A Journal of the Plague Year Week 4

Sunday 5th April 2020

Yesterday we caught up on two episodes of Drag Race. Well, I must admit I go through quite an emotional rollercoaster whenever I watch reality tv, and avoid it each time. I remember one of the first ever broadcast, called Caraway or Castaway or Harringay or summat, whereby a whole bunch of specially selected, convivial people were dumped on a remote, uninhabited island to create a functioning society fresh for the new Millennium, eked from the atmospheric wilds of the Hebrides. Self, sufficient, eco-friendly, communal, inclusive and a template to what could be, cherrypicking city traders, croft farmers, immigrants, family groups, LGBTQ members and their kids from across society.

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Classed as the nations biggest ever social experiment, but also a new concept production, hot on the Science Fiction movies from the 90s about how everyone would become a star one day, with everyday life propelling TV into a new and futuristic concept (‘Real World’ debuting in that decade on a bunch of trendsters moving into swanky new apartments around American – then European cities). Well Hi-hi-hideaway overnight became the nation’s raison d’etre, a force propelling change for much more than the happy campers. There was indeed a tiffle between the God crew and the gay guy complaining about their ‘foreign muck’, but they persevered. But then, a terrible development, all going tits up when some cantankerous sea dog got into an argument, got isolated, then went mad and sabotaged the stores. The result -pure TV gold making the headlines on every tabloid -and broadsheet -the next day.

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We’ve not progressed further ever since that fateful day they found out throwing lions in with the zebras makes for great I Like To Watch (and that the Romans had a good thing going) -a nation of drama and monstrosity connoisseurs born overnight. Well I tend to get too invested. I’m unable to watch singing, dancing drag queens parade in failing outfits, or horror-of-horrors have their jokes and improv fall flat, not just to the immediate room (cringe) but the millions watching beyond (scream). My heart beats as if upon that same self-same stage, I perspire. When things go well I’m a little giggling child strangling the pillows, when the tension rachets up I’m biting my knuckles to agonised squealing.

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Well, poor Aiden got kicked out, an outlier from the start -rural, Southern, inexperienced. I’d likened her to a pretty slug in a few posts beforehand, but the rounds of abuse she endured in every episode, as those deemed less befitting were kicked off wasn’t endearing to the complainants. Her increasing isolation, the behind-the-scenes (and to-the-face) bitching, then outright bullying made me hold a candle for her, if not gladly substituted by a flamethrower. When she was finally booted off, and over-dramatically screamed on stage (many truths said in jest), I screamed with her.

Is this normal? Yes there is empathy, but reliving an onscreen representation vis-à-vis as if it was yourself being publicly trammeled by drag queens, or enduring elongated episodes of cringe to the point of self-harm, seems like a projection. I am perhaps taking it all too seriously.

Coming out of hibernation for the first time in a week, we decided to take a bike ride to the local park and back again. And my golly goodness, how sunny and free it all seemed, and unserious. The frolick police nowhere to be seen (perhaps inundated by block parties in Brixton or conga lines in Essex), what with the great UFO finally out from the clouds in what seems like a good 7 months. Temperatures climbing to a whole 22C. This is what I mean about the UK Spring and Autumn being complicit myths, allocated to a handful of days inserted between a tooth rattling, windswept grey and a meadow-filled Watchtower cover. This latter occupies about 2.5 months before more of the wasteland, and is thus a major reason to partay.

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People lazed around as far as the eye could see, chatting openly in circles and collecting in drifts at crossroads, blading, biking, frisbee chasing to their heart’s content. One estate had table tennis in their courtyard and what looked suspiciously like an audience having a giant picnic, while fainting victims were sprawled liberally across the lawns, occasionally reading or texting. Such is life, a strumming, purring rendition of individuality regardless of what’s happening out of eyeshot. This may be why we’ll continue to have a lockdown, and why people continue to get infected and die. But what we can’t see appears unable to hurt us, or at least dampen the itinerary.

One of J’s friends apparently walked into his local police station to report the dozens enjoying the carnival atmosphere on Clapham Common. I’m not sure how that went down.

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There is a great unsaid, stalking the land. And I will hold my wavering hand up to say I am legion, and take that cliff fall down from the moralist soapbox. That – the thousands of deaths aside, the millions to come, the worry for our older loved ones, the income insecurity and panic buying forgotten -this experience is almost enjoyable.

No, in fact, there are times… where. I . Have. Actually. Enjoyed. Myself. There, I said it.

At home, Netflix, a chance to write my book like some wilderness cabin, plus read some, a little dalliance outside each day, and no weerk. Like pretending autumn is all about rollicking through scarlet foliage, and Spring all flowers and lambs, when really it’s a continued spell in Colditz.

And outside, beyond my scope another 408 died today in the UK.

