Are you the same you as before the pandemic?

It’s not a trick question, and I’m fully aware that the pandemic is not even remotely over – even though we’re all supposed to be panicking about the war in Ukraine now, and have forgotten about the pandemic, because, you know, we needed a distraction since it’s not really possible to stop society in its tracks because it turns out that the economy tanks, and who could have thunk that? I dunno, it’s a mystery.

But in the fairly imminent future I’m going to be going back to Sweden, where I’ve spent time but not met any of my friends since 2020. Early 2020, in the vast majority of cases.

And it’s suddenly occurred to me that I’m not the same person I was when they last saw me. For a start, it’s been two years, and two years of extreme stress haven’t been kind to my very-nearly-54-year-old self.

But the main changes are on the inside. I’ve become even more of an introvert in many ways. I expect that’s normal, given the events of the last two years. But I’ve also become far less tolerant of poor behaviour. I haven’t been able to meet the people I want to for two years. I’m buggered if I’m putting up with rudeness, bad communication or being taken for granted by anyone I don’t particularly want to encounter. I’d already been edging in this direction before the pandemic – so maybe it’s just an age thing, after all? – hence the question.

Are you the same you as before the pandemic?

For example, today has been a pretty good day. It’s even held a couple of pieces of good news, unlike almost every day in the last 700-odd. I’ve gone for a walk, worked sitting at a table in the garden, done a moving meditation that gave me a lightbulb moment, and listened to techno and birdsong simultaneously. That sounds like Jane. And yet… not quite.

How about you?

The moving meditation I did today. It’s the voiceover that really makes it, I think.

TrumpBrexitCOVIDUkraine in Shockity Shock Shock Shock Shock

This could be a really long post, but I just can’t be arsed. So here’s my thinking. It’s not very elegantly done, but I’m sure you get the point:

  1. I’m very sorry for the Ukrainian people.
  2. Putin is indeed a megalomaniac loon.
  3. I know very little about the issues on either side, apart from it being historically extremely complex.
  4. There are plenty of other conflicts going on in the world that are not being rammed down our throats with hysterical language by every media source.
  5. Most of the other conflicts involve brown or black people, but that’s OK because they’re brown or black.
  6. We’ve just had the shock horror reactions to the virus. Before that it was Brexit/Trump and there were other things before that.
  7. I freely admit to having written many angry posts about Brexit, largely because I was personally involved. That was wrong of me. I don’t know how Brexit’s going to work out in the long run. Nor does anyone else.
  8. There are plenty of other issues going on in the world that are not being taken as seriously as the war in Ukraine or the virus. Poverty, overconsumption, overpopulation, energy prices, climate change, biodiversity loss, mental health, equality… If we’d put the same effort into fixing those as we have into “staying safe” and standing with Ukraine, we might actually be getting somewhere.
  9. And some of the things people are doing to “support” Ukraine make me boggle. I mean, booking Airbnb places so the owner gets your money directly? Exactly how many of those do you think are owned by the average Ukrainian???
  10. And I ask myself why doesn’t everyone see the Facebook I stand with Ukraine frame as the same thing as clapping for the NHS and kneeling to show support for Black people and all the rest of the virtue signalling BOLLOCKS it clearly is.
  11. And then I go and get on with the rest of my day, exactly as if I had put the Facebook frame on my profile.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Headphone Buyer

The tl;dr, in case you’re thinking of buying Kamtron Marathon 2 headphones –
DON’T. They’re rubbish compared to the old ones.

It isn’t often that I feel the need to take to WordPress to review something. I think I’ve wittered on about my preferred keyboard on Emma Goldsmith’s blog, but that’s about it.

But I’ve been trying to submit Amazon reviews about my favourite wireless headphones for ages. Years. Every time I try, Amazon reject the review, for no obvious reason, and I think “Oh well, never mind” and just carry on using them. Because these things are absolutely brilliant. They’re dead cheap, lightweight, flexible, really comfy, stay put even if you’re using them for yoga and spend a lot of time in downward dog, have an excellent range and a battery life that’ll make you forget you have to charge them. They have on-ear controls for volume, play/pause and forward/back.

The sound’s probably not all that but given I wear them primarily to listen to audiobooks and for emergency supermarket muzak blocking it really doesn’t matter. I can even chuck them in my handbag without a case (although they do come with a rather nice one) and they stand up to that pretty well too. The only downside is that eventually – probably because of aforesaid chucking them in my handbag – they always crack about half way along the cable that goes around the back of your neck. But even then they last for at least a couple of years before that happens, and at about 25 quid a pair, they are, quite simply, fantastic.

Two pairs of headphones, each with a crack in the neck cable.
Two pairs of Marathon headphones, both with the same crack in the cable

Or at least… they were quite simply fantastic.

