The arts have been one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, with many livelihoods largely destroyed the moment the prime minister advised people to stay away from venues in mid-March last year. The scale of the problem was underlined when it emerged at the weekend that Richard Harrington, an actor known for roles in Poldark, Hinterland and the Crown, had got a job as a takeaway delivery driver after being left unemployed. He is far from alone. Here, several successful concert musicians describe how they have taken on similar work to make ends meet and take care of their mental health.
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The classically trained trombonist was preparing to play in a production of West Side Story when the announcement to avoid venues came. “I went from having quite a busy schedule and being quite positive about things to having nothing, with no backup,” Allen said.
She kept some teaching work, but the amount she was earning was both sufficient to render her ineligible for universal credit and insufficient to actually live on, meaning she had to take shifts with the delivery firm Yodel.
Allen, who comes from a working-class background, stressed that the issue was not the nature of the work she is now doing, saying that she has done similar jobs in the past and respects how hard delivery drivers work. What has upset her, she said, was knowing what she had had to go through to become a musician in the first place, only to see it taken away by something beyond her control.
“I have been trying to marry the idea of someone who studied for X amount of years and gone to a conservatoire to try to hone my skills and do all of the things that were necessary to become a professional … to then have to do something for however long that isn’t totally fulfilling and isn’t what I’ve trained for.”
The violinist described the poignant moment when she was sent to deliver Waitrose groceries to an address near London’s Wigmore Hall, a venue she had graced as a professional violinist only months earlier. “You take it for granted what you do. It has been difficult, but I’ve tried to find positives.”
She said she was not aware when she decided to stop working as a professional musician – a career she has had for 25 years – that a grant would be introduced for self-employed people. Even if she was, Martin said, she would not have been able to take the money and do nothing.
“I actually found that, without concerts in my diary, I totally lost my motivation. I got quite depressed and I really realised I needed to do something.” On top of the weekend delivery work, she said, she also took on volunteer work at her local Oxfam shop while it was able to open.
Despite a distinguished career that has taken her all over Europe, she was quite pessimistic about returning to music. “Concerts and festivals are organised years in advance. So, usually at this point in the year, I’d have a pretty firm idea of what I’m doing for the rest of the year, and some things into next year … But these things are not coming in.
“At the moment, I’m not looking at the end of the pandemic and then we’ll all start doing concerts again because the concerts already have all been cancelled.”
Martin said many people have assumed that life will return to normal soon. “But, for us in the arts, it’s a different story.”
The orchestral musician, who has played French horn with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra, started delivering groceries for Sainsbury’s in November 2020.
“It’s been interesting, obviously, going into this job as the Christmas peak started to hit,” he said. “Now, this side of Christmas, because of the new lockdown, we’re even busier.”
He said the public had been “really lovely and really thankful” for people who had taken up delivery jobs during the pandemic. “There was a lady I visited last week in her 80s who has cancer and is going through treatment. Her family can’t visit her because it’s not allowed. I was stood at her door, socially distanced, obviously, and chatted away to her for a while.
“That was lovely, and you could tell that meant quite a lot to her just have another human to speak to.”