The Edge

I was out looking again today. I was out on The Edge looking round. 

It’s still only just August but my breath floated on the air in front of me today, caught in the early sun at the top of the wheat field. The boots were sodden with the dewy damp before I’d been out more than five minutes and I know that it won’t be long before I’ll need layers again. I expect that the shorts will stay for most of the winter. A leaf fell in front of me as I walked along the lane. The trees form a tunnel and the sunlight that filters through catches leaves like coins. One fell, still green and too keen for autumn. Not ready for it yet but I’m preparing. 

I’m going to have to think what I’ll do when the mornings hold onto the dark until the day’s well in swing; when the night falls before I’m done with the day. It’s easy to get to The Edge on summer days like this and the lockdown has allowed better access than ever. It’s just there: I see it shimmering from the back windows and the tall poplars at the top of the field are waving all of the time. Waving to me and calling me out. But what about when it’s dark, wet, icy? Will I still lift up the plastic wrapping and venture out onto the ledge, the ledge at the edge of things?  

It’s time we talked about this place a little more. People have been asking and I’ve been thinking about it. I can let you in some more I think. I mean, we’ve come this far and it’s possible that you’ve started to understand that The Edge isn’t so much a place as an acceptance. Call it a bubble, a saran wrap or clingfilm or whatever you will, it’s the invisible barrier that lets us see the clouds but not breathe the fresh air. It’s the cocoon that shields us from our part in the great web of things and encourages us to deny our memento mori. In here we’re braver and tougher and invincible and even when it rains we can scamper home or jump in our cars. 

Reading this, the chances are that you’re a bit like me. You know that we need all this; you know that there’s a lot to be said for the world we’ve made and we could spend as much time praising it as trying to bring it down. But let’s leave that to the politicians and the mainstream media. Let them justify themselves and their constructs with the material accumulations that have become the measure of all things. Reading this, you’re probably sensible enough to know that all this circus is an inevitable by-product of the whole progress thing, but you probably don’t buy into the importance of it like they want you to. 

Some want to bring it down – they see the bubble that we all swelter under and they want to pull it down. It’s the means to an end and there’s no real consensus about what comes after they’ve toppled the towers and burst the banks. It’s the ones with little to lose that follow this train of thought; who simply want change at any cost. And then there’s those who think that it’s all about the money. That it’s about the next promotion or the next new car. I’d guess that reading this, you’re quite a distance from both of those and that’s good. I have no business with either, either. 

There’s never going to be consensus on either side for very simple reasons on either side of the fence: 7 billion sentient minds will never form a common idea for the eutopia that one side thinks is possible and by its very definition, the capitalist argument will always be a competition. 

But we need the bubble, people like you and me. We need it there where it is and we need the vast majority of people to be lulled by it; hypnotised by the promises and dazzled by the lights. The last thing we want is for it to all come tumbling down. Love it or hate it, the bubble of the towns and the cities and the motorways and all the rest of it, they do  well the job that they have evolved to do, and most importantly: they keep people in a place where we can see them and know where they are. Imagine a great dismantling of the bubble – where would they all go? The whole world would be edge. And The Edge, well that’s for me and you. That’s where we go when we’re no longer willing to play along.  That’s where the magic is.

It’s best to think of The Edge as a state of mind as much as any geography. There’s no need to drive to the mountains or move to the sea; it’s not even necessary to live next to open countryside or a thick forest. You just need to be able to take a step away from the telly, put the phone on mute and strap on a pair of decent shoes. There’s an Edge in every town and city and I’m pretty sure that you’ve found yours already. The Edge is on the outside and it can be rocky underfoot. It’s a ledge that skirts the bubble; sometimes wide and sometimes the width of a footstep.  

And beyond The Edge? Well that’s something else. We’ll have to deal with what happens when the land drops away some other time. And it does drop away to place where there’s no foothold and no rules; where there’s no boundary and no limit.  

It’s over The Edge that the real magic happens.

Cheers!

They’re calling it our independence day. Grown women and men are teary-eyed at the prospect of a pint at the pub and dreaming already of tomorrow’s hangover. It has been three months and more since the pubs were open and the nipple’s about to be returned to the puckered lips of the nation. Let’s hope it stops them whingeing so much. I mean, come on, it’s not like there’s been no alcohol and, what’s more, for many of those who like to go overboard: no work to get up for the next day. But the way they’re talking on the telly, on the radio, all over the place, it’s like some great oppression is about to be lifted from a nation of worthies. 

