2020 Review (Day 290)

2020 began on a roof terrace, watching fireworks explode across the seafront. Writing the following day about my plans for the year, I posted:

“No resolutions for 2020. Instead, I am planning to do less, making space for new things to enter my life. I am going to try reading more fiction, but that doesn’t require a programme or any goals. ”

Well, I got what I wanted. 2020 had lots of space in which to think. It’s been a horrible one, and that will drag on into much of 2021. I’ve found it personally very tough at points, and have kept a sort of pandemic journal on my blog. I’m grateful that most people I know have come through without serious impact from the virus itself, but I remain careful and vigilant.

In some ways, Summer was glorious. Spending so much time outside, swimming more than any other year. There were masks and fears, but the numbers of cases were low. All our troubles had been put away until the winter and life felt good for a time. I can imagine looking back on this summer in ten year’s and being sad about the virus, but also amazed at how much time we all spent outdoors this year.

One gift from the pandemic was time to think about my life more, and how I spend my time. And I realised how much of my life had been restricted by anxiety – particularly around my writing. And I wondered, what would my life be like if I was less anxious? Something to work on in the coming year.

As far as writing goes, I released four pamphlets:

  1. Cows Don’t Believe in Slaughterhouses
  2. The South Downs Way
  3. The Devil
  4. Crossing Paths

I also hoped to release a fifth in November, Path Integrals. That now looks to be coming in February. While I’ve not released a lot, I have clearing out a lot of old notes from my word horde (300,000 words in the main scrivener doc). It’s been good to review a lot of things that didn’t work and delete them, and I think next year will see much more coming out.

I also won a ten-word story contest, and have been blogging more consistently. Being a blogger in 2020 is a strange experience, as most of the potential audience is trapped in Facebook’s tar pit. But a few people still read, and there are RSS readers still out there, and I people occasionaly follow-up with me on posts, and it feels worth doing. Although I’m baffled that, by far, my most read post this year was one on piano-smashing. Thank you for reading.

It’s strange coming to the end of a year with no plans for New Year’s Eve. I’ll probably watch Kate St Shields’ DJ set and catch up with the F23 crew. I’ve spent new years eves indoors by choice in the past, but it’s strange to be forced into it. This Winter sees us deep in the underworld, but we have passed the solstice and a better world lies ahead.

My favourite books of 2020

Despite having more free time in 2020 than in most years, I’ve done very little reading. I finished 11 books in January, and I read the same number of books in the four months between August and November. The ongoing pandemic has done very little for my concentration. I’m not sure quite what I’ve done with my time dividend, but it certainly hasn’t been reading.

The total number of books I read this year is 52, but I am going to pick ten as in previous years, although the odds are a little higher for a 2020 book. So, in title order, here are my favourite books for the year:

  1. 4,3,2,1 by Craig Brown – There are a lot of books about the Beatles, all of which tell the same story. Brown’s book uses a variety of techniques to draw out new angles, and I was surprised at how fresh it felt. Given that the book was mostly research-based, this was an impressive feat.
  2. The Book of Trespass by Nick HayesReviewed here
  3. By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar – Another retelling of legends, this time an Arthuriad. Tidhar mixes previous retellings with pop-culture to come up with something fresh. Even familiar ground can reveal new things.
  4. Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk – Yes, it’s a how-to-write book, and it’s basically how-to-write-like-Chuck-Palahniuk. But there are some great insights about writing and community, and it’s made me miss writing workshops.
  5. Exit West by Mohsin HamadReviewed here
  6. The Glass Hotel by Emily Mandel – Easily my book of the year, and I knew this when I wrote about it back in June. You should read this.
  7. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing – a powerful mix of art criticism and memoir, and a book that made me want to applaud as it reached its final creshendo.
  8. The Museum of Whales You’ll Never SeeReviewed here.
  9. Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers – I was quite late coming to this, but it was a brutal and captivating book which made a strong impression.
  10. Weather by Jenny Offill – an amazing novel of fragments, which I reviewed in February. Much of the detail of the book has faded in my memory, but this makes me want to return to it.

