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 nationwide lockdown. 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 one such 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 boozing 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. If the opinion polls are to be believe, over 70% of the country approve of how the Tories are handling the situation.

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. It 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 would have to be incredibly cruel not to feel sorry for even the most pugnacious pensioner I have ever had to deal with. Many of them, I am sure, 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 (though 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.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Having spent Saturday night drinking and chatting with friends on Skype I felt in predictably downcast spirits yesterday, much of which I spent playing Final Fantasy VII on the Switch. I instinctively respond to feeling sad by forcing myself to be productive, but in this instance chose to accept how I was feeling and acknowledge my limitations, which I think has left me with renewed sense of optimism.

My wife reminded me this morning of our last official outing before all this happened. It was an otherwise unremarkable weekend stroll along the Thames embankment, up the Strand and on to Fleet Street, where we stopped for a coffee before heading home. Even then, on the 1st of March, we sensed the affects of the virus would be huge. I recall being irritated by a man who sat down directly beside us in the near-empty cafe and proceeded to huff and puff, as if to ensure everybody we could smell and feel his breath. We spent the entire time we were out wondering how long it would be until the government enforced emergency measures. They announced a nationwide lockdown twenty-three days later.

Despite my renewed sense of optimism I have not had a productive start to the week. I have been trying to get odd jobs round the house done, and have spent some time writing, though having spent at least 8 hours playing Final Fantasy VII my brain has outlined problems in the game and keeps demanding I solve them at once. I have not been like this in 17 years or so. I feel compelled to keep playing so I can unlock everything in the game, even though I understand that unlocking everything game is an entirely meaningless venture that would bring me a fleeting sense of satisfaction before it was displaced quite abruptly by regret. Then again, I suppose the same came said about almost everything in life.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Earlier today I went up to the roof of my estate to collect some planters I have stored there. This was the first time in about two weeks that I have left the flat for more than about ten minutes, and I found the experience strange, since from that height (six floors) I was finally able to get a good sense of hauntingly quiet the area is. The view from my window is obviously deceptive. I see people going by outside it all the time, and sometimes this angers me because I assume that all these people aren’t taking the lockdown seriously. But from the roof, looking down upon quite a substantial stretch of the city, I could barely see anybody. It looked sad and desolate.

I feel reasonably content in my flat. I am currently listening to what I hesitate to call lounge music, which is a genre I have enjoyed for at least five years now, though I don’t think I have ever admitted that to anybody except for my wife. The reason for this is that everybody associates it with the sort of breezy instrumental music that used to get played in Kwik Save in the 1990s, when in fact the term is extremely broad, covering everything from library music to exotica and European film music of the 1960s and 1970s. It is my opinion that finest lounge composers are exceptionally gifted, their primary talent being an ear for writing unique chord progressions and memorable melodies. They take their cues from jazz and bossa nova, but also funk, which is why their music has become popular with contemporary hip hop producers, who routinely buy up old lounge albums in their quest for samples. Syd Dale, Vladimir Cosma, Piero Piccioni, Sven Libaek, Les Baxter—all are endlessly listenable.

For about six years, I have enjoyed a YouTube channel called Soft Tempo Lounge. The videos on this channel feature lounge music set to clips of 1960s and 1970s films, mostly of the obscure variety, and invariably have a strong jet age aesthetic. A sort of optimistic modernism, an excitement for a bright and luxurious future, is what pervades these videos, which are in many ways a lot like the Look At Life series I have written about here before.

It is understandable, I suppose, that I find these videos comforting in these uncertain times. They depict a world that, though problematic, is clearly on an upward trajectory towards progress; a world whose global consensus was not yet that unfettered greed is not only good, but quite possibly the lodestar of civilisation; a world that isn’t currently gripped by a debilitating global pandemic.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

The government’s rules for the lockdown permit one walk or run a day, though some people have such a liberal interpretation of what constitutes a walk or run that they evidently using this rule as a licence to go outside and have fun. Having been enticed from their homes by the fine weather, hordes of people are walking the streets near my estate this morning. The sight of joggers panting heavily as they pass one another makes me want to punch the sun. Once again I feel compelled to ask: WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE?

