Early this week, a colleague was suddenly unable to attend an online writing workshop she’d booked (with the wonderful Matthew Curlewis of Amsterdam Writers – highly recommended!), so I jumped in and took her place at the last minute.
It took the format of a writing prompt, followed by a set period for writing, then any participant who wanted to could read their piece aloud and we all commented on strong or memorable aspects (no negativity permitted!)
One of the prompts was these images:
This is apparently a kind of tag cloud of Leonardo DaVinci’s words about water.
We were then asked to take these images as our prompt and write for 12 minutes.
If both had been presented as typed documents, I think my output would have been very different. As it is, the manuscript version on the left made me think of old documents, and old documents made me think of libraries, so I read the words on the right with a different mindset. This is what came out:
People always have this image of libraries as quiet places, with librarians pointing crossly to SILENCE signs… But actually they’re pretty noisy on the whole.
We have the babblings and stream-of-consciousness mutterings of the homeless or near to it come in for a warm in the reference library. The gushing of the middle-aged ladies – and some gents too – when we’ve saved the latest Marian Keyes or Jill Mansell. The whispered divisions and equations, resistance and revolutions of students; the undulations, reboundings and reversals of teenage lovers… In other words, we have it all.
But we don’t often hear violent crashing noises followed by breakages, confusion and furious roaring. Then again, it’s rare that we have a fully armoured warhorse, complete with mace-wielding rider, suddenly materialise in Autobiographies R-T.
Even when we are doing a Tolkien display for Year 5 again.
Fortunately, it was Wednesday morning, one of our quietest, and not long after nine o’clock – far too early for most of our patrons to have arrived yet – so the injuries amounted to a copy of the Silmarillion with a hoof print right through it – no loss there – and a severely mangled cardboard Tolstoy.
I’m in France at the moment, where there’s a curfew that means you can’t leave your home from 6 pm to 6 am. The government is apparently considering expanding upon this by leaving the curfew in place on weekdays but bringing back a complete lockdown at weekends, so you can leave home on Saturday or Sunday only for essential shopping, medical visits or limited exercise. In other words, you can work/go to school, but that’s it.
In view of that, I have… let’s say, certain opinions about France’s vaccination policy. But perhaps I’m just over-reacting. And in any case, there’s absolutely no way I can express how I feel about this without making every sentence extremely sweary and with every other word in italics for roll-eyed, multiple-exclamation-mark levels of emphasis.
So for those of you who don’t already know how France are going about this, here’s a summary.
Vaccinations are currently being given only in hospitals, and (almost) exclusively on weekdays. You can pick out weekends on a graph of French vaccine figures, because they’re horizontal lines.
Pharmacies still aren’t being permitted to give vaccinations.
However, as from 25 February, GPs will be able to give COVID (Astra-Zeneca) vaccinations to some patients. This will work as follows.
The GP can order one bottle of vaccine (ten doses) from their medical supplier.
Patients wanting a vaccination can, in theory, make an appointment with their doctor using the online Doctolib system, if the doctor has an account. In fact, given the few doses available, doctors probably won’t make these appointments accessible online, so they’ll actually just contact the relevant 10 patients directly.
The patient has an initial appointment during which the doctor explains the vaccine and asks the patient whether or not they want it. a) It can be administered during this appointment, or b) The patient can ask for another appointment at a later date.
The patient gets another appointment four or five weeks later for the second dose of the vaccine, although Astra-Zeneca now say this isn’t the best way to give it.
So. What’s your reaction to this procedure? Am I the only person who wants to run through the French parliament swinging an axe, screaming “If it’s a fucking war, let’s fight it, for fuck’s sake!”?
I started writing this a couple of weeks ago, but thought I’d better wait until I actually had survived before publishing it. These are the things/people/influences that have helped me get through what’s definitely been the toughest year of my life so far, not necessarily for what I’ve had to go through (as I’ve said before, I’m very lucky to still have an income and so on), but because of what it may mean for the future.
If you’re on this list, I can’t thank you enough. Words are insufficient to express my gratitude, but I’m going to try anyway.
I could pretty much stop there, really. In any year music is incredibly important to me. This year? There have been a few times where I really thought I was going to flip. And I’ve realised exactly what I want to do when (if?) the pandemic ends.
Sources of music that have been essential:
Deezer – my streaming service, which trundles away in the background suggesting new tracks to me and is always there to play a soundtrack to my other activities.
A couple of podcast radio programmes that I enjoy cross-pollinating with recommendations that I think the other show’s DJs will enjoy (they usually do).
UPRadio, normally hosted by the lovely Sir Real and Grindi, but this year largely falling on Sir Real’s shoulders.
