Cafe culture reaches the North Manchester suburbs … due to the virus

There’s been talk for years about wanting to get a “Mediterranean-style café culture” going round here.  Maybe it goes back to when Mick Hucknall opened the Barca bar in 1996.  It’s tended to be met more with amusement than enthusiasm.  Manchester and Barcelona might share a love of football, but we haven’t exactly got the same climate.

Having said which, it’s taken off to some extent in town, and in “trendy” suburbs like Didsbury and Chorlton.  Not so much everywhere else, though.  In fact, pretty much everyone in my area hit the roof when the council decided to widen the pavements along the side of the main road, in order to “encourage café culture”.  It meant that one of the busiest roads in the country was reduced from two lanes to one lane, creating a horrendous bottleneck and all sorts of traffic problems.  I’m still furious that they did it.  And, no, it didn’t “encourage café culture”.  But, thanks to people being nervous about dining inside cafes and restaurants, and also the current restrictions on meeting up indoors, café culture has finally taken off, since eating places were allowed to reopen in July!  There are tables and chairs out all over the place.  I suspect that most of them shouldn’t actually be there, but, for once, the council have shown a bit of sense and turned a blind eye.  The downpours forecast for later this week will probably put paid to it, but it’s certainly been fun whilst it’s lasted –  a rare positive effect of this very strange situation in which we’re all caught up.

I love the “café culture” thing.  Sitting out along the banks of Lago Maggiore on a warm summer’s evening, with a cappuccino and an ice cream.  Sitting in the main square of a small resort near Taormina with a drink and plate of Sicilian cannoli.  Then there was the time that I decided it would be a great idea to go to the café across the road from the hotel in Seville for a coffee (I usually drink tea, but the tea in Spain and Italy isn’t great) and a piece of cake at 1/4 to 11 at night, which might be normal for Sevillanos but definitely isn’t for Mancunians.  I’d had no energy for the previous few months after having a horrendously bad reaction to anti-depressants, and decided that I could prove that I was getting my mojo back by going out for a piece of calorie-laden cake at bedtime.  It made sense at the time, OK!   Those little pasteis de nata that you get in cafés in Portugal … mmm.  And I’ve always rather wanted to go “strolling down the River Seine, having [we had] a drink in each café” … which I’ve never done, because I’ve always been too busy stressing about queues and crowds and getting back to the group meeting place in time.

One of my favourite “café culture” memories is of Sparta, of all places.  They don’t abandon babies in the woods or do naked athletics training any more.  And they seem to have got over their rivalry with Athens, because, on this particular evening, everyone was out in Sparta’s main square, watching a Champions League qualifier between Panathanaikos and Club Brugge (for the record, Club Brugge won the tie, and were then drawn alongside United in the group stage).  TV screens from inside bars and cafés had been carefully moved to the doors, so that everyone could sit out, on a very warm night, with their food and drink, and watch the football at the same time.

I thought how lovely it would be to do that here, on a night when United or City had a big match.  For all the jokes about the weather, big screens have often been put up in town, if not in the suburbs, when there’ve been big events on.  Maybe there were plans to do it this summer, when we should have been enjoying Euro 2020 and the Tokyo Olympics.  It wasn’t to be, and who knows if it’ll happen next year – when will we stand excitedly in a big crowd again?  But these days when a “Mediterranean-style café culture” finally took over our North Manchester suburb will be one of the happier memories of this very strange year.  Cheers!


Rowing back … a nightmare couple of days

  At around half 9 on Thursday night, it was announced that all ten boroughs in Greater Manchester, plus many parts of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire, were being subjected to new restrictions.  From midnight.  We can no longer visit/be visited by anyone outside our support bubbles in our own homes, or even our gardens.   Unless people are working, so the alarm service man can still come on Monday.   We cannot meet anyone outside our households/support bubbles in a café, pub or restaurant, unless it’s outdoors.  This even applies if you’re visiting people outside the area.

