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Long Distance

I miss the boy I love – of course

He isn’t quite exactly mine

But fingers slot as though he were

From time to time, from time to time

And every day I do my job

(He has a world outside of me)

I make my bacon on the hob

(And so do I – alcohol, tea,

And books and friends and slow-cooked stews

And woodland walks, and rolling news)

But time goes slowly when you wait

The key in lock. The garden gate.

I wait, because he’s out there still

Setting bacon on his grill.

when will my concept of “linear time” come back from the war?

Time’s gone weird, hasn’t it? Hasn’t time gone weird? I’m really struggling with it at the moment. I don’t know what day it is. I’m not sure whether it’s day. It’s still March 2020. It’s 2022 in 4 months. It’s been Wednesday for years. I’ll be dead soon. There are no weekends, and no weeks. I’m always at work. I’m always at home. Nothing has any edges. Time is not so much a flat circle as an amorphous blob, a vague nebula I hover suspended within where things that happened last year feel like yesterday and things that happened yesterday feel like last year.

So please, I beg of you: when will my concept of “linear time” come back from the war?

I think I thought that after lockdown was lifted, and things went back to some degree of “normal” – whatever that is – time would snap back into place and the days would resume their usual progression, Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday and so on. It’s not that I’m particularly attached to that order; it’s more that I feel like I blinked and lost a year, and then I blinked and lost another 9 months. And now I’m filled with existential dread that I will blink again and I’ll be 50 and then I’ll be 80 and still I’ll just be sat here, in my house, drifting from the bed to the desk to the sofa to the bed, and then I’ll be dead. I’m not scared of death, you understand. I just didn’t expect it to run up behind me in this aggressive manner.

When I was at university I used to work part-time at the local hospital as an audio typist, writing up notes from the consultants and the nurses on their patients. After I had written up the notes I would add them to their cardboard files, and then I would put all the cardboard files on a trolley and push them to another part of the hospital. It was a good job for me because I like typing, and I’m very fast at it, and also when you’re plugged into an audio cassette there’s no pressure to make conversation with other people in the office or pretend that you’re a nice person. The department I worked in was Psychiatry for Older People, so there was some pretty unsettling stuff in the notes, which I also liked.

When you’re admitted to hospital for psychiatric reasons as an older person you have to fill in a Mini Mental State Examination – MMSE – to assess your competency. One of the questions in it is what the date is. I was always astonished at this as a measure of mental competency. I remember thinking at the time, that I – as a feckless student – didn’t always know what the date was, and that once I was elderly and retired I would absolutely have no reason to know – indeed would actively seek not to know. And on that basis, I could be judged mentally incompetent or unsound.

(I should add of course that the MMSE is not a “one strike and you’re out” deal. The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that.)

Our concept of time passing is driven by external stimuli: our diurnal rhythms chart the rise and fall of light levels, we go for our lunch break at roughly the same time every day, we leave the office at the same time every evening, we know that on Thursdays we have football practice or choir practice or book club, and on Fridays we usually go to the pub. We put something in our calendar for two weeks’ time, and we look forward to it, and after two weeks it happens, and then we put another thing in our calendar for two weeks’ time. But what happens when we decrease external stimuli, or get rid of them all together? What happens is this: time goes weird. 

In 1962, French geologist Michel Siffre carried out a series of experiments where he sent people into dark caves for months without clocks, calendars or contact. Without the stimulus of natural light, subjects fell out of sync with our usual 24 hour day/night cycle. Some fell into a 48 hour rhythm, staying awake for 36 hours and then asleep for 12 (researchers have since discovered this is the pattern most people fall into without external input). At the end of the experiment, many subjects expressed surprise, thinking they had weeks or months left. When Siffre himself left the cave, he believed it to be August 20th – it was in fact September 14th, 25 days later. Conducting tests with his team on the surface, they discovered it took him five minutes to count to what he believed was 120 seconds.

And earlier this year, while many of us were still in lockdown indoors, 15 people were isolated in the Lombrives caves in France for 40 days and 40 nights, with no updates from the outside world and no daylight. Again, they lost their sense of time, with participants estimating their time underground at between 23 – 30 days. 

While we thankfully haven’t been cut off from daylight, the external stimuli we are exposed to has nonetheless decreased. Things we might classify as ‘events’ are fewer and further apart, and without as much drive to stick to a strict structure or routine in our days and weeks, we are missing many of the waymarkers that usually chart our paths through life.

