Wintering by Katherine May (Day 301)

As the pandemic shatters my sense of time, I look for new ways to define it. Normally, I track the year by external events – the Brighton Fringe, Christmas parties, birthday parties &c. The usual markers have disappeared, so that things like moon phases and sunrise and tides have become more important. Back in the summer, I became obsessed with the fact that I could see certain planets with my naked eye. (I must have learned about this on my astrophysics degree courses, but there is a difference between facts and knowledge). As the weather has grown cold, I’ve become more aware of the seasons. We are deep in Winter, but the daffodils are growing tall already.

Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish, and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.

I’m trying to buy fewer cheap books on Amazon, but Katherine May’s Wintering stood out. It’s an odd and elegant book. The writing is very much in the style of memoir/nature writing and there is an element of the non-fiction quest, where several people are interviewed around a theme. May admits “When I set out to write this book, I fully intended to do more“, travelling the world and interviewing experts. It’s a stronger book for the fact that she didn’t. Instead, this is a more personal book, full of deep wisdom about how wintering affects a person.

I began to get a feel for my winterings: their length and breadth, their heft. I knew that they didn’t last forever. I knew that I had to find the most comfortable way to live through them until spring.

For May, wintering is a metaphor for dark times in life, and May gently draws out the comparison with how we survive winter to how we survive these dark times in our own lives. “Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.” It’s a book about how to retreat. As May writes, “I have learned how to winter the hard way. It’s a skillset, of sorts.

There are gaps in the mesh of the everyday world, and sometimes they open up and you fall through them into Somewhere Else. Somewhere Else runs at a different pace to the here and now, where everyone else carries on. Somewhere Else is where ghosts live, concealed from view and only glimpsed by people in the real world… Perhaps I was already teetering on the brink of Somewhere Else anyway; but now I fell through, as simply and discreetly as dust sifting between the floorboards. I was surprised to find that I felt at home there. Winter had begun.

Wintering is the first book I’ve read in 2021, and was the perfect companion at the start of a fearful new year. It’s a reminder that I should take things slow, that these are hard times, but that we will get through them.

Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out.

Recently, the seafront has felt uncomfortably busy. Rather than walk there, I’ve been pacing the parks inland. I’ve taken solo daily exercise walking laps of Hove Recreation Ground. A couple of times recently, I’ve walked with friends around St. Anne’s Well Garden. Much of the ground here is bare, reduced to mud. The squirrels scamper, patting the ground, looking for caches of food. Someone told me that squirrels have little memory for their stores, that they recover them more by chance than instinct. In St Anne’s Well Garden the squirrels are almost tame, and will sometimes walk up to people, walkers without dogs, to see whether by chance they have any food to offer.

But we are brave, and the new world awaits us, gleaming and green, alive with the beat of wings. And besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We who have wintered have learned some things.

The Saddest Music in the World (Day 300)

“I’m Kate and I’m playing the saddest music in the world”

Kate St Shields has played some great lockdown DJ sets. On Friday, she broadcast a couple of hours of the saddest music she could find. As well as being sad, the songs were sometimes strange and wonderful, including a moving cover of Imagine by Yoko Ono.

“Maybe if you listen to enough sad music, it will have the opposite effect?”

I was listening in an appartment with my support-bubble friend, waiting for a much-delayed curry. Hearing a DJ play heartbreaking music to a quiet town was intense. A little like being at the end of the world, waiting out the last days. Like being in our own private apocalypse movie.

“Catharsis… in the shape of really sad music”

Kate had been asking on Twitter for the saddest music people knew, and closed with Gavin Bryar’s 25-minute version of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Then, as an encore, she played a sad, fragile she’d recorded of If You’re Going to San Francisco. The pandemic bring extraordinary experiences, some of which are, in their own way, wonderful.

