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…

Channelling Gogol: What even is time?

I seem to have become detached from my temporal moorings and have drifted free of traditional societal definitions of time.  The sun continues to rise and fall (or rather the earth continues to spin at roughly its wonted speed) and so days are still happening but otherwise the usual markers of the hour or day have largely been rendered (temporarily) obsolete.  I am fortunate to still have some work to keep me somewhat occupied with external stimuli and a few times each week this offers up a conference call scheduled for a specific time: oh the excitement of a timed appointment!  I am forced to admit that my digestive system and its rapacious need for new input, despite my – in theory – reduced energy expenditure also provides a solid indication of the passage of time.

I believe we are now well into week four of lockdown, which means that it is more than four weeks since I last felt the touch of another human being (or indeed mammal, or to be frank, member of phylum Chordata).  I have not yet reached the stage of laying on my own arm until it loses feeling to simulate the experience of being touched by another but, as this sentence demonstrates, the thought has crossed my mind.  On three occasions, when out acquiring victuals, I have encountered someone I know and have had a brief conversation at a range of a few metres.  Otherwise, almost all my interactions with other members of my species have been via a screen or phone.

While I think we all want to try and spend time with friends on-line, none of us have actually done very much from which to build the metaphorical champagne bottle which would launch a conversation: frankly, it’s a struggle to generate so much as a conversational micro-Helen.  To this end, it has been important to come up with pretexts to get together that can automatically generate the seeds of conversation that the presence of good company will germinate.  For the last three weeks, a bunch of habitués of the Guide Dog, fuelled in many cases by take-out from the aforementioned Guide Dog, have been using Monday night as Quiz night.  This week it was my turn to act as Inquisitor and set the questions.

My quiz had six rounds, with the first three based very loosely on categories in Trivial Pursuit: Science and Nature, Geography and Art and Literature.  On occasions like this, it is brought forcibly to my attention that what I consider to be general knowledge held by the vast majority of the populace is, in fact, just random crap that I have unusually both encountered and contrived to remember whereas most people probably won’t have even bumped into it, let alone committed it to the fleshy tablets of their mind.

Round four was a picture round, six pictures of local bands in local venues which I sourced from my very extensive camera roll of examples.  Preparing this round frittered away most of last Saturday morning as I simultaneously cheered and depressed myself remembering all the fun I’ve had at gigs over the last few years.

Round five, the Music Round, was very much my own innovation.  I found a free portion of the piano score on-line (generally the first page) for four well-known popular songs in a relatively tractable key (C, G or F Major) which I deliberately did not practice (very easily achieved).  For the round, I played each tune by sight-reading the score live (both hands and one pedal!) in front of an audience with the challenge for them to guess what I was musically massacring.  I played most tunes a couple of times in an attempt to maximise the portions of the music where the right notes were played in roughly the right order at least once.  I will admit that alcohol had been taken in order to give me the necessary Dutch courage to follow through with my own idiotic idea and it would appear that I tend to provide a live commentary (some of it only vocalisations) of my process.  I am told that this was by far the best round of the quiz and I believe was found very funny by those not playing the piano.  For me, it was somewhat traumatic at the time – I well remember half the audience (most of whom are far more skilled musicians than I and one of whom is my piano teacher) shouting B-flat when I’d played a natural during a piece in F Major – but I feel that one of my few useful functions at this (or any other) time is to bring some silliness into people’s lives.  Since I have mostly out-lived my shame, I am more than happy to sacrifice what passes for my dignity in this cause.  For my next quiz, could it be time for the recorder to take to the stage?

The final round was Ditloid Movie Night – I shall leave researching the word puzzle that is the Ditloid to the reader – which I thought was impossibly difficult but was found to be relatively easy by most of my victims.

I greatly enjoyed my time as Quizmaster and between the quiz and post-quiz drinking, the Zoom chat kept going until past midnight: no last orders when drinking from home!

The previous weekend, I had the idea to make use of my copy of Cards Against Humanity to play a game with friends.  This had a few challenges as only I possessed a copy of the all-important cards and while you can download a file to allow the cards to be printed, my friends do not have a printer.  Luckily, they are both developers and so the more talented half of the (N)YTMG team was able to knock up a card dealer in the (N)YTMG test environment from a spreadsheet I created from the Response cards.   We had to make some minor modifications to the standard rules of the game, replacing the Card Tsar with a more democratic selection of the winner of each round: a protocol I feel is a much better option all-round.  I am proud to say that we were able to achieve the move from Tsar to democracy without a single execution, very limited terror and almost no Purges.  I read out the Prompt cards with each player being able to use their acting skills to help sell their chosen Response(s).  It made for a thoroughly enjoyable, filthy and entirely unsafe-for-work evening of alcohol-fuelled silliness and can be heartily recommended, assuming any of your surviving maiden aunts are sufficiently broad-minded.