2 1/2 hours’ notice.  My cousin had her niece staying over, so officially she broke the law – she should have dragged the kid out of bed and taken her home.  A lot of people rely on grandparents for childcare during the school holidays – what were they meant to do on Friday?

I accept that the data showing an increase in the number of cases only came in at the last minute, and that the authorities panicked because they knew that large numbers of people were planning to meet up for Eid al Adha celebrations on Friday.  But it was still chaotic.

I have backed the Government until now, but I am fuming about this.  I am fuming because the rate of infections in my borough is only 16 per 100,000.  That is far lower than in most other parts of the country.  In a neighbouring borough, the rate is only 4 per 100,000.  That is one of the lowest rates in the entire country.  But we have all been lumped in with Blackburn, where the rate is nearly 90 per 100,000 – after 250 people attended a funeral at a mosque, the legal limit for religious services being 30, where someone had the virus and passed it round – and Oldham and Rochdale where it’s also over the “danger level” of 50 per 100,000.  Would restrictions have been imposed on large swathes of Surrey and Hertfordshire if there was a spike in part of London?  I don’t think so.  People are not happy.

However, most of the anger is, quite rightly, directed at people who are not obeying the rules, and making the rest of us suffer.  I went into a café where there were around 20 people in the queue, and hardly anyone else was wearing a mask.  At another take-away food place, the guy serving actually told me that I didn’t need to wear a mask, because it wasn’t like being in a supermarket!  And, despite the new rules, there were large numbers of big Eid celebrations in private homes last night and today.  In one local street, someone called the police because the noise was still going on at half 2 in the morning.  The police did absolutely nothing.

I haven’t seen my sister, brother-in-law and nephews since February.  I was supposed to see them next week.  Now, that’s off, unless either they or I make a 400 mile round trip to sit in a park.  I’m also panicking about my desperately-needed staycation in a fortnight’s time: as things stand, I can still go, as long as I don’t go into anyone else’s house (which I won’t – I’m staying at a hotel), but, instead of looking forward to it, I’m now panicking.  I haven’t had a break since December.  I haven’t had a day off work all year other than Bank Holidays.  I can’t go on much longer without getting away.

And the proposed changes for today have been cancelled nationwide.  Casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks now cannot open.  Hopes of getting fans back into sports events are on hold.  And, devastatingly for couples involved, receptions at weddings/civil partnerships now cannot take place.

I know that it isn’t just here.  I know that there’ve been spikes in a lot of places.  But I am so annoyed that my area, where the rate of infection is not high, has been lumped in with neighbouring areas.  And, most of all, I am annoyed with the people who go around breaking the rules with no thought for anyone else.  The people who hold huge gatherings of family and friends in their homes.  The people who attend illegal raves.  The gangs of young people who think they’re immune.  The people who refuse to wear masks in shops.  The people who won’t even move into single file on narrow pavements or paths in the park, to let others pass them safely.  None of us are perfect, but some people are just making no effort at all.  And community tensions are rising as a result, which is another thing.

I feel much better today than I did yesterday – the announcement on Thursday night was such a shock – but I’m still stressed.   Why can’t people do as they’re bloody well told?  For everyone else’s sake?


The Never Ending Story

  “There upon a rainbow is an answer to a never ending story.”  Well, I wish someone could find that rainbow!   I’ve always wondered how so many people in 1914 could have been so naive as to think that what became the First World War would be over by Christmas.  Well, now I know, and I feel like I owe them an apology.   You know how the pandemic was going to peak over Easter weekend and then we were going to be pretty much back to normal by now, not just here but all over the world?  Yes, about that.  It now looks very unlikely that we’ll be going to Christmas markets and pantomimes this year.  I’ve just been told that my gym won’t be reopening until January.  The local council have said that they’re planning for restrictions to last until next summer.  People are busily cancelling things they’d rebooked for later in the year.  Will the US Open go ahead and, if so, how many players from outside the US will actually play? And as for the holiday chaos …

On a happier note, this may have been the longest league football season in history (I’m saying “league” because we’ve still got the Cup Final, the Europa League and Champions League matches to come), but at least it ended on a happy note – well, insofar as finishing third is a happy note.  The Ingalls family had Christmas in May, in The Long Winter, and United have qualified for the Champions League in July … just as we should have been recovering from Wimbledon and Euro 2020 and settling into the Olympics.  Talk about down the rabbit hole.

