It’s not King Lear…

I am fully aware that I have a rather pedestrian intellect and have access to no great wellsprings of creativity that lie within but, I think in common with everyone else, do like to have some creative outlets in my life. This has become even more important over the last pandemic-ridden months while proving simultaneously harder to accomplish thanks to the depletion of various forms of get-up-and-go and, indeed, focus. Despite the time on my hands, I have (disappointingly) not become a concert pianist and, if anything, my level of practice has probably declined rather than improved.

I haven’t exactly swamped GofaDM with new content either. However, on the positive side of the slate, in most weeks I have prepared, or at least continued, a new adventure in Generic Fantasy Landia which does require a degree of planning, plotting, improvisation and the creation of artwork of varying quality and styles. Last weekend, I did find myself attempting to sketch my own torso as the model for a statue and, to be honest, I had not turned turned the heating sufficiently high enough to make this entirely comfortable. Still, I like to think the result was recognisably a torso, though not really mine, though it did (intentionally) have two necks and no nipples. Later, during our time in GFL, I did find I was striking myself repeatedly over the head with a very sharp 8.25″ cook’s knife protected only by my Akubra Stockman’s hat. This was not a cry for help, or a slightly odd failed suicide, but was rather a practical demonstration of the quality of my decision making as Dungeon Master. With hindsight, I was placing a lot of (entirely justified, as it transpired) faith in the protective quality of my millinery. Both I and my hat were entirely unharmed by this practical demonstration and if Akubra wish to add its protective qualities to their advertising, I do have a GIF which they can use for a very modest fee…

I have now massively over-written six quizzes for a weekly Quiz Pub that a bunch of friends and I have been holding since the first lockdown. We have just passed quiz number 42, which I think shows a degree of commitment to a project, and an increasing number of memes have been spawned over the months. My ability with PowerPoint has also improved significantly, which may prove to be a marketable skill at some future stage in my career…

Finally, in the annals of “hasn’t he achieved a lot”, I put together a menu for a remote, Zoom-based dinner party each month with Quaranstein 10 coming up in 10 days time. Given the timing, it will have a Scottish theme…

Despite the suggestions at the start of the first lockdown, I have not written the modern King Lear – though I am far from alone in this particular failure. However, between Christmas and New Year, when I had limited paid work and, thanks to insomnia, a lot of waking hours on my hands, I penned a play! I may not be the modern Shakespeare but am, perhaps, an Ernie Wise de nos jours: my legs are not especially short or fat but they are at least decently hairy.

One of the (many) things that I have missed at the turning of the year was being able to see one (or even a few) Mummers Plays and so I decided that I would write my own. I felt this would represent tangible progress towards my intent to write my own pantomime, which has otherwise seen no movement in nearly three decades now. I felt a Mummers Play had some of the panto vibe but with the benefit of being considerably shorter and without the need for musical numbers or celebrity casting. The Mummers Play what I wrote is rooted in the tradition but does take a few liberties and is rather more overtly topical and satirical than I think is usual.

This Monday it was my turn to set the quiz, and in place of the usual Music Round (where I sight-read an unfamiliar piece of well-known music and play it on an unfamiliar or poorly practiced instrument to a combination of hilarity and horror), I decided we would hold a performance of “the play”. Everyone was forewarned of this alarming development and volunteers sought to play some of the dramatis personae. Well, as 9pm on Plough Monday arrived an unexpectedly (worryingly) large audience had assembled in the mighty Zoom Theatre and it was time for the, entirely unrehearsed (one doesn’t want to lose any of the immediacy of live performance) world premiere of my play.

The performance both went and was received far better than I could have imagined in my wildest dreams. The cast of strolling players were excellent, all entering into the spirit of the thing and many providing their own props and costume and even providing suitable voices. As the writer, I played three (mostly) small roles and more-or-less managed the required costume changes, though rather more slowly than would have been ideal, and I do need to work on a south Manchester accent. Even the audience had a role, as my version of a Mummers Play includes a Greek Chorus (and obeyed at least two of the three unities) and so they had a chance to join (another nod to panto). Between us, and despite a minor degree of chaos at my end, we brought my words to ridiculous, uproarious, joyous life.