I wonder how much the commentators and reporters actually feel what they say; it’s all so heartfelt and emotive as they sit in the windy beer garden of some damp and miserable town and sup bitter or merlot. Do they really feel the ecstasy as it slips down that they’d have us believe the rest of the British public does? I’m expecting queues up the lanes and suburban housing estates of England; I’m expecting tearful reunions with long-lost beverages because, let’s be honest (they’d have us believe) what’s the point of it all if not for this

There’s a science to it, though. There always is. David Cameron’s government recognised the “positive impacts of drinking on adults’ well-being, especially where this encourages sociability.”1 and if wellness, as they say, is all in the mind, then it stands to reason that what makes you feel good has to have a positive impact on the rest: you work hard all week and the distant prospect of a weekend on the razz slowly comes into focus. It makes it all, almost, worth it and the balance is just about achieved. The hangover reminds us that we’d never sustain it for more than a couple of days as the week at work eases our guilt and refreshes the purse for the next weekend. It’s a bit like religion in the way that usually sensible men and women are driven to childish and illogical distraction by this substanceless idea and its temporary fix. 

The report also highlights the importance of a boozy nation on the economy as a whole and the wider implications of the £11.5bn that was spent in the first quarter of 2019 in England and Wales alone. Considering that the tax man claims around a quarter of this, it’s no wonder why the balance between health of the individual in these Corona days, plus the extra load on the NHS, come an easy second to the financial health of the nation. “Go out! help the economy back on its feet!” shouts one; “stay home! avoid the pubs!” says another. We’ll see how it pans out. 

But there’s more to it than meets the eye and it’s not just a local thing. The link between recent social shifts around the world and alcohol trends is stark, if you look. 

We’re all philosophers when we’re drunk and the world’s a hell of a lot simpler when the senses are on limp-mode. Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Zombies’ tells the story of de-evolution, where a bunch of bright university students attach defribulators to their temples and fry their intelligent brains so that they can live in a state of ignorant bliss. Palahniuk’s is a parody of every Friday and Saturday night in my town, except the effects aren’t permanent and the weekend zombies go back to their jobs in between binges. While they escape what Plath called the “dead stringencies” of life that claw at our sober minds, the inebriated mind is also incapable of forming any real plan to combat the machine: even the violent drunk is a docile philosopher because he tends to forget his mantras in the morning.  

Keep them drunk and stop them thinking is a method of social control that might well have contributed to the relatively settled centuries that these islands have enjoyed. Relative to the French, say, who have never quite got their heads rounds a good piss-up and succumb, every single day, to the socialist movement that is, for the ruling elite, annoyingly sober, clear-headed and able to really have a good think about the state of things and muster up a revolution from time to time. 

The UK population increased by 6.6 million between 2001 and 2016 and 80% of this rise was down to immigration2. When demographics change so dramatically then so do indigenous traditions and customs. Such large communities of different cultures means that there is no need to integrate into the traditions of a nation hence a new nation takes shape out of the old. Pubs are closing at a rate of one every 12 hours, according to CAMRA, and this is set to get a lot worse as a result of the pandemic. Recent health-drives and developments in medical diagnosis mean that the younger generations are realising new ways to get high without having to clog up the liver or be jostled in sweaty crowds on sticky carpets to be ripped off with a glass-full of dead calories and additives.   

Whilst the death of the drunk culture might appear as a great boon to the emergency services and a welcome easing of the strain on local resources, it only appears that way. The police love drunks. The government loves drunks. In no other circumstance can a British national in his or her own country be dragged along the floor half-naked and steeped in vomit, be slung in the back of a van without having been read his or her rights and imprisoned without charge overnight, and then be let out again the next day. The drunk feels that they’ve got away with it and remembers very little anyway, and the police know that the worst it will get is a bit physical. Much better this to deal with than the sober philosopher and the organised uprising. It is no coincidence that the cities where cannabis and marijuana are legal boast the lowest crime rates in the world. The drunken loutish football yob can be dealt with a lot more effectively than the organised, sober terrorist…   

The drunken philosopher is dying and there’s a much bigger threat on the horizon. We will long for the days of boozy bar-fights and foul-mouthed pissed-up single mothers; we’ll be all nostalgic over fatties innocently urinating on sacred monuments and students vomiting in shop doorways. We know what we’re getting there because it’s what we’ve always had. 

The Arab spring of the last decade, the Chinese surge and Brexit in this: people are thinking and they’re getting ideas and it’s making life difficult for the people at the top to keep a grip. 

Despite the pandemic, or maybe because of the danger that all this time on our hands is making us think, the government today is proffering the nipple. “suck”, it’s saying. “For the love of the nation, get drunk and please: less thinking, more drinking.” 