D.A.V.E. the drummer and his wife Justine and their weekly live techno sessions on Sundays. Silly costumes, rather disturbing visuals (especially if you like badgers) and always worth dancing to.
Bandcamp – their Bandcamp Fridays, where they waive their fee so all the money goes directly to the artists, have been hugely popular. Of course I keep missing these particular days, but I’ve bought a lot more music through Bandcamp this year than ever before.
About a million recommendations from friends, to the point where I’m starting to panic a bit about ever being able to listen to them all.
65daysofstatic, because never has their mixture of noise and melody seemed so appropriate – though ironically it was in 2019 that they produced A Year of Wreckage.
IDLES. I don’t even know where to start with these guys. They’ve been popping up in my consciousness for about 18 months now, but it wasn’t until about a year back that they really landed in my brain. And now… to paraphrase, “All is IDLES”. Angry, sweet, political, authentic, danceable, meaningful music. And their fans are without a doubt the maddest, most caring, loveliest people on the planet.
I didn’t really play any new games in 2020, primarily because
a) I’ve still not finished Witcher 3 (and I doubt I ever will, it’s so gorgeous), and in any case
c) Red Dead Redemption 2 that I bought it, even though a) and b) above keep me more than busy enough during the odd moment I get to play games when I’m not playing
d) 7 Days to Die. I started playing this zombie game with a friend late in 2019 and it terrified me to begin with, but in fact it’s helped me get less scared of the dark in real life, because chased by a ravening horde of zombies/very cross pumas when you’ve lost your only light source and you’re out of ammo makes “Oh, it’s dark and I’ve got to pop out with a torch and fetch something from the car” a piece of cake. There are also a couple of guys (Capp00 and Glock9) doing really fun gameplay videos of the game (this is, I think, the only game where I’m nearly as happy watching someone play as actually playing it).
The Group Translation Chats video chat group founded by Nikki Graham two years ago now (two years! How is that even possible?) has gone from strength to strength and become more regular during the pandemic. I’ve been so busy recently that I haven’t been able to attend the chats, but it’s still been an invaluable way of keeping in touch with other people and simply feeling like I exist.
Some of the same people are also in an accountability group, primarily to help us complete a copywriting course we all bought… ahem…years ago and which we still haven’t finished – or in some cases started, before this!
Associations such as the ITI have provided fantastic opportunities for networking and CPD with regular Zoom events.
I find exercise, and particularly walking or cycling outdoors, to be very helpful to my mental health. So when I was in strict lockdown in France and we weren’t allowed more than 1 km from home on our single hour’s daily exercise, I struggled. (Fortunately we don’t have a bakery very nearby, and of course someone has to go and fetch the bread every day, so me and my bike did a lot of bread shopping.)
But even on days when that didn’t happen, I knew I could get a workout so tough that I’d be flooded with feel-good endorphins – yet so much fun that I’d keep coming back over and over again.
Because at the start of the lockdown, my favourite fitness gurus Keris and Matt from Fitter Food began doing live workout sessions. These took place quite early in the morning (fortunately they’re in the UK so I got an extra hour’s sleep!), allowing me to get my workout done even before I was completely awake.
It’s now… I don’t know how many months later, and they’re still doing live workouts almost every day!
I’ve always loved these guys for their blend of total scientific knowledge, enthusiasm, tough (but always regressable) workouts, disarming honesty and sheer joy in what they do. (They also have a lovely dog.) But in 2020 they’ve surpassed themselves to the extent that there are simply no superlatives that will do them justice. And because you get back what you put in, they’ve ended up with a fantastic community of supportive people too.
If you’ve just gone back into lockdown and you’re feeling unfit (or even if you just need a good helping of joy in your life), they’re currently running a 21 day challenge that I guarantee will help you feel better (it’s got me up three days in a row at 7 am, and we all know how unlikely that is).
A different one, this, completely out of sequence from my tea sachet challenge, but still a piece composed entirely from a (relatively) random prompt.
A couple of days ago one of my favourite bands, the wonderful 65daysofstatic, released an updated version of one of their earlier tracks. A Discord discussion earlier today about this, and the sample near the start, led to a suggestion that this should be a story. And when I read the words, I knew I had to write something.
“The roads are blocked…And we cannot get through.Twenty-fourth day, twelfth month.Tonight will be the last transmission.In a dream of ropes and steelI am a feather falling endlessly, without ever hittingthe ground.Christmas is cancelled.“
Now, as I’ve mentioned, this is an updated version. The sample in the earlier version, which I wanted to include as well, went like this:
“The children have escaped. Twenty-fourth day, twelfth month. Today will be the last transmission. Christmas is cancelled.”