In response, below are 14 of the saddest songs that I know:

How to Win At Lockdown (Day 299)

Groups sit on Brighton beach, looking out towards the windfarm

When I threw out my 2020 calendar, most of the squares were empty. In 2021, I am working on filling out the days as best I can. Of course, it’s only zoom calls and the occasional walk with a friend, but I’m trying to make my experience of the current lockdown a more social one than the past six months have been.

As inevitable as the third UK lockdown was, it still felt like a blow. The sloppiness of preparations over the summer have inevitably led to disaster. By January 5th, over a million people were infected with the virus. It feels like a very scary time, and it’s hard to imagine how it must feel to be working on the wards.

Personally, I felt low as the restrictions came in. I had one day after Christmas where I didn’t speak to anyone other than the staff at Small Batch on the way to the office. That evening I spent six hours playing Death Stranding and it felt more real than my actual life. The downtime over New Year was much needed, and I’m feeling a little more connected now.

I’m not expecting lockdown to be significantly eased before Easter. Even if the vaccination programme goes smoothly, it will take many weeks to vaccinate everyone. Lockdown will remain normal life for some time. Back in October, I wrote:

It’s not that I think… 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?

I took the first lockdown as a quiet, meditative time, and that worked well. After that, I never settled into the inherent shitness of life in confinement (even as I remain grateful that I did not have to deal with the problems faced by medical staff, teachers, parents etc).

Maybe my problem with Lockdown is not getting into the swing of it. I never did my Joe Wicks PE classes, or Yoga with Adrienne. I shunned zoom quizzes. I didn’t watch the whole of Tiger King.

I’ve not even been in a social bubble since my best friend moved away. Part of the reason for this was finding a suitable household – many friends are were in house-shares, with housemates that are bending or breaking the rules. I’d not been too bothered, but realised recently how important sharing food is to my social life. So, I have a new bubble formed, which means I could meet a friend for a takeaway curry yesterday.

Lockdown will continue whether I hate it or not. So, better I try to enjoy it as best as I can. Now, where can I get a sourdough starter?

Brighton and the Internet of Place

“The Internet of Place” is a great buzzword. When you hear it, you know what it might be, and the concept rhymes well with “Internet of Things”. You imagine small autonomous nodes, taking advantage of their locations in the real world; a blossoming of tiny interactions with the world that makes life more convenient, interesting and meaningful.

In 2015, Brighton was chosen as one of the digital catapult centres, receiving funding and support to set up a variety of technical initiatives, including the Internet of Place. The requirements were open ended, as explained by Nick Hibberd, the head of city regeneration at Brighton & Hove city council: “By allowing a collaborative space, innovation will come. But innovation by its very definition means you don’t know where it’s going to end”. It was intended to provide collaboration between public sector, universities, SMEs, Amex and Gatwick Airport, “to turn Brighton’s best digital ideas from concept into reality, creating new products, services, jobs and value for the local economy”.

The Internet of Place was about combining Internet of Things (IOT) devices with geographical locations. But this vision went beyond the sort of tedious location-based ideas that I’ve seen pushed since the early days of SMS. As the Guardian wrote:

Local leaders also want to use the internet of place to improve the way the city manages its infrastructure, including transport systems, and the 11 million tourists who visit each year. There could be apps to direct drivers away from the most congested areas and help them find free parking spaces. Improving public transport and encouraging visitors to use park and ride facilities

Another important aspect of the catapult was to unlock local data services, with the idea that “data sharing will also help to create better services, from transport to healthcare”. The article explains how data is potentially highly valuable, and exposing it to the world could produce a significant economic boost, with the 5G test network adding to this.

The Internet of Place was also intended to support local business who might not have the technical skills or money to provide a rich digital experience. The Guardian interviewed Ben Potter, from marketing agency Leapfrog, who talked about the IOP driving business to shops without an internet presence: “If we can create a platform that understands the main interests of consumers – such as films, food, clothing brands – then local retailers can send out targeted messages to people’s mobile phones as they walk past,

(This vision brings with it the danger of location-based spam, one of the big flaws in location based marketing since the early days. How do you engage people while also interrupting them? I’m assuming there are ways to do this, but those challenges probably dwarf the technical ones)

The digital catapult funding has produced two successes in the 5G testbed and am immersive tech lab supporting the production of AR and VR applications. But the promised internet of place applications never appeared.