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I wonder if this blind-sided lack of empathy will become a thing now? Or is it just a reminder it’s always been a thing? The way we now find lives smaller in these four walls, cooped into our domestic rituals and immediate room-mates, while neighbours die behind the scenes or on our doorstep in their daily hundreds. Is it any different from the way we enjoy our normalised First World lives on the back of a vast underclass of the indentured? Where we each garner about 20-40 unseen slaves as per norm, sewing our clothes, picking our food, making our products, sourcing our oil and returning our astronomical, loan sharky interest repayments, with a light veneer of nail polish and sex. When our fledgling hedge funds began betting on an Asian financial crisis in 1997, 500,000 children died of malnutrition in Indonesia alone. Does that fact even make us pause, as yet another figure bandied about among bleeding heart types, too big, too distant, too gone to take notice of? Oh well.

I am of course just as guilty, enjoying my teenagery that year, while cycling through fellow Aztecan sunworshippers today. But don’t let that distract us now. I, like everyone else, have a godgiven right to be a shit, and not give one.

There appears to be increasing shade being thrown towards Netherlands (and Germany) recently, with its ‘intelligent lockdown’ (which means a half-arsed attempt) and its blocking of a bond-savvy bailout to the Southern EU nations, such as Italy, Spain, France and Portugal, who adversely prop up their northern counterparts.

The Dutch approach seems only plausible in such a libertine (the selfish kind, not to be confused with liberty itself) and individualistic society, whereby a full lockdown would be impossible to police without emergency powers -in turn impossible to stomach by a populace long held as a vision of democracy. However, the country once the postergirl of openness, freedom and a founder of the EU idea is becoming more self-centred it appears. A sign of morphing priorities and societal change, influenced by a touch of xenophobic politicking. It’s had a centre right government for some time now, with the far righters now smelling up the second largest amount of seats. The finance minister yesterday admitted mistakes were made, and that they’d lacked the empathy, and ‘did not succeed in conveying what it is we want to do’.

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What they want to do indeed appears the priority, but also seems veiled. The lack of a true lockdown is of course the approach to herd immunity that Britain so abandoned a few weeks ago when faced with a projection of 250,000 dead. The Netherlands is self-policing, with 99% claiming socially distant (oh yes, we concur) and a bit less saying they’re staying home as much as possible, though still popping out occasionally to flood the streets and every business by the look of things. However it also implicitly -perhaps complicitly -implies many more deaths. They are indeed higher than the norm, at 1,766 deaths (10% of cases) but for a nation of 17 million (0.1% infected by official count). It remains to be seen, like Sweden, what will play out. And what willingly -and perhaps worse, openly -sacrificing some of their own for the economy greater good will mean to that society.

We may well see the translation of national PRs after this. Whereby the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany transgress from an aura of the enlightened and progressive nations -riding their ecobikes through elegant towns in the blonde, summer sun -into the stage villains of cold and selfish societies, suddenly more prison guard and Aryan, with fake diesel emissions.

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On that note we had a fantastic evening, a culmination of lots of hard work from the boys who’ve spent all day shopping, cooking, polishing and ironing doilies (no really) for our evening meal, which we all got dressed up for. It does have a difference living with a silver antiques dealer.

Entrée: Soupe de rocquettes

Plat principal: Saumon en croute avec sauce Marie Rose. Pommes de terres rôties a la Grecques

Dessert: tarte aux prunes avec crème anglaise

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Ah, the bliss! Laughing merrily in our champagne flutes and toasting our health.

For that Scottish island (I’ve since looked it up and it’s called Taransay), the inhabitants ended up dividing themselves, with the ‘Taransay Five’ setting up a new territory apart, complete with flag and a refusal to work with the producers. After end of filming a few families and couples chose to stay. Although it did launch the career of lovely TV presenter and streaking rower, Ben Fogle, some claimed their lives destroyed. -Including a psychotherapist who was edited as throwing a chair at a woman and storming off forever (in fact the scene was cut from an argument with producers, for which he successfully sued for libel). By 2001 the island had been abandoned once again, going up for sale 5 years later. It’s still known as one of the Lonely Isles.

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As we all may have worked out by now, empathy hurts us more. The trick is to spread it out, with everyone sharing the crappy liver starter (who likes that seriously?) to get to the banana split fantabulous dessert. Or to just take it on the chin like a drag queen, whose heart still shines beneath the hisses and boos. Of course the same applies to the lack of empathy, spreading it out among a reduced guest list, so we all enjoy that piece of the pie, while one sucker (or vast amounts of them) fight it out under the table. This is a snapshot of life.

