Stories that change reality

One of the best newsletters I’m reading right now is 50 years of text adventures. Rather than focussing exclusively on computer games, the series has given glimpses of a revolution in literature that never quite happened (see for example Galatea, Screen or Patchwork Girl). There have also been some great stories, such as how young programmers in communist Czechoslovakia used videogames as subversive art. And then there is 1992’s Silverwolf, whose background is so weird that it defies summary.

I had wondered what the series would write about as it approached the present era, when text adventures have become a less important genre. The recent posts have presented some innovative and fascinating ideas. One I’ve particularly loved is the piece about 2001 Alternate Reality Game (ARG) The Beast.

The Beast was a puzzle game marketing the movie AI, with clues in movie trailers, websites and on answer phones. Players from around the world collaborated to solve the puzzles. While I never played it myself, I remember being amazed by the possibility this had for story-telling. It had around 3 million players and led to a whole series of other ARGs.

Reading around this led to listening to a series of interviews with Joseph Matheny who produced what is likely the first ARG, Ong’s Hat. This was a story about a strange cult, told across a series of different media. There was a good summary of this in Gizmodo’s article Ong’s Hat: The Early Internet Conspiracy Game That Got Too Real. The idea was that a community of physicists had collaborated with a group of mystics to produce a portal between dimensions. The story was seeded over years, including a zine article by Hakim Bey in the early 90s. Interestingly, one of the people involved was Nick Herbert, whose book Quantum Reality was one of the main inspirations for me studying physics.

In a long podcast interview with Project Archivist, Matheney spoke about Ong’s Hat and how it emerged through his thinking about how to use the Internet as a story-telling medium. Refences to Ong’s Hat were placed in zines and on bulletin boards, and fake publications were listed in a rare books catalogue called The Incunabula. They even went as far as photocopying articles and leaving them in coffee shops and concert venues. In 1999, Matheney was able to produce an ebook that collected together all these sources. Within a few years, Matheney shut down the project, as a number of people were becoming convinced it was real, and behaving dangerously.

Matheney has also admitted to being a consultant to the people behind time-traveller John Titor. He also worked on Majestic, a 2001 ARG from Electronic Arts (there’s a good summary from Wired in May 2001 – the game was shutdown to security concerns after September 11th)

One of the things I love about these ARGs is the way that they merge fiction with reality. There’s something Borgesian about them – not just in the combinations of reality and fiction, but also in the way that some of Borges’ fake citations turned up in real contexts. This has a negative side too – some of the conspiracists who are into Ong’s Hat have refused to acknowledge that it was a work of art. There was also a claim by Adrian Hon that QAnon is structured like an ARG. It’s interesting to see how the iteration/repetition of fictions can have an affect on their reality.

A Mystery in the Hedgerow

Out for a walk the other day, I spotted a tired helium balloon at the edge of a field:

The balloon was deflating and could no longer carry its cargo. It was attached to a photo, but there was nothing on the back to identify where it came from.

I’m not sure who is in the picture or why the photo was attached to a balloon.. The white balloon and ribbon makes me think it might be an escaped wedding decoration. It feels like there ought to be something to do in response, but I can’t think what.

Monthnotes: August 2021

August felt like a return to normality, as I’ve felt able to socialise with large groups again. It’s a strange time, as it’s hard to tell what I should be doing to protect myself. Cases are high and rising, vaccination effectiveness is fading, and the government has not said anything about how things proceed in the long-term. Being the only person in a supermarket wearing a mask has felt weird. But, while I’m still resolved to avoid coronavirus, I’m also reluctant to keep my life in suspension forever.

This month saw a fair bit of travelling. I visited Brighton twice – once to see Tom, the other time for a hike with Emma. Hiking with Emma was part of her MA, so the walk was written up in her research blog. I also visited Norwich, where we celebrated Rosy’s daughter leaving home (such emotion!) and ate some great meals. I spent some time in Hebden Bridge (Hepstonstall, actually), where I learned a valuable lesson about not trusting Calder Valley weather. I visited the offices of my new employer, Mindera, and loved meeting my colleagues in person. There was even a bit of camping in a field near where I’m living, and the Blame Blake event in Sheffield on Bank Holiday Monday. That’s a lot of travelling.