Searching Google for mentions of the term in the past year returns only a handful of results. It’s a shame, considering how exciting a vision had been laid out a few years before. Given the creativity in Brighton’s tech scene, I can’t imagine what ideas we might have seen around wayfinding, location, retail, , tourism, art and games.

On Top of Glastonbury Tor (21/06/18)

I am standing at the top of Glastonbury Tor when my phone buzzes: my sister’s email is not working and can I fix it.

I have my laptop with me. My Airbnb, while comfortable, has no locks on the door, so it was better to bring it with me. Since I’ve got my laptop, I can work out what’s wrong with the email from here, using my phone as a portable hotspot. And so, at the top of the holy hill, I go online and check things. Once a test email goes through, I can put the laptop away and get back to being a tourist. It’s late in the day after the solstice and the hilltop is full of people celebrating, playing and meditating.

The Internet has grown to encompass the world. We used to ‘go online’; now online is all around us. Even on the top of Glastonbury Tor I can be as connected as I am at my house.

In his book, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, James Bridle quotes mathematician Harry Reid’s description of working with the ENIAC, one of the first computers. This was a machine that took up the whole of a large room, and Reid says: “The ENIAC… was a very personal computer. Now we think of a personal computer as one you carry around with you. The ENIAC was actually one that you kind of lived inside”.

As Bridle goes on to point out, we all live inside a computer now, “a vast machinery of computation that encircles the entirety of the globe and extends into outer space on a network of satellites [while] it has rendered itself almost invisible to us”.

The supply chains, our phones, the planes in the skies, are all part of a massive network. Satellites send signals that tell us where we are anywhere in the world. We can no longer opt out. Everywhere I go, the Internet is there in some form. I don’t usually have my laptop in my bag, but my phone is always there.

The problem with this is that all places start to look the same. They all look a little bit like the UI on my Android phone.

This is an excerpt from a work in progress, A Hiker’s Guide to Brexit. It comes at the start of a chapter about Glastonbury, and how Britpop caused Brexit.

New Atlas Obscura Site: The Portslade Gassie

A new Atlas Obscura entry recently appeared near my house, for something I’d never heard of: the Portslade Gassie. I’d walked past the site several times without noticing anything, so it seemed like a good destination for a walk.

Apparently, there were several of these wooden boats, which acted as a form of public transport across a canal to the gas works. The site the boats were used to reach was 40 acres large by 1926, according to the sign.

The boat itself is a ruin, and the site of a busy, grim junction. Litter in the area was hidden by weeds. It made me wonder who maintains these things, and decides they must stay in place, even as they become overgrown and ruined. I wondered who this was placed here for. Was someone waiting for the boat to rot enough that it could be removed? But, if nothing else, it provided something to see on an empty lockdown Sunday.

Winter Walks

In the city, you can’t ignore the pandemic: covered faces, the rash of notices, people keeping their distance from each other. On my way out of Brighton, I even saw a masked statue (and I was disappointed that it had left its nose uncovered).

But out on the Downs ,it eases a little. Even if the conversation circles around the pandemic, and you’re still keeping a distance from your sole legally-permitted companion, life feels a little freer. It was cold on Saturday, but it felt good to be out.

Katharine and I had planned to walk to Ditchling Beacon. The route to the Beacon itself was muddy. While I enjoyed the slog, Katharine was not in the mood for half a mile of slippy, sticky mud. (Did you know that one book on Sussex Dialect lists 62 words that each describes a different texture of mud?). Instead we turned back and headed into a valley I’d not been through before, although I’d crossed it many times.

I’ve been enjoying Katherine May’s book Wintering, the perfect thing to be reading at the start of a bleak year:

Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

I love a good winter walk. The lack of leaves and the cold air gave everything clarity. The light has a different quality, the light diffused differently by the sun being lower in the sky.

