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…