My Isolation Diary

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Having long known we were living in strange and troubling times, I am frustrated, but not altogether surprised by the latest grim episode to grip the world. I first became aware of it in January as a result of my wife’s mounting concern that what was happening in China would inevitably happen here unless our leaders took immediate action.

Troublingly, months later, the UK government has to my mind barely acted at all, their chief contribution to this preventing this crisis being a public health campaign that encourages people to wash their hands to the tune of happy birthday. Many people as a result have taken the government’s lack of a response as licence to be apathetic. They are going about their days as if nothing is happening, some having become hostile to the prospect of a lockdown, which they speak of as if an injustice, rather than a sensible measure of relieving pressure on the health service. They have not yet gasped the severity of what is at hand; or, if they have, do not possess the emotional intelligence to grasp that, though they might not care about contracting the virus, their actions will have very serious implications for the elderly and most vulnerable in society.

Fearing that hard times lie ahead, some people have commenced panic buying, while others, frustrated by the panic buyers, have begun posting photos of empty shelves on social media in the hopes of drumming up vitriol against some imagined person who’s been going round the supermarkets buying a thousand rolls of toilet rolls. Here in London, where the schools and pubs are still open, there is a sense of panic, fear and frustration. My place of work, a library, closed its doors on Tuesday, following news that a visitor believes they have contracted the virus. Since it is frequented almost exclusively by pensioners, I was relieved to hear this, and only wish it had closed earlier. I work (or did work) on the reception, selling books and charging day visitors admission to the library. I am used to seeing perhaps 50 people a day, so adjusting to isolation will be strange, but manageable.

It cannot be long before the whole country is in lockdown. European friends are looking on in concern, perplexed by the slow response of the UK government. This is already one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had and ever hope to have.

Friday, 20 March 2020

The weather in 2020 has on the whole been either rainy or overcast, though this past couple of weeks—since about the time the public started taking this situation more seriously—it has been reassuringly pleasant. Not so today unfortunately. The view from my window is overwhelmingly miserable (not rainy, but very grey) and I am disheartened to see that many elderly people are walking about as if everything is normal. The schools are still open. I know this, though I’ve not looked at the news today, because I can hear children playing in the tennis courts near by flat. Yet rather than feeling angry about this, I have wearily accepted that I have no control over this situation.

There is of course no way of preventing it from spreading at this point. Nor, I don’t think, are the government going to put in place any further measures this week. I am trying to remain hopeful that, out of this mess, there might come positive change. Perhaps it’ll lead to the implementation of a more effective welfare system and encourage the people to be more empathetic to one another. Perhaps they will become more connected to their communities and less individualistic. Nobody can be certain of anything right now.

Aside from writing, I have been staving off boredom and depression by playing games on the Nintendo Switch—old games, such as Final Fantasy VII, Kirby’s Dream Land 3 and Link to the Past. I haven’t played games for longer than about an hour at a time since I was in school, and part of me feels guilty for spending my time so such unproductive pursuits. But I suppose that, for most people in the country, these are unproductive times. Besides, anything that distracts me from the reality of all this is surely a good thing.

Saturday, 20 March 2020

The government announced last night that all pubs and restaurants must close. This begs the question: who on earth has been going to the pub in the last week? I can’t remember the last time I went to the pub. I think it might have been in February, when it was my birthday, but that seems like an impossibly long time ago. I would love nothing more than to go tonight. I have plenty to drink in the flat, having stocked up on real cider in preparation for the next few months. But what I long for is social aspect of the pub. Drinking at home isn’t the same.

I overslept last night, which I rarely do, and have spent the whole day in a sullen mood. Being at home all the time requires me to think constantly of ways of passing the time, and this quickly becomes exhausting. I have barely read the news and have struggled to focus on a novel I’ve been working on since about last November. I am chronically bored, basically.

This morning I continued playing Final Fantasy VII, a game I first played nearly 20 years ago (this fact troubles me). I loved it then, as a child, and still think it’s great, though I am struck by how bad the dialogue is. It is clearly heavily influenced by American films of that decade and no doubt suffers from being translation from Japanese to English. One character speaks a bit like Mr T, and the female characters, though perfectly strong and capable in battle, routinely ask the main character, a man, to save them. Simply put: it is a bit dated in some respects, but probably no more than I should expect of a game that came out 20 years ago. I felt the same when I watched Minder a few months ago, though I’ll refrain from drawing further comparisons between a Japanese RPG and a British television programme about a cockney bouncer.

Tonight I intend to have a glass of Irish whisky, listen to some music and read perhaps. Having resigned myself to feeling utterly helpless, I have become uninterested in reading the news. I understand that all of this is beyond my control. Right now, all I can do is stay calm and try to make the best of this truly odd situation.