And just to make things really difficult, a fellow 65kid added another, very appropriate sample, from a track by another favourite band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor (who I saw live in another life, when we were all humans):
“The car’s on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel.”
Put them all together, and you get this, or something very like it.
We still hear other voices, sometimes. Voices in the darkness, through the crackling static and the whine of the radio waves.
Men’s voices, mostly. There don’t seem to be so many women – and I look around our small group which is mostly women now and I wonder, does that mean our group is different to have so many? Or do the women in those other camps out there, those audio sparks in the dark night… do they just save their energy for more practical things than keeping in touch with what’s left of the human race?
I know some of the voices now as I didn’t when I was younger. The Tingler, from somewhere in central Europe. Sanna, from Norway, who just sings and cries now although I remember when she used to speak. Omar, who speaks Arabic so all we can understand is his name. Years ago it seemed normal to me that there were people talking, singing or swearing from the radio set in the corner of the big house. And there seemed to be so many of them, overlapping and competing with each other, sharing their news. Some of them even having conversations, lucky in being able to transmit and receive, where we have only ever been able to listen.
Now there are fewer voices, and they’ve settled into a routine, I suppose a bit like the radio programmes Mara told us kids about during our school time. That was when we still had school time. When there were enough children to make it worth an adult spending time on teaching us about how the world used to be.
I was sick when the other kids left, a year ago. I’d been sick for a few days, so I didn’t even hear them talking about it, but I can guess who started it. Lee was always the leader of our little gang, always the one urging us to do things we shouldn’t or that we didn’t really know how to do. Like trying to blow up the rusting car in the corner of the top field – which didn’t explode but did make a huge cloud of thick black nasty smelling smoke – or mixing magic potions out of the bright coloured liquids on the top shelf of the workshop cupboard, which put Anna in the sickbay for a week and the rest of us on hard chores for a whole month.
So when the other children escaped… I knew it was because of Lee. Recently he’d been saying he thought the leaders were just keeping us in the compound because they were stupid, or mad, or sick or something. His reasons seemed to change every day, with each new kid he explained his theory to.
“It’s because most of them are girls”, he’d said to me scornfully. “Girls are always scared of everything. The leaders have been out and seen the world and all the big machines and roads and other people out there and they’re scared and they don’t want us to go out because then they’ll have to as well, and we’ll see the world is just like it always was. There’s just us stuck in here, in this stupid compound.”
“But the radio…” I protested.
“Fake!” he screeched. “All fake, made up by the government to keep us in our place.”
“But…” In the face of such certainty I was beginning to doubt what Mara had taught us, the books we’d read. “But…we’ve been out”, I finally stammered. “We’ve seen what it’s like out there, the roads all smashed and the broken cars everywhere and all the towns burned or in ruins.”
Last winter Lee and I were both 11 and the oldest of the kids. And so we were allowed to start going out on patrols with the adults, trying to salvage anything useful that hadn’t already been looted ages before. One time we walked for five days away from the compound and still didn’t see another living human. There must’ve been some around, because we came across a car that was still burning, but there was no driver at the wheel and no sign of where one might have gone.
But even so, I couldn’t see how Lee could possibly think this was all some kind of hoax. What would be the point? We weren’t that important. Why would anyone ruin so much of the country just to keep the 40 of us in our little compound?
Lee was stubborn, though, and the other kids were in awe of how he stood up to the adults, and so when it turned out one December morning that all the kids were gone – at least all of them older than four-year-old Fiona – well, I hadn’t exactly been expecting them to do something so stupid or I’d have warned Samira or Joanna. But I wasn’t entirely astonished either. I was surprised we never got them back, though. I expected them to be gone for a few hours at most. But we’d all been taught how to operate the motorbike, and they’d taken it and the bike trailer too, so they had a good head start. And it began snowing that morning, heavy fat flakes drifting down like feathers, the thickest snow any of us had ever seen, even Joanna, and she’s ancient. So by the time we worked out they’d headed east, towards what was once a big city called Birmingham (I can’t really imagine a city, but Mara used to tell us about them, and there’s a picture of a place called Cardiff in one of our books)… Well, anyway, the roads were blocked and the search party couldn’t get through. And Samira just said she’d never send more of our people there, not after… And then she looked at me and Fiona and stopped speaking and the adults went and argued in the workshop for a long time. In the end, Louise and Diane went after their three kids, and Brendan went with them – still insisting Lee couldn’t have been involved and that it was all a government conspiracy. And Eddie and Richard went as well, but they left their wives behind. Only after a week Marie and Sara went away one night too. So now there are only 24 of us.