I continue to feel like I’m struggling with the new job, although the feedback I’ve had has been excellent. I’ve never had such a slow ramp-up to the point where I feel I’m contributing to a project with my full ability. I do love working on a mature microservice set-up – although I also feel a little awed by how much work it has taken the client to reach that point. Successful cloud architectures are not easy.

I’m continuing to write, and focussing on sending things out. I’ve had a small piece, Alex and the Face, published in Microfiction Monday and there are seven other stories out for submission. I’ve decided that writing should be at least as much fun as playing video games, and will let that idea guide what I work on from now on.

Other than the hike with Emma, I’ve mainly been keeping to my regular daily walks. My total for the month is 407,230 steps, with a daily maximum of 33,634 (thanks, Emma!) and an average of 13,136 steps (compared with 11,342 in July and 10,766 in April 2020’s lockdown).

I finished six books – highlights were Heroic Failures and CJ Stone’s Fierce Dancing, which was a great portrait of a lost culture. The Final Girl Support Group was a brisk read, which was great, but it wasn’t quite the book I’d hoped for. I wanted more revisionist slasher fiction (like the first series of the Nailbiter comics) but the novel was somewhat overwhelmed by the plot.

I watched very little TV, slowly making my way through Pose. I did watch the movie Pig, which was a wonderfully weird film about food culture, featuring an understated performance from Nicholas Cage. Music-wise, there were long-awaited releases from Kanye West and Lorde, both of which I’m finding hard to get into. The Lorde album feels a little too dreamy, possibly due to sharing a producer with Lana Del Rey.

Quitting caffeine last month was a successful experiment. I am sleeping better and less tired during the day than usual. It’s not cured my headaches, but they have been less frequent and less severe, so that is a definite win.

I’ve been replaying The Last of Us Part 2, this time on a harder difficulty level. I’m definitely better at it than I was the first time round, but it feels like a dumb way to spend my time. Video games are compulsive and gripping, but developing skills in them feels kind of pointless. I have considered getting a new game, but can’t see anything that won’t just devolve into repetition. As I said above, I’d rather focus on the sort of writing that is more interesting than games.

Overall, August felt pretty good. Now, with Summer coming towards an end, it’s time to start planning my next move.

Ley-lines, Brexit and the Right

Back in July, I wrote a post on Ley lines and Brexit. This was retweeted by Matt Pope, which produced some interesting discussions. While my initial alignment was tenuous, further reading showed more points connecting these two topics; as well as leading me into reading more widely about the links between earth mysteries, paganism and right-wing groups.

The main, obvious, link between ley-lines and Brexit is the work of John Michell, whose book The View over Atlantis launched the 1960s earth mysteries boom. His writing is explored in depth in Amy Hale’s essay John Michell, Radical Traditionalism, and the Emerging Politics of the Pagan New Right, originally published in Pomegranate.

As I wrote before, through his work on earth mysteries, Michell believed in the significance of ancient measurement systems, becoming an enthusiastic anti-metrication campaigner, as well as being suspicious of Europe’s Common Market. As Hale writes:

[Michell] argued vehemently against the metric standard, believing that it was erasing not only a uniquely British measure, but also one of the few remaining links to the traditional measures which were related to the divine order and sacred kingship.

I’ve just finished reading Finlan O’Toole’s excellent book on Brexit, Heroic Failures. In this, O’Toole talks about the competing images of Britain that each side had in the 1975 European Communities membership referendum. Those resisting joining the European union often had a belief in Britain’s significance. Michell’s claims for the importance of England were inspired by Anglo-Israelite theories and the work of William Blake. To quote again from Amy Hale:

While Michell did not evidently share the White supremacist sentiment of many contemporary Anglo-Israelites, he did feel that the British are the chosen people and, echoing Tudor Pole, that Britain (with particular emphasis on Glastonbury) is the spiritual centre of Europe if not the world, which he gives as a justification for remaining separate from the emerging European superstate.

