What if Daniel Hannan was right?

I think a lot about about this (now-deleted) tweet by Daniel Hannan, aka ‘the man who brought you Brexit‘. It was originally posted in February 2020:

It’s not a tweet that has aged well. It’s a shame though: Hannan’s brisk common-sense tone is comforting. His instincts here were that this would all blow over, and maybe there is an alternate timeline where he was right. In the linked article, Hannan admits he is not “an epidemiologist, an immunologist or a pathologist… I have no medical qualifications whatever“, but is confident enough to say coronavirus “is unlikely to be as lethal as the more common forms of influenza that we take for granted… We are nowhere near a 1919-style global catastrophe“.

It would be great to be living in that universe where Daniel Hannan had been correct, and the coronavirus turned out to be panic not pandemic.

Hannan promotes an image of himself as combining intellectual rigour with common sense. In his work, Hannan often tells you calmly not to worry, it will be OK, because these sort of things usually are. It’s the same tone of voice he uses to attack things like literary theory, dismissing Jacques Derrida in an aside in one of his books, explaining how this sort of academic foolishness can be ignored. There is no intellectual curiousity about why something he thinks is silly is seen as important by so many people. Dan is the sort of thinker who feels his simple answer is always right.

To be fair, Twitter is not Hannan’s best medium. I’ve spent a lot of time considering one example where Hannan unsuccessfully lied about a hike (I’ve written a 10,000 word essay on that one, which I will publish properly one day). There even used to be a column in the New Statesman called What is Daniel Hannan demonstrably wrong about this week? which ran for an embarassingly long time. A surprising number of these mistakes related to trade tariffs, something Hannan should have had a grip of as head of the Initiative for Free Trade (not an Institute) and the intellectual architect of Brexit.

It’s easy to mock Daniel Hannan. But I would love that gentle wisdom about coronavirus to have been correct. It also now looks like we are leaving the EU without a trade deal. Hannan’s calm tone about that is as dismissive of people’s fears as his tweets on coronavirus. If you want to see Hannan’s vision for 2025, he wrote a science fiction story about post-EU Britain, in which Britain is prosperous and happy.

I hope Hannan’s predictions for Brexit are more accurate than those about coronavirus. I wished we lived in a universe where Daniel Hannan was right more often.

Running weekly flash-fiction workshops during lockdown

This weekend, on June 13th, I’m running the 8th online (and free) Not for the Faint-Hearted workshop. Signups are available via eventbrite, and if you can’t make this session, you can sign up to our mailing list for future events.

Not for the Faint-Hearted has been running for over ten years at Brighton’s Skiff co-working centre, but the pandemic restrictions have forced us to move online. I’d been planning to experiment with online sessions for ages, but hadn’t got round to it before.

The main difference is that people can attend without needing to be in Brighton (we have had attendees from Italy, Canada and Sweden). It’s also a little more intense running the sessions via zoom, and being attentive to everyone at once. I think they are tiring for the attendees too, so I aim for about an hour of writing and reading, with some time to chat at the end.

The sessions are a lot of fun and worth the effort. Each event has a mix of regulars and new people, and the format seems to translate well to zoom. It’s not perfect – I much prefer the energy from a group writing together in the same room – but it’s a lovely thing to be doing during a bad time. And it’s good to be carrying on the group when so much else has had to be put on hold.

If you’d like to read more about the group’s history and how it works, there’s a piece on this blog. It would be great to have more new people come along. I’m going to keep doing these for the time being, until something life normality is restored.

I’m also thinking about some other means of doing Not for the Faint-Hearted-style workshops, and will testing one of these out on a friend next week.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St John Mandel

If Emily St John Mandel’s novel The Glass Hotel is not my favourite book of 2020 I will be surprised. I’ll also be delighted, because books this good are not as common as I’d like. Mandel’s previous novel, Station Eleven, is a wonderful story about the survivors of a flu pandemic. This latest one was described in a Guardian review as being about “the global financial crisis as a ghost story“. I couldn’t resist the idea of such a book that included finance, shipping and luxury hotels.

The book tells the story of a number of characters whose lives are entangled. The sweep of lives and time reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad. The writing is fantastic, building empathy for the characters as well as including some great epigrams (“luxury is a weakness” or “there’s a difference between being intelligent and knowing what to do with your life”).