Voice

Livingstone

We’re supposed to stick at it, we wee writers. That’s what they say. Agreed.

I just needed a break from counting the death toll and watching it rise like the stocks and shares – only it’ll never fall like them. 

Here’s a random picture that I took in Africa in the summer when the world was a different place, though at the time it was very much the same. Down there in the heart of darnkesses the roads go on for a long time.

And below is what I wrote in my journal last night as I worked my way through a few things are stopping me from really getting down with the page. It’s procrastination, the journal, but it’s as pure as I can get my time-wasting. I like to see the journal as the gateway drug to ‘real writing’…  

After I read some brilliant pieces on here about planning I had a think about my own process and realised that it’s something that I very seldom scrutinise. It’s the grindstone and when we turn up we work and that’s that, right? Thankfully there’s a little worm (or a big serpent) in all of us that’ll question everything if given enough time: 

When I reread my work I know that if a phrase or arrangement of words impresses me then I’m on to something. We’re all our harshest critic. When I read it and want to melt my face off then I know that I was trying too hard. Critic, yes but not a complete destroyer of dreams; just wanting always to do better. 

I really don’t know, though, if rewrite, rewrite, rewrite is the answer. I’m sure that if you hammer away even at a piece of iron for too long it will eventually lose its integrity and be no good for shaping. Hammering and hammering away is also the best way to fall out of love with a story that once burned embryonically in you like the greatest thing ever conceived, by anyone. Ever. 

I am convinced that the best writing comes in the initial burst and is born of the flames of the passion in which it was first imagined. This is where the ideas still broils and the human spark still burns bright. It is the heat of this fire that powers the ideas onto the page and the emotion that keeps it alight and to hell with all else. It is why writers give their lives to what they do. Ask them and they’ll tell you that it’s why they are. 

The heat of this fire is what it’s all about. If a writer can writ in this heat then there’s magic will come of it. Forget readers for now – the writer is the reader; he’s just got the job of turning it into the right words. Worry about that later. 

But come to the page without that fire and that passion and it’s a battle. A tiring one that will only ever go one way. The writer needs to write for the writer and that’s it. For now. 

Finding that voice is all about knowing the boundaries that it can be pushed to. The flow of writing can be halted when doubt creeps in about these limits and we start to wonder whether we’re pushing too hard or whether we’re not doing anything other than telling the story: it has to be more than that. It has to be the telling of the character and the creating of the world in which he or she will move. 

So the latest novel that I haven’t written yet could be a rambling sentimental narrative that recalls situations and moves the characters about in them in ways that might be expected, might maybe sometimes surprise and even shock, but still fit into those safe boundaries. Sometimes it’ll be loved and other times it’ll be hated but most of the time the worst will happen: it’ll be put down. It’ll be left on the writer’s hard-drive waiting for the sprinkling of magic that he’ll one day figure out… 

Or 

The writer could listen to the story as it happened and tell it as honestly as he can as he ignores the restraints and expectations; as he pokes underneath the scabs of human suffering and, (what I like to call) ‘rattles the fences’.  

For me it’s always a chain-link fence and it needs to be rattled in the early hours of the morning. The scab needs to be half-lifted so that it’s still pulling at the tiny hairs and the finger nail needs to really get underneath and stab at what was already hurting. It needs to be writing that is done in anger and exaltation; in chilly downpours and violent bursts of sunshine. How can a writer ever expect to unsettle the eventual reader if they don’t unsettle themselves? When I can’t sit still in my chair as I write I know I’m into it. If I get too comfortable I know it’s shit and hen it’s good – I never get tired. 

People need to be heroes one minute and bastards the next; the speaker needs to be in despair and ecstasy on the same page; he needs to be fucking his girlfriend one minute then masturbating about her in the shower an hour later knowing that she’s in the village fucking someone else as his juices dry on her thighs. Believe me: this shit happens. 

And also, while the bastards are bastards in one line of narrative, they’re also dreamers with regrets in another and losers in love in another and that’s just like life and the countless threads of narrative that tangle and swamp us and that we, as writers, do our bust to pick up and weave into something that sings to us. 

What I’m saying is that a writer needs to do more than tell a story. That’s all. 

Coronanotes22

She’d still plead with me with those eyes…

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161,145/21,678 

When all this was starting and I was watching tentative news reports nervously checking the situation in southern Europe and showing clips of temporary morgues set up in quiet corners of big cities, some expert said that if we suffer 20,000 deaths in the UK then that will have been a good result. 

