Picture it. Edinburgh, the Meadows. It’s late March. Dusk. The evenings have only just lightened up again.
A group of runners assembling for our Thursday session. Sidling up in dribs and drabs. Chit-chatting. Waiting for coach Alex to call us to order.
‘Thanks for rocking up’, is how he’s always started. Accompanied by knowing grins at his trademark greeting.
Then some announcements, an explanation of what the session will be before we head off to warm up. Serious effort follows.
Time-honoured traditions. Alex has been doing this, saying these words, for decades. In every weather imaginable. Whatever his day has entailed. He’s always been here. And so have we.
But this evening, it’s different. We’re small in number. Everyone appears with a pensive look.
No handshakes. We hang back. One by one, we mutter, ‘How are you doing?’ And every answer is threaded with the plague.
We come here to run, of course. And mostly what we talk about when we’re running is, well, running.
In so many ways it’s the most individual of pursuits. But there’s always been another point to it. We’re in a club. We’re here to run together. We’re part of a team.
Physical activity — social connection. You can replace physical with cultural. Or just social. But running’s the one I know — have always known. The bit of civil society I encountered first — after church anyway.
So when Julia Unwin launched her Civil Society Futures report two years ago and spoke of the value and meaning of connection in civil society, it was where my mind went immediately.
We’ve been doing it, unwittingly, forever. Because we talk about running first, everything else follows. Politics, religion, class, age, gender, ability — all play second fiddle.
We have a common bond. A higher purpose. It might just be running. But it puts all that other stuff in its place. Running is where we connect.
But now as we stand around gingerly, not getting too close, we listen to coach Alex telling us it won’t be the same tonight. Or any night, any time soon. For how long he doesn’t know. None of us does.
And we’re runners. So mostly he talks about running. How we’ll train on our own. How he’ll coach remotely. Maybe we’ll race virtually.
And then the most important word of all. Connection. Whatever you do, stay connected, he implores.
It’s a word that’s been on my mind for days. In all its forms — verb, adjective, noun. And those words of Forster’s in Howards End.
“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”
I’ve played with those words time and again. They have their own meaning in the book, and they speak about the time Forster wrote. There’s no shortage of literary analysis as to what he really meant.
But as Adam Kirsch said in his essay, The Prose and the Passion, in The New Republic, they seem ‘to capture the leading idea of all his work — the moral importance of connection between individuals, across the barriers of race, class, and nation.’
Forster is right, of course. And surely connection must be our shared moral purpose now. But this is not abstract. It’s human— practical, emotional, spiritual.
Yes, whatever we do, we all have our individual part to play. At work, at home. Some leading, co-ordinating. Others nursing, caring. I can go on. No list is too inclusive.
We must do what we do normally in anything but normal times. To get us through this crisis.
But the one thing we must all do, can all do — is connect. Only connect! That’s the beauty of Forster’s phrase. It’s imperative, urgency, singularity of purpose.
Connect — join, link, unite. Find the ties that bind and fasten them tight. And communicate — relentlessly.
Barely a week ago I wrote that civil society must have its finest hour. And it has done so with alacrity but without ceremony. Common endeavour is this season’s range.
Civil society is only one part of the triumvirate, of course. The state and the private sector must be unyielding in their pursuit of connection too. It must be threaded through everything they do.
I have seen outstanding leadership everywhere this past week. I feel blessed to live in a country led by a First Minister who gets all this. And to be surrounded by countless others who have put their shoulders to the wheel.
We are relying on leaders in every sector to work with us, for us, to stitch all this together — more than most of us ever imagined they might have to.
Forty years ago I wrote a sociology dissertation on corporatism in the 1970s. When the Chancellor’s announcement came yesterday, it resembled something that was inconceivable in the last throes of the post-war settlement.
And yet it still falls short — I know, I’m self-employed. But I’m privileged too. Others are not. If they are to ride this storm, there is more to do. Much more. We are all catching up, constantly. The state is no exception.
We are scarcely at the end of the beginning. This will be a long haul. And as Eliot said in East Coker, perhaps the only thing we know is what we do not know.
Back in our everyday lives, we are told we must do something which seems to be the antithesis of social connection — we must practice ‘social distancing’, even ‘social isolation.’
We cannot meet or gather, let alone hold and hug. Every club and association we are part of must adapt — rip up the form book and start again.
Just at the moment when kindness and loneliness were embedding themselves in the lexicon of public policy, when mental health is the cause du jour, we are told we must separate, hunker down. Be apart, maybe alone.
There are calls for the language to change — talk of physical distancing instead. But I fear we are stuck with the words we have now. And anyway, however troublesome they are — and they are replete with anxiety— they are true.
We can argue about the timing, even the merits, of all this. But it’s happening. And if we are to distance and isolate, social connection has never mattered more. We must come together. As Forster said — ‘Live in fragments no more.’
But we must do it at a distance. If not for us, for many of those close to us, it is a matter of life and death.
There’s already an abundance of initiatives out there. Amid all the inevitable panic and fear, COVID-19 has spawned a wellspring of community — viral kindness.
Connection in a digital age offers an array of possibilities — not just to hear and listen each other, but to see one another too. To talk, sing and play – even dance. To laugh and smile. And, of course, we can take to letter writing – remember that.
This is not a manual. It’s just a reminder — and a plea. Let Forster’s words be our overriding purpose.
Photo by Bryson Hammer on Unsplash