None of them came back. Nobody who ever goes east ever comes back. Sometimes, when I was little, walkers would come to the compound, in ones and twos – dirty, tired-looking people. We’d swap food for information, and one of them was James and he stayed, but none of the rest of them seemed to be much use and so we didn’t let them in and after a day or two they’d move on. And we’d never see them again.
So I listen to the voices on the radio, at night – always at night, they’re strongest then – and I dream of where those voices are coming from. And I’ve been thinking. We’d get a better signal if we had a bigger antenna. I reckon I could climb out of the attic window of the big house at night, onto the roof, where the antenna’s attached to the chimney. And I could fasten it to a scaffolding pole instead – I know where there is one in the long grass behind the workshop – and then I could attach the pole to the chimney and that would make the antenna loads taller. And that would be a great Christmas present for everyone and cheer them up from thinking about last year. I’ll be careful though – I’m going to tie myself to one of the steel brackets. I’ve got lots of rope.
The problem with love at first sight is that you just don’t know when it’s going to strike. And when it does, it can impact on your life even decades later.
In 1994, we went on a trip from our inner city Birmingham flat to visit Geoff’s brother in Shropshire. He picked us up from the railway station and drove us out into the countryside, chatting about our journey.
At one point another car came hurtling towards us on the damp road, apparently heading somewhere in a hurry. The vehicle was tatty, with black paint weathered to a matte finish, dents here and there and mud splashed all up the sides. As it neared the car we were in, it screeched from far too fast to a complete stop in an impossibly short distance, and the driver wound the window down and began a shouted conversation with Geoff’s brother. It turned out that this was the latter’s girlfriend, who’d got tired of waiting for us and come out to see where we’d got to. And the car was a 1980 Toyota Corolla E70 liftback – a sporty looking thing amongst the relatively square models of the time, and which, we were informed, went by the rather prosaic name of Henry. And, as it happened, Henry was for sale.
£175 later, we were the proud owners of a new (second-hand) car, which didn’t even get us back to Birmingham before the brakes bound on and we had to pull off the road into a car park, trailing foul-smelling smoke behind us.
As a child I’d spent many cold, uncomfortable hours holding a torch while my dad worked on a variety of old vehicles, so I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the concept of car repairs. And Geoff had not long completed a 4-year maintenance apprenticeship at Leyland. The fact that we were both reasonably practical was just as well, because over the next couple of years we spent quite a lot of time in scrapyards sourcing parts for Henry.
But there was one problem we couldn’t fix with the minimal tools we had available – rust. Even when we got him, Henry had a couple of nasty holes in his sills. These would pick up water from the road, and – because eventually the footwells were the only places where there weren’t holes – this gradually accumulated to the point where, when we came to a stop at a traffic light, everyone in the car had to lift their feet up to avoid the wave that sloshed backwards and forwards over the by now rather smelly carpet.
And so eventually Henry went to the great scrapyard in the sky. It was a very sad day, and for several years afterwards friends and acquaintances would ask me if I still had “that cool car”. Well, no I hadn’t. But I never forgot it.
Fast forward rather more years than I care to think about, and I’ve graduated from cars I had to fix myself – and in one memorable case that I had to keep a roasting tin underneath to collect the oil that seeped out of it every time it was stationary – and my last two cars have been leased. As it happens, they’ve been Toyota Corollas too, but in name only, and simply because the latest Kias (my preferred brand) were both too expensive and underpowered.
I’m happy with new cars. I love the idea of leasing, where you don’t have to pay for any servicing or repairs at all. You simply ring someone else and make an appointment for them to worry about whatever’s wrong.
But, just like the rust on Henry, there’s one problem with new cars that I can’t overcome, and that’s the gradual, insidious creep of technology. I enjoy driving. I’m a good driver. I enjoy reading maps. I’m pretty good at finding my way in an unfamiliar area. I don’t need a car that beeps to tell me I’ve put it in reverse, that it’s going backwards or that I’ve crossed the dividing line between traffic lanes as I overtake someone else. Or a car that has umpteen distracting lights and a vast GPS screen taking my attention away from the business of driving. I certainly don’t need a car that’s going to stick slavishly to the speed limit, regardless of road conditions.
So I’ve known for a while that this golden age of driving cars I don’t have to repair was going to come to an end fairly soon. What I needed, I decided, was an analogue car. A car like Henry. And, because I’ve never forgotten that car (and with possibly a little encouragement both from the vehicle restoration exploits of my dad and brother, and from watching Rust Valley Restorers and similar programmes), I’ve long thought I’d like another old Toyota Corolla. But not just any model. That exact one.
