A year of lockdown (Day 366)

March brings covid-anniversaries. It’s a strange time for everyone – our recollections are so personal and so similar to everyone else’s.

While the official lockdown started on March 23rd, my personal lockdown began on March 16th. Initially, as the pandemic spread outside China, I was as relaxed as the government. I thought the economic effects from people’s anxiety would be worse than the virus itself. While the government played down the disease, my employer was bringing in more and more rules. It was obviously a fast-changing situation. I went from joking about the new work-from-home policy on the Friday to taking advantage of it on the Monday. Later that day, the office was closed, and has yet to fully re-open.

Based on the news from China, I was prepared for the disruption to last about three months. I’d read somewhere that the lockdown in Wuhan was about 11 weeks. I figured that, since Britain had more warning, we could manage things better. I’d really not expected to be locked down a year later.

The last year has been hard. While my personal situation is pretty good, my resilience has worn down over the past few months. The last month has felt particularly difficult. My memories of the first lockdown are relatively pleasant. I know that’s probably not true, and that there was definitely anxiety at the time (waking every morning, certain I was in the wrong universe) but it felt like I came through that OK.

We frame our lives through the stories we tell. This has not been an entirely wasted year, and I’d rather remember it as positive. I’ve been forced to confront a lot of things about myself that I ignored in the hubbub of a packed calendar. I’ve managed to see my parents a couple of times, and also got to visit Sheringham and Norwich, as well as time in Shropshire where I climbed a tiny mountain. I hiked the White to Dark trail and did the Brighton and Hove Way in a single day. I spent Halloween in Puzzlewood. I did a lot of hiking on the Downs, and my photos show the arc of spring to summer to autum. I’ve contributed to Bodge magazine and Rituals and Declarations. I continued meeting with the Invisibles group, and ran a seminar at Chichester University. I hosted the Not for the Faint-Hearted writing sessions. I played my way through Death Stranding on the PS4. I won prizes in a 10-word story contest. I’ve improved my writing and released three booklets. Lots of swimming! And now I’m in the process of selling my house and leaving Brighton. The future is bright, and I’d rather remember this as a stage on the way to that.

It’s not been a great time but it’s still been a pretty good year.



Imbolc (Day 322)

Today is Imbolc, the first festival of the Celtic Calendar, which brings a promise of spring. Wikipedia tells me that Celts associated the time with ewes beginning lactation, preparing the way for their lambs. Or, as Katharine May describes it in her book Wintering, “It marks the end of winter, a time when the snow would traditionally melt, and its debris could be cleared away”. This is a time for spring cleaning, for dusting away cobwebs.

Imbolc also comes close to Candlemas, and to Groundhog Day. According to wikipedia again, this year marks the 135th Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney and this year Phil the Groundhog will wear a mask, with the ceremony held behind closed doors.

I’d wanted to mark the Celtic Festivals as we dragged ourselves through the pandemic, but January is such a low ebb that it is hard to muster up any feeling of celebration. Gathering with other people is illegal anyway. At least now the incredibly long January is over and it is time for renewal. And I legit completed my todo list yesterday, which feels even better than a spring clean.

Judy Mazonowicz’s article on Celebrating the Goddess at Imbolc in Bodge Issue 1 notes the connection of the day with St Brigid/Bridies, and the making of a traditional Bridie’s Cross. The article suggests visiting a Spring and the photo above is from my dawn visit to St. Anne’s Well gardens.

A year ago today, I visited the Long Man of Wilmington with The Door, in a very different world. It’s hard to believe all the time that has happened since. The days have passed slowly, but the weeks have flown by, with so many different periods to this – the three lockdowns, the long summer, the mess of Christmas. I keep thinking back to the early days, where I thought the economic effects of preventing the virus would outweigh the effect of the virus itself.

The next Celtic festival is the Spring Equinox, on March 20th. By this point, the schools should have reopened (and, I think, shut for the holidays?), so things will be a little less restricted. It’s a Saturday too, so I should think about how to mark the day.

Today also promises an announcement from David Lynch, which I assume is about the new Netflix series. I’m hoping for something that strengthens the connections between Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. But I have faith that Lynch will produce something I need rather than something I want.

Life on Plague Island (Day 321)

As Britain lurched past 100,000 deaths last week, I saw people post an interview with Jacinda Ardern on Twitter, where she talks about making her plan for coronavirus. What’s interesting about that is not her particular approach; shutting down the UK completely would have been hard to justify in early 2020. But Ardern is clear about her aims. Cutting off a country looked drastic, but now I watch with envy as New Zealand has music festivals. Their economy has still taken a hit, but normal life is recovering.