I should explain that the paragon in question is the variably named Marathon. Sometimes they appear to be made by a company called Kamtron, sometimes it’s Levin. Sometimes they’re called something else altogether.

And the last time I ordered some new ones, it turned out that they’re now called Marathon 2. “Never mind”, I thought, “I’m sure they’ll be just as good but with a different Bluetooth standard or something”.

Mais non.

Two pairs of headphones, one with an obviously thinner cable than the other
Old on the left, new on the right

As you can see above, the new ones have a cable that’s a good bit flimsier than the previous ones. Indeed, the whole build quality feels much less solid. Nor do they come with that rather nice hard case any more. You can’t get them in white (very handy for spotting in a dark handbag). And they drop the Bluetooth pairing at irregular – and extremely annoying – intervals. Sometimes I pause them and they drop it immediately. Sometimes I pause them once and they’re fine, and the next time they drop. And when the pairing goes, the sound goes first and the control goes afterwards. So I press the button to start the audio again, and it starts – but not through the headphones! The sound comes out of my phone. In my pocket, in my handbag, on the front seat of the car, in the bag on my bike frame… And there’s no way to get it back into the headphones without unpairing and re-pairing them. And of course I can’t stop the audio without doing so manually on my phone.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, it turns out that after a month or two (or less, in the case of the last set I bought), they simply fall to pieces.

Pair of broken headphones with wires exposed
So new I never got around to taking the “Made in China” sticker off them

Now, I know all of this sounds like first world problems. The fact that I can afford headphones, an Audible subscription, the electricity to recharge them and so on means I should be grateful about my lot rather than whinging about cheap consumer goods. Right?

Well, no.

Because cheap consumer goods are killing the planet. Cheap consumer goods are killing companies that make quality products. Cheap consumer goods are killing people in China who have to make the useless things. I wish they were throttling the purchasing department people who say “Yeah, fuckit the quality’s not as good but we’re going to sell them anyway because most people won’t bother to complain”, but sadly not.

After two sets of Marathon 2, both as crap as each other, I’ve just attempted to buy a different brand of folding wireless headphones. These ones appear to have been made for someone with a head the size of an orange, so that’s more of our planet’s precious resources wasted to return them and I’m still left searching for a replacement for my Marathon 1s.

Or would be, because I’ve had a bright idea since I’ve been writing this post, and that bright idea is…. electrical tape! I can just fix the old ones and keep using them. Haha! Take that, cynical purchasing department person!

What are your words for this year?

I don’t do New Year Resolutions. I haven’t done them for ages, mainly because since the millennium it seems a bit of an anticlimax to celebrate the end of a year in any way.

However, just like fellow translator Fiona Gray, in recent years I have found myself coming up with words for the year, usually sometime in January, in a completely unforced way. Last year my words were Strength and Joy, though the former disappeared during the house move from hell in March/April, and it was often hard to keep Joy going for reasons that, I’m sure, are only too obvious.

This year I’ve been a bit more structured with my words. I’m doing Strength again, because I still think I’m going to need it, both mental and physical, and Balance ditto. I’ve always been either wobbling all over the place or firm as a rock when standing on one leg, and I’m a bit like that mentally too. So I’m doing a couple of exercises a day to improve my physical balance, and I’m about to start a mental fitness coaching programme.

Last night I was in a Zoom call with the group of women I’m going to be getting to know a lot better over the next few weeks, as we do that programme together. And we split into a couple of breakout rooms to do brief intros. There were five of us in my room, and three of us had words for the year. One of the women had Joy as one of hers last year, one of them has Strength as one of hers this year. So I think we’re already on the same wavelength!

How about you? Do you set words for the year? Or set broad goals for what you want to do/make/be in some other way?

You have to crawl before you can fly

What can I say about IDLES? At the most fundamental, of course, they’re just a band like many others. To me, personally, they produce the music that’s kept me going through the coronapocalypse. I’ve started carrying them in my pocket when I go into a supermarket, ready to block out the inevitable hideous muzak (why is it so loud and so screechy?) . And any time I feel like humanity is a lost cause, I just have to go into the AF Gang group on Facebook to see people supporting each other as they talk about the toughest of subjects and feelings. Above all, I see a band that’s developing, thinking, both about their own personal situation and the wider state of the world. And I like that. We need more thinkers, desperately.

What I didn’t like, on first listen, was IDLES’ latest album, Crawler. It was announced out of the blue six weeks ago with a single, Beachland Ballroom, that was also – to me – not at all typical of IDLES. It sounds like something Amy Winehouse might have sung. And I absolutely hated Amy Winehouse’s music. But it took about 30 seconds to realise how not all soul songs are equal. How the very fact that Joe Talbot is an unlikely soul singer, and Bowen, Lee, Dev and Jon are an unlikely soul band, makes it work. And that break… breaks me. Every time. I began – like many other fans – finding myself singing the words “Damage. Damage. Damage” to myself everywhere I went.