They do come up for sale from time to time. They vary wildly in price, from a few hundred euros for what’s essentially a shell, to more than 20,000€ for one that’s been, one assumes, thoroughly restored.
Anyway, I had the misfortune of driving a new Kia a couple of weeks ago, and its incessant bleating reminded me that I was due to check the various used car sites again. For example, in Portugal there’s an exact match for Henry, right down to the patchy matte black paint job, but it’s clearly in a bit of a state and at 2000€ rather expensive, especially as I have no idea how I’d get it home (wherever ‘home’ is these days).
I checked the French sites. And then I idly checked the Swedish ones. And I found exactly the right model, in what looked like very good condition for its age, and only a few hundred euros more than the Portuguese one… only 100 km from my place in Skåne.
A couple of emails to my car-loving friends in Sweden, a check by them to verify that it is indeed in nice clean condition as it appeared on the photos – and three days later I’m now finally once again the proud owner of a 1980 Toyota Corolla liftback.
It’s not the same colour as Henry, but as those of you who’ve seen my nail varnish will know, I’m rather partial to this particular shade of emerald green.
Of course the story doesn’t end there. I still have my leased car for the next year (assuming I ever manage to extract it from the car park at Copenhagen Airport where it’s been languishing since mid-March). And I’m well aware that an old car isn’t something you just get into and drive. I fully expect to spend more time with my head under the bonnet trying to work out why it’s not running than actually driving it. But to my mind, that’s a price well worth paying for a car that doesn’t whinge at me every time I think about changing gear.
This is a guest post by my sister. As you read it, you’ll see why I asked her to write this. (The tl;dr – she writes like Terry Pratchett. Cosy humour thinly veiling extreme anger at stupidity and injustice.)
Let me paint you a picture of my quarantine (It’s not lockdown. Our doors are not locked). I live in a good-sized semi with my husband and three children (14, 12 and 9). We have an allotment, a large garden and a park opposite. My husband is working from home, all but one day a week when he walks up the road to work. My girls are both at secondary school and are sent daily lessons, which they do on their laptops, our only last-minute before-quarantine-hits, panic-buy. The youngest also gets sent work daily. I have a hands-off approach; they just get on with it and peace (largely) reigns. Most weeks we have a delivery from Ocado. We’ve recently ordered online such things as clothes, flour, a microscope, sheet music, tent pegs and an entertainingly large rubber mallet. We have various musical instruments. We have a well-stocked art cupboard. I love to draw and write. We are cosy quarantiners. In fact, it occurred to me the other day, we are the Eloi, and out there in the unknown, Morlocks are working to deliver us our every need while we stay cosy, safe and entertained.
So far, so idyllic. But what of the crisis? What of the looming threat? How do we deal with the fear and the uncertainty of what the future will bring? Um… well, we don’t. Mostly. Because, other than the fact that our movements are restricted, for us, and for me and for my husband in particular, the whole crisis/looming threat/fear/uncertainty thing? Well, for us that’s business as usual.
Just over five years ago I was diagnosed with a type of sarcoma – a lumpy thing in the connective tissue around my intestines. Surgery got rid of it, but there’s no effective treatment which stops such things coming back. I was given a 40-50% chance of it returning to finish me off. The children were 4, 7 and 9. I learned to live with it, and it’s simple, really; simple, but not easy. My basic approach is a dialogue I have with myself. Initially it was more or less constant. It goes like this:
Me 1: You’re miserable! What are you afraid of? Me 2: I’m afraid of losing my life. Me 1: (a little patronising) But you have your life right now! Me 2: Oh yes, I do, don’t I? I’d better get on and enjoy it then hadn’t I? Me 3: (even more patronising, verging on smug) Yes, you had!
And that’s it, really. So, with that in mind I learned to live a day at a time, or as I say regularly, ‘It’s Today’. Because it’s enough, or it can be. And I don’t think it’s hurt for my children to grow up with me constantly telling them that this is a day we have been given to enjoy and that each day is a gift.
But last year my cancer popped up in my liver. I had chemo and then surgery and I have scans every three months. I haven’t asked my odds because I don’t want to know, and actually I know anyway, secretly, without even admitting that to myself. I had begun, after four years, to send out tentative tendrils of thought into the future; perhaps I would live to see my children grow up, perhaps I would grow old with my husband. I had to prune those tender shoots back to ground level, with an extremely sharp pair of mental secateurs. I had to reduce my world back to a small bubble of relative certainty that is this single day, sent like a gift for me to enjoy.