For the sake of my mental health, I try not to think too much about what others are doing during this global pandemic, and instead focus on life inside my flat, which so far has been bearable, if not quite pleasant. I sense nevertheless that a lot of people have been in low spirits this week. One reason for this, I feel, is the steep rise in the fatality rate of the virus. We have not quite yet reached the stage at which everybody knows somebody who has died from he virus, but I am certain that before too long this will soon be a reality that we will all have to endure. Already several people I know have had it, and one, a distant member of my family who is not much older than me, was nearly hospitalised by it.

There is little we can do but remain hopeful and pull together as best we can under these difficult circumstances. For me, one of the lucky ones, given that the worst thing I have to do is stay home as much as possible, this entails making this experience as enjoyable as it possibly can be. This is easier said that done of course.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to intensive care after his coronavirus symptoms worsened abruptly. Reports of his condition are vague, understandably, but he is apparently breathing without the aid of a ventilator, which I think we can all presume is good news. I dislike the man’s politics, and can only surmise from the untenable opinions he has expressed in his columns over the years that he is, to put it mildly, not my kind of person. But I was saddened by this news, which aside from being a story of personal suffering further establishes this pandemic as a tragedy. The misconception that only the elderly and vulnerable are at risk is being slowly dismantled. I only hope that those who until now have failed to gasp the seriousness of the situation will take heed and stay indoors.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Residents of the housing estate that borders mine are furious because they cannot sunbathe in their exclusive leisure garden. This, I believe, is indicative of an attitude held by a small but vocal minority of Brits, who think the lockdown is a personal attack on their right to be selfish gits. If the pandemic has taught me anything it’s that there are some shockingly thick people in this country who, even as the death toll climbs into the thousands, are firmly dedicated to the pursuit of pleasing themselves at whatever cost. In some ways I believe this crisis has brought people together, but it has also brought to light a new division in our society: one between those who care for others and those who are unable to grasp that the world doesn’t exist for their personal gratification.

I have grown weary of the narrative that everybody is in this together because this is evidently untrue. There are plenty of people who are not in this at all, having elected to enjoy the fine weather over stopping the spread of the virus. There are, moreover, people living well beyond their means in large houses, with gardens, moaning about being stuck indoors, seemingly without any awareness of those on a low income who have to wait for this to blow over in tiny flats and in cramped tower blocks. Although I live in such accommodation, I at least count myself lucky in the sense that I am one of the low skilled workers whose required to nothing besides stay at home. This, by contrast with what key workers are going through, is not a difficult thing to do.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Having reviewed the past few entries of this diary, I am aware that they have taken quite a bleak turn. I am not sure why this is, since I feel that I have on the whole been quite content this week, spending my time writing, listening to music, cooking, and drinking and chatting with friends on Skype. I have felt neither sad nor anxious, just slightly bored and directionless.

I completed Final Fantasy VII a few days ago. Now I’m playing Final Fantasy XI, surely one of the most colourful and beautiful games on the Playstation and indeed on any console. It is so evocative of the early ’00s that playing it makes me repine over that time. I can recall in vivid detail what was happening in my life when I played it originally, almost twenty years ago. I had not long started secondary school and was still trying to find my place in that dismaying environment. Excluded by popular kids, who were invariably the cruellest people in the school anyway, I had already accepted my position in the teenage hierarchy, which was somewhere between the nerds and what my school referred to as the jitters—i.e. alternative skater types. I never really enjoyed being a teenager until I was in college. It was only then, in a much less rigid environment than secondary school, that I began to get a clear sense of who I was and what my passions were (besides music).