So far as I can remember, this is the first time that anything I’ve written has been performed on even a virtual stage: at most, I’ve read out a short eulogy or speech I’ve prepared in advance. The combination of a group of people bringing my idiot words to life and an appreciative audience is a seriously intoxicating one. I think it is the most fun I have yet had on Zoom – and I have managed a surprisingly large amount of fun on Zoom over the last 10 months – and I stayed on a high for several hours afterwards. It did play merry hell with my sleep hygiene but was absolutely worth it! I am now seriously on the look-out for an excuse/subject for another short, somewhat comic play: though that will be the difficult sophomore play, people will now have expectations…

As the play was such a success, I thought I should publish it here – while recognising that it should (a) date quite quickly and (b) mean very little to anyone outside the UK (and probably to many within it!). Indeed, it went so well, that we are going to try and record a version for posterity (or future blackmail material).

Anyway, after not too much more than 1000 words of ado, GofaDM proudly presents the play what I wrote…

The Plague’s the Thing…

Dramatis Personae

CharacterInspiration (where relevant)
Old Father Christmas
“Prince” GeorgeBoris Johnson
The ExpertScientists
Pestilence
FamineJacob Rees Mogg
Death
The Slithy GoveMichael Gove
The DoctorDominic Cummings
The StrikerMarcus Rashford
The TurkUgur Sahin und Özlem Türeci
The CroniesA Greek Chorus of the Profiteers

Play Text

Enter Old Father Christmas...

Old Father Christmas:
In comes I, Old Father Christmas; Welcome or welcome not,
I 'ope old Father Christmas will ne’er be forgot.
'Ere but a short time to stay,
I'll show you sport and larks afore I must away.
A tale of deeds most dark that do afflict the land.
Corruption in the highest ranks soon you’ll understand.
As our players do strut and fret: behold here comes the first buffoon...
Now immorality will be exposed on this, our virtual stage, praise be to Zoom!

Enter “Prince” George...

“Prince” George
In comes I, Prince George, from England I claim to spring
Though I be a clown, with lasses I’ve had many a fling.
Children I’ve sired, ask me not to make a count.
I’m no good with detail, and don’t know the exact amount.
For naught but my own ambition will I be seen to care.
If trouble be sighted, you’ll find me in the frigidaire.!

Enter The Expert…

The Expert
In comes I, the Expert, a seeker after truth and fact
Against those that spread cant and lies will I react.
With reasoned argument I’ll share the science
A method in which all folk can place reliance.

“Prince” George
Be gone! Your expertise is not welcome in my demesne.
The sheep must accept my words, even when they sound insane.

The Expert
My honour will not allow me to quit this fray.
Do your worst; the truth must see the light of day!

The Cronies
See Prince George strap on his mighty shield of bluster
Though his sword be sharp his thrusts lack lustre.
But the Expert has no weapon but his pipette
We fear the knavish fool may slay him yet…

Prince George and the Expert fight; the Expert is killed…

Old Father Christmas
You have slain expertise, does this not your conscience prick?

“Prince” George
Ha! Not a bit! Their insistence on logic and facts made me sick!
My pie-crust promises I no longer needs defend nor discuss,
Just command them to be writ large on the sides of a bus!

Prince George exits…
Pestilence, Death and Famine enter and menace the audience….

Pestilence
In comes I, Pestilence, my fell gifts to share,
Wherever two or more are gathered, I too am there

Death
In comes I, the Reaper Grim
My harvest now I’ll gather in!
In this charnel house I’ll set up shop,
I see no-one here to make me stop.

Famine
With jobs and savings lost, the children starve
But I am famine and this makes me laugh!
So many holes in the safety net:
Loren ipsum dolor sit amet.

Prince George returns…

“Prince” George
Come to me o’ slithy Gove, cease your gyring in that wabe.

The Slithy Gove
[whispers to audience] In come I, the slithy Gove, I smarm to your face and do your lab-
ours but to slip this dagger into your back is my true desire
[to the Prince] What is your bidding, most sagacious sire?

“Prince” George
Despite my efforts, we have but horsemen three.
How might I complete the set? Fetch thee War for me!

The Slithy Gove
Gunboats to the channel I’ll now dispatch.
No European shall share our fishy catch!

The Cronies
Prince George, you kingdom is in disarray
The dead stack up like cordwood, have you naught to say?

“Prince” George
My policies have but sped them on their way,
With pre-existing conditions, they already stood in Death’s foyer.
These many dead are but of the common herd,
Their sacrifice will deliver immunity: you have my word!

The Cronies
He offers us his word, the Prince of Lies
With confused, half-cocked rulings he stupifies.

