Back to the Downs; and a problem with circular walks

I spent the entirety of April within 5000 steps of my home. Most days, my walk was done by 8am, and I would be indoors until the next day. Every month, Google sends me a summary of my travels, a small gift in return for not caring about my privacy. Last’s month’s summary of my travels was stark:

With the easing of lockdown on May 10th, I had the option of walking futher – unlimited exercise, as long as I stayed two meters from anyone not in my household. I set out on early Sunday morning with an ill-formed plan to walk on the Downs, possibly visiting Balsdean, Ditchling Beacon and the Chattri. It was my first proper walk in weeks. The town felt eerie, even if it was probably not much quieter than it would be before 7am on a normal Sunday.

The advertising boards were mostly empty, apart from an advert offering cherry-picker cranes for hire (£400 per day, £300 per half day). Which seemed a strange thing to be selling – or maybe someone in the ad sales team was making the most of hard times.

And among the street art, a picture I recognised, someone who had been a friend long ago, although his name escapes me now:

The problem with hiking from my house is how far I need to travel before I reach the countryside. It was 50 minutes to reach the Marina and the undercliff. About halfway along, someone coming the other way called my name. It was Romi, an old hiking buddy who I’d not seen since January. It was good to see someone from the Old World.

Finally, I reached Rottingdean and was soon on the Downs. Despite being unprepared for the brutal sun, I was filled with joy. The birds were singing so very loud, and the air was clear, meaning I could see a long way to the East past Firle. Nearer by, the the cliffs beyond Newhaven looked like notches.

Normally, I would head through Balsdean, but the path to the hilltop alongside the valley was too attractive to ignore; and less steep than it looked:

My muscles were weaker than they had been, and my back was grumbling. My feet ached more than they should have done.

From here it was a short distance to the South Downs Way, which I joined at the top of the Yellow Brick Road. I followed the route West, reversing my steps from just before lockdown. With the start of Summer, the hills below the A27 were even more beautiful than they had been in March.

And then I reached the signpost at Housedean farm, on the other side of the main road. It told me that Ditchling Beacon was another 5 miles, with home some distance beyond that. I had walked about 8-9 miles already and was tired. I’d not bought enough food with me to want to do another 8 miles or so.

The other problem with those 8 miles was that the last 2-3 miles of it would be a slog through the streets of Brighton. I love wandering around the town, but not so much when I am already overtired. And this is the problem with circular walks that end at my house: the last part is boring. And it involves streets that are uncomfortably crowded under social distancing, where nobody is sure how to navigate the narrow space of pavements.

One of the best things in the world is ending a day’s walk with a stay in a pub. Even a bad pub is pretty good at those sorts of times – beer and a bed is all you need. I reckon that walking to the Tan Hill Inn, then hanging out in the lounge was one of the best days of my life. That’s the way walks should end.

Or at an Airbnb, like with Romi and Katharine, calling up for a curry from the nearest Indian restaurant, and drinking red wine as we have the same conversations that we’ve been enjoying for years.

Maybe I need to give more thought to the ending of my walks when they end at my house. To have the rest of the day cleared, to enjoy the tiredness. To have rituals and rest to welcome me back.

Or maybe, after weeks in lockdown I’ve had enough of walking solo. I don’t know.

My last two walks have been poorly planned, tiring and frustrating. I am going to plan this weekend’s one better, and make sure the ending is as good as the high points.

Lovecraft in Brighton

For the last six months I’ve been working on my South Downs Way project, a large project made out of short stories. It’s not the only such project I have ongoing. Since 2014, I’ve been working on a slow-burning project called Lovecraft in Brighton. It’s a collection about an alcoholic who is haunted by the ghost of HP Lovecraft: basically Kitchen-Sink Cosmic Horror.

The booklet has been for sale on my online store. Every time someone buys a copy, I write a new story and the price goes up by 10p. When I finish the volume, it will be compiled into an e-book and sent to all the people who have bought it.

As bad as I am at self-promotion, people rarely see the store and buy a copy. But someone recently bought one so I had to write a new horror story. Which took ages. Writing doomy horror is a lot less fun in the current situation.

I’ve taken it off sale for the time being, but will re-add it when I feel more in the mood. This is a long-running project, and I am alright with that. Once I’ve done a few more volumes of the South Downs Way I will put it back on sale. At this rate, I will probably finish this in my 50s. And that’s OK.