In retrospect, the 2000s was a strange period. Bland and almost characterless compared to the much brighter ’90s, it was nevertheless a more enlightened time than the 2010s, which ushered in the consensus that gut feeling, as opposed to truth, is the primary factor in informing one’s world view. The political landscape in the 2000s was, by contrast, reasonably fluid, almost unpredictable. There was not at that stage a large appetite for “commentators”, who make their living fanning the flames of public indignation in order to further their own lunatic agenda. Yet all the signs of what were to come were there, perhaps as early as the mid-00s. In an unforeseen development, mean-spirited smugness became a prominent feature of television, with people mocking chavs and indulging a newfound fondness in swanky nonsense. There was for a while this sense that anybody was fair game because we were living in an otherwise egalitarian age. If racism and class prejudice were no more, then why shouldn’t we mock Bubbles from Big Brother seemed to be the rationale.

When I think back to the 2000s a few things come to mind: 9/11, The Naked Chef, Toploader, Jonathan Ross, David Blunkett, The Iraq War, Richard Littlejohn, Razorlight and Little Britain. It was not all this bad of course. If nothing else it was an exceptional decade for television series; there many great albums, films, games and books released in those years, too. But for whatever reason I don’t have many fond associations with the 2000s. Final Fantasy XI is, I suppose, one of the exceptions.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

Boris Johnson is no longer in intensive care. I feel I should mention this, but am also unable to summon the fortitude to talk about anything regarding the virus today. Now we are in the midst of this pandemic, I find reading about it to be a wearingly dejecting experience, so have chosen a stance of wilful ignorance for the stake of my mental wellbeing. I am avoiding social media, which though testing at the best of times has become a hub of anxiety, arrogance, narcissism and insane conspiracy theories since the lockdown began. I have not missed it.

In these peculiar times, I have been more connected to friends and family than usual, and this has highlighted to me how detrimental websites such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are to the social lives of those who use it regularly. Social media facilitates a culture of showing off and oneupmanship. Users log on to it, are greeted by photos of their friends enjoying life, and feel horribly disheartened. They feel that they should be having fun, too, so respond by taking photos of themselves apparently having even more fun than their friends, except of course it’s completely manufactured. Everybody on social media, even those who are not particularly motivated by showing off, are curating their lives in an inexplicable pursuit to impress friends and strangers.

Social media users are forever competing with one another to be the wealthiest, the most ambitious, the most talented, the best looking, the funniest, the kindness, the sexiest, the most erudite, the most compassionate, the most humble. Even those who don’t judge themselves or others by these qualities surely cannot help but feel, like me, inadequate when they engage with social media. This shouldn’t be the case. For me friendship should be built on mutual respect, honesty and emphatic understanding. I could never be friends with somebody who was trying constantly to compete with me or whom I felt was obsessed with portraying some imagined version of themselves. I, too, would never expect people to be friends with me if I behaved like this.

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

British restaurants have changed considerably since I was a child, and I cannot imagine anybody arguing that this change has been anything but an overwhelming improvement. I have seldom in the last ten years had a genuinely bad experience eating out in this country. Good restaurants are easy enough to come by even if you live in some remote corner of the country or, like me, do not earn a great deal of money; and we are blessed of course with a remarkable variety of cuisines to choose from.

None of this was true when I was growing up in the mid-1990s. My recollection of eating out then was of dimly-lit restaurants with tiled walls and cushioned chairs of some archaic colour, often a 1970s brown or orange. The tables, made either of wood that had been heavily varnished or formica, were adorned with a glass vinegar bottle, salt and pepper shakers and, depending on where you were sitting in the restaurant, a crystal ashtray, often half-filled with fag ends. A cloud of smoke hung permanently in the air. Wine was not commonly ordered, I don’t think (I could be wrong). The menu, a pamphlet of plastic wallets bound in a faux-leather cover, featured a variety of chip-based meals (fish and chips, omelette and chips, sausage and chips, steak and chips, ham and chips, chips and beans, egg and chips, scampi and chips) and usually a roast dinner.

No doubt there were much fancier and trendier restaurants than those my parents were taking to me (and could afford to take me to) back then. But that at any rate is my extremely fond recollection of eating out in the mid-1990s before chain restaurants made their impression on the high street. Why am I remembering all this now? I suppose that beyond reminiscing about my childhood, which is always a comforting thing to do in times of difficulty, I have become aware that eating out is something I won’t get to do, quite likely, for many months.