They say that we’re in the middle of the peak now and around 650 deaths in hospital each day are being attributed to the Corona virus. By that maths we’re halfway through the numbers and have another 20,000 to go – and that’s just on the first peak. The trouble with this new normal is that we’re getting used to it and we’re absorbing it into our routines and nothing is new and shocking any more. 

The epicentre, they say, is now in care homes – the numbers there are thought to be three times what we’re hearing from the hospitals and some commentators are referring to the situation as the wiping-out of an entire generation. 

What will be left of these places; these new places that have just sprung out of the ground to cater for the ageing population? If this goes on my unwritten novel will be a moot point and the virus will have done the work of the non-existent future government. Nature has got in there first, it seems, and hurried along what had been unnaturally elongated. Death does not hurry or fuss; he waits patiently and gets what he came for in the end. He’s having a ball at the moment. 

Will we learn from this? Will we learn from the lessons we’re having here that keeping people breathing just because we can doesn’t necessarily mean that we should and that sometimes, though it’s hard, we need to be grown up enough to accept that we’re going to die. 

A key thing here is that we’ve never quite faced the reality that not being dead is not the same as being alive. It’s just not. My granddad died a year ago at the cottage in Wales. Got up to go to the toilet and boom! His heart gave up and he was, the paramedic said, dead before he hit the floor. He was alive to the last minute; right up to that final desire to piss. His wife, nan, she died a decade ago and they kept her in one of those hutches with the red carpet and fake fireplaces and they let us go and see her and try and make her smile. For eight years she had no clue where she was and it was only the tenacity of her natural instincts that she kept the old tattoo of breathing. It all gave up two years ago: exactly a year before granddad’s fateful date with the toilet that he never made. He lived to the end; she carried on breathed but hadn’t been alive for a long time. 

I try to see around the issue. I pull it out of my brain and I cringe away from it as it pulses on the floor: an ugly idea that must have different sides to the ones that I see. I walk around it and I poke at it and I try to force myself to see things differently. I try to encourage other people to help me to see it differently but nobody wants to engage.  

I think of god and reject this idea: it’s thinking that way that gets us into so much existential mess in the first place. I think of the moral implication and wonder what is stronger – the right that she had to stay breathing and the right that she had to dignity and well-deserved rest. I think of the bigger picture and the social responsibility that we have to care for each other and I’m thrown back in the same place. And I realise then that what I’m unable to synchronise with is the definition of care. It seems that ‘care’ in this society means not letting people die. My own definition is different. 

I miss them both and there’s a lot in favour of the argument that it might have been nice to remember nan as someone who remembered me. Instead what we’re given in this time of medical miracles is prolonged pain and tarnished final memories of the people that we love. 

I took my Maggie to the vet a couple of weeks ago. What a dog she was. What a buddy and how I miss her by my side; how I miss the noises she made in the night as she padded about and tried to get comfortable. Thirteen years of her by my side. A buddy that was there before the kids and before the job and before the new house. A buddy the climbed mountains with me, chewed my shoes and smeared fox shit on the car upholstery. What a buddy. 

But I saw her decline; I watched the lumps grow on her and I saw that twinkle fade from her eyes. She winced when she walked but would still try to follow me up the hills and jump her big bear body on my lap; she’d still plead with those eyes when I sat to eat dinner and nudge at my knee if I dared to forget about her. 

With Maggie I set a date. I called the vet and I told them my plan; I let the people know who needed to and I made sure that the girls could have the perfect fortnight before that date. On the last day I drove her up the hills to the spot where we’d once yomped and I carried her to the spot where we used to sit and look back at the little home we’d made and the big city in the distance. And my heart swelled to burst for all of that time but I knew that I was right in what I was doing.  

And when the vet pumped her with a sedative to calm her and she lay her heavy head on my knees I was relieved that she was free of the weight of duty that she had carried out all her life as well as being free of this more recent pain.  

When the vet told me that her heart had stopped I think mine stopped a little, too. I don’t think it will ever quite beat the same but I was glad because I had done my job and Maggie, well she had gone above and beyond. She had done her duty and died a good death.

Do you see the point I’m making?

x

Coronanotes 21

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Wouldn’t it be an awful situation if we had to start bumping people off just so that our welfare and social systems could function. Imagine a world where governments have no option but to enforce population control in the most drastic ways. In some parts of the world they might start at one end – selective sterilisation and infanticide in poorer areas – and in others they’d hit the other end. In the west it would be decided to skim off the top end and lose the immense burden of the elderly. I mean, let’s be honest: we’ve never really thought that much of the oldies. We give them their special days and we patronise them with old songs and kids’ toys so that they can keep their minds active a little big longer. We put them in nappies but we call them something more dignified and we play them old songs that we think they’d like and we talk about the war because we think that’s all they know, though the reality is that the number of those who were actually old enough to remember the last war even happening, let alone have any real relation to it, is low. My generation has been brought up to assume that all old people are war heroes. 

