Life & Culture

Our quiet year

Photographer Gemma Levine asked people for their thoughts on the Covid-19 crisis. The result is a fascinating book of portraits


For some of the people featured in photographer Gemma Levine’s new book, the pandemic year offered a chance for serious reflection. For others it was a reprise from a social whirl.

Covid Thoughts — published this week — was conceived, says Levine, “flipping through papers, with so many people giving their stories on how they were coping with their own Covid thoughts and dramas, I thought it was an opportune moment to approach some famous personalities about their own experiences.” She also wanted to raise awareness of and raise funds for research into lymphoedema, which she suffers from. In the book she emphasises the importance of our lymphatic systems in fighting Covid-19.

Her son, Professor James Levine adds an afterword: “This book captures many flavours of the human spirit,” he writes, “how people dealt with new challenges in their own ways.” Some of the photographs were taken in person, outdoors, others were snapped via Facetime or come from her archive. The result is a fascinating whisk through all kinds of aspects of pandemic life, offering a glimpse behind the scenes of various British institutions, and into many lives.

Take Dame Maureen Lipman, temporarily unable to carry on in Coronation Street during the first lockdown.

“For the first time in my life I was justified in freedom from ambition,” she writes. “No more grimacing at the telly when my peers stun in meaty roles, no more racing to Euston to catch the train to the Cobbles, no more casual calls to my agent re movies being made with nice little cameos for angular women of a certain age. Voluntary ‘resting’ for the first time in 52 years.”

She ran drama classes online for her grandchildren, baked “inedibly” for Pesach and crocheted dolls’ clothes. “By July I was a size 14 again, was sleeping in two hour batches, was using more Touche Éclat than the cast of Rip Off Britain and I had lost track of the masked people who had scurried through my flat without breathing ’til they reached my garden in search of a human elbow.” She was thrilled to get back to work on Corrie. “Live to work…? I cannot tell a lie.”

Jonathan Glantz, Lord Mayor of Westminster chronicles a year of cancellations. “Westminster is … the very centre of the centre of the universe and to see it so quiet, still and empty without the normal hustle and bustle of those who live here, work here, visit here from all over the world has been something I thought I would never see.”

Student Joshua Friend writes about an interrupted university life. Broadcaster Esther Rantzen sees the pandemic as a message from the planet for the old to learn from young people about our “greedy and competitive and aggressive” ways. And writer Miriam Stoppard has already seen positive changes. “Suddenly we’re careful where we were profligate, kind where we were careless and aware of nature where we were strangers.”

As the chair of two hospitals, Rabbi Julia Neuberger was at the centre of the fight against the disease.

“For me, this pandemic, whilst it has blighted the lives of both the young and the old, has restored my hope and faith in the value of human devotion to other human beings in times of need. And I have experienced real joy at being part of such a huge collective effort to cope, to speed up research, to gain new knowledge, to save lives and to comfort and to heal.”


Covid Thoughts is on sale for £15 which goes to Lymphoedema Research Charity.


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