Meanwhile, Britain’s government tries to balance lockdown and the economy, and fails at both. There has been talk about quarantine hotels recently. The policy was trailed in the papers for days before a half-hearted implementation was finally announced. I’m not even sure that these hotels have yet opened. They don’t cover people whose destination is hidden by transfers.

The thing that surprises me is how little anger there is against the government. The polls suggest a solid base of 40% support, which seems ludicrous given the number of mis-steps that have been made. Without acknowledging how weak the response has been so far, there is no way to try a new approach. I find myself waiting for fury; instead, support rallies on the government’s vaccination success. Buoyed by this support, the government has announced a date for reopening schools rather than an actual plan, with the promise that pubs will follow within two months. The newspapers include reference to “Boris” wanting to reunite families at Easter.

It’s no wonder that some people are confused about the difference between guidance, laws, leaks and ministerial statements. Last week, a friend got angry with me recently for not wearing a mask outdoors as a matter of course. I was defensive, and I part of that that is fear. If it’s not safe to be outdoors unmasked, then a lot of things the government implies are safe are actually incredibly dangerous.

The vaccine programme is all we have, and it’s not certain that it will solve Britain’s coronavirus crisis. Countries such as Japan, Thailand, New Zealand and even China seem to have been far more successful than we have been, yet there is no real sense of learning lessons from them.

Obviously, nobody cares all that much about my views on politics. This blog post simply records my feelings of quiet, frustration at the situation we are in. A few months ago, I was hoping we would be out of lockdown by Easter. Now, I’m not even sure we will be out of lockdown by June.

Back in March 2020, the Prime Minister claimed we would turn the tide on coronavirus in 12 weeks.

The Longest January (Day 310)

An abandoned Christmas tree in the park

This is the longest winter I’ve known. Tramping along the seafront had already become boring in April, after a few weeks of lockdown; now it’s much worse. If I could run, it would be better, but all I can do is pace. I’m sure it wasn’t always so dark at 7am – maybe it’s the coffee shops changing their hours, no longer catering for commuters. Everything seems slower, and I sometimes feel like the sea has frozen.

There was an excellent piece in the Guardian by George Monbiot, discussing the government’s lack of a clear plan. No ideas for lifting the lockdown have been published, no targets or objectives. All our attempts to protect the economy through lenient restrictions have failed, with the UK having the world’s worst death rates last week. There is no idea of how and when restrictions will be lifted (although I only hope we prioritise schools over pubs this time). Yesterday, over 1,6000 new deaths were announced. We seem to be stumbling through this, only now adding tests at airports or talking about quarantine hotels. Throughout this, our interventions have been half-hearted.

We’ve been promised that this is the beginning of the end, that the vaccine is going to save us. We seem to have gambled a great deal on one single intervention (and it’s starting to look like this lockdown will continue through Easter, whatever happens). I have no idea what happens if the vaccine doesn’t improve things sufficiently. Nobody talks much about long covid and the risks from that, the possibility of permanent injuries from hospitalisation. And all this, just to attempt opening up for Christmas.

A lot of people around me seem to be finding this lockdown harder than before, even though their situation is better than a lot of people (how on earth are families cooped up in tiny flats coping?). Talking to Tom on Monday, I told him how I’d found the first lockdown a positive experience. He corrected me, told me I had actually hated it. I guess the important thing is how we process these experiences and what we make of them.

A week or so back, I was walking with a friend around St Anne’s Well gardens. It was during the recent cold snap and the ground was icy. My friend slipped on a treacherous patch and fell to the ground. My first response was to step backwards rather than help. It seems as if distancing is becoming instinctual now.

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?

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.

2020 Review (Day 290)

2020 began on a roof terrace, watching fireworks explode across the seafront. Writing the following day about my plans for the year, I posted:

“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. ”

Well, I got what I wanted. 2020 had lots of space in which to think. It’s been a horrible one, and that will drag on into much of 2021. I’ve found it personally very tough at points, and have kept a sort of pandemic journal on my blog. I’m grateful that most people I know have come through without serious impact from the virus itself, but I remain careful and vigilant.

In some ways, Summer was glorious. Spending so much time outside, swimming more than any other year. There were masks and fears, but the numbers of cases were low. All our troubles had been put away until the winter and life felt good for a time. I can imagine looking back on this summer in ten year’s and being sad about the virus, but also amazed at how much time we all spent outdoors this year.

