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…

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: 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…

Channelling Gogol: The Riddler takes charge…

It would appear that we are in week 8 of lockdown and I seem to have blacked out, or just forgotten, a couple of weeks of confinement.  I had already come to realise that my short-term memory was entirely shot but I thought once information had moved into long-term storage it was relatively secure…

As of Wednesday (I think – but don’t quite me on that), the lockdown has been somewhat eased using a set of rules which makes Dungeons and Dragons look easy and which seem to have been developed by one Edward Nash (sometime resident of Gotham City).  I must say I was expecting at least one of the clauses to start “My first is in pandemic but not in virus” but assume this approach was rejected as lacking sufficient challenge.  Luckily, as a devotee of Only Connect and master of utility regulation, I believe that, given time, I may be able to prepare some York Notes to help members of the government get to grips with the current “do’s and don’ts”.  Logicians who had previously been needed only when trying to ship a bag of grain, hen and fox across an inland waterway using only a rather modestly sized boat are presumably now on speed dial.  Families across England are desperately trying to work out the minimum number of visits to the park which would allow two grandparents to meet both of their grandchildren (from a safe 2m) without breaking the law.  More challenging variants of the problem consider the situation where the whippersnappers issued from different parents and, for very advanced students, are both members of step families.  I can’t help feeling that those who spent the lockdown building up reserves of yeast, toilet roll and hand sanitiser are now wishing they had spent their time stockpiling qubits….

My own grandparents were well ahead of the game, working as cleaner and gardener for families in Epsom as early as the 1970s.  Even had they not passed to their eternal reward some years ago (allowing me to visit them at any time and get up as -up-close-and-personal as I wish) they would not now be pondering NP-complete problems and wishing their only grandson had been slightly less useless at his 3rd year degree module “Combinatorial optimisation”.

Talking of our more aged citizens, I can’t help wondering if the prioritised re-opening of garden centres and golf clubs is an admission by the government that their care home policy has not done enough to defuse the pensions time-bomb and old people need to be pro-actively increasing their risk profile.  As a society, we can no longer rely on our pensionsers being sent to their doom, we need to encourage them to actively seek it out!  From a certain point of view, it is oddly public spirited of a political party to throw so many of its own supporters under the bus…

Still, that’s probably enough about the new legal substrate on which we must now seek to accrete the epitaxial layers of our lives.  The new films of my own life continue to be laid down pretty much as before though I feel the existing modes of divertissment are losing some of their efficacy through over-use.  Nevertheless, I find it best not to cast my thoughts too far into the future.  What will be left of the world we knew and its culture when, or if, this is some day over does not comfortably bear detailed contemplation.

I have acquired an upgraded webcam on the basis of the amount of time I now spend being seen only via a distant view screen.  While this does have a number of advantages and means I can use my work desktop for video calls, its improved image resolution has proven rather horrific when I am forced – as seems to be the case with most video conferencing apps – to stare at my own crumbling features and the strictly monotonically increasing glint of madness in my eyes (and who’d of thought the latter was possible?).   Still, I suppose the horror may represent the long delayed beginning of wisdom, if one is to believe something carved into a wall of a pronaos in Delphi (probably still more reliable than most of what one reads online).

The other big news since my last post, and indeed since yesterday, is that I have hung upside-down from gymnastic rings for the first time in more than two months.  Returning my bicycle to its recently re-opened lock-up after my morning constitutional (ignoring any relativistic effects in my 2m distancing while in a moving frame of reference), I realised that the newly reinforced roof provided beams from which I could hang my rings (not a euphemism).    Unusually, I did not wait for even a single decade to pass before actually hanging my rings from this longed-for source of support and trying them out.  The environment is exceedingly dusty and should I fall I will strike a concrete floor, mediated only by a now very dusty yoga mat, but it is good to be hanging around again.   I have skinned my first cat and flown my first squirrel in what feels like an eternity.  I started gently today in order to give my shoulders (and the rest of me) time to grow accustomed once again to the experience of being used in this rather extreme manner.  So far, so good: I think I may make a fuller attempt at the back lever before the weekend is out. (BTW: Should I meet my maker by falling, inverted, from height onto a solid concrete floor, I would like it to be recorded as a COVID-19 related fatality from someone who clearly should have been in a care home.)

Still, I feel we’ve moved well past the stage of having ‘printed’ all that news that’s fit to ‘print’, it is time that I returned to my slow descent into madness: that abyss is going to have to stare back one day…

Channelling Gogol: Lockdown Lessons from a Lunatic

As we enter week 5 (6? Some n∈N?) of the lockdown, I thought that, as an important influencer, it was incumbent on me to share the important pearls of wisdom that have accreted around the grit of my incarceration…

tumbleweed

OK, with that out of the way we can now resume normal GofaDM service.

I suspect I am not alone in finding being locked-down less easy to cope with as time goes by rather than familiarity breeding greater ease, if not downright contempt.  I do not seem to be adapting to the current situation as I’d hoped, despite modelling much of my personality on the Borg: well, my primary purpose has for some time been the attempt to assimilate everything.  I suppose I do form a somewhat stripped back, even minimal, Collective in my frustratingly singular state: though I suspect the existence of more of me would be far, far worse (for all of us).  While social media and video conferencing are splendid things, and I wouldn’t want to be without them, spending time with people in the flesh, or at the very least ‘near the flesh’, scratches a psychological itch that technology is unable to reach.