Sunday, 21 March 2020

The sky is completely cloudless today, the buildings and gardens surrounding the flat lit up with all the splendour of spring. If possible, I would probably go down to the river, or walk about the City, where it’s quiet on the weekend, or go to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. But being confined to the flat I am instead savouring the weather by enjoying a coffee while listening to bossa nova and basking in the sun. What a difference the weather can make!

I intend to do spend the afternoon playing the guitar, writing and spending as little time online as I can manage. I haven’t read much in the last year, so feel I should probably read a book, though I find the choice overwhelming. I would like to read something I haven’t read before, but am compelled in these unsettling times to return to authors whose books comfort me: John Hillaby, Norman Lewis, Alice Munro, Stan Barstow, Sid Chaplin, Clive James. At the same time, I wonder whether I should use this spare time to read some lengthy 19th century novels, this being a perfect opportunity to do some serious reading.

Currently, I am about halfway through Concretopia by John Grindrod, a book about architecture in Britain in the post-war consensus period. I have a fondness for the style of that period. I think it stems from the style of buildings I recall from my childhood: prefab cottages in South Bristol, brutalist libraries, council estates, daft water features in town precincts—basically all the things British people are supposed to dismiss as “eye sores” or “concrete monstrosities”. The documentary series Look at Life, which I have written about before, is practically an advert for the post-war consensus period. I think of it every time I pick up Concretopia, never tiring of its contagious optimism. The world Look at Life examines, a world concerned chiefly with social progress, no longer exists and hasn’t done for many decades. Yet of course remnants of it still exist in form of those bold and uncompromising buildings I mentioned above.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Last night Boris Johnson has announced a lockdown in the UK. It will last three weeks, a ludicrously short space of time, given the seriousness of the situation. On Twitter many are responding to this news with anger, as if the government are punishing us for failing miserably at social distancing. Others, like me, are relieved that finally something is being done to reduce the spread of the virus, though I fear the rules of the lockdown are much too vague to have any serious impact. For instance, although all “non-essential” shops are to close, we are still permitted to go for a run or walk once a day, if we so wish, which strikes me not only as unenforceable, but also detrimental to the entire purpose of having a lockdown. From my flat I have spotted about a dozen people in the past five minutes, all going about as if we are not under lockdown. I wonder why so many are unable to grasp the seriousness of this situation.

I have been in self-imposed isolation for over a week. By now, I have nearly become accustomed to this strange way of living and sometimes briefly forget that we are gripped by a global pandemic. Life goes on, I suppose.

Lately, things I have not thought of for some time keep popping into my mind. I suppose this is a consequence of having too much time on my hands. Prompted by such a thought, I watched an Al Jazeera documentary earlier on Balkan Egyptians, an ethnic group sometimes considered by some to be Albanized Romani, though they do not identify as such. I first read about them about three years ago while volunteering as a researcher for a charity. They are apparently the decedents of Egyptian slaves sent by Ramesses II (1279-1213BC) to bring iron from contemporary civilisations such as Anatolia, the Balkans, North of Apennine, Cyprus and Peloponnese. Their story is fascinating yet sad, since they, like the Romani, have faced constant discrimination.

Why I was suddenly reminded of all this I cannot say. But as I say things like this have been popping into my head a lot lately.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

The sky has been cloudless for days now, which predictably has encouraged the very worst people in the country to ignore all advice and go to the parks while the rest of us are stuck indoors. Scarcely a minute has passed without somebody walking by outside the window of my flat. Either the government’s message isn’t getting through, or people believe the rules don’t apply to them. I wonder how things will improve in the face of such irresponsible arrogance.

For the first time in my life I feel sorry for extroverts. They must sure be struggling to cope in such anti-social conditions, whereas I, an introvert, am well practiced at being alone, having made something of an art form of it back in the mid-00 2000s. Those used to being the centre of attention, namely pop singers and Hollywood actors, are evidently losing their minds at the prospect of temporary obscurity. They cannot bear with the prospect of being upstaged by a virus.

The NHS have put a call out for volunteers. Neither my wife and I can drive, which disqualifies us from many of the positions, though since I’m currently studying to become a counsellor I hope to become a “check-in and chat” volunteer. I fear I have become lazy, or at any rate lazier, since all this started. Simple tasks are becoming a burden to me, and I think doing this may counteract the slow rot of my self-motivation.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

There is a hazy sunlight over the city today, which reminds me of when I visited Naples a few years ago. I am by no means a prolific traveller, but of all the places I have visited I think Naples is my favourite. It is full of history, great food and culture, and I found its people to be almost overwhelmingly friendly, generous and unpretentious. There is in Naples none of the self-satisfied corporate excess that has infected so many European cities. It is shabby and semi-industrial, but also beautiful, its narrow streets glutted with tiny bakeries, pizzerias and locals making the most of life.

