90 Years Old and Unafraid
Author and retired theatre director, Angela Lanyon, found comfort in writing poetry during the isolation of UK lockdowns
Angela Lanyon is cross about COVID policy – and she is not afraid to say so. One might imagine a 90-year-old author and poet living independently in Worcester, England as a soft-spoken or even somewhat frail character. Angela is anything but. My reverence was reflexive when I first heard her voice; crisp and strong, laced with maternal patience – wisdom and conviction etched into its cadence. She has the kind of British accent that reads as professorial and almost impossibly sophisticated to Americans like myself.
In a perfect world, we would have spoken face-to-face, but, given the events of the last year, I was grateful to connect at all – as was Angela.
She’s an accomplished woman, both personally and professionally – a theatre lover with a penchant for reinventing herself. A mother to three, grandmother to six, and brand new great-grandmother to a baby boy born this past December who she has never cuddled – or even seen in person.
Angela has plenty to be angry about. Some might assume she would support the efforts to protect her. With her life having spanned nine full decades and counting, Angela is in the highest risk demographic for severe disease and death from COVID-19.
And yet, she’s unafraid – at least, of COVID.
“After the first fortnight, when I saw people weren’t dropping dead in the street, it took my mind off it. I lived through the war and spent some of my childhood hiding in the cellar with bombs falling around me. I know what being truly afraid is like and this isn’t it.
One of the big differences is during the war we were always encouraged to get together to keep our pecker up, to meet each other, to keep our spirits up and keep going. This time, we’ve all been divided and it’s only this next week we’re supposed to be able to meet people again.“
What then is she afraid of? Turns out, quite a few things – but not necessarily for herself. Having taught speech and social aspects during her working life, she’s concerned about how school closures, social distancing, and masks will affect the development of today’s children.
“One thing that worries is the fact that children have not been playing with other children. And I know two small children who are afraid of grown-ups because the last two years, they’ve not been able to see any, except for their parents. And I’ve known quite a lot of adults now who are actually afraid of going out and seeing other people because they’ve been terrorized, quite unnecessarily.
If a child doesn’t learn to talk and doesn’t have its speech developing at the appropriate times in those early years, they are never going to be able to talk properly because the words muffled and they won’t be able to make the correct sounds. That could affect them for the rest of their lives.”
She doesn’t understand why our efforts haven’t been focused on keeping kids in school and connected to their friends.
“It’s the young people who still need to grow up and and live their lives. They’re the future. They’re the ones we need to protect and they’re not even at risk from this virus.”
Angela has had to be creative – and a bit rebellious – to manage the sometimes overwhelming loneliness.
“After the first few weeks, my cleaner and I, we hugged each other. We did it behind closed doors. We shut the door before we hugged each other, but we did it. She wasn’t afraid of the virus either. She’s just a lovely lady. She’s been my cleaner for 15 years, and she’s not quite as old as I am, but she’s getting that way. We’ve become such good friends, and she thought the same way as I did. The only thing she was afraid of was being spotted by police coming here and spied on by her neighbours.
We also had a sort of a picnic for my grandson’s birthday several weeks ago. I’ve got a very small courtyard garden which has got a wall around it, and we let them in at the back. There shouldn’t have been more than six, but there were seven because my daughter-in-law brought her mother, who doesn’t live too far away, and they’d all come over from all sorts of places: Wales and Oxford and so on. We had to hide, but it was very nice, and we were together for about four hours, and then they went away again.”
But they are still only temporary half-measures.
“When the first lockdown started, we weren’t even supposed to go out of our houses for exercise. My cleaner – the one who gave secret hugs – was allowed in as a carer for two hours per week and that was the only human contact I had. I talked to my children and saw a lot of them on Facebook because that was the only way I could do. Then we were allowed to have little walks but we were not allowed to go out of the area and I was limited to walking ’round the square and the street. You weren’t allowed to travel. I don’t know what it was like in the States, but here there were no planes, no cars, there were no busses, there were no trains. It was as though the world had dropped dead.
