Pandemic Day 766: Ignoring the coronavirus

We are now 766 days into the pandemic (counting from the day after the government advised against “unnecessary social contact of all kinds” and my office was closed). I’ve not written much about my personal experience of coronavirus recently, but I wanted to make a note of how this current phase feels.

The government recently announced that it was time to get back to normal, and that coronavirus has to be accepted as little more than a bad flu. Testing is no longer free. In shops and trains I’m now often the only person wearing a mask. I even heard from a family member about a teacher who wore a mask to class as they were teaching after testing positive. At the same time, daily deaths continue, with the total for yesterday reaching 646 running around 250 or more (the 646 figure on 21/4 apparently included data from several days over Easter).

The question of how this might end has been there from the start. Despite the Prime Minister’s blithe promises that things would soon be back to normal, it was obvious that any permanent solution depended on preventing transmission of the virus either through ‘zero covid’ strategies or herd immunity.

Both of these options soon became unfeasible – the virus has escaped even the most intolerable and inhumane quarantine regimes. The vaccine, while an impressive scientific achievement, does not provide permanent immunity. For a time it looked as if the government would be bringing out regular vaccines but this seems to no longer be the case, (although further boosters are being provided to the clinically vulnerable).

As far as I know, I’ve not been infected with covid, but with the omicron virus being so transmissible this is inevitable – there was even a case recently of someone catching two variants within three weeks. I had my last booster on Christmas Eve, so my protection from the vaccine is waning. ’Long covid’ is affecting 1.5 million, a number that can only grow. For the more severe cases it proves impossible to work, yet diagnosis and intervention is limited.

It looks as if the current plan is to muddle along for now. People will catch and recatch the virus, with rising cases of long covid. It’s an alarming situation but people seem happy to go along with it, and few wear masks. Eventually, a new, more dangerous variant will emerge, or the toll of long covid will be unignorable. Those problems are being left for the future to deal with.

Faced with an unsolvable pandemic, the government has decided to do nothing, while not being honest about the impact this will have. While mitigating covid is expensive, even the affordable steps have been ignored. We wasted billions on corrupt PPE deals, incompetent testing, and Potemkin Nightingale hospitals, yet spent little on ventilation for spaces like schools and offices.

Since there’s little I can do, I’m getting on with my life like everyone else, albeit with a little caution. There’s a strange feeling that everything’s normal when it isn’t. Welcome to life in the Anthropocene.

Peakrill Press’s Mostly Harmless Meetings

Back in 2021, my friend Dan Sumption held a kickstarter for his book Mostly Harmless Meetings and I signed up, even though this wasn’t my usual sort of reading. The book contains a series of ‘encounters’ to be used in role-playing games. Dan describes the project as “a TTRPG zine containing tables for random countryside encounters with birds, beasts, trees, plants, and landscapes“.

I read Dan’s book book cover-to-cover last week, treating it like a strange piece of literature. It definitely works that way, becoming a sort of Borgesian/Oulippian take on British rural folklore, with a series of creatures and things you might meet. Dan’s encounters describe a place that is definitely England but a little.. wonky. An environment of woodland and hedges, with strange quests delivered by small creatures. It’s a place you could run into enchanted trees, rabbit funerals or talking spiders. The book is also beautifully illustrated with “art by dead artists”.

Mostly Harmless Meetings is an interesting example of Indie publishing. Dan joined a “zine jam” at the end of 2021, setting up a kickstarter for the zine, with a budget of £400 to print and post 50 magazines. The project boomed, receiving over 250 pledges. My favourite thing about the zine was the feeling of an ephemeral community building up around the project. It’s got me thinking about how Kickstarter seems to be its own genre.

The board games and role-playing communities are going through an incredibly exciting time, and Dan’s work through Peakrill Press is part of this. It’s a long way from the role-playing games that were around when I was a teenager, heavily in debt to heroic fantasy and epic sci-fi. Mostly Harmless Meetings is a glimpse into this wider world, and has me curious about what else is out there.

Dan is currently working on his next zine, Learning to Draw Trees, about a drawing experiment he tried in 2021 and what he learned from it – which also features a simple role-playing game by Côme Martin called You Are a Tree where you get to play a tree. I can’t wait to read that. There is a Peakrill Press mailing list, which you can subscribe to from their site.