We fear for our fortunes as the economy tanks...

“Prince” George
Here, have a billion!  More will follow, no need for thanks…

Pestilence places his hand upon Prince George’s shoulder…

Suddenly, I feel mighty queer!  *cough* *cough* *cough*
I am a great Prince, or did you not hear?

Pestilence
I care not for mortal titles, your lies, your fakèd news
I shall stake my claim upon whom soe’er I choose!

“Prince” George
My cough is dry, all scents have gone.
I have no time for indisposition,
Summon now my crack physician!

The Slithy Gove
Your quack, o Prince, is purblind and in haste hies he to County Durham.
You must isolate alone, ‘til his return bearing some curative nostrum.

The Cronies
O great nation, rudderless with its shoy-hoy leader struck down:
Or perhaps ‘tis better off in the absence of the scruffy clown?

Enter the Doctor in great haste…

The Doctor
In comes I, Doctor Dom: famed for my goings and my cummings.
Be not afraid, I’ll soon return you to your Tweedledumming!

The Cronies
What can you cure, Doctor?

The Doctor
I can fix scrofula, dropsy, palsy and gout,
Galloping knob-rot I’ll soon root out!
Apoplexy, ague and gripe:
Each can I swiftly put to flight!

The Cronies
What is your fee, Doctor?

The Doctor
Ten pounds is all, praise be to the NHS our great protector.

Sorry, I had forgotten that you were a private patient
But at ten thousand pounds, for speedy service, the cost is not imprudent.

“Prince” George
OK, OK, a grateful nation will pay whate’er you will.
Just, I beg you, exercise now your skill!

The Doctor
Swallow first this pill, ‘tis but six inches across.
It kills 99% of germs, just like Domestos.
Then place these drops against your lips
Every night afore ye kips.
In a mere two weeks of this regime you’ll find
Rude good health restored and peace of mind!

If you’ll now pay my fee, I must away:
Many more opticians must I visit this day!

The Doctor exits, clutching his cash and smirking…

The Cronies
All seems lost, the country is in a parlous state.
Our millions may not save us, who’ll come to our aid?

Enter the Striker and the Turk...

The Striker
In comes I, the Striker, my skill with boots and ball has made me rich.
But I come of humble stock, when young with hunger did my belly often itch.
Come nation, unite! Throw off the chains of Mammon!
If we all pull together we can soon rout Famine!

Famine
Argh! Those with little, spend even that to feed the poor.
Even weakened Hospitality shows me the door!
I am mastered and now must flee this forum:
Infinitus est numerus stultorum!

Famine flees before the Striker and his allies…

The Turk
In comes I, the Turk, founder of Biontech
The plans of Pestilence soon I’ll wreck!

Pestilence
Not so fast, I am not finished yet! 
See, my R number rises: I am still a threat!

The Turk
We now have all we need for your defeat.
We need but time and our victory is complete!
We must follow science to complete your doom.
Then all can celebrate together, in the flesh, no need of Zoom!

The Striker and the Turk approach the fallen Expert…

Old Father Christmas
See, the death of Expertise is exaggerate.
He doth but sleep and for this time didst wait.
Rise now and take your rightful place,
We need your wisdom as to vaccinate we race!

As the Expert rises, Death and Pestilence retreat...

The Expert
As from cumbrous death I rise, I find a world transformed.
While some will always peddle lies, the people seek the well-informed!

Old Father Christmas
Remember, gentles all, that Pestilence spreads on the air,
Drafts and distance our are allies here.
If for some more months we steadfast stay,
With summer’s lease will come much freer days!

"Prince" George returns...

“Prince” George
Be gone, old fool, your hopes still languish far away
My confederacy of dunces still holds sway.
I’ve cancelled Christmas at the 11th hour;
Mendacity and incompetence will rule while I still hold power!

Old Father Christmas
Methinks I hear a final gust of wind from that buffoon
His support is melting and, like a snowman, he will join it soon!

Be of good cheer, for our tale now all is told!
Applaud our players, whose skills at acting are manifold!

Now is time to wave adieu to bright showbiz!
Now return we all to the sodding Quiz!

© MMXXI

Unpaid debts

The first post of the bright (or, more accurately, grey) new year will come in two parts, linked by little more than the applicability of the title. Then again, this blog does make claims about juxtaposition and I feel it incumbent upon me to make good on this threat from time to time.

