Lockdown Day 225 – Back into Retreat

Socially distanced pods being prepared for winter partying

225 days in, and it feels like we’re back to where we started.

It was supposed to be very different to this, and could have been. A recent article described life in Taiwan: prompt action meant that cases were quickly brought under control and life there is mostly normal. Here in England, the government seems to have some very poor decisions and we’re entering winter with cases rising

Last weekend I went on holiday to Shropshire. It was relaxing and also provided a circuit-breaker from my constant watching of the news. Since coming back I’ve continued avoiding the news and I feel less anxious. And, since I’m distancing, there’s little that the news could change about my behaviour.

I’ve stopped travelling into work for the time being, and I’m avoiding socialising indoors. While the odds are good for me being OK if I catch covid, they are even better if I delay catching this, since treatment and outcomes improve all the time (research into long covid has barely begun, so that risk is hard to quantify). And, you know, if I’m going to get it then best to get it when the hospitals are quiet.

The ‘whack-a-mole’ lockdowns continue with no exit strategy. I watched a daily briefing last week (watching it directly doesn’t quite count as news) and it sounds as if we are holding out for the vaccine. This seems quite a gamble, as a successful vaccine is neither inevitable, nor an instant solution – unlike, say, testing, tracing and effective quarantine. This virus is going to be with Britain for a long time – and we still have the spectre of Brexit to deal with. One commentator referred to this as ‘covexit’, the two crises finally becoming the same thing.

I can’t do anything to change the tides and storms that are coming. All I can do is make sure that my little boat is seaworthy. I am walking 10,000 steps each day, even when I don’t feel like it. My diet has been a little poor recently, so I have restocked the cupboards this weekend. I’m working on focussing more on single tasks, reading more consciously, and thinking about new exercise routines.

I’m still finding sleep difficult, as I have since the start of the pandemic. I’m feeling worn-out and fatigued most days, even after a decent sleep. I wake about 6am, pick up coffee from small batch, take a stroll. Start work about 8:30am, finishing about 5, and spend the evening writing or watching TV. And repeat. It’s not a bad life, and one I can manage for some time. It’s going to be a long winter though.

Ten-word short stories

Earlier in October was the prize giving for Shoreham Wordfest. I went along as I’d won two prizes for 10-word stories. You can read all three of my entries on the Shoreham Wordfest website.

It was the first time I’d been out since March, when I went to the Trope event at Phoenix Gallery. This event was very different, with rules almost as strict as an aeroplane flight. Everyone remained masked throughout the performances, and drinks were brought to our seats.

A very 2020 picture

It was great to see Katrina Quinn, who’d also read at that Trope event. She read Bittersweet, an account of a pilgrimage on the South Downs Way. Katrina had travelled through Cocking at around the same time as Katharine, Romi and I were there recently.

The prose prize was judged by Catherine Smith, who read her future-tense story When. Catherine spoke a little about flash and micro-fiction, talking about how the ten-word stories needed both a premise and change.

The competition involved submitting three ten-word stories. I wrote a brace of them and then rejected several for not coming down to the required word-length. Of the stories, two won prizes and one was highly-commended. The last of these, a clown story, was actually my favourite, but nobody else seems as impressed with my clown stories as I am.

Forgetting Norwich

Back in 1998, I lived in Norwich for six months. I was there for work, but I liked the town. I met some good people and even moved into a shared house for the length of my placement.

After leaving Norwich, I never got round to returning. It’s not an easy place to reach, tucked away in a corner of the coastline, at the end of a dreary A-road. I had no reason to go back rather than exploring new places. When Rosy announced she was moving there I was excited – it would be a chance to return.

Arriving in Norwich, I was surprised how little I remembered. I felt like I recalled the train station’s platforms, and the Unthank Road seemed familiar, but I couldn’t remember much more. Maybe the streets around the castle? I visited the Festival House pub, which has changed hands and names in the years since. It looks very different, but I remembered the layout, if not the area nearby.

I found an old computer file, a letter to the landlord, objecting to his seizure of our deposit, and it included the address of the flat. It was about a hundred meters from where Rosy was living. I recalled nothing of these streets. When I went to look at the house I felt no connection. It was as if I’d never lived there.

As I child, I once had a dream about having a particular toy, a Star Wars ‘Hoth Imperial Base Playset’. It’s not something I particularly longed for, but the dream felt so real that I was disappointed to wake and realise I didn’t own the toy. In Norwich, in a church converted to an antiques market, I found that very toy. The old dream seemed more real than Norwich itself.

I sometimes worry that life will have seemed so short. But here is a six-month period of my own life that has few memories attached. The events have been composted into a sort of general impression. How much more of my life will I forget before I am done?

1,001 Bucket Lists to Complete Before You Die

While I hate the idea of them, bucket lists fascinate me. It’s the way that they reduce life to a set of tasks to complete before the ultimate deadline.

It’s particularly creepy how the media promotes impersonal bucket lists, almost-arbitrary requirements to have lived a ‘complete’ life. There is a whole series of books based around things that you should do before you die, produced by Quintessence Editions. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. 1001 Natural Wonders You Must See Before You Die. 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die. And so on.

