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.