Exit Music

With the pandemic putting a pretty serious crimp in the activities that would traditionally fill my evenings and weekends, readers might (quite reasonably) be asking themselves about the very poor volume of GofaDM output in recent weeks. They may, of course, be grateful: irrespective of the cause that has, at least briefly, stemmed the tide of nonsense – but I’m not here to pander to the readership!

I have taken on new, or modified, activities as part of my response to the reduced gig going opportunities with the resultant reduction in social contact and increased risk of the author running amok in some way. Writing the occasional quiz and attending and making silly remarks at other people’s quizzes along with preparing increasingly baroque adventures in both Generic Fantasy Landia and the kitchen (for the monthly Quaranstein) do take up a (perhaps) surprisingly large amount of time. I have done these things not as a result of any special virtue on my part but more a combination of rearguard action to hang on to the tatters of my sanity and a set of stupid ideas that got slightly out-of-hand and have now developed a life of their own. So, I was frankly gobsmacked when, last week, I was presented with card saying worryingly nice things about the author (clearly my attempts to conceal the real me have been wildly successful) and an apron decorated in a combination of appliqué, collage and embroidery with most of the key memes from my lockdown social life. I am fortunate in my life and friends far beyond any level that I could claim represents my just desserts…

Apron-as-biography

Work has also become really rather busy in recent weeks, leaving me rather less energy to write after a busy day of modelling or script-editing. Still, it has probably acted as a welcome distraction from the major life event which has occurred since the last post.

On 12 September, I became a demi-orphan (I think half orphan is the more common phrase but we seek out the uncommon and uncanny here at GofaDM) with the death of my mother. We’d had a few days to prepare for the likely end, with several family conferences to try and make the appropriate end of life decisions but the exact timing remained uncertain (until it wasn’t). I think it was as good a death as could have been achieved given the severe dementia: though I really have no way of knowing.

I find that I have been oddly unemotional (insofar as I can tell) about the event, but this may be because the dementia has meant that I have been losing my mother by instalments for the last 3 or 4 years. Or it may just accurately reflect the fact that I am an unfeeling monster: we will never know for sure. I have continued to think of things I’d like to tell my mother but now can’t, though to a significant extent that has been true for the last two years.

I now find I am unexpectedly knowledgeable about the wide variety of coffins now available in all price ranges and their ability (or otherwise) to provide sufficient kindling for the incineration of a human body. Holding a funeral during the pandemic is not ideal, but we had lovely weather and I don’t think we lost out on too much as a result of the restrictions. There were more masks in evidence that is traditional (outside of Venice or the MCU anyway) and we couldn’t really have any sort of do afterwards. Still, my father and sister – with modest input from me (I may be pretty good at quizzes but I have a very shaky memory of my own life, it turns out) – put together a jolly good eulogy and our celebrant (slightly improbably named Candy) did a good job running the service: even my eyes slightly moistened at one stage!

Death-related activities and the importance of spending time (as much as feasible and feels safe) with my fairly small family does mean that I have driven more in the last few weeks than I normally do in a couple of years: my car must think it’s been stolen! Despite regularly shuttling the length of the 27s A&M, I still feel a terrible fraud as a driver and constantly expect the next roundabout or right-turn will leave me (a) found out and (b) unable to break into the traffic flow and so living out the remainder of my days as an obstruction at a moderately busy road junction. So far, this has not happened – though I’m taking nothing for granted – but I still find driving very tiring and do tend to start each journey before 6am to dodge as many other road users as possible.

The last month has also seen a modest re-starting of live gigs at indoor venues in the vicinity. In the last month, I have been to four gigs in a building with other people and it is both exciting and rather poignant. The expressions on the faces of both musicians and audience make clear how important live music is to people and what a difference doing things together makes. Social distancing means venues feel very empty, even when sold out, and though this has definite benefits in terms of legroom and sightlines it really can’t be great for the economics for either venues or artists. One wonders how long even this limited re-opening can last but I shall enjoy it while it does…

Very belatedly the government appears to be taking time out from its self-appointed task of spreading largesse in the direction of totally unqualified suppliers (who, in one of the least surprising events of recent years, turn out to be entirely unable to deliver on their piecrust promises) and organised crime to offer some support to the Arts. Some of this support appears very oddly targetted, and that which seems better aimed misses huge swathes of the live events industry and is probably barely managing the overdrafts for those that have received funds. It also seems weirdly sinister, and somehow reminiscent of a totalitarian state, that recipients appear obliged to be publicly grateful to the Arts Council and/or government on social media for any money they do receive. I do feel that both the bodies wishing to be seen as Lady Bountiful would do well to remember that the money they are disbursing is not theirs but ours!

I shall now dismount from my soapbox and attempt to melt away into the crowds before the authorities feel my collar. While I continue to miss so much that was taken for granted prior to March, I seem to have made the transition to a decent back-up life which will hopefully see me through the return of Greenwich Mean Time and the winter that is to come. I shall be keeping an ear cocked for the belling of the hounds of Spring…

Night rider

As the world continues in its perambulations around the sun, and we continue to live through different, in many ways, reduced times, I seem to have found that I have reached the end of myself. It is not that I am at any immediate risk (insofar as I know) of meeting my maker and finally having a chance of remonstrating with them as to their decidedly shonky workmanship but more that I am totally depleted of energy and (largely) joie de vivre. I seem to have temporarily (I trust) lost the ability to bootstrap myself from knackered revenant to the life and soul of the party (even if that is often a party of one) despite minimal sleep. Even my haemoglobin has lost its lustre, or at least reduced in concentration within my bloodstream, and so I have been benched for three months by NHS Blood and Transplant.

I feel lack of sleep is a major contributor to my current ennui as is the lack of the usual novelty that life used to provide before mid-March. I fear the seams of my personal mine are currently exhausted: to massively over-extend an already creaking metaphor, I need to sink new shafts and, perhaps, invest in more powerful pumps to keep the water out. The urge to retreat from the world is strong: which I suspect means that I should do the exact opposite as I have learned to distrust my ‘instincts’ (one of many conversations I shall be having with the All Father).

Hope is not lost; merely misplaced: I’ve probably put it somewhere “safe”. With my blood no longer in demand, I can take more serious chemical measures to force myself into the reluctant arms of Morpheus. We shall temporarily side-step the issue of consent in our rather fractious relationship: I fear he’s just not that into me but I am unable to move on…

This afternoon, after a failed attempt to return to bed for a nap that never arrived (leaves on the line?), I discovered the unexpected history of the courgette. At this time of year, and now safely into middle-age, the mini-marrow forms a significant part of my diet and, indeed, today’s second dinner/lunch. Apparently, the harmless veg we know today was tamed by the autochthonous Americans from a wild and poisonous ancestor. I shudder to think of the generations that suffered and died to bring us the modern courgette. One has to admire their single-minded purpose towards what is, in many ways, such an unimpressive goal: and they didn’t even have the option of grilled halloumi to pair with it!