A Sussex Mystery: The Ardingly Suitcases

I found an odd story in Fortean times a few months back. Apparently, in June 2020, a group of 50 people were seen walking towards Ardingly Reservoir carrying suitcases. This was reported in several Sussex newspapers, including the Brighton Argus:

BIZARRE reports of 50 people with suitcases walking to a water reservoir remain a mystery.
Police officers were called to reports of a suitcase-carrying contingent at Ardingly Reservoir near Balcombe on Thursday.
But after a search nobody carrying a suitcase was found at the popular fishing spot.


This happened on June 25th 2020, so such gatherings were legal at the time, I think. It’s a strange story though, and a powerful image. Digging through the news reports, all of them refer to the same pair of tweets from police Prevention Inspector Darren Taylor, who started working in Sussex a month or two before. An article in Sussex Live talks about his new job and how he will use twitter to publicise his work. His account has since been deleted, but the original tweet is quoted in the articles:

Team are currently responding to calls from members of the public in regard to approx 50 people walking towards Ardingly reservoir, carrying suitcases! pic.twitter.com/ozM8HURJjd

The linked image no longer exists. A single follow-up tweet came just after:

An area search carried out and the team could not locate anyone with suitcases…most bizarre.

I guess it was a hoax – I mean, any sort of happening involving 50 people should have produced some content. But then it seems to have been taken seriously enough for the police to go out and investigate. The police twitter account even refers to multiple “calls”. So, while this is almost certainly a hoax, who was the hoaxer?

Forteana often finds a channel through local newspapers publishing quirky pieces which are then quoted elsewhere as evidence. Here we have a story that was printed without asking any of the obvious follow-up questions, with content sent direct from twitter to print. I guess that’s a reflection of the way media works now – the Brighton Argus is basically an online organisation, reduced to begging for stories from social media. They are so short-staffed that most stories simply cannot be dug into.

Maybe one reason for not investigating this is that it’s too good a story to ruin by investigating it. The idea that this happened is more interesting than it being a hoax. But I’d love to know what was going on.

Monthnotes: January 2022

I spent much of January in the pandemic doldrums. I’d been planning to do more with my free time, but just can’t get enthusiastic about risking covid. But, at the same time, I’m spending too much time on my own, and need to make some effort to explore my new environment. It’s hard to know what to do. The combination of virus and political chaos sets a depressing backdrop.

But, while things are bleak, I’m trying to make the most of it. I had visits from Katharine and Kaylee, the latter bringing along her DJ equipment. I was tempted to get a set of my own, but had to be honest with myself – I don’t know how I’d find time to use them. I also visited family back in the midlands, and made a day-trip to York to visit Justin.

One of the things I wanted to do with 2022 was to put more writing out. This month I brought out a new zine of South Downs Way stories, Weird Tales. I also set up an etsy shop for my zines, something I should have done long ago. Putting the zines on sale is making me think about how to make my writing more appealing. This is feeding back into the writing of Volume 5 and, I think, making it stronger.

Another change for 2022 was reducing my daily walking commitment from 10,000 steps to 5,000. Despite that, I managed a total of 294,048 steps, a daily average of 9,485 – not that far off my old target. This was helped along by a few long hikes, and my highest total of 29,672 was a day out with the local Ramblers around Hebden Bridge. I got soaked, which serves me right for being complacent about Calder Valley weather. I didn’t manage much other exercise despite what I had promised myself. I must at least do my stretches.

1:35pm in January, the sun drops behind the valley in Hebden Bridge

It’s been a good month for TV. Snowpiercer and Ozark have both started new seasons – although Ozark suffers a little from spending too much time on the Byrde family and not enough time on Ruth. I’ve finally got hold of How to with John Wilson, and love the beautiful weirdness of Wilson’s New York. I came to Yellowjackets a little late, but it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen in years, and I binged the series in five days. The only film I saw was a rewatch of Midsommar.