So, Coronavirus? It feels like a drop in the ocean, and any fear and uncertainty I feel about that gets put behind the thick, heavy velvet drapes somewhere over my right shoulder, behind which lurk abject fear and dread and sorrow and all that stuff. Those things are behind a curtain rather than anywhere more secure, an iron strongbox, say, simply because they are always present. They’re too strong to be buried, and yet somehow my mind’s worked out a way of loving life alongside them. I laugh, I giggle, I’m light-hearted, I have many, many things I love to do, and I can do them with full awareness of the lurking darkness and yet with, often, a curious detachment which leads me to be able to think of times when I won’t be there for my children with total lack of emotion and mere practicality of mind.
And so, I feel like I don’t belong in this crisis. Fear of death? Box ticked. Awareness of the preciousness and precariousness of life? Ditto. Grateful for the NHS? Profoundly and constantly and many, many thanks delivered wholeheartedly and in person, so that the whole ‘clap for the NHS’ thing seems rather juvenile and heaven knows what the neighbours think when we don’t join in. But when they are no longer clapping and hollering and banging pans, I will still be smiling at my carers and taking them gifts of homemade jam and even sloe gin (with which they spiked their drinks in the local pub – well-deserved that day, having delivered the news of my liver metastasis and sat with me as long as I needed and this is a long parenthesesed bit but my wonderful consultant and the nurse specialist just sat and let me think and talk for a long time). I will thank my carers again and again for the life that I have, the life that I’ve been given, as the most precious gift.
One final thing, which I have to add because it’s my best and most effective anti-depressant, happy-making, giggling-on-the-way-to-chemo technique for relative mental health: fanfiction. I regularly disappear into the world of Stargate Atlantis, which is peopled by attractive and entertaining characters that are just itching to be taken on all kinds of hair-raising adventures and then brought safely and cosily home. I started writing when I began chemo last year and I recently hit four hundred thousand words posted to fanfiction.net and Archive of our own, under the name salchat. When I write it’s as if the heavy velvet drapes and all the horrors they hide dissolve into so much black, bitter smoke and are poetically carried away on a bold, gusting wind of drama and excitement and pure, innocent silliness!
Links to Sally’s fanfic (which is just as wonderfully written, but usually rather less harrowing – I can heartily recommend the one called “Harvey” as a starting point!): Fanfiction.net AO3
Over the last week or so I’ve thought of several posts I want to write about the coronapanic. But then, on one of my frequent visits to the wonderful worldometers.com to check the current figures and how various countries are faring, I spotted their other statistics. Such as the fact that, as I’m writing this, there have been 350,000 births today. That, encouragingly 40 million bicycles have been made this year but only 20 million cars. That depressingly, there are 850 million undernourished people in the world, and 750 million obese ones.
And finally, that 6 million blog posts have been written today. Given that my posts get at best about 100 readers, and that – much though those readers are very nice people and I’m grateful they read my witterings – none of them are influential on a world stage, I think it means I’m wasting my time trying to put together any coherent statement about why I think this crisis has been handled wrong, and where I fear we’re ultimately heading with all of this. If you’re a student of history you can probably predict the latter for yourself. If you’re remotely competent at being objective and reading statistics, I’m sure you can see many flaws with the former.
So I may write more about the panic. I may continue to blog about other things. Or I may not. I’ve been trying, once again, to meditate regularly, and one of the things that came out of a slightly calmer mind was the realisation that I’m stressed by the many many tasks on my mental ‘To Do’ list. And writing blog posts is one of these. So I hereby give myself permission to just not.
I also give myself permission to just not Facebook either, as it’s currently like having a Daily Mail reader shouting in my face every time I open the site. (Exceptions will be made for a) UP Radio, b) things like the translator chat group and the online translator’s pub quiz, and c) PetitBambou’s online meditation sessions.) I’m not currently sure if Twitter will have to go the same way, because my feed is much less toxic, consisting of a mixture of writing Twitter and No Man’s Sky players. Games are helping me enormously at the moment. Though it’s a strange feeling cycling round the deserted Normandy countryside for shopping then coming home and cycling around the deserted Navezgane countryside to loot the ruined houses inhabited by zombies in 7 Days to Die. As soon as they make masks compulsory IRL I’ll even have a similar outfit in both worlds.
Anyway, you know the drill. I shan’t say “Stay safe”, because the phrase makes me want to vomit. But stay sane, if you can. And if not, I hope your madness is a pleasant one.
In case you’re wondering, the stuff I could have written about:
Why the French government chose to lock down the entire country, despite numbers of infected being almost zero in vast parts of France, when everything else runs as though each département is a self-governing country. Even totalitarian China only locked down the infected bits. But somehow Europe has to close entire countries.