Maybe they are in their own little, this is my battle, kind of way.  

They’re living too long, someone said. It was a human person that said this, so the use of ‘they’ is interesting – as though it’s a whole different species we’re talking about here; a whole other animal unfortunate enough to have been born into a state of decrepitude, but benevolent enough – even funny, sometimes. When they’re not puking like a baby or moaning about this or that hip.  

When they’re out of earshot we laugh at them. We take the piss because she got that name wrong or he thought the remote control was a chocolate bar. We go to see them and we pretend to care about the stories we’ve heard a hundred times; we pick up cheap flowers from the supermarket on the way and think they won’t notice. When they cry we know it’s because they’re senile and not at all because they can still feel. We can feel, alright. We feel righteous because we’ve given up a bit of our precious time to sit in a room full of old people who peer at us from behind cheap thick lenses and smell of piss. We sit in musty old chairs that have probably been pissed on. We pretend to listen to the stories but we’re really thinking about the cute little care-worker who just started her shift and is wiping spit from the sunken chin of a fat mman who hasn’t walked for a decade but wants to dance with the little nurse. 

These places we put them they’re bigger versions of the cages they have at animal testing plants turned inside out so that the windows face outwards and torture the inmates. But not for long. When they expire the whole thing is shovelled out, disinfected and a new bed of straw laid down. 

Imagine a society that legislates to do away with this; a society that forces upon people the dignity of an autumn given purpose by being given a date. A society that gives a gift that no other in human history ever has – a choice of departure. 

Imagine the funds that would be generated by the loss of such a heavy burden on the tax-paying public. It wouldn’t start being rolled out until the last war veteran had passed along, of course. It is a nightmare to try and bump off an old major who hobbles along hunched over his frame with medals swinging from his chest. Because then the whole idea would be a much easier sell to the rest of us – the species of human that we call younger who can’t ever possibly conceive of mutating into an old person.  

There would be safer, emptier roads and no one would manage the impossible task of driving the wrong way down a motorway. The entire population would manage to accept the concept of automated transport and not smoking. Doctor surgeries would be empty and supermarket queues would be swifter. We’d be able to get rid of coins and there’d be places to sit on the bus. 

Of course they’d crucify the minister given the job of first mooting the idea, and probably the next few that are forced to pick it up, but as they’re hanging out to dry the seed will be germinating and a new and very appealing reality will be taking root. 

The way that this virus is ripping through care homes at the moment, you’d think it was all part of the plan. 

Coronanotes 20

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133,495/18,100 

The irony of all this, and it hasn’t left me in all the days since this started – plenty more than the 33 I’ve noted up there; it goes back to the start of the year – is that one of the projects I’m working on at the moment is a novel set in the near future where governments are proactively reducing the surplus population and skimming of the surplus individuals that sort of, hang around. 

It’s not a new idea, I know that, but a writer who looks for a new idea will probably either spend his or her life looking or slide into the delusion that they’ve actually found something that no one’s ever done before. Personally I find it’s better on the morale to recognise that there’s a million brilliant ideas out there and many, many better than mine. But the belief that I carry is that they’re not mine and so they can’t ever quite be the idea that I want to get across and definitely won’t do it the way that I intend to. That is a very reassuring train of thought, I think, and it keeps me writing. 

So the idea is that I don’t do anything so brash as to deny the existence of any similar ideas and reinvent the wheel with my stories, but that I work alongside these the great stories and great writers and learn from them, maybe contribute a little of my own uniqueness to the whole narrative. Walt Whitman said it best when he considered the conundrum. His answer: 

That you are here – –  that life exists and identity, 

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. 

I thank Mr Whitman for that, among many other things, and I thank Harry Harrison for ‘Make Room! Make Room!’, the 1960s sci-fi novel that explores the inevitable problems of over-population and at the same time popularised Malthusian theory: the idea that human demand for food will soon outstrip supply. These are not new ideas but they’re increasingly relevant and utterly terrifying. 

