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.

Day 285 – Merry Christmas – and an Unhappy New Tier

Dawn on Christmas Morning

In the run-up to Christmas, the isolation and grimness of lockdown seeped into me. I was working in a new office, which was mostly empty, and I felt like a ghost. I had one day where the only people I spoke to were the staff at Small Batch. I missed daylight most days, and came home too tired to make any preparations for Christmas Day. The bad news of the new variant was followed by the cancelling of Christmas regulations, closed borders, and an announcement that Brighton would enter Tier 4 today, with no hope of emerging before Easter 2021, at the start of April.

Back in October, I wrote the following:

What does life look like under a prolonged pandemic? How do I keep my spirits up and my enthusiasms alive if this does go on for years? It’s not that I think I can’t, or that 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?

A few days ago, Matt Hancock said that this crisis was likely to continue into 2022, for the United Kingdon at least. The question for me is, how do I set aside empty hopes, and focus on practical steps to have a good year in 2021?

After 9 months of living alone in lockdown, the isolation has become more difficult. The particular shape of my social networks mean I am not in a social bubble at the moment. Sharing food used to be important to me; food eaten alone just doesn’t taste as good, does it? I can have days without significant human interaction.

Christmas Day itself was good. I went for a long walk at dawn. I swam with some friends in the cold, cold sea. The seafront was busy but mostly distanced, and I bumped into some people I’d not seen in months. Kate Shields came over and we cooked a feast, played Soulcalibur and watched movies. It was a pretty good day, despite my lacklustre preparations.

We are now entering the quiet days between Christmas and New Year. During that time, I need to ask myself, what I am excited about in 2021? What makes a good life within a dangerous and ongoing pandemic?

Day 276 – The Toll It Takes

It’s now 276 days since the pandemic first pushed me to working from home. My initial estimates were that the distruption would last 3-6 months, based on what happened in Wuhan. It turns out that I under-estimated. The UK has now had over 9 months of fluctuating restrictions without ever getting things under control. While some countries have returned to normal, lockdowns here look set to continue well into the new year.

I’ve been very lucky that covid itself has had little impact on me personally; and I remain grateful that both my work and living situations are stable. But months of lockdown are beginning to take their toll on me; and I’m seeing people around me starting to fray a little.

Part of this comes from living alone. I’m grateful not to have to worry about dealing with housemates, or insecure accomodation. But I miss having meals with people. I also have very few normal interactions. Social distancing means that physical contact, even shaking hands, is not possible. In the old days, I could get away from it all in a cafe or browsing a bookshop. Now, there’s no possibility of going to a social space and forgetting about this, with masks, covid precautions and social distancing making everything seem strange. It’s rare to spend time around people who are behaving normally.

I have it pretty easy – there are many vulnerable people in much worse situations than I am. But even doing the pandemic in easy mode takes its toll. These are not the sort of things that can be solved by a newspaper listicle. I keep up my daily exercise, try to eat properly, and make preparations for a grim January and February. Even with the vaccine coming, we have more months of this ahead, and sometimes it’s just hard.

Day 269 – “I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler” (Clubbing)

On Friday night, the weekend started with a DJ set from Kate St Shields. She’s been wrestling for weeks with hardware and software so that she can stream online (and avoid copyright takedowns). Finally, she cracked it, and for the first time in months I got to hear Kate DJing.

It was great. Kate was entertaining, performing rather than just playing records. The chat window was full of friends and a zoom was opened up to some of the people dancing. It was one of the most sociable times I’ve had since lockdown and the mix is now online at Mixcloud. (The title comes from one of the songs she played, by the band Yacht).

And then I reminded myself. This is shit. As good as it is, as much work has gone into it, it’s nothing like the real thing and I can’t let myself be tricked by it. This is the sort of thing that turns up in dystopian fiction. All those people in different windows came straight out of Forster’s 1909 story The Machine Stops.

Kate’s next set is on December 28th, on Mixcloud, starting at 8pm GMT. It will be great. But hopefully, the next time I see her play after that is in the real world.