Much of the book follows a young woman called Vincent through a life of sudden luxury. She finds this a strange fantasyland, saying to one character “I was trying to figure out why my life felt more or less the same in Singapore as it did in London, and that’s when I realized that money is its own country“.

Vincent is fully aware of how her life has changed, from working in a bar to being rich. “What kept her in the kingdom was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money. If you’ve never been without, then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life

Throughout the book there is a sense of growing doom. Early in the book, one character asks another “Do you find yourself sort of secretly hoping that civilization collapses just so that something will happen?” One character and his partner are financially ruined, and he grapples with “an unspoken understanding: neither of them would leave this continent again”.

None of which captures how strange this book is. The incursions of weirdness in the the characters’ lives is subtle, and the real elements feel almost as haunting; like that feeling you get walking through quiet hotels: “he didn’t feel alone in all this space, all of these empty corridors and rooms. It was as though the hotel were haunted, but in the most benign sense: the rooms still held an air of presence, a sense of occupation, as if at any moment the boat might pull in with new guests and Raphael might walk out of his office complaining about the latest staffing problem.

This haunting also comes through in the discussions of shipping and the infrastructure that holds the world together; magically keeping the shelves stocked, notably only when it fails. “there are tens of thousands of ships at sea at any given moment and he liked to imagine each one as a point of light, converging into rivers of electric brilliance over the night oceans, flowing through the narrow channels of the Suez and Panama Canals, the Strait of Gibraltar, around the edges of continents and out into the oceans, an unceasing movement that drove countries, a secret world that he loved so much”.

The Glass Hotel contains links to Station Eleven, one being that the same flu virus is present in both books, but the outbreak is only mentioned briefly as being under control in the Glass Hotel. And while The Glass Hotel has little overt connection to the current moment, it felt like the perfect book for thr current time. As Mandel said in an interview at the University of Florida, “You can make an argument that the world’s become more bleak, but I feel like we always think we’re living at the end of the world. When have we ever felt like it wasn’t going to be catastrophic?

Distancing Retreat: Day 84

After feeling very strict during April, the consensus around lockdown seemed to collapse in May. On the VE Day bank holiday there were televised gatherings. While they maintained social distancing, it pushed against the simplicity of the ‘Stay Home. Save Lives. Protect the NHS.’ message. Then came the Dominic Cummings affair, which stretched the guidance to meaninglessness.

Among people I know, compliance with lockdown has been high, with everyone was prepared to take the message about saving lives at face value. But when the government don’t seem to believe in the guidance, I feel like a dupe for following it so closely. The case of Tory MP Bob Seely was worse than that of Cummings, but nobody seems to care about that.

We now enter a confused and fearful time as we wait to see what will happen. Will there be a second spike? Or will more specific restrictions prove as effective as a blanket lockdown? That question will be answered simply and maybe brutally in time.

The human costs of lockdown have been significant. Friends who have not qualified for government support are terrified about their future. Others have had difficult housing situations turn impossible. One colleague’s wife returned to India to have their child; travel restrictions meant he couldn’t follow her. While these costs are worth paying to save lives they relied on proper preparations for the future being put in place.

Remember back in May, when the Prime Minister promised we would turn the tide on coronavirus within 12 weeks? We would “send coronavirus packing in this country“. There would be an antibody test “as simple as a pregnancy test“.

Instead we have a track-and-trace scheme that’s not fit for purpose, and confusion over the NHS tracking app. I’m guessing the country cannot afford another wide-scale lockdown anyhow. Even though the deaths are still terrifyingly high, we will be forced towards normal life one way or the other. We have squandered the huge financial cost of lockdown. Some people I know have not qualified support while some people on furlough are working two jobs. And we have not used the time the lockdown made available to prepare for the future.

Personally, lockdown has been less difficult for me than for many people. I’ve taken advantage of living in a world without plans to think about my life. I’ve emerged calmer and less anxious. My only regret is getting through lockdown without making banana bread.

I am extremely nervous about what is to come. Aside from the deaths due to Covid-19, there are terrifying long-term health implications for some sufferers. But for now it feels like the first phase of this has come to a close, and it’s time to live within the new normal.