So I was looking forward to the album. Then two weeks ago another single, Car Crash, was released. And this one gave me such a visceral reaction that I only listened to it once. Partly that’s because of the video, which consists of clips of car crashes from old films, and is frankly unwatchable if you happen to have a severe headache, which I had, and which continued to haunt me for the next ten days. But it seemed aggressive yet without the grace-in-violence combination I’ve come to expect from IDLES.

By now I was getting worried. I’ve never before been aware of the arrival of an album to this extent. I’ve never been this invested in a band, this eager yet terrified for the new release.

So when the album dropped, I waited a whole ten hours before listening to it (and not just because I was asleep for eight of those hours). And, as I’ve already said, I didn’t like it. I couldn’t see IDLES in there. It felt like another band. A band I didn’t know. I couldn’t see myself watching this live, I couldn’t imagine listening to it over and over.

And yet, even then, there were things I liked. Really liked. MTT 420 RR, a spooky, pulsing number with Joe’s voice drawling over it, feels like it’s pulling you into an alternate universe. The rousing lyrics of Crawl. The fantastically eerie Progress, with a complex, rambling bass and apparently random electronic chimes wandering across the soundstage. The brief, John Peel-esque shoutiness of Wizz. The triumphant, dumbfounded, beautiful conclusion of The End.

Actually, come to think of it, maybe I did like it after all?

Crawling to Crawler

I listened to it again, while laying carpet. And on the second time around, it all suddenly fell into place. The reason why it felt like another band is because it is another band. This isn’t just IDLES shouting about the injustice of it all, or being the self-conscious caricature of themselves we saw in Ultra Mono. (Although we still get that version of them in tracks like The New Sensation, probably my least favourite song, largely because I just don’t believe Rishi Sunak’s inhumanity deserves a whole 4 minutes of anyone’s time.)

No, here, in Crawler, the theme of the album in some way replicates the journey of the band, not just Joe’s personal journey – being at the bottom, being ashamed of it and wanting to do more, and finally realising that they’ve come out of it, and that the terrible journey to redemption was, in fact, also beautiful.

I still don’t like all of it, but I don’t have to. Neither does anyone else. If there’s any band working today that means a million different things to different people, where a group of fans will all have different favourites on different days of the week, and depending whether they’ve just seen a snowflake fall or a Rottweiler or a headline about immigrants, or a daisy, it’s IDLES. To have injected warmth and magic into so many mundane references for so many ordinary people is admirable in itself.

But this, Crawler, this album that sounds like it’s another band – this is IDLES in full, majestic flight. The butterfly from the chrysalis, the flower from the seed. This is a band that’s gone through the searching to find itself, the re-inventions it needed to get where it needed to be. From here, they can do anything, go anywhere. Because they know who they are – and they know they deserve this now. It’s brave, it’s complex, it’s got layers of meaning and reference, both musical and spiritual. It’s just wonderful.

And it occurred to me in the middle of the night, with such clarity that the thought woke me up:

That moment at Glastonbury where Joe starts crying on stage, at the end of Danny Nedelko, when he realises how far they’ve come, and what a beautiful, powerful thing they’ve achieved?

That’s the moment Crawler was conceived.

A year in whatnow?

Back in the days when I used to meet new people – or indeed people of any kind other than supermarket checkout operators – once we’d gone beyond the initial phase of the conversation they’d often ask me why I live in Sweden. For some reason, the other end of my peripatetic existence, in rural France, never seems to attract so much comment!

What’s perhaps more peculiar is that I don’t actually have a simple answer. I mean, now I can say that I’m happy with the Swedes’ approach to the pandemic, and shortly before that I could, and frequently did, bang on and on about how grateful I am to have been plucked from the slobbering jaws of Brexit by Migrationsverket.

But it’s hard to say exactly what it is about Sweden that makes it feel like home. The people tend to be a bit stand-offish, the grey bit of winter goes on far too long even in the far south, the food is execrable, they’re more than a touch racist and their habit of mixing light – and even heavy – industry with residential and historical construction has resulted in some horrifying juxtapositions (my ‘favourite’ example of this is the probably 11th century castle in the pretty Baltic Sea town of Åhus. Google “Åhus castle” then use StreetView on the red marker for the full effect – it really is worth those few minutes’ effort).

And yet… it is home. Partly because that’s where most of my friends are, despite the stand-offishness, and I suppose partly because when Swedes do technology it generally works, unlike the French version. In Sweden you really do feel like you’re in the 21st century. At least, you do in the new bits of the towns. Out in the sticks, not so much.

