“And Then My Whole Wide World Went Zoom”
Fat Larry’s Band
I write this from a campsite in sand dunes on the Norfolk coast in the tiny country of England, part of the biggest land mass that forms The British Isles. Never until recent years have I felt so much on an island, and never in my lifetime have I witnessed such deliberately wrought divisions. I grew up in the 1970s, where racist name-calling and clunky television comedies ‘exploring’ race were common currency. In the intervening years, diversity has been welcomed and celebrated — at least that’s the way it appeared to me. I was clearly wearing the wrong glasses, or perhaps inhabit a different island. The Brexit campaign and subsequent ‘win’ scratched the surface to reveal the face of the overt racism — still there and ugly as ever. Badly constructed notices appeared around the country, including in a tower block near where I live in Norwich. It told people if they didn’t speak English they should return to the country they came from ‘so we can return to what normality was before you infected this once great island’. Norwich has a long history of welcoming refugees — Norfolk’s watery landscape was made farmable by Dutch engineers who had fled persecution in the wake of the seventeenth century Protestant Reformation; Dutch textile workers grew the industry to increase the city’s wealth. The author of the notice was clearly unaware these ‘Strangers’ as they were called then, had such in important role in making the place they now have the privilege to defend so self-righteously.
We have an ancient green caravan in these dunes and spend many weeks here during the summer where we swim with seals, drink wine and escape the internet. We are not easily contactable and are free from the constancy of news. The campsite usually opens in May but this year, like so many things, was locked down until the government decided it was safe. We were allowed back in early July and of the two hundred plots in this ten acre field, only fifty or so were occupied. We were told to set up camps one meter inside our plots, thus keeping the government’s regulation two meters apart. From the beginning of lockdown, I have a been developing a good sense of the space around me. I instinctively know what two meters looks and feels like. Perhaps being able to drive a car helps with spatial awareness. Perhaps all of those people who get too close to you in public places don’t know how to drive. Perhaps they don’t hear alarms going off inside the brain when people walk too near. I fear this sense of others invading my two meter space will go on for much longer than when it’s declared safe to hug my sister or venture inside friends’ houses for an ordinary elbows-touching Sunday lunch. I am almost nostalgic for when all I had to be worried about was the word ‘Brexit’. Now the term ‘social distancing’ is the new juddering phantom that haunts me as a physical ache. If I see crowds at live events recorded before lockdown, I inwardly shrink back, then feel a nostalgia for dancing on beer-sticky floors with a group of strangers at one with the music.
When the campsite first opened there was a sense of a shared euphoria to be outside under the sky, washing dishes in the middle of a field with the sea alive just over the dunes. Our first morning we saw around two hundred baby seals on the beach flanked by some adults in a kind of seal creche. Many more were in the water playing or hunting, or a mixture of both. This is the most seals we have ever seen so close to the site — they were clearly taking advantage of having the run of the place. It’s more of a ‘lumber’ than a ‘run’ of course, but they can shift pretty fast in their own element. And they did — as soon as more people came, they left to a further away bay to put some space between themselves and the humans.
Three weeks after opening, there are more humans on the site, packed inside our own bubbles. It is feeling more ‘normal’, by which I mean the allotments people occupy have invisible walls, there’s an avoidance of eye-contact and fewer exchanges of ‘Isn’t this wonderful’ from people who have been starved of social interaction. The collective memory settles to the familiarity of previous summers, where you have to somehow pretend the life you are living is not potentially on show. For the past three months, every drama and nuance has happened in private. People have died and given birth without their families around them. Domestic abuse has increased as the abused have been trapped inside buildings with their abusers. Our hair has gone feral and we haven’t worn shoes. In this very field right now, intimate moments such as yoga stretches, eyebrow- plucking and contemplative washing-up are performed in public. We are respectful of literal borders as well as notional ones. We try to ignore the tensions of a family with teenage children and the bickering couple who have forgotten their groundsheet and who really shouldn’t be camping at all.