I know these books are not really intended to be completed, but I find the idea that you might try enthralling. I have to hold myself back from researching or writing about this, because it’s a black hole and I have too many distractions already.

But, I can imagine a book collecting these books – 1001 Bucket Lists to Complete Before you Die. I can see each one graded – difficulty, novelty, time to complete and so on.

Take the book of 1000 books to read before you die. If you managed 100 books a year, that is ten years of solid reading. I only manage 100 books on a good year, and one that involves a lot of travelling. 1,000 books will take even longer if you interrupt it with other books. 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is, allowing for sleep, about 9 weeks. Then there are the ones requiring travel, such as 1001 restaurants You Must Experience Before You Die. Maybe you could combine that with another book requiring travel but even so… it’s a lot.

And so many others… 101 chillies to try before you die. 1001 TV Series to Watch (how many hours is each of these?). 101 Gins. 1001 plants you must grow before you die. Although I am quite tempted to browse 1001 Walks You must experience before you die. I doubt I could get even a tenth of the way through that in what remains of this lifetime.

I wish I had time before I die to review 1001 of these volumes. I think it would make quite a book.

Lockdown Day 220 – A Souvenir of the First Lockdown

One of the most interesting things about algorithms is the strange mistakes they make, which can be sometimes spooky. Like the time when Facebook made jaunty videos about people’s years, which blithely incorporated funerals and house fires among the celebrations. Or the strange writing collected on the AI Weirdness Blog.

Google photos draws up all the photographs taken on my phone in order to learn how to market web advertising more successfully. Sometimes google suggests new services or goods, such as unlimited storage space. Or an automatically generated photo book.

Google offered me a book of my best photos from Spring 2020. This was a time when I travelled less than any time in my entire life. Lockdown confined me to just a few miles from my house. It seemed a weird time to memorialise. The photos are mundane and strange and I had to buy a copy as a souvenir.

I sometimes wonder how I will remember this period. Already, the frustrations are fading and the summer is about walks and being outdoors. I remember the sunrises better than the insomnia.

Lockdown Day 206 – Resenting the Threats of a Brighton Lockdown

A Whatsapp message from Kate, just after three yesterday afternoon, linked to a tweet from the local council. The city’s covid alert level had gone from yellow to amber, the last stage before the government “will declare the city an area of national concern“.

Along with the cutesy picture of a knitted coronavirus, the council informs us that “We all now need to make extra efforts”. What efforts? I’m genuinely not sure what else we should be doing.

My reaction to this news is not fear at getting the virus; despite the awful effect it’s had on friends of mine. My reaction is not determination to ride this out.

My main reaction is anger. Throughout the summer, the government has made foolish errors and failed to prepare for any rise in cases. Tracking and tracing is a joke, an expensive and confused bureaucracy that is unable to count cases, or tell us the number of people being tested. Local lockdowns are not working. Enforcement of the existing rules, particularly around the 10pm curfew is a mess. Nobody can keep track of the current rules people should follow, including government ministers. Messaging has been incompetent, with exemptions to the rules for grouse hunting, or certain government advisors. And just this week, the Prime Minister was telling us to go out more and support our local cinemas.

Part of my resentment is selfish, at the threat to my own plans. But a lot of the anger comes of being six months into this crisis with no clear exit strategy and no real plan from the government. My job is stable, and I can’t imagine the fear and uncertainty for those working in local hospitality businesses (most of the cinemas in the town didn’t survive the news of the new Bond film being postponed).

I guess the only thing to do is prepare to withdraw once more, and check those around me are OK. But I am so tired of this mess.

Monthnotes – September 2020

September has been about negotiating with the new normal. This pandemic isn’t going away, and there’s no obvious exit strategy. Even a vaccine won’t be an instant fix, and may not be a permanent one. The situation is dangerous, but I’ve been trying to find a balance between safety and continuing my life.

This month has included a visit to Norwich and hiking the White to Dark Trail in the Pennines. I’ve also returned to the office. This has meant commuting, which feels risky but – it’s so great to have time out of the house! I love working remotely, but the current situation removes a lot of the things I enjoy about it.

My walking has been a little variable, with the last 1/3 of the month being little more than a maintenance dose. My total was still a respectable 487,076 steps, an average of just over 16,000 steps a day. My maximum was 44,468 and the minimum was 10,401. Given the worsening weather, I’m happy enough to be forcing out 10,000 steps most days.

I’ve been reading a lot of news on my Kindle, but not many books. The only one I finished in September was The Museum of Whales You’ll Never See. I basically bought this on the strength of the title, and was not disappointed. It’s like Borges writing a travel book.

I’ve continued watching Lovecraft Country, which hasn’t lived up to its initial promise. I also watched Oz Season 1 over a weekend, which was interesting. Like Babylon 5 it was a harbinger of the golden age of TV, but it is a little dated. Very watchable though. I saw a couple of movies: Felon and Charlie Kaufman’s new movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Kaufman’s film was impressive, but it’s odd to see such great arthouse movies going straight to streaming. I’m not missing the cinema as much as I expected.