In his paper ‘The Inner Experience of Time’, researcher and author Marc Wittmann (author of Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time [MIT Press]) notes that, “Although we doubtless have a time sense, our bodies are not equipped with a sensory organ for the passage of time in the same way that we have eyes and ears—and the respective sensory cortices—for detecting light and sound. Time, ultimately, is not a material object of the world for which we could have a unique receptor system. Nevertheless, we speak of the perception of time. When we talk about time (‘an event lasted long’, ‘time flew by’), we use linguistic structures that refer to motion events and to locations and measures in space; a further indication that time itself is not a property in the empirical world.”

Our tendency to describe time in terms of space, place, and motion, makes intuitive as well as scientific sense: time is a property of space, and the two are bound together in physics to form the four-dimensional model we refer to as ‘spacetime’. Less scientific, but I think still intuitively true: the fact that our movement in and through space has been severely restricted over the past 18 months has had an impact on our perception of our movement in and through time. We physically haven’t travelled through space very much, so we feel like we haven’t travelled through time very much either, and then are surprised when we look up to find it’s next month. 

I don’t know how to fix this, how to hold onto the time that’s running between my fingers. There are events in my calendar again, but I can no longer meaningfully differentiate between the ones that are next week and the ones that are in August 2022. Should I fictionalise a strict routine to stick to, to give myself new rhythms? Should I restart my silly little daily walk, to try to trick my brain into thinking I’m moving? What do we use now as waymarkers, in a world that’s lost its way? 

I started writing this ten minutes ago and now it’s two hours later. 

Track and Trace

I went on one of my silly little walks yesterday, and I bring back breaking news from the limits of lockdown: here is Spring. Here is Spring, and there are snowdrops peeking out from inside their little hoods, and carpets of yellow and violet crocuses, and the occasional frankly indecent splash of daffodillian sunshine.

These signs of life – always welcome at this time of year – are even more welcome in a time when it’s hard to find any other semblance of life around you. Walking on the street is the closest we get to other people now, but even that feels hurried, illicit, forbidden. I hide behind my mask, keeping a safe distance as long as the pavement allows. When the pavement doesn’t allow, I avoid looking at passers-by altogether, as though eye-contact increased the changes of contagion. Any snatches of overheard conversation feel like contraband, and I smuggle them into my pockets like pebbles, hoping that no one notices I’ve broken the rules.

Because the people I pass feel like inaccessible ghosts, I find myself instead seeking connection by looking for evidence of other humans having interacted with their environment. Like a tracker in the forest I trace their prints and spores, reading lives and stories into any sign I can find. I pause to hungrily read every plaque or notice I see, as though they were cultural exhibits: a litany of lost cats, unending rainbows for NHS workers, planning permission for a community mural. I even stop to read the menus outside pubs, imagining what I’d pick, imagining the inside warm and filled with people. Placards on benches. Peeling protest posters. Snippets of graffiti: Gaz woz ere. Who is Gaz? What was he doing? Where is he now? I don’t know, but the tangible fact remains: there was a Gaz, and he was here.

On my silly little walk yesterday I went to visit a windmill. It’s a local windmill, and it seemed absurd that I hadn’t been to see it, so I did. I couldn’t go inside, so I walked around it, admiring the large millstone by its door, being pleased that the street names around it echoed its farmland history: Fallowfield, Downland, Meadway. I noticed that there was a road running directly south from the windmill to the coast, and that there was a direct line of sight running from it out to the coastal wind farm. All day long the windmill and the wind farm face each other, of a kind but out of reach. Does he long for his seafaring brethren, I wondered? Is he lonely, cut off from the flock, holding tight to the land while they frolic together out in the waves?

I discovered I wasn’t the only one guilty of anthromorphising a windmill: on its door, a noticeboard, with a birthday card pinned up. It was 200 years old last year. Who heeded the windmill’s birthday and sent a card? Someone like me, I imagine, who thought it might be lonely. Someone lonely.

I tell myself I ought to seek connection and escapism through reading: after all, there’s a thousand worlds out there, and I have a simple way to access them literally at my fingertips. But the only books that I can manage to read at the moment are those about other lonely people: the disconnected, the disaffected. I read Hermann Hesse. I reread Jean Rhys. I plough through memoirs of people struggling on the outskirts of society, addicts and depressives and obsessives. I listen only to the saddest songs, and ask myself that unanswerable question: what came first, the sadness or the songs?

Poetry, though: poetry helps. I find myself seeking out the sort of poetry that offers tangible goodnesses, rooting me into the physical world and helping me celebrate the small things each day: the sudden brightness of an orange, a bird alighting momentarily on a chimney stack, the skin-opening shock of a cold shower. Like this, by Danusha Lameris:

This one also reminds me that it’s ok to mourn what we have lost over this past year: all those minutiae, all those little transitions and transactions that make up a life lived. They may be each be a tiny thread, but they are the stuff that make up the tapestry.