Our first thread will once again pick away at my inability to sleep, a theme which this blog is forced to return to on a regular basis. As we passed the winter punctuation that is Christmas and with a return, once again, to full lockdown for me, if not for much of the country or the government, it eventually became obvious – even to me – that I was sleeping far too little and ineffectively for it to fulfil its role in the vital nightly re-building of the shattered ruins of my mind. It took a little longer and the prospect of having to be vaguely functional for money, with the return to work, that I started to do something about it.

In the prolonged absence of human company, or a bubble to call my own, I have been forced to lean on video conferencing to retain social connection. This is a lot better than nothing but doesn’t come without cost – and I’m not talking of the modest fee to maintain a Zoom account. I am coming to realise that the social performance required (or at least delivered, wanted or not) when I am with friends on Zoom does come at some emotional cost which in the depths of winter is proving harder to repay than it was in the spring and summer. It also means a lot of screen time in the evening and into the night, which is not generally associated with good sleep hygiene. It became clear that something was amiss when I woke each morning with the same thought as a bowl of petunias brought, improbably, into existence at some significant height above the surface of the planet Magrathea, viz “Oh no, not again”. This did not seem a healthy way to approach continued existence and so I decided I should probably do something about it: and hiring an assassin during lockdown is something of a challenge…

My initial strategy to fill my life with ever more baroque divertissement did provide a certain degree of entertainment – I have designed my own currency, written a topical play and made a massively over-elaborate PowerPoint presentation for my next quiz (well, I had to fill all those extra hours of not being asleep somehow and I feel all of these things could stand me in good stead in the post-apocalyptic wasteland into which we shall some day emerge) – but did not, sadly, represent a solution. A more desperate plan to eschew alcohol, I was pleased to find, was also ineffective. So, after bailing early on New Years’ Eve – though being in the presence of friends did keep my awake for a good two hours longer than I expected to be feasible (which may, itself, not have been such a wise decision), I decided that I need to implement much stronger sleep hygiene. This has meant no evening Zoom calls for the last eleven days and so no synchronous human contact in that period either (well, other than a brief sight of the back of the postman’s or delivery person’s head as they wisely flee my potentially infected presence). It also meant, as things re-opened after the lacuna between bank holidays, the acquisition of rather more serious chemical aids to slumber. This combination does seem to be bearing fruit in that I have started sleeping rather more successfully, have been able to function convincingly at work and have managed to cut the chemical assistance.

However, both tonight and tomorrow night, I have Zoom commitments and so we will see how well the sleep survives or whether I return to running up an ever rising debt. I have programmed my screen to switch to its most orange possible state at 21:00 as a partial defence (and to feel like I’m living in the future) but only time will tell whether I am ready to rejoin the virtual world…

It is now time to start down the second tine of our conversational (yes, I know you can’t join in) fork (I am imagining a pitchfork, if that helps with this metaphor). A couple of days ago, the journalist and writer (and so much more) Katherine Whitehorn passed away. I’ve read a few of her columns over the years and heard her essays on Radio 4 but for me, as for so many more, she is most significant as the writer of Cooking in a Bedsitter. This came into my possession shortly after starting university in 1984 and discovering both that food does not magically appear in front of me and that mid-80s ready meals barely qualified as food. It was she, rather than my mother, who taught me my first important lessons in cookery and made me into the Quransteining monster I am today. I should note that my mother did act as an inspiration that cooking meals was something that people did on a daily basis, that food should be tasty and made from recognisable ingredients and as a very valuable source of recipes in days long before the internet.

I like to imagine that I repaid the debt to my mother substantially better than I did to Ms Whitehorn who, I assume, never knew of the formative role she played in my food life. However, I’m sure she must have been aware how important she was to generations of young adults leaving home for the first time and taking their first faltering steps with a baby Belling. Many influences came later but she was the first and there are still aspects of her teaching that I use to this day: she even had some impact on my becoming a (terrible) vegetarian.

Perhaps it’s my age but this experience of not properly recognising the contribution someone has made to my life until they have gone is becoming increasingly common. Then again, I think it might just be the human condition that we take things largely for granted until they are no longer there. A thought which brings us back to today and missing human company, pubs, restaurants and the glorious cultural scene this city had right up until mid March last year. I can but hope that some of it can survive the degree of vandalism being delivered by the current government (through a combination of indifference, stupidity and conscious choice): it does put me rather in mind of the Taliban or the Commonwealth under the Protectorate. I, for one, am looking forward to the Restoration, undesirable as a leader though Charles II(I) was in many ways…

Veil of Tiers

As we stand on the cusp of 2021, I like to imagine that even our government may come to accept that feeding the population on a constant diet of lies and (being generous) half-truths does not appear to confer any viral immunity nor to slow its spread. Indeed, one could make a strong argument that it has made the impact on sickness, death and the economy much, much worse.

