Unpaid debts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veil of Tiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Busy doing nothing…

Having overcome my earlier ennui, brought on by the lack of live culture and increased social distance, I feel I should be wildly productive by this stage.  This is especially true given all the nominally free time of which I now find myself possessed.  I regret to report that this is not case: if anything, without the pressure of the deadlines set by gig start times I have become less productive.  It would seem that my sense of urgency has socially-isolated itself from the rest of me…

Nevertheless, I have made some progress to moving my life onto a pandemic-footing.  You will be pleased to hear that I am now up-to-date with my filing and have finally managed to throw out some junk that I’ve been holding onto for at least 6.5 years.

I have also developed a compact hand-balancing routine (or indeed, small suite thereof) which I can perform in my tiny garret without excessive danger of injury either to myself or my furnishings: I just have to shuffle the dining “room” into the kitchen.  OK, I did have some help in the development process.  OK, yes, Freeflow Therapy did all the development, I just (mostly) managed not to forget the instructions (can’t a chap get away with some minor stretching of the truth?  I studied topology and the truth and any stretched versions are basically the same thing).  Having put the routine into practice, I seem to have discovered that working out at home is much more exhausting that at the gym: I have yet to decide if this is purely psychosomatic.  To be honest, as I am now training at altitude (the first floor) I was expecting to see my personal bests come tumbling but there is little evidence to support this theory as yet…  Still, the reduced space is, allegedly, allowing me to work on my finesse – so you may see me emerge from the current unpleasantness as a more graceful creature, but I wouldn’t raise your hopes too far.

Using the magic of video conferencing, late yesterday afternoon I did manage to constitute a virtual pub with a friend.  We each acquired a beer take-out from a local hostelry and then did exactly what we would normally do in a pub – drink beer and attempt to come up with stupid ideas – despite being separated by half-a-dozen miles.  There is a degree of latency, which in a less virtual pub session doesn’t usually kick in until quite a few pints have voyaged to their inevitable doom, but it seems an entirely practical reaction to the need to both be social distant and remain fully connected.   Ideas and foolishness always flow more readily when two or more are gathered together (in anyone’s name) and this continues to work in the virtual realm.  I find myself wondering if I can get a cloth backdrop printed (or embroidery or tapestry-work would be fine) which recreates the look of the Doghouse at the Guide Dog to minimise the disruptive feel of increased time at home?

My feeling is that the latency that exists on video conferencing means that musical sessions are not really feasible: although one of last night’s activities did give me some hope.  Prior to this last week, I was only attempting to attend as many gigs in Southampton and its immediate areas as I could.  Musicians (and others) seem to have responded to the enforced downtime and, in many cases, catastrophic loss of income, by staging gigs online.  As a result, I am slowly working out how to “attend” live broadcasts on Facebook and Instagram (and I suspect other platforms yet to be explored: I’ve been hearing more about Zoom lately than at any time since 1982 when Fat Larry’s Band were riding high in the charts.  However, without the need to be physically present there are even more gigs to “attend” than ever.  Luckily, you can attend them for a period of time after broadcast: still, not sure precisely how long so am trying to “catch-up” within 24 hours just-in-case.  Last night’s “gig” was the film made by Manu Delago of his album Parasol Peak where he and six other musicians ascended a mountain in the Alps, playing (and recording) tracks at various altitudes carrying their instruments on their backs in between.  Some of the tracks involved clinging onto perilous rock ledges while using a cello or piano accordion (to name but two of the instruments I would be unwilling to climb a mountain while carrying).  At times, they clearly couldn’t hear each other so he composed pieces for which this wouldn’t an issue: there was also some system of hand signals to maintain broad synchronisation.  I have also definitely seen experimental music where each player chooses when to move onto the next section.  I’m wondering if these approaches could allow a style of beat-free music to be played together via video conference?

However, the primary skills I have been acquiring this week will serve me best in the fields of larceny and espionage.  I am becoming adept at carrying out a growing range of tasks without leaving a single fingerprint: avoiding DNA residue is still a work-in-progress.  When away from the house, without recourse to gloves (a cheat’s way out and likely to rouse suspicion), I hardly need my hands to make contact with any foreign body: even if they ask nicely.  I am also becoming good at reaching a supermarket being observed by the fewest people and at all times to maximise the distance between myself and those people.  It’s only to be expected that these skills would come naturally to me, as any readers of Baroness Orczy will know, as the Scarlet Pimpernel was aided by a Ffoulkes (one Sir Andrew): so these skills clearly run in the family!

A less obviously transferable skill I’m gaining is greater knowledge of where my hands are and, in particular, if they are en route to my face.  Prior to this week, they appeared to operate on the principle that any minute left without checking my face was still there could lead to disaster: without constant monitoring, my face would probably wander off on its own (or perhaps just fall off).  I think we have now established that my face is fairly solidly bolted on and such checks can be reduced to a minimum.

So while I may not have achieved that much of use in the last few days, I do seem to have avoided going stark staring bonkers: so I’m viewing my adaptation to the change of circumstances as a triumph!