It also reminds me that there are things to celebrate here and now. I can hand myself my own cup of coffee, and take joy on each warm dark sip. I can go for my silly little walks, and trace the signs of other people through the landscape, and know that the days are getting lighter and the end is in sight. I can admire the warm indigo of the dog violets, and their heart-shaped leaves, and marvel at the fresh green shoots as they push their way out of the ground: so fragile, so persistent.

It’s Spring. I like your hat.

On Shutting the Fuck Up

Stuck inside in lockdown

And you can’t escape the noise

There’s a man getting his cock blown

There’s a woman using toys

There’s an angle grinder out the back

A strimmer out the front

Who puts the ‘I’ in DIY?

It turns out, every cunt

Next door have daily gatherings

Of blokey football men

I listen to their blatherings

Til three, then four, a.m.

From downstairs constant music

Comes pulsing through my bed

I put some tissue in my ears

A pillow on my head

Outside the city rages on

An ever-thrumming hive

As each declare with all their lungs

Thank god! I’m still alive

On the Other Side

Nobody does DIY unless they think there’s a future

And the man next door to me is doing DIY

Drilling and stripping. Soldering on.

After all this is over, he thinks:

We shall have a nice kitchen.

And perhaps friends will come round – perhaps family

To admire the handiwork previously only glimpsed through screens

Coo over the new tiles: a carefully-chosen verdigris

Pleased by how they set off the persimmons, plump in the bowl

Perhaps there will be herbs on the windowsill

Warmed by the sun and then scattered on tomatoes

Something Ottolenghi.

Olive oil. Perhaps a bottle of red wine.

Perhaps there will be air full of chatter

Children and dogs under foot, a casual chaos

People who haven’t seen each other in too long trading secrets

Perhaps recommendations swapped: this book, that film

Perhaps an empty chair which should have been full

Moments of silence where jokes would normally have been

An oft-told anecdote; missing.

More wine. A toast.

Baklava from the shop next door, sticky fingers

After all this is over.

The Tenacity of Hope

After an impressive run of absolute awfulness, this year appears to be pulling out some actual good news out of the bag right at the last minute. But it’s very hard not to anthropomorphise 2020, which seems to delight in confounding expectations, piling misery upon misery, and all in all just being an outright absolute prick. Like many among us, I’m finding it difficult to trust good news; not least because there are still far too many confounding variables to count. I worry about things going wrong. I worry about what comes next. I worry about the knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns. 

Those that are unlucky enough to know me will know that I tend towards cynicism as a starting-point. Sarcasm is my default mode. Terms that have been used to describe me include ‘spiky’, ‘arch’, ‘intimidating’, and ‘waspish little bitch’ (thanks, M*lo Y*annopoulos! I bear that last with pride). 2020 – and, let’s face it, the last four years – has offered me plenty of opportunity to practice and exercise this cynicism. Eventually, I simply started to assume the worst outcome in all cases, rather than hoping things might change or get better. This wasn’t difficult; we’d all been burnt before, when it comes to being absurd enough to hope. Hope is silly. Hope is frivolous. Hope is, most of all, dangerous. 

And now I accidentally have some of it. 

It’s the hope that kills you, they say. It gets under your skin, burrows right down into you and then enters into the bone marrow. It’s like a cancer of our own choosing: once we have allowed one cell to be infected, it will multiply and multiply, all while your body fails to recognise it as a foreign object and simply accepts it as one of its own. Once it’s in the system, that’s it; it’s as much a part of you as you are. Encoded into your RNA, nestled in your gut, running up and down your backbone.

So what do we do with hope, this alien invader, this meddling interloper that poisons our every day? Like all diseases, we learn to live with it. To sit with it, and with its shadow-self, fear.

There’s a burgeoning movement online called ‘hope-punk‘: the idea that, in the world we are living in today, the very act of having hope is a radical act. Hope-punk is there in community organisation, in collaboration, in care. It’s a refusal to be resigned or cowed or to give up, and instead to fight: but to fight not with spite, but with kindness, compassion, and gentleness. It’s also the idea of proactively finding joy or delight in the small things every day: hot buttered toast dipped into a warm vat of autumnal soup; leaves caught suspended for just a moment in a miniature tornado; the silhouette of chimney stacks against the skyline. Taking the time to notice these things and find moments of care and calm makes us better equipped and more resilient for the fights ahead. It’s part mindfulness, part self-care, part political action: to not only allow yourself to have hope, but to proactively create and foster hope.

