London-based New Zealander Elle Hunt reports on life as a freelance journalist and the absurdity of public relations pitches in a world turned upside-down.
Three weeks into lockdown, the words aren’t coming easily. This is bad, because words are how I make a living. At least for now.
From my south London tower block, I am hearing of journalists having their salaries halved, or being forced into unpaid leave, and being grateful for it, because it means they still have a job.
Publications I had thought part of the furniture have folded abruptly. One night I come across a crowdsourced Google Doc of all the outlets that have slashed or frozen their commissioning budgets. I sleep, predictably, terribly.
Someone posts in a freelancers’ support group on Facebook: “Is anyone else just utterly fucked?”
I am not utterly fucked, yet, but I may be still. I am saying yes to every assignment under the assumption that it could be the last for a while. At least I’m not spending any money, I think, on refreshing my banking app, the balance steady for all the life not lived.
One whole day in quarantine, I remember only as “the day the wasp flew in”.
I have left the house only for essential supplies, and to jog around the park, for two more weeks than was strictly required. It brings me no satisfaction, to be more proactive than my government.
At the daily press briefing, holes are pointed out in the response that are then addressed, as though unprompted, the following afternoon. I watch each broadcast live, straining to see the subtext.
I read on Twitter that, in the small Italian town where I was recently, implausibly invited to judge a world cheese competition, the local newspaper is running 10 pages of obituaries.
Not going out and fearing the future means I am working almost constantly. Every interview is about the virus, even for stories that are not about the virus. I find myself newly hesitant in writing emails I have written thousands of times before. My fingers hover over the keyboard, my usual lines no longer appropriate.
“Hi there…” How to acknowledge all this, the new world, with the shorthand and rituals of the old one? My recipient could be newly bereaved, or just bored. Will my “Best wishes” be enough?
The PRs adapt more swiftly, adding a topical, apocalyptic clause to their standard opener: “Hope you’re well, and staying safe?”. I repeat this incredulously to my flatmate, and for a few days it is a running joke.
My search for the right words becomes a process of elimination. I watch my inbox hawkishly, seizing on PRs’ clunky segues from pandemic to pitch, for fake tan and face masks, as the most ludicrous proof of how the old ways don’t work anymore.
“As the world adjusts to social distancing, many people are using this as an opportunity to ramp up their beauty routine.”
“In these uncertain times, sticking to routines is proving a great comfort – like your well-deserved bubble bath.”
“Now that we all have a little bit more time on our hands, why not pamper yourself?”
I think, briefly, of screaming. Instead I write back: “Please remove me from your mailing lists”. “Sure thing!”, they reply. My inbox grows quiet.
One PR opts for radical honesty, detailing in hundreds of words her own three-week isolation – her fears for her husband, who recently had open heart surgery, and her little girl – before pivoting to pitch her app.
I feel lucky, as I do every day now – lucky to have work, lucky to not be landed with childcare as well, lucky to not be afraid, with any specificity, for my loved ones. I want to reply to this woman, to tell her that for what it’s worth I’m sorry, and that I hope her family gets through this okay. But that seems inadequate.
The only words that come to mind – the words that keep coming, insistently – are ones I am not certain she’d understand: kia kaha. No English-language phrase captures so precisely what I want to communicate, what I fervently believe to be true: have courage, take heart, keep going, you’ll get there, we’ll all get there.
But I can’t be sure I’ll be understood, in isolation.