Secondly, after many Essay-less weeks, Radio 3 have suddenly dropped a dozen into my podcast inbox. The first few are based on the Decameron and come from the fine folk at 1927 – who I have always seen accompanied by extraordinary back projections, which do not transfer to the radio but their essential nature of 1927 very much does – and they are weird and wonderful and have rather perked me up. The power of novelty: even if the source material was knocked out by Boccaccio in the 14th century, appropriately at a time of plague…

I have managed to accomplish one thing this week, a high point in the otherwise rather featureless desert of my accomplishments: very much the Ely cathedral punctuating the Fenlands of my inanition of the last week. For at least five years, I’d been intending to head into the imagined darkness of the New Forest on a clear night for a bit of stargazing (fair-haired lessie optional). As so often with my plans, nothing then happened for a long time. The original thought had been to go by car, but lockdown has taught me that arboreal astronomy is accessible by bike. So, at 9pm on Wednesday evening I took my bike, new binoculars and a fortifying pint of Steam Town’s Stoke to a heathland portion of the Forest. It was a joy to cycle through the dark streets of the city, past its illuminated docks and cranes and then out through the suburbs into the countryside. The roads and cycle paths were mostly deserted and my two-wheeled steed made short work of the miles.

Despite entering the deep, dark wood during the hours of darkness I was safe because I have read widely and know how it important it is not to stray from the path. I had picked a location to the south of Ashurst that seemed to be maximally distant from any sources of light pollution. This plan was mostly a success, though the amber glow of Southampton does extend quite the distance from the city. Nevertheless, I was rewarded with an enormous bounty of stars, plus Jupiter and Saturn, many visible with my naked eyes (well, I was alone and so partial nudity was an option) and even more through my swanky new binoculars. I am force to admit that I do make a rather shaky tripod (OK, bipod), but the ground was a little damp for sitting down in a more stable configuration. More stargazing will definitely follow and the hours of darkness, if not periods of clear sky, are only growing longer as the year winds down. For my next excursion, I need to do a tad more research so that I know what I’m looking at: for now, if it isn’t Ursa Major or Orion, I am basically clueless.

Going out on my bike does remain the one constant that brings my joy, however banjaxed I am and when all other joys have fled, and this weekend looks free of gales or lightning (at least at the moment), so I may will be out and about during the hours of daylight. Hopefully, the combination of some exercise and a chemical cosh at bedtime will restore me to a more normal (for me, and possibly Norfolk) state…

Being Me

I feel that given the chronic (rather than merely acute) nature of the current global crisis (soon to have company from a domestically manufactured crisis), it is time to drop the Channelling Gogol title that I’ve been using since March. Clearly, this blog will continue to chart my descent (ascent?) into madness but will do so without reference to the moustachioed Russian dramatist.

So, back to the title. It would appear that someone is required to play the role of me, at least for the time being, and, despite the use of headhunters, I have been unable to find any candidate (suitable or otherwise) willing to take on the burden. In consequence, it would seem that we are all stuck with me for the foreseeable future (which I think currently stretches nearly as far as lunchtime).

The onset of the pandemic did rather pull the tablecloth out from under the delicately poised bone china tea service of my life. I was anticipating a pretty rapid move to the higher entropy, and lower gravitational potential energy, state of shards. To my surprise, while I think most of the china is now unsupported by either cloth or table, its fall to the ground has been largely arrested for more than five months.

However, winter is coming (and also going), which is always the case (away from the Equator) on a planet with its rotational axis tilted relative to the plane of its orbit, and I fear several of the techniques I’ve been using to keep the delicate porcelain of my mind in one piece are going to become rather less effective. The chronodyne completing my Key to Time is degrading and Zeos may be in trouble,

As with many, engaging more with the natural world – in my case, visited on my bike – had been doing a lot of the heavy lifting in keeping things together since March. However, August is already presaging the turning of the seasons with storms and very high winds making the bike an unwise travel option: it seems best to avoid lightning or winds gusting above 40mph. The former opinion is based on an internet search while the latter draws on personal experience and the issues with keeping in lane, or on the road at all, if a Gale or Strong Gale force wind suddenly grabs you and your steed. Such conditions are also probably not ideal for visiting a tree-filled forest as, unlike Weebles, trees do fall down.

Nevertheless, I shall try and keep regular bike rides – or failing that, drives and hikes – into nature going through the winter. I have decent boots and waterproofs (all those childhood holidays in North Wales did not occur in vain) and so I should be fine if often damp.

I have also just invested in a decent pair of binoculars which, unlike their predecessors, make things significantly larger and clearer than my eyes alone. I tested them on the one (mostly and briefly) clear night since they arrived and a whole panoply of extra stars – hidden from my unaided sight – were revealed to me: the sky is full of the shy buggers! With more darkness available every night, I plan to try and fit in some serious star gazing and, in the declining daylight will try and fit in some bird watching.

The re-opening of the pubs has been a boost, and it has been a joy to see friends in both the flesh and familiar surrounds of the Guide Dog. I worry how long this will last but shall enjoy it while it does. I have even taken part in socially distant sessions with my rusty guitar skills. There have even been a few live gigs in the great outdoors, making musical hay while the sun still (sometimes) shines, which have been a joy.

For the last couple of weeks, I have also been able to return to Boulder Shack to practice my hand-balancing and related skills without fear of breaking either myself or my furniture (or both). It has been so liberating: I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed being able to train properly and to move more than two feet in any direction before running out of space. I must admit that the small flat, long (inept) body combination is not ideal in a home training scenario. By visiting early or late, I generally have loads of room to myself and so my additional risk exposure has been very small. My old skills are returning (though my pull-up ability has declined dramatically without any ability to practise) and my current skills are progressing much more rapidly. I am also dpending more time aching thanks to my over-enthusiastic embracing of my new freedom: still, I think it is “good” aching.

During lockdown, I’ve found myself participating in, or creating ex nihilo, a series of activities that I can perform with friends via Zoom. As an aside, my decision to buy Zoom for a whole year at a discount is looking increasingly prescient: the Germans seem to be extending their furlough scheme out to 24 months and Angela seems to have more of clue than our own governing shambles. Planning and creating materials for the Quaranstein and trips to Generic Fantasy Landia consumes an increasing amount of time each week and gives my brain something to do rather than stew in its own juices. This last week, I have been working on two-point perspective which has worked reasonable well, but only really with box shapes: the view of buildings does not go all the way to the top as I have yet to master the pitched roof. I also carried out an initial experiment into stop-motion animation which showed promise. I have a suitable camera and light, but my tripod is rather too tiny to be practical: I need to see if I can jury rig something more effective. With a little practice, and further enhancements in my drawing ability, I could become the SmallFilms de nos jours! I am, after all, now the proud possessor of a Swannee whistle!

I think I created these activities as a pretext for friends to come together, and particular for those who were no longer living locally. However, it may be equally true that I created them to give me something to do and to force me to interact with other folk. I no longer know if selflessness or self-interest was the primary driver: I have had to way too long to rationalise…

Since lockdown began, I have only once left Southampton or its surroundings I can reach by bike. A couple of weeks ago, I drove back to East Sussex and see my dad for the first time since Christmas. It was odd being away – but good to see (but not touch) my family. It did mean that I had to use the car, which required the AA to revive it after spending so long motionless. This proved quite handy (if mildly expensive) as it revealed that it has had the wrong battery for the whole time I’ve owned it (and through two services by a Ford main dealer: grrr!). With the correct, much larger battery, I have discovered that the car has Auto Stop-Start! When I took it in to have its broken wing mirror replaced and its aircon repaired (just in time for the heat wave to end: timing is a gift you know), I was hoping to stop at traffic lights just to watch the revs drop to zero. Given this desire, for the first time in human history a car journey of more than a mile across Southampton, through multiple four-way traffic lights, was accomplished without ever stopping for long enough for the Stop-Start to engage. With winter nipping at my heels, I think the car may prove to be a real boon (or it may just be neglected as usual).