I am trying to learn to live with hope, although it frightens me. I am trying to invite it in; to make a space for it on the sofa next to me as I doomscroll through my social media feeds, to take it out on walks with me on a short leash, to test the waters with it as I wade out into the Brighton sea (which is, at this point, very cold). 

My hope, of course, will always be tempered. We’ve had a slew of good news over the past week. Is any of it perfect? Oh no it’s not perfect; it is far from perfect. But perfect isn’t what we’re striving for here. What we’re striving for is ‘ok’. What we’re striving for is ‘bearable’. Because things haven’t been, for a long while, and though you get used to it and you manage to carry on with your day, it sits in your chest like a rock. Every day you haul that rock up the hill of simply getting up and looking at the news. What’s happened now. What’s happened now. What’s happened now. 

Sometimes what’s happened now is something not terrible.

So I will live with my hope, and I will temper it. I will temper it like I temper my spices: tipping them into hot oil until I extract their fullest flavour. I will take a moment to admire the deep burnt red of the chilis, the warm sunset orange of the turmeric, the tiny joyful pops of the cumin and black mustard seeds. I will open the window to let in fresh air, and turn on the radio to keep me company against the darkness outside. And I will make myself a meal: one that will warm me on the inside and sustain me, at least until tomorrow. 

Things I’ve learned in between lockdowns

Back in May, which now seems so distant it could be another planet, I wrote about things I’d learned during lockdown. This was a sort of a stock-taking exercise; something that many of us were doing, to try to find the positives during what will forever be referred to as Unprecedented Times and reflect upon this strange period. “Lockdown lends itself to a certain type of introspection that forces the hand.” We told stories extolling the virtues of a slowed down life, of finding hope in growing things and making things and baking things, in using isolation – somewhat counter-intuitively – to reconnect with other people we’d lost touch with, as well as to reconnect with ourselves. Oh, what sweet summer children we were.

We’re in a very different world now and this is a very different blog post, because it’s increasingly difficult to find the positives here. The week before we enter into our second national lockdown here in the UK, what was initially a novelty has now become gruelling endurance test. What was once a national mood of “coming together” to provide mutual aid, concentrate on the importance of community, and changing our behaviour in order to protect and provide for those around us has soured. It would be easy to blame this on lockdown fatigue, and that’s certainly part of the equation. But largely, I think, it lies in broken promises and enormous bungling by our government.

We went into the initial lockdown in good faith. We believed (or at least hoped) that the time we spent isolating away from our friends, our family, our lives, would be well spent: creating action plans that would allow us to do things safely, if in a minimised fashion; developing a “world-beating” test-and-trace service (though why it would need to be world-beating remains a mystery to me – I want the world to come out of the other side of this virus, not just my country); providing support for workers and small businesses that needed it. Instead, that time has been squandered, the advice of scientific experts ignored, and we’re now heading back into a second national lockdown on the back of the inevitable second-wave. 

So, what did I learn between lockdowns?

If you’re not incandescent with rage, then you’re not paying attention.

“World-beating” apparently means “national embarrassment” 

To create our “world-beating” test and trace system, the government appointed their pal Dido Harding (who oversaw TalkTalk during its breach of privacy data, and so perhaps should not be in charge of anything including personal data ever again) to run this centralised project, along with a board that shockingly contained only one health expert, no data scientists, no social or behavioural scientist, no NHS logisticians and no behavioural scientists. 

For inexplicable reasons, they decided initially to try to create a test and trace service alone without drawing upon existing technology and expertise. Weirdly, this didn’t work, and they ended up going back to the drawing board to use the technology we should have used in the first place, then creating an app that can only be installed on modern phones, not bothering to push its release to the public via any particular type of announcement, providing no or limited training to contact-trainers, promoting teenagers in those contact-training call centres against their will to provide health advice or bereavement support with little or no training, and failing to make said call centres COVID-safe. It’s now been shown that the system fails to reach almost 40% of close contacts of people who have tested positive, and the app fails to warn users who may have been exposed to self isolate, Development of the test and trace service was meant to cost the taxpayer 10bn. Current estimates look more like 35bn. 

This is without getting into the issues with relying on an app anyway: those most vulnerable to the virus are the elderly (who often don’t have mobile phones, or are more likely to have an older phone), and communities – often BAME – who work in roles deemed “essential” (cleaners, takeaways, delivery drivers, care roles, etc) which are paid at minimum wage (and so are, once again, more likely to have an older phone). 

