How does your garden grow? My local neighbourhood app is full of people swapping compost while my Facebook feed is full of photos of daffodils – little explosions of hope and rebirth. Who can resent that? Well, quite a few people, actually; the hashtag #selfishpricks has been trending on Twitter. The selfish pricks are people who go to parks and don’t observe social distancing. This may well be selfish, but another kind of selfishness is growing alongside it, from those who fail to recognise many people don’t have outside space. To live through this pandemic is to feel this viscerally; so much inequality is being played out.
One can refuse this knowledge or fake it. Every time I see a Tory minister saying they know what it’s like being indoors all day with small kids, I catch myself thinking: “What do you actually know? Have you ever lived in a tiny flat with small kids and no garden? Do you really know what it is like not to have a tiny scrap of land where you can sit outside, set up a swing and still know you’re at home?” I lived this way with two kids until my mid-30s. The memory of acquiring a small concrete yard stays with me. To this day, I cannot garden, but to be able to sit outside is a luxury.
Sure, selfish pricks exist among the various kinds of outlaws who feel themselves invincible. But there are also those who just want to get out and have nowhere else to go. In some cases the parks, the green lungs of our cities, are being shut down. High-density living is what brings us to cities and now that we must stay apart, the division between the private and public space is being played out in this bizarre inability to acknowledge that many do not have private outside space: that they rely on a communal “outdoors” that is now to be avoided and policed. It is also finally being acknowledged that home is sometimes where the hatred is. Just look at the horrendous rise in domestic violence.
Cicero said if you have a garden and a library you have everything you need. I wonder if Cicero ever lived on the 17th floor of a tower block, as I once did. The recent rumblings about a clampdown on going outside to exercise are alarming, not so much for those with gardens but for those deprived of them.
I use the word deprivation because the first council houses often had three bedrooms, with both front and back gardens, and only later became boxes with small windows. Socialists once thought nothing was too good for working-class people, but as a popular, mainstream notion that is now ancient history. Now people pay high rents to live in cramped studio flats and public space has been mostly commodified. Dry discussions about urban planning have excited few; it’s the results that excite people, and we rarely see those.
I lived in King’s Cross in north London when it was scuzzy and magical and possibly dangerous. Now it is a giant shopping mall with an art school plonked in the middle and £5 flat whites. Sure, you can sit outside Waitrose and drink if you want to, because everything else is so expensive. Right now, it is a dead space, an unpopulated mall, a ghost town of obsolete ambition.
Meanwhile, there are fist fights in small Co-ops. In south London, the 50 hectares of Brockwell park is closed. There are those snitching on people they consider to be endangering us; the people out having a picnic in the sun could be killing nurses. The state of our mutual unravelling is not surprising when the advice has been so vague. Clearly going out to exercise means different things to different people, especially for those who have suddenly taken it up and are panting on a pavement near you. The advice should have been put simply: “Don’t sit down”.
The Queen, owner of infinite space, gets on the telly to tell us we must pull together. She speaks to us from a monstrous castle. Her brooch alone could buy a lot of oxygen. The national myth of exceptionalism is regurgitated by this owner of acres of this country.
The little people own no space, but we must imagine anyway: an end to this and a better life to follow. Donald Winnicott, the psychoanalyst and paediatrician, said, of his observation of children, that when we are deprived it is imagination that eases anxiety – we imagine a life beyond our boundaries and we expand.
What the pandemic reveals is that the free market has led to the foreclosure of such imagination. The great writer and thinker Richard Sennett has long been talking about the relationship of social infrastructure to physical infrastructure, arguing that neither of these things can be delivered top down either by “welfare” or the market. He is right.
I am looking at the space for new thinking now, at a time when the crisis has accelerated every inequality. A basic one is between who has a garden and who does not, but it is really about: who owns what? Land, streets, malls, squares?
The wealthy squabble over their vistas as they always have, while our fellow citizens have nothing but four walls. The common good of lockdown means that we can finally see “the common good” is an actual space that many have been locked out of for a very long time.
In The Great Gatsby, when the millionaire Jay Gatsby is preparing for lunch with Daisy Buchanan, he has the scrappy lawn of the narrator, Nick Carraway, completely removed. He prefers a manicured look. “There was a sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker expanse of his began,” says Caraway.
The line is indeed sharp.
• Suzanne Moore is a Guardian columnist