It struck me, forcibly, yesterday evening that I have literally no plans for fun future activities: beyond the generic and the standard Monday night quiz and Sunday night excursion to Generic Fantasy Landia plus impromptu visits to the pub or gym. Whilst this seems quite Zen, I’m not convinced it is an entirely mentally-healthy way to live. I think I need to have fun plans and probably plans that involve being more than 15 miles from my flat (a hinterland which is now fairly extensively explored) to create some features in the otherwise rather flat topographical progression of my days.

I have not really proved able to settle down to watch television: though, a few days ago I did manage to watch an entire film! Inspired by (N)YTMG moving from React.js to Vue.js I watched Oh Brother, Where Art Thou: it proved at least as good as I remember from 20 years ago, probably better, and had clearly made a surprising strong impression on the younger me. However, my television viewing over the last 5+ months amounts to fewer than half-a-dozen BBC4 documentaries, probably totalling scarcely an hour per month. I have watched some live-streamed music and dance and managed to knock through a few books, but have struggled to settle down to much else. My piano and guitar playing have also not advanced as one might have hoped given the time at my disposal.

So, I find myself in need of a new fun project (or projects or activities) to see me through the winter, which are robust to rather variable levels of energy and concentration and can occur in a small flat or in public outdoors (I suppose they probably also ought to be broadly legal). Of late, I find that I am basically dead by 2pm: though I have found that an afternoon bike ride of a 90 minutes or so does usually bring me back to life into the evening (though, as noted above, this may become more problematic and I may have to revert to a jolt through the electrodes!). This reminds me that I do need to prepare my Last Will and Testament (there is a non-zero risk that I am not in fact immortal), though I’ll probably dodge the traditional reference to being of sound mind. I don’t really have any descendants to which to leave my billions, and don’t think I entirely approve of inherited wealth, so I need to find a suitably on-brand destination for my wealth once I no longer have use of it (assuming I don’t manage to dispose of it all before I finally obtain a decent night’s sleep: albeit one without a subsequent dawn). Any ideas of projects or institutions that might survive me and could use the money gratefully considered…

However, I’m not sure that setting my mortal affairs in order necessarily counts as fun (though Jake Thackeray made a decent effort in song): I could add all manner of amusing conditions and requirements, I suppose. You don’t hear much about tontines these days and it it would be entertaining if my demise were to launch a spate of fiscally-motivated murders. Nevertheless, I think the hunt for suitable winter project(s) must continue with an increasing sense of urgency…

Channelling Gogol: Escape into fantasy…

It seems to have been a while since the internet was last graced with my long form musings about the ever changing ‘new normal’.  I suspect this may be because I have found a new outlet for my excess stupidity: a subject which I intend to form the meat of this post (only time will tell whether I prove capable of delivering on this threat).

I think we are well into month five of the lockdown, though I am starting to lose my belief in the reality of the before times and also seem to have increasing difficulty navigating verb tenses successfully.  Many years ago, there was a radio comedy called the Million Pound Radio Show and its most famous product was the pirate sketch.  This has much to recommend it but, relevant to our current situation, it did raise the issue that pirates only speaks in the present tense and that use of the pluperfect was a planking offence.  If this hypothesis is true, I am becoming increasingly piratical: though have yet to handle being home alone by acquiring a parrot companion or seeking to stockpile pieces of eight.

With the easing of lockdown, the pubs have re-opened and I have been to a pub.  The only pub I have visited since March is the Guide Dog (which, in no coincidence whatsoever, was the last pub I visited in the before times), though I have visited it on multiple occasions since 14 July.  It is a place that I still feel safe (and not just because it is my second home) and their systems around social distancing and the “plus” element of current guidance seem very well thought out. I’m sure other pubs are also excellent but I am focusing my economic and hepatic energies and increased risk profile on supporting my favourite.  On Wednesday, a couple of my diaspora of friends returned to the city and the Guide Dog and it was lovely to see them in the flesh, rather than via my (very decent) desktop screen at home, and a slight excess of support may have occurred.

Talking of the flesh, last weekend I managed to catch some live music, courtesy of the spacing and reduced contagion offered by the great outdoors, on each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  At one point, I did get quite wet but it was worth it to reclaim another little portion of my old life.  I am having to re-learn the etiquette of live music as, unlike a live stream, people can hear and see what you are doing and joining in is not always appropriate!

The main new novelty in my life, and the sponge which is absorbing most of my creative juices, is Generic Fantasy Landia™.  I feel that I have mentioned that in the run up to lock down, in addition to stacks of books I also bought a Dungeons and Dragons Starter Kit: I was fully aware of the dangers of being stuck with my own company for an extended period.  Sadly, this does not permit me to grow either my own dungeons or dragons: both of which would have been interesting projects in their own right.  What it does provide is five pre-baked characters, a set of dice with various numbers of faces, some basic instructions for play and a fully written adventure.

Using this Starter Kit and Zoom, I and three friends (recently increased to four) have been learning to play D&D.  I have taken the role of Dungeon Master and my friends are playing the part of itinerant adventurers who can, eventually, be tempted out of the virtual pub and onto a quest.

The first adventure, I ‘borrowed’ lock-stock-and-barrel from a YouTube video on how to be a Dungeon Master.  We had very little idea what we were doing, but had just enough of the rules broadly understood to make it work and establish that it was something we could have fun doing.  We also established some of the ‘features’ of our version of D&D which I’m fairly sure are not part of the traditional game and would horrify purists.  The subsequent two adventures, I have ‘written’ from scratch raiding my memories for ideas.  This means that our adventures are set in a somewhat generic fantasy world, based only loosely on the Forgotten Realms of the D&D 5e canon (I’m not sure the Forgotten Realms have an Ikea or a proto GoApe): it started out being called Generic Fantasy Land but this very quickly morphed to its enduring name of Generic Fantasy Landia.

D&D is a very open-ended form of game, which means that monsters and non-player characters (NPCs) are not stuck with a fixed range of activities but can do anything they (meaning I) want and I can convince myself is in character.  The adventurers can (and regularly do) go off piste in unexpected – often suicidal – ways: which can require some quick thinking on my part (which does not always occur quickly).  As time goes on, we are getting through fewer resurrection potions than at the start, though some monsters do have to pull their punches (and I may have to fake the odd low dice throw) from time to time to avoid an unplanned massacre.

Given that I am writing the adventures and given the nature of my friends, our version of D&D (named D and Franken D) has rather more of the Carry On! franchise about it than I suspect is wholly authentic.  When a new adventurer joined the party a couple of weeks ago, I was concerned that they might struggle to fit into the innuendo-ridden world of GFL and my sometimes creative interpretation of the rules: I needn’t have worried, they fitted right in!  They are not yet fully into expecting trapdoors everywhere  and vandalising everything in sight, but given the company they are now keeping this can only be a matter of time…

To counter some of the more reprehensible features of GFL, I am quite hot on geological accuracy and am trying to do some consistent world building.  All settlements in GFL are named after European power stations and the only mountain range (so far) is named after a painter (I am reminded that I need to name a river).  Early in the first adventure I wrote, the team find a notebook and I felt it wasn’t enough just to describe it: so I drew the necessary map and wrote some terrible riddle-based poetry to provide some clues as to how to proceed with the adventure.  I learned the important lesson not to create a map which requires drawing quite so many trees in future but really enjoyed the ‘art’ aspect of the project.  So, for later in the adventure I drew a geologically realistic limestone cavern and a room using single point perspective (casting my mind back to my last technical drawing lesson from 1979).  I now find myself regularly buying new art supplies to improve the quality (debatable) of the visual aids I’m providing to make each adventure more immersive.  I have since drawn a pub, a further map and a town surrounded by a wooden palisade with a castle above.  I am currently working on a town plan and have experimented with 2-point perspective: luckily standard D&D does have cubical monsters!

