People count the pandemic as starting from different days. I’m on day 985, which is measured from the day that my office closed. Since then, we’ve had two new Prime Ministers, and I’ve had two new jobs. I’ve moved house three times and had four vaccinations against coronavirus. I’ve still not tested positive for coronavirus and there are currently no restrictions in place.
My friends Cat and Kirsty are over a thousand days into their pandemic. Cat recently published an essay to mark this: One Thousand Days. It’s an angry piece, looking at how many people have been forgotten as the pandemic has continued. Like my friend Sophie, Cat caught the coronavirus in the early stages of the pandemic and has gone on to suffer long covid. Because Cat and Sophie were not offered tests at the time they were ill, they have never been given a diagnosis of long covid, and are not therefore considered ineligible for long covid treatment.
Cat’s position is made worse by the fact that much of the country has moved on from the pandemic even while him and Kirsty continue to shelter:
In the thousand days that I’ve been stuck here, getting sicker and sicker, losing my ability to function in a world that increasingly excludes me and mine, I have watched people who swore they would strive for a better, more inclusive and kinder world completely abandon people like me. Running off to and organising every no-mask-mandate super-spreader event they could as soon as possible, partying in the middle of a plague. Almost completely abandoning all the creative ways and possibilities we found during lockdown to make the world a better, safer, more inclusive place for disabled and immunocompromised people.
The way in which covid has been forgotten is eerie. Key workers were told they were heroes, but nurses are using foodbanks to survive. One of the few things Matt Hancock got right was in suggesting that covid should make wearing masks a regular things for preventing infecting people with colds and coughs. That does not seem to have happened.
As much as I agree with Cat’s essay, I rarely wear a mask myself, saving it for the most crowded trains. Nobody is masked at work. Wearing a mask is a tradeoff between cost, risk and not standing out in public. (Note that I do make sure to take an LFT before visiting Cat and Kirsty so as not to risk exposing them to the virus).
I read a fascinating twitter thread where @audendum talked about the 1918 pandemic, and how strange they found it that it was mostly ignored in the literature and art of the 1920s. With the current pandemic, @audendum could see a similar gap in contemporary art and storytelling. There seems to be no appetite for reminders of what happened, despite the trauma that needs to be processed; despite the fact that the pandemic is not over for a lot of people.
It’s obvious now it was a scam, but it had sounded like a good idea. I mean, we were getting married in Brighton, and he told us how Mariah Carey had celebrated her wedding by releasing live butterflies – for just a couple of hundred quid, we could have seagulls released at our wedding. It was carnage. Seagulls are thugs at the best of times but being caged brings out the worst in them. A group them attacked the bride’s mother’s hat, and the others fought to see how edible the corsages were. By the time calm had been restored, most of the time allotted for the ceremony was used so they went through it pretty fast – bride, groom: kiss. Never again.
I love political biographies, and the new book by Andrew Gimson sounded like an interesting one. Inspired by the works of Craig Brown, Gimson had written a biography of Johnson (his second, or maybe third?) as a series of vignettes. In Brown’s hands, this technique works to allow different points of view. Some of Gimson’s vignettes are effective, such as an analysis of the index of Alan Duncan’s diaries.
The rest of the time, it feels like a mess. I love the format, but it doesn’t always serve Gimson well – the writing is not tight enough to make each section perfect. Some vignettes go nowhere, feeling like sketches for a better book that he couldn’t be bothered to finish. The language is sloppy. Gimson sometimes uses the vignette format as a postmodern device for directly addressing the reader, but this comes across as clumsy. The pro-Johnson boosterism also goes beyond Tom Bower’s interesting discussion to petty triumphalism.
The book was reviewed by Sonia Purnell, who wrote her own excellent book on Johnson (and said that she “would rather pull out my teeth than do it again”). Purnell has little time for Gimson’s defence of Johnson’s lies as demonstrating the “eye of a caricaturist”, pointing out Johnson “he was prime minister at a time of grave national peril, not a standup comic”.