The government is using the pandemic as an excuse to grant huge contracts to privatised companies and individuals with no due process or transparency 

We already saw this happening under Brexit, with the government awarding £18m to Seaborne Freight as part of no-deal preparations – a company with no experience in channel freighting, and indeed no actual ships. But it’s become rampant during the past year, and always (funnily enough) to companies associated with members of the Conversative party, or associated with large tory donors. I won’t list the ways, because George Monbiot has already done it, and done it better, here

Our government priorities our productivity under capitalism over our lives and wellbeing 

Now that the genie has been let out of the bottle and lockdown lifted, they’ll find it hard to convince people to be compliant once more given how the rules during and in-between lockdowns have so clearly demonstrated where the government’s priorities lie. They didn’t allow us to meet with our friends and family indoors, but they told us to sit indoors in an office. Funerals during the first lockdown had to be held over Zoom, with people unable to meet to grieve together or spend final moments with loved ones, while Dominic Cummings – positive with COVID, and symptomatic – swanned up and down the A1 for a little picnic at Barnard Castle. I notice they’ve been sure to cover this in the second lockdown rules: we aren’t supposed to travel or to go to our second homes in the countryside (because of course we all have second homes in the countryside), unless it’s “for work”. So if you’re working from home, and you need to work from another home, which happens to be near a popular tourist spot, go for it I guess. 

They refused adequate support to the arts, which have been so critical to keeping us all entertained during the lockdown, and forced those they did give support to to cravenly thank them publicly. Please sir, can I have some more? 

They sent students back to university, at the totally reasonable cost of £9,250 a year in tuition fees, failing to tell them in advance that there was often no intention of lectures being carried out face to face, then locked them inside halls where there had been outbreaks of coronavirus (SHOCK!) and charged them £17.50 a day for delivery of food, or continued to make them pay rent on empty rooms

They sent pupils back to school where they must now sit in cold rooms with all the windows open all day, as the weather gets colder, and must sit in their kit all day if it’s a PE day, even if said kit is damp from doing PE outside. My cousin has athletes foot now, cheers everyone.

They literally gave us money to eat out and “save the economy”, in a scheme which cost the taxpayer 522m and has now been shown to have contributed to the second wave. Meanwhile they refused to pay for school meals over the holidays to our most vulnerable children, which would be cost a mere 120m, leaving already under-supported local businesses to step up and causing even more people to turn to food banks (data from The Trussell Trust shows that over half of households that needed support from a food bank in the Trussell Trust’s network in April 2020 had not used a food bank in the network previously, and predicts there is likely to be a 61% rise in need at food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network this winter). 

By the way, you can sign up to donate to The Trussell Trust here. I make a monthly donation. YES, I’M VIRTUE-SIGNALLING. KNOW WHY??? BECAUSE VIRTUES ARE GOOD THINGS TO HAVE, AND SIGNALLING THEM CAN SOMETIMES ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO ALSO HAVE THEM. I don’t believe food banks should exist, and the fact that they do is a failure of our government and our society, but in the meantime we work with what we have while we lobby for change. 

Everyone except me goes to the cinema a lot lmao WTF???? 

Mates. What is this thing with cinemas?! Don’t get me wrong, I love films, but the CINEMA??? A place where you pay an obscene amount of money to sit in a dark room listening to a load of people you’ve never met all eat the noisiest varieties of snack possibly available? Seriously, whoever decided that popcorn – a word with the literal word “pop” in it – should be the go-to snack for movie-goers has a lot to answer. And whoever it was who decided cinemas should also increasingly start offering nachos deserves a few stern questions at the same time. Why are there even adverts?! YOU’VE PAID IN. I subscribe to streaming services so that there AREN’T adverts. At some point, you’ve all been brainwashed into thinking “the cinema experience” is some holy and profound thing, when in fact it is stressful and irritating and overpriced. Much as I had absolutely no idea you were all getting your hair cut every 5 minutes, I had no idea you were all going to the cinema so often. You are all baffling. I am baffled. 

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Things Twitter Has Given Me

A double mattress. A second-hand sofa. A book of poems.

An obsessive interest in politics and current affairs. 

Two boyfriends. New close friends. Countless shags.

10 years of in-jokes. Bad puns. Petty grievances. 

Love. Loathing. Longing. 

Someone to go for a pint with in any city. 

Erotica written about me without my consent. 

Articles in national newspapers. 

Recognition in the middle of the street in New York. 

Sexual harassment. A brief career in comedy promotion.

Meetings with people I’d never have met.  

A screen-test with the BBC. 

Drinks on the roof of parliament. A threesome. 