Fewer books than last year but, I think, a more consistent top ten. A surprising number of books that were published this year, as well as a lot more fiction than last year, when I only picked one novel. I feel quite inspired looking back at this list.

Thinking About American Utopia

Kate Shields will not shut up about Talking Heads. At lot of this time it’s been about the 1984 movie Stop Making Sense. This year, David Byrne released a new movie with the great Spike Lee, and it was obvious that something had to give. Kate and I have been friends for over a decade and I’ve yet to see Stop Making Sense; but on Christmas Day we watched American Utopia.

(It might not sound like a Christmas movie, but I asked Kate to pick the films. I have a bit of a tradition of watching incredibly bleak movies over Christmas – Threads being a nadir. This was not an option as far as Kate was concerned)

The main innovation in the American Utopia show is that the band’s 12 performers are not tethered to a particular location. This requires the use of harnesses to attach their instruments, and three independent percussionists. Seeing the emptiness of the stage, and the movement that the show allows, I was impressed. I wondered why no-one had done this before.

When I thought about it, the answer was obvious. Allowing the performers to move like this requires a load of technology. You need consistent wireless connections and good batteries that are small enough to be unobtrusive. The best thing was that the technology was used invisibly, even while it was essential to the show.

One of the things I miss from my MA was being exposed to culture I would not watch off my own back. American Utopia is a perfect example of this, and it made me think a lot about how I can use technology in similar ways in my own work. Through email and social media, text has become a far more significant experience in most people’s lives, yet fiction doesn’t seem to have benefitted from this.

There is also the question of what a book is in this age (something Craig Mod and James Bridle have both interrogated at points). The boundaries of the covers no longer exist in the same way – I can switch between audiobook, Kindle and hardcopy. A physical book isn’t so important as a way of enjoying stories.

And much of the text we read is fragmented. I’ve long been fascinated with micro fiction and fragments. These should be a much more successful medium in a world where we can ricochet between baby photos, doom scrolling and parody memes. (One example of this working being, of course, creepypasta).

The web is a much more complicated place than it was before, and much harder to navigate technically. But there should be interesting ways to use this technology – but while also placing it in the background.

American Utopia was simply a recording of a concert show, but it has inspired me and made me think. I am going to watch Stop Making Sense soon. But I want to think a lot more about this one first.

Host: A perfect lockdown movie

Host is a 2020 found-footage movie, set on a haunted zoom call. To answer the obvious question: it’s not just a gimmick, and is much, much better than it needed to be.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch this in a cinema; and I wonder if it would have been better watched on a laptop or phone rather than on my projector. It’s a serious question: this is a film that is all about technology and connection, and it’s one where most of the audience will be watching it alone, or in their household bubble.

The film dispatches with all the zoom cliches quickly and, given the weird pace of the year, feels almost nostalgic. This scene-setting genuinely felt like a group of friends meeting online, and made me laugh a couple of times. Zoom’s clunkiness is used superbly, all those limitations like low bandwidth, buffering and so on. The video-conferencing allowed some brilliant reaction shots to the events in other windows, and the classic Blair-Witch-crying-into-the-camera shot seemed much more natural than in other found footage films.

Despite being filmed on zoom, there are some moments where you can’t help wondering how the effects were achieved, especially if you know that everything was done under social distancing. Apparently stuntmen collaborated with the actors on how to achieve the effects at home; and where this was not possible, they found spaces in their own houses that looked close enough to the actors’ houses to allow cuts. I certainly didn’t notice this at the time.

Horror has always worked with new technology, and this is a great example of that (I loved the comparison of texting and telepathy). There are also some interesting moments around filters and corporeality. Most interesting of all was the seance’s creation of a magical space, and the analysis of how we build spaces on zoom. The characters were cut off from one another by the virus, making them isolated while in danger.

(Early in lockdown I was in a call that got zoombombed. The sense of violation and isolation that caused was incredible – people dropped off the call and found themselves traumatised in their own domestic space. The same blurring comes in the split between domesticity and work, particularly when some people are forced, due to limited space, to make work calls or videos with their beds in the background. The pandemic is shifting the nature and safety of domestic space).