It’s interesting to see Gimson defend his subject, and it does sometimes manage a good job of explaining Johnson to a reader that loathes him. But Gimson’s ill-thoughtout swipes at Corbyn are not needed and even had me, as someone unimpressed by Corbyn, feeling irritated. Gimson is a writer for Conservative Home, and occasionally he plays to that gallery, which is kind of annoying. He’s not as funny as he seems to think he is. At least Johnson is entertaining when he’s being disagreeable.
Gimson also defends Johnson’s father. He accuses Tom Bower (whose book I’ve also read) as being clumsy and a ‘hatchet man’ in his treatment of the vile Stanley Johnson – when Stanley Johnson is an abusive, wife-beating piece of shit. Taking an axe to Stanley Johnson’s reputation is something that should happen more often, given how often he’s brought out in politics and entertainment as a charming figure of fun.
One good point is that Gimson takes Johnson’s speeches seriously, and it’s interesting to see Johnson’s words in a larger context than given by a soundbite quote. It shows how persuasive Johnson can be, but Gimson often adds too much snide commentary. Still, it is interesting to read someone approaching Johnson from a different background to the mostly centrist/left-wing commentary I read. For example, I learned that the phrase ‘levelling-up’ was not invented by Johnson, but turns up in a statement of Conservative aims published in 1976.
One section will give an idea of how clumsy Gimson is in this book. He discusses Cummings’ accusation that Boris Johnson was distracted at work by his wife Carrie’s fury following a story in the Times that their dog Dilyn was going to be put down. Johnson had to decide about bombing Iraq and setting up quarantines, but he was being interrupted by this domestic crisis. Bowers writes, “One sees here Cummings’ limitations. He thinks that to be accused of wishing to get rid of one’s dog is ‘completely trivial’.” Bower seems to consider Carrie Johnson’s injured pride as more important than the life-or-death matters she stopped her husband working on. A letter was sent to the Times, but “Johnson declined, however, to sign this letter, which he felt would make him look ridiculous”. So, either this incident was trivial, or it was not, Gimson tries to have it both ways. A decent editor would perhaps have smoothed this section out. But then a decent editor would have told Gimson that the vignette format didn’t work for him, and he should finish writing a proper book.
The main outcome of this book is to demonstrate what a good writer Craig Brown is, by showing how badly a format he excels at can be mangled. The book comes across as notes to a biography, with some of the scenes trailing off. When it does work, it’s excellent, such as an interesting discussion of Theresa May’s premiership. When it fails it’s like reading the draft of the book Gimson would have written if he had more time.
We learn that Gimson was offered £100,000 by Johnson to drop out of his first biography. If Johnson had done the same for this volume, it would have been a service to Gimson.
At the start of November, I ran a seminar for a university transmedia course on ARGs, Alternate Reality Games. I was looking specifically at examples of three ARG-like projects had been taken as real, with disturbing effects. This post lists some of the links that I referred to. Another will follow with some thoughts on ARGs.
An excellent introduction to ARGs is the 50 year’s of Text Adventures series on The Beast, a 2001 ARG written to promote the Spielberg movie AI. This was the first major ARG.
I referred to a number of ARGs in my introduction. Majestic, from Electronic Arts, came out shortly after the Beast and was an interesting failed experiment. One of the most successful high-profile games was Why So Serious? (2007), promoting the movie The Dark Knight, which included phones hidden inside cakes.
Although I didn’t refer to it in the session, I loved the Wired magazine interview with Trent Reznor discussing how his band Nine Inch Nails made an album, Year Zero, based around an ARG. I also came across some fascinating references to EDOC Laundry, a clothing line that was also an ARG.
It’s interesting how ARGs provoked so much interest, but have not broken through to the mainstream. Alternate Reality Games Could Still Take Over the World (And Your Life) was a good article discussing this. It quotes ARG designer Andrea Phillips: “A lot of energy has [transferred] into lightly interactive web series, room escape games, narratives-in-a-box. Things that use a few of the ARG tools (tangible artifacts, in-story websites, email) but don’t use the full-fledged ARG formula.”