What this current crisis has done is illustrated the fragility of supply networks that we have in these super-efficient consumer-driven times and how the slightest deviation from projected models or twitch in habits can have very real and quite shocking consequences. A tiny rumour that there might be a lock-down and toilet-roll disappears from the supermarket shelves for a fortnight. A shared message that we will die if we don’t keep our hands clean and sanitiser can’t be found anywhere. For a writer and general observer of human behaviour it is fascinating and fertile ground for inspiration and motivation. 

What I’m getting at mostly, though, is the very important idea that it is happening here and now. If a writer can get that impression across then there’s a winner in the making and I really mean that, because all of these great novels – these famous tales of disaster and change and significance: they all seem to happen somewhere else. ‘Make Room! Make Room!’ is in New York; ‘The Day of the Triffids’ is in London; earthquakes and aliens always hit California and so it goes on. And that’s fine; there’s a lot to be said for the recognisability of a place and this can bring credibility and seriousness to a story. It is undoubtedly true that an event in London is going to pull a much bigger audience than the same event in my little town in the Midlands. On a broad average, a reader is probably more likely to come from the capital than any other town in England. But what’s also true is that most people don’t live in London or New York or California and I have this niggling idea that the more this can be reflected in real writing, the more depth it might reach. 

I’m determined to create a literature for people like me. For readers like me who live fairly ordinary lives in utterly indistinct towns where nothing extraordinary ever happens. I feel that this is the perfect feeding ground for good fiction because people like me appreciate the tiniest alterations in the everyday routine so that there is no need for the extraordinary – just a desire for the ordinary to be done extraordinarily well. 

My story starts in a retirement home in a town very much like mine. These places are popping up everywhere at the moment and in this town alone five have popped up in the last four years. Just to give you an idea of what it’s like here: it was front page news when a crane was erected in the construction of the latest of these homes because its height exceeded that of the church spire – and that had never been done before. 

The government has issued a new decree: all citizens, once they reach the age of 65, regardless of wealth, gender, status, health or whatever else, will receive on their birthday, a letter containing two things:  

  1. A cheque for £150,000 
  1. A form  

The cheque is a gift. It’s tax-free and it’s for the recipient to do whatever they want with. The form is mandatory and a legal requirement. It demands a date of departure. Within two weeks of their 67th birthday, each person will be euthanised as part of their contribution to the human crisis. 

I’ll leave that with you. I’ll be back tomorrow. 

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A few weeks ago, or so it seems, though if I really think about it, it was probably just after Christmas, I remember. I remember the usual routine of military precision mornings. Up early to write a little bit then waking the kids and bringing a tea up for the wife; showering and dressing in waistcoat and tie for school then gathering around the kitchen island for breakfast together. All a little bit tired but all ready for the day: a brisk walk to start us off – first to the girls’ school and then across town to mine. I might have plugged Audible in once I’d left the girls and listened to some few minutes of David Copperfield or Homo Sapiens before surrendering to my day and being consumed by the school gates. 
The very established, very predictable and very reassuring routine that I often used to lament and manipulate a little, knowing all the while that things settle as they’re meant to and routines establish themselves because they work. Unnecessary additions might pop up from time to time but soon fall by the wayside. Illnesses and injuries and unwanted spanners in very efficient works. It’s a smooth machine. 
But going back to where I was. I remember this one day and it must have been January because it was bitter cold and the hats and gloves were laid out by the front door. A frost lay across the view of the back garden and the BBC news rattled along on the little telly in the kitchen. A new virus had been discovered in a part of China that no one had heard of, Wuhan, and people were dying. It meant little to us; we were news-weary after three years of Brexit and were absolutely convinced that the mainstream media would make a story out of anything just to remind itself that it could talk about other things. 
I took no notice and the eldest, who does prick up her ears at these sorts of things, made a mental note to follow the story. A couple more people died the next day and I started to wonder why there was so much interest in a flu virus in the most populated country on earth. Surely there was more in this than drumming up a story. Eldest raised it and I brushed it off: people die all the time I said. And then something like: you’re more likely to be eaten by a shark in this Midland town than you are of dying of this Chinese virus. She likes my metaphors and most of the time this is all the reassurance that she needs. I happen to think that all anxieties need some degree of attention – some reassurance before they can grow into some other thing. 
Then the virus came to Italy and lots more people started to die. Pictures surfaced on the internet of army vehicles carrying coffins out of provincial Neapolitan towns and more people died. Then Spain and then France. Steadily closer but still mercifully foreign and distant. The people that died spoke a different language or looked different, so it didn’t really count as real. 
And now the schools are shut and breakfast is a little later. The tiny story that started on the other side of the world is on our street and rings in the silence of the main roads. It’s not an adventure any more and lock-down means more than lie-in.  
The numbers are staggering.  
Each day in my journal I collect them and now they seem unreal. I write this to remind myself how quickly it all happened; how we have gone from that chilly innocent morning to this different, frightened, suspicious world where the few people that we see on our daily walks spring out of the way and cover their faces as we pass. We are doing the same. My daughter are looking for sharks in the hedgerows… 

Coronnotes18

120,067/16,060 

Cd 30 /Lockdown 27 

Look at the image above. It was taken at the place I work. It’s an old place; hundreds of years old. In fact the school has existed longer by a couple of hundred years than America and was around when Shakespeare was born.

