Retreat Day 26:

On the surface, I’m coping well with the solitude: I’m not drinking much, no tears and I’m getting things done – but I can still feel a knot of panic inside me. I keep it under control, but it’s there. As the long Easter weekend unfurls, I’m also noticing signs of stress. My sleeping is growing erratic again; my appetite for food is fading and my weight dropping; and I’m not able to concentrate on reading.

This is a stressful situation for everyone, it just varies by degree. I’ve been very lucky with my experience of the situation so far, but that doesn’t make it easy. The pandemic is an example of what Timothy Morton described as a hyperobject, a thing “so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization”. It’s impossible to take in more than the smallest portion of this event at one time.

I’ve read a lot of accounts of POW camps, something I’ve given talks on in the past. Whether or not people made a serious attempt to escape or not, you could at least day-dream about it. With the whole world affected and threatened by this pandemic, freedom can only be found in the future, with no indication of how far we need to travel.

(And, if things feel this oppressive far from the front, how much worse must it be for those caught up in the front lines, whether as healer, patient, cleaner, relative etc?)

It’s the second day of the Easter Weekend, and it feels like we’re weeks into it. I am exhausted, but trying to be easy on myself. I’ll probably go back to work on Monday, get on with things. I’ll get an early night tonight and will feel better tomorrow.

(Re-reading this, it sounds a little down. I’m fine, just tired and stressed. Some days are going to be better than others – and I’ve kept in touch with people, those little messages that keep us connected at this time. Tomorrow is a new day and will be better. Some days demand rest, patience, and slowness)

Retreat, Day 25: Good Friday

  • Is this how dogs feel, when they only get one walk a day? I was up early today for a dip in the sea. Only a short one though – the tide was so far out that it took ages to reach any sort of depth. I’m still glad I went in.
  • Being confined to the house means there’s no space for big emotions. When I am stirred-up by things, I can’t just walk my problems out. Calm is the watchword.
  • This is also no time for hangovers, so I’m drinking very little (I get hangovers so easily). But I’m also taking the opportunity to work through the obscure bottles in the drinks cabinet. Last night I enjoyed a Swedish spirit that Lou Ice gave me – no idea what it actually was, though.
  • Living life with such a narrow focus continues to provide revelations, this time about cooking. I realised yesterday that I really don’t like pre-packaged stock. I mean it’s in so many recipes, but there must be better alternatives. I messaged my friend Emma, as she has co-written some incredible cookbooks, and she gave me some great alterntives. This sort of thing is probably obvious to everyone else, but having time to focus on cooking is really improving my skills.
  • The main activity for the long bank holiday weekend is working on a new story zine, about the South Downs Way. I’ve long been a fan of Cal Newport, particularly his ideas around Deep Work, and I’m really seeing the value of sustained focus.
  • I keep turning up forgotten things as I tidy out old cupboards. Today I unocvered the callsheets from a Netflix documentary about WW2 where I was an extra.
  • The weather has been remarkable since this started. On yesterday’s walk, I saw my friend Kate on her balcony. I waved until I got her attention, and was so happy to have seen her. It was only later on that morning I learned it wasn’t Kate, but her housemate, Kate.
  • I can’t believe it is 25 days already.

Retreat, Day 24

The pandemic is a weird time, where strange domestic situations are played out with a background of dread and appalling news. My world is very much turned inwards. This can be hard, but it also provides an opportunity for self-examination.

For years, I’ve complained about being too busy and too tired. If only things slowed down, I thought I might be able to catch up with myself. You need to be careful about what you wish for… I have so much more time now than a month ago, working from home, and restricted to one outing a day. Yet I still feel too busy and too tired. I even managed to somehow miss a friend’s birthday at the start of this month which is stunningly incompetent.

It turns out that having more time has solved nothing: it’s not lack of time that makes me feel too busy.

It’s common for people who went to boarding school to engage in ‘timetabling’, filling up all their time to try to make the best use of it. When I knew I was going to lockdown, I made sure to have a structure for it and goals.

But now I am going to try something different: to trust myself to do what I need to without putting pressure on myself. I’m going to focus on what’s most important right now: work, self-care, and my new creative project. After all, this Quiet Time is the perfect opportunity to experiment with being easier on myself.

A year ago, I had an apocalyptic story published, called A Disease of Books. In the biography, I wrote, “Despite obvious downsides, James looks forward to the apocalypse because of the resulting time off work“. Be careful what you wish for. I am currently very grateful to be here at the end of the world and still have a job.