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A Journal of the Plague Year Day 18

Saturday 4th April 2020

It’s been a long time coming. The sun is out and the temperatures are climbing into whole double digits. After 7 months of Great British winter it’s about feckin time, and normally an excuse for the entire country to have a sickie-induced, unofficial national holiday. Windows open with music blaring, everyone in shades and shorts, sunning themselves on beaches, parks and traffic islands, sinking timetables as trains come to screeching halts from the ‘wrong type of sunshine’ or buckling rails in the heat shimmer. The distant tinkle of ice cream vans as the new morning-to-night chorus, churning out their tinny renditions of Ode to Spring and ice-cream flavoured plastic. Tube carriages becoming searing animal transportation scandals, and the motorways and country lanes clogging with daytrippers in the 15 degrees.

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Well, the country’s on high alert to battle this oncoming tide of wellwishers and semi-pagan worshippers. Lines of armed convoys, army escorts, throbbing helicopters and arm-to-arm sweeps of the Picnic police.

A woman and child in Kettering were caught inflagrante with a bucket and spade. A grandfather in Looe with a fishy looking pole. Then that family in Southwark, claiming their children (holding picnic blankets and rackets) weren’t theirs. The three teenagers in Birkenhead, whose burgeoning pregnancy turned out to be a football. Chopper footage of three people in Brixton dancing around a radio, though they said it was epilepsy.

The horror. In all seriousness though, this deceptive kinda shit is killing people. The Health dept is now looking at banning the daily ‘exercise’ that is clogging up the beauty spots and vista points with cars, winnebagos and selfies. The Western govts are increasingly looking at smartphone tech now, that can trace your whereabouts (as if they don’t already do), like they did in Asia to alert others if a newly infected person had recently been in contact or passed nearby. The legendary Spring Breakers who broke US advice to party in Mexico were apparently tracked the whole way, and are now facing the consequences along with their hangovers and teen pregnancies. Likewise the same may soon be happening here, your records of diverting suspicously through the Peak District, or via your bosses wife or the atmospheric dells of Clapham Common at 4am, while popping to Lidl for all to see.

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Today I got progress on the glowering thing that’s long been in the back of my mind (after the world collapsing and tens of millions dying of course, of course) these past few weeks. The first coupla pages of my book I’m trying to write, with great feedback from some literary aficionados that have seen me re-write them from scratch, but with less description and a change in chronology. When writing it’s like trying to paint a vast picture while hovering only a few inches away, unable to step back and see the unruly splodges that mar it, nor the overall composition. It takes someone else to come in and point out that my portrait has three eyes, or a bird’s shat on the corner, or it looks like an untrammelled disaster and I really should take up plasticine figures again.

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I also missed my sisters’ birthdays; both of them born two years apart but on the same day -C looking chuffed in a family snap over a big double-candled cake, yet strangely missing mum who’d just gone into labour. I look at these bygone pics and wonder if Now marks a turning point between worlds, that of Before and that of After, always after. They say social distancing may last years, and that older folk may have to be shuttered away till the next one, though my civil servant friend has conveyed (through the art of mime) that the govt hopes it’ll be over by June.

708 people died today in the UK, overtaking Spain and Italy, where the Midlands has now become the new epicentre with over 200 deaths (almost double London). 5 London bus drivers were among the day’s dead. We’re still an estimated 7-10 days away from peak. And does it even register with us any more? We are growing a shell to the fate of others, beyond our little chalk-drawn, spray-painted, wall-built delineations.

Spain is now seeing a second day of lowering its figures to a ‘healthy’ 674, on the heels of Italy also down to 681, both of whom were recording tallies of up to 950 in the previous week. The US took 1,344 into the highest daily death toll ever. Italy remains the country with the highest deaths so far, over 15,000.

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Meanwhile China is saying it will not limit its production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and ICUs to any country, like a teacher trying to break up bickering students. The kind who are pulling each others hair and stealing phones, to the tune of hundreds of ICU’s appropriated on the way to Spain or Italy, or the US barring factories from sending any equipment to any other country other than itself, even if they’d already commissioned and paid for them.

This is a bit like a fun game of catch which everyone had been enjoying by the rules, but then started holding on for too long. Until The Great Orange Dolphin comes along, barges poor Flipper out the way, and eats the damn ball.

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I literally cannot point it out further, like a stuck record. How there are certain ideas in people’s minds projected into societies, in turn becoming governmental policies that are undermining this entire effort to stop the pandemic globally. We need to be united and working as a team, not as a committee, and not as a rival rugby troop. Sometimes you do need that perspective, to not put fences around your own little claims, and sense of righteousness over others.

I realise I am that teacher now, shouting empty words like a stuck record to a roomful of lounging, scrolling, smoking, casually sexting youth. Like a door greeter in the Disney Store churning out those empty niceties, or a production line products to the wrong client.

One day we may look back at all this and be appalled. Or will we? Will these transgressions ever see the light of day again? Or just be portrayed as a lovely staycay with govt support and no, we know nothing of stealing those meds meant for our neighbours who couldn’t afford it, but we could so we deserved it more. Ah, the snapshot of human life, to stand back and appreciate.

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