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Updated: Apr 5, 2020

This is a new world, somehow surreal and strange, new yet not new to the world. Surreal. With surrealism, dream-like states allow fish to fly, and birds to swim. But some birds do swim, as do some dogs and some cats. In this time-altered dream world, people on their daily exercise routine, in the village, in Oxford, look dazed, men half-shaven, startled-faced, eyes begging for social contact. And this is just the end of second week. Most of everyday life is in the deep freeze. My knee surgery is in the freezer, schools are in the freezer, and even the deep freeze at the supermarket today, empty, is in the deep freeze. I have cancelled trips, flights, concerts, opera, and have picked up the virtual world of movies and recordings. But even there, the recordings freeze after just so long of playing. 

Last night the concert-freeze was a recording of the Berlin Philharmonic performing their annual May Day concert, in 2010 in Oxford, at the Sheldonian Theatre. The Berlin Phil have a televised May Day concert every year, in an historic concert hall chosen by the orchestra players and 2010 they chose Oxford. Memories flooded in when I found the recording on the Berlin Phil website. I was fortunate to get a ticket for the rehearsal back in 2010. The rehearsal was a straight play-through of the concert – Wagner, Elgar, Brahms, Daniel Barenboim on the podium. I don’t know if you know the Sheldonian; it is historically important, with Sir Christopher Wren the architect, but far too small for the Berlin Philharmonic.

I have found that Germans generally melt into nostalgia when they talk about having visited Oxford, speaking in honey-tones about the honey-colour stonework which characterises the city. The rehearsal-afternoon was suitably improvised – the orchestra came in late because their bus was stuck in traffic on the Banbury Road, started late, took an extended break in the sunshine outside in their extended interval. I spoke with a couple of members of the orchestra in the interval, saw Barenboim at just a social distance away – ‘just cas’ (just casual) as my daughter might say. The two brass-players were thrilled to be in Oxford, looking up and down, side-to-side, laughing like young tourists, not like part of the engine-room of the most powerful orchestra on the planet. People were touching Barenboim’s back, arms, lightly - he wasn't shaking hands, even in those pre-covid days. The touching was that of touching a religious relic in a deep past age in a deeply catholic country, the devout ones perhaps hoping that some essence of Barenboim magic might rub off on them. Barenboim looked completely at ease. I felt the thrill of the moment; caught it in the palm of my hand and put it in a jar to savour later. Just last night, I opened the jar when I needed to taste something of the much bigger world.

The rehearsal in 2010 was far from improvised – polished, electric, spine-tingling – the Berlin Phil like an over-powered BMW in fifth gear, powering, not in the outside lane of the autobahn with Brahms playing at full volume, but taking Brahms at high speed, accelerating, braking, then accelerating again, for a spin down an English, Oxfordshire, country lane. And Barenboim, the driver, was enjoying himself, dancing, swaying into the curves in the road, almost pirouetting on the podium. Barenboim had been to Oxford many times, the last time to receive an honorary doctorate in 2007. I saw him from a distance that day at the Vice-Chancellor’s Garden Party. I have seen the Berlin Philharmonic several times across my life, and the free month’s subscription, the lock-down subscription, was something I seized on. I locked onto on the video recording of the 2010 May Day Concert with glee, with multi-layered memories. Memories too for Barenboim I am sure – Jacqueline Du Pre, his famously precocious and gifted cellist wife and partner in both life and in music was from Oxford, and he visited the city several times in his early adult life. Du Pre made the Elgar Cello Concerto her own, and Barenboim programmed this for the Oxford May Day Concert 2010. I was watching the recording in bed, the cello concerto dedicated to the turmoil and loss of World War One, the jar of memory open - me taking ladles of memory and devouring it on hot toast – escaping the present-day for a moment, despite the intensity of the cello solos. Then the jar of 2010 rehearsal-memory shut closed – the performance froze, like all the other things in everyday life. 

It froze, not just the usual 30 seconds or a minute of band-width catch-up; it froze, I waited. It stayed frozen, and I waited. I waited, then decided – if everything so far is frozen, from everyday life to the replayed memory of May First 2010, then I could freeze my birthday too. 

Winter this year wasn’t cold enough for the water to freeze, but disease has brought a longer-term freeze, of movement, mobility, of social life. The social life of swimming is one of the reasons for doing it – at the Serpentine, at Port Meadow, with the Thames Group across the length of this great river, in Copenhagen, down at the lake. I know some absolutely amazing people through swimming – all outdoor swim-people are amazing. Today I took part in the marvellous now-virtual Serpentine Choir – thank you Katherine for leading the choir and the sofa-bound Cselko family for leading the harmony-parts. I joined the virtual café with around twenty kindred swim-souls, and declared my birthday postponed until three months after lock-down is lifted. It is three months almost to the day to my birthday in July, and I have swum 52 of 65 swims. Four fifths; one fifth left in one quarter of time, once time starts again.

65@65 goes into the freezer today, and will stay there until the curfew is lifted, until social distancing stops being both noun and verb, until we can move freely again. There will be swimming, but more local and more intimate, lock-down swims. But in this new surreal world, I will stay at 65 years of age until the plague recedes and the government deems it safe to hug and smile and be happy again. And to swim in groups of more than two, and to share tea and cake and swim as far as we like in the places we like to swim at.

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