One gift from the pandemic was time to think about my life more, and how I spend my time. And I realised how much of my life had been restricted by anxiety – particularly around my writing. And I wondered, what would my life be like if I was less anxious? Something to work on in the coming year.

As far as writing goes, I released four pamphlets:

  1. Cows Don’t Believe in Slaughterhouses
  2. The South Downs Way
  3. The Devil
  4. Crossing Paths

I also hoped to release a fifth in November, Path Integrals. That now looks to be coming in February. While I’ve not released a lot, I have clearing out a lot of old notes from my word horde (300,000 words in the main scrivener doc). It’s been good to review a lot of things that didn’t work and delete them, and I think next year will see much more coming out.

I also won a ten-word story contest, and have been blogging more consistently. Being a blogger in 2020 is a strange experience, as most of the potential audience is trapped in Facebook’s tar pit. But a few people still read, and there are RSS readers still out there, and I people occasionaly follow-up with me on posts, and it feels worth doing. Although I’m baffled that, by far, my most read post this year was one on piano-smashing. Thank you for reading.

It’s strange coming to the end of a year with no plans for New Year’s Eve. I’ll probably watch Kate St Shields’ DJ set and catch up with the F23 crew. I’ve spent new years eves indoors by choice in the past, but it’s strange to be forced into it. This Winter sees us deep in the underworld, but we have passed the solstice and a better world lies ahead.

Host: A perfect lockdown movie

Host is a 2020 found-footage movie, set on a haunted zoom call. To answer the obvious question: it’s not just a gimmick, and is much, much better than it needed to be.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch this in a cinema; and I wonder if it would have been better watched on a laptop or phone rather than on my projector. It’s a serious question: this is a film that is all about technology and connection, and it’s one where most of the audience will be watching it alone, or in their household bubble.

The film dispatches with all the zoom cliches quickly and, given the weird pace of the year, feels almost nostalgic. This scene-setting genuinely felt like a group of friends meeting online, and made me laugh a couple of times. Zoom’s clunkiness is used superbly, all those limitations like low bandwidth, buffering and so on. The video-conferencing allowed some brilliant reaction shots to the events in other windows, and the classic Blair-Witch-crying-into-the-camera shot seemed much more natural than in other found footage films.

Despite being filmed on zoom, there are some moments where you can’t help wondering how the effects were achieved, especially if you know that everything was done under social distancing. Apparently stuntmen collaborated with the actors on how to achieve the effects at home; and where this was not possible, they found spaces in their own houses that looked close enough to the actors’ houses to allow cuts. I certainly didn’t notice this at the time.

Horror has always worked with new technology, and this is a great example of that (I loved the comparison of texting and telepathy). There are also some interesting moments around filters and corporeality. Most interesting of all was the seance’s creation of a magical space, and the analysis of how we build spaces on zoom. The characters were cut off from one another by the virus, making them isolated while in danger.

(Early in lockdown I was in a call that got zoombombed. The sense of violation and isolation that caused was incredible – people dropped off the call and found themselves traumatised in their own domestic space. The same blurring comes in the split between domesticity and work, particularly when some people are forced, due to limited space, to make work calls or videos with their beds in the background. The pandemic is shifting the nature and safety of domestic space).

Host is not a perfect movie – there were a few too many jump scares for my taste, and I wasn’t sure how the devices and cameras worked in a couple of places. But I’ll be amazed (and delighted) if anyone produces a better zoom movie than this. The film was apparently 12 weeks from conception to delivery to the Shudder channel who commissioned it. Shudder were apparently chosen as they were open to the film being as long or short as it needed to be. It turns out that 55 minutes was just right.

One of the great things about this film was that it wasn’t about the pandemic itself. I’m sure there will be great horror to be made about covid itself – not least how the strange rules for avoiding it, such as staying 2-meters from other people, are the sort of rules that horror works well with. But this film was about something different. In an interview with Rolling Stone, director Rob Savage said:

We were very adamant that it was not a pandemic movie. It was a lockdown movie. It was more about isolation. We wanted to play on was this idea that video conferencing gives you the impression that you’re with people, but actually you get these stark reminders that you’re not, that you never are. You’re very separate. And you’re very isolated. When the characters start to see their friends in trouble, they’re basically just passengers along for the ride and having to watch at a distance. That was more the thing we were interested in.

The film is a reminder of the need for connection. I can’t wait to one day see it in the cinema.