In related news, throwing hundreds of millions of pounds of public money at their friends to provide equipment to aid in the fight against COVID, despite the recipients having no visible capabilities in the relevant fields and without putting in place even the most basic of protections in the purchasing contracts, again seems to be playing into the virus’ hands (or spike proteins). I had thought no-one could make Chris Grayling appears relatively competent after the imaginary ferry debacle but how wrong I was: the bar can always sink lower!

When the government, as it regularly does, describes itself as “following the science” I tend to assume this is in much the way that Jack the Ripper followed various of the women of the East End of London. It is, technically, following but as a prelude to appalling abuse prior to leaving their bloody corpses for others to find.

As the country of my birth and home stands as a dire warning to others, and with the only other country accessible to most of us the one from whose bourn no traveller returns, I am oft reminded of the ominous words of Long John Silver, “Them that die’ll be the lucky ones“.

It is against this substrate of every changing, confusing and delayed, to long beyond the 11th hour, restrictions and uncontrolled viral transmission that a chap must make his life as best he can.

As the last bells of Christmas Day faded, I found myself moving into Tier IV: this is basically full lockdown without being called lockdown and with additional movement restrictions as I live quite close to the border of two regions in lower tiers. I suspect this will last months rather than weeks and fully anticipate the next time that I am indoors with another human (other than a supermarket) will be on 22 February when I am scheduled to give blood. Excitingly, there will also be physical contact with another human: albeit via a rather hefty needle but at this stage I’ll take what I can get!

This move to effective (more than) lockdown came as rather less of a shock to me that it did to our lords and masters and so I have done what I can to gird my loins, both physical and mental, for the challenges ahead.

Earlier in the month, two of my three bikes were stolen – despite very serious protection – and I needed to source at least one replacement: something of a challenge in the current environment. Nevertheless, I have succeeded thanks, in no small measure, to the sterling work of Halfords in Fareham. My new bike is my first belt drive bike and technically doesn’t exist: it was merely a glitch in the stock control system of Halfords brought about by a rather complex set of circumstances involving a repair of a bike, responsibility for which was inherited from the now defunct Cycle Republic in Southampton. Despite the fact that my bike never existed, it was very much the Lieutenant Kijé of the life a-wheel (which has provided it with its name), somehow the chaps at Halfords managed to source one: how is unclear given that there was no stock anywhere in the country. So, on the Sunday before Christmas, I boarded a bus – my first use of public transport since March – and headed out to the borders of Fareham to collect my new steed. The bus was almost as empty as it could be, comprising for most of its journey me and the driver – for two very brief periods, one other passenger joined to go about 400 yards (one can but wonder why they bothered) – and so despite fears that I was indulging in an extreme sport, my journey felt very safe. The new bike is really rather splendid and eerily quiet as there is neither chain nor derailleur to clatter or clank as I trundle along.

One the days with generally viable weather, I am now out on the Lieutenant introducing him to the roads and countryside of the Southampton area and getting the poor lad rather wet and muddy. The degree of semi-permanent flooding is reasonably impressive, though readily trumped by other parts of the country. Much of Hampshire does look rather stunning in the low slanting light of winter and it does my soul (or what passes for it) good to be out of the flat and in the fresh air. The pictures I take on these excursions are often used on the dreich days when I am stuck in the flat (it’s a lovely flat but I am spending too much time within its rather modest walls) to lift my spirits and help me though some of the more difficult days of this bleak midwinter.

On the Wednesday before Christmas, the weather forecast did not look great but did hold out the tiniest glint of hope, and I rightly guessed it was my last chance to travel into or through the New Forest, so I took myself and my car out to Keyhaven to recharge both of our batteries. The weather was wonderful: blowing a hooley with dramatic skies and mostly sunshine. I, or at least my windward side, did get a little wet for a short period but, to be honest, that only added to the fun. I saw so many birds, had a grand walk along a shingle spit to a fort and lighthouse (which I had for my own exclusive use) and played chicken with the sea: making and then watching the erasure of my footsteps in the sands of time. I had forgotten how much I love walking along the coast in really strong wind: it is so bracing! As I mostly cycle these days, I tend to view the wind as my mortal foe but on foot it just adds spice to a stroll. I could not wipe the smile off my face for hours after a finished my walk (and the weather deteriorated more seriously) and sang very lustily along to Voices at the Door on my drive home.