Retreat, Day 23

Today started with a swim, and it left me feeling good for hours – I don’t know why I don’t do that more often. My vegbox arrived, and my laundry was picked up. After work, I fell asleep in my nest in the balcony room. I finished the day with a writing workshop, run by Naomi Wood via the Feminist Bookshop. Not quite up to Ice Cube’s standards, but it was a good day.

Here is something I wrote tonight:

There is a garden travelling back in time towards us, its plants stretching towards tomorrow’s sunshine, which is deep in their own past. People walk the paths, talking about what it will be like to meet us. The gardener pulls the weeds from the flowerbeds and apologises as they’re laid on the compost pile. Someone is building a signal fire that we will see from a distance. There are chairs waiting for us in the honeysuckle shade.

PS – I would do my own laundry, but the washing machine is broken.

Retreat, Days 21-22

  • Photos of the moon never come out anything as beautiful as they should be. This morning’s walk started with walking west towards a huge pink moon. These are terrible times, but the world seems so precious and vivid on my daily walks.
  • Yesterday was a tough day. I resented my confinement, and was stirred up by some discussions of how long this will last. I found myself irrationally annoyed by the joggers who ran too close to people, and by the way the regulations have stirred up a snoopy, judgemental attitude in people – including myself. Social distancing is hard, even for people who should find it easy. I feel better today though.
  • The only news source I’m following on coronavirus (via RSS) is Vice, which offered a positive sign in an article about Spain planning to start lifting  restrictions after about 6 weeks. While I don’t want to lift my hopes up, I feel happier to know there are possible exit strategies from this regime; but I’ve prepared myself for this to go on however long it needs to.
  • Someone forwarded a hoax Whatsapp virus alert onto the housing block group this afternoon. I hated the confrontation of having to (very politely) ask they not do this. Rumours spread faster than viruses, and Whatsapp is particularly pernicious. Social media rumours can be incredibly harmful.
  • Someone dropped a 5G conspiracy theory onto a local mailing list, which received a withering response: “One effect of the reduction in flights due to the Covid-19 lockdown is that conspiracy theorists are now no longer being microdosed with the drugs from chemtrails which had been keeping them docile.
  • The lack of planes is a subtle but strange aspect of this experience. This prompted me to listen to Bruce Springsteen’s song Empty Sky, about the last time planes were grounded on a large scale – but nothing like this. A very different situation, but the same powerful image.
  • I’m really appreciating the blog posts where people have described their experiences of social distancing. Wordridden’s post yesterday, A Journal of the Plague Week 3, included this beautiful passage about a hard week: “I got intense Fernweh and stared out the window for ages, looking at the same bland street I look at every single day, longing to be in Portugal or Greece or Singapore—but not the Portugal or Greece or Singapore of now, obviously. The Portugal or Greece or Singapore of before. The world of before.
  • I’m very aware that, after this crisis ends, we’ll be in a very different world. Forgive yet another link to a Vice article, but This Is Year Zero for Life in Britain was a bleak descripton of how things have changed: “Somewhere between the morning’s death graphs and my third instant coffee of the day, I made a list of things that no longer make any sense: capitalism, fashion, celebrities, burglars, “wild swimming”, supper clubs, Condé Nast Traveler, Tyler Brûlé, Tom Ford, aftershave, Tom Ford aftershave, being “fussy about design”, being “particular about coffee”, lunch at Shoreditch House, dinner at Pret, Talksport, Tripadvisor“. British complacency has been forever disrupted, to both good and ill effect.
  • Probably the bleakest headline I’ve ever read come’s from this week’s New Yorker: The Coronavirus Is the World’s Only Superpower
  • But I continue to find moments of personal joy. My cooking is improving as I tire of the dishes I usually cook, and crave fresh food and unprocessed flavours.
  • I’m also discovering the value of a good personal library, and having a range of books to flick through.
  • After work, I had a video call from my parents. They were drinking wine in the garden, their grandchildren playing at a safe distance nearby. I think they have it pretty good right now.
  • Monday I managed a 71 second plank. My initial confidence about reaching 5 minutes is looking shaky.
  • The sea was so still this morning, and the moon so beautiful.

How I Fell in Love with Microfiction

One of the greatest horror stories ever written is Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s A Woman Alone with her Soul. The story in its entirety is 26 words:

A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.

The power of this story comes from being so short. We could expand it, maybe name the main character – we could even give them a backstory. But those twenty-six words are enough to raise questions – and I think the questions are more interesting than the answers would be. There is a space for us to imagine: what has happened to the world? how does the woman know she is the last one left? what has destroyed “every other living thing”, and how come she is sitting alone in her house? What is going on here?

