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…


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