Christmas itself was spent, as it was for so many, home alone: without even the serious prospect of some comedy burglars against whom to pit my wits. This was the first of my 55 Christmases spent away from my, diminished, family and we did our best with Zoom. Luckily, I had predicted that I would not be with my family back in November and so we were well prepared, presents having been exchanged via the post in plenty of time (and using just the one box and set of packing material: I come of thrifty stock!). I have to say that Zoom Christmas worked very well – if we ignore Windows 10 deciding it absolutely had to install an update as lunch was due to start – and we were able to have most of the normal festive fun with me 100 miles from everyone else. The traditional board game was replaced by the Zoom-friendly computer game Keep Talking and No-one Explodes, which I can heartily recommend despite being blown to kingdom come on three occasions by my own flesh and blood. I was even allowed, requested in fact, to murder some traditional carols on the accordion!

In some ways, I preferred Zoom Christmas as I could choose my own food without inconveniencing others: seared venison on a red wine and bramble jus, mustard mash and espinacas con piñones followed by homemade Xmas puddings (from an original concept by Delia Smith which I mostly followed). I could also drink freely and got to bed pleasingly early, leading to an unusually productive Boxing Day. Such a success was my first attempt at a steamed pudding that I plan on getting my mouth round my own spotted dick later today!

Well, I can’t dilly-dally here, I have a satirical Mummers Play to write. At present, this has rather too many ideas and dramatis personae stuffed into it to entirely fit within the genre but I am hoping it may grow leaner as I draft the text. There is a first time for everything (though hopes in the readership of GofaDM cannot be running high)…

Hitting the wall…

I believe this a phrase used by marathon runners around the 20 mile mark when they reach the end of their resources (especially their glycogen resources, I’m not sure anyone has been hit by the sudden loss of HR mid-run). At this stage I should make clear that I have not taken up the running of marathons, indeed my running has dramatically declined since the pandemic struck. The pandemic and its consequences may lie at the root of this post but it has not yet affected my sanity that badly (or at least not in that way). My only reason to run, given the sterling work our ancestors did on the wheel, is to catch an almost missed train or bus and I have not used public transport since mid March. Cyclists also experience a similar phenomena but they, more entertainingly, call it the ‘bonk’.

As I am more of a cyclist than a runner, and more of a reader than either, I will state that the bonk (or a form, thereof) struck last night, from around 19:30. In fact it also struck on Sunday afternoon around three o’clock. I don’t think I can claim depletion of my glycogen stockpile on either occasion as I had taken in more than enough of the necessary raw materials and expended very few of them in the form physical exertion: I feel my body had a lot more phosphorylation to give.

No, I feel the issues lie in my head, as so many of my issues do: without being tethered to the deadweight of my brain, and its associated ‘personality’, I feel my body would have an absolute ball. I feel my approach to COVID, developed without access to a Defence Against the Dark Arts Master (which, to be honest, was probably an advantage based on the written evidence of the recruitment policies pursued by Hogwarts) has been to throw myself with ever more vigour into an ever expanding range of activities while achieving ever declining quantities of recuperative sleep. I think I may well have exhausted the ability, and indeed desire, of my body to grant yet further extensions to the overdraft my brain has been running up.

The last week or so has been more than usually trying as well, which may not have helped. During the week, it moved from a likely outcome to a dead cert that, for the first time since birth, I will not be spending Christmas with what remains of my family. While for me this represents the loss of a familiar ritual, important in the ordering of any human’s mental health, it is not in itself that great a loss for me. To some extent, at the age of almost fifty-five, I’d been looking to start a new ritual: though this was absolutely not the year to do so. However, I feel really bad that I can’t (safely, though at the time of writing I could legally) spend time with my Dad who has had a really tough past 18 months and lost his partner of 60 years back in September.