Michell was also a nativist who believed in some level of racial segregation and a return to ‘traditional’ societies. Hale writes in detail about Michell’s views:

Michell also felt that each race has its own characteristic traits and areas where they excel, and that it is important to the restoration of divine law that each group of people is situated within their homeland, because it is their indigenous quality that connects them to their particular sacred landscape. As far as Britain is concerned, Michell admitted that he perceived multiculturalism as a far-from-ideal social model, and that within England different ethnic groups should remain segregated and geographically separate, which would replicate Britain’s village level diversity from the pre-Reformation period. He seems to justify this by arguing that if various groups of people are allowed to remain together that their traditions will remain vibrant, however he also states that it is crucial for the indigenous majority, in this case the British, to enforce the rule of law.

While he was aware that these views would appall some of his friends and readers, Michell was also tolerated – I mentioned in the previous post about the book of Hitler quotes that he published. After the rise in right-wing groups over the past fear years, I suspect (and hope) someone doing the same things as Michell nowadays would be less indulged.

In her conclusion, Hale looked at Michell’s relationship to a broader spectrum of right-wing thought, writing that “within the extension of Michell’s beliefs about tribalism, sacred landscapes, ecology, anti modernism, and conservation—all themes which underpin the values of many Pagans—that we see this fascinating convergence of right-wing and left-wing politics

Hale has written elsewhere about this convergence of views between wildly different political groups, exploring the intersections between extreme right and the left on issues such as anti-capitalism, ecology and folklore. She warns of the need for vigilance where such crossovers mean that ideas and works intended as non-political can actually end up supporting the right.

This tension was apparent in the ley-line community in the 1980s, when the British fascist movements attempted to use earth mysteries to support their racial theories. This is discussed by Paul Devereux in an interview with Chris Aston in QuickSilver Messenger. Devereux was asked about earth mysteries and ideology. He replied that the ley hunters he knew covered “all social groups and all age groups and all political views” and aspired to be non-political. But, despite this, he acknowledged a political angle. Talking about a rightward drift among sections of the British people, Devereux continued:

I’m getting exchange magazines now produced by Nazis – Facists I should say. They’re offering 10% reduction to the Police and Armed Forces – saying Auschwitz never really happened. They’re producing articles showing that Arian blood is superior to Jewish blood. They’re talking about leylines – it’s all deeply in it. People like Tony Roberts have been approached by the National Front- he was one of their heroes – Tony Roberts was on the street as a long-haired leftie – fighting in the streets back in the 60s. We’re in a very curious phase- and there’s no doubt that this material – this Earth Mysteries stuff – can – would fuel a new sort of Fascism. I mean I’m not a Fascist – I’m anything but – I’m the other end of the political spectrum if anything. But I’m aware of this danger and I’m just afraid it could be used in a dogmatic way…

All this makes it apparent that anyone writing on landscape, folklore, or even ley lines needs to be aware of a choice in how to be approach it. Even if you aspire to be apolitical, as Devereux longed to be, there are people who may try to use your writing for their own extremist ends. I should say that this isn’t a revelation, and that people have been talking about this a lot over the past few years (just search for “folklore against fascism” or read Cat Vincent’s essay). Seeing how even ley-lines became political makes me more aware of a need to be wary in my own writing, even for a small audience. As much as I’d considered certain aspects of my writing are non-political, that’s not necessarily a choice I’m free to make.

One place these issues played out was in the row over Paul Kingsnorth’s now-withdrawn essay Elysium Found, written to promote the film Arcadia. Kingsnorth wrote about tradition as under attack from modernity, but also from invaders, including the Spanish Armada and the Nazis. While Kingsnorth protested at being accused of racism, the essay casually evoked a nativist view of Britain under attack from the outside. The piece would have benefitted from being a little less ambiguous on some of these points.

Another example has been the correspondence about ‘blackface Morris’ in a particular earth mystery magazine a few years back. Some people seemed angry that blackface Morris was under attack as racist and exclusionary despite what they claimed were non-racist origins for the make-up. Regardless of the historical origins (which are contested), these people found themselves on the side of a rather distasteful view: that being faithful to tradition was more important than not offending or excluding other people from these traditions.

