Notes from the Covid 19 bunker

“God looks at the clean hands not the full”

from the maxims of Publilius Syrus Latin writer (1st century bc)

Anyone familiar with the classic 70s TV series ‘Upstairs and Downstairs’ will recall one of the minor characters below stairs who often stole the scenes. Ruby was the accident-prone kitchen maid who was bullied and badgered from all sides. When Mrs Bridges the bustling cook wasn’t railing at her she was the resident dogsbody for everyone from the parlour maid to the footman. Poor Ruby only every operated in the nether regions of the kitchen where she was usually found up to her elbows in hot water sluicing down the pots and pans.  The other maids were all as neat as pins in their starched white aprons and caps, but unlike the housemaids, Ruby was never allowed ‘upstairs’ among the genteel folk. Ruby wasn’t fit to be seen.  So what did it matter what she looked like? What if her apron was mucky and her hair straggled untidily from under her cap? Lost in the darkest corners of the kitchen, no one was ever going to see her. Compared to the other maids, I suppose she was a bit of slattern; but she was a loveable slattern and viewers couldn’t help warming to her. If I felt for Ruby trapped below stairs in Edwardian England, today in 2020 I find I’m beginning to identify with her.

Like everyone else I’ve been following the instructions of the health authorities to the letter in the battle against Covid 19.  As directed, I’ve been washing my hands more frequently and much more thoroughly. Then, about two weeks ago, after another brisk scouring session, I was drying my hands when I suddenly realised: I have Ruby’s hands. It’s true. Over these last weeks I’ve developed the coarse hands of a common scullery maid.

The truth is I’ve spent most of my life doing nothing more ‘manual’ with my hands than tapping at a keyboard. But to look at them now, you’d think I’ve had a life-time of scrubbing and cleaning. While my palms have acquired a papery texture, it’s the back of my hands that are particularly alarming.  The skin over my knuckles is red, chafed and in some places, actually peeling. When I spread my hands out palms down, they are as wrinkled as those of an Egyptian mummy. My only consolation is that every man, woman and child must be experiencing something similar. Now that we are regularly scrubbing up like surgeons, our hands have aged in a matter of weeks.  Whatever our jobs, to judge from our hands, we might as well all be dishwashers and kitchen lackeys.

I used to work as government press officer; a job which got me out and about a bit.  One of my tasks was to create visits to the Yorkshire and Humber region for overseas visitors sponsored by Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The visitors were VIPs from all over the world and included government ministers, business leaders and industrialists. They had all spent some time in London before coming up to Yorkshire so my job was to show them what made our region tick whether they were interested in healthcare, education, law and order or business. It was a great job, and I got to visit steelworks, universities, power stations, and I can honestly say that I’ve ‘been inside’ most of the prisons in the region at one time or another.

One day I took some Australians to the wool auction in Bradford where we were invited to examine the huge piles of fleece about to go under the hammer. ‘Feel my hands’ said one of the wool handlers. I thought he was being pretty forward at the time, but when he insisted, I stroked at his palms tentatively (I almost said ‘sheepishly’). I have never felt such hands. I wanted to lift one to my face and run it down my cheek. They were marvellously soft and as silky smooth as a kitten. They were definitely not the hands of a burley middle-aged man in a brown overall.  ‘It’s all the lanolin in the raw wool’ he told me, grinning at my surprise. Lanolin is the greasy wax secreted from the skin of the sheep and widely used in skin-care products. I’m told that people who work with the raw wool on a daily basis all have these velvety hands. That’s the day I discovered that in some jobs, working with your hands everyday can actually improve them.

That’s what I need. What we all probably need right now. Hand creams and moisturising lotions won’t cut it anymore.  We need to swathe our hands in raw sheep’s wool. But in the absence of a healing fleece, I suspect that when these trying times are over, it’s the manicurists and nail bars that will come out on top.

In the meantime here in lockdown, we are all as socially isolated as poor Ruby tethered among her pots and pans in the kitchen. But unlike her we can look forward to being allowed upstairs, downstairs, outside, inside and wherever the hell we want to go. Soon. Let’s all just hang on in there.