A platform. A way to signal-boost other voices. 

A support network when my mental health is low. 

Understanding of the lived experience of others. 

Greater compassion. Abuse. 

Hostility towards strangers. 

Advice and answers on tap. Exposure to new ideas. 

A job offer. Exposure to nazis. 

Backstage at Have I Got News for You. 

A window into injustice. Burning outrage.

A means of community organisation and mutual aid. 

An opinion on everything. 

An incorrect opinion on everything. 

Too much knowledge. 

Things I can’t unsee.

Information fatigue. 

Not enough knowledge.  

A DVD of Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas. 

Things I’ve learned during lockdown

A long time ago, it seems, I used to write things. Or, at least, I used to think out loud rather than thinking inside my head, which is where my thoughts are predominantly stored for the most part. I’ve stopped doing that over the last few years, for reasons which are partially opaque (even to me), but partially entirely reasonable – the internet became a more unpleasant place to express an opinion, especially if you were writing about gender or feminism or politics in any way. I also became less certain what my opinions were, or why I had felt I had to have them all the time. I grew older. I grew wiser. I grew tired.

Of course, I didn’t actually stop writing things. I write all the time, and actually the idea of writing as an entirely purist activity kind of rankles with me. “I cannot write!”, people will write to me, as though that somehow weren’t writing. As though all writing isn’t just a drive to communicate: a wish to explain an idea, a wish to be seen, a wish to pick someone up and shake them with your letters until they understand. I saw birds in the sky and it made me feel a certain way. Do you understand? I walked into the room and then I forgot what I’d come in for. We all love a cheese toastie, don’t we. Doesn’t that piece of concrete have a certain strange melancholy to it. Do you understand? I am in love with you. I miss you. I cannot write. Do you understand?

Lockdown, though, lends itself to a certain type of introspection that forces the hand, which is why so many people have already pointed out (whether with cynicism or with glee) that we will likely face an onslaught of lockdown-penned memoirs, novels, and mumblecore arthouse films when we get to the other side of *gestures widely* all of this. For the record, I’m absolutely ok with that. ‘Mrs Dalloway’ was written in the wake of the Spanish Flu, and while it’s not about the disease itself as such, the scenes of London have a certain vividness that seems to be informed by simply being back in the hustle and bustle of things. “Life; London; this moment in June.” The tattoo I meant to get but never quite got. God, I do miss London.

I also have the feeling that if we have to be here, now, doing all of this, we might as well try to learn something. I don’t mean the type of pressurised learning that we’re all quietly berating ourselves for not doing (during the last couple of months I have decided to learn to how to use google analytics properly, how to play the bodhrán, how to write in pitman shorthand, and how to speak icelandic; I have of course done none of these things). I mean learning more about ourselves, and how we deal with what are generally being referred to as “unprecedented times”. How to look at the things we value in our lives with more consideration, more critique and more kindness. How to take the good parts of lockdown (more financial support from the government, more flexible working, a more sustainable approach to energy usage, a slower pace) and apply them to “the real world”, if or when that should ever restart.

I can’t do much about the last one – other than not voting for the tories and occasionally sending angry tweets – so I’m focussing on the other things for now. Let’s do this as a listicle. Do people still do listicles these days? Are listicles still cool? Is buzzfeed still a thing? I’ve been off the circuit for a while, you see. I am here all week, and then probably every week after that too.

Everyone goes to the garden centre a lot more than I do

Mates. What is this thing with garden centres?! Don’t get me wrong, I love a garden centre, but how were they one of the first priority places to open back up again?! I realise that under lockdown people have been tending to their gardens and flowerpots more than usual. I’m no exception. We’re growing herbs to try and tell ourselves we can be self-sufficient in the face of uncertain supply lines. We’re putting our own stamp on the little bits of land we are lucky enough to own, if we are lucky enough to own them. We’ve slowed down, and as we live more slowly, we can (literally) stop and smell the roses: chart each seedlings daily progress, each triumph as it puts forth a new shoot or suddenly, miraculously, opens up a flower overnight. Gardener’s Question Time is doing a lovely thing at the moment where they take the huge influx in newbies through basic terminology and concepts, and my lentil microgreens are doing very well.


Everyone cuts their hair a lot more than I do (and they should cut it less)

Look, I know we’re starting small here, but this has blown my mind. I had absolutely no idea you were all going to the hairdressers so much. I read about a man in the U.S. who drove five hours to get a haircut after the state next to his relaxed its shelter-in-place guidelines. Five hours! To have his hair cut! A thing you can do in your own home, for free! I think the last time I went to the hairdressers was about 12 years ago, when I tried to get a perm, but my hair is so thick and so sullen that it wouldn’t take and they ended up giving ME money to make me go away. Put that on my gravestone if you would: thick and sullen.

