for Joan Barham, by Rowena Price
‘There’s nothing you can do ‘bout this, it’s just gotta take its course.’
‘That’s a good way to look at it.’
‘Well, there’s no other way to look at it.’
Resilience, for those of the generation who can remember the Second World War, is born out of survival – a choice between suffering and endurance. That drive and zeal for life is the river through which ninety-year-old Joan Barham, who has lived almost all of those ninety years in East London, channels everything she does. It is probably fair to say that the relative comforts and privileges of contemporary UK life has not bred the rest of us into stoics, and that, until this year, most of us had never experienced the call to unite in collective action to keep everyone safe – much like in a war. But has the pandemic really got us all keeping calm and carrying on?
Joan is divided on this. She tells me many stories of the kindnesses of people; neighbours from down the road knocking on her door to see how she is, her daughter-in law who checks the labels of the food in her fridge and restocks it when it’s out of date, regular phone calls from a whole host of friends and relatives. She has a large family, with four children, fourteen grandchildren, and fifteen great-grandchildren; she is the ninth of thirteen children herself. Joan is particularly close to her sister, who lives a short bus ride away. Before the pandemic they would regularly visit each other and go out to town for a walk and a cup of tea.
‘My sister I go out with, she’s the baby. So every time she got anything wrong I’d say, “that’s because you’re the thirteenth child”, and we’d have a laugh over that. I get on very well with my sisters. I’ve got two sisters and two brothers left out of thirteen.’
Although she is unable to go out much of the time at the moment, Joan is never short of friends and family to help her out with errands and tasks around the house. On one occasion when one of her sons visited, he insisted on cleaning the tops of the wardrobes, which she tells me with a characteristic chuckle that she is too short to see, and that what she can’t see she doesn’t worry about. Over the course of our conversations, I come to see that this last sentiment sums up Joan very well.
But as well as people’s altruism, Joan has also witnessed their selfishness during the pandemic, and has noticed a definite drop in common courtesy among the public. She regularly travels on the bus, and says that despite her obvious age, no one will offer her a seat. She thinks that peoples’ manners have dwindled over the lockdown towards people vulnerable to the serious effects of COVID-19, including the elderly, because they believe she probably shouldn’t be leaving the house at all. Yet, what she says next surprises me – not in the context of her experiences of the often self-serving public during the pandemic (think toilet-paper hoarders) – but because it seems to me a belief that has evolved over the course of a whole lifetime of experiences:
‘There’s more unkind than kind people in this world.’
‘Do you think so?’
In mid December, Joan has her first round of the new COVID vaccination. She asks the doctor how busy they are at the moment and he tells her that they are, although a lot of people eligible for the vaccine are refusing it. ‘I mean, why refuse it when it’s free?’ Joan asks me. ‘The scientists have worked so hard to get this up, and now people are throwing it back in their face. It either kills or cures; if you get the virus you’re better off for having the vaccine either way! But people are really stupid.’ She tells me about a friend who was offered the vaccine and asked for a few days to think about whether she wanted it or not; Joan is pretty incredulous at this. Her view is that there’s no time to waste. She has faith that the vaccine is well tested – ‘they wouldn’t give it to people if it wasn’t’ – and that we all need to put our trust in the work the experts have done to make it available to the most vulnerable members of the public so quickly. I agree with her.
‘I don’t know what’s wrong with people, I really don’t. I think they’re frightened. But I’d do anything to stop this virus. I think of my grandchildren growing up, and I’d do anything to make it a clearer world for them.’
Joan’s no-nonsense approach is well tempered by a very large streak of compassion, and a warm, wisecracking sense of humour. She is sociable and outgoing; she likes to be where there’s a lot of noise and a lot of things going on, and is most comfortable surrounded by people. With such a big family and living in a city, this doesn’t surprise me. Her son used to say that he had to make an appointment to see her because she was always out, to which she pointedly countered that it was his idea for her to start attending her social club, so he shouldn’t complain when she was making the most of it. Talking to the ever-affable and level-headed Joan now, you wouldn’t think she had ever been the shy type. But she assures me that she hasn’t always been like this.
‘I used to be so quiet when I was young. Really really quiet I was; I wouldn’t say boo to a goose! But when I started work, that’s when I changed.’
I ask Joan how much she’s noticed her city changing over the pandemic, and what it’s like watching this happen. In London, where usually everything is open all the time, nothing shuts down at five or six in the evening like it does in the countryside. She tells me everything being closed feels more frustrating than eerie, though; she can’t visit her social club, or go out with her sister like they used to so often. And in the city centre, where one of her sons works, it’s like a ghost town: ‘You wouldn’t think you was in the heart of London.’
She worries about all the businesses that inevitably won’t survive the lockdown period, how hard people work to get their livelihoods up and running, only to be knocked down by something so totally out of their control.
‘Well, I reckon it’ll get worse before it gets better. I reckon there’s been a lot of suicides.’ For her home, her family and friends during this time, Joan counts herself lucky. ‘Lots of old people can’t go out at all, and they ain’t got any family to help ‘em out. People are struggling, really struggling.’
When I speak to Joan in early January, her tone has changed; even in the short time I have got to know her I can tell she isn’t feeling herself. I can hear it in her voice: the restlessness, the fatigue, and the loneliness, too. She tells me she is really struggling now with having to stay inside all the time, not being able to see her friends and family and being alone over Christmas and New Year. But she always qualifies these frustrations with something to the effect of ‘well, a lot of people are doing a whole lot worse.’ And while this may be true, suffering isn’t quantifiable, and clearly she is suffering. Yet I can tell it helps Joan to feel in control by feeling thankful for the things she does have, and this is the constant that runs through her: she is endlessly appreciative and selfless. I know not many of us are able to be the same.
Midwinter is probably the worst time to be in lockdown, especially for those who live alone like Joan. To some extent it was bearable for her last spring and summer, keeping the windows open or sitting in her garden in the sunshine. She’s excited to do some planting for the spring, when the weather allows it. But at the moment it’s raining a lot, and when it’s not raining it’s cold and windy.
‘I put the TV on and I think, I don’t wanna watch this, I don’t wanna watch that either. And I don’t like watching the news cos it’s all about this coronavirus. I put my music on; I’ll listen to anything really, I’m not fussy, me. I like the opera, the male opera singers, though, they’re good.’ Joan listens to her music inside and watches the few people who walk past on the street.
Joan’s optimism has rubbed off on me. The tide is turning, slowly but measurably. We may feel we are at the lowest ebb, but each day we get two more minutes of daylight, and each week we are one week closer to normalcy. Joan may have lived most of her life already, but she deserves to see the rest of it from the other side of her window, in the air and the light, with the people she loves. For her and all the people displaced, afraid and isolated because of this virus, I can’t wait for that day to come.