Retreat, Day 61: False Summit?

A false summit is when you’re climbing a hill, only to reach the top and see a larger hill was hidden behind it. As wikipedia puts it, they “can have significant effects on climbers’ psychological states by inducing feelings of dashed hopes or even failure“. There’s one at Beachy Head that’s caught me out a couple of times. I’ve walked to the top, glad I’m almost done, only to see I have a little further to go.

The Government announcement on Sunday seemed full of confusion. While the five tests for leaving lockdown weren’t yet met, the restrictions are being eased. People can meet for socially distanced activities, although the parks and promenade are already too busy. Garden centers are re-opening, but there is only the most basic dental care available, extractions for everything. And this, despite the cases being higher than they were pre-lockdown, and the disease being very close to spreading again.

The Daily Mirror has been trumpeting a paper claiming that 29% of people on the UK might already have the virus, and other claims say that London might have achieved herd immunity. I hope that is the case, and that I am worrying over nothing. But, just to be safe, I am going to continue my lockdown as before and see what happens. I can understand that business needs to start moving, but maybe the time since lockdown could have been spent coming up with better plans for this inevitable moment.

(To say nothing of the fact that the government has only just started hiring the teams of tracers needed if we are to return to normal life. A long period of continued disruption, and maybe even a second peak lie ahead of us).

But I’m comfortable enough in lockdown, despite the background of doom and deteriorating hairstyles. Today was the first day I managed to sleep past 5:30am since this started. Small Batch continue to supply me with coffee. And I am loving Emily St. John Mandel’s new book, the Glass Hotel. The slow, melancholy mood of the book suits these times.

Tomorrow, I am off for my first hike in some time, walking a segment of the South Downs Way. It will be good to get out of town for a while.

Retreat, Day 55

It’s coming towards the end of my seventh week of social distance, and I’m feeling positive. I’m settling into this new lifestyle, and trying to enjoy life under the circumstances (acknowledging that I’m in a much better situation than a lot of people). And I’ve actually had some very good days, reading, relaxing and working on my writing. It’s a quiet life – I’m actually socialising less than near the start – but not unpleasant.

Part of this is getting used to the fact that things will be strange for a long time. Matt Webb wrote a blog post about this, There is No After, which did a good job of expressing some of the things I’d been feeling.

I’m coming to this realisation late, I know, others have been talking about the new normal for ages. It’s helping me to think like this, because instead of waiting around – life on pause – thinking about how to pick things up when things return to how they were, or keeping my powder dry because things might be different again in the After, or saying oh I’ll do that later when thing have settled down, I can start adjusting right now instead.

It’s a bleakly realistic piece but a good one. Despite a feeling of well-being, I’m a little confused by the mixed messaging from the government. We’re a long way from the five tests set for lifting lockdown, but there are headlines about it ending, VE day parties shown on the TV, and the government expressing surprise that drive-in restaurants had shut (despite this being obviously against the letter and spirit of the regulations). These messages are very different from the crisis implied by the government graphs – but maybe it’s a strategy of slowly lifting things to see what happens? Who knows. But it feels strange – and such feelings aren’t helped by naval vessels lurking off the shore!

There was a good article in the Guardian about how lockdown affects our sense of time, and how important it is to have noteable days to break up the routine. Zoom continues to be omnipresent, and a vice article contained the observation: “When a video call ends, there’s a moment of silence when you’re even lonelier than before.

The birds continue to be noticeable with their loud song. Thursday, I had a work conference call livened up by a blue-tit flying through the house. And, one morning, I was delighted to see a jay:

Via BLDGBLOG, a haunting story about stranded cruise ships, “maritime ruins in an age of COVID-19… a network of ships ‘spread out loosely in three groups spanning some 30 miles’

Image: EO Browser, Sinergise Ltd/Attribution 4.0 International CC by 4.0), via The War Zone.

It’s a strange world.

The Last Hike

My last hike was at back in March, the day before the lockdown was put in place. I’d walked from home to Firle the day before, maintaining social distance, and spent the night in a shepherd’s hut.

I ached from walking too far the day before. I knew that hiking was one of the many freedoms that would be suspended, but my feet wouldn’t let me enjoy the day wholeheartedly. Footsore, I took a more direct route home than out, going via Telscombe Cliffs, a place I’d not visited since 2016.