Anyway, this is all a very long-winded way of saying that I recently re-read a book I edited a few years back which tells the story of two Brits moving to rural Sweden. And it reminded me what it is I enjoy about being in Sweden.

Red Swedish farmhouse in the background, mossy wall with rusted horseshoe in the foreground.
Sweden is a lot scruffier than you’d expect!

A Year in Kronoberg” is, of course, modelled along the same lines as Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence”. Each chapter relates the events of a particular month, from the snows of January to… well, the snows of December. But in between are descriptions of what it’s really like to live in Sweden. Not in the cosmopolitan cities of Gothenburg and Stockholm, but a small village in the rural south.

How do the Swedes cope with snow? Are they really all blond-haired and blue-eyed and obsessed with fika? Are there moose everywhere, and do they actually get drunk from eating apples? And is it true that you can’t buy alcohol in Sweden? As the seasons change and the two Brits become increasingly Swenglish, we get answers to all of these questions, together with many others.

We meet a variety of the colourful characters who really do seem to be everywhere in rural Sweden, from beautiful Carina who works in the village shop to Olof the plumber and his terrible jokes, encounter huge Vikings and their even more enormous tractors, learn how to pronounce “Växjö”, discover the Swedish obsessions with sheds, ice-cream and hotdogs, and find out why you should never get excited about a Swedish history trail – or go swimming outdoors after mid-August.

In other words, if you want to know the truth about living in Sweden, you should read this charming, light-hearted and humorously informative book.

You can buy it here.


As I’ve mentioned before, I’m rather partial to the music (and other audible outputs) of the band 65 Days of Static. Last week during a listening party for one of their albums, a few of us came up with what I thought was a rather creepy prompt for a story. I started it, but it got away from me and went in a direction I hadn’t intended (a bit ironic, given what it’s about). But tonight there’s another listening party, and I was determined to wrangle it back into place.

Here it is.

When the sinkholes first started appearing, I didn’t take much notice. I mean, a remote peninsula somewhere in Russia? I don’t even know exactly where. But anyway, it wasn’t of interest to me. I’ve been to Moscow, of course, but the Russians are tricky blighters. Hard to trade with. The food’s terrible, and if you don’t drink vodka, which I don’t – give me a decent gin any day over that paint stripper – well, there’s not much point being there at all. You can do all the useful stuff online. You hardly need to subject yourself to actually being there.

Right yeah, so I just didn’t pay that much attention, you know? The sinkholes were thousands of kilometres from anything. If a few reindeer herders fell in them, so what? And actually, even when they began moving west and getting more… what’s that phrase they keep using? Coordinated? Organised? it didn’t really register. I was in the middle of a big deal with a very sensitive client in Saudi Arabia, if you know what I mean. I simply didn’t have the time to keep track of what was happening in Siberia, for God’s sake.

Sinkhole in Siberia

I know all of it now, of course. I’ve had plenty of time to check back on how it started. How the sinkholes were random to begin with. They’d been appearing for years. Maybe something to do with global warming, that was the theory. But something happened. Or… no, I can’t think about that, it’s too utterly ridiculous. And they seemed to start moving deliberately westwards. Yekaterinburg. Other places. I remember that one name because I once dated a woman called Katerina.

Anyway, it wasn’t until that news report came out that the whole thing really got through – you know the one, the Moscow one. You’ve seen it a hundred times. We’ve all seen it a hundred times. You can probably reel off the commentary just like I can. That Russian scientist – a woman, and not half bad if you’re into that whole Slavic vibe – sitting in a TV studio and just flatly saying it outright.

“No one knows what is happening. There is a lot of danger out there. Thousands of refugees are fleeing before the sinkholes. The city and its infrastructure are descending into the Earth. Nobody knows why. Buildings just started sinking and we can’t do anything about it.”

But even then it didn’t seem all that serious. I mean, Moscow? It’s a long way from London. Ask Napoleon. Ask Hitler. And even what that woman said, and others. It was too ludicrous. Like a 90s low budget horror movie. You know, you expected there to be monsters. “A smooth black shape is emerging from the ground…” and, I don’t know, huge tentacles or something.

All the same, I realised I was starting to mentally cross that area of the globe off, as if there was a famine going on. Not the kind of place you want to visit.

And then… Well, again, you’ve seen those graphics. Plotting the path of the sinkholes. Random at first, scattered all over the middle of nowhere, then about two months ago they began to make patterns. Pairings. They started to look like… No point being coy. You already know it anyway. They started looking like footprints. Like giant fucking footprints. Like the footsteps of a huge fucking invisible giant.