It’s humbling but time is overrated as something in itself to celebrate. She’s a bitch but she just is. There’s nothing to be impressed about; she doesn’t actually make any effort. She just rolls on and we roll on too.

From time to time a special birthday is announced and the poor recipient of the recognition slopes to the front with a forced grin to collect the garden centre voucher that recognises the reason that their shoulders are slumped; their eyes hollowed out and their social life shot to shit. We applaud and smile and are glad that it’s not us. But what are we applauding, really? Relief? Tradition? Kindness? Or the simple fact that this individual didn’t die. “Yay! Congratulations for not dying yet…”

The steps on the photo above are old and the centre is worn by the passing of a million soles. Souls. Even concrete is worn down with repetition; even stone diminishes over time and even that resilient staff member, rejuvenated for another decade of slog by the hanging basket or trellis, will be dead in the earth and forgotten soon after. 

Time does it to us whatever we might think. We are swept away by it and we have little say, though we might concoct systems to convince ourselves that we’re not, like everyone else, on the slippery slope towards our deaths. 

Memento Mori. 

With that in mind I see the logic of keeping people alive. It is good for morale, I suppose, to think that we might cheat the inevitable for a day or a month. We do it well. We clever humans are the experts at pushing back t nature and delaying (not avoiding, mind) the fateful day of our reckoning. 

It is particularly significant in the current climate as the Corona death-toll that we’re given rises sharply by the day and the focus turns to the elderly. I spoke of this the other day, so won’t repeat the same ideas, but rather, I wish to develop them and ask the question that picks at a rather sensitive issue. An issue that I think we, as a society, need to face full-on and not brush under the carpet with a sweeping ideology that ‘all life is sacred.’ 

I just think we’re a bit old in the tooth for all that, now. It’s time to be sensible and see the bigger picture. Life’s sacred, sure, and it all gets its chance and sometimes it thrives and other times it ceases. It is a natural order that we should try to work with to improve the quality of life to the whole of humanity and not cling to dogmatically – because forcing the issue is to the detriment of all of our lives. 

So we’re told to stay in our homes and not venture out, feeling suitably guilty for the lives we’re putting at risk, only to purchase essentials or go to work – if we absolutely must. We’re mocked by the police for wanting to spread a little; for our yearning to see open fields and mountains or the face of a relative; we’re told that we must do this lockdown thing to protect the elderly, to protect the vulnerable. We have put individual livelihoods, mental health and the global economy at risk to protect the ones that maybe nature has selected. 

On the one hand the best brains in the country reject the old ways for the new discoveries that are being made in medicine and science; we’re diving into the micro and the macro and manipulating life in ways beyond imagining; and in so short a time. We spend great chunks of our national budgets on ensuring that we can make these breakthroughs and we use them to define us as a species and raise us on the global front. 

And we put it to use to keep an ninety-year old mother of six alive as she suffers breathing difficulties thanks to Corona; we use it to replace the knee of a hundred-year old war veteran who spends most of his days in a wheelchair; we repair and replace the lungs and livers of smokers and alcoholics. We keep alive murderers and we encourage the obese by providing ways for them to live with their unhealthy lifestyle. 

The reason that a lily-pad has a smooth surface is so that the detritus doesn’t accumulate and pull it down. 

We’ve walked these steps for so long that a groove has worn in the centre and by instinct we drift towards the easier route. That way we don’t have to face the difficult questions. But I think that we should face them. I think we should be sensible and take decisions that will bring a benefit to the whole rather than ease our conscience as we prolong the lives of the few. 