I discussed the issues around the funding of ARGs, and how difficult that has proved. I also looked at how TV shows like Westworld and Severance have used the ‘mystery box’ concept to build audiences that research and discuss the plots in a similar manner to the communities that investigated ARGs.
I then went onto talking about conspiracy theory, using Abbie Richard’s Conspiracy Chart to discuss the movement of conspiracy theories from (what many people saw as) harmless and silly ideas to dangerous (and often anti-semitic) ones.
Adrian Hon wrote an insightful article, What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon. While careful to draw clear lines between QAnon and ARGs, the piece nevertheless drew interesting parallels.
I then concluded by talking about how ARGs often pretend to be real (‘this is not a game’), and the ways in which the lines between real and imaginary can be played with, particularly given how the media has an insatiable need for stories. I talked a little about Chris Parkinson and the film Tusk, referring a 2014 talk where he encouraged people to “Leave your stories lying around in unorthodox, unethical locations”.
When I was a teenager, the love story between Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love seemed beautiful and inspiring. They were portrayed as two messed-up people who were deeply in love, the perfect romantic story. In her 90s interviews, Courtney Love was a force of nature, a defiant feminist, who rose above jealousy and sexism to lead one of the era’s most impressive bands.
Through her management, Courtney Love had a powerful press machine to defend her. A lot of stories were suppressed at the time, and this helped shape the perception of Love. Over the years since, other stories have emerged that cast her in a different light.
Watching the documentary Hit So Hard, about Hole drummer Patty Schemel, it was hard not to see Schemel as being betrayed by Love, sacrificed for her ambition to make Celebrity Skin (still the best Hole album, but not worth the toll it took on her band).
During the pandemic, I found a podcast by Mary Lou Lord. I only knew Lord from the accounts in the 90s music press, where Courtney Love denigrated this woman as a groupie who was chasing her husband. This was all detailed fairly uncritically in the press at the time. Love’s campaign of harassment against Lord involved aggressive calls to her family. Lord has finally told her story, and it is very different to the one Love put out.
Or there was the case of Victoria Clarke, a journalist who was writing an unofficial but supported biography of Nirvana. Love and Cobain carried out a campaign of harassment against Clarke, which included death threats left on her answering machine. On top of that, Nirvana’s management warned people away from being interviewed for the book, saying that Clarke and her collaborator were “groupies who had offered bribes and sexual favours to interviewees in exchange for information”.
Cobain is often celebrated as a feminist icon and his advocacy of feminism, DIY-culture and gay rights in the mainstream was significant. But this sort of intimidation and sexist slander stands very much in opposition to that.
There was an incredible love story between Kurt and Courtney, and I still adore those glimpses of a couple living a romantic dream amidst the chaos. But now I’m aware that the story I read in the press at the time was a fiction.
October has been strange, with a two week break between jobs expanding to fill the entire month (basically, there was a problem with a third-party referencing system). A surprise month off sounds ideal, and it’s enabled me to spend some time on the house, catch up on a few projects and also to get myself a little better organised (which I’ll talk about at the end). Having said that, I’d rather have been working, particularly given the recent economic chaos.
Autumn has settled into the valley, and it looks beautiful with the trees changing colour. I can’t believe I’ve already been living here for three months – I still feel moved when I see the sunrise in the morning. Lou Ice came over from Sweden for a few days of hiking. We also had Plathfest, which Helen and Sophie visited for. Ilkley literature festival hosted a talk from John Higgs and it was good to catch up. I’m still exploring the valley, and last week went up to the trig point at High Brown Knoll with a borrowmydoggy friend, Lola the Labrador.