I have read several books on Naples and its surrounding area, Naples 44 by Norman Lewis being my favourite. But Naples and its Surroundings is by far the most informative. Published originally in French in 1954, it belongs to a series known as Les Beaux Pays, and features a comprehensive history of Naples alongside stunning photographs. After flicking through it this morning I feel compelled to go there when all this blows over, provided we can afford it. I have spent the past couple of years feeling fatigued by the prospect of travel following an unexpectedly stressful trip to Puglia. But being stuck in my flat has renewed my passion for travel. I only wish I had travelled when I had the chance.

On the whole I am feeling reasonably optimistic today, though also apprehensive about having to return to my job when this is all over (if indeed I still have a job), and the difficulties I am likely to encounter when (or if) I do. I am apprehensive, too, about my counselling course, which is going ahead online now. I am sure I will feel better after the first lesson.

I have just finished watching The Tiger King on Netflix, which unlike so many Netflix documentaries deserved to be a 6-7 episode series. I’ll resist saying too much about it: doing so would spoil what is one of the most peculiar, unpredictable documentaries series I have ever seen. But to summarise: the story centres on a big cat zoo (Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park) and its flamboyant owner, a gun-toting gay polygamist redneck. If that’s not reason enough for you to watch it I don’t know what it is.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Having tested positive for coronavirus, Boris Johnson has abandoned the rat barge and retreated to his isolation bunker, allowing Brexit superstar Dominic Raab to emerge from the shadows and assume his rightful position as deputy chief rat. Although nobody could fill Mr Johnson’s shoes, Raab will, I am sure, work tirelessly to be as brazenly incompetent and dangerous as his predecessor, who I don’t doubt is relieved to be stepping away from the pandemic he has actively made worse. Johnson after all only wanted to be PM because his ego compelled him to, his skill set being much better suited making bumbling after dinner speeches to boozy toffs.

Last night, while the general public opened their windows and clapped in appreciation of the NHS and its workers, Johnson stood outside 10 Downing Street, mimicking this gesture like a robot trying to learn what love feels like. His insincerity was plain for all to see; no sensible person, you would hope, could have been fooled by his performance. Yet I suspect that once this is all over he will, as always, emerge bafflingly unscathed.

Days ago Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings denied claims that he had argued to allow pensioners die. Today video footage of him running away from Downing Street like a weakling child fleeing a pack of bullies has surfaced. It is quite funny until you remember that this wannabe Trevelyan, whose head resembles a penny floater, is at the centre of the government’s response to an unprecedented global pandemic.

The country may deserve the government it elected in the December, but NHS workers deserve better. They are perpetually pushed to and beyond their limits as a result of chronic underfunding, and have been left dangerously underprepared for a crisis of this magnitude. Witnessing and participating in the mass the cheer last night was an emotional experience. I was a reminder that there are still people in the UK who care about the NHS, even if the government does not.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

As I have mentioned briefly before I work in a library, or, more accurately, at the admissions desk of a library, which is also a small bookshop. The library, rather confusingly, also runs lectures, so every Saturday at about twenty-to-ten I arrive at work to find about a dozen pensioners huddled outside the front door, all impatiently inspecting their watches. There are a few things I have to do before I am permitted to open at ten, such as setting up the till and welcoming the lecturer, but since asking those who have arrived early to wait until that time invariably causes them to become unnecessarily confrontational with me nowadays I tend to open the doors as soon as I arrive. Irrespective of what time I open, the first half an hour of the day tends to be a mad rush. The pensioners, each one eager to be admitted to the lecture room before the others, rush to the desk and tell me their names. I in turn tick them one by one off the list. It should be simple, but it never is.

For whatever reason, there is always at least one pensioner who is aggressively demanding. On a bad day, there may be several stood round my desk, all having selected me as a target for their misplaced ire, for in their minds I am not only me, but also the lad they took exception to in Costa Coffee, the man on the bus who wouldn’t give up his seat, their son who never visits them, and so on. In three years I have discovered no way of preventing this from happening, and it has marred the way I think about Saturdays in such a profound way that even now, when I am not permitted to deal with these people, I am still gripped by an unshakable feeling of anxiety.

I have long resented those who have been rude or abusive to me at work. But I now find myself feeling sorry for them. Many of them will likely spend the following months alone and continually scared of the threat of dying in pain. I am fortunate to live with my wife, whom I love dearly, and to be young and healthy. For me life will probably (nobody can say for certain) return to relative normality after all this is over. Many will not be so privileged.

How infuriating that some (a minority, I believe) are still not taking this seriously, in spite of the reports from Italy. There are still those who are proudly boasting that they don’t care if they catch it. That they can only consider this pandemic as something that affects only them reveals their boundless selfishness. These surely are people who are incapable of caring only for themselves, sociopaths of the most alarming standard.

As you can probably tell I am feeling downcast today, but I shouldn’t, given that I have a lot to be grateful for. Today the weather is beautiful, yet again, and I have arranged to have a drink with friends over Skype. So later I will open my box of Heck’s Cider, gather together my breweriana and imagine, for a few hours at least, that we are in the pub. Things could be much worse.

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