My exploration of videogames has continued. I’m finding the big games less enthralling than I expected. However, I started playing Death Stranding at the end of the month and I’m blown away. I love scrabbling over the landscapes, and the storyline is like being trapped in someone else’s dream.

The weather has now definitely turned towards winter, and the nights are drawing in. I feel less dread about the coming season than I did a few weeks back. It’s going to be a strange autumn, but I’m going to make my home as cosy as I can, and do my best to enjoy it.

The South Downs Way: Part 3 published

It’s the last day of September, and I’ve just got hold of copies of my latest collection of stories about the South Downs Way. I’m really pleased with how this has turned out. There’s a mix of stories here, but I’m starting to see how the whole collection will fit together.

If you’d like a copy, let me know in the comments and I will put one in the post to you.

Now to start work on part 4. I’m considering not finishing the stories on physics just yet. Instead I’m thinking about writing a collection of stories about shepherds, churches, the devil, and the shepherd god Hastur. Let’s see.

Lockdown Day 197 – Flash-forwards

Flash forwards are a powerful story-telling technique, which work particularly well in TV or comics. A character is given prophetic glimpses of their future, a scene that doesn’t fully make sense at the time. The best example I’ve seen of this was in Babylon 5. Viewers were shown the death of two characters was in the first episode. The question became how events would lead to this moment, and what the context would be.

I’ve been thinking about flash-forwards in terms of the pandemic. Walking down the street now, I sometimes pass people in masks without thinking about how easily the world has switched. Other times I have a sort of jamais-vu where the strangeness of it all becomes apparent. The posters and other background details remind me of the subtle set-dressing in the film Children of Men. These items work in the film to defamiliarise us, to show us the different effects of the catastrophe (which, in that film, was universal infertility).

I had a moment of this jamais-vu in the office on Friday, when I realised how strange the scene in front of me was. I wondered how I would have interpreted this moment if I’d seen it as a flash-forward a year ago.

Our office is huge, and dominated by a large atrium. Of the four floors, two are in darkness, even though it is daylight outside. The main communal space has been roped off. The office is mostly empty, many of the chairs covered in plastic, out of use for now. Only a few people are in view. All of them are wearing facemasks.

The scene would make no sense to my 2019 self. Where is everyone? Why is a large corporate office empty? We have fallen into a new world.

Lockdown Day 195 – Back to Working From Home?

On Tuesday lunchtime, my second day back in the office, the Prime Minister announced a new set of measures against coronavirus. This included saying that anyone who can work from home should. Without a command to close offices or restrict public transport, it’s left to companies and employees to decide what to do – particularly in those offices that have been made safe to work in.

It was actually good to go back to the office. It felt strange, and a little dangerous, but I liked being somewhere different, and I liked taking the first steps towards normality.

Way back, on March 19th, when the Prime Minister announced “we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks and I’m absolutely confident that we can send coronavirus packing in this country”. The latest restrictions are said to be set for six months. Given the government’s failure to hit the targets it sets for itself, we are likely in for a long haul.

This lockdown feels a lot more sour than the first one. It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that we wasted the time gained through the initial lockdowns and restrictions. We face the same problems six months later, but from a more precarious position. Winter will bring dark days and bad weather; and the economy is reeling from the shock of the pandemic, with the potential problems of Brexit yet to come.

There was some sense of consensus for the first lockdown, a feeling that we were ‘all in it together’. That very phrase was used by chancellor Rishi Sunak, echoing George Osbourne’s description of austerity. Despite Sunak’s assurances, the pandemic is affecting different people in different ways. Some people are suffering greatly, already living in cramped or undesirable housing. Meanwhile, there have been profiteers. Tiny companies were paid vast sums for PPE that was not delivered. Accenture received £850,000 for ten week’s work on the government’s failed contract-tracing app. Dido Harding has been promoted despite failing to establish decent contact tracing (James O’Brien has compared her to those same ‘unelected bureaucrats’ that the Brexiters were trying to remove).

At a time when consensus is important, it’s easy to perceive a sense of rules being applied unfairly. Despite NHS’s 111 line told sick parents to maintain quaratine, while MPs defended Cummings’ trip to Durham as what any decent parent should have done. Tory MP Bob Seely attended a barbecue held by Richard Tice (Brexit party chairman) when the mixing of households was banned – no action was taken. And then there is the exemption for grouse-hunting to restrictions for groups meeting – so important that the Covid-19 Operations sub committee scheduled a special meeting for this.

The new restrictions announced for England this week still allow households to mix, something that is banned elsewhere in the UK. I expect that further measures will be announced soon – in a recent article, Tim Harford quoted a statisticians view that “Every week before lockdown cost us five to eight weeks at the back end of the lockdown.” These are hard decisions for a government to make, and I certainly don’t envy the people involved. But it’s hard not to feel like the government is floundering, and there seems to be no way out of rolling restrictions.