I finished eight books this month. Last of the Hippies by CJ Stone was an interesting discussion of British counterculture, focussing on working class experience. Paint my name in Black and Gold described the early days of Sisters of Mercy and how Andy Taylor from Leeds was taken over by Andrew Eldritch. It was exhaustive in some aspects (Eldritch was partial to Fruit Shortcake biscuits), but I was sad not to hear any stories of the Sisters touring with Public Enemy. Also, Eldritch tried to get Werner Herzog to produce his album, although it faltered when Herzog suggested he and Eldritch go camping along some ley lines. Best book of the month was Olivia Yallop’s Break the Internet, which explored the world of influencers.

Halifax Piece Hall, transformed into a set for Marvel’s Secret Invasion

Like everyone else, I’ve been playing Wordle and enjoying the mix of luck and skill. I’ve also continued to waste time on Days Gone. It’s not a bad open world game, and I like the fact that it’s not entirely nihilistic. But sometimes it just feels like having a boring imaginary job.

And so we move into February… Let’s see what it brings…

New Zine of South Downs Way Stories

This month, I published a new zine of stories. This is the fourth in a set of flash fiction zines set along the South Downs Way. The stories are intended to work indepently, but contain links and recurring characters. Copies are available direct from me (drop me an email) or via my (new) etsy store.

This volume is slightly harsher than the other three. It had a long gestation period, which included the tough Winter 2021 lockdown. Some of the stories were influenced by reading Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass, which examines the politics of the British landscape. The stories also take a weirder tack than the earlier ones, and I love embedding this strangeness in a landscape I know well.

I’ve now written four volumes of this collection (the other three are also available on etsy) and am now working on the fifth. It’s been a long time since parts three and four, but I am looking forward to finishing the next set of stories. Between producing these booklets, I’ve been thinking more about the formats and how to share them. I’m also getting more excited about building links between tiny independent stories.

Matrix Resurrections discussion (with spoilers)

Given the review headlines for Matrix 4, I didn’t expect much. Whatever, I loved the film from the start and kept waiting for the moment where it turned shit. It never did. As the credits played, I thought that might be one of the best films I’d seen in years.

Matrix 4 is not a perfect film. I can see why some people didn’t like it – particularly when it was so uninterested in topping the spectacle of the previous three movies. Instead, there was a thoughtful film about nostalgia/retro culture.

I can’t claim my responses as a cis-male are as interesting or important as those of trans fans, but I took a lot from it. For me, it was a film about growing older, and losing touch with the power and optimism of youth – how ‘they’ “made you believe their world was all you deserved”. This is particularly poignant, given how the themes of the first Matrix film have been co-opted in the years since.

Resurrections is a metafictional critique of the way in which storytelling has been harvested for ‘intellectual property’. This has produced films like Soul, where Disney promotes ideals that would be anathema to its corporate culture. Resurrections responds directly to how, as one review put it, “the future is increasingly viewed through the franchise lenses of the past, trapping fans in corporate-controlled dream worlds where their fandom is constantly rewarded with new product“. Corporate storytelling has much in common with the matrix.

I like that this reboot did not just go for nostalgia or outdoing the original (I mean, Star Wars 7 and 9 had fights in the literal ruins of the first trilogy). Undercutting the originals seemed a good way to go. Some additional, miscellaneous points:

Matrix 4 looked at the failures of the original trilogy and asked whether we could try again and do it better. By the end of the film, I thought maybe we could.

The Land of Lost Content

Earlier this week I visited a museum in the town of Craven Arms, called ”The Land of Lost Content” (that’s content as in “contented”, not media – it’s from a poem, by AE Housman). It’s basically a social history museum, displaying goods and artefacts from WW2 onwards. I’ve never been to a museum like it.

The collection is eclectic. There are clothes, toys, foodstuffs, fads and consumer goods. One picture frame includes some documents relating to the Hoover free flights fiasco. There is Ajax scouring powder; a Woolworth’s Pick’n’Mix Barbie set; a rubbery cushion that looks like a Wotsit’s packet. One mannequin sported Pantalungs, plastic clothing designed for weight loss.

It was certainly something to see years of ephemera crammed into the space (it was a little like a flea market where nothing was on sale). You could see how the developments in materials over the decades had been adopted, with plastics and brighter colours becoming commonplace. But there was also something melancholy about all things that were once aspirational and are now ridiculous.