I called home for Mother’s Day, and my parents told me that Brighton had been singled out as a place flouting regulations. All around me, people were in groups ignoring social distance. It was obvious further restrictions were coming in.

The undercliff felt too crowded, I was tired and I wanted to be home. I had had enough of walking and picked up a social bike from the Palace Pier and cycled the last stage. I knew it would be my last hike for a while.

A Letter from the Other Side of the World

Last night, I found a letter that I wrote to myself six months ago, intended to be read in May.

It was Rosy Carrick’s show Passionate Machine that got me thinking about the power of writing to my future self. In November, I was on the verge of a big life change, and wanted a reminder to myself about why I was making this change. I didn’t want to forget my plans for the future.

I’m fascinated by how that the postal system feels like time travel. The writer and the recipient are always separated, and every letter is read in the future. And that delay of the postal system represents an opening out of chance, because so much can change between the time the letter is sent and when it arrives. We might write “I hope this letter finds you well…“, but there is no guarantee that the receipient will ever get the message.

My favourite writing by Jacques Derrida looks at how the delays postal system are representative of an inherent delay in all communication. I cannot really write a letter to myself because those two selves are different, having experiences they do not share: a letter from my past selve becomes a letter to my future self. The future might be more different than I expected

Part of me wants to leave this envelope unopened. It’s an artefact from a place that’s gone, the letter a relic from the old world, where making plans still made sense. The letter feels more hopeful if it’s left unread for a while.

Performance in the age of zoom

I’ve been thinking recently about how performance translates onto streaming and video-conferences, a question raised in Nicholas Berger’s essay, The Forgotten Art of Assembly (linked to in a recent post by Sarah Hymas).

Berger, a theatre artist, describes his feelings at being deluged by online artistic creations at the same time as “stories of mounting death tolls“. He questions aspects of this drive to create, such as how it plays into the ongoing crises in theatre. He also asks about the medium: “Are we not just grabbing at the closest, easiest, most obvious solutions? ‘You know what we normally do? Yeah, just do that, but on Facebook Live.’

“There’s a reason theatremakers weren’t staging readings of plays over Zoom two-months ago, it’s the same reason we continue to turn to theatre, even when Hulu programs a bigger season than any off-Broadway theater possibly could.”

Berger goes as far as calling for a pause in theatre, to let things blow over: “Theatre makers don’t need to provide a supply of art that there isn’t a demand for… I promise you Tiger King is more enjoyable than Hedda Gabler on Instagram Live.

There are issues with Berger’s essay, which I see as a positive thing – it’s more an expression of doubt than an argument. Anna Caldwell wrote a response saying that this explosion of content is to be welcomed. She writes that Berger “makes a meandering argument for the cessation of digital performances because they cannot capture or recreate what makes theater so magical and ephemeral: the art of assembly.” She concludes, “We are allowed to find our own balance.

There is an error often made online that, just because something is available for everyone, that it is made for everyone. But I like Berger’s question about the sort of art being made. How do you avoid making something that could be as easily recorded and played back? How you maintain presence when that is the thing that has been stripped away? What forms of performance will be maintained when this is over?

I’ve seen some good performance poetry sessions. In a recent one by Apples and Snakes, there was a host and two performing poets, with the host picking out questions from the chat. Luke Wright is also doing a nightly show which feels like a broadcast rather than a recording. The key here is the hosting: all those years dealing with restless and distracted festival audiences comes in useful. Indeed, Luke compared watching people arrive and leave his lifestream to watching audiences drift in and out of a festival tent.

I’ve not watched a lot of zoom performance because of the main problem – that in a period dominated by screens, it’s good to escape the screen in my time off. I’ve loved receiving art by post (including Sarah Hymas’s new piece) which feels real and immediate. But I’m still hoping to see some zoom-native art. Just don’t make it about the bloody pandemic, OK?

May Day

Every year, as May 1st approaches, I start making plans to see the Brighton Morris Men dance in the summer at Hollingbury Fort.

The night before, the Morris Men dance at a series of Hanover pubs. They retire to someone’s house for a few more drinks and then head out onto the Downs in time for dawn.

Every year, almost without fail, I decide against setting my alarm to watch the dancers. I’ve only actually made it once, back in the noughties. I remember trying to find my way in the dark, following the sound of bells. As the sky lightened, dancers circled the fort, just about keeping their footing on the damp grass. It was a magical experience, and I wish I’d taken the opportunity to do it more often.