So. Mass panic, mass hysteria, mass evacuation… mass everything, pretty much, but no answers. None that made sense. Thousands of theories, billions of gigawatt hours of electricity going into trying to come up with something. There was an invisible giant striding across the surface of the planet, starting out somewhere in the back end of Nowheregrad, and nobody had the faintest fucking clue why, or how, or whether we’d all just died and this was some particularly bizarre form of hell.

Those creepy round footprint sinkholes, hundreds of metres across, but always two of them, making a series of punctuation marks along a linear path…and getting bigger, the footprints, yeah, but the stride too. Like the giant was growing, sucking up energy from what it destroyed. Exactly like that, apparently. Fuck knows how they were measuring it, I’ve never understood all that science stuff. Ballistics, yeah, but not electromagnetic waves or whatever.

I mean, I don’t know why I’m telling you this. You know. You were there. Glued to your screen just like the rest of us. Mentally eating popcorn if you were in Los Angeles or somewhere, a bit worried if you lived in the Middle East, but absolutely fucking terrified if your screen happened to be located in Europe. Maybe trying to go on with your everyday life, but with one eye constantly on that map. Fleeing for your life if you were in Belarus or Poland. And then one day, at least if you lived west of Dresden, you breathed a sigh of relief. Because the footsteps, those huge giant footsteps, those sinkholes that were now several hundred metres deep… they turned around. And headed back the other way, south east, and suddenly everyone in the Middle East was a whole lot less smug and the Bosphorus looked like someone had poured petrol on an ant’s nest. I don’t remember how many people died in Istanbul, but it was a lot.

And, see, the weird thing – well, yeah, I know, that’s a whole load of weird fucking things right there, but the weird thing from my perspective, and it’s me doing the telling… Well. I watched that shift in direction with a bit more self-interest than most of you. Unless you had family in Istanbul, obviously, but anyway. Because I’d been in London, watching the footsteps get closer. Going home every evening and chain smoking on the balcony and trying to ignore the columns of flame and smoke rising up into the sky south of the river. What with the conspiracy theorists and the crystal botherers and the religious nutters there was a lot of unhappy people, all with their own theories about what we needed to do to placate the… whatever it was. The media tried to give it names, but for some reason none of them stuck. Everyone just called it It.

Where was I? Oh yeah. Well. I’d been in London. And then I had to fly to Jerusalem. Even with some fucking invisible thing terrorising Europe, business still had to be done. More so than ever, for some clients. And Israel… well, they like to be prepared. Liked. I had a bit of a soft spot for the Israelis, been there many times and had a lot of fun in between some pretty hefty business meetings. But nobody’s going to be doing that again. Not ever.

I don’t think it would have done them much good, even if we’d had time to deliver what they ordered. The Russians had tried everything short of a thermonuclear device (and if you believe the rumours about what happened in Udmurtia they didn’t stop there either). Didn’t work. The electromagnetism chaps said it just ate the energy, whether kinetic or nuclear or whatever. Just helped it get bigger, stronger. Faster.

What was I saying? Jesus. How long has it been? Well, I got to Israel, did my deal and got out of Jerusalem airport just as it was obliterating Nicosia. Had to call in a lot of favours even to get on a plane, but I did it.

And then… the fucking thing did its business in Israel – really went to town, like it was an angry toddler in a sandpit, stomping all over the place and smashing it all up. It looks like the surface of the Moon now. All just craters. Sinkholes. Footprints.

So I’m back in London, feeling a bit like I’ve had a close call, even though, you know, that’s ridiculous. And I get a call from another client, and he’s in Guernsey for something, I forget what, and he wants me there yesterday. So I nip over to City Airport and as we’re waiting to board the map changes, the map that’s been running constantly on every screen for months now, inset into the top corner. And it’s changed direction again. West again, now. And…I mean… I can’t help it. I start to think “It can’t be. There is no way in a million fucking years that it’s after me. I mean, I know I’m a pretty impressive guy but what the actual fuck?”

But I tell myself not to be ridiculous, and the plane boards and I go to Guernsey, and it turns out he’s not actually there yet, but he’s flying in from Dubai in a day or so, his mother’s sick or something so he’s been delayed. So I check into my normal hotel that evening and sit there, trying to keep my mind off the map by chatting up women in the hotel bar and one of them says “Yes” and before I know it three days have passed and the fucking thing’s in Stuttgart.

And I think “Fuck this”, and I’m just about to get back on a plane and head for… I don’t know, Washington or something, when the client rings and he’s in the UK, but he’s on the Isle of Man. I guess one tax haven’s as good as another. So I’m straight on the next plane, you can fly direct, only when I land at that ridiculously small patch of tarmac they pretend is an airport, I’m not really paying attention because I’m trying to get my phone to connect so I can check the map. And I go arse over tip down the steps.