I wondered what an alien would think if they tried to interpret our civilisation from this museum. The collections was eclectic and provocative and with such a range of items couldn’t help be be interesting.

One complaint I have about the museum was its treatment of racist artefacts. These were mostly confined to a single cabinet, and showed how casually and openly racist British society once was. While this is important, these are hurtful and offensive items. Maybe they should not have a place within the museum where they could be so easily encountered. The text beside them needed to be more condemnatory. The “innocent acceptance” of racist imagery can’t be brushed aside as the “olden days” – the BBC was screening the Black and White Minstrel show in my lifetime.

It’s strange to see things that once had meaning and significance.
Another dark artefact
A signed copy of an Enoch Powell pamphlet. Another item that needs more context.

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.

Iteration 17: Supernatural (and Lucky (2021))

A Friday or so back, it was March 384th 2020 and I watched another time loop story. This was an episode from the third season of the TV series Supernatural called Mystery Spot. I’ve never watched a single episode of Supernatural, so it was interesting to see how this show handled the time loop against its ongoing storylines.

So many of the tropes used were common ones – breakfast in a diner, the repeating accidents, and dialogue referring to Groundhog Day. We saw one character die each day, resetting the loop. The exit from this loop was a little disappointing, relying on a character returning from a previous episode of the show. It was light, but fun to see how a TV show quickly established the loop.

I watched another film which was the first one I picked out that did not qualify as a time loop. I chose Lucky since it had been compared to Groundhog Day. Sadly, it didn’t meet my criteria, despite a clever and original premise, and one that is bitterly relevant. Spoilers follow.

May, a self-help writer, is woken at night by an intruder in the house. “Don’t worry,” says her husband. “That’s just the man.”

“Which man?”

“The one who comes to kill us.”

It’s an arresting start, although May’s amnesia does not fit with the rest of the film. Otherwise, the movie works well. Some scenes seem ridiculous at first, such as the attitude of the police, but this becomes part of the disturbing and absurd world of the film. May is gaslighted and patronised, and comes to realise that the things that are happening to her are happening to all the other women around her. It’s a devasting turn.

I’m not sure how many people would be eager to watch a movie about systemic violence against women, even one written and directed by women. But this was a powerful and emotional film, and one that sticks with me. The score was excellent, using a strange choral sound to generate tension, which is effective and makes a change from jarring strings. A good film, just not one that qualifies as a time loop in my criteria.

Iteration 10: 12:01pm

Yesterday was March 375th 2020, and I marked it by watching two time-loop movies. I then watched the short film 12:01pm. This is one of two adaptations of a short story by Richard A. Lupoff and it’s available on youtube. Spoilers follow.

Myron Castleman is trapped within a one-hour loop, which takes place during his lunch break. We initially see him sitting and talking to a woman on a park bench, and he explains to her that time is due to reset.

This is a pulp sci-fi story and the ‘time bounce’ is caused by the collision between matter and anti-matter universes. I know it’s just a macguffin, but it’s irritating. The consequences of the loop are far more interesting than the explanation, particularly when the explanation’s physics makes no sense. Despite the window-dressing, the film managed to show Myron’s frustration at being stuck within the same hour.

(The film is also interesting because it’s made plain that the entire world is looping. Myron is the only person conscious of this fact).

(Something that is rarely considered in these films is whether the universe continues after the resets. In a multiverse, we might have each day continuing, with most of them making no sense to the person who has just left the loop. Imagine Bill Murray’s Phil Connor leaving one of the loops a day or two before he fell in love…)

This was originally made as a TV film in 1990, and that affects the quality. The interaction between Myron and the woman on the bench feels dated, as does his treatment of his secretary. This was nominated for ‘Best Short Film, Live Action’ in the 1991 Oscars, and subsequently remade into a full movie whose makers considered suing Groundhog Day‘s producers.

Statistics

  • Length of first iteration: 9 minutes
  • Length of second iteration: 6 minutes
  • Reset point: the end of an hour
  • Fidelity of loop: perfect
  • Exit from the loop: no exit