I am pretty sure that the majority of the elderly unnaturally kept alive beyond their time and dribbling into their collars would agree. I certainly don’t want to be kept going once I lose the ability to control the things around me. Quote me on it. You’ll be able to in the next post…

Coronanotes17

Cd26/Lockdown23 

98,476/12,868 

The danger now is that we run out of things to say. At the start of this crisis there was always something to write about; there was always some new angle or statistic or event that we weren’t prepared for. Then the figures started to rise alarmingly and each day we waited for the afternoon update and the latest score… 

What is it about us as a species that allows us to get so used to it all so damn quickly? How can we go from disinterested to mild butterflies to gentle panic to mass hysteria to general tension to used to it in such a short amount of time? I have often bemoaned the state of us as a species and the mess we have made of our opportunities with the time that we’ve got. I’ve fretted about the modern world and the modern individual’s tendency to substitute the virtual for the real. I wrote not that long ago that we would never survive a great war or similar crisis because we’re soft and we’re spoilt and we’re lazy and we can’t see beyond the screen of the closest device that we’re peering into for some sort of escape from truths that bite too sharply. 

But we do survive these things because we’re like a virus ourselves. We feed off whatever’s there to eat and we somehow come through it and the worst of it is that we come through it congratulating ourselves and patting ourselves on the back in a new and frightening sense of justification and pride that we have achieved something. All we did was not die and for most people, all they were asked to do was not go anywhere. 

For most people it has been heaven. In a lot of minds there have been nagging doubts that maybe we should be doing something more cultural; maybe we should be making the most of these extraordinary times, but while it’s justifiable to do nothing – that’s what most people do. Yet they will all – we will all – be called heroes for getting through this ‘war’; for not backing down in the face of this ‘adversary’ and for standing up when we needed to. What a load of bollocks. For the most part we sat on our arses and pretended to care that we were only allowed out to exercise once when otherwise we’d be out all fucking day exercising man – I was going to start my running programme when all this shit kicked off, they’ll say. I was about to start the healthy diet when the supermarkets all got messed up…all bullshit like that. 

I have neighbours a couple of doors up. Nice enough people but very righteous and better than the rest of us. At midday today I took them some rhubarb from the allotment and they came to door half-sozzled from drink. From my regulation metreage I could smell the gin. 

“We’re in the garden” she said. “We’re on our third G&T. There’s nothing else to do…” heroes or what. The grim truth of it is, though, that this is precisely the thing that we’re being told is the most helpful in fighting the virus: stay at home. Do fuck all. 

That generation, my parents’ generation, is a strange one. It’s tempting, as a default, to revere them for the groundwork that they have done in creating the world that my generation is now in charge of – the generation that educates the next generation; that brings up the kids and that puts things in place for the next lot and that, ultimately, cleans up the mess of the generation above. What have they done that we should revere? They have fought in no wars, they have developed no great political systems. They have had it easy and they have secured habits like too much drinking and too much of a sense of entitlement, too much ease in getting what they want without stopping to think of the consequences. They threw divorce around like it was a hobby; they have decimated the public welfare system and now they sit, newly retired, drawing a pension that will screw the rest of over when it comes to our time. 

There are not many heroes left in the world yet we are fed the idea that all old people are such. On the news today it’s all about the crisis in care homes and how the elderly are being left to die while the young are being prioritised. A functional society wouldn’t do that and it is the duty of governments and the health services to provide the same health-care to each individual, however uneconomical that may seem. I don’t necessarily agree with that idea (I’ll talk about that in the next post) but I accept it and I pay my tax and I hope that nobody suffers too much. But where the myth becomes a little twisted is when, like someone said today, the people in the care-homes are lauded as the heroes to whom we owe a debt. 

“These people fought for use, now we must fight for them” one care worker said today. It is a meaty cliché that few people argue with, but it is used as a very wide brush these days and applied liberally to anyone who is infirm and wrinkled and has difficulty waking or standing or feeding themselves. The last war, the one to which they are referring, started 81 years ago, which means that anyone who played a significant part in it and ‘fought for us’ is by now well into their nineties. There are some, that is most definitely true, and they deserve our praise and support and all the help that we can get. But of the very few nonagenarians still alive in this country, how many actually fought in the war? How many actually fall into that category? 

Not many. Yet the old myth persists like a tired old religion that we’re either disinclined to let go of, or lack the courage to realise? 

The generation that matters is the one that’s out there now and working; the one that’s making a difference or striving to learn how they can do better. It’s not sitting in the garden in the middle of the day drinking gin because there’s nothing to do. We have little, other than our existence, to thank most of the older generations for and a lot to berate them for. If we thrive then we thrive in spite of them – not because of them.

Coronanotes16

Cd 25/Lockdown 22 

88,621/11,329 

I left a gap. Last time I wrote the statistics above stung, but not so sharply. Ten days have passed since then and here we still are. Here we are, deeper now into this – and still so many of us struggle to make sense of what this is. 

Easter has come and gone. Churches were shut and the millions of people that still somehