James comes into view and I don’t recognise the background. I try to picture where he is in his flat but I can’t, and it distracts me slightly. I know he hasn’t moved since I left Cheltenham, but maybe he’s not in his house. I make a mental note to ask him when we’re done, knowing full well I’ll probably forget by the time we finish.
‘I haven’t really structured this,’ I laugh, ‘at all.’ James laughs too. ‘I guess maybe I just start with, how have the last 18 months been for you James?’ I say, knowing it’s a loaded question.
‘Is that how long it’s been?’ he says, and I nod. ‘Wow. I read back over the last article, to see if I recognised that person. Reading it I remember all those feelings, and all the uncertainties, and I was trying to work out where I’ve got to from there.’
He pauses, shifting in his seat.
‘The world has sort of returned to normal, but the people in it…haven’t. We are constantly under threat of what’s going to happen next. I hear people refer to ‘back during Covid’, and I’m like, no, it’s still there – we’re just living differently, but it’s still there. People are still very unsure and uncertain, and it’s just a weird position to be in for everybody.’
I ask about him, though. How is he feeling?
“The last article was all about how I was going to survive, and I have, so that’s good. It took a lot of switching and shifting and doing different things, and it was nice that I was able to do that. People came to me with opportunities and some work landed, so a lot of that was really positive.’ He pauses, and I sense a but, although the word doesn’t quite come.
‘Having lost 18 months, I feel it’s taken with it quite a bit of my identity, my focus and my plan. Yes I’ve survived, but at some point I have to go from that survival mode into actually planning and shaping the future again, and that’s quite a difficult leap now, after 18 months and counting of complete uncertainty. At what point do I switch out of survival mode?’
He tells me his income at the moment has mainly come from gardening, which is welcome as he says, ‘I’m mostly on my own and out in the countryside, so I could work all the way through while staying safe, and it’s really flexible. But if you’d asked me 18 months ago where I thought I’d be, it wouldn’t have been mowing lawns for millionaires.’
In fact, he’d actually turned down this work two or three times pre-Covid, because he was trying to make his other ventures work. ‘Thankfully though, when the world went pop, [my boss] came back and still needed somebody.’
He says he knows he should be very grateful that he has income, a great boss, and a great job he can’t fault ‘as long as I can get a cup of tea in the shed’, it’s just not who he thought he’d be at this stage in his life. ‘That was taken away from me by the pandemic, and it’s hard to now think about switching back to who I was before. Am I happy with who I am now? Probably not.’
I ask him, what makes it hard to switch back?
‘The uncertainty of the events industry; things are still changing all the time. I’ve not coached [running] for 18 months, and I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot of it, although that’s more of a mindset thing. I need to find a way back into doing those things, but it’s inherently risky. I mean, they were always risky, but I always managed and mitigated that risk, but it’s far more difficult now.’
‘It’s essentially starting again and doing all the hard things I did 3 years ago, to try and get back to that position of some stability and security. The thing I’m becoming increasingly aware of is that 2 years ago I was a running coach who worked in the events industry, and who also did a bit of outdoor skills tuition. All these things are parts of my personality, things that I really enjoy, things that,’ he whispers, ‘don’t tell anyone that paid me, but things I would have done for free. All of that was taken away, and I became a gardener. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being a gardener, but I don’t feel like that’s me.’
It’s clear the loss of identity has been hard for James. ‘I need to try and get it back, but it’s quite difficult to essentially manufacture your identity, especially when I’m a different person now. Where I was 2 years ago had developed organically, and was starting to grow, and it’s hard to start from scratch again without a recent foundation, in a different world.’
I ask James what he thinks he’s learnt in the last 18 months. ‘How to do some bloody good stripes in a lawn.’ I laugh. “I’ve learnt a lot about other people and their characters, through the way that some people acted and behaved. I learnt I’m quite happy being on my own, home alone. Possibly too happy,’ he laughs, ‘which might be problematic. I do care a lot about other people, and I’ve learned I want to do the right thing by others, not only those I love but strangers too, and would readily put myself out to do it.’
He thinks the real learning is some way off though. ‘Everyone’s just trying to work out how things are going to play out. It’s just the start of the recovery. For me, it’s the next 12 months that will show whether I can get back to where I was, but first I have to figure out whether that’s what I actually want.’ He leans back and smiles. ‘The learning is still to come.’
I never did ask him whether he was in his flat.