Everyone seems to see their family and friends more often than I do (and I should see mine more)

Not really news to me or to anyone else that I’m a bit of an introverted shut-in, I suppose. But it’s been especially stark during this period, watching people talk about crying because they’re missing their friends, or not being able to see their parents for a month or two. I can see how distant and disengaged I am comparatively, and I wonder why. Is there something wrong with me? I’m on good terms with my family, but I probably only see them on average twice a year. Even when we lived in the same city, I would only see my best friend once a month. Over the last three months, I’d probably have seen him perhaps once; I’d be going back to my familial home for this bank holiday weekend, for the first time in almost two years. It isn’t that I don’t love my friends…but my levels of social energy aren’t very high and are rapidly depleted during the working day. Which leads us to—

The internet is invaluable and should be a human right

(Wasn’t this suggested, and ridiculed, during the last general election? Hmm)

On the other hand, now that I don’t have to be present at the office every day putting up with people playing ping pong or having incorrect opinions near me, I actually have much higher levels of social energy! The first fortnight of lockdown in particular was the most sociable I’ve been in a long time, as we all adjusted to the new platforms that we would be using. I’ve seen more of my friends and family than I ever usually do, albeit through the medium of a glitchy computer screen. If someone video calls me now, I usually answer rather than reflexively throwing the phone at the wall as though it’s suddenly been transformed into a scorpion on heat. This time has been deeply, deeply strange, but it’s hard to imagine what it would have been had it happened in a time before we all had 24/7 connection to everyone we know, access to all news and information in real-time, and never-ending sources of entertainment. I suppose we all would have become ladies of letters, sending beautifully-written missives and punchy telegrams and then eagerly awaiting the reply from our window-seats. DARLING STOP I HAVE ONCE AGAIN MADE SOURDOUGH STARTER STOP YOU SHOULD START STOP PLEASE STOP

Thank christ I don’t have children

This is self-explanatory.

All decorum goes rapidly out of the window

Come, now, we shouldn’t pretend I ever had much of it to begin with.

I know some people find order in chaos through making sure they get up a normal time, get dressed as though they were going to the office, and put on a full face of makeup. I am full of admiration for them. Some of my best friends are these people! :rainbow-stationery-emoji:

I COULD NOT EVEN RELIABLY MANAGE THIS IN THE BEFORE-TIMES. I’ve never been very good at maintaining a sensible workplace persona, and as the lines have blurred  between the personal and the professional it’s becoming ever-more impossible. I get up late. I work crammed into a small space between the washing machine and the hoover. I work late. If the internet goes down, I do not work. I take calls at odd times. I take calls wearing pyjama bottoms and an old bra. Everyone has seen my bra now. I cook while I’m talking. I show my colleagues the seeds I am growing. I watch my colleagues descend into greater levels of dishevelment. One of our senior team attended a meeting wearing a bin bag last week. This is not a joke, but it is funny. Not all things that are funny are jokes. Not all things that are jokes are funny. I worry that I’m working too hard. I worry that I’m skiving. My productivity is up! I am thanked for doing a good job! I yell “THIS MEETING IS MAKING ME WANT TO BOIL MY OWN HEAD” loudly in the middle of a meeting! Nobody comments. I walk out of the office (my utility room) and go to stare at the sea. The sea is still there. Thank god, the sea is still there.

Airport rules apply!

I love liminal spaces, those grey zones between places where the rules don’t quite fit. Blurred boundaries where darkness meets light. Fluid spaces between binaries where play can happen. An opening into another world lying between ours and another; a well, a wood, a mirror, a cave.

Many of my favourite pieces of media play with this theme; Narnia’s world-between-worlds, the cross-hatched space of China Miéville’s The City & The City, the clock striking 13 in Tom’s Midnight Garden, literally any fairy tale or ghost story you could care to name. The more prosaic example we encounter is that of the airport, where you are between countries, between legal jurisdictions, out of sight and out of mind. What can you do in liminal spaces? Anything you want. As the ancient proverb goes, it is always 5 o’clock somewhere.

The past is coming back to haunt us

I don’t know about you, but I’ve long struggled with the idea of trying to see my life as some sort of coherent linear narrative. I find myself grasping at the need to, because humans are storytellers by nature (homo narrans, as John D Niles would say), and we feel more comfortable when things have a clear beginning, middle and end. We like to think that there’s a purpose. But trying to see your life like that is like seeing patterns in the clouds; you can make it fit, you can make it feel right, you can even divine some higher purpose in it if you want, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still just random patterns.

