In the fourteen months before England’s ‘freedom day’ last July, I had had what they call ‘a good war’. Like many middle-class professionals, I found working from home a pleasurable change, enjoyed the intrigue of the rule-of-six, and made more use of my community garden than ever before. Even if the succession of lockdowns and releases put a significant strain on my social relationships, I had it easy.
But by the Autumn, I started noticing that the pandemic has had some profound effects on me and my peers. Everyone somehow become too tired, too slow to engage with many of the freedoms that the summer had brought. Even before the news of Omicron hit, I sensed a mood of general ambivalence: any plans we made seemed tentative and often dissolved into thin air. By December, this ambivalence turned into downright reluctance as the fear of the disease struck again in a well-rehearsed pattern: stay home, stay alone, save yourself. It is as though a year of relegating social interactions to video calls, of plans large and small being abandoned last-minute, of safety-driven affairs, and lives lived by the presence of a single line on a lateral flow test had done some damage to the fabric of sociality itself. Who would have thought?
Part of me couldn’t mind any less. Before the pandemic, my relationship with the social world could generously be described as misanthropic. I find groups and cliques impenetrable and have perfected social awkwardness to an art. Perversely, however, I have always longed to be the centre of attention, a desire that I satisfied by hosting an endless string of dinners, parties, and salons whose pretence would make Madame Verdurin blush.
After nearly two years out of action that suppressed even that social drive, what could be better than the return of my customary New Year’s Eve’s Eve party, held on 30th December many times previously and memorable for much more than its awkward date? Surely, I know no end of people who, having spent the autumn reacclimatising to the routines of theatre outings, concerts, or gallery openings would be just as keen to resume our private bourgeois rituals too. What time better to throw caution to the wind?
No sooner had I sent out the first invitations a month in advance that I realised things would come to a head. The replies started arriving, ranging from the bizarre but understandable “we feel too Covid-conscious to be in a crowd, despite our young age and fully-boosted status“ to the mildly aggressive “I think it’s irresponsible to have a party in the middle of a global pandemic but I hope that you have a great evening.” Fine, I neither wanted to make anyone uncomfortable, nor scared, but equally I felt convinced of the importance of resuming sociality before we had all lost the ability to relate to one another. Then came the more beguiling responses from four separate friends whose social media feeds had been full of Covid-safetyism and advocated for an Omicron lockdown who revealed that they would not attend because they were, against their own advice, holidaying abroad. One friend claimed they would be out of town, despite knowing that I knew this not to be true. A colleague regretted that they were staying in their bubble in case their child was to see grandma the following week. Another preferred to stay in and work on their PhD ‘this year’. A few others had slipped away from London for good without any fanfare. Then came the requests: one guest wanted to know if I’d ask every attendee to declare their vaccination and test status. One asked for the names of everyone on my guest list. Another one still declared that they wouldn’t want to take part in a libertarian rally, perhaps confusing an evening of drinks and dancing for a Texan anti-mask protest.
And so, as in Ginsberg, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”. After twenty or so such colourful regrets, I begun to interpret any excuse as a symptom of a silent but widespread malaise that affected the already-rippled social fabric of the capital. More of my invitees than ever before simply did not reply, giving me another indication that community connections had somehow become even more optional. This continued: five more guests cancelled the day prior revealing that when they had originally accepted, they did so in anticipation of a new lockdown that would render their excuses for them. One owned up to running their private test-and-trace operation and, despite not testing positive for Covid, declined to attend my party because they were in touch with someone who had five days prior. They went on to suggest that we could see each other some weeks later, but only outdoors. Finally, there was the friend who got dressed and ordered a cab before changing their mind and texting “I’m sorry, I just can’t face it.”
The psychological grip that the pandemic continues to hold over so many of my peers seems akin to post-traumatic shock disorder. On the surface, many of us have been just fine and relatively few have suffered the profound distress that affected whole classes of the population that have been forced to work harder than ever before just to stay afloat. I know barely a handful of people who caught Covid before Omicron, fewer still that felt it badly, and only one who had lost a family member. No one I know has admitted to actually suffering from the isolation of lockdowns or job losses or has even complained of being disoriented by the overstimulation of case numbers or scientific predictions.