The lack of actual social contact seems to be having an increasing impact on my mental state, with it seeming (as viewed from the inside, or at least by “sources close to…”) to have become increasingly bipolar as the usual dampeners seem to have been lost.  The situation still appears manageable but I do feel I am becoming increasingly manic on these occasions when I’m participating in what currently passes for social contact.  I’m blaming this on my mental state but I suppose it could just be an attempt to bridge the gap between reality and desire by force of personality: a doomed project if ever there was one.

The locked-down world does offer up some modest benefits (to me, at least) in partial weregild for all the inconvenience, pain and suffering it is causing to so many.  In these quieter times, I am really noticing the birds singing and spring is a particularly good time of year for this as our feathered friends are all keen to be at it like knives as a prelude to bringing forth the next generation.  As a bonus, my current chronic insomnia does mean that I am regularly in the audience for the dawn (and pre-dawn) chorus which this morning appeared to include a duck: though I may have imagined that (une mallard imaginaire, as Molière might have put it).

In the before-times, I received much of my exercise by going about my business briskly on foot or using safety bicycle.  As this is no longer the case, I now found myself planning excursions to gain my State-authorised daily cardiovascular stimulation.  I have generally spent this on my bicycle (a) to take advantage of the much quieter roads and (b) to enjoy the much easier social distancing achievable when awheel.  If avoid popular parks and beauty spots, especially those proximate to car parking, it is much easier to keep well away from others on a bicycle than when riding Shanks’s pony.  To maintain interest in these outings, I have been exploring new areas of the city and its surroundings every few days and continue to be amazed at how green Southampton is (and how hilly!) and how short the distance one has to travel to be out in the countryside. I’ve mostly been heading north as that direction seems to take me away from traffic and people the quickest and have now visited the municipal golf course, the Lords wood, Chilworth, North Baddesley and Rownhams using only the power of my own limbs.  My mountain bike has finally been properly off-road: though often the surface off-road is superior to that provided by the local roads for which my bike was purchased.  It has only taken me almost seven years and a global pandemic to properly explore where I live and finally being to understand its geography and how suprisingly close to each other some places are.  I have had a lot of fun lowering the tone of some of the wealthiest, and leafiest, enclaves of the city as I pass through checking out how the ‘other half’ live and critiquing their taste in building, colour-choice and gardens.

Talking of my bicycle, yesterday was a very exciting day for me and my faithful stead.  On 15 January 2018, the bike store where it was stabled was temporarily closed as it had been discovered to be ‘unsafe’ in some unspecified way.  I liked to imagine it had been built over a hellmouth.  So, for the last two and a bit years, my bike has been housed in a rather distant bike store: far enough away that I can use a bus to get there (albeit only travelling one stop) but relatively safe from demonic assault.  As the lock-down began, workmen were finishing off complete replacement of the roof of the store – which it now seems may have been the cause of the safety issue, though I shall be keeping a Slayer on speed-dial just in case – and yesterday it finally re-opened!  Callooh!  Callay!

With normal live culture off-the-cards, I have been enjoying a wider range of culturing offerings with a great geographical spread than might normally be the case.  This definitely seems to work better in modest doses: I don’t seem to have the powers of concentration to sit through a 2+hour play at home but up to an hour or so seems to lie within my mental grasp for now.  I’ve really been enjoying a range of contemporary dance on-line, but my highlight is probably the translation to the miniature stage of the ‘Hat’ trilogy by Jon Klassen being produced for the Little Angel Theatre.  These incredible works of puppet theatre are being created in isolation, by a small group of people that I know a little (which is how I discovered their work) as they used to be based at the NST in Southampton.  They are an absolute joy to watch with so many brilliant little details and leave me quite astounded at what talented people can create at home using very limited materials.  They also serve to highlight the serious risks involved in pursuing a life of larceny directed towards the milliner’s art: don’t say you haven’t been warned!  Watching the latest instalment on Sunday, I found myself reminded of Smallfilms and I can think of few high accolades I could offer.

Otherwise, life continues in broadly the same rut and I continue to look for pretexts to bring friends together on-line.  The latest attempt was for four absolute beginners to attempt to simultaneously get to grips with both Dungeons and Dragons and Roll20: the latter as a way to play the game together while apart.  This was an almost total failure thanks, in large part, to the total impenetrability of the UI for Roll20: it is the least intuitive platform I have ever come into contact with.  We spent most of four hours just trying to start a pre-prepared game with very limited success and we are all intelligent IT-literate people (well the other three are).  Still, it worked in its role as pretext and we had some silly fun and learned a number of important lessons.  For our next session, I think we will use D&D in its off-line form with old-fashioned pen and paper: perhaps aided by a webcam so that all can see the relevant information.  We might also attempt a simpler adventure designed to test out the main elements of game play as I spent most of Sunday attempting to get to grips with even the basic rules (having already read them once to get an overview).  These made understanding the rules of the Belgian electricity market (written in French) look positively easy: my work skills proved less transferable than I’d hoped.  Still, in theory at least, I have plenty of time on my hands (despite the more frequent and intense washing they are being subjected to) if rather limited mental capacity…

Still, like Syd Rumpo, I’ve rambled enough and I should finish before I risk screeving my cordwangle…

Channelling Gogol: What even is time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Channelling Gogol: Week the First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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