Here is another truth about wintering: you’ll find wisdom in your winter, and once it’s over, it’s your responsibility to pass it on. And in return, it’s our responsibility to listen to those who have wintered before us. It’s an exchange of gifts in which nobody loses out.

from Wintering by Katherine May

We made our way to the Chattri. As it has been though much of the crisis, it was busier than usual. We stopped here for lunch then headed back into town before the rain settled in.

Book Review: Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn

Even as someone who reads a lot of political books, Left Out probably had a little too much detail about internal Labour process for my taste. The book is incredibly thorough, sometimes at the cost of storytelling, but it would have been a weaker book without those details. Besides, any quibble I have are blown away by the impact of the revelations.

Corbyn will be argued about for years. It was remarkable to see a leader who had not intended to lead, or plotted for years to be in charge. This made his presence disarming, and many people were impressed by the lack of spin, which stood in contrast to the Blair years.

This strength was also Corbyn’s biggest weakness. It was refreshing to see a principled politician with nobody to answer to, and who refused to compromise. But Corbyn had also not established the relationships that enabled him to manage a party. There are remarkable similarities between Corbyn and Theresa May in how they led their parties – as well as their disastrous elections.

I was enthusiastic about Corbyn in the run-up to the 2017 election. Some time after, I read All Out War, the first book in Tim Shipman’s Brexit Trilogy. This contained some shocking accounts of Corbyn’s behaviour and poor management in the referendum campaign. Fortunately, in 2019, I was voting in a Labour safe-seat, so could safely vote against both Corbyn and Johnson. If I’d been in a marginal I would have had a very hard choice.

For many voters, Corbyn’s behaviour over the Skripal poisonings made him unacceptable, and that was an entirely self-inflicted injury. On top of that came Corbyn’s inability to get on top of the issue of anti-Semitism – as revolted as he was by the accusations, Corbyn never managed a clear response. A mainstream politician who cannot escape accusations of anti-semitism is probably not that great at politics. I know there was mischief-making from the press and other parties, but that was always going to be the case for a left-wing labour leader. You have to deal with the situation you actually have, not the one that would be fair.

Between the 2017 and 2019 elections, Corbyn failed to come up with a clear or satisfactory Brexit position. The book describes how excruciating this process became:

Another aide recalled: ‘Jeremy was sat there, and didn’t speak to offer any clarity whatsoever on what he’d meant. So he was just there, and I remember thinking, “this is mental”. They were interpreting his words in front of him, while he wasn’t saying anything. And he’d just sit there and he’d always have his notebook and just … It was like he didn’t feel the need to clarify or to take control of the situation.’

(Starmer’s position might not be what I want, but it at least moves beyond the remain/leave binary: Brexit happened back in January and Johnson must now deliver the great deal that was promised).

Aside from the internal shambles that Labour became under Corbyn’s leadership, his charming spontaneity caused a great deal of problems: ”some aides had arrived at the extraordinary conclusion that he was sabotaging his own campaign. Corbyn was often late and appeared to purposely overstay at events in order to minimise his day’s commitments.

The most shocking thing in this book was learning that some within the Labour Party did actively sabotage the 2019 election. I’d dismissed any idea of this as conspiracy theory, but it turns out that even the Canary is right occasionally.

As an aside, It was odd to read a book about recent history, and see how it mentioned the pandemic. While the book covers the Labour leadership contest, discussion of the pandemic is limited to a single paragraph, talking about how Covid-19 shut down campaigning. It was odd to see an event that is currently so huge and dramatic being mentioned in passing. It was a strange moment of perspective.

While I was not a fan of Corbyn, I loved many of his policies; I just doubted that was the person who could deliver these things. The book ends on a hopeful note, that the Corbyn revolution may not yet be complete, despite the ejection of Rebecca Long-Bailey:

The 2019 intake of MPs was further to the left than ever…. Keir Starmer won power by embracing Corbynism, rather than repudiating it. The Project’s legacy is a parliamentary left that can no longer be ignored.