Then on both Sunday and Monday mornings last week, I woke to discover that one of my bikes had been stolen from a locked bike shed, despite being protected by the most solid Sold Secure Gold locks that money could buy: locks of different types in an attempt to defeat even the fairly serious well-tooled felon . Not a sign of bike or lock remained: to such a degree, that I began to doubt my own memory of cycling home on them from their last excursions. I then spent the first half of the week desperately searching though old receipts and photographs trying to find the necessary proof that I owned both the bicycles, their accessories and the locks. Somewhat miraculously, by Friday my claims had not only been processed but approved and the money is already in my bank account. Truly astounding performance by ETA (the insurers, rather than the Basque terrorists – so far as I know). Nevertheless, not a series of events which were conducive to quality time in the embrace of Morpheus.

I have now acquired the most solid motorbike chain that I could find which is proof against any commercially available bolt cutters, the use of liquid nitrogen and lump hammer and will even hold off an angle grinder for a significant number of minutes. On the downside, it does weigh more than any bike I have every owned (in fact, roughly as much as two bikes) and so is only practical to use when at home or by a fitter chap – but this does seem to be the main area of weakness in my current security arrangements. Acquiring replacement bikes at this time of year is a more time consuming process…

Then, of course, we have the ongoing substrate of anxiety that is the never-ending, clown-car crash of our current government. Not just the ever growing pile of corpses that may be laid at its kakistocratic door, the steady destruction of most of what I hold dear and continuing impoverishment of many of my friends but, despite four years to plan, we can look forward to further accelerant being added to the insordescent, nefandous conflagration in a fortnight.

I feel the combined effect of these events, coupled with the more general diminution of my usual coping strategies and the short dreich days of December has somewhat overwhelmed mind, body and joie de vivre. Last night, despite 11 hours of lying down in darkness, coupled with total exhaustion and a sleeping tablet, I struggled to obtain even one cycle of REM sleep. In consequence, the author is even more of a gibbering wreck than usual (and will be blaming all and any errors in this post on this circumstance).

Despite these rather trying recent events, life is full of joys. Last Saturday, in particular, was unusually full of treats. In the afternoon, I took my surviving bike up to Romsey and the the nature reserve at Fishlake Meadows. (The surviving bike is being held in a top secret, secure facility and, at the risk of tempting Fate, seems to be fine). The weather was not too bad for December and, unlike my last visit, no insect life choose to feast on my blood. The low slanting light of winter looked glorious and the nature reserve was a haven of peace and birdsong. More excitingly, it was also a haven for at least one kingfisher which I saw not once but thrice. This was my first (and second and third) ever sighting of a kingfisher in the flesh (both mine and its) and it was quite magical: it was unbelievably colourful in real life, despite the number of times I have seen them captured on film. I was also granted my closest every encounter with a flock of long-tailed tits: always bringers of joy to my life.

After a Thai curry at the Guide Dog, by chance cotemporaneous with a number of friends who were doing the same, I walked up onto the Common to take advantage of the clear skies for some star watching. Despite my total failure to see any of the Geminids (I really must carry my distance glasses more often), the skies were a riot of stars and my constellation and star spotting is definitely improving. I have to say that some of our ancestors had quite the active imaginations when it came to naming apparently entirely amorphous collections of stars. At least insofar as their work has been passed down to me, the astronomers from the golden age of the Islamic Golden Age seem, more wisely and scientifically, to have stuck to naming individual stars – and certainly seem to have kept themselves busy!

The pandemic and its associated vicissitudes have given me a wonderful opportunity, when the weather permits, to indulge my real – but previously largely ignored – love of birds and astronomy. A few weeks ago, when an unsuccessful attempt to break into the bike store rendered my bikes safe but inaccessible, I gave my car a treat and/or coated it in some fresh mud and drove down to Keyhaven. The weather was not the best and I was the only person out who had chosen to wear shorts, but there were so many birds. I was particularly taken by the dark-bellied brent geese who looked quite stunningly dapper in flight, landing, swimming and take-off. A relatively short walk took the full two hours of parking I’d acquired (eventually, I have had no change since March and paying via an App is all well and good, unless your car park is in an area with no viable internet or even mobile phone signal) as I kept being distracted by fresh feathered wonders. My walk also revealed an enormous cache of sloe bushes still bedizened with sloes but, like the fool I am, I had no suitable vessel in which to gather them.

As the above suggests, I am really rather lucky in my place of residence: even if it is infested with rather too effective bike thieves. Still, a bicycle has been my primary mode of transport for approaching 15 years and these are my first losses – so I suppose I haven’t done too bad and the bikes were both well depreciated and successfully insured.