This weekend, I am going to attempt to stage a Frankenlunch – renamed Quaranstein – across Zoom: lunch is entering the cloud!  The idea is that everyone will cook the same dishes together in real-time, with me playing the part of Delia Smith and shouting drunken encouragement at half-time.  Excitingly, the opportunity exists to burn down multiple properties in southern England as we will all be playing with fire!  I am currently channelling my inner Cecil B DeMille to work out how to obtain sufficient camera coverage of my process without damaging any of the “cameras” (laptops) via heat, steam, fire or ingress of ingredients.  I feel quite certain that a report on proceedings will follow in due course through this august document of record.

Other than the foolishness described above, I continue to make it through lockdown more successfully than expected, by me at least.  I’d expected to be carted off in a wicker basket to spend the duration in a secure facility long before now.  Like everyone else, I feel low at times but mostly I seem to bounce back pretty quickly with the aid of live streamed culture and planning or participating in on-line idiocy with friends: I am a lucky chap!  Work has also been helpful in providing time away from my terrible flatmate and, somewhat to my surprise, Radio 3 has proven very successfully at starting each day with a positive vibe – and barely a mention of the C-word!

Today has also seen a major boost in morale on the home front.  The relatively flattering (i.e. dim) light above the bathroom mirror failed nearly three weeks ago and I have been forced to use the “big” light ever since.  At 54, morale is not improved by the sight of my crumbling visage being well lit: so many il/de-lusions have been shattered.  However, today, my heroic postman has delivered a replacement fluorescent tube and this morning’s ablutions could return to being performed in a state of tenebrous grace!

Anyway, I must away to consult with my DOP for tomorrow and prepare my dungeon for next weekend: further reports will follow…

Channelling Gogol: Weak Too

The release of this post into the wild indicates that the author has survived a second week of being locked-down. So far as I can tell, my tenuous grasp on sanity has not suffered to any significant degree.  Or perhaps I am locked in some sort of fugue state, hallucinating the writing of this post.  If so, I trust that my jacket is securely fastened at the back and that I am located in a room with nice soft, sound-proof walls.

In fact, for the seven days that my cold took to run through its main-sequence course, I only left the flat once for the very short walk to the dustbin: otherwise, at no stage did my feet touch the ground (for the avoidance of doubt, they did touch the floor of my flat as I have yet to master hovering – or, some would say, hoovering).   Prior to the last fortnight, I would have assumed that being trapped in the flat for a whole week with only myself (and briefly a wasp) for company would have had a seriously deleterious effect on my mental health: not so much pushing me over the edge, as firing me over it with the aid of some serious rocketry.  It would seem that my hastily cobbled-together coping mechanisms have been an unexpected triumph (or at least a disciplined strategic retreat).

I will admit that alcohol has played its role, with some very fine local beers helping to allow the evenings so pass more (subjectively) swiftly.  It also helps that for most evenings I am attending, albeit without leaving the flat, multiple gigs which provides a degree of continuity with my previous life.  I think I am also becoming better at attending virtually, nattering with friends in the Comments field (where permitted) definitely boosts the experience of being “there” together.  The music gigs I attended at the end of last week had a proper live feel of friends coming together to have a good time, despite being separated in space.

I’ve also enjoyed to a couple of storytelling gigs via Zoom which worked really well as the host can see the audience reaction and again I really feel part of a shared experience.

Since we can’t actually spend time “with” friends and family any more – though, there is some hope that one day the current period of physical isolation will end – I find we are all making more of an effort to come together in both dodgy sound and glorious technicolor [sic] through a variety of video conferencing platforms.  None of these are ideal, but they are better than both nothing and anything that has gone before and I fear that holodeck technology still lies some way in the future.  Plus, it must be noted, that holodecks do not have the best safety record: I fear that the powers of the Health and Safety Executive have become rather seriously eroded by the 24th Century.