Host is not a perfect movie – there were a few too many jump scares for my taste, and I wasn’t sure how the devices and cameras worked in a couple of places. But I’ll be amazed (and delighted) if anyone produces a better zoom movie than this. The film was apparently 12 weeks from conception to delivery to the Shudder channel who commissioned it. Shudder were apparently chosen as they were open to the film being as long or short as it needed to be. It turns out that 55 minutes was just right.

One of the great things about this film was that it wasn’t about the pandemic itself. I’m sure there will be great horror to be made about covid itself – not least how the strange rules for avoiding it, such as staying 2-meters from other people, are the sort of rules that horror works well with. But this film was about something different. In an interview with Rolling Stone, director Rob Savage said:

We were very adamant that it was not a pandemic movie. It was a lockdown movie. It was more about isolation. We wanted to play on was this idea that video conferencing gives you the impression that you’re with people, but actually you get these stark reminders that you’re not, that you never are. You’re very separate. And you’re very isolated. When the characters start to see their friends in trouble, they’re basically just passengers along for the ride and having to watch at a distance. That was more the thing we were interested in.

The film is a reminder of the need for connection. I can’t wait to one day see it in the cinema.

Review: The Book of Trespass

I had to get the Book of Trespass after reading a promotional interview with author Nick Hayes. It was fascinating and I was almost frustrated at how many other subjects it made me want to read about, such as the Harrying of the North or the King of the Gypsies.

The book is a history of trespass in the UK, along with Hayes’ accounts of his own incursions. Private land is something taken for granted in this country; so much so that, as Hayes describes, being told we’re trespassing has a near-magical effect, a speech act producing physical responses in the listener. By tracing out the history of land, Hayes shows us that this ownership is an invention. This history of property is embedded so deeply in our language that it is almost invisible. Hayes explains that that the word ‘forest’ derived from the latin word ‘foris’ meaning outside, alluding to how the forests were royal hunting grounds, outside the normal law of the land.

I’m not sure how well the accounts of trespassing sat with the scholarship. It felt, a little, like the book was trying to fit into the “man-has-an-adventure” genre. It’s not to say that the personal accounts weren’t fascinating, just that it felt like two books running alongside each other.

The book shows how many of the ills of the world are played out in the land, particularly in English land. While some on the right are trying to make the connection between British manor houses and slavery controversial, Hayes shows clearly that ownership of British land is still defined by the atrocities committed years ago. We are told that the crimes and lawbreaking of the past should be forgotten, while upholding the law in the present day; told that an arbitrary removal of this current property is an injustice. Looked at from one angle, this becomes odd and arbitrary. Why should land obtained by past theft be sacrosanct now?

While Hayes can see the importance of laws like the right to roam, he points out that such things also reinforce the idea that there is a set of land rightfully lost to us. Having read this book, it’s hard to see how Britain can really be a democracy when its property laws are so unfair; but the book also opens up possibilities.

One of the characters in the book is Richard Drax, MP for South Dorset since 2010. Drax owns over 13,000 acres of land in Dorset, among other holdings. Drax has strongly dismissed any criticism of his family and his fortune being linked to the slave trade.

You will have seen Drax’s estate if you’ve driven along the A31. It has one of the longest brick walls in Europe, and includes the striking stag gate. In 2013, Drax voted to increase curbs on immigration, saying “I believe, as do many of my constituents, that this country is full

As Hayes says (p371), “If England is full, it is full of space. And the walls that hide that”

Day 285 – Merry Christmas – and an Unhappy New Tier

Dawn on Christmas Morning

In the run-up to Christmas, the isolation and grimness of lockdown seeped into me. I was working in a new office, which was mostly empty, and I felt like a ghost. I had one day where the only people I spoke to were the staff at Small Batch. I missed daylight most days, and came home too tired to make any preparations for Christmas Day. The bad news of the new variant was followed by the cancelling of Christmas regulations, closed borders, and an announcement that Brighton would enter Tier 4 today, with no hope of emerging before Easter 2021, at the start of April.