Whether, if masks were the way to control the virus from the start, this means lockdowns were pointless (and, as I’ve pointed out before, far more damaging to society as a whole).
Whether, if lockdowns were the right way to go, we shouldn’t therefore actually lock down – rather than all still pottering about going to the shops and forcing everyone in the logistics chain to continue exposing themselves to infection.
What the point of all of this is, given that a) it could take months if not years before we get a vaccine that’s even partially successful, b) we all have to die one day and c) the number of people who’ve died from the virus is still a drop in the ocean compared to, for example, the number who’ve already died from smoking this year, which we could stop instantly if we banned all cigarette manufacture (but we can’t because the companies who make them pay our governments vast sums to be able to keep killing us).
Why there’s such hysterical criticism of Sweden for not locking down. Personally, I think this comes down to superstition. “If we all stick to the rules, we’ll be all right, and because Sweden isn’t doing that, we’re all in danger.”
Why, on the same subject, people are saying that Sweden’s approach is a failure because they have 1.5 times more cases than Norway, which, as well as having half the population of Sweden, is the richest country in the world (excluding the tiny places like Monaco), and therefore tolerably well supplied in terms of healthcare facilities.
Why top medical officials are apparently unable to distinguish between the total number of dead – which is inevitably going to increase every day – the number of cases, which reflects the spread of the virus, and the death rate, which reflects how good or bad any country’s healthcare system is.
How long it’s going to be before the UK’s mass hysteria about applauding the NHS becomes compulsory, with neighbours grassing each other up if they don’t participate, despite the fact that, demonstrably, 43.6% of the population didn’t give a toss about the NHS at the last election, just four months ago.
Whether everyone else’s weather has mysteriously got considerably sunnier and warmer since we’ve all stopped flying everywhere. And, slightly more worryingly given that we’re coming into summer in the northern hemisphere, whether air travel was simultaneously contributing massively to global warming but also protecting us against the worst effects of the heat.
What happens next. I mean, not just how long does this continue, but where do we go as a society? I read tweets and articles saying “everything will be different”, but I’m pretty sure that after this most people will be only too happy to just go back to commuting and consuming like they were before. And I very much fear that governments will take this as an opportunity to crack down on civil disobedience. “You can go back to work, but you can’t go to the beach. We, your betters, can fly around the world for business meetings, and you can travel squeezed in together on public transport, but you get no pubs, no restaurants, and certainly no more Fridays for Future protests.”
I’ve been getting increasingly angry throughout this panic, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Maybe you feel guilty about that. Because this is all for the good of society, right? So many people being scared and exhausted is the price we pay for doing the right thing. It’s for the greater good.
Well, no. The justification for us doing this is far from clear. I’ll get onto that in a later post, but to begin with here are a few of the reasons why I’m so furious at the moment – you can probably think of more – and why I think it’s perfectly justifiable to be angry in this situation.
If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written, you know I’m left wing. I’m probably as left wing as it’s possible to get. I’ve never forgiven the Tories for what they did to UK society in the 1980s, and I never will. I’m proud to call myself a socialist.
Now, socialism has always said that we should use tax revenues to fund a national health system and other services that are best and easiest provided at state level and by non-profit oriented structures. It’s always said we should protect people when they lose their jobs or their homes, because everyone can be a valuable member of society, and society as a whole benefits when the most vulnerable also benefit.
And as a result of the emergence of COVID-19, everyone else seems to have suddenly become aware of the truth of the above. Which is all fine and dandy. I’m delighted that you now see the value of a national health service that can, you know, look after the nation’s health. But the really big thing about this is… yeah, now you know this truth. Fucking well remember it. Don’t go back on it as soon as this is all over. Never, ever, ever, vote Tory – or whatever your country’s equivalent is – ever again. Never forget.
Also, “as soon as this is all over”… you do realise that it’s never going to be over? I’ve read many articles saying “when we’ve developed a vaccine…”, which is reckoned will take about 18 months.
There are two problems with this.
Firstly – and this is my quibble with the whole “lockdown” idea – can we really stand being stuck like this for 18 months? Well, I can, because this is my normal life, but I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people out there who can’t:
The second problem with the “as soon as this is all over, when we have a vaccine” idea is that “a vaccine” probably isn’t going to fix this. After all, we have a flu vaccine. And yet people still get the flu.
Speaking of which, did you know that 10-30,000 people die of the flu in England every year?
I’ll just say that again.