Monday, 20 April 2020

On Saturday about ten people, none of whom were wearing gloves or masks, threw off the shackles of social distancing and gathered on the estate to pet and take selfies with a policeman’s dog. I looked on in bafflement, wondering for a brief moment whether the last two months had been a dream. It was the single most perplexing thing I have seen in a long a time, which is remarkable considering the strange times in which we are living.

I often feel that the pandemic has highlighted that there are two different types of people: those concerned for the wellbeing of others and those who cannot comprehend how this affects anybody else besides themselves. The first type is following basic instructions, and therefore helping to improve the situation; the second is actively making things worse by doing pretty much as they please.

My concern is not so much that this second type is being actively selfish, but that we are so entrenched in a culture of individualism that they are motived only to serve themselves, even at a time when people are dying.

I will refrain from saying much on the government’s lacklustre response to the crisis. My feelings on this issue, which are emotionally charged to say the least, are evidently at odds with the view held by large swathes of the British public that the Tories are in fact doing a very good job indeed. I am reminded every time somebody suggests clapping for Boris (yes, people are doing this now) of the comments Mr Johnson made several weeks ago regarding allowing the virus to sweep through the population. I am of course relieved he recovered. I don’t wish for anybody to suffer. Yet I am disturbed by his apathy for the safety of the British public, who seem in return to give him and his criminally negligible government their credulous support.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

The government have extended the lockdown by three weeks. I cannot imagine anybody except the very ill-informed finding this news at all surprising; nor can I imagine the government lifting the lockdown in three weeks time either, though my hunch is that they will relax restrictions on big businesses eager to resume making money.

I have spent much of the past week cooking. I have not felt motivated to do much else, least of all write, which has become something I struggle to focus on in these unsettling times. A year on from finishing my novel, I am not hopeful that it will ever be published—not by an industry that is essentially disappearing and concerned chiefly with publishing commercial fiction. I am not entirely disheartened by this. I wrote it because I was compelled to, and am proud of the completed product, which though probably of interest to nobody except me is something I don’t regret writing. I feel similarly about the new novel I have started: it brings me to joy to write (most of the time), even if nobody but a small group of people ever read it.

Seven or so years ago, I felt differently. I felt that external validation was what what I needed to be happy, whereas I now see this was a consequence of personal insecurity and a desire to please others. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be great at something, but I feel better on the whole for not judging myself on how others see me or my work. Because I admired writers such as Clive James, who was endlessly ambitious, I felt I too should be like that, but in reality I could never be comfortable being famous or renowned. What I crave, I believe, is the quiet satisfaction that comes from taking pleasuring in the things I do, some sort of personal contentment.

I have never stopped reading Clive James, particularly his Observer pieces from the 1970s and his essay collections. When he died last year I wondered whether I should write something about his long and varied career, but for whatever reason never got round to it. Having grown up with very few books in the house, I found reading his essays incredibly informative, and if I hadn’t read him I likely never would have got seriously into literature or taken up writing fiction. I am eternally grateful for that, even if my novels never see the light of day.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

I get the sense that the public at large believe the lockdown will end soon, perhaps in less than month. Yet days ago the media reported that over 20,000 people have died so far, and nothing I have read has suggested that we are any safer now than we were weeks ago. I think people are simply fed up with the lockdown and consequently are starting to behave recklessly. This of course threatens to undermine the lockdown, which is not really a lockdown at all, since many people are incapable of staying indoors, and have been meeting up with one another.

Last week I heard somebody express anger (a lot of anger) over the fact that we haven’t debated whether we should be having a lockdown. This seemed to me the equivalent of debating whether or not we should put out a house that’s engulfed by flames, and that has people in it who are going to die if we don’t act at once. A debate seems like such an honourable thing to do, but in these exceptional circumstances we’d really be debating doing something over doing nothing, unless I’ve completely missed the point.

