19 Silver Linings

A Dorset village in lockdown

In August of this year, Jess Morency began writing a blog about life in her village during the pandemic, which has since attracted more than 5,000 views. She tells us how the idea for it came about.

It was listening to a message left on our village WhatsApp group one evening that gave me the idea. Piddlehinton had just featured on the BBC news, with a short report on how the village was pulling together as a community. The clip contained things like the flower posies that were being made for key workers; local food being delivered to those who needed it; and the opera singer who, for thirteen weeks, entertained us every Thursday with a half-hour concert. It was, as the BBC journalist Sophie Raworth said, a gentle reminder of the small kindnesses that make such a difference during difficult days.
The filming came about because Vickey Stevens—one of the village’s main community organisers—was childhood friends with Sophie. After it aired, Vickey left an audio message for the village, unexpectedly sharing her story of how she’d moved here seventeen years previously and found love and acceptance; having been rejected by many within her London community when she met her partner, Portia.
‘All of us have a story,’ the message said; and it got me wondering just how many other stories were out there, even in a tiny Dorset village. So, a few weeks later I set out with my tape recorder and a few simple questions in order to see.
What I discovered often surprised me, while confirming that, until you sit down and really listen to people, you have no idea just how fascinating and varied everyone’s lives have been.
For instance, Jim moved here twenty years ago and worked as a dairyman for forty-six years. When I asked him whether he’d travelled much, he proudly told me that he’d once driven all the way to Wales and not got lost for more than ten minutes. Had he ever been abroad, I wondered? Once, to Hong Kong, he said, where he’d been stationed for fifteen months during the war and loved every moment of it. In fact, he’d felt so at home in the aerodrome he’d felt he was having a déjà vu.
I already knew that Abi, the smiley young mum up the road, was an A&E nurse who’d worked on the Covid ward in Dorchester County Hospital. What I didn’t realise is that one of her two children is autistic, meaning, she told me, that, “Casual drop-in visits are difficult, for Alfie has to be prepped beforehand.”
And although Alan, the twinkly-eyed churchwarden, had played the organ at my village wedding, I had no idea that he was once a police chief inspector, (‘Just like Morse!’) working from the Devon and Cornwall HQ in Exeter.
If you were to ask me which interview has made me most proud, it’s probably the one I did with Elise. Born in East London, she failed to engage at school, but joined Mensa in her twenties and then went on to do a degree at Goldsmiths. She was diagnosed with severe ADHD in her late forties, and it’s one of the reasons why she feels she’s never been fully accepted within the village (although I think we should all be in awe of her Mods and scooters rock ‘n roll style). Messaging me afterwards, she told me how she’d felt overwhelmed by the support she’d received after her piece was posted; and I love how brilliantly she describes what it’s like to have ADHD. For, of course, the more understanding we have as a society, the happier a place it will be—for everyone.
I chose the title 19 Silver Linings because of Covid19. I thought I’d do nineteen short interviews, and ask my husband, Pete to take a portrait to accompany each piece.
Interviewing people, either in their homes or mine (socially distanced, of course), I record the conversations, which can last up to two hours, then transcribe them. It’s certainly the long-hand approach (I’ve clocked up to 6,000 words with some); but I believe it’s worth it, for it allows each person’s voice to remain distinctive.
I’ve tried to interview as broad a breadth of people as I could find; traversing ages. So the posts include a teenager who’s just starting out as a photographer and a 22 year-old undergraduate who’s passionate about the environment. At the other end of the spectrum is Jim, who’s 87, and when Alan turned up, he pointed out that at 77 he’s the same age as Joe Biden, but has no shared desire to become President. Coming up, there’s a pig farmer, a scientist, a musician and three women who’ve spent lockdown working from home (one of them on an international scale).
In a rural community, racial diversity was harder to ensure; but the pub thrives on the dedication of its Polish chef/owner, and my mixed-race children were touched by the full turnout for the #BlackLivesMatter village march. An event which has since made its organiser, Sarah, into far more of an activist.
And what have I learnt from this experience? In truth, I’ve always found everyone fascinating, and am unashamedly nosey—which is why I love writing features. For me, the blog has confirmed the innate goodness in everyone and the fact that life, even in a village, is rich and colourful because of the complex lives which combine to create its mosaic.
The interviews have given me hope, at a time when both the present and future have often seemed bleak. I won’t forget the image of two policemen wandering through Brixton market talking about God and religion, until one of them ‘caught the other’s faith’. Talking to fellow villagers has also been humbling. For I now know that what for some might have simply been nice add-ons during lockdown (like our village concerts and ice-creams), for others were the absolute highlights of their week. It’s also made me even more determined to support the village in any way I can—even if that means, sigh, regularly eating at the pub (which re-opened in July, having calculated that doing so would mean they’d lose £60,000 by the end of the year).
I see our village as a microcosm of the wider community—in Dorset at least—and feel proud to be part of such a vibrant community. What’s been most interesting is that virtually everyone I’ve interviewed loved the three months of lockdown. Although, of course with that comes the caveat that we were all intensely aware of our privilege: the space surrounding us, the daily walks where we’d not meet another soul unless we wanted to. There’s recently been a lot of talk in Dorset of the housing market going wild, as city dwellers realise the benefits of living in the country. Something that we here have always known.
I’ll end with two extracts: the first from Imani, who demonstrated the strongest feelings about how we must use this moment to re-think: ‘For whenever there’s been a disaster, in re-forming the pieces one does have the ability to make the world better. I’ve seen Covid as an opportunity; because I think it’s revealed a lot of the things we need to overcome with climate crisis. For instance, strengthened community and having a sense of place is really important. Appreciating the plants around you, the space. Lockdown also showed that we can happily live in a smaller sphere. So I see it as a chance… although I was weirdly aware that I would miss the time when it passed.’
Later, her words of caution were corroborated by Jim: ‘I’ve always loved being outdoors, but now I worry about the environment. I go for my walks and when it’s lovely and sunny I used to hear the birds singing. But you don’t hear or see them now. Until recently I’d put bits of bread on my front lawn so I could watch them from the window. And sparrows, about twenty, used to come. Now I don’t get one. I don’t know what’s happened to them. And animals like rabbits, foxes, pheasants and deer. Especially deer. Once there were about fifteen, all together. Now you don’t see any. It’s all this cutting of the rain forest and that, like… you know, the old chap, David Attenborough says. I listen to him regularly and he says that doing away with forests is going to destroy half the animals. But people can’t seem to see it; or they don’t understand, do they. But I love living in Piddlehinton. It’s a lovely spot, and people here are so good. Really, they’ve all just been marvellous.’

To read more, go to www.19silverlinings.com.
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