The Covid trauma of the metropolitan middle-classes comes from something far more difficult to treat: the profound realisation that, despite its early promise, the pandemic has only accelerated the disenfranchisement in the polis. As the professional pessimist Slavoj Žižek observed, if the greatest act of love for many us is to stay away, this is enough to bring about new depths of suspicion, fatigue, and confusion in the already alienated liberal elites.Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World (New York: Polity Press, 2020). What Žižek failed to appreciate, however, is that the pandemic had only temporarily tricked many into believing that the world’s communal suffering would inevitably lead to some profound change in the relationship between individuals, societies, and the state. The camaraderie of ‘clapping for heroes’ or the novelty of checking in on distant relatives on Zoom has long given way to resignation and a profound sense of disorientation that, to many, can only be resolved within the confines of the smallest of social bubbles. And perhaps for those of us who rightly prioritised families and immediate environments in the moment of acute crisis, to continue to do so before receiving the all-clear is a rational choice.
There is something in this logic, however, that makes a perfect catch-22: the green light can only come about through negotiation in the communal, public sphere and this public sphere cannot be constituted until the all-clear is sounded. Stuck in our bubbles, we cannot negotiate, debate, agree, or disagree. Sooner or later, we stop being able to think altogether. That this is the case should be clear from the partisan nature of the responses to the Omicron wave: one can either be a lockdown-loving liberal or a libertarian anti-vaxxer. Never shall the two meet on the opinion pages of the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph.
Is this how our social lives are to play out now, with each of us as either a public health villain or a saint in a state of perpetual sacrifice? Are we now reduced to feeling either guilt or indignation at the idea of pursuing social pleasure? Must we orient our social lives along the sharpest rendering of ideological divisions? Or would, perhaps, the reintroduction of the rudimentary forms of togetherness – or conviviality, to invoke the recently much-used term of Ivan Illich’sIvan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, Open Forum (London: Calder and Boyars, 1973). – such as the house-party where strangers and friends talk, drink, and dance for the evening on the understanding that they need one another’s presence to make their experiences worthwhile?
Back on my guest list, after quickly exhausting the list of my ‘faithful’, I reached out to a few acquaintances whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. I invited a couple whom I knew only from social media interactions. I implored close friends to bring anyone else they could. Out of concern for what was advertised as a party with dancing turning out to be a masked ball of the wring kind, I even invited some whom I expected would instigate needless arguments with others. In all, I invited over a hundred people to bring together a group of thirty guests at my Eve’s Eve party, the lowest success rate on my record.
And, boy, was it as glorious as it was nothing special. We came together, we ate and drank, we danced, we talked. It was as though nothing had changed even though everything must have. In-between the as-ever awkward ‘how do you know the host?’ and the inevitable wine spillages, we acknowledged that this very simple communal experience meant more than many others in the past. For the first time in my career as an incorrigible social animator-manipulator, I had to do nothing at all for the cast of this social theatre to perform their chorus, they all just worked it out by themselves.
Who were the renegades who broke through the ice of social isolation? Anyone and everyone. There were the couple of academics who, despite being held hostage by their son who needed to clear his Covid test to travel the following day, decided to book a hotel room and to lose themselves in the company of others. The friend who despite already having four entries on his vaccination card had cancelled his own Christmas party two weeks earlier out of fear of infecting his parents, now beamed with relief, exuberant, talkative, interested in everyone. A friend who brought a married couple that had obviously suffered for months from being deprived of an audience for their interpretative dance routines. There was the anti-masker artist who had Covid twice but didn’t want to be consumed by the risk. The writer who didn’t want to leave at all until long after the music had stopped. The tall German who, between swirls above the dance floor, advocated compulsory vaccination and compared Covid to the Blitzkrieg. The American who charmed everyone with his ballistic speech patterns and simply got on with the business of interacting with others as it pleased him. They all laughed, talked, someone cried, someone got into an argument at the very moral tension of the situation we found ourselves in. More seems to have happened than had happened in months of social media posts, online talks, or op-ed columns.
And then there was my favourite guest, the Eastern European GP who spent the past months heading the Covid vaccination programme of a West London suburb. Of us all, she has seen the horrors of the pandemic the closest and the evening was the first social gathering she allowed herself to attend in over a year. In-between dance tracks, she continued to talk science to her increasingly more bemused dance-floor companions. But she was also the first one to reach that level of intoxication that breaks down the English reserve and awkwardness and together with the music, she told each one of us that we were beautiful and that she was happy to be with us. Never have I, as a host, felt so gratified.
Nina Power has offered an alternative account of the same event.
Main image: Brent Moore/flickr