Things are a bit better now, I suppose. I have one friend who takes me to a farm shoppe once a week, and now I see about four or five other people. We’re not supposed to go into each others’ houses but I think we’re going to do that. It can be so very lonely. We’re not supposed to hug each other and that’s so hard for me. I’m a very tactile person.”
When asked why she wasn’t concerned about the virus, Angela spoke frankly.
“I think most people have been frightened by the government and the powers-that-be. You only hear about the bad things – the people that died – but you never hear about the people that got better. And it’s very easy to frighten people. It’s very easy to get them in a panic, and then they become a bit like sheep.
In any case, I’m 90! I’m going to die sometime, and there’s no point in making a drama about it. My father was a priest, and my father-in-law was an undertaker so I know quite a bit about death – quite apart from the fact that my husband died when I was 36 which left me to raise three boys alone. People die. It’s a fact of life. I’ve had a reasonably good life. I’ve enjoyed some of it and not enjoyed other bits but I’m still here. As long as I can be useful, at this point, I’d like to keep myself from dying of boredom.“
And it’s not that Angela doesn’t know anyone who has been affected by COVID-19. But, in her experience, she has only seen it affect a very specific group of people. And she says that, while each death was sad, she doesn’t necessarily consider them tragedies.
“I do know three people who have died. They were all very old, they all had something else wrong with them, and they all caught it in hospital.
I know it sounds awfully hard, but if you’re old and you’re sick, you’re going to die, and trying to keep people alive indefinitely is not necessarily a kind thing. Especially when keeping them alive requires social isolation. Social isolation is horrible. We used to put people in solitary confinement for punishment. Now they put them in to protect them. It doesn’t make sense. I dare say, in the times to come, people will look at this as a form of physical abuse, just the same way they did when we were chaining up mentally ill people in the 18th century. It’s abuse and neglect.
I have one friend who is in a situation like me; she lives on her own and she hasn’t seen anybody. She has been completely left alone. And since she was supposed to be specially shielded, they just would leave a parcel of food at her gate once a week. Now, if that isn’t abuse and that isn’t cruelty, I don’t know what is.“
When asked what the most concerning part of pandemic mitigation policies were, Angela did not mince words.
“I’m very concerned about what are known as civil liberties – and you’re very hot on civil liberties in America, and quite rightly so, and once you lose them – and we did lose them and are losing them – it’s very difficult to get them back.
My husband fought in the war, and he didn’t fight for me to be locked up.”
Angela also finds the idea that these restrictions were being put in place in service of protecting the older populations dubious.
“I think it was a whole load of rubbish, to be honest. Because older people ought to be able to make our own decisions. This is what democracy’s about, isn’t it? Why am I not allowed to decide what is right for me? I’ve lived this long. You’d think I could manage. The feeling that I couldn’t actually contact my children and I couldn’t cuddle them, and I couldn’t put my arms around them, and no one could put their arms around me was unbelievable.
I get a bag of books from the library once a month because, of course, I can’t get there now. One time, the library lady delivered them and was standing on the path and I was standing in my doorway. Along came a police car and it stopped and watched us until she went away. I think that’s awful.
There are lots of freedoms and civil liberties for which people have died, not just in this last war but in wars reaching back a long time ago. It goes all the way back to the Magna Carta. Those principles are what I’m afraid that we have forgotten in this country, and I wonder if we should ever be free again. We are not being governed by elected representatives. We are being governed by so-called ‘experts’, who are medical experts, and they don’t even agree with each other.
The Witchcraft Act, which was enacted in year 16-something, was not repealed until 1954. That’s a long time to have an Act there. How long are we going to hang on to this one before we can have our lives back? How long until people start demanding them back? What’s even more frightening is that we have willingly given them up. And this is such a huge mistake. A huge mistake.
And I think we will regret it in future years.“
With all of the stress heaped on her in the last 14 months, Angela found a creative and meaningful way to cope that harkened back to her days working in the theatre. On March 26, 2020 – three days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown in the UK – Angela began writing poems. She composed one verse every day for a full year and published them on her local community website.