I encountered Splatterpunk before I heard the Sex Pistols, before I had any idea what punk meant. It’s a strange genre, desperate to shock, to transgress as much as possible. In the 1990 anthology there is one story by Richard Christian Matheson, called Red. It’s so short that it’s almost dwarfed by the introduction.
(Something I miss from short story anthologies is those long, indulgent intros, because they made the writers seem much larger than life). Red outshines every other story in the collection in little more than a page. The horror of the scene builds and is released. There are gaps in this story too, the same ones the characters ask: how can this be allowed?

But the tiny horror stories I love most are the microfictions in Harlan Ellison’s A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet. It’s a collection of twenty-six short horror stories, some of which were written as a stunt in a book shop window. A couple of them were quoted in Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre. They were short, strange pieces, and probably stand as my introduction to flash.

I’ve read long novels that have vanished from my mind within hours. But Red and A Woman Alone with her Soul have stuck with me for years. And I think much of their strength comes from their brevity.

Retreat, Days 18-20

As I approach three weeks of social distancing (and almost two full weeks of official lockdown), my strongest feeling is confusion. So much of what I understood about the world has been turned upside down. This feeling is even stronger than my feelings of fear and frustration.

So much that I’ve taken for granted has been turned upside down. As David Allen Greene pointed out, “the Regulations remove from everyone in England the fundamental rights of freedom of movement, freedom of assembly and freedom of worship, as well as severely limiting their right to conduct any business.” I believe that social distancing is absolutely the right thing to be doing; but these are monumental and unprecendented changes to society, restrictions beyond those in place during the Second World War. The world has changed very, very quickly.

It feels very strange to be in a situation where these regulations are neccessary, and the scale of the problem is oppressive. Every morning I wake up feeling dislocated, like I’ve lurched into the wrong parallel universe.

  • One of the best articles I’ve read recently is from Vice: What to Expect After a Month of Lockdown, According to People in Italy and Spain. Basically, we’ll get used to it, but there will also be a slackening off in the level of social interaction.
  • Another good piece from Vice, on whether it’s OK to use Zoom despite their security issues.
  • I came in from my walk about 9am yesterday, and wondered if I should have a G+T. Of course I didn’t (morning drinking is for Christmas Day and before a flight only), but the thing was, it took me a second to summon up an argument against it. Everything feels abnormal.
  • Word of the week via Warren Ellis: doomscrolling
  • One of the bright spots over the last few weeks has been the pets channels in the work slack. Although there was some drama when someone posted a cat picture in one of the dog channels.
  • The company I’ve worked for has declared there will be no layoffs in 2020, which is a great relief.
  • I’ve not ordered a takeout or delivery meal since I started my retreat. My cooking is improving rapidly. I’ve got bored of my range of dishes and am moving to buying ingredients and figuring out meals for them. I’ve also ordered a veg box (my first) which I am very excited about.
  • While my cooking has improved, last night’s risotto was a disappointment.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West was a book-club choice, which I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise. It tells the story of two young lovers, Saeed and Nadia, who meet at an evening class. Nadia wears conservative dress “so men don’t fuck with me”, but enjoys riding a motorbike and smoking dope.

They live in an un-named city and, just after they get together, civil war breaks out. Their lives become incredibly dangerous. They are under curfew and become dependent upon technology: “without their mobile phones and access to the internet there was no ready way for them to re-establish contact

The book was disturbing, making me think about the ties that bind us together. I became acutely aware that, should the Internet or phone system fail, I would have no means of getting news about my family, who live 200 miles away. The book is an incredibly empathic portrayal of displacement and the refugee experience (as Hamid writes, “we are all migrants through time”).

Deprived of the portals to each other and to the world provided by their mobile phones, and confined to their apartments by the night-time curfew, Nadia and Saeed, and countless others, felt marooned and alone

I was also surprised at a fantastic turn the book takes. One of the great things about book clubs is reading a book you know nothing about. It certainly wasn’t the book I expected it to be.

I finished the book at the start of March, and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived and overturned my world. I’m not saying that the experieces of Saeed and Nadia are comparable to my current experience, but I’ve been reminded how fragile daily life actually is, and how it can be overturned.

A recent article by Oliver Burkeman, “Focus on the things you can control” referred to a 1939 sermon by CS Lewis:

It wasn’t the case, he pointed out, that the outbreak of war had rendered human life suddenly fragile; rather, it was that people were suddenly realising it always had been. “The war creates no absolutely new situation,” Lewis said. “It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice… We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.”

Moments from Hamid’s book keep coming back to me:

when the government instituted a policy that no one person could buy more than a certain amount per day, Nadia, like many others, was both panicked and relieved.

Back when I read this book, such an experience was foreign to me. I’d yet to experience the anxiety of empty supermarket shelves. This book was terrifying and unsettling, and I’m shocked at how quickly my connections with the characters have deepened.

the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.