As previously noted, a video conference can serve as a virtual pub and forum for jigsaw critique: subject, number of pieces and ‘playa’ style were all up for debate.  On Monday, some friends and I participated in our own virtual pub quiz which was a very silly and drunken success: Tuesday was something of a write-off as a result as lockdown seems to intensify the strength and impact of a hangover (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).  This is due to become a regular feature of Monday’s (meaning the quiz, but I strongly suspect that the foolish- and drunken-ness may be entangled at the quantum level) and in a couple of weeks I shall be Quizmaster.  I need to start channelling my inner Waley-Cohen and/or McGaughey to devise some suitably fiendish questions.  I should possibly also prepare some suggestive opening or closing remarks involving Michael Portillo, or an alternative, slightly improbable, celebrity of my own choosing.  Following my quiz-based excess, I did ‘enjoy’ my first dry day of the lockdown which I seem to have survived without major issues.  It seems I can, if absolutely necessary, function without the psychological crutch of alcohol: though I would not recommend it!

Communal music playing is still proving a challenge, though the Steam Town acoustic session has moved online with a degree of success.  I have even been encouraged (virtually bullied) to massacre a piece on the piano in each of the last two weeks.  While my pool playing does improve after a couple of pints, I don’t think we can say the same for my ability at the piano: I suspect knowing there is an audience may also adversely impact my stress levels which are already somewhat elevated by the current circumstances and my chronic insomnia.  In a fit of insanity, I have just agreed to take part in a recital on Monday with two work colleagues using a Hangouts Meet: I believe one of them is rather a good pianist, so my Easter weekend may be (certainly should be) spent in a feverish whirl of practice!

Virtually, I have been able to join in on the guitar when someone else is playing as long as my microphone is muted: this avoids the issues of latency which otherwise bedevil the dispersed band of musicians.  It also removes the embarrassment that arises when I “guess” the wrong chord from the usual folk/pop choices of I, IV or V: you’d think I’d have a one-in-three chance of being right (higher if I stick with I) but this theory does not seem to hold in the real world.  Musician friends still have hope that the right app and a direct Ethernet connection might make a proper session or gig a reality but I have my doubts and success would expose my secret incompetence.

To add to my hand-balancing in the lounge and occasional excursions into the terrifying wasteland of “the outside” for victuals, I have added skipping into my fitness regime.  I did start this before the cold but managed to break my old skipping rope in the first five minutes.  A new skipping rope has now been delivered and I have started skipping in the little garden area behind the flat.  I am not one of nature’s natural skippers and my style is decidedly pedestrian (or, to be more accurate, clumsy).  Despite my lack of style, it does raise the heart-rate while allowing me to remain suitably distant from others: if they get too close, they receive a skipping rope in the mazzard!  Yesterday, I managed 300 skips and so today my calves are taking their revenge for this maltreatment.  I think I need to re-learn how to skip as I don’t recall these issues at primary school, then again I was somewhat lighter back then…

The foolishness of friends on-line has also been regular source of filips to the old mental health: as has creating my own foolishness to share.  I would particular recommend the rather odd, daily Bring Out Your Dead updates from Here in Spirit (which also provides some very fine fiddle tunes and some liquor) for a few minutes of diversion in your day: “May the blessings of Bob, and all in this house, be upon you“.  You may need to watch them at least somewhat in sequence to follow the narrative arc…

Some days do prove more difficult than others – last night in particular the long-term lack of physical contact with others (which had just hit three weeks) became something of a challenge: I had the inexplicable desire to hug a particular friend who I have never hugged and it would definitely be weird were we ever to hug as we are neither of us natural huggers, though do both regularly find ourselves the object of the verb to hug (in its transitive guise).  However, the writing of this post seems to have boosted morale (well, it’s boosted mine, I can offer no warranty – express or implied – for its impact on yours) and there is fun stuff to look forward to later in the day.  I still find myself mildly frustrated by my lack of productivity – I am yet to become an acrobat, professional musician or even the possessor of a clean and tidy home – but I have the impression that everyone (bar a few outliers, or nutjobs as I shall call then) is in a broadly similar ocean-going vessel, so I shall try and cut myself some slack.  I should note that I am ‘the boss of me’ both literally and metaphorically, but have yet to seriously consider either furloughing myself or letting myself go: well, I have somewhat let myself go, I haven’t worn trousers for more than a fortnight but I do still dress for the day and shave regularly.  We will see whether I can still make this boast in my next post…

 

Channelling Gogol: Week the First

So, I have now been confined to my tiny home for just over a week with only rare excursions to acquire essentials: food and alcohol.  Not necessarily in that order and I am certainly not wasting the alcohol on my hands: I am cleansing from within.