I was trying to find out who first said “Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” but it’s one of those quotes which seems to be attributed to a zillion different people.  It seems to be the only way to go at the moment, whomever said it.  Meanwhile, bring on those Europa League matches …

I like Whig history.  I like the idea that things move onwards and upwards.  I’m not very good with this two steps forward, one step back thing that’s going on at the moment.  Or should I be quoting Paula Abdul and saying “one step forward, two steps back,” given the worrying news about the increase in the number of cases in so many countries.  And I’m the world’s greatest overplanner: it’s part of having anxiety.  I plan everything months ahead.  I should have returned yesterday from a holiday which I booked last September.  I chose that week because I didn’t want to go away until after Wimbledon and Euro 2020 but I wanted to be back before the Olympics.  It was going to be the most wonderful summer.  Who the hell saw this coming?  OK, most people in 1914 didn’t see the First World War coming, but, if you look at things carefully, you can see how things were building up to war from well beforehand.  You can’t do that with a pandemic.

There’ve been so many pandemics before.  It’s barely a century since the Spanish flu pandemic.  Look at all the outbreaks of plague over the centuries.  But we didn’t think it could happen.  Even when coronavirus first appeared, who would ever have thought that it would go like this?  SARS, bird flu, Zika virus … they all hit the headlines for a few weeks, if that, then vanished.   I keep thinking about what Ashley Wilkes says in Gone With The Wind, about the Gotterdammerung.  Previous generations faced world wars, the Cold War, the fear of the bomb, but nothing could stop us.  Then this did.



Are there any songs about lockdown and social distancing yet?   There ought to be.  There are always songs about difficult times.  There are so many wartime songs; and there are songs about famine, about the Depression, about the Cold War, about apartheid, about AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, and about slavery.  Maybe there are coronavirus era songs.  I’m so old and out of touch that I probably wouldn’t know 🙂 – I only listen to stations playing music from the 1980s and early 1990s.

I can hear pretty much any well-known songs from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s and know, without even having to think about it, exactly when it was around and what was going on in my life at the time.  For example, a good song for this month – other than “Summer Rain” by Belinda Carlisle – would be “Back To Life” by Soul II Soul, but, great song though it is, I’ve always had a bit of a problem with it because it was number 1 on the day of the disastrous 1989 Wimbledon final, which I broke my heart over!   Songs from 1989 are like that: they immediately take me back there.

At some point in the mid-1990s, I lost my soundtrack.  Maybe I just got old and past it.  Maybe, once you’re out of full time education and have moved into the working world, things are different.  Maybe I just didn’t want my life at that time to be defined by the Spice Girls, All Saints and B*Witched!  But it feels as if there needs to be music which says 2020, which will always speak about this very strange year in our lives.

Maybe there will be.    Meanwhile, here’s a list of ten old favourites which all seem to say something about a time their composers and singers could never have seen coming.