I continue to be vexed by those who are not taking this seriously, many of whom, after weeks of not adhering to the basic rules of the lockdown anyway, are inexplicably angry at what they perceive as a prevention of their basic human rights. They are portraying themselves as rebels who are bravely refusing to conform, though my hunch is that they’re actually just angry that they can’t do exactly as they please for a reasonably short amount of time. Although I, too, am angry about the situation, I can also see that small sacrifices have to be made in order to reduce the death toll, which is evidently going to be much higher than was first predicted.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Taylor Wimpey has resumed work on the luxury housing development near my flat. The development is controversial, since when built it will completely engulf many of the flats on estate, ensuring that they never see the sun again. Residents of my estate, others in the area, and local businesses have opposed the development. Yet it has gone ahead largely because of Taylor Wimpey’s connections to the council are so strongs that it has effectively applied to itself for permission to build these flats. The development is marketed towards wealthy overseas buyers who don’t intend to ever live in the flats when work is completed. These flats are investments, something landlords can add to the property portfolio, or sit on for a few years while the price increases, rather than actual homes for people to live in.

Currently the noise from the development is deafening. Everybody on my estate and those neighbouring it—everybody trapped in their small flats—must endure it because Taylor Wimpey insist on risking the lives of its construction workers to make money. Once again, I am exasperated by the sheer ruthlessness of the Britain’s ruling class, the big money bastards.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Lately I have been thinking a lot about Bristol, the city in which I was born and grew up. Although I have few affectionate memories of being a teenager, I always felt fortunate to grow up in Bristol and nowadays I frequently wonder whether I should move back there. I feel it is a unlike other English cities. It shares characteristics with Birmingham, I feel, but I would never tell somebody that it is like Birmingham, because Bristol on the whole has its own unique character, or possibly several characters, depending on in which part of the city you are.

Clifton is historic, beautiful and inhabited by posh people and students; then there is a sort of bohemian, crusty vibe not far away in the Stoke’s Croft area; and beside that is St Pauls, which since the 1950s has been home to predominantly African-Caribbean and Irish people. Easton, nearby, used to be rough, but is now quite gentrified, its pubs having become popular with the sort of people who moved to Bristol because The Guardian recommended it; then, not far away, is Stapleton Road, which still is rough, and is often described as Britain’s stabbiest road by the national press. Further north, and back towards Clifton, is Gloucester Road, which is where I used to go to buy records, but is now lined mostly with cafes, charity shops and fashionable boutiques.

Most of my family are from South Bristol—specifically the areas of Bedminster, Totterdown, Knowle and Brislington. These are the places that visitors to the city are unlikely to see, a mostly residential area, which though traditionally working-class has in the last twenty or so years become reasonably popular with former Londoners searching for affordable housing. You’d be hard pressed to find affordable housing there now, which is why Bristolians are moving to South Wales. Years ago, many people in South Bristol, including several members of my own family, were employed by the W.D. & H.O. Wills factory in Bedminster; now its a theatre and model of urban regeneration in the city.

When I was growing up, I felt that Bristol wasn’t really in the nation’s consciousness. It was rarely mentioned on television. Nor were Bristolians a fixture of television to the same extent that scousers, geordies, cockneys, brummies and mancs were. In fact, aside from Bomber, the reticent brickie in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, the only major Bristolian character I can think of is Vicky Pollard from Little Britain. For me the Bristolian accent is warm and friendly, the sound of home; but I suspect others regard it as the accent of somebody who uneducated, and indeed if there is a Bristolian stereotype it’s probably that we’re all stupid or at any rate benignly simple.

To my mind, a more accurate assessment of the Bristolian character, if there is one at all, is that Bristolians are by nature apathetic. They aren’t easily riled up; nor are they particularly rebellious. They want a quiet live, for the most part, and are quite easily pleased by life’s small pleasures. From my experience, they are a friendly and welcoming people, who are not especially suspicious of strangers, Bristol historically being somewhere that people from elsewhere move to in order to settle down. Nobody in Bristol seems to be in a hurry. The people there aren’t impressed by money in the same Londoners are. There is a sense that time moves slower in Bristol, and that the people there like it this way.