TEN TO THIRTY THOUSAND PEOPLE DIE OF THE FLU, EVERY YEAR, IN ENGLAND ALONE
Just like the coronavirus deaths, the vast majority of these are old people. Just like the coronavirus, it’s extremely contagious. And clearly, just like the coronavirus, it’s potentially deadly. But we don’t shut down the whole of society every year for the seasonal flu. Why not? Simply because we never have. We’ve always, all of us who are alive today, and all of our ancestors for about the last 500 years, lived in a post-flu world. We just accept it.
And we’re going to have to accept the fact that we now live in a post-corona world. It’s here. It’s not going away. We can mitigate it, we’ll ultimately be able to vaccinate the most high risk groups, but it’s not going to stop just because we all cower in our homes for a few weeks.
Finally, if all that wasn’t enough to make you angry, consider this.
How much of an impact could world governments have had on the real issues the whole of humanity faces today if they’d acted as forcefully on those problems as they have on COVID-19?
I’ve had a certain amount of pushback about my last article on the pandemic, so before I post any more on the subject I thought it might be a good time to make my principles absolutely clear:
Nobody could hate the capitalist system more than me: I’ve been arguing for 30 years that we’d all be much better off if we went back to living in an extended family setup on our own patch of land, feeding ourselves and getting plenty of exercise and social interaction. And with the benefits of modern technology (healthcare, education), plus those of creativity (art, music, theatre) provided to us through professionals who would receive a tithe of our produce.
I firmly believe that capitalism is a poison to the Earth and to humanity. It promulgates an attitude of continuous and conspicuous consumption that’s totally counter to anything sustainable. I believe in a single universal wage, draconian measures to prevent/clean up pollution, and that no company should make a profit that isn’t immediately invested in making society better for all of us.
Furthermore, I don’t have a pension, investments or anything else that might suffer from an economic collapse. The two houses of which I’m a joint owner are worth maybe 200k€ in total on a good day. So I have no interest in propping up this system.
I’m perfectly well aware of the risk this virus poses to vulnerable groups: I have a number of close friends/family who are cancer sufferers, asthmatics and/or old enough to be in the high risk group. No, I don’t want them to die because all of you can’t be arsed to stay at home for a few weeks.
I am not suffering whatsoever: I work from home. My life normally consists of doing exactly what I’m doing now. My workload has actually increased since this crisis began. And in any case, I have a chunk of money set aside that I inherited a couple of years ago when my aunt died.
I’m currently in lockdown in rural France. I have a very large house to live in, and although it’s a bit basic (like, pretty much entirely unheated), it’s really not a struggle to be here. I can go out for walks or ride my bike around the country lanes.
And, on the lighter side of things, I’ve had dreadlocks since 1993. I’m not going to come out of this with a self-inflicted bowl haircut.
So… now that I’ve established I’m not a sock puppet for our capitalist masters, let’s move on to the serious stuff…
Our destination, globally, is clear. We are heading for economic – and thereby social – Armageddon.
The warning signs have been there for years. Decades.
But there’s an irony to what’s happening: it isn’t rampant capitalism or environmental collapse that’s endangering our world. Not an asteroid, nor even a nuclear war. No. Instead, it’s incompetent and panic-ridden leadership on an enormous scale.
What we’re doing to our economy – globally – in response to a relatively small threat from a virus is a massive, massive over-reaction. And long after the virus has (hopefully) gone, the much greater costs, even in terms of life, will roll on for years to come.
The economy needs to be restarted. Now. Before it’s too late.
All these shutdowns are the wrong medicine. They’re a panic measure. A flexing of the wrong muscles, too late in the day.
Look at it like this: imagine the roof of your house has a leak. The leak is a nuisance. It’s spoiling your furniture and possessions inside the house. One of the bedrooms is now out of use. The leak needs to be dealt with. Yes.
But would you knock the house down in order to deal with that leak? No. Of course you wouldn’t. You’d work slowly but diligently towards moving things out of the way and accept that there will be some loss, some damage, call it what you will. But you’ll get through the wet days and repair the leak.
And once it’s all done, you may even (hopefully) admit that you were very wrong, for so many years, to not invest in repairs to such vital structures as your own roof.
As things stand, it isn’t too late to prevent decades of damage – and the loss of countless thousands, perhaps even millions of lives – as a result of the current policies of economic suicide. Things can be done to prevent that catastrophe from ever happening. Free money can be given away, for, say, the next 18 months. Governments can reduce their tax takes, generate economic growth with massive stimulus packages and, of course, invest heavily in that most precious of things: healthcare. The staff, the hospitals, the medicines and the equipment.
On the other hand, in order to spare significantly less than 1% of the population a close (and, yes, sometimes fatal) encounter with the Covid virus, we can carry on demolishing the whole damned house. And, once that’s done, and we find ourselves destitute and on the street, we can then try to blame it all on the wet weather.