A more explicit and shocking example such exclusion in a landscape/nostalgia context was the TV show Midsummer Murders, whose producer, Brian True-May, stepped down after an interview with the Radio Times. This was discussed by David Southwell in his introduction to one of Paul Watson’s books (although my copy is currently in storage). It’s an explicit and appalling example of someone excluding people from the landscape, and it’s shocking that this was just ten years ago. To quote from the BBC news story:

Mr True-May added: “We just don’t have ethnic minorities involved. Because it wouldn’t be the English village with them. It just wouldn’t work.” Asked why “Englishness” could not include other races who are well represented in modern society, he said: “Well, it should do, and maybe I’m not politically correct. I’m trying to make something that appeals to a certain audience, which seems to succeed. And I don’t want to change it.”

(I’ve never understood the idea of ‘cosy’ murder mysteries, but True-May was ahead of a lot of people in linking rural England with slaughter, something that Nick Haye’s Book of Trespass explored in detail).

Jonathan Last’s essay Et in Avebury ego… is a brilliant exploration of how heritage exposes itself to being appropriated by nationalism through the use of nostalgic (small-c) conservative views. He suggests that we need to make people aware of how the landscape has changed over time and to make it explicit that these things belong to everyone. He is clear about what is means to belong to a place:

making a connection with an ancient place does not depend on ancestry, it is about dwelling – which may simply take the form of visiting. Of course understanding and a sense of belonging are deepened by spending time in a place but it is not a quantitative matter to be measured in generational time.

Book Review: Heroic Failures by Finlan O’Toole

While Tim Shipman’s (as-yet unfinished) Brexit trilogy is the best history of Brexit, the most enjoyable analysis I’ve read is Finlan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure. O’Toole’s writing has the virtuosic enthusiasm of good literary criticism – his comparison of Britain’s EU membership to the bureaucracy in Fifty Shades of Grey is hilarious; and I loved his description of Boris Johnson being cross-examined in a select committee by Andrew Tyrie: “like watching a kitten bouncing into a combine harvester”. There are also considerations of Britain’s obsession with World War 2, punk and more.

The book’s main thrust is that post-Imperial Britain has become trapped by an ideal of ‘heroic failure’. “The English could afford to celebrate glorious failure because they were actually highly successful – the myths of suffering and endurance covered up the truth that it was mostly other people who had to endure the suffering.”

O’Toole is particularly good at showing how Englishness in particular is responsible for Brexit, and how England’s presence in the EU relates to its membership of the United Kingdom. O’Toole also puts forward the case the “gradual marginalisation of open racism” was one of the things that led to the EU being scapegoated instead. Ultimately, the problems that led to Brexit are too deep to be solved by so simplistic a solution:

Brexit is a crisis of belonging that was configured as merely a crisis of belonging to Europe. No outcome from it will really address that question of belonging – if anything it will become deeper and more urgent.

Towards the end of the book, O’Toole lays out the challenge for the English, particularly those on the ‘progressive’ side, to define what Englishness is:

One of the side effects of Brexit is to make progressives recoil even further from English nationalism, which they never trusted and now blame for the disaster. But they need to do what they mostly did not do in the pre-Brexit decade: take it seriously. Address it. Precisely because it remains so poorly articulated and self-contradictory, it is up for grabs. And there is surely enough in the English radical, socialist and liberal traditions – the traditions of John Ball and the Suffragettes, of Mary Wollstonecraft and John Maynard Keynes, of Stuart Hall and Thomas Paine, of Jo Cox and George Orwell and generations of fighters for dignity and equality – to inspire a more positive sense of national belonging. There is surely, in one of the world’s great cultures, enough wit and energy and creativity and humour to infuse Englishness with hope and joy instead of pain and self-pity.

Monthnotes: July 2021

I stayed close to home during July, not travelling more than a handful of miles away. While I did the same thing during a few months of 2020/1, this feels very different. I’m in the middle of the countryside which feels much less stressful than a large town. I’m enjoying time in nature, spotting new flowers and mushrooms appearing as the summer rolls on.

A lot of my walks have been with two dogs, Blue and Rosie. Rosie is too young for much walking, but I’ll take Blue out for a couple of miles most days. While my weight remains constant, Blue is looking good (the only Labrador I’ve met with hips). Stats wise, I’ve not done much: a total of 340,287 steps, with a daily maximum of 18,068 and an average of 11,342 steps (compared with 10,766 in April 2020’s lockdown). The main issue is that walking is all intentional and takes up a lot of time compared with, say, going to the shops or meeting up with friends for daily exercise.