Brighton to Firle

By Saturday 21st, the pubs had closed. It was obvious that a full lockdown was on the way. I still needed to make preparations for isolation, but I also wanted to get out onto the South Downs Way while I could.

I’d maintained social distance since the start of the week, and had checked that the Airbnb hosts were happy with this. I’d originally planned to take the train to Eastbourne and walk back, but with the recommendations to avoid public transport, I decided to walk to and from the Airbnb.

In fact, social distance would be easier to maintain in the countryside than in the city. As I walked through Hove Park towards Three-Cornered Copse, I was amazed at how close people were standing to one another in the queues.

It took a little walking to get to the countryside. Looking back at Brighton, I felt glad to be out of the town. Even the smell of cowshit seemed fresh and alive.

Given all the things I had to think and worry about, I’d not done a lot of planning on the route. I decided to walk towards Ditchling Beacon and follow the South Downs Way to Firle. I could see the office from the top of the Downs, and it felt sad – I promised myself that I would walk there for the first day it re-opened.

I stopped for lunch at Pyecombe Church. The kitchen was closed due to the pandemic, so I sat in one of the pews to eat my lunch. The vicar came in while I was there and we had a good chat.

Part of mis-planning the walk was realising I’d added a good 8 miles or so by walking North to start. The i360 was a gnomon for the long circle I followed. I’d been walking for six hours before I reached Balsdean, with miles left to go.  I paused again in a little stretch of forest that I’d rested in when I did that stage of the South Downs Way with Katharine. So much of the walk felt like a repeat. I had a suspicion that some of the photographs I was taking were ones I’d taken before.

The Lewes section of the South Downs Way is not the most exciting part. Crossing the Ouse means descending into the valley, with the same landscape in front of you for hours. I’d also made a mess of my planning, and felt overladen, old and tired. With every step, I was aware I had to walk back too. The Ridgeway had some boring bits, but it had nothing on this section of the South Downs Way.

By the time I reached the Yellow Brick Road I was a little fed up, the walk something of a trudge, but I knew that it was better than being cooped up indoors.

It was nice to reach Southease, although I was aware that I was racing the dusk at that point. The light was incredible, but I was tired.

Reaching Firle and turning off the trail to find my accomodation was a release. Walking down the hill I was a little surprised to see a Toynbee Tile. What was this doing in Sussex?

I walked the last stage in growing darkness, and was surprised to encounter a peacock in the dim light.

I arrived at the airbnb at 7, after ten hours, aching and exhausted. My right little toe is still blackened from this encounter. What should have been a relaxed stroll had ended up as a 60,000 step slog. But I don’t regret getting out for one last hike.

A journey to Devil’s Dyke

As we drove towards the edge of town, the Uber driver told me that the Coronavirus was man-made. I wasn’t sure what to say to her: it’s not just that she was wrong, but that there’s nothing to do with that information. It sounds like it means something, but doesn’t. It’s a secret that changes nothing about the world, while letting you pretend you’re not one of the rubes.

I took the ride to Foredown Tower to avoid the trudge from my flat to the countryside. It was obvious by this point that something was coming down the line and could no longer be avoided. I wanted to get out and walk while I still could.

The first part of the walk was dreary. The South Downs may be green, but it is an artificial environment, created by years of farming. I’d rather be striding through a landscape that is wilder or more natural.

Still, it was good to get out. Even as I’m falling out of love with the Downs, I still feel a connection to the chalk and the flint. It was early in the morning and I was the only person about.

I crossed a small section of the South Downs Way. There are a couple of places  where the route is baffling, and Devil’s Dyke is one of these. Rather than walk along the edge of the hill, with its views of the weald, the path runs further back. I followed the hill instead, thinking of other trips out here: wild camping with Vicky Mathews, or a trip with the Indelicates as we planned the October Ritual. I could see the North Downs, gloomy in the distance. It’s a good view.

I followed the bottom of the Dyke then crossed the main road to Saddlescombe Farm. I remember when this road seemed massive, the route from Henfield for shopping trips in Brighton.

The Dyke was said to have been built by the devil in an attempt to flood Sussex. But that makes no sense: why we he destroy the source of so much evil?

On the route back to Brighton, I had to cross a field of cows. I don’t trust herds of cattles – one of two times when I’ve feared for my life was due to cows. As I walked past them I sang a special song to let them know I was there and that they shouldn’t be surprised. There was only one line in the song, which was “Don’t be surprised Mr. Cow”.

On Monday, I asked for permission to work from home until the crisis was over. Tuesday was the first day of my retreat.