December Monthnotes

December was a hard month, where the confinement and stress of the pandemic hit me harder than ever. Motivating myself for daily walks continued to be difficult, and I’ve done few long walk recently. A 20,000 step walk with Ben Graham, at the start of December, left my feet aching. My walking total for the month was 440,948, with a minimum of just 5 steps above my target, and a maximum of 25,220 when I was holidaying in Sheringham. My total for the year was 5,034,033 steps and 2,347 miles.

I managed to watch six films in the month, more than I’ve managed in a while:

  • Tenet (fun, but I’m glad I didn’t risk a cinema for it)
  • The Shot Caller (a rewatch of a favourite prison film. It had fewer prison scenes than I remembered and on reflection I think I prefer Felon, from the same director)
  • American Utopia
  • Sunset Boulevard (finally! And a much weirder film than I expected)
  • The 40-year-old version
  • Host

I finished the story of Death Stranding and continued playing afterwards, completing the road system on Christmas Eve. That evening, a lovely email went out to Bridges operatives, which made the night feel less weird and isolated. I’m a little obsessed by this game. I’ve looked for something else to play on my PS4 but can’t find anything similar.

I spent a few days in Sheringham and looked for fossils. Short after returning, I learned a valuable lesson about hairdressing: it’s not a game for amateurs. I was obliged to shave my head and was relieved when it grew to a grade-1 again. On the 25th, I had a lovely Christmas with Kate Shields, despite leaving preparations to the last minute.

December was a tough month, and it will get worse before it gets better. But, as January starts, I feel more resilient and, maybe, prepared for what is to come. But as 2020 has taught us, it’s hard to guess exactly what the future holds.

I’ve set this post to publish at 1:51pm. According to my almanac, this is the perihelion, when the earth passes closes to the sun, about 91 million miles.

Looking forward to 2021 / Day 291

I welcomed in 2021 sharing homemade soup with a friend, on a Brighton seafront bench. Living on my own, it’s rare to share food these days, so this felt like a blessing. We were socially distanced and the police patrols ignored us. I had lit some incense, but placed it badly so that the wind just swept the smoke away. Later, the walk home was edgy, none of the friendly cameraderie of a normal New Year’s Eve.

I saw out 2020 with a couple of zoom calls: catching up with the CERN pilgrims, and some of Kate Shields’ DJ set. She’d placed the decks so that, at midnight, her camera caught the reflection of the beachfront fireworks in a door’s glass. It was a beautiful-crafted moment, one of the highlights of a grim year.

My main priority for 2021 is not to get sick. As the numbers of covid-19 cases go through the roof, this begins to seem challenging. Does the basic method of “hands, face, space” work? Brighton has about 208 new cases a week per 100,000 residents: one in every few hundred people is infected. How are so many people catching the infection at this point in time? Is it even safe to be walking along the seafront? A good friend has long covid, and it is not something I want to deal with.

(Over the past year, I’ve kept an eye on the Lockdown Sceptics site. It’s been interesting to see the alternative narratives to ongoing events. But, with the second wave, Toby Young’s endeavour looks intellectually threadbare. There is no comfort left in misinterpreted data).

Despite the pandemic, I achieved my modest aims for 2020. Having a year of nothing at this stage in my life has provided time to reflect. I’m glad that did not come too late for me.

What I am excited about in 2021? What makes a good life within a dangerous and ongoing pandemic? Even with the vaccine, we could be a long way from normality, and the government’s promise of ‘normality by Easter’ requires a competence that’s not so far been displayed.

I’ve mocked the idea of comparing life to video-games but Death Stranding has been a powerful metaphor for the isolation and strangeness of my pandemic experience. A few days ago, someone reminded me of the game’s lesson. So, in 2021, I want to be a good Bridges operative, and to make connections amidst the isolation.

2021 will have a rough start. But my 2021 almanac tells me that there is an hour more daylight at the end of January than at the start. We can see the first glimmer of better days ahead.