As I’ve just seen the word count, I probably ought to bring this post in to land. My hurt mind is in need of sore labour’s bath and perhaps the successful achievement of the death of at least one day’s life. So, the plan is a very early night – frankly I’m planning to take advantage to the early sunset and aim for a late afternoon. I shall couple this with a stronger sleeping draft: perhaps some dwale if I can source the necessary porcine bile, herbs and opium in the next couple of hours. I’m just off to Waitrose, I’m sure they should be able to sort me out…

Commissions

As we find ourselves in the difficult sophomore lockdown, I find myself musing that while some increase in restrictions was inevitable given the season and lack of a cure (though better news does seem to be on the horizon), there still seems to be plenty of blame to lay at the feet of those in charge (or indeed, those until very recently in charge). In times where knowledge and expertise are becoming ever more specialised, it is interesting to note the very wide ranging ignorance and incompetence that our leaders are able to bring to bear on the pressing issues of 2020. I’m sure the heady mix of ambition and venality which they seem to be mainlining must be acting as a skill multiplier…

So, once again my excursions must meet some (poorly drafted and thought-out) definition of essential and I cannot see friends in the flesh for the foreseeable. I am once again forced back on my own, unleavened company. The weather is rather less clement than during the debut lockdown but I am still managing to get out reasonably often on the bike: this very morning I had a glorious ride to the north, slightly diverted thanks to some very impressive flooding which I saw a more foolhardy cyclist attempt to traverse and come very wetly a-cropper. The remaining leaves, still clinging to the apron strings of their arboreal parent, were looking quite stunning in the slanting winter sunlight. While my waterproofs have been earning their place in the squad in the last few weeks, today not a drop of precipitation marred my ride.

So, while the storm clouds gather and wind and rain lash my garret, I must find ways to entertain myself on the dark winter afternoons (and indeed, mornings, evenings and nights). The piano accordion is really coming into its own and I am definitely making progress with both hands. As a mark of my level of mastery, to the best of my knowledge, none of my neighbours has yet sought to depart this veil of tears at their own hand citing my instrument in their exit note.

However, I need more to keep the psychological wolf from my straw-built mental fortress and to provide fresh (or at least tolerably stale) content for GofaDM. Talking of the tolerably stale, last month’s Quaranstein has had a rather a major impact on the oldest foods in my larder: my cornflour (best before August 1999) and hoisin sauce (best before September 2013) have both passed to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns. It has been an oddly moving experience, like saying goodbye to a faithful companion: that cornflour has moved with me four times in its life and I literally have younger friends! (I have kept the packet for the memories and because artistic friends seem to rate it very highly!)

So, I found myself pondering new, somewhat idiotic projects, which I could run from home over the coming weeks/months. Last year I had the Lundiary to keep me occupied but where is equivalent inspiration going to come from in 2020? As luck would have it, into my life has just come Music to Eat Cake By from the excellent Lev Parikian (imaginary bird and orchestral maestro). This was funded through Unbound and comprises forty essays, each written on a subject proposed by a funder. The essays each have a fixed word count, starting at 4000 and reducing by 100 words per essay until the final one has just 100 words. I have no particular need of external funding, unlike so many at this time – so please support as many local artists, bookshops, venues, pubs, cafes etc that you can: I can only eat, drink and read/watch/listen to so much. However, I quite fancied stealing the idea as a way to externally source content for this organ. Forty essays might be a little ambitious and a limit of 4000 words would only pander to my tendency toward digression and rambling on, so I was thinking of a more modest ten essays with lengths varying from 100 to 1000 words.

So, I am throwing down the gauntlet to you, the GofaDM readership, to suggest topics on which you would like (or would be willing to endure) me writing a blogpost (the word ‘essay’ does seem rather too grand for what I do). These can be on any topic: whether you believe me to know or care about it or not, researching in some of my many areas of ignorance may prove to be much of the fun (for me, it may be torture for the wider world). I shall feel entirely free to select ten topics that appeal to me and may take the title/topic in whatever way takes my fancy. I may also share this request with my other social media ‘friends’ to increase the pool of suggestions.

This idea occurred to me a couple of days ago but this morning, in an entirely unrelated development (unless my flat is bugged) I was commissioned (no fee involved, in case HMRC are watching) to write a review of a new EP which came into my hands a couple of weeks ago. This could act as a useful testbed for my latest stupid idea and open up a new career as a music reviewer. Certainly, I am taking it as a ‘sign’ that this is one of my good ideas…

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…