Volume 5 of The Letters Page closes with Duncan Wallace’s short letter ‘My Best Wishes To You In The Months Ahead’. In the editor’s introduction, Jon McGregor reflects on the ways in which letters often seem to be outdated even by the point they’ve been sent – this piece ‘is already at risk of feeling nostalgic’. But in its sense of optimism, Wallace captures something of the moment of ‘The Great Unlocking’, one day after the UK’s much-trumpeted ‘Freedom Day’ occurred amid a massive rise in COVID infections across the country.
Wallace’s letter is written in the context of a man who has found a table in a pub’s beer garden, just at the point of venues reopening. It’s addressed to another man, a stranger, sitting by himself in the same garden. In its impulse of reaching out to a stranger, the letter right from its opening captures the sense of yearning for community, for the unexpected, for connection, that has characterised much of the rhetoric around reopening. Most people have, in their various ways, been able to have contact with friends and family over lockdown, whether virtually or in bubbles or in limited gatherings. But to make contact with a stranger – that feels new, and desirable.
And this sense of shifting desires, shifting expectations, shifting ways of encountering the world, characterises this short letter. One moment which feels particularly true is Wallace’s sense of delight in the babble of sound, the overheard conversations all around him, so enticing in their glimpses into other worlds that talking to the friend he’s in the pub with feels like it’s interrupting the spell. Indeed, one of the things that is narratively compelling about this letter is the gap where the author’s actual companion should be – the author is focused on everyone other than the person they’re ostensibly spending time with. Perhaps this has something to say about the distracted mood of COVID times, when the new has such immediate purchase on our sensibilities. Or perhaps it speaks to some deeper problem about our boredom with the people and situations we’ve been reliant on for entertainment.
This feels like it might be an implication of the final lines, in which the author realises that what has captivated him about the man he is watching is not just that he’s there by himself, but that he’s not even looking at anyone – he’s looking up at the sky. The experience of outdoor drinking is distinctively a summer one, of course, but here it takes on a specific air of liberation from the banalities of everyday life and personal protections. It seems to connect the unknown man to something greater than the confines of locked down space. And it also speaks of a confidence – the ability to wander into a pub, to be there by oneself, to be present in the world, perhaps without all of the logistical planning that characterises so much of the social opportunities available now.
Two types of observation emerge from the letter. The first is that of close detail. The scrutiny of the man includes noting the speed of his drinking (‘you have ordered the house lager, but you drink it so slowly, I fancy it will soon turn warm and flat, and become the house ale’), the smart and healthy appearance of the man, the small smile. There is something in this close scrutiny that turns the observed into a wish-fulfilment figure, full of potential, of peace, of calm. But there’s also the fresh excitement in the new. The second part of the letter turns its attention to the limited culinary offerings of this pub, which include oysters! (complete with exclamation mark). The author revels in this new experience, remembering what he’s been taught (with a hint of nostalgia) and finding something transgressive in the act – it is the stranger’s similar eating of oysters that finally feels like a line that can’t be crossed, something too intimate and new.
‘Forgive me for watching you. In my defence, I have been watching others as well. And isn’t this what we all wanted to do, when at last we were released? To see each other again?’ The author, in this short section, nails something important. That lockdown isn’t really about freedoms, or not entirely at least. That it’s about encounters and the unknown, that it’s about redefining ‘we’ as a much larger circle than our own bubble. And while the letter may have arrived before the growing concerns about a Tory policy that may, once again, be privileging economies over lives, it’s also a warm reminder of what we stand to gain by venturing out among people again.