A Walk to the River Adur

I’ve mentioned recently about how frustrating Brighton is for hiking. We’re not supposed to take public transport unless necessary, so I’m currently confined to hikes that start from my house. There are only so many routes to the Downs within walking distance, all of which involve long stretches of built-up areas.

On the last day in May, rather than setting out West or North, I went West, striking out for Shoreham. This meant a long stretch of walking along low-grade industrial areas. I still found a few surprises, like this poem written on a piece of slate:

I took breakfast at the lighthouse, watching a boat come in, and was in Shoreham itself just before eight, joining the Downs Link Path near the Ropetackle Center.

I’ve talked in the past about how unsatisfying I found the Downs Link. As a former railway line, it’s straight and flat with trees blocking the views on both sides – although I was glad for the shade on this occasion. I imagine it is more fun to cycle the Downs Link than to walk – and there were lots of mountain bikers, some of them giving little quarter to pedestrians.

Near the old cement works, someone had stored the bases from the ornamental snails that had been placed around Brighton a couple of years back:

Walking by the Adur was pleasant. The river turns up in Nick Cave’s song Jesus Alone (You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field / Near the river Adur / Flowers spring from the ground). The word Adur is also, by coincidence, a concept in Basque magic related to the magic of naming.

At one of the bridges across the Adur, the Downs Link crosses the South Downs Way. I had considered heading further west to Chanctonbury once I reached the South Downs Way, but I wasn’t in the mood for the 3-4 hour round trip, particularly when my big toes were still bruised from the Brighton and Hove Way the week before. Instead, I crossed the A283 and headed up Beeding Hill. I even took my hoodie off, since I’d remembered the sun cream this time. It’s a good little walk, and one I like.

Sometimes I wonder what I get out of these walks. I like the exercise, I like the scenery, but distancing is making me too aware of my familiarity with these paths. Also, the geology of Sussex is so fucking boring. The landscape has none of the interesting features found further North. The need to go out to the same places every weekend is draining some of the joy from walking. And having to walk alone underlines how much more I enjoy the social sides of walking.

At the Youth Hostel, I stop on one of the picnic tables, now placed to block access to the camping area. A couple of men pass on bikes, their stereo loudly playing Eminem, and I try not be be irritated by how they’ve inflicted their choice of music on other people.

The hills bounce towards Devil’s Dyke, and I’m thinking a question raised by a project I’m contributing to: how should writers record walks? There is a lot of writing about walking, some of it very good – The Salt Path is one of my favourite books. But nature writing and accounts of hiking can easily devolve to men wandering about, noticing things. It doesn’t matter how clever the noticings are, it’s still wearing. How do you write about place without devolving into that debased psychogeography which is men writing to show where they’ve been, like dogs pissing on fenceposts?

I wonder if I’m spending too much time by myself. I wonder what type of walking-writing I would most like to read, rather than that I find easiest to write. I have lived my entire life within sight of these hills, bar a few months here and there. Does that matter? Should it matter?

The Brighton and Hove Way

Bank Holiday Monday (May 25th) I woke with an headache like a hangover, which was disappointing since I’d not had a drink in days. I showered anyway, shouldered my pack and headed out to walk the Brighton and Hove Way, which I’d heard about through the Brighton Explorer’s Club. The Way’s website describes “the 27 Km trail” which takes in many of the hills around Brighton. It was pioneered in April 2017, and seemed like the perfect way to get out of doors and to see more of the area.

As a quick summary – it’s a great trail, albeit 27 miles rather than kilometres as the website promises. The scenery is excellent, although for a circular around Brighton, a 7 mile stretch of seafront walking is unavoidable. The paths taken are occasionally a little obscure and, even with the aid of a GPS route, I got lost in a few places. So, I would enthusiastically endorse the trail, with the reservation that you follow it a little loosely in places.

As I walked towards the seafront, I passed Small Batch, where a couple of the staff were collecting the post. It felt good to see them again, even if a re-opening is some time away.

The first bit of the trail was mundane, walking from Hove down to Saltdean, which took me through till 8am. I was better prepared than on my previous walk, with suncream and adequate water. As I entered Saltdean, I took my first wrong turn, missing the left at the church. Last time I’d been here, it was to cast proxy votes in the Referendum.