Day 268: The Second Lockdown in Hove

The guardian had an article on lockdown in Hove last month. It didn’t quite match with my own experiences. It talked about how the second lockdown didn’t feel like a lockdown, and how quiet things were in the first one. But it overplays that hand a little. “No people. Nothing. Now it’s just like normal, whatever normal is,” it quotes one person as saying, and the writer describes the first lockdown as “something rather spectral and unnerving about the UK’s near-abandoned streets, as if a neutron bomb had gone off, and the only people to survive were deeply suspicious of each other”.

The roads were definitely quieter in the first phase of the pandemic, and there was a deep silence in the area where I live. But there were still lots of people walking on the seafront. In fact, the media narrative at the time was all about foolish people crowding together on Brighton seafront and risking the virus. This was unfair, as it didn’t take account of how many people have the seafront as their nearest open space.

There was one significant difference between the two lockdowns. In the first lockdown there was a heavy police presence, and you saw fewer large groups gathering. At one point in April people were even discouraged from sitting on the beach.

Everyone’s pandemic experiences are different, but it’s all difficult. I have an easy time of it in some ways, but there are aspects I find almost unbearable. The second lockdown was a grind, with some things feeling as if they were back to normal. But, my big fear is that I am losing track of what normal ought to be, taking too much of this new world for granted.

Day 263 – A Covid Test

On Saturday I woke with an awful headache. I’ve got used to these sorts of things as my tolerance for alcohol has collapsed over lockdown. I’ve even experienced the single-drink hangover, which has meant I’ve not been drinking at all recently.

Being hungover from not drinking seems unfair, and suggested something was wrong. I slept much of the day, but continued feeling worse until, a little after dark, I vomitted my guts empty. Lovely. I felt fine the next day, but when I put the symptoms into the Zoe Covid Symptom App, I was told to get a covid test.

After reading so much about the testing system, it was interesting to experience the process. Firstly, covid tests are still not available to everyone who wants them. You have to be referred for one, or declare covid symptoms. On my first journey through the website, I answered one of the questions wrongly and was told I wasn’t eligible (the question was about whether I’d been told to get one by an official research project, which it turns out Zoe is).

The next problem was actually booking the test. I could have a home test, which would be a few days turnaround, during which I needed to isolate. The other option was to go to a test centre, the nearest of which was 3.5 miles from my house. Given that, as a suspected covid patient, I wasn’t to use taxis or public transport, this meant walking or cycling. The walk was not a problem for me, but I can see it being a barrier to some people.

The test centre itself was very quiet and I was quickly processed. The staff onsite were excellent; efficient and polite. It reminded me a little of a festival. I was met by some bored security guards, who sent me down a plastic path over grass to the railings of an empty queueing area. Following that through, I found myself in a large white tent. I was a little surprised at having to self-administer the test, which was actually a less unpleasant task than I’d expected.

The test results came through 24 hours later: negative. I isolated for a couple more days, and will be heading back to the office today.

Day 253: Real life feels less meaningful than video games

I’m beginning to feel like my videogame life is more significant than my actual life. I spend my day in my flat, dealing with other people via emails and conference calls. As varied as I try to make things, the days drift past, with little to tell between them.

A few days ago, at the end of the day’s work, I did a mission on Death Stranding, climbing a mountain to deliver some heavy packages. Snow swept in, the wind catching against the pile of crates on my back. It became harder to see, and I could no longer navigate by sight, finding it hard to be sure even how steep the slope was. I pressed on, measuring the distance on the map, hoping I could hold out long enough to reach my destination.

After the drop-off, I connected the parcel’s recipient to the ‘chiral network’. Death Stranding is all about connection. Once I did this, I could see facilities built in the area by other players. Death Stranding isn’t a multiplayer game, not really, but you can feel the encouragement of the other players, and use their facilities. There is a sense of community there, but a strange one.