Media wise, I’ve only finished a couple of books and don’t think I’ve watched any movies. I do read a lot of articles from RSS feeds on my kindle, and I’ve been getting back into watching TV again. The Mandalorian was an excellent fusion of space opera and spaghetti western. Atlanta was far weirder than expected and I’m looking forward to season 3.

I managed to watch two whole seasons of Snowpiercer, based on a recommendation on the Technoccult newsletter. It’s a fun show and compelling enough for me to keep watching. It’s set in the future, when a failed climate change solution has sent global temperature plummeting. The only remnants of humanity are living in a giant metaphor for the class system (a train that travels round the world).

A lot of this makes no sense – why would you use glass so much when it can’t be replaced easily? Who maintains the track? It’s nonsense, but it’s brisk, well-made nonsense. The acting has gripped me too, making it easy to believe when characters are seeing sunlight for the first time in years.

In the midst of everything, I also spent a week playing the rest of The Last of Us. I written in the past about what a nasty, cynical game I found it. I found aspects of the story revolting, particularly how the player was railroaded into immoral and wanton revenge, but the action setpieces and horror were compelling. But I suspect I’m done with PS4 games for a while. Nothing has come close to Death Stranding.

I’m finding the new job a little harder than expected. I think that’s a combination of moving to a new platform and remote onboarding. One of the things I was aware was lacking at Amex was the onboarding, and I tried to improve that as we expanded our teams. I now see that I should have been trying even harder than I did. Still, I have this weekend to recharge, and I’m going to try some new things next week.

One other thing I did this month was quit caffeine. I decided to stop immediately and deal with it. In retrospect, not a good idea. I lost a couple of days to a vicious headache, although I’d timed the acute phase to be over a weekend. I then had a while feeling laggy, sleeping through my alarm. I already feel positive changes – mostly smoother changes in energy through the day – but I’m still not feeling as alert as I was. If past experience is any guide, I’ll soon be waking up more easily, have more energy in the afternoons, and feel less caffeine jankiness.

Ley lines and Brexit

Throughout 2021, I’ve been writing a monthly page about ley lines in Bodge magazine. I assumed this was a long way from the things I’ve written about Brexit, but a link has emerged.

I recently read Seekers of the Linear vision, Paul Screeton’s history of ley research from 1921 through to the early 90s. The book has a lovely wistful tone as it retells some countercultural history, along with reminiscences of the people involved. It also has a tantalising bibliography.

One of the most important figures in the study of leys is John Michell, whose book The View Over Atlantis started the ley-line revival in the 60s, as well as shifting the topic into earth mysteries. Michell is a fascinating figure, an old Etonian who wrote on subjects including the Shakespeare authorship controversy, defences of Michael X, and arguing against the prosecution of Gay News for printing James Kirkup’s poem The Love that Dares to Speak its Name. (He was also responsible, rather dubiously, for the Hip Guide to Hitler, which reprinted supposedly amusing or supposedly insightful statements by the dictator).

One of the major causes pursued by Michell was anti-metrication. In 1970 he founded the Anti-Metrication Board, and produced various pamphlets. Michell opposed the metric system on the basis that the imperial system had links to divine systems used in a pre-historic golden age. As Screeton writes, he was “defending the sacred measures against an arbitrary system preferred by Brussels administration”.

Michell organised a grand fete in the grounds of Rupert Lycett Green’s house, which was described as looking like “the sun setting on the British empire“. Around the same time, in 1971, Michell was involved in the first Glastonbury festival, siting the pyramid stage at the intersection of two leys.

Michell became an inspiration to the ‘new right’ through his interest in ‘radical traditionalism’. He described some of his views as ‘mystic nationalism’, seeing Britain as a sacred island. He also apparently believed in racial segregation. Quoting from Wikipedia, “[Michell] believed that communities should be led by a strong leader who personified the solar deity. This embrace of the Divine Right of Kings led him to believe that Queen Elizabeth II should take control of Britain as an authoritarian leader who could intercede between the British people and the divine“.

Elsewhere in the book, Screeton refers to a controversy where the members of the National Front briefly became interested in ley lines, which I’ve only heard of from a paragraph in Seekers of the Linear Vision. (Screeton objected to this strongly, describing the bulk of ley hunters as revolted by “elite organisation as practised by fascists“).