So far as I can tell, and as there are no independent witnesses this diagnosis has larger error-bars than usual, I have yet to go clinically insane as a result of my reduced physical horizons (some would say that I should have been diagnosed and sectioned before this whole incident began).  My screen time has increased rather dramatically, as this is now my only way to attend gigs.  I believe last night, I managed to spend time at five gigs by local (or once local) artists and had also managed to slot in a talk and another gig at lunchtime.  So, in some ways, business as usual or even slightly ramped up as I no longer have to physically move between gigs.  It would seem that as long as I can stream, there seems to be no shortage of entertainment available to me and little pressure to resume my subscription to Netflix to obtain my fix.

I do miss actual physical contact with people, but video calling is not too dreadful a substitute and one that even a few years ago wouldn’t have been a possibility.  Taking advantage of this, I spent Wednesday night in a virtual pub (Stream Town, given that we couldn’t go to Steam Town) where matters grew suitably silly.  While the physical distance makes some forms of lunacy more difficult, others suddenly become possible as all participants are drinking in the privacy of their own home.  At one stage on Wednesday, for reasons I feel unable to explain at this remove, the face of one attendee was sketched onto the foot (the base) of another attendee by an artistic third.  Clearly the artist and the foot were physically co-located: though I feel in a world where telesurgery is possible, this need not be a hard constraint.  Could now be the time to start a Raspberry Pi/Arduino project so that our modern day sole artist can ply her trade without breaching the lockdown?  If nothing else, this foolishness demonstrated the heeling [sic] power of art: laughter burst forth across quite a span of south Hampshire.

With all of this extreme social distancing and frequent hand-washing (the flesh of my hands now has more of the feel of a thorny devil than of a middle-aged man), I found myself thinking on Wednesday morning that I should at least be spared my usual Spring cold.  Truly, we are the playthings of the gods for, before the sun had set, I found myself struck down with all the symptoms of a Spring cold.  There is approximately a 20% chance that I do have a, if not the, coronavirus: though I suppose I could have the more newsworthy variant, albeit in a mild and rather atypical form.  Just to be on the safe side, I have imprisoned myself in my tower and have not even let my hair down to allow a prince to ascend and ‘rescue’ me.  To be fair, given the current length of my hair, it will be several weeks before it will be sufficient to allow any minor royalty to use it to gain access to my garret: though with a haircut a distant dream, this may yet happen.

Luckily, the larder is fairly well stocked, though, annoyingly, the acquisition of the common cold seems to have significantly restored my appetite (I guess I’m now eating for two) and so food stocks are being depleted more rapidly than had been the case.  By the middle of next week,  I may have to send someone healthy out for provisions, just in case I’m at risk of spreading something more serious than some minor sniffles.

Being stuck at home, I fear I am degenerating in some ways.  I am now into my third day without socks and yesterday (a work day) I had a pint of Red Cat Mosaic Pale ale with my lunch.  At his rate, I could be giving Eliogabalus a run for his money before we are allowed to touch other people again…

With my renewed appetite, it is just as well that I can carry out a pretty complete hand-balancing work-out in the 6′ x 7′ space I can clear in my living room: sadly, I have yet to find any suitable point from which to hang my rings (oh-er!).  On Thursday morning, I even managed to have a full (and exhausting) PT session in the lounge via Zoom: I am now both working and working-out from home!  So, I feel there is some hope that, when this is all over, I will not have to be winched out through my massive front windows having grown too large to use the more modestly sized door.  In re-arranging the lounge to make retaining some degree of physical fitness feasible, I have accidentally stumbled upon a much better lighting and hifi solution for the room: something which has only taken almost seven years!

To spend some time away from a screen, I have been making good progress on my current, fascinating, read The Secret World by Christopher Andrew.  This is a huge tome and offers an alternative lens through which to view some major historical events.  It is subtitled ‘A History of Intelligence’ but Mr A could equally have gone with ‘A History of Stupidity’.  I can thoroughly recommend it and at some 760 pages of small print (I have to use my reading glasses) could prove a very handy companion in the days ahead.

In this locked-down world, the weekends are the hardest to manage.  During the week, the day is, if not filled, then at least regularly interrupted by work which provides a certain backbone of structure to the day.  At the weekend, I have to make my own fun which, in a life already far too self-directed, is not necessarily a boon.  Still, I shall muddle through.  This weekend, I shall be attempting to learn the skills required of a Dungeon Master with the hope that I can bring these skills to bear at the next Stream Town: I suppose the virtuality of the pub setting will allow us to more accurately capture the soft-porn-and-large-lizards vibe of Game of Thrones without risk of ejection or arrest, should we so choose…