Bristol is trendy now, but it didn’t used to be. When I was growing up, large parts of it were rundown: there were rows of shabby prefab housing in Bedminster, buildings that had been bombed during WWII and never rebuilt, dockland that had yet to be regenerated. It was by no means an unpleasant place to grow up, but it also wasn’t what it is today: a haven for trendies, hipsters and young middle-class couples hoping to start a family. I like it as much now as I did while growing up. Surely no city in England is as attractive and laid back as Bristol. Or perhaps as a born and bred Bristolian I am just biased. If there is one defining characteristic of the Bristolian it is this: they love the city, are reluctant to leave it and even if they do leave they soon return.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

I am unable to comprehend how anybody can feel even the mildest glimmer of fondness or admiration for Michael Gove, a man who has continually revealed himself to be an avaricious opportunist, liar and, above all, loathsome worm. If I were to meet him I am confident that I would be so repelled by his very being that I would instinctively need to get away from him, lest he cave my head in with a blunt object. He is disloyal to even those he claims to support. He is smug. He is entirely lacking in charisma. He is a compound of numerous bad qualities, stitched up to form somebody who is both remarkable stupidly and also extremely dangerous.

It came as no surprise, therefore, to learn that in addition to being utterly vile he also owns selection of books that would impress Anders Breivik, and is presumably proud of this. Yesterday his wife, the unredeemable faux-journalist Sarah Vine, posted a photograph on Twitter of the couple’s bookshelves, resulting in criticism from some users. Among a weirdly comprehensive selection of biographies of megalomanic leaders, such as Napoleon, Hitler and Mussolini, was a copy of white supremacist favourite The Bell Curve and books by the holocaust denier David Irving. In minutes of Vine’s tweet, some had come to Gove’s defence and were accusing “the left” of banning books. Owning these books, they argued, doesn’t mean Gove necessarily agrees with the opinions expressed in the them, which would be a fair point if Gove owned a wide spectrum of books, rather than only ones about dictators, powerful leaders and elitist pseudoscience.

Vine knows what she’s doing. She knows what winds up left wing people on Twitter, and ostensibly doesn’t care if she endorses, promotes or normalises holocaust denial and racism in her quest to provoke. I am not surprised that she and Gove owns these books; nor do I wish to deprive him of reading them. I simply think the media’s lack of interest in this story is indicative of its tremendous biased towards the current government. There is no question that if Gove were a member of the Labour Party, and owned any number of benignly socialist books, he would be on the front page of every newspaper in the country. Yet if anything news of Gove’s freaky book collection has been bizarrely positive, as if his owning books promoting holocaust denial and white supremacy simply means he’s intellectually curious.

At this stage, I genuinely feel that a Tory MP could shit himself and The Telegraph would applaud him for exhibiting Churchillian wit.

Monday, 11 May 2020

The British public are becoming increasingly unhinged. Last Friday street parties were held up and down the country in celebration of VE Day, resulting in the most ridiculous of scenes. One widely shared video showed a street party in Warrington, where residents formed a conga line to Black Lace’s hit Do The Conga, as British tradition states. Presumably they thought the pandemic is over, and I cannot really blame them for thinking this, since by and large the press have stopped talking about how many people have died from the virus (30,000 and rising) and are now drumming up enthusiasm for the notion of coming out of lockdown prematurely.

Last night Boris Johnson gave an insane, garbled speech that implied doing just this. He encouraged us to return to work if we can’t work from home, but told us to avoid using public transport, a message so mixed that not even the newspaper that are effectively a mouthpiece for the Tory government can make sense of it. Most bizarre of all: garden centres, that most British of institutions, are to open to placate the public’s insatiable appetite for plants and pots. I have always felt at odds with the ambitions, interests and moral values of this nation (or in any case those who decide elections), but the pandemic has further distanced me from these strange conga-dancing, flag-waving, covid-spreading people.