In the first couple of adventures, other than bar staff there were no NPCs for the team to talk to, just monsters to fight.  However, for the current adventure I am attempting to create a range of characters for people to interact with other than at sword, bow or wand-tip.  This is really pushing my very limited ability to produce viably different accents for different characters: as it is, characters’ accents wander very widely even within a sentence and I have a tendency to forget what accent they had last week (I need to take better notes!).  I am not (yet) able to draw the characters: another potential project to see me through lockdown!

The existence of GFL has really made Sunday nights something special, if exceedingly silly, and a highlight of my lockdown weeks.  It is also now giving me lots to do during the week and a reason to play with the visual arts for the first time since the 1970s.  I now understand loads of nerd-references from film and TV that somewhat passed me by at the time.  I do worry that I am becoming slightly obsessed and I am starting to un-ironically use such references: I did find myself bemoaning my -2 Dexterity when attempting to perform a task earlier in the week.

I feel I’ve rambled for long enough and GFL prep calls: NPCs won’t name themselves or prepare their own clues, so I must step into the breach…

 

Channelling Gogol: Panem et Circenses

As we enter the fourth month of lockdown amid further easing of restrictions based on the art of chresmomancy, Juvenal’s most famous words suggest that the governance of nations has not progressed as far as we might like to believe in the last nineteen centuries.  I seem to recall that the British did seek to create parallels between their empire and its Roman antecedent and so perhaps this continuing resonance should not be so surprising.  I presume it is only be a matter of weeks (or days) before a horse is made a special adviser to the government.  Where are the Prateorian Guard when we need them?

As part of an attempt to feel mildly useful at the moment, I am involved in three separate COVID-19 studies: two of which came about via my membership of the Cambridge BioResource, which is less scary than it sounds.  One of these has me completing a very extensive bi-weekly survey which attempts to gauge the state of my mental health: a brave project at the best of times.  I have noticed that with the last couple of questionnaires, my state of mind has deteriorated substantially relative my earlier responses.  Clearly, there will be multiple reasons for this.  I have been separated from my friends and family for more than three months now: I’ve bumped into a few from time to time in the flesh and see a small subset regularly via a screen but the feeling of isolation must be growing stronger.  I could also note that the weather for the last week has not been very conducive to exploring on my bike, and so I’ve been spending less time outside and in nature.  However, I think a key factor has been the gradual erosion of my hope that the world we will emerge into is one that will justify the effort of sticking around.

In its patchy efforts to support the economy, the governmant appears to have chosen to throw everything (and a sizeable proportion of the people) I care about under the bus.  Almost my entire economic activity, once we have dealt with the foundational levels of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, can be directly linked to small independent pubs, cafés and breweries and the arts: live music, theatre, galleries, dance, spoken word and, of course, books! Some of these will shortly be allowed to open again (albeit, for theatres, without one of their primary roles) but in almost all cases this is an invitation to increase the rate at which they haemorrhage money and rack up losses.  Nevertheless, many are trying to do so despite the huge costs of delivering both social distancing and “more” given the difficulty of sourcing perspex, masks and hand sanitiser et al and the recent steep inflation affecting the price of such items.  They recognise their vital role as places of community: something we have been starved of for so long.  I suspect some also fear that their take-out businesses will suffer as giant, chain pubs and restaurants re-open.

As well as many friends being laid off, Southampton has already seen NST Theatres go into adminstration and the closure of the Stable, a very decent pizza and cider restaurant which was a regular host to live music (and to me drinking slightly too much cider): these both from a single pair of new buildings which are at the heart of the city’s Cultural Quarter.  I’m sure many other places have already gone, I’m just not yet aware that their temporary closure for COVID has become permanent: and I fear many more will be lost in the weeks ahead.  The feeling I get from friends in music is that the hope of anything very much live occurring in 2020, apart from drive-in gigs, is looking decreasingly likely. Even if musicians and artists can keep going somehow into 2021, will there be anywhere left for them to perform: no doubt the already famous will still have stadia to visit but will there be any grassroots left?  Without roots, and the whole ecosystem that surrounds them, very little will grow…

Still, for the 99% of us not consigned to the ever growing statistic of excess mortality, life goes on.  Major, and positive, changes have taken place in the organisation of my flat: having time on my hands does (very occasionally) translate into concrete action.  With lockdown, I came to realise that my television was not justifying the space it consumes as, even while stuck at home (rather than being out every night), I was rarely using it.  So, I splashed out on a new, 32″ 4K monitor to replace both my existing monitor and the TV.  This enabled a re-organisation of my living/working space to give me a lot more room.  It also enabled the removal of around a dozen cables of various forms and seems to have given me back the window as a room feature: if only the glass were a tad less filthy…  My reforming zeal has also extended to the bedroom and I can now walk around three sides of my bed largely unimpeded by floor-living junk!  It has only taken seven years to tidy up after moving in: I think I’m improving!

I am sure I am far from alone in discovering in recent weeks how little of the stuff I own I actually use, even if I have literally nothing else to do.  Lockdown has provided a presentiment of retirement and I’m starting to think that my ambitious plans for self-improvement and the acquistion of new skills, once my working life is done, may not make the degree of progress that pre-2020 me fondly imagined.  If anything, my existing skills seem to be draining away the more time I, theoretically, have to improve them: somehow time, like fine sand, seems to slip through my grasp ever faster as the weeks progress with less-and-less being achieved.  I can’t help feeling that my life is a living metaphor for the concept of entropy…

At the start of the year, after 15 years of procrastination, I finally decided it was time to face the horror of estate agents and solictors, and sell my flat in Cambridge.  I never planned to become a landlord, but thanks to a cock-up by the developers, I was unable to sell the flat at the time I moved out and it has taken me a while to resolve the issue: fools don’t only rush in, sometimes they just sit on things for years.  All was going well until a global pandemic broke out: truly, my timing is impeccable.  Still, despite the difficulties, I finally managed to exchange contracts and complete last Friday.  I am now the proud owner-operator of only the single tiny flat in which I reside and am mortgage-free.  I feel that being without debt (beyond this month’s spending on my credit card) for the first time since 1987 should be boosting my positivity but I don’t think the fact has entirely sunk-in yet.  Perhaps I need to buy a bottle of Aldi champagne for a thrifty celebration (alone given the current circs) to fully appreciate my good fortune…

In other getting-things-done news, I finally cleaned up and brought back into full service my best bike: the steel-framed retro(ish) beauty I had built for me when I lived back in Cambridge.  It has seen very little use in the last seven years, but with all the sunshine (I refuse to allow it to become wet or muddy) it was time for it to shine again.  It was such a joy to ride it again after all these years and its acceleration and ability to elide hills was something of a contrast to the aluminimum framed 29er mountain bike which is my day-to-day workhorse on the roads of Southampton.  While my steel steed lacks the cushioning suspension to insulate my buttocks form the worst of the local road surfacing, the change in posture and different saddle do seem more comfortable on my much abused nethers.  I think this evening the weather may, after a week of heavy rain and very stong winds, by good enough to take it out for a spin and I can hardly wait!

