Day 269 – “I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler” (Clubbing)

On Friday night, the weekend started with a DJ set from Kate St Shields. She’s been wrestling for weeks with hardware and software so that she can stream online (and avoid copyright takedowns). Finally, she cracked it, and for the first time in months I got to hear Kate DJing.

It was great. Kate was entertaining, performing rather than just playing records. The chat window was full of friends and a zoom was opened up to some of the people dancing. It was one of the most sociable times I’ve had since lockdown and the mix is now online at Mixcloud. (The title comes from one of the songs she played, by the band Yacht).

And then I reminded myself. This is shit. As good as it is, as much work has gone into it, it’s nothing like the real thing and I can’t let myself be tricked by it. This is the sort of thing that turns up in dystopian fiction. All those people in different windows came straight out of Forster’s 1909 story The Machine Stops.

Kate’s next set is on December 28th, on Mixcloud, starting at 8pm GMT. It will be great. But hopefully, the next time I see her play after that is in the real world.

Day 268: The Second Lockdown in Hove

The guardian had an article on lockdown in Hove last month. It didn’t quite match with my own experiences. It talked about how the second lockdown didn’t feel like a lockdown, and how quiet things were in the first one. But it overplays that hand a little. “No people. Nothing. Now it’s just like normal, whatever normal is,” it quotes one person as saying, and the writer describes the first lockdown as “something rather spectral and unnerving about the UK’s near-abandoned streets, as if a neutron bomb had gone off, and the only people to survive were deeply suspicious of each other”.

The roads were definitely quieter in the first phase of the pandemic, and there was a deep silence in the area where I live. But there were still lots of people walking on the seafront. In fact, the media narrative at the time was all about foolish people crowding together on Brighton seafront and risking the virus. This was unfair, as it didn’t take account of how many people have the seafront as their nearest open space.

There was one significant difference between the two lockdowns. In the first lockdown there was a heavy police presence, and you saw fewer large groups gathering. At one point in April people were even discouraged from sitting on the beach.

Everyone’s pandemic experiences are different, but it’s all difficult. I have an easy time of it in some ways, but there are aspects I find almost unbearable. The second lockdown was a grind, with some things feeling as if they were back to normal. But, my big fear is that I am losing track of what normal ought to be, taking too much of this new world for granted.

Death Stranding

Last weekend, I finished playing Death Stranding. It’s a strange game, and sometimes frustrating – not least for the ending: 40 hours of play was rewarded with hours of cut scenes to explain the plot. Still, now I’ve completed the main story, I can focus on the bits I like – making deliveries and connecting preppers to the chiral network.

Death Stranding is a game about deliveries, about taking parcels between isolated people who are unable to leave their homes. Yes, for a game released in November 2019, just before the first confirmed case of coronavirus, it’s weirdly prescient. During March, I actually spent time in the real world dropping off food and medication to people who were shielding.

My biggest frustration was with how the game shifted genre. I wanted to play a game about building and connecting, and resented being forced to pick up guns to fight people and bosses. I was at my happiest making long, lonely hikes across mountains. One of the big criticisms I’ve seen of this game is that it is simply a ‘walking simulator’. I cannot underplay how wonderful I found the portrayal of walking. It felt very close to my personal experience of hiking over rough terrain and picking the best route.

The other great thing about the game was its asynchronous multiplayer elements. You can use infrastructure created by other players and are rewarded when they use elements that you have created. I’m not quite sure how it works, but it’s fun and effective. I do wonder how this will work as the game ages. Will these connections decay as players move away and, eventually, the servers are switched off? This would be a tragedy.

One surprising thing was how traumatic some of the game’s themes were, featuring bereavement, miscarriage and mourning. It wasn’t exploitative, but it can’t be easy for everyone to deal with. In addition, after Anita Sarkeesian’s excellent work on Tropes in Gaming, it was disappointing to see a female characters made sexually vulnerable to add jeopardy.

But the game sticks with me. As I played, I found myself thinking about incomplete deliveries the morning after a session. I felt acutely the incompetence when I arrived at one destination to realise that I’d left the cargo behind.

I’ve had a week off the game, but I’m planning to return to the world of Death Stranding. I may have completed the main story, but the game allows you to continue making deliveries and building infrastructure. I’m looking forward to heading back into the mountains and visiting some of the places I missed first time round.

Review: Diary of an MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire

I have very few vices, but one of them is a love of political diaries and insider accounts. Part of it is the gossip, but there’s also a fascination in seeing glimpses of how the world really works. Sometimes these glimpses have changed my views: Alastair Campbell’s diaries gave me a more sympathetic view of New Labour; and Tim Shipman’s description of Corbyn’s behaviour during the Brexit campaign made me consider him less favourably than my friends do.

Swire’s book is an odd one, starting with its disingenuous introduction. Here, Swire claims that she showed the book to a literary agent “out of curiosity, and somewhat foolishly” and was “swept up into a publishing tornado“. She makes it sound accidental. Even more fascinating, the agent in question was Boris Johnson’s sister’s sister-in-law – small world.

I’m amazed that this book was published. It is vicious and open in its portrayal of the upper classes and their casual privilege. These are simply not very nice people, who use their money as a license to act badly. As the New Statesman memorably put it, “like a chili pepper inserted into a racehorse’s anus, this book is guaranteed to get your class war dander up”.