And I woke up an hour ago, and I’m in a hospital bed, I’ve got both legs in plaster up in those suspension things and I can’t reach to get out because my back’s in a brace, and there’s nobody about. I shouted for a bit, but nobody came. And then the noises from outside, from the corridor and from outside the building… Well, I stopped shouting. I don’t really want anyone to come here and find me, strapped into this fucking bed and only able to move enough to thumb type frantically into my phone.

I don’t even know why I’m bothering, only I need to do something to stop me looking at the map. Because of course they’ve left the telly on.

It wiped out Liverpool about an hour ago.

Discrimination passport, anyone?

First, a bit of background

In April, Emmanuel Macron said that vaccine passports wouldn’t be used to discriminate against people.

Last Monday, he announced that as of today, 21 July, anyone in France over the age of 12 would have to present a vaccine passport to enter a cinema, theatre, museum, theme park or cultural centre. You’ll also need one from the start of August to enter a restaurant, sit on a café terrace, get on a train, plane or coach, or go into a shopping centre.

And from the autumn onwards, you’ll have to pay for PCR tests in France unless they’ve been prescribed by a doctor.

Any staff working in a medical or care context, including support staff and volunteers, must be vaccinated by mid-September, or be summarily dismissed.

OK, so what do vaccine passports actually achieve?

Let’s skip over the huge “fuck you” this sends to anyone who hasn’t yet been able to get vaccinated (I won’t qualify for a vaccine passport until mid-August, for instance; a friend who’s chosen to wait for the Moderna vaccine hasn’t been able to get even one jab done yet, and they’ve only been vaccinating young people since 15 June, so only a tiny number of them can possibly have had both jabs by the start of August), the people who are allergic to the vaccines, the people who have health conditions that preclude them from being vaccinated, anyone who doesn’t have ID, or any other reason that’s thus far prevented 50+% of the French population from getting such a pass sanitaire, such as being in the first trimester of a pregnancy.

Let’s ignore the fact that, if you ordered a package before 12 July and it’s being delivered to a pickup point in a café, as they often are in France, tough shit, you can’t collect it.

Let’s even ignore the fact that, as of the autumn, if you’re poor and unvaccinated you won’t be able to afford the entrance fee (PCR test) to get into the shopping centre that potentially contains your nearest supermarket. I guess if you starve that’s OK, because the cause of death won’t be COVID?

No, instead let’s look at the effect of vaccine passports.

As we all know, being vaccinated doesn’t mean you don’t catch the virus, it just means you’re much less likely to end up in hospital. And obviously if you catch the virus, you can still pass it on to someone else. That’s why, even when you’re vaccinated, you still have to wear a mask and maintain social distancing.

Now imagine a French café terrace at the moment.

  • You wear a mask, you’re socially distanced.
  • If you’ve got the virus and you infect someone else with it, it’ll be either someone who’s been vaccinated, or someone who hasn’t.
  • The former will have reduced effects from the virus.

Well that seems clear, but obviously you’re still potentially infecting other people, so presumably the vaccine passport will help with that?

Right. Let’s imagine a French café terrace as of mid-August.

  • You show your passport or PCR test result at the door and you’re allowed in.
  • You wear a mask, you’re socially distanced.
  • If you’ve got the virus and you infect someone else with it, it’ll be either someone who’s been vaccinated, or someone who hasn’t.
  • The former will have reduced effects from the virus.

In other words, the only thing that will change is that you have to show a vaccine passport – which many people are still unable to get, even if they want to – to enter that café space. Needless to say, the restaurateurs who’ll have to check compliance are a tad unhappy.

TousAntiCovid logo, altered to say "Tous Anti Democracie", with the tagline "Avec TousAntiCovid, participez à la lutte contre les personnes différents de nous"

OK, but what do vaccine passports actually achieve?

So why are the French government bringing this in? Well, pretty obviously to force people to get vaccinated, in the short term. Although it’s STILL almost impossible to get a vaccination at the weekend, because, you know, it’s not that serious.

But there’s a broader question – why is anyone instituting such a thing? The EU states that the passports won’t be used to prevent people from travelling within the EU. But presumably at some point, just like France, every individual country will bring in more or less draconian policies to prevent the unvaccinated – or simply those who don’t have a smartphone – from doing things such as exercising their right to freedom of movement.

Because as a measure to prevent spread of the virus, it simply doesn’t make sense. Or at least it doesn’t given how it’s currently being used.

For example, despite the poor nurses and cleaners in old people’s homes being sacked in September if they aren’t vaccinated, the police – who, surely, come into close contact with just as many vulnerable people, not all of whom are guilty – don’t have to be. Nor do prison guards.