I love the rituals that mark our passage through the year. There’s an importance to the continuity of these things. Obviously, I could not go and see the ritual this year – but I hope it still took place. I’d like to think there were a handful of socially-distanced dancers, setting the summer in motion.

Monthnotes – April 2020

That was a very strange April – meaning some quite perfunctory monthnotes.

I am grateful every day for how easy my life is compared to a lot of people right now. I have a stable job I can do from home and a flat to myself. But life is still hard: I feel constantly anxious about the impact of the pandemic on my friends and community, and sleep is difficult. I wake very early most days, but this week I’ve been forcing myself to stay in bed till 5:30am which is helping.

Walking has been a consistent 10,000 steps of daily exercise, with rare errands adding a few thousand steps. My total for April was 323,007 (200K less than in March), with my highest being 17,804 steps on the 3rd. My lowest was 10145, 30 more than my lowest in March, but I will ratchet the steps up for that. I go out early most days, when it is quiet, but the morning walk still feels stressful. Brighton is just too densely populated for social distancing to work easily. Sometimes I think I should just stop taking my daily walk, and exercise indoors; but I think that would leave me feeling more burned out and lethargic.

A couple of mornings I’ve taken a dip in the sea, which has left me feeling awake and alive, but most days it’s hard to summon the intention to go swimming.

I finished 11 books in January, and just 2 last month – my concentration is not good. One of the books was a short one about Kurt Cobain, the other one of Mick Herron’s Slough House Spy Novels.

I didn’t watch any movies last month – my concentration is as bad at watching things as reading things. I’ve watched bits of a few series – Westworld has been mostly annoying, Devs started well and wore out its welcome. Netflix’s Sex Education (a recommendation from Rosy) was the only thing I enjoyed.

Above everything, writing has been rewarding. I’ve been running remote Not for the Faint-Hearted Sessions, and attending Naomi Wood’s workshops. I also published a new zine, the first part of my South Downs Way project. And today I’ll be working on a new spoken word piece for Zoom.

I read a blog recently where the author suggested the topic of “looking back at my 2020 resolutions and laughing/crying“. I had a read of my new year’s post:

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

I’ve found lots of space in my life, so I am winning at my new year’s resolution. I also re-read another post from January about the Pastoral Post-Apocalypse: “A world of fast fashion and cheap global air travel is coming to an end“. I hadn’t expected that to be so sudden.

We are in uncertain times. The days drag and the weeks fly by. But every day I am grateful for what I have. I miss people and sharing food and parties, but I’m happy enough for now.

The Panchakroshi Temple

In her book on Banaras, Diana Eck talks about the ‘transposition of place’ in Hinduism, and how “to some extent, all of India’s great tirthas are duplicated and multiplied elsewhere in India“. Banaras, as Kashi, contains echoes of all these other tirthas (holy places).

The idea of condensing a whole into a part is seen in the Panchakroshi Road, which encircles Kashi. There are 108 shrines on this road, and pilgrims perform a 5-day tour of them. I’ve read that this pilgrimage is as holy as visiting the four sacred sites at the far-flung corners of India. Eck writes:

And, of course, it is fitting that if one cannot make the long trip around the Panchakroshi Road, there is a single temple in the heart of the city – the Panchakroshi Temple – which one can visit. By circumambulating the sanctum of this temple, with 108 wall reliefs of the stations of the sacred way, one honours the whole of Kashi, and, in turn, the whole world.

I love the way in which these three different routes – around India, around Kashi and around the temple sanctum – are considered as identical. I read somewhere about how a short walk around the Panchakroshi Temple can be as holy as the pilgrimage around all India.

When I was last in Varanasi, I went to find the Panchakroshi Temple. There were no clear directions, so I did my best to find the place using Google Maps and GPS in the narrow alleyways. Finally, we found the doorway to the temple and walked up the steps. I felt a little like an intruder in a domestic space, as lines of drying laundry hung from the inner sanctum. I had little knowledge or understanding of the tiny representations of the temples, but asked if I could take photographs. I was told this was not possible. I walked around the temple, thanked the people, and headed for the river.

I don’t know how long I will be back in Varanasi – they say the greatest misfortune is to leave Kashi once one has been there – but some day I hope to walk the full length of the Panchakroshi Road.