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Following Boris Johnson’s ludicrous speech last Sunday, several newspapers devoted their front pages to stories lambasting those who, having been forced by their employers to return to work, were using public transport. The Tories strategy is boldly transparent: actively encourage the poorest in society to behave recklessly and then blame them when the amount of cases shoot up again in three weeks time.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

For the last week I have had a peculiar sensation in my back. I hesitate to call it a pain, since it doesn’t actually hurt, but rather feels uncomfortable in the same was being prodded in a sensitive area does. Based on previous experience, I think it might have been induced by anxiety, or more specifically prolonged, untreated anxiety, which I have had for about a month now. The government’s oddly-timed relaxing of the lockdown restrictions, concerns regarding redundancy, general worries about the future and a mount feeling of frustration has produced in a compound of unstable emotions, which even under less difficult circumstances I tend, instinctively, to ignore. Although progressive muscle relaxation has helped alleviate some of the anxiety, much of it, I sense, is being caused by reading the news and observing particularly negative “debates” online.

Often, usually as a result of being online, I end up believing that the world is a hostile place, inhabited by arrogant people motivated by an unhealthy obsession with being proved right. Debates online are invariably exhausting, since both sides are disingenuous when it suits them and make no attempt to understand or, more importantly, emphasise with the other. For this reason, I felt a renewed sense of optimism when last week I began watching videos of the YouTuber ContraPoints, whose entire philosophy seems to be based on empathic understanding. ContraPoints, real name Natalie Wynn, uses philosophy, sociology and personal experience to explain left-wing talking points and criticise conservative ideology. Yet unlike so many YouTubers her videos are designed to engage with her opponents rather than shame them. She voices her view point with clarity and nuance, and seems to understand that most people engage not with facts, but with context.

Wynn is a trans woman, a fact that informs much of the content of her videos. She uses self-deprecation and self-reflection as means of relating to those who have radically different viewpoints from her own, which I think is a remarkably effective way of getting her message across. Even if you don’t agree with her, I think it’s difficult not to admire her skills as an essayist. I don’t know where she finds the mental fortitude to do what she does, but I’m grateful that she’s doing it.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Cases in London, so far as I understand, are low, which makes me feel less anxious about going outside. When I went for a walk yesterday it felt incredible. I have never before felt so fortunate to walk in the sun.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Anxiety must have snuck up on me. I can see now, reflecting on last week, that I was not in a healthy frame of mind, and have not been in healthy frame of mind for some time. My bad back was evidently a symptom of my unchecked anxiety. This seems so obvious to me now, more obvious in fact than it did on Tuesday, when I theorised that this might be the case.

By regularly practicing progressive muscle relaxation I have managed to again feel comfortable in my own skin. Gone is the nausea; gone is this peculiar feeling that I can only describe as having small charges of electricity continually shot into my body. Yet ensuring that these feelings don’t return requires effort, so in addition to practicing progressive muscle relaxation I have stopped using social media completely, and more or less stopped reading the news. I found that I have become increasingly bothered by things I am usually able to ignore: wilfully provocative people being the most obvious example.

Now that I’m in a slightly less anxious headspace, I have been spending my time on calm, leisurely purists, such as writing and reading. I have been watching old documentaries on YouTube, too, some I have watched before, such as John Pitman’s Just Another Day In Soho. I first came across this on the BBC Archive website. It was featured in the collection of excellent films on London, several others of which had also been made by John Pitman. Watching Pitman’s films, I am struck by his gentle humour and talent for capturing intriguing, often eccentric aspects of British life. He explores various subjects, though always at the centre of his films are unusual characters.

In Just Another Day In Soho, Pitman shows us the unique community of Soho: a ragtag bunch comprised of school children, a luthier, a shoemaker, the manager of Soho’s legendary French House pub and an opera-singing restauranteur. Originally broadcast in 1985, the film is a snapshot of Soho complete with its charm and inimitable quirkiness. This community has long disappeared, of course. But John Pitman has preserved its legacy. His other films are equally enjoyable. I only wish I could track down more of them.

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