The link between Michell and Brexit is nothing more than the alignment of a few chance points, but it would definitely looks worth digging into further. If I ever get round to working on that Brexit and Hiking book, maybe…

Monthnotes: June 2021

June was a month of transition. While I moved out of my Brighton flat in May, there were loose ends to tidy up. I also did a little travelling: house-sitting in Norwich and visiting the Wirral. But, for the time being I’m in the middle of nowhere and finding space to relax.

My walking has been very much a maintenance dose, making sure I get a minimum level of exercise – my maximum was 31,724 (a day on the Pennine Way), and my average was a meagre 11,899. But walking has been great fun with these two as company:

I spent my birthday in Hebden Bridge, exploring the town a little and catching up with some friends. I walked a section of the Pennine Way and I’m happy to report the Landrover landmark is still there. It’s such a part of the route that it appears in the guidebook. (A similar sight on the South Downs Way, the old tank, was recently removed)

Also, I loved the chai boat, which travels between towns on the canal

Reading-wise, I’ve mostly been finishing books I started months ago. Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing on the other hand was read over a few days. Most interesting to me was her discussion of attention. In combination with Cal Newport’s A World Without Email it got me thinking about how the world is set up for interruption and distraction (for example, having to turn off multiple notifications when installing a new Mac). So, I’m taking advantage of being in the countryside to do far less, and practise doing one thing at a time.

I don’t recall watching any movies during the month, and was mostly dipping into TV shows. Pose was fantastic, but I don’t seem to have the concentration it deserves.

One of the loose ends that needed tidying was moving on from American Express. I enjoyed the job, and loved the team I was working with. However, I was disappointed that a number of commitments made when I joined were not kept. It’s a shame, as there was a lot of good work to be done there. I do think I learned some useful lessons, and my skills are much sharper for being there.

The new job started three weeks ago, and I’m loving it so far. Working for a consultancy means joining two companies at once, and doing this while remote is a little strange. I love the idea of coding as a cottage industry, operating microservices from an old farm building in the middle of nowhere.

The End of the Pandemic? (Day 463)

My friend Laura told me something she’d read about the 1918/9 flu, that people quickly forgot the details of that time. I can already feel some of the details of this pandemic disappearing. It was only re-reading some of my old posts on the topic that I recalled the mood around those early daily briefings, where everyone stopped work at five for them, and I’d watch with a drink in hand.

I don’t want to lose the lessons of the pandemic, or to forget how miserable the winter lockdown of 2021 was. But, at the same time, it does feel like things have turned a corner. I am vaccinated and I have left Brighton. I was so taut and angry and hateful while I was stuck in one place with no escape; now, living in the countryside I feel better, and it’s time to move on. My fear has lifted.

Back in March, Rosy said that I talked and read about the pandemic more than most people. That was one of the problems with facing lockdown in isolation: you couldn’t calibrate normality from the people around you. I assumed everyone was doom scrolling the same as me, following all the angles on the pandemic. I must have been both tedious and triggering for a lot of people.

But it now feels like time to draw a close on my covid journalling. As Dr Manhattan once said, ‘nothing ever ends’ and this pandemic will continue – my second vaccination, the ongoing death toll, the memorials, the inquiries – but it all feels less urgent now.

One thing I don’t want to forget is the awfulness of the government, and the lies it told and the shortcuts it took. Vice magazine has an article listing Every Single Promise Broken By the Tories Over Lockdown and it’s worth reading. It only covers the first year, but it’s quite something. And let’s not forget the blatant headline grabbing lies, when the government proposed ridiculous and implausible ‘moonshots’, later quietly abandoned. Or the ventilator challenge, where the government shunned experienced firms in favour of a PR-friendly approach to well-known companies such as Dyson and JCB.

And on 24/5/21 – over a year after the pandemic started – the government announced a pilot plan to support self isolation. It includes:

a range of initiatives including providing alternative accommodation for people in overcrowded households, social care support such as increasing existing social care support for vulnerable adults and providing ‘buddying’ services for people whose mental health has been affected by lockdown and the variant outbreaks, and language communications support for individuals where English isn’t their first language.