I joined up with my route from the week before, when I had come up from Rottingdean, and took my morning coffee in a small fairy ring.

At Balsdean reservoir, I had my first real problem with the trail. The path divided into two, with one part a familiar route to Balsdean, and the other off to the North West. According to the trail, the route I wanted went between these.

It wasn’t obvious where to go, but I found a stile hidden over the brow of the hill, which had a footpath sign, suggesting I was on the right track.

Despite the footpath sign, the trail here was not obvious, running alongside a buried fence.

In the next field, the path disappeared completely, despite being marked on the map and at the stiles.

The lambs from this spring were rowdy as I walked down into Balsdean valley. I needed the GPS app again to find the exact trail, which ran parallel to one that my OS map named “Snake Pass” – although this was much less grand than the one in Derbyshire. Here I had more trouble finding the right path, the apparent route blocked by thorns.

I left the valley by another route I’d used recently with my friend Sophie. From here I was on a familiar path to Woodingdean, and from there took the scenic B2123 to Falmer Village

In Falmer, the Way follows the boundary path around the university. This is a lovely bit of woodland, and it was good to be there: across the valley, I could see Park Village, my first residence in Brighton. The waypoints here were either slightly off or too far apart, and the exact path was a little hard to find.

Stanmer Park was lovely, with more woodland paths. After this, and on the other side of the road, was another tricky bit to navigate, where I found myself at a dead end. The Brighton and Hove Way makes excellent use of access land and obscure paths, which can be a little hard to follow. However, it was good to find some routes I’d never walked before – even if some of them were dead ends:

A short skip from here to the Chattri, where I terrified a woman as I emerged from the bushes, having once again strayed off the route. At the Chattri, I was still convinced that the trail was 27km, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, and corrections from the Brighton Explorer’s Club Whatsapp Group. I found some shade here and had a nap.

The last stage crossed the A23, and passed through the Brighton and Hove Golf Club, along some lovely paths towards Portslade. I reached the outskirts of town at Foredown Tower, where I’d entered the Downs on a walk just before lockdown. There aren’t that many routes from Brighton onto the Downs.

From here it was a simple route back through Portslade, where the village was older and more interesting than I realised; then through a series of very busy parks between Portslade Village and the seafront. I decided against walking along the promenade as it was uncomfortably full, with closely-packed queues outside the off-licenses. The end of lockdown was apparent.

Conclusion – a good walk with a few obscure moments, but well worth doing.It would have been a little easier if I had a better idea of the distance, but that is my own fault. And I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad trip to Balsdean

How can I complain about a day’s walking with scenery like this?

Monthnotes – May 2020

I didn’t do a lot in April. With the first lifting of the restrictions, May has been a more active month, but far quieter than normal. In a regular year, I’d have spent the month running around to different festival events. Instead, I’ve been confined to my flat, waiting for the crisis to come to an end.

After a slow month in April, my step count was 437,226 – only 87K less than March. My highest total was 63,714 when I walked the Brighton and Hove Way. My lowest was 10,211, which I will set as my new daily target. Morning walks are starting to get very boring, and I miss the time when I would achieve much of my target commuting, shopping or visiting friends. It’s a lot of exercise to do in one go.

I managed to read more in May, finishing 7 books. Craig Brown’s new book on the Beatles was a fun retelling of a familiar story, but the best book by far was Emily St John Mandell’s The Glass Hotel, a ghost story about the financial crisis of 2008.

As well as reading, I watched a few more films than in recent months:
• Another Earth – moving mumblecore SF
• Colossal – interesting kaiju concept, but didn’t really like where it ended up
• Ex Machina – beautifully made, loved the use of Bluebeard, but it was not as clever as it thought it was
• Portrait of a Lady on Fire – a tragic and beautiful love story
• Extraction – like watching someone else playing a video game while using a cheat mode

There’s not much more to say. Writing is going well, with the next South Downs Way pamphlet being edited as we speak. I’m mostly enjoying working from home, although I miss seeing my colleagues in the real world. Generally, I’ve settled into a routine of isolation. Now that the rules are being relaxed, I need to take advantage of this and get back to having a social life – even if it has to be at a distance.