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.
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.
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.
Today, was my first day in the office since I started working from home, 190 days ago.
I didn’t need to go back – staff can work remotely until at least July 2021 – but I needed a change of scene. Being in the house so much was becoming claustrophobic, and I say that as someone who loves remote working and loves their flat. I have a small train commute, and it felt good to return to the world.
Of course things are very different now. The train ride felt dangerous, particularly with the recent spike in cases. I ended up at the office a little earlier than planned, meaning I was the first one in. A lot of effort had been made to welcome people back and it felt easier than expected. The mostly empty office building couldn’t help seeming a little eerie though. It had the same sort of haunted feel as Elizabeth St John Mandel’s novel The Glass Hotel.
Today was a tiny slice of normality, and very welcome. However, there is an announcement by the Prime Minister scheduled for tomorrow, and I’m expecting that to include people who can do so being told to work from home. We shall see.
The current situation is frightening and depressing and it didn’t need to be this way. The government has frittered away the time before winter, failing to set up decent tracking and tracing. The country’s mood is sour compared to March, riven by suspicion, conspiracy theory, and frustration. As it comes closer, winter begins looking colder and grimmer.
August has been a month. I’m doing my best to get out and do things, but there’s an unavoidable crappiness to pandemic life. Without cafes and bars and galleries, Brighton is just an overcrowded town with too much building work, too many drunks, and junkies shooting up by the bins. Life isn’t as fun as it used to be, and some days I feel isolated and trapped. There isn’t much to be done about much of this – even when the office re-opens, socialising and moving about is banned, so that’s not yet an option. In the meantime, I’m in my flat most of the time.
I guess it’s about finding little things to hold the days together. I’ve been doing lots of hiking. Another highlight has been Naomi Wood’s Creative Writing workshops, hosted by Brighton’s feminist bookshop. I’ve been enjoying the challenge of these, and Naomi has pushed me to try new things. I’ve also been watching Bad Seed Tee Vee, Nick Cave’s YouTube channel. There’s also something reassuring about the burble of chat on the side of the screen.
Work feels like it has a little more flow, particularly since the team have solved a couple of major issues. There are still things to be faced, but the team’s daily life feels much easier now – we can focus on the challenges rather than the problems. I’ve also got to write some code, a pleasure I’ve not been allowed as much as I would like.
My daily walking felt a little easier recently, and I’ve managed a respectable amount. My total was 563,173 with a daily average of 18,167, with a high of 43,492. Not bad. I’m still a little frustrated by the lack of hiking options around Brighton, but I’ve made the best of this, with walks including Pyecombe, Southease, Amberley to Devil’s Dyke, Belle Tout lighthouse to Alfriston and along the Ouse, as well as a couple I’ve yet to write up on the blog.
I’m also finding it hard to concentrate on films. Much of my TV time has been spent scrolling through Prime and Netflix until I run out of time for a movie. I watched most of Upgrade, without managing to finish it. Blackkklansman was another excellent Spike Lee film; The Edge of Tomorrow started interesting but the contrived concept fell apart as it went on. I finally watched Stalker which was incredibly slow, and finished the month with gritty prison drama Starred Up.
Lovecraft Country is on Now TV and started with one of the best episodes of TV I’ve seen in a long time. The subsequent two episodes were less gripping, but I am enjoying having a weekly show to watch.
Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking ahead to winter. The claustrophobia is likely to feel more intense as the weather worsens, and the pandemic is not going away any time soon. I’ve picked up a PS4 and have been (slowly) making my way through The Last of Us. I expect it is going to be a slow, boring winter.