Back in October, I wrote the following:

What does life look like under a prolonged pandemic? How do I keep my spirits up and my enthusiasms alive if this does go on for years? It’s not that I think I can’t, or that this is likely to go on into 2022. But answering the question ‘What if this lasts forever’ makes it easier to deal with shorter periods of time. How should we enjoy life and thrive with these new limits?

A few days ago, Matt Hancock said that this crisis was likely to continue into 2022, for the United Kingdon at least. The question for me is, how do I set aside empty hopes, and focus on practical steps to have a good year in 2021?

After 9 months of living alone in lockdown, the isolation has become more difficult. The particular shape of my social networks mean I am not in a social bubble at the moment. Sharing food used to be important to me; food eaten alone just doesn’t taste as good, does it? I can have days without significant human interaction.

Christmas Day itself was good. I went for a long walk at dawn. I swam with some friends in the cold, cold sea. The seafront was busy but mostly distanced, and I bumped into some people I’d not seen in months. Kate Shields came over and we cooked a feast, played Soulcalibur and watched movies. It was a pretty good day, despite my lacklustre preparations.

We are now entering the quiet days between Christmas and New Year. During that time, I need to ask myself, what I am excited about in 2021? What makes a good life within a dangerous and ongoing pandemic?

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See

I’ll happily pick out a book because of a good title: and The Museum of Whales You Will Never See is an excellent title. Given that the book bearing the title is a travel book about Icelandic museums, I had to buy it.

Iceland’s population is, according to wikipedia, 364,000. Brighton has a population of 230,000 – so Iceland is basically a nation the size of Brighton and Lewes combined. Somehow, this small country has 265 museums. Nobody is quite sure why Iceland has so many, but it is apparently a recent phenomenon.

A. Kendra Greene’s book describes her visits to some of these museums. The writing is exquisite and reminds me of Borges, with subtle and stunning flights of erudition, such as the lovely section about Hermai. The real things she describes sound fantastical, like how Icelanders used seal- or fish-skin for shoes, which wore out quickly. They would measure the distances in terms of how many shoes they needed. Or, take this quote:

Indeed, there is a certain practice in Iceland of making a display of one’s home window. Not everyone does it, and it’s only ever one window of a home, a single stage, but there some combination of taxidermy or seashells or figurines or fake flowers in a little vase. Not a lot of things, not like storage, but the windowsill subbing as a bookshelf. No, just a few things, a spare kind of diorama: just a part of black converse shoes and a puffin posed on a rock.

Another lovely piece of phrasing comes when Greene talks about ‘qualified superlatives’: “The brochure claims ‘Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum is considered the largest private bird collection that is known in Iceland’. One only wonders about collections yet unknown.

The book makes me think of two offbeat museums that I love: Anna’s Museum in Brighton (which now has an entry on Atlas Obscura); and the Museum of Jurassic Technology (I wrote a zine about my trip there). Museums can be simple things, growing from a small wunderkammer, like Anna’s windows. Greene’s book suggests that everyone should have their own museum, however small.

Day 276 – The Toll It Takes

It’s now 276 days since the pandemic first pushed me to working from home. My initial estimates were that the distruption would last 3-6 months, based on what happened in Wuhan. It turns out that I under-estimated. The UK has now had over 9 months of fluctuating restrictions without ever getting things under control. While some countries have returned to normal, lockdowns here look set to continue well into the new year.

I’ve been very lucky that covid itself has had little impact on me personally; and I remain grateful that both my work and living situations are stable. But months of lockdown are beginning to take their toll on me; and I’m seeing people around me starting to fray a little.

Part of this comes from living alone. I’m grateful not to have to worry about dealing with housemates, or insecure accomodation. But I miss having meals with people. I also have very few normal interactions. Social distancing means that physical contact, even shaking hands, is not possible. In the old days, I could get away from it all in a cafe or browsing a bookshop. Now, there’s no possibility of going to a social space and forgetting about this, with masks, covid precautions and social distancing making everything seem strange. It’s rare to spend time around people who are behaving normally.