“I was 36 when my husband died. He had a heart bypass – one of the early ones – because he fought in Burma and never had very good health afterwards. So I was left with three young children to bring up, which wasn’t very easy, and we hadn’t very much money at all. But I managed to get through it. And then when my youngest one was 17, I went to work in the theatre professionally for 10, 15, 20 years. When I retired, I thought I’d invent myself again, so I wrote a fantasy book that I self-published. Creative outlets like writing and theatre have always been very important to me and so this felt like a natural way to manage my struggles.
I do feel like I’ve had a purpose, and maybe that purpose was writing the verses and sending them to people. That helped me. I hope that they helped others, too.”
I imagine it’s very likely that they did…more than she will ever know.
* * *
I’ve chosen ten of my favourite verses of Angela’s (it was a very difficult choice) and have reprinted them here in chronological order.
26 March 2020 – Angela’s first ‘virus verse’
Be careful what you wish for
For someone hears your prayers,
It isn’t just Alexa
Who’s in the Cloud upstairs.
I wish I needn’t go to work,
The work will come to you,
I wish I mustn’t go to school
That’s been fixed up too.
I need some previous me time
A space to call my own,
Boris has arranged it
You have to stay alone.
The thoughts that flicker briefly,
The idle words we’ve said,
Are apt in times of chaos
To come back on our head.
* * *
4 April 2020 – On the media
I’m fed up with the media
I’m fed up with the news,
They put the blackest spin on things,
Rejoice in gloom and fear,
Believe in less than half you read
And nothing that you hear.
* * *
25 June 2020 – On the news of easing restrictions
You thought that this was freedom,
Hang on, hold your horses,
The devil’s in the details,
The supplementary clauses,
Over caution maybe clever
Yet if courage still survives,
Please, don’t bend the knee to panic,
Take the choke hold from our lives.
* * *
4 July 2020 – On the opening of pubs
A trip to the pub was a tonic,
With Guinness lined up on the bar,
Shoulder to shoulder together
With all of us having a jar,
But now for the future it’s different,
Be sensible, you must behave.
No touching, no singing, no laughter,
I might as well stay in my grave.
* * *
16 July 2020 – On the UK mask mandate
You mustn’t go down to the shops today
Unless you go in disguise,
Everyone there has covered their face
Looking like amateur spies,
Muttered words and furtive glances
A criminal you’re made to feel,
Shopping never was a pleasure,
Now, alas, it’s an ordeal.
* * *
2 November 2020 – On the second lockdown
Happens now and then,
Sometimes to old haystacks
Sometimes to angry men,
I’m like an unexploded bomb
With incandescent rage
At unelected robots
Who would stuff me in a cage
* * *
7 November 2020 – On hope for normalcy
I’ve got some coloured pencils
And I’m going to make a graph,
With lots of mystic mountains
And a downward sloping path,
I’ll scatter it with drawings
Of people hand in hand,
A glimpse into the future
Of a Never-never Land.
* * *
24 December 2020 – On Christmas Eve
Father Christmas will not come
Because he’s in Tier four,
No sound of reindeer on the roof
No singers at the door,
You will have jam tomorrow
The politicians said
Then changed their minds and punished us
And sent us all to bed.
* * *
7 January 2021 – On school closures
It’s social engineering
This shutting up of schools,
For the poor and disadvantaged
Haven’t got the tools,
What chances slip away from them,
The clock ticks ever on,
We can’t make opportunities
When once the moment’s gone.
* * *
24 March 2021 – Angela’s final ‘virus verse’
A Sibyl’s warning ere I go
For there are things you ought to know,
Once you’ve given in to fear
It’s always whispering in your ear,
And for the things we all have lost
For years to come we’ll count the cost.
So if my words have you offended
Fret no more for now – they’re ended.
Thank you for reading and as Dave Allen used to say: ‘ May your God go with you.’
To read all 365 verses, please click here
AJ Kay is a professional writer and serves as Collateral Global’s managing editor.
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