Camping can be stressful if you do not treat it as camping. One year we were next to a family whose adults tried to maintain the same sense of order as inside their house. They had a large kitchen tent with cupboards and worksurfaces and a garden area with a whirligig clothes drier. There was an inflatable sofa and a solar power shower cubicle. An expensive operation which must have taken a long time to set up. When the children came back from the beach, they were chided for walking sand in the tent and were ordered to sweep it up immediately with the dustpan and brush that hung from a cupboard door. The adults looked as exhausted as Canute must have been when he realised he couldn’t keep back the tide, but they kept leaning into it the whole week. If only they would let themselves have a glass of wine and relax, we declared expansively from our merlot- stained mouths. When we came back a week later, they must have only recently left because patches of sun-starved grass ghosted the spaces their tents were set out. That didn’t seem like a holiday to me, but maybe that will come later, when they unpack their two cars and put everything back in its place and relax into the music of the washing machine in the privacy of their own home.
Being writerly types — or should I say, plain nosy customers – one of the things we have missed since lockdown is people-watching, and indeed, seeing people move about through three dimensional space. But Zoom has been wonderful for remote social gatherings and it’s always fascinating to be able to peep inside peoples’ houses if they haven’t created a baffle like the aurora borealis as a green-screened background. Zoom rectangles are not unlike plots of the campsite — everyone framed in their small area. It is of course possible to turn your camera off and close down the shutters, but some seem unaware, or perhaps don’t mind that we’ve been watching them munch their way through a sloppy burrito for the past twenty three and a half minutes.
These unguarded moments, like the campsite eyebrow-plucking and dish-washing, are tender portraits framed in the liminal space between public and private lives. In the age of the carefully constructed composition that is the selfie, it’s quite moving to see people not deliberately presenting themselves to a camera. I am reminded of the artist Miroslav Tichý who hid cameras in shoeboxes to capture unobserved moments. The photographs themselves are rather beautiful, but it’s hard not to think of his methods as a form of lascivious voyeurism, given that the women he photographed were often in part-undress and had no idea they were being fixed into paper. This knowledge lends an uneasiness to the work. But then you learn that Tichý made his own cameras, and relax into his pictures enough to notice they are languid and tender, read that an art critic has described them as ‘poetic’… and recall you saw them in The Pompidou Centre in Paris… so surely they are categorised as art rather than documentary evidence of a man spying on women… Framing is an interesting thing, is it not, as is the distance of time.
Photographer Diane Arbus said: “One of the risks of appearing in public is the likelihood of being photographed.” She made work about marginalised groups and got to know people before she took pictures, careful not to objectify them. She was excited by those who visibly constructed their own identities such as circus performers and the nouveau riche. The position of the photographer here is very different to that of Tichý and leads me to imagine them attending Zoom events and wonder whether Arbus would consider a Zoom event as a public space if people put their cameras on. And also, if Tichý would enjoy the incidental ‘up skirt’ angles I myself have witnessed, and whether he might embrace this as part of his mixed-media way of working.
At the start of lockdown Zoom for me was a song by Fat Larry’s Band (niche 80s reference) but now I think it an excellent venue for a book launch. ‘Then my whole wide world went zoom’ they sang — and yes, that’s it — you can invite people to your party from anywhere there is internet. Their faces will arrive in their Zoom rectangles for the kind of shared experience many were not familiar with before we were compelled to try it. My husband and myself have been hosting a popular international Zoom poetry events since the start of lockdown, inviting readers it would have been previously impractical to have done.
Here on the campsite, where the sea is the draw for our shared experience, another phenomenon occurred. Two dirigible T-Rex’s chasing each other floppily through the liminal spaces between plots caused everyone to forget their invisible walls this morning. People were laughing, telling strangers what they saw, taking pictures – we have a great one in silhouette incongruously near the toilet block. It’s hard to imagine the equivalent of this three dimensional ice-breaker on Zoom. Something that brings a whole field of disparate people together at the sheer silliness of the spectacle, nudging each other in the ribs metaphorically from their safe two meter distances.
Helen Ivory © text, 2020
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