There was not as much walking as last month, when I was on the Coast-to-Coast trail. I still managed a total of 370,083 steps, which was an average of 11,938 a day. My highest total was 32,645, walking back from Haworth to Hebden Bridge with Lou. My weight has been stable, which is remarkable given a careless diet.
Despite not having worked all month, I’ve not submitted any new stories. I’ve written five new pieces for online and offline workshops which just need a quick review to be sent out. Six stories were resubmitted in the first half of the month, bringing my stats for the year to 47 submitted, 7 accepted, 32 rejected. Instead of submitting more writing, I’ve mostly been finishing off old blog posts, including one about a visit to Heptonstall that I particularly liked.
I did read a lot of books this month – 10 in total. The Anomaly was a literary airport novel, and felt a little like a TV show (an adaptation is in the works). There is No Anti-Memetics Division was one of the freshest pieces of horror I’ve read. Holly McNish’s poetry collection Slug was a lovely format, as it included the talk around the poems that you get in live performances that are usually dropped from books. John Higgs provided a combined history of the Beatles and Bond in Love and Let Die. Twyford Risingwas a history of the M3 road protests, and an important glimpse of resistance in the 90s. Adrian Hon’s You’ve Been Played was a good, critical view of gamification. Swedish Cults by Anders Fagers has finally been translated to English and was an enjoyable read. Andrew Gimson’s recent Boris Johnson biography was an absolute car crash of a book.
I didn’t watch much TV, other than the web series about Kanye Quest 3030, where two Australian comedians finally solved the mystery. I tried The Midnight Club, but it had too much of a young adult vibe for my tastes. I caught several films. Crimes of the Future was well-acted and visually stunning, but the story didn’t grab me. Incantation was a creative found-footage movie, but the in-story filming sometimes felt contrived. 20,000 days on Earth, the Nick Cave documentary, was a re-watch with Lou, and proved almost unbearably sad given the tragedy that was lying in wait for Cave. Bullet Train was a fun cartoonish movie, very much post-Tarantino, but about 20 minutes longer than the concept could bear. Desert Coffee was a good Netflix documentary on Slab City. I also watched Haunters, which was a disturbing documentary about haunted house scares in the USA.
I’d been waiting to see Kevin Smith’s Tusk in the cinema. I figured there would be a big Brighton premier at the Duke of Yorks, but for whatever reason that never happened and I never got around to seeing it. Lou-Ice suggested watching and it was fun, despite some sloppy editing (the scenes from wife-beater Johnny Depp went on far too long). But, for all its ridiculous, over-the-top nature, the film was tragic, with Justin Long did a great job of portraying a man whose humanity was ripped away.
I continued playing The Last of Us Part 2, collecting all the main trophies. I finally completed Stray after a long break, then bought Red Dead Redemption 2. I’m finding that incredibly hard to get into, so ended up completing The Last of Us Part 1, which I’d also ignored for a long time. I love The Last of Us games for the atmosphere, ruinporn and world-building, but both Joel and Ellie are terrible people. I’d rather be playing positive games in that world, working towards better things.
The real world continues to be alarming. We had another flurry of posturing about nuclear weapons, which makes me anxious. Everyone seems reconciled to the idea that someone is going to use a nuclear weapon before long. Trident is not making me feel any safer, and maybe unilateral disarmament is a good thing. In the UK, we’ve had more political chaos, and a couple of power-cuts in the valley. As entertaining as I find the parliamentary side of the political situation, I am shocked at how poorly-managed the country is right now. It feels inevitable that something is going to go very wrong this winter.
I’ve become much better organised over the past few weeks by following the advice in James Stanier’s book on management – keeping email and to-do list and calendar separate. It’s also made me feel healthier and distractible than I did beforehand. Even so, I’ve still achieved less than I would have expected, which makes me aware that I need to be selective about how I spend my time, particularly once I start work again. The non-work activity that is most important to me is writing stories, and I need to double-down on that. I’m thinking about trying to submit one new short story a week – that sort of arbitrary goal can be useful for developing something.