Death Stranding is not perfect. There are too many distractions from delivering parcels, too many times that you have to fight. I’ve resorted to doing the battle sequences in ‘very easy’ mode as I cannot be bothered. For me, the joy of the game is building infrastructure, whizzing over difficult terrain on zip lines. The joy is connecting people, and travelling new routes through the landscape.

In bed that night, my brain settled down towards sleep. I’d done some work, I’d done some writing, but it felt like the most profound thing I had done was I delivering that parcel to the mountaintop. My life as a porter in an imaginary would feels more satisfying than the real one. This pandemic is going on too long.

Lockdown Day 252 – Dying for Christmas

It is now 34 days until Christmas; and 252 days since I first switched to working from home because of the pandemic.

Back in Spring, the government boldly promised everything would be back to normal in 12 weeks. A few people cynically referred to the WW1 claim that the conflict would be ‘over by Christmas’, saying this would drag on longer than expected. We’re now within 5 weeks of Christmas with the country on lockdown, and some very difficult decisions have to be made. Basically: how many people will the government allow to die so that Christmas can go ahead?

One of the reasons given for the current restrictions was so that families could meet on December 25th. There have already been triumphant headlines about “Boris” saving Christmas. But lifting restrictions in a pandemic and therefore encouraging people to mix around the country seems insane. Eid and Diwali have both been disrupted already; having an even larger festival go ahead is ridiculous. At the very least, a few days of looser restrictions will a longer period locked down afterwards.

All this adds to the gloomy apocalyptic mood. The government seems to have no strategy, and is instead distracted by internal squabbles and scandals. There is the promise of the vaccine, with the first roll-out just weeks away. But delivering supplies of this present another challenge, as does clearing up the economic damage (with Brexit on top of that). I’m not feeling optimistic.

My life in Lockdown 2 is, as for most people living alone, boring and a little lonely. Lots of people around me are ignoring the restrictions, and I can’t even bring myself to be annoyed or angry at this. The national response to this whole pandemic has been a disaster, and I don’t blame people for trying to get on with things. Me, I spend my days building software, and in the dark evenings I write, watch a little TV, but find it muster enough energy to do anything.

I’ve been planning Christmas on the assumption that the rule-of-six will be in place, and have invited a few local friends to join me for food. I’d hoped to visit family on the 26th or 27th, but they are (understandably) not enthusiastic about having Christmas outdoors or in the garage. Personally, I’d rather the Christmas Bank Holidays were rolled over to the summer, and just have them as normal working days. The holiday season feels spectacularly un-festive this year.

Retreat Day 245 – How I’ll Know the Pandemic is Over

For me, the official end of this pandemic will be when I am dancing in a club to WAP. I don’t actually go to nightclubs all that often, so it will almost certainly whatever is the first post-pandemic night played by DJ Kate St Shields. WAP such a great song, and yet we’ve never been legally allowed to dance to it in a UK club.

When lockdown first started, I expected a clean ending to the pandemic. The government would get things under control, and there’d be a grand Reunion. This was not so unlikely, since several countries managed just this – including a few that were not islands. The Reunion was a big exciting thing to look forward to.

Instead, the UK pandemic has felt more ambiguous. I should be delighted about this week’s news about a potential vaccine – but it feels like all our eggs are in that one basket.

This government has a very poor record on logistics. I can’t imagine the screw-ups they might manage distributing a vaccine that must be stored at -80°C -70°C (EDIT – and apparently can be stored for a period in a regular fridge – see comments). And one that requires too doses two a week three weeks apart. And one that requires people to agree to be vaccinated when public trust in drug companies and governments is pretty low. I’d be amazed if restrictions are lifted before the July or August.

During summer, I turned down attending a couple of large events. They would have been distanced, but they weren’t quite in the spirit of the restrictions. Now I feel a sort of FOMO, as well as a feeling that I was overly pious. I’m not sure it would have mattered if I had gone or not.

I was chatting to Rosy the other day, and she said how much she was looking forward to going clubbing now the vaccine was here. I pointed out that even with a vaccine, this was a long way off. “That’s OK,” she said, “We’ll have time to pick out really good outfits”.