And you know how I mentioned above that you have to have a vaccine passport to travel by train? Well obviously if you get on the train in Paris, you’ll have to go through some form of barrier to enter the station, or at least to get on the platform (although you’ll be able to travel on the Paris Metro without a vaccine passport, because… er…). But out here in the sticks? You can get on a local train and not even have your ticket checked, more often than not. And what if you do get on a train heading for Paris without a vaccine passport? You’re travelling from, say, Caen to Paris, but you get on at the small station of Bayeux, the stop before Caen. The guard doesn’t have time to check your ticket, passport or anything else before you arrive at Caen. And the next stop is… Gare d’Austerlitz. When the guard finds that you don’t have your vaccine passport, what are they supposed to do? Stop the train and throw you off into Normandy countryside? Lock you into a separate compartment to prevent you infecting everyone? And what about the people you’ve breathed on before they detected your crime?

So, once again, what do vaccine passports actually achieve?

Well, call me cynical, but I’m thinking along the lines of Sam Grant, Liberty’s Head of Policy and Campaigns, who said in January:

As there is no clear evidence vaccines prevent the spread of the virus, this move feels like an opportunistic detour rather than a serious route out of the pandemic

If you think this is an over-reaction, think back to the security checks at airports. A temporary measure in response to a specific crisis. Solely intended to keep us all…safe.

It’s not over yet…

Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t matter what Boris Johnson says. But nor does it matter what President Biden says. It doesn’t even matter what the WHO or the UN or any other authority, however credible or incredible, says.

The pandemic isn’t over.

COVID-19 hasn’t gone.

But I’m not saying that as an advocate of continuing mask-wearing and curfews and social distancing and keeping nightclubs and concert venues shut.

I’m saying that, in fact, as someone who thinks that – with some obvious exceptions – none of these restrictions should be in place.

Yes, you read that right. No masks, no curfews, no social distancing, no mandatory closures of any type of venue.

Why not? Have I gone mad? Well, no. Because if you remember, right back at the start of all this, I suggested we needed to take a different approach (interestingly, pretty much the one that my adoptive country of Sweden has taken, with results no worse – and in many cases better – than countries employing much more draconian measures).

I suggested then that a) the coronavirus was here to stay and that therefore b) we needed to just get on and live with it and c) in any case, if we were really interested in staying “safe” (as if such a thing exists), we’d be trying to sort out systemic inequality and, you know, tiny things like the planet literally burning before our eyes.

And that’s what I still believe. That’s what I’ll always believe. I mean could we eradicate the virus? I don’t know. Will we? With so-called developed countries still squabbling about vaccinating third world countries, and in some cases yet more people becoming billionaires at the expense of the poorest, I’d have to doubt that.

I believe that we need to take sensible measures – but things that we ought to have been doing all along in a civilised society. If you feel sick, don’t go to work. If your kid is sick, don’t send them to school. But that requires a vast shift in the entire way our society is structured. If I feel like by going to work I might infect my colleagues or customers, I need to know my employer has my back. I need to know I’m not going to be sacked or starve or lose my home by taking that time off. I need to be able to work from home whenever I choose, and there need to be local shared office spaces I can use if I don’t have space in my actual home. We need to put an end to the consumer culture, and ultimately to capitalism as a system, because it’s counterproductive for the planet and for humanity. It’s killing us in far greater numbers than the coronavirus ever will.

In other words, none of this is about to happen soon. In which case, why are we still pretending that by sticking to a set of rituals which in many cases are no better than superstition, we can keep everyone alive?

Of course the problem with this approach is that, the mass media has gleefully reported the scariest figures regardless of whether they were deaths or cases (hint – if a billion people catch COVID but nobody dies, it’s not that scary). And it’s also hammered the “do this to be safe from the deadly virus” message so much that anyone who believed it is now panicking about suggestions we should not do this. Well! Who’d have thunk irresponsible journalism could backfire?

Personally I’m with Lemmy on the concept of safety (from about 2.10)

I don’t know what’s the matter with everybody. You think you can be safe? You can’t be safe. Because a car might run you down any second. Think of that. Never come out of the house again. I don’t need you on my street, you afraid motherfucker.


Footnote: I wrote this yesterday. Today my Twitter feed is full of people ranting about the relaxation of restrictions in the UK, including this post from the BBC’s health correspondent, with which I agree wholeheartedly. Interestingly they’re using the same annual flu figures that I did in one of my blog posts last year to underline the fact that you’re never safe from this type of disease, you can’t get rid of it, and there’s nothing to be gained but enormous mental health problems from locking down in response to it.