  1.  Depeche Mode, Enjoy The Silence – this was a song for very early on in lockdown, when it hit me that I could hear bees buzzing and birds singing, because there was no traffic noise.  The traffic noise is back now.  It’s one thing I really didn’t miss!
  2.  Bryan Adams, Summer of ’69 – this (just slightly ahead of Eternal Flame by The Bangles) is my all-time favourite, and the lines about “Ain’t no use in complaining”,” And now the times are changing” and “I guess nothing can last for ever” seem very apt for 2020.
  3.  Dame Vera Lynn RIP, We’ll Meet Again – it was so sad that the great Dame Vera died in the middle of all this, and just when that wonderful wartime song, quoted by the Queen in her speech in April, was inspiring and comforting everyone all over again.  April seems so long ago now, but I’m still welling up when I think about that song and that speech.
  4.  A-ha, Stay On These Roads – another one for the days of full lockdown.  “We shall meet, I know.”
  5.  Roxette, Spending My Time – this was one for the more difficult days, when it felt as if we were just marking time.  Roxette songs are great for difficult times.  “Life will go on.”
  6.  The Beautiful South, Manchester – ignoring the jokes about the rain (it was actually dry and sunny throughout late March, April and much of May), this has been a time for staying close to home.  For weeks and weeks, I barely left my own suburb, because we weren’t supposed to go out except for essential shopping and an hour a day’s exercise!   I must go into town again soon: businesses need our support.
  7.  Georgie Fame, Sitting In the Park – I have been to the park nearly every day.  I don’t know what I’d have done without it, those first weeks.
  8.  Belinda Carlisle, Summer Rain – how typical of the Great British Weather that we had blue sky and sunshine throughout the weeks when we couldn’t go out, and now, when people want to be heading off on days out and staycations, it’s one wet day after another.
  9.  Soul II Soul, Back To Life – Wimbledon traumas aside, this really is a song for July 2020, as well as for July 1989.  “Back to life, back to reality …” … well, sort of.
  10.  The Proclaimers, Over And Done With – this is the ultimate anti-anxiety song.  Will this nightmare ever be over and done with?  Well, yes, it will.  One day.


I need a 2020 song about 2020, though.  But I’m so out of touch that I don’t even know who’s in the charts these days.  Are they even still called “the charts”?  Someone from the ’80s record a song about social distancing and masks and everything else about these strange, strange times, to bring us together and help us get through it all, please?   And so that there’ll be music about these times, like there’s music about the difficult times of the past.

A Visit To The Dentist

I’ve got a vague recollection of once doing a school exam in which you had to write an essay about a visit to either the dentist or the doctor.  I’ve got no idea why the teachers came up with that!   Anyway, this morning, I found myself sallying forth, mask on face, along the short corridor from the reception area to the actual treatment room, with a dental nurse preceding me, carrying a plastic box in which was my handbag.  It felt a bit like a Tudor processional … although, as Elizabeth I was notorious for having rotten teeth and being terrified of dentists, maybe not.

I can’t believe I’m actually writing about a visit to the dentist.   I just thought it might be interesting to look back on when all this is finally over.  I arrived 3/4 hour early, because I had to collect a parcel from the sorting office en route, and, despite the fact that full lockdown ended weeks ago, the sorting office is still only open from 7am to 9am, not 7am like 5pm like it’s supposed to be.  Usually, if I’m early, I’d have a cup of tea at Morrisons, which is opposite the surgery … but that would have meant giving my details for track and trace, so that was a no-go.  However, the Italian café next door had outdoor seating.  Hooray!   This is how things are at the moment.  I know that a lot of cafes with no outdoor seating are struggling, but I can’t risk being caught by a track and trace thing when I’m due to go away for a week in August.

I then arrived at the surgery, and rang on the bell.  I wasn’t allowed in.  I was told that I’d have to wait until a dental nurse, wearing a visor, came to escort me in.  Ten minutes later, I was still stood there like piffy on a rock bun, getting rather annoyed.   But then a nurse came to let me in.  Hooray.

You normally complete your medical forms when you get there.  However, this time, they’d been sent to me via a text message link.  I’d managed to complete them OK, but filling in medical forms on a mobile phone screen isn’t particularly easy, and the next person to arrive had accidentally pressed the wrong thing and put that she’d got symptoms of the virus!  A whole to-do ensued as they worked out how to let her get access to the forms again so that she could change them.

And the handbag thing.  It was a warm day today, so I wasn’t wearing a coat, but my dad went last week, on a wet day, and his coat had to follow the same procedure that my handbag did!   Incidentally, they had to let me get my handbag out of the box at the end, so that I could a) get my purse out to pay and b) get my diary out to make my next appointment.

