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…