A view that has support from:

  • Prof Robert Dingwall, sociologist at Nottingham Trent University
  • Prof Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia
  • Dr Muge Devik, infectious diseases specialist at the University of St Andrews
  • and even Prof Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, whose work the initial UK lockdowns were based on

ITI Conference 2021 – a tale of wonder

Like so many other conferences, this year’s Institute of Translation and Interpreting event was held online. Of course Zoom events are difficult in many ways, but this one worked very well for me because, having just undergone the most stressful house move of my life, there’s no way I’d have had the time or energy to travel to an in-person event.

As it was, I’d just finished a rather large project and, although I had other work to deliver, I could fit this in around the conference schedule. So I managed to attend quite a lot of the sessions (though it quickly became apparent how often my working day is interrupted by delivery men either with parcels for signature or lost somewhere in rural France and apparently unable to read their own GPS).

This was my first ITI event since becoming a member several years ago, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But the programme was interesting, and the ticket price seemed very reasonable compared to the cost of attending a physical event. The entire thing took place on a dedicated platform which made navigating between sessions very easy.

Overall, my favourite sessions were the translation slams – I missed the German-English one, thinking that as I didn’t understand German it wouldn’t be relevant, but a comment by a colleague led to me attending the Spanish-English one and finding that indeed there’s a lot to be learned even when you don’t have more than a rudimentary grasp of the source text. For this reason I found it very helpful that Tim Gutteridge, moderator of the Spanish session, used DeepL as an introduction to each new section, though I can understand why Chris Durban had chosen not to do something similar in the French one.

I also got a lot of food for thought from Edward Lamont and Emma Paulay’s session on “Getting Things Done”, which explained the GTD methodology and its benefits. I haven’t yet managed to implement a system that works for me, but I’m spending quite a lot of time thinking about it, even though I realise this probably isn’t the best approach!

Gary King’s “The Freelancer’s Dilemma” was also interesting – if only for the shocked comments in the chat when he suggested that what we all need is to be earning an additional few thousand euros a month by automating more of our business processes and focusing instead on our core skills. I’m by no means a top earning translator, and “a few thousand” more a month seems like a big claim to me too, but judging by some of the reactions in that chat there were a number of attendees who really need to take a serious look at how profitable their business is!

In terms of my own specialisations, I enjoyed Ngaire Blankenberg’s thought-provoking session, “The Cost of Silence”, on her work to help museums reassess their inherent biases. This is an area I’d like to explore more, as I’ve previously had to fire museum clients (notably one major French ethnographic institution) for refusing to alter their patronising and outdated attitudes.

Handwritten notes briefly describing the first two sessions I attended - largely decorative image.
Note taking – and parcel reception duties

Now, I think it’s clear from the sessions I’ve mentioned so far exactly why I don’t tend to go to translation conferences. I’m not claiming to be an exceptional translator, but I know enough about the process and the basics of the business side of it to more than get by. Sessions that are tangentially related to my business are much more interesting to me than translation theory, the future of MT or sessions for people in the early stages of their career. So although I dipped into the sessions about pricing, freelance business and impostor syndrome, I didn’t feel they were particularly giving me things I didn’t already know.

Meanwhile, productivity, profitability and getting inside another translator’s head and understanding the choices they make during the process of actually translating are of much greater interest. As was Colin McKeand’s “Is your online NETworking NOTworking?”, where he emphasised that the important thing isn’t who or what you know but who knows you (as you can see from my notes on this one, I missed the main point of Colin’s presentation due to yet another errant parcel, but fortunately the session recordings were available to watch later!)

And speaking of networking, although my favourite sessions were the translation slams, my favourite thing about the conference as a whole was actually the networking platform, Wonder, where you could choose a group to join based on a set of topics that changed at each break. This worked extremely well and for me was so much less stressful than real-life networking where you’re trying to make sure you’ve got a drink, been to the loo, checked your email and chatted to a few new people in such a way that they remember you, all in the space of 15 or 20 minutes between sessions.

Another hugely enjoyable part of the event was how smoothly it all ran – testament, I’m sure, to an enormous amount of work behind the scenes. Everything felt extremely well organised and professional, the conference team seemed to be cheerful and relaxed and as far as I could see the technology worked without a hitch. And we all know how rare that is.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed ITI’s 2021 conference, and got to the end of the event feeling energised and inspired in a couple of important areas. However, I did also come to a more complete realisation of exactly how tiring I find this kind of thing. Maintaining concentration on unfamiliar subjects and chatting to colleagues – no matter how pleasant, and regardless of being online – are things I find extremely wearing, and having largely been imprisoned in my own house for the last 14 months certainly hasn’t helped.

So despite having gained a lot from the conference, I shan’t be attending next year’s edition in Brighton… Unless it’s run as a joint virtual/physical version, of course – in which case you’ll find me on Wonder!