I’m not being sarcastic.  I do understand that the virus spreads very easily, and that dental treatment’s particularly risky because it’s face to face.  But, six months ago, if you’d told me that, at my next dental check-up (I was due to go at the beginning of April, but that obviously had to be cancelled) would involve my handbag being ceremoniously carried along the corridor in a plastic box, whilst I followed on behind it in a face mask, I’d have asked how much you’d had to drink.  This is life in 2020.  Did we ever think we’d come to this?!

Masks on the Steamer

Does that sound like a bad Agatha Christie novel 🙂 ?   Windermere’s a very special and important place to me, and I have missed it badly over the last four months, just when I needed its relaxing influence most.  I went 9 days before lockdown started, and then we weren’t allowed to travel, then they asked people to keep staying away because of concerns about the infection rate in the area, and then it kept raining at the weekends!  But, yesterday, I finally made it back.  Windermere Lake Cruises reopened last week – round trips only, pre-booking, and masks on, but the lovely boats *are* running again – and nearly all the shops and cafes in Bowness are open, and I assume it’s the same elsewhere.  Safety precautions are being followed, but the Lake District, after all the vile weather in February and early March and then lockdown, is back in business.  I am so very glad.

As far as the boat trips go, it’s a bit of a pain that you can’t go from Bowness to Ambleside or the west shore and back again, but it is what is, and I was just glad to be back out on the water at all!   Everyone has to wear a mask, and some seats are being left empty so that people weren’t getting too close.  The powers that be did an inspection before the boats started running again, and said that everything was OK.

Pretty much all the eating places are open.  On a dry day, there isn’t a problem, because most of them have outdoor tables.  I was quite surprised by how busy they were, even inside, but sanitiser’s being used, and, in some places, staff are wearing masks and gloves.  Perspex screens are being used even at places where there’s no seating and you just order at a window.  If you don’t want to sit inside – and, whilst I don’t think the risk of catching the virus in a café or bar is very high, I’m nervous of being caught by the test and trace system if I’m inside a cafe and it’s busy – and there are no outdoor tables free, or if the weather’s, then it won’t be a problem because pretty much everywhere’s offering a takeaway option.  If you want a three course meal, it’s not so easy, but, if you’re happy with a sandwich, a jacket potato, a scone or a cake, you’ll be fine.

The shops all have hand sanitiser at the doors, and larger places are operating one-way systems.  The big problem (other than the fact that the public toilets don’t open till 10am, which is ridiculous) is that pavements get crowded – not helped by the fact that people walk along them with horrible dogs, or whilst looking at their phones instead of at where they’re going – and you can’t step into the road because of the traffic, but we can’t shut the country down indefinitely, and so it’s a case of being careful, sanitising your hands regularly, and, if you feel more comfortable doing so, wearing a mask.

These are strange times, but it was so good to be back.  I hate it when I can’t go to the Lake District: I need to go there regularly!  And the Lake District needs us.  It’s unlikely that the coachloads of Japanese and American tourists will be back any time soon, and all the money that was by the Lake District Tourist Board on promoting the area to China, like all the money that was spent by Metrolink on the new line to carry football crowds to Old Trafford and shoppers to the Trafford Centre, is … well, it’s not going to be reaping dividends any time soon.  But the Lakes are still there.  They’re always there.  They were there for the Romantic poets, they were there for  Victorian tourists who travelled there for a break from our smoky industrial towns and cities, and they’re there for us.

I was so happy to be going back that I got a bit tearful just getting in the car in my own drive outside my own house.  When I caught the first glimpse of the lake from the A591, I just could not wait to get there: I was practically screaming at the people in the cars in front of me to get out of my way.  There aren’t usually any cars in front of me at 1/4 to 8 in the morning, but people are on the move now, “staycations” are the way to go, and hopefully the Lake District can benefit from that.  And, oh, it was good to be back!!  I haven’t half missed it.


