HDIS

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.

Lemmy

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!

An unexpected attack of writing

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.

C’est la guerre…. Or possibly not

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Pharmacies still aren’t being permitted to give vaccinations.
  3. However, as from 25 February, GPs will be able to give COVID (Astra-Zeneca) vaccinations to some patients. This will work as follows.
  4. The GP can order one bottle of vaccine (ten doses) from their medical supplier.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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!”?

The only thing about this post that makes me happy is IDLES

What helped me survive 2020

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.

Music

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.

Tweet describing how, if the pandemic ever ends, I'm going to devote my life to live music.
My post-pandemic lifestyle in one Tweet

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).
    • The In Memory of John Peel Show, with Zaph Mann, who’s brought me some belting tracks from his soup caves.
    • 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.

Standout bands:

  • 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.
65daysofstatic – KMF
  • 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.
IDLES – Model Village. Brexiteers in a nutshell

Games

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

b) No Man’s Sky is still getting amazing new updates – I even joined in a multiplayer event this year, which was moderately scary but would totally have been worth it if I’d ended up in the same instance as all my NMS mates, one of whom posted such great dialogue from

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).

Translation colleagues

  • 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.

Fitness

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!

A perfect example of how seriously Keris and Matt (don’t) take themselves.

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).

Twenty Four Twelve Twenty

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 steel I am a feather falling endlessly, without ever hitting the 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.

Work in progress – I made the language a bit younger after I’d finished the story.

Henry: a love story

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.

Henry (and Geoff), on a rather bleak looking winter’s day in the Lickey Hills.

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.

As yet unnamed new (very much second-hand) car. I’m told this one actually got home without something going wrong!

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.

Why I don’t clap for the NHS

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.

Concept art for “The Time Machine” (1960). (Couldn’t find a credit for this, but I’d love to know the artist’s name – JD)

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