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Phil Gillam: Lovely exchange took me to a time gone by

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Mayor of Shrewsbury Phil Gillam writes for the Shropshire Star on his experiences during the coronavirus lockdown.

Phil Gillam

Out in the fresh air the other day for a still-permitted bit of exercise, I heard a voice over my shoulder.

“Do you know what? I haven’t done this for years.”

I swung round to see a lady in her late 70s. She was sitting in a deckchair just outside her front door, just watching the world go by, and talking to any Tom, Dick or Harry who happened to be passing.

“Haven’t done what?” I asked.

“This,” she said. “Sitting out here and chatting to people. It’s lovely.”

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In no time at all, we were joking darkly about self-isolation, the miserable newspaper headlines, and Boris Johnson’s latest declarations.

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She took a sip of her tea and added: “Yes, it’s nice to have a chat. I must do this more often.”

Of course, she was right. It is lovely to make small talk with folk as they stroll past.

Walkers out and about at the Quarry, Shrewsbury

This little exchange took me back to when I was a boy, growing up in the Shrewsbury suburb of Castlefields.

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Back then, people did frequently sit outside their houses or stand on their doorsteps, chatting with passers-by and neighbours.

This was decades before the phrase “social distancing” had been dreamt up and yet outdoor conversations were, funnily enough, often conducted between people at least two meters apart from each other. This was also (significantly, I think) in an era before everyone had a car and before 24-hour-a-day television schedules. People really did seem to have more time in those days – and therefore more time for one another.

Now here we are in 2020 and one of the more pleasant aspects of the coronavirus pandemic is that many of us appear to once again have more time on our hands.

Battalions

The pace of life is necessarily slowing down for many.

And I don’t know about you, but I feel sure everyone is a little bit friendlier. People smile more when they see you across the street, and seem more inclined to wave or say hello.

It is against this backdrop of empathy that we have seen battalions of volunteers come forward to help the self-isolating and the most vulnerable during this Covid-19 crisis.

Across Shrewsbury a host of new mutual aid and “good neighbours” groups (each with their accompanying Facebook pages) have sprung up amidst the coronavirus gloom – groups in Frankwell, Copthorne, Radbrook, Bicton Heath, Shrewsbury town centre, Belle Vue and Coleham, Castlefields and Ditherington and Sundorne, and Sutton & Reabrook ward and Column ward, and many others.

A local bus drives down nearly empty streets near the high street in Shrewsbury

As I approach the end of my term of office as Mayor, I have never been quite so proud as I am now of the incredible people of our town, demonstrating so wonderfully their kindness and compassion and willingness to help.

While many are working within their own neighbourhoods, others are supporting a range of brilliant organisations: Age UK, Shrewsbury Community Action Group, Citizens Advice, Shrewsbury Food Hub, Shrewsbury Food Bank Plus, and many others. Citizens Advice Shropshire will be concentrating all its resources to answer calls on their telephone Adviceline – 03444 99 11 00. “We are rebuilding our service from the ground (or telephone) up,” says Chief Officer Jackie Jeffrey. “You can get information on Coronavirus related issues on www.citizensadvice.org.uk and we will be posting local information on www.cabshropshire.org.uk.”

Karen Williams, of Shrewsbury Foodbank Plus, says: “We’re offering food and household items for those facing financial difficulties.

“We have adapted the way people refer through a telephone referral system to Karen Williams on 0742 174 5857. We have an amazing team of volunteer colleagues keeping our service open.”

Optimistic

Age UK Shropshire Telford & Wrekin offers an emergency shopping service (free of charge) for the isolated and vulnerable. (01743 233123).

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I know how serious this is. But we must try to stay positive and optimistic.

With all this tremendous good will around, I have no doubt we will get through this together.

The calls of “good morning”, the friendly waves and the smiles tell me so.

Riverside path at the Quarry, Shrewsbury

l As I am putting the finishing touches to this article the phone rings and it’s Lionel Morris, president of the Freemen of Shrewsbury.

With Lionel being involved in an organisation that has its roots in the 15th century, I reckon he must know a thing or two about the evolution of human behaviours through the ages.

So I ask him: “Is it me or is everyone a lot friendlier since this pandemic arrived?” He says. “People were always so involved in their own little worlds before. But now they look up and say good morning. It’s marvellous!”

So if nothing much else good comes of all this, at least we might all be a bit more considerate of each other from now on.

What do you reckon?

Meanwhile, take care and stay safe.

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