Goodbye lockdown locks, hello cafes, stay safe

  Hooray!  For the first time since March 19th, I’ve had my hair cut and coloured, and I no longer look like an ageing refugee from the 1980s (even if my music collection is still pretty much entirely 1980s).  I’ve been to my favourite café in town:  it reopened this weekend.  And, at Fountains Abbey yesterday, I had my first National Trust scone since March 14th.   I’ve been very impressed with the safety measures that most – not quite all, but most – organisations have put in place, and all the amount of hard work, not to mention that money, that’s gone into it all.  The salon’s even got a room upstairs where vulnerable or nervous clients can have their hair done away from anyone other than their stylist.

These are very strange and difficult times, and there’s no sign of things getting back to normal any time soon, but – and I do appreciate that things are different for people with health issues, and I do so wish they weren’t – we can’t shut the country down indefinitely, or else we’re going to end up with mass unemployment and a mental health pandemic.  So we need to move on.  Carefully.

We’re not using to dealing with an invisible enemy.  We can do defiance.  We marched back into town after the IRA bombing in 1996 and the Islamic fundamentalist bombing in 2017, determined that we weren’t going to be defeated by terrorists.  We’ve heard about how our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generation kept calm and carried on when the Luftwaffe were raining bombs down on our city night after night.  But, as some of our American friends are sadly finding out, defiance doesn’t work against coronavirus.   Social distancing, more frequent handwashing, wearing masks where appropriate … these are things we’ve all got to do.

It’s weird seeing hand sanitising stations at the entrances to shops, salons, cafes, restaurants, pubs and shopping centres.  It’s weird when you go to have your hair done, and you’re wearing a mask and the hairdresser’s wearing a visor – and you can’t even have a cup of tea.  It’s weird being asked to follow a one way system round the Arndale Centre, and to use certain doors only as an entrance and other doors only as an exit.

And it’s very weird indeed having to give your details when you go to a café.  That freaked me out a bit.  I’ve got a “staycation” booked for August, and I won’t be going to any cafes for three weeks prior to that.  This “test and trace” thing is not good for my anxiety, as much as I understand the need for it.  I’ve been very freaked out by the pictures from Leicester, which is in local lockdown.  Police everywhere, people being stopped and asked for their details if they’re out in their cars … again, I understand the need for it, but these are things we associate with totalitarian regimes, or at least with wartime.  Seeing that going on in a British city in peacetime is very scary indeed.

But we need to move on.  So many job cuts have sadly been announced already.  More will follow.  And there are quality of life issues: many people are beginning to struggle mentally.  And this is the only way we can move on: we’ve seen from what’s happened elsewhere that we can’t just go back to how things were.  How I wish we could.  I want to go to a football match.  I want to know that the Christmas markets are going to be on.  I’m worried about what’s going to happen to the local economy.  Metrolink’ve just spent a fortune on the Trafford Centre extension, and hardly anyone’s using it.   Hotels can reopen, but people come to Manchester to go to the theatre or live concerts or football matches, and you can’t do any of that at the moment.  I’m extremely worried about the future of theatres and live music venues.  And when will the gym reopen?

But we’re making a start.  And it’s been great.   I cannot say how relieved I am to have had my hair done!   It was getting to the point where I was amazed that people still recognised me.  And it was lovely to be back at The Vienna Coffee House.  And it was nice to feel that I was giving people my little bit of support.  I’ve been going to The Vienna Coffee House ever since it opened, I’ve been going to the same hairdresser for nearly 20 years, and my life would be very empty without the National Trust (and its scones).

Who knows when this nightmare’s ever going to end?  My respect for the generations who lived through six years of war, and then the austerity years afterwards, is growing even higher than it already was, every single day.    But this weekend’s been a big step forward.  We just all need to be so careful, and it’s not easy, when this is all so strange and different.  But most people are really trying – especially all the hairdressers and pub landlords/landladies and café/restaurant owners and managers who’ve worked so hard to get ready for reopening.   As Boris said, let’s not blow it!   Let’s enjoy it instead.