(This has an important evolutionary purpose, of course; we need to be able to identify patterns in order to work out what to eat, what not to eat, how to read and intuit the behaviours of others, create logical systems and solve problems. It’s good! It’s a good thing! It also leads us down garden-paths on a regular basis.)

A side-effect of me rejecting the idea that we all have clear linear narratives and clear purpose, though, means I’ve become estranged from some of my past selves. I remember them, and I’m informed by them, but because they’re no longer me (or I’m no longer them?), I don’t think about them much. They aren’t relevant to my day-to-day life. Everything ends up fragmented. But now that that day-to-day life is largely on pause, these fragmentary ghosts are rising up from the depths again. First it started in dreams, which are reported by many to have been particularly vivid during lockdown (some more on this here, and you can contribute your own lockdown dreams to a collective project via @newworlddreams on twitter). I dreamt about the house I grew up in a lot. I dreamt about people who have died. I dreamt about lost relationships, old heartbreaks, repressed grievances. After a while, the dreams started to bleed over into waking life.

I’ve reached out to people I haven’t spoken to for more than a decade, reaffirming old friendships I’ve let go stale or trying to take the first steps at mending old wounds. It’s uncomfortable, looking back at those sentences left unsaid and deciding which ought to be said and which can be let go. It’s ok to be uncomfortable sometimes.

Straight men are really not ok, oh my actual god????

Oh my god you’d think they’d have discovered the lost art of conversation and courtship wouldn’t you but nope they’re all just sliding into your DMs having never ever spoken to you before and giving you weird back-handed compliments (a man last week told me he “liked my wonky teeth” and that they were my best feature, “much like Thom Yorke’s eye” – I’M SORRY WHAT?!), or sliming up again from whatever drain you pushed them down into after they broke your heart with an impromptu “hey u up? x”.

Apart from the ones you’d actually like to be texting you, of course, who are still just responding with single “😊” emojis as though they think you’re one of those customer satisfaction terminals you get outside a public toilet with three traffic-light push-button smiley-faces on them, and have decided to treat you exactly as such. At least there’s an inherent honesty to that, I suppose. Push me, baby, one more time.

People are the worst

There’s a house on my street who have had four massive parties during the lockdown period, complete with full sound system in the garden. I try my best not to be the curtain-twitching lockdown police, but there’s something so careless and callous about knowing that there are people around you very ill and trying to get some rest, that there are people on the front-lines doing shift work in desperate need of sleep, that no one can leave their houses to escape noise – and then deciding to throw a gig-decibel level party every week. The minute the government announced a slight easing of lockdown, there was a distinct whiff of “I don’t give a fuck” in the air – and it’s as contagious as the virus itself. Herd immunity may be a contentious issue, but herd mentality certainly ain’t. I can feel myself slipping into it when I do leave the house now, lured in by the sense of normality, knowing we’ll pay for it later. Maybe I’m wrong and we’ll manage to avoid a second peak. Maybe I’m wrong.

People are the best

Part of my work overlaps with the scientific research community, and watching the way that scientists and medical professionals have collaborated across borders, working to collate and share data as rapidly and as openly as possible in order to tackle this as one global community has been genuinely inspiring.

In a similar way, seeing some of the artistic and musical collaborations coming out of this, the way that mutual aid groups have sprung up so quickly to support each other, and people stepping in to support venues and initiatives they love has been both special and surprising.

I don’t even hate the clapping, really.

Yes, it’s no substitute for proper funding and PPE for the NHS and frontline workers; yes, it’s become the new “WHY AREN’T YOU WEARING A POPPY” stick to beat people with for some of the broiled gammon types; and yes, watching tories who’ve consistently dismantled the NHS over the past decade grinning inanely on their doorsteps while banging a saucepan makes me want to go full Beast of Bolsover.

But every Thursday, after a long week stuck indoors, I get to stick my head out of the window for some bless’d snatches of fresh air. I see the girl who lives opposite – who I do not know – stick her head out of her window too, and we exchange waves in solidarity: Hello, I see you. The fire station at the end of the road sets its sirens off, and if the train is going by it toots its horn as it passes on its way. Hands appear at everyone’s windows, and it’s proof that they’re all still in there, even if we can’t see them. Together we clap for five minutes. It’s the most exercise I get all week.

I pull my window down again, and the girl opposite and I press our palms against the panes briefly in farewell: Goodbye, I will see you again next week.

It’s a mutual promise. There will be a next week.