the time of writing, the government had not taken them up on their offer.
Few could dispute that we must all stay at home as much as possible and do our part in slowing the transmission of Covid-19. But the existing conditions in which so many people now find themselves prisoner cannot be allowed to go unaddressed.
In the coming months and years, as we attempt to rebuild our societies across the world, we must make this a priority. ‘Home’ should not be a word that means safety for some, danger for others. Home should be a place of solace for everyone.
People coming together
When I reach the edge of the Town Moor, the gate closes behind me with a heavy, metallic sound. Here there are no cars, no closed-up cafes or small shops with printed statements pinned to their doors. Here there are none of the houses of surrounding affluent Gosforth, each of them a display of wealth and security. The vast expanse of the moor – larger, Wikipedia tells me, than both Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath combined – opens up around me, flat, parallel, the pages of a book cracked open. On the horizon, the buildings of the city are held at a distance: the lone chimney of the RVI, the pale skeleton of St James’ Park.
The Town Moor has been a largely unchanging green space on the fringe of the city centre for many centuries. Not landscaped, not neatly ordered with child’s play park and paving stones and smart displays of Spring flowers, but something bleak, desolate and disordered, instead. It is an enduring landscape somewhere between a rural and urban space: a sort of ancient edgeland, connecting the different suburbs of the city like an immeasurable village green. A place of vast emptiness, it echoes, paradoxically, with years of people coming together.
In 1873, the moor hosted a demonstration in favour of universal male suffrage. Some 200,000 people attended. From 1721 until 1881, horse racing was held at the Town Moor. When the racing was moved to Gosforth Park – a location difficult for many of the poorer people living in the city centre to get to - the North East Temperance League stepped in and organised a week-long fair, instead. 1,000 of the poorest children in the city were given food. 150,000 people attended the fair and the event was deemed to be such a success that it continued as the Hoppings to this day. The Town Moor has many other uses as a public gathering place: as the host of the Northern Pride Festival, the weekly Park Run, the August bank holiday mela. Over the past couple of years, it has been host to the This Is Tomorrow festival, headlined in 2019 by Johnny Marr, whose melancholic guitars drenched the distant city streets with poetry and longing.
The Town Moor is – and has been, since it hosted the horse races of the 1700s – a highly accessible place for the people of Newcastle to visit. The importance of this cannot be overstated. By contrast, the countryside can often feel like a distant and alien place to many of us without our own means of transport. A DEFRA review, in 2019, highlighted that the National Parks were failing to attract people from working class and minority ethnic backgrounds. And yet the obvious benefits of access to the outdoors have been thrown into sharp relief by this crisis. The ‘right’ to air and exercise was enshrined in law in the Law of Property Act 1925. We have to do more to make these spaces work for everyone. School trips should encourage children to think of our National Parks as their own to explore. The benefits of the rural environment need to continue into our city centres, too: as the impact of the closures of our urban centres seems likely to topple the already precarious High Street, we have to rethink what we use our cities for, and come up with ways to make them greener.
Rebuilding the commons after the coronavirus crisis
On the moor, on an April morning, there are people: all of us drawn here by the will to see something other than the inside of our own homes. The path is wide – wide enough for two people to pass safely, but many people walk by as normal, perhaps uncertain of the safe distance, perhaps absent-minded, perhaps, even, in blatant denial that there’s any need to stay apart. I leave the path and walk across the grass, instead. The land is uneven and difficult to walk across. There are ditches and clumps of compacted grass: scars on the land from its yearly events. I head towards two large hills at the West of the moor, where a tiny figure stands silhouetted against a blossoming sky.
Halfway across, I realise I’ve gone the wrong way. The tiny figure has descended the hill and is walking briskly towards a gate onto Grandstand Road. There is a much simpler route, here, with a well-trodden gravel path ascending the lowest slope of the hill. In contrast, I find myself picking slowly though long grass and nettles, surrounded by cows. I wonder, briefly, how often cows kill humans and then reassure myself that these cows must be safe: the Freemen have grazed cattle on this land for centuries. Later, I google this and learn that, in fact, if there are calves present – there are not on the Town Moor, thankfully - herds of cattle do kill people. In fact, the Independent says, they are the most deadly large mammal in the UK. I don’t know this at the time, and I walk straight through them, smiling as they chew mouthfuls of grass laconically, flicking tails against flies. Somehow, this feels right: the point of walking on land like the Town Moor isn’t to go the easiest or simplest way – it’s to immerse yourself in the stretch of the land around you.
Near the foot of the largest of these hills – the imaginatively named ‘Cow Hill’ - I stop and take a swig of water from the bottle in my backpack. There’s a chilling moment as I realise where I’m standing: I’ve been reading about the history of the moor, and have learnt that in the thickness of these trees, still circled by a fence, there was once an isolation hospital for Small Pox. Grainy black and white photos on Google from 1898 show a man lying in a hospital bed in a dark room, and the horse drawn ambulance cart that would have taken patients there. It’s difficult to believe that this is the site. The buildings were demolished in 1958 and there is nothing to commemorate it. No plaque, no statue: only the trees. I stand there for a while, thinking about that hospital, thinking about those people.
Then I begin to climb the hill.
It’s hard to know how to write about this time. Online, people scramble to make sense of a crisis of global proportions unseen in our lifetimes. There are videos and lists, hints and tips and tricks and hashtags. We are a world that cannot stop talking. And yet how should we navigate discussion around a time of so much pain and suffering?
The city stretches out around me. Chimneys and trees and distant high rises. The Byker Wall squats like an alien spaceship. Rows of miniscule terraces branch away, their windows glinting in the morning sun. In every one of those buildings, a person.
There will be time and space for us to come together again. I know this, standing on the top of the hill, overlooking the city. The Town Moor invites us to think about it: about space and community, about the past and the future, about the things that are possible and the things that have been. The commons has always been a key tenet of the labour movement. Now, more than ever, their significance is vital as we look to rebuild our societies in the wake of Covid-19.