I mean, really? Were these things not obviously needed from the start? I was miserable while locked down in a large comfortable flat, and can only imagine how hard things must have been for many others in worse situations. People’s mental health was shattered by this, and there was no support. Britain appears to have a mental health policy advertisements suggesting you talk to your mates, and that was not good enough.

Then we have the uneven economic effects of what happened. Failures of State pointed out that “One in three low-paid workers was furloughed or lost their jobs compared with one in ten of the higher-paid“. A lot of people have done well financially out of the pandemic, while others have suffered awfully with no support. The effect on university leavers in particular is said to likely be worse than people who graduated during the financial crisis, and many people’s careers never recovered from that.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve wondered what the government’s long-term strategy for dealing with covid is. Now, it looks to be settled on ongoing vaccination and a (so far unstated) acceptable annual death toll. Although there is no discussion into the long-term impacts of long covid, which makes me very uncomfortable. Zero covid might be brutally difficult, but the alternative is hard on the unlucky. There is still little support for hundreds of thousands of people suffering from long covid.

The last 15 months have been strange, hard and surprising. I’ve avoided the coronavirus, but I’ve faced other challenges. Now it’s a good time to tell myself I’m out on the other side, even if that’s not strictly true. New normals, and all that.

I’m currently living a few miles from the Download Festival site. The festival went ahead, despite the restrictions, as an experimental government pilot. Hearing the sound of bands, although quieter than previous years, was great. Slowly, the world is coming back.

Review: Boris Johnson by Tom Bower

Tom McTague’s recent profile of Boris Johnson, Minister of Chaos portrays Johnson as a master of narrative. It’s a well-written piece, but missed a number of obvious points. When McTague writes about Johnson’s condemnation of the Super League plans, he fails to mention Johnson’s earlier tacit approval of them. Mic Wright’s newsletter is a good overview, criticising the article for “barely concealing the writer’s joy at getting so much access, and mistaking neat connections and semi-polished lines for truths”. It was well-written, but I learned little from it.

Tom Bower’s The Gambler, a biography of Boris Johnson, is not very well written. Despite its many flaws (oh, so many flaws) I learned from the book, in part because of its biases. A friend recently told me that you can understand a lot about the media from hearing it talk about things you know. Discussing computer programming (specifically the Imperial College coronavirus model), Bower wrote:

Imperial’s model … was based on a programming code called either ‘C’ or Fortran that had apparently been used twenty years earlier by NASA for Mariner 1. Critics claimed its outdated language and design flaws produced numerical inaccuracies. One file alone contained 15,000 lines of code.

I mean… Yes? But not really. There are basic errors and inaccuracies in this simple quote. Bower’s biases also sometimes make this book awkward. Bower regurgitates many of the flawed arguments from the lockdown sceptics, which is not inspiring. His constant accusations that Corbyn is a “Marxist and anti-semite” are an over-simplistic view of Corbyn from someone who wrote a biography of him. But then, Bower’s wikipedia entry is very clear that, while his Corbyn book involved an significant retraction, “[he] neither apologised nor paid any money to the complainant or the lawyers”. However, this wikipedia entry cannot deny that republishing the claims cost the Daily Mail a large amount of money. Bower is not one for in-depth fact-checking.

However, Bower is interesting as he attempts to defend every poor decision and gaffe Johnson has made. While I still think Johnson’s Spectator columns were racist, I can at least now see what he might have been trying to satirise with them. Looking at some scenes from another point of view was also eye-opening. For example, the gaffe with Johnson buying water-cannons was retold as a nasty trap laid by Theresa May. This is quite the revelation, given the usual portrayal of May as a dull and unemotional politician. This is certainly the shrewdest, most devious thing I’ve seen her accused of doing.

Bower’s book is also pro-Brexit, and in harping on about this, I saw some stronger-than-usual cases for Brexit, which was illuminating. But the main strength of Bower’s book was in its portrayal of Johnson’s childhood, a time of almost gothic unpleasantness. His father, the reality-TV star Stanley Johnson is revealed to be a vicious domestic abuser, and there were wretched periods in Johnson’s childhood. While these do not excuse his appalling behaviour, I feel more sympathy towards him.

Two portrayals of Johnson, one well-written and one not. But I think I learned more from the poorly-written one.