Despite some of the ramblings above, I can mostly stay positive by focusing on the short term and drinking (this latter, as part of my plan to keep a couple of my favourite local pubs and breweries going: I gain no pleasure from it).  Superman had his Fortess of Solitude, which given its location may be growing increasingly damp on a warming world, and I have my own – now much tidier – analogue.  My own Fortress is largely constructed from music and books.  Lockdown gigs and other video sightings of third party homes suggest other people are able to own shelves without them immediately being filled with books: in some ways I admire the purely decorative shelf, but have come to accept that such a thing does not lie in my own future.  The latest addition to my groaning shelves has been Intae the Snaw by Thomas Clark: a set of poems translated into Scots.  It is amazing and I am now totally obsessed by the Scots language – and by my embarrassing attempts to pronounce it (sometimes, being locked-down alone has its upsides).  It has such marvellous words, each poem yields at least half-a-dozen that are entirely new to me: and I’ve read a decent amount by Scottish authors over the years.  How, for example, have I lived more for than 54 years without ‘clanjamfrie’ in my vocabulary: a word with particular resonance to our current leadership.

All the while such delights can still enter my life, I think I’ll stick around: though now I have something other than debts to pass on, should perhaps prepare a will.  I just need to decide where should I divest my very modest holdings, that the world is left doubly a better place by my leaving it…

Channelling Gogol: An inadequate luxury

As we approach three months of lockdown, it is somewhat more than three months since I obtained a decent night’s sleep.  I thnk last night I managed a little under three hours with a few minutes of additional surreal hypnagogic napping spread across the rest of the night.  Sadly, this is all too typical of 2020 and my best attempts to exhaust both mind and body have been wholly successful against the proxy metric of exhaustion.  However, as with so many proxy metrics, its achievement has not led to the desired outcome: in this case, a decent night’s sleep every now and then.  Even as a chap who has suffered from regular insomnia for some 30 years, I am reaching the end of my ability to cope with so little access to the chief nourisher in life’s feast (though little short of death will stop me making use of the time I devoted to the study of Macbeth for O Level).  I fear I may have to seek stronger chemical assistance than Steam Town‘s finest and brave a visit to my local pharmacy…

The lack of sleep is starting to have increasingly serious impacts on my motor control: which, let’s face it, has never been great.  I have no idea to what extent the (or a ) naming convention of at least some of the descendents of the first settlers of North America does rely on identifying an aspect of a person’s activities, e.g. Dances with Wolves, and how much this is arrant nonsense I have unreflectively absorbed through my rather limited exposure to the cinematic Western (and rather greater exposure to format jokes).  However, if this had applied in this country I fear I would have been named “Walks into X” for suitable X (or even X): where X could be any (and all) of doorframes, furniture, lamposts, walls and many many more painfully, and undeniably very visible and static, solid objects.

My typing is now a complete disaster and my attempts to lay down a MIDI version of Left Bank Two on the piano is being frustrated by the increasing independence of my fingers from the central authorities.  Four reliable bars, or even four reliable notes, is looking like a distant dream for the time being.  However, this does give my tired brain a chance to get to slightly better grips with Reaper, a somewhat slippery character, which will convert the movements of my fingers across a keyboard into a MIDI file to which friends can add more competent additional tracks to create something that could pass for music making.  However, it is rather a complex and fully-featured piece of free software for my needs and has eschewed both an intuitive UI and any sort of Help system: I believe I may have to call on YouTube tuitional videos for assistance.  I don’t like instructional videos for, almostly certainly, entirely irrational reasons: if you can’t set out clear instructions in text with (if you must) a diagram or two then your product/idea/cult is not for me.  My working life means that I can extract useful information from long, complex documents written in legalese in a variety of languages.  Show me a video and I’ve tuned out before the 5 seconds of advert which precedes it has finished: much like when asking for directions my brain has switched off before my interlocutor has reached the second turn.  People of my vintage are prone to decry the short attention spans of young people, however, my pot seems very much blacker than their kettles: I wonder if we are just boring them?

I am assuming some of my sleeplessness can be explained by the constant low level anxiety occasioned by the impact of the virus sweeping the land.  I believe we can already lay the excess mortality of 1/1000th of the UK population at its purely notional feet: though it does seem to have had more-than-a-little assistance from its enablers in the corridors of power who are possessed of actual feet (for the time being… my scythe is on back-order).  I rather fear it will continue to act as a cause of excess mortality long after it has died away, with the continuing impact on the routine work of the NHS being felt for years to come.  However, outside of dungeons of my own divising (where I can arrange for implausible resurrections), there is little I can do about this beyond trying to avoid being the cause of any infections myself.  I am now involved in three separate academic projects into COVID: reporting daily, periodically filling in extensive questionnaires on my mental state and coping and (soon) sending my bodily fluids to strangers through the post.  Frankly, if I don’t catch this virus I will feel that I’m wasting a lot of people’s time, though I suppose all data is of some value in permitting better decision-making if we can just rustle up some more competent leadership…

No, I suspect my issues arise from all the things I feel I should be helping with and, to a very limited extent, try to do.  However, I have found find myself trying to support so many local pubs, breweries, music venues, independent cafes and shops, musicians and other creatives plus at least one climbing gym where I hang upside-down and indulge in other foolishness not entirely consonant with my age and dignity.  I also used to get about a bit and see visiting artists when they could still travel to entertain and help to repair and improve me with their cultural wares, so I also have the feeling (and indeed desire) to support a wider range of theatres, galleries, museums and other non-local creative jewels which are all struggling.  It turns out that whilst I have a perfectly decent job which has continued with minimal impact through lockdown and provides more than enough salary to cover all of my needs, I am some way from the salary income needed to support even a meaningful minority of the arts sector that has been such an important part of my life in recent years.  There is also only so much that I can eat, drink and read to keep the local businesses that I love afloat: and I do feel that I have been putting in the ‘hard yards’ (or tricky metres) in all three of these areas.  I can assure readers that the recently reported 20% fall in beer sales flies very much in the face of my own efforts in this field!  Nonetheless, my response feels woefully inadequate to the the size of the problem and this eats away at me during the long nights and their copious unwanted consciousness.

Still, lockdown does continue to ease in a range of random and internally inconsistent ways.  I can’t help feeling that the government have had the sort of off-site I used to have in the more corporate phase of my life. I assume a facilitator has told them that there are ‘no bad ideas’ and then dutifully written all the frothing lunacy that emerged onto post-it notes which were then stuck to the walls of the conference room.  Government policy since then has been based on an extended game of ‘pin the tail in the donkey’ with whichsoever ‘idea’ acquires the pin being implemented.  I guess they are working with a slight variation to the standard game by placing the donkeys in charge of the pin…

This week’s key ‘innovation’, other than opening inessential shops, is the ‘bubble’.  As a single chap living alone, I am allowed to ‘join’ one other household and enter their house and, I believe, I can go so far as to make actual physical contact and exchange a range of bodily fluids with its members (subject to any limitations imposed by pre-existing statute).  If I’m honest, I’m not sure it is yet enough to support a living wage as a gigolo – so I shall stick with the day job.

Having not read the detail of this latest wheeze, I am not sure whether the other household has to volunteer for my addition to their ensemble or whether if I can, by any means (a well-placed jemmy for example), make an entry into their home I am then able to claim them and their home, to the exclusion of all other,s for the remainder of the crisis.  Assuming (dangerous, I know) that this is not the case, I found myself pondering which other household would have decent cause to claim me as their one and only single person (or parent).  My own immediate family would be better off choosing each other, rather than distant me, and my friends will largely have their own families or remote squeezes which would (and should) take priority.  I have come to realise that, while I have many good friends, I am something of a luxury item rather than an everyday necessity when it comes to bubble formation.  I am, in many ways, not a key worker in my own life but can be safely furloughed and accessed via a video conference when necessary.  I feel I ought to be upset about this fact, but I think I am mostly finding it rather amusing.  Luckily, I already knew I was an idiot: though lockdown has definitely gifted me with far too much of my own, unmediated company. However, it does take me back to the first of the three maxims to be found at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi.    Thinking of Delphi, I was also struck how much the third of the maxims seems to have been forgotten today: many people could useful be reminded that ‘surety brings ruin‘.

This seens seems to have gone on a bit, even by my standards, and to contain rather more sarcasm than I would normally advocate.  I shall blame this on lack of sleep and the proximity of lunch (and thus low blood sugar) and so take my leave of you vanishing back into the woods from which I came…

Channelling Gogol: Going through the motions

I have good reason to believe that we are reaching the end of the twelfth week of lockdown.  It has been somewhat relaxed: less, I fear, in response to careful balancing of the science around the virus and the mutliple adverse impacts on life and excess mortality caused by lockdown and more to provide covering fire for the increasingly surreal behaviour of members of the government and its senior advisors.  I don’t think a virus has the capability to take control of humans – either directly or fiscally controlling behaviour – but fungi can cause very odd behavour in ants and such capture would explain a lot.  In a world with Ophiocordyceps unilateralis anything is possible…

I have broadly continued with my existing attempts not to go down in history as the Typhoid Mary de nos jour: though I have been enjoying the opportunity for longer bike rides to explore further afield.  I have now cycled to Winchester, Mottisfont, Lyndhurst and Hamble (plus a range of points in between) and each journey has brought its share of joys and annoyingly frequent hills.  The ability of horses to ascend relatively steep slopes has left all too many modern roads, inheritors of more ancient ways, rambling up and down hills for no very good reason.  If only man had discovered the railways sooner and the importance of following a contour line rather than willfully ignoring them!

I can’t be sure that this is a related phenomonen but I have had to say goodbye to an unusually high number of pairs of keks since lockdown began: I am blaming hill-based expansion in my thighs and buttocks for this increased wear-and-tear.  By the way, I do not wear normal keks for cycling but have a small range of padded numbers that I use to try and reduce the impact damage to a somewhat sensitive area occasioned by the relatively poor quality of local road maintenance: so we cannot blame increased friction between my saddle and nethers.

The nature of the last twelve weeks had meant that each day is very much like its predecessor.  I am not claiming that my pre-lockdown life was filled with danger and excitement, I was not typically descending Mont Blanc on my ironing board (to proffer but one example of an activity eschewed), but recent weeks have brought home the extent to which life is a matter of conjuring up, from the stuff of chaos, some semblence of purpose to cover the next sixteen hours of consciousness.  I deliberately chose the word ‘purpose’ rather than ‘meaning’ as I think I gave up on that as a life goal some considerable time ago.  In the first Discworld novel, when explaining the four fundamental forces that apply, Terry Pratchett noted that charm allowed trees to grow and bloody-mindedness kept them up.  I’m not sure that charm had much to do with my being brought forth into this world, though at times I’m fairly certain the bloody-mindedness has kept me here.  More broadly, given that I was brought up to believe that dying was in some unspecified way a slightly rude and attention-seeking activity (the sort of thing that would happen on ITV), it is perhaps as well that the human body decays and tends to force the issue at some point or I fear some weird politesse would render me irritatingly immortal.

Nevertheless, the Sisyphean struggle to imbue each day with purpose does seem to involve a stone and hill of monotonically increasing weight and gradient respectively.  This has led to me turning the mattress, vaccuming areas untouched since I moved and finally connecting my piano and Macbook via MIDI to allow me to “lay down” some tracks.  I would note that my filthy windows show that there are still heavier stones and more tightly packed contour lines yet to be brought to bear.  When not trying to solve the clean energy crisis by boosting the rate at which Bach and Scarlatti are spinning in their respective graves, I have been attempting to create a MIDI track of the right hand (the left hand is a project for a more serious pandemic) of the Noveltones 1963 ‘hit’ Left Bank Two.  And no, I’m afraid I can’t return any of your pictures: I’m not made of stamps.  I have found that the computer faithfully records on the score what I actually play rather than what I am intending to play.  I can generally render all the right notes in the right order, but the length of those right notes and rests between them can diverge somewhat from the accepted mean.  At this stage, I am hoping to pass off this difference as ‘swing’: probably of the continuously variable kind.

Work remains a boon.  On days when I feel too enervated and lacking in energy or focus to watch allegedely mindless television I find I am still quite capable of reading complex legal directives and regulations and indeed drafting my own legal text.  I’m not sure this is some indication of my own desperate mental state or a sign that we are massively over-paying lawyers (and, of course, I cannot discount the possibility that both statements are true).

This past week though was graced by some actual purpose: for the first time since lockdown I had an indoor appointment not in my own tiny flat.  Boosting my solipsism no end, this coincided with the first concerted rainfall in Southampton since the start of lockdown: see I am important, the uncaring universe saves precipitation for almost twelve weeks until it knows it can get me wet (little does it realise I have Welsh antecedents and spent most of my childhood holidays in North Wales: I am broadly waterproof!).  Yes, I had to cycle off to give my socially-distanced blood.  Well, perhaps wisely, NHSBT decided against 2m long needles: they would require extraordinary motor control to hit a vein with any accuracy.  However, we donors were kept apart from each other and masks and near continuous wiping down of everything were de rigeur.  My own donation was made in a specially kitted out conference room in a part of the centre normally off-limits to civilians.  The changed circumstances since twelve weeks ago did mean the process took a little longer than usual – no bad thing when trying to fill each unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run (always good to slip a cake reference in) .  More sadly, there was also a reduction in the range of biscuits available (though due to a purchasing error, KitKat fans were in for a treat) and I had to substitute an Orange Club for my usual Mint and could only consume the one before I felt that I might be outstaying my welcome (I refer you to my earlier remarks on politesse).  Still, it filled a good three hours of my Wednesday with real purpose: roll on another twelve weeks!

Anyway, I have to attempt a solo ceilidh shortly as a sacrificial guinea pig: I may be stripping my own willow within the hour (and I’m not sure my medical insurance covers this).   I shall be relying on the far worse behaviour of senior members of the government which will, no doubt, shortly be unearthed to make this legal before a prosection can be successfully brought.  If only I could get a note from my optician…

Playing with my food

I seem to recall, from the long lost days of my (chronological) childhood, that this was considered a terrible crime.  I don’t recall precisely why, though I feel it may have been part of a Manichean attempt to partition the world into things that were, and were not, suitable objects of play (in its transitive verb form).

After the passage of many years and my transition into (notional) adulthood (and actual antiquity), I have come to realise that despite my parents exhortations I am still playing with my food.  The nature of my play may have changed but I am still very clearly playing.

GofaDM has previously described the transmutation of the Fish Supper into the Frankenlunch: though, in many ways, this relates to the before-times when I wanted to leave my evenings free to go to gigs and other cultural delights with other people.  For the moment, my evenings are all too free and my culture largely delivered through a screen – but I have hopes that the days of face-to-face culture will return again before I become too decrepit to enjoy them.

While they lasted, the Frankenlunches provided the excuse to play with all manner of new recipe ideas with the pretext of providing others with a somewhat more elaborate meal than is either my, or their, typical fare.  As the host (and/or a terrible show-off: you decide), I also felt the need to provide some sort of entertainment as I was cooking and this was most easily accomplished as part of the cooking process itself.  Part of this ‘entertainment’ was an extension of my normal habit of commentating on my life but I did extend it to incorporate the live creation of fresh pasta via the mangle-like mechanism of my Imperia machine.

However, in our current world of short attention spans, a mere pasta machine was never going to be able to continue to command attention when an audience can so easily click-away to more compelling content.  It was thinking in this vein that I used to justify to myself the purchase of a new toy – a cook’s blowtorch – to up-the-ante for the second (in the official numbering) Frankenlunch. This was used in the making of crème brûlée, which could be made perfectly satisfactorily, if more slowly and less theatrically, using a grill – but where’s the fun and danger in that?  Being in possession of a blow torch, I try to get as much use from it as possible and now use it in lieu of matches when in need of a flame.

For Frankenlunch #3, I further increased the risk by actually setting fire to a banana (and the caramel sauce in which it was reclining) using rum and another new toy: a short wand that produces a flame at its tip.  This purchase was predicated on a health-and-safety brief as, with my new toy, my body would be slightly further away from the fire and so at reduced risk of being flambéd along with the banana.  In this it was a success, though I would have to admit that a couple of tablespoons of rum (even doubled or re-doubled) is unlikely to create the sort of conflagration that the more alarmist flambé recipes I read seemed to anticipate and was never likely to need the bucket of wet sand some advocated.

At this stage, lockdown began and it seemed that the Frankenlunch would have to be abandoned until it was permitted (and safe) for 4 or more people to gather around a small dining table to enjoy good food, copious alcohol and silly conversation.  However, people seemed unexpectedly keen to continue holding Frankenlunches on a distributed basis and so was born the Quaranstein.

For a Quaranstein, I prepare a menu of four courses that can be prepared using minimal exotic kitchen gadgetry (and in this context, a whisk has, so far, been considered exotic) and with ingedients that seem to be readily available in our depleted supermarkets.  The menu is circulated in advance to allow everyone to acquire the necessary elements of the meal and work out any necessary substitutions (for the avoidance of doubt, wine gums make a poor substitute for most ingredients).   On show day, we cook each course at the same time – using Zoom – with me providing some sort of leadership as a nominal ‘head chef’ (or at least somewhere for any excess of buck to come to rest): though generally with less swearing and throwing of things than that might suggest.  Having cooked each course, we can then eat together again using the power of video conferencing.  At the most recent Quaranstein, I included a wide-angle view of most of my flat to provide some context to my fellow chef-diners and the sight of a man sitting down alone to eat a meal with only a laptop for company is rather a haunting and, frankly, depressing one: and so, naturally generated much hilarity.

At the first Quaranstein, I took my role as the Keith Floyd de nos jour a little too seriously and become a little tipsy by course four (I wish to stress that I could still lie on the floor without holding on).  This did lead to a rather unfortunate loss of control of the multiple cameras I was Zooming to provide decent coverage of the process.  Different versions of me ended up tesseracted across time with each camera showing me at a different stage in my past (or future, depending on which was the ‘real’ me).  This took a while to resolve as I largely failed to work out which PC was currently hosting and could be used to restore a semblance of control: eventually, I had to change T-shirt so I could work out which was the ‘current’ me.  For the second Quaranstein, I was more careful to manage my ‘glugging’ and went for a simpler AV set-up which seemed to work rather better.

To my surprise, the Quaransteins have worked rather well with all participants managing to sit down to eat each course at roughly the same time, and each remotely produced course has come out pretty consistently (and not as a series of variations on amorphous forms of carbon).  This is despite me encouraging flambéing at the first Quaranstein and the use of blowtorches at the second: I’m not at all sure I have the public liability insurance necessary to cover this level risk.  Lucikly, injuries have only been minor: so far…

I find Quaransteins more stressful than Frankenlunches: so many more variables and so much less control are added to the widely held expectation that I have the faintest idea what I’m doing (rather than winging it as usual).  Nonetheless, they still very much count as me playing with my (and now other people’s) food and have been oddly rewarding.  Quaransteiners (myself included) have started adding courses ‘discovered’ during one of the lunches to their standard repertoire of meals…

It will soon be time to start planning for the June Quaranstein: how can I add some entirely spurious risk – perhaps an explosion – to at least one dessert?  Can I think of a starter that does not use halloumi?  Only time (or possibly a rare non-COVID related news headline) will tell…

Channelling Gogol: The Riddler takes charge…

It would appear that we are in week 8 of lockdown and I seem to have blacked out, or just forgotten, a couple of weeks of confinement.  I had already come to realise that my short-term memory was entirely shot but I thought once information had moved into long-term storage it was relatively secure…

As of Wednesday (I think – but don’t quite me on that), the lockdown has been somewhat eased using a set of rules which makes Dungeons and Dragons look easy and which seem to have been developed by one Edward Nash (sometime resident of Gotham City).  I must say I was expecting at least one of the clauses to start “My first is in pandemic but not in virus” but assume this approach was rejected as lacking sufficient challenge.  Luckily, as a devotee of Only Connect and master of utility regulation, I believe that, given time, I may be able to prepare some York Notes to help members of the government get to grips with the current “do’s and don’ts”.  Logicians who had previously been needed only when trying to ship a bag of grain, hen and fox across an inland waterway using only a rather modestly sized boat are presumably now on speed dial.  Families across England are desperately trying to work out the minimum number of visits to the park which would allow two grandparents to meet both of their grandchildren (from a safe 2m) without breaking the law.  More challenging variants of the problem consider the situation where the whippersnappers issued from different parents and, for very advanced students, are both members of step families.  I can’t help feeling that those who spent the lockdown building up reserves of yeast, toilet roll and hand sanitiser are now wishing they had spent their time stockpiling qubits….

My own grandparents were well ahead of the game, working as cleaner and gardener for families in Epsom as early as the 1970s.  Even had they not passed to their eternal reward some years ago (allowing me to visit them at any time and get up as -up-close-and-personal as I wish) they would not now be pondering NP-complete problems and wishing their only grandson had been slightly less useless at his 3rd year degree module “Combinatorial optimisation”.

Talking of our more aged citizens, I can’t help wondering if the prioritised re-opening of garden centres and golf clubs is an admission by the government that their care home policy has not done enough to defuse the pensions time-bomb and old people need to be pro-actively increasing their risk profile.  As a society, we can no longer rely on our pensionsers being sent to their doom, we need to encourage them to actively seek it out!  From a certain point of view, it is oddly public spirited of a political party to throw so many of its own supporters under the bus…

Still, that’s probably enough about the new legal substrate on which we must now seek to accrete the epitaxial layers of our lives.  The new films of my own life continue to be laid down pretty much as before though I feel the existing modes of divertissment are losing some of their efficacy through over-use.  Nevertheless, I find it best not to cast my thoughts too far into the future.  What will be left of the world we knew and its culture when, or if, this is some day over does not comfortably bear detailed contemplation.

I have acquired an upgraded webcam on the basis of the amount of time I now spend being seen only via a distant view screen.  While this does have a number of advantages and means I can use my work desktop for video calls, its improved image resolution has proven rather horrific when I am forced – as seems to be the case with most video conferencing apps – to stare at my own crumbling features and the strictly monotonically increasing glint of madness in my eyes (and who’d of thought the latter was possible?).   Still, I suppose the horror may represent the long delayed beginning of wisdom, if one is to believe something carved into a wall of a pronaos in Delphi (probably still more reliable than most of what one reads online).

The other big news since my last post, and indeed since yesterday, is that I have hung upside-down from gymnastic rings for the first time in more than two months.  Returning my bicycle to its recently re-opened lock-up after my morning constitutional (ignoring any relativistic effects in my 2m distancing while in a moving frame of reference), I realised that the newly reinforced roof provided beams from which I could hang my rings (not a euphemism).    Unusually, I did not wait for even a single decade to pass before actually hanging my rings from this longed-for source of support and trying them out.  The environment is exceedingly dusty and should I fall I will strike a concrete floor, mediated only by a now very dusty yoga mat, but it is good to be hanging around again.   I have skinned my first cat and flown my first squirrel in what feels like an eternity.  I started gently today in order to give my shoulders (and the rest of me) time to grow accustomed once again to the experience of being used in this rather extreme manner.  So far, so good: I think I may make a fuller attempt at the back lever before the weekend is out. (BTW: Should I meet my maker by falling, inverted, from height onto a solid concrete floor, I would like it to be recorded as a COVID-19 related fatality from someone who clearly should have been in a care home.)

Still, I feel we’ve moved well past the stage of having ‘printed’ all that news that’s fit to ‘print’, it is time that I returned to my slow descent into madness: that abyss is going to have to stare back one day…

Channelling Gogol: Lockdown Lessons from a Lunatic

As we enter week 5 (6? Some n∈N?) of the lockdown, I thought that, as an important influencer, it was incumbent on me to share the important pearls of wisdom that have accreted around the grit of my incarceration…

tumbleweed

OK, with that out of the way we can now resume normal GofaDM service.

I suspect I am not alone in finding being locked-down less easy to cope with as time goes by rather than familiarity breeding greater ease, if not downright contempt.  I do not seem to be adapting to the current situation as I’d hoped, despite modelling much of my personality on the Borg: well, my primary purpose has for some time been the attempt to assimilate everything.  I suppose I do form a somewhat stripped back, even minimal, Collective in my frustratingly singular state: though I suspect the existence of more of me would be far, far worse (for all of us).  While social media and video conferencing are splendid things, and I wouldn’t want to be without them, spending time with people in the flesh, or at the very least ‘near the flesh’, scratches a psychological itch that technology is unable to reach.

The lack of actual social contact seems to be having an increasing impact on my mental state, with it seeming (as viewed from the inside, or at least by “sources close to…”) to have become increasingly bipolar as the usual dampeners seem to have been lost.  The situation still appears manageable but I do feel I am becoming increasingly manic on these occasions when I’m participating in what currently passes for social contact.  I’m blaming this on my mental state but I suppose it could just be an attempt to bridge the gap between reality and desire by force of personality: a doomed project if ever there was one.

The locked-down world does offer up some modest benefits (to me, at least) in partial weregild for all the inconvenience, pain and suffering it is causing to so many.  In these quieter times, I am really noticing the birds singing and spring is a particularly good time of year for this as our feathered friends are all keen to be at it like knives as a prelude to bringing forth the next generation.  As a bonus, my current chronic insomnia does mean that I am regularly in the audience for the dawn (and pre-dawn) chorus which this morning appeared to include a duck: though I may have imagined that (une mallard imaginaire, as Molière might have put it).

In the before-times, I received much of my exercise by going about my business briskly on foot or using safety bicycle.  As this is no longer the case, I now found myself planning excursions to gain my State-authorised daily cardiovascular stimulation.  I have generally spent this on my bicycle (a) to take advantage of the much quieter roads and (b) to enjoy the much easier social distancing achievable when awheel.  If avoid popular parks and beauty spots, especially those proximate to car parking, it is much easier to keep well away from others on a bicycle than when riding Shanks’s pony.  To maintain interest in these outings, I have been exploring new areas of the city and its surroundings every few days and continue to be amazed at how green Southampton is (and how hilly!) and how short the distance one has to travel to be out in the countryside. I’ve mostly been heading north as that direction seems to take me away from traffic and people the quickest and have now visited the municipal golf course, the Lords wood, Chilworth, North Baddesley and Rownhams using only the power of my own limbs.  My mountain bike has finally been properly off-road: though often the surface off-road is superior to that provided by the local roads for which my bike was purchased.  It has only taken me almost seven years and a global pandemic to properly explore where I live and finally being to understand its geography and how suprisingly close to each other some places are.  I have had a lot of fun lowering the tone of some of the wealthiest, and leafiest, enclaves of the city as I pass through checking out how the ‘other half’ live and critiquing their taste in building, colour-choice and gardens.

Talking of my bicycle, yesterday was a very exciting day for me and my faithful stead.  On 15 January 2018, the bike store where it was stabled was temporarily closed as it had been discovered to be ‘unsafe’ in some unspecified way.  I liked to imagine it had been built over a hellmouth.  So, for the last two and a bit years, my bike has been housed in a rather distant bike store: far enough away that I can use a bus to get there (albeit only travelling one stop) but relatively safe from demonic assault.  As the lock-down began, workmen were finishing off complete replacement of the roof of the store – which it now seems may have been the cause of the safety issue, though I shall be keeping a Slayer on speed-dial just in case – and yesterday it finally re-opened!  Callooh!  Callay!

With normal live culture off-the-cards, I have been enjoying a wider range of culturing offerings with a great geographical spread than might normally be the case.  This definitely seems to work better in modest doses: I don’t seem to have the powers of concentration to sit through a 2+hour play at home but up to an hour or so seems to lie within my mental grasp for now.  I’ve really been enjoying a range of contemporary dance on-line, but my highlight is probably the translation to the miniature stage of the ‘Hat’ trilogy by Jon Klassen being produced for the Little Angel Theatre.  These incredible works of puppet theatre are being created in isolation, by a small group of people that I know a little (which is how I discovered their work) as they used to be based at the NST in Southampton.  They are an absolute joy to watch with so many brilliant little details and leave me quite astounded at what talented people can create at home using very limited materials.  They also serve to highlight the serious risks involved in pursuing a life of larceny directed towards the milliner’s art: don’t say you haven’t been warned!  Watching the latest instalment on Sunday, I found myself reminded of Smallfilms and I can think of few high accolades I could offer.

Otherwise, life continues in broadly the same rut and I continue to look for pretexts to bring friends together on-line.  The latest attempt was for four absolute beginners to attempt to simultaneously get to grips with both Dungeons and Dragons and Roll20: the latter as a way to play the game together while apart.  This was an almost total failure thanks, in large part, to the total impenetrability of the UI for Roll20: it is the least intuitive platform I have ever come into contact with.  We spent most of four hours just trying to start a pre-prepared game with very limited success and we are all intelligent IT-literate people (well the other three are).  Still, it worked in its role as pretext and we had some silly fun and learned a number of important lessons.  For our next session, I think we will use D&D in its off-line form with old-fashioned pen and paper: perhaps aided by a webcam so that all can see the relevant information.  We might also attempt a simpler adventure designed to test out the main elements of game play as I spent most of Sunday attempting to get to grips with even the basic rules (having already read them once to get an overview).  These made understanding the rules of the Belgian electricity market (written in French) look positively easy: my work skills proved less transferable than I’d hoped.  Still, in theory at least, I have plenty of time on my hands (despite the more frequent and intense washing they are being subjected to) if rather limited mental capacity…

Still, like Syd Rumpo, I’ve rambled enough and I should finish before I risk screeving my cordwangle…