It’s Christopher Moran buying a cheap lease on Crosby Hall and throwing out the “old biddies“ living there before transforming it into a £25 million thirty-bedroom mansion. It’s Hugh, the MP husband, joking that a buyer in an auction must be on benefits to be bidding £60,000. It’s the resentful way the Swires deal with problems at Port Eliot festival, where they hired a teepee, “at huge expense” (I think I was there that same year and got flooded out in my own cheap tent). It’s mocking Pauline Prescott as “fragrant”, and sneering at her taste. It’s Prime Minister Cameron, involved in discussion about which female MPs are “beddable”. It’s Daily Mail heir Johanthan Rothermere and his wife taking delight in switching the ownership of a mansion to his wife to protect his “sort of non Dom” status. There are so many more such moments.

As an aside, I particularly liked one particular mention of the Rothermeres:

Despite its grand scale, [The Rothermere house] is as discreet as a military base on an Ordnance Survey map; land was purchased all around it to protect their privacy. Ironic, I know. Only one hill remains out of their possession and is clearly quite an irritation to them.

There are more differences between the rich and regular people, other than just the money. There is a episode where Swire is involved in preparations for a royal visit. Her daughter transcribes the security officer’s discussions, playing at being a spy. This notebook is then left behind at a pizza restaurant. Swire tells this as a funny story, rather than an appalling breach of security. But people like this don’t deal with consequences. To be fair, it is funny that the security officers were openly discussing the arrangements in front of someone who was writing it all down. But breaches of security like this would be a disciplinary offence for most people. It must be good to be so safe from consequences.

The book is readable, apart from the occasional bits of purple prose. My main criticism, obviously, was that there were some good sections on hiking, and these should have been given more space. I suspect that’s just me.

The book leaves me wondering, what was Swire thinking? The Guardian’s review sums it up: ”If you needed proof that Britain has been misruled by the unserious, entitled, snobbish, incestuous and curiously childish then the acerbic Lady Swire, unwittingly or not, has provided it.”

Swire at one point laments that “The electorate want gods above them and are disappointed to find humans who turn out to be just as fallible as themselves”. Most of the people I know are decent and kind and generous, and Swire has given a portrait of people who are more fallible than anyone I know.

Swire, again: “It’s enough to repulse the ordinary man, already angered by the continuing hold of the British class system”. People are angry a lot these days – just look at what Twitter became. Aimless anger suits the sort of people described by Swire, who benefit undeservedly from the class system. Far more important is actually doing something about it.

Day 263 – A Covid Test

On Saturday I woke with an awful headache. I’ve got used to these sorts of things as my tolerance for alcohol has collapsed over lockdown. I’ve even experienced the single-drink hangover, which has meant I’ve not been drinking at all recently.

Being hungover from not drinking seems unfair, and suggested something was wrong. I slept much of the day, but continued feeling worse until, a little after dark, I vomitted my guts empty. Lovely. I felt fine the next day, but when I put the symptoms into the Zoe Covid Symptom App, I was told to get a covid test.

After reading so much about the testing system, it was interesting to experience the process. Firstly, covid tests are still not available to everyone who wants them. You have to be referred for one, or declare covid symptoms. On my first journey through the website, I answered one of the questions wrongly and was told I wasn’t eligible (the question was about whether I’d been told to get one by an official research project, which it turns out Zoe is).

The next problem was actually booking the test. I could have a home test, which would be a few days turnaround, during which I needed to isolate. The other option was to go to a test centre, the nearest of which was 3.5 miles from my house. Given that, as a suspected covid patient, I wasn’t to use taxis or public transport, this meant walking or cycling. The walk was not a problem for me, but I can see it being a barrier to some people.

The test centre itself was very quiet and I was quickly processed. The staff onsite were excellent; efficient and polite. It reminded me a little of a festival. I was met by some bored security guards, who sent me down a plastic path over grass to the railings of an empty queueing area. Following that through, I found myself in a large white tent. I was a little surprised at having to self-administer the test, which was actually a less unpleasant task than I’d expected.

The test results came through 24 hours later: negative. I isolated for a couple more days, and will be heading back to the office today.

Monthnotes – November 2020

November brought with it a small rekindling of hope. As the Verge’s headline put it, President Trump is defeated: the timeline is restored. Of course, 2020 has taught me to be cautious about promises, but we are apparently a couple of weeks from the first vaccine rollouts. Even allowing for government incompetence, we have a pathway towards normality. Although we still have to get through the post-Christmas spike and the disruption of Covexit; and even the most optimistic timelines suggest pandemic disruption will continue until Easter 2021. But an end is in sight.

November has been spent under lockdown, so I’ve done very little. The days feel quite repetitious and I am thoroughly bored of spending time in my own flat. My walking total was a slack 385,978 steps, with a maximum of 23,852. Doing the steps continues to be a chore, but the motivation for daily exercise seems essential.

I finished just one book, Sasha Swire’s Diary of an MP’s Wife which is a spectacularly candid book about the Cameron government. I also finished listening to my first audiobook, The Beastie Boys Book. I’ve never paid particular attention to the band, but I love music biographies, and this audiobook was designed as a spectacular. Rather than an actor or the band reading, they brought in friends and colleagues. The sections set in England, for example, are read by Jarvis Cocker and Elvis Costello.

I’ve also been impressed by the Louder than a Riot podcast, a series about the history of hip-hop and mass incarceration. Obviously, much of the content is depressing, but there are a few lighter moments – not least rapper Too Short discussing his (abandoned) plans for a conscious hip-hop album.

The only film I watched was prison drama The Animal Factory. Directed by Steve Buscemi (who also appeared on the Beastie Boys audiobook), this movie had a great cast and story. Much of my leisure time was spent finishing PS4 game Death Stranding, which proved a strange and moving experience. I’ve been half-watching Star Trek: Discovery and Walking Dead: The World Beyond, but I’m finding it hard to get excited about TV shows.

Life continues to feel frozen by the pandemic. I’m becoming more engaged with my writing a blogging, and making plans for the future. I’m looking forward more to January than December, and the new year ahead.