I have it pretty easy – there are many vulnerable people in much worse situations than I am. But even doing the pandemic in easy mode takes its toll. These are not the sort of things that can be solved by a newspaper listicle. I keep up my daily exercise, try to eat properly, and make preparations for a grim January and February. Even with the vaccine coming, we have more months of this ahead, and sometimes it’s just hard.

The Last of Us Part 2

In 1997, Michael Haneke released a dark and intentionally unpleasant home invasion movie, Funny Games, then remade it with a larger budget in 2007. Both films are grim, and were intended by Haneke as lessons about media violence. He said that “anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film, and anybody who stays does.”

The Last of Us Part II has been widely acclaimed as the best game of 2020, and praised as innovative and emotionally resonant. It was one of the reasons I bought a PS4, but I only made it through about ten hours before deciding that it had nothing to say to me and stopped playing. As beautiful as the game is, there is an ugliness below the surface that repulses me. The game’s morality is broken.

When you’re playing videogames, the worlds are designed to look real, but represent a less complicated logical universe. Like how some stones on the ground can be picked up as weapons, but others are decoration. Or how wooden doors in games sometimes require a key and are impervious to bazooka fire. Or you can open drawers to find hidden items, but only some drawers.

The Last of Us pretends to be an open world, but not all the windows can be levered open. Sometimes, I found myself wandering an area, looking for the gap I should squeeze through to enter the next area. Sometimes I could see that area through a chainlink face, but not all the fences are climbable, only the ones where an icon appears. Rather than simply exist in this virtual world, I had to learn to interpret it. What was implied to be an open world was actually a series of controlled corridors.

This same forced path happens in the game’s morality. The revenge plot relies on the main character feeling remorse for the people they have slaughtered. But these murders are not chosen by the character. Sometimes the only way to progress is to fight your way past ‘enemies’. The game attempts to humanise these guards through their companions call their names as they die. Forcing the player to kill to progress, then blaming them for it, is some sort of Skinnerian experiment in misplaced empathy.

Having given up on the game, it’s sad to learn that this problematic morality is by design, with director Neil Druckman saying in an interview:

“we can make you experience this thirst for revenge. This thirst for retribution and having you actually, like, commit the acts of finding it and then showing you the other side to make you regret it. To make you feel dirty for everything you’ve done in the game, making you realise ‘I’m actually the villain of the story.’”

Vice magazines’s review described TLOUP2 as a game about revenge that “digs two graves, fills them with blood, and then just fucking wallows in them”. As much as I loved the post-apocalypse setting, I wasn’t up for the wallowing.

The game has produced some interesting critical responses. Some have pointed out that the game’s plot is implicitly Conservative, with a selfishness at its heart. One of the best pieces I read was about the treatment of one of the Black characters (an incident I did not progress far enough to see): “The torture and death of Nora is considered in the game only in the effect that it has on Ellie, as if the decision to torture someone is something that happens to you instead of a choice.” On top of this there is the abuse of staff who made this game through the use of crunch time, so I guess things have not improved since the days of EA Spouse.

There were far better stories that could have been told using the setting and technology than one that forces the player into murder and then blames them for it. The only choice, like in Funny Games is whether to play or not.

A Visit to the Plague Village

I didn’t do a lot of travelling this year, but one place I stayed was totally on-brand for 2020: Eyam, the plague village. I picked this as an overnight stop on the White to Dark Trail, and only later remembered why the village was famous.

In 1665, some flea-infested cloth arrived in the town and people began to get sick. Precautions were taken, such as moving church services outdoors, and making families bury their own dead – which puts the current situation into a bleak sort of perspective. Eventually Eyam put itself into quarantine and local merchants delivered supplies to marked rocks. Holes had been made in these rocks and filled with vinegar to disinfect the money left in payment. The plague lasted over 14 months killing more than half the villagers.

The plague is marked by an annual event, but the 2020 Plague Sunday ceremonies were cancelled due to covid. We passed through the village the following month. Eyam is scenic, and the history makes it a popular stop for coach tours. It’s fair to say that Eyam has made the best of their connection to the plague history. The village is filed with weirdly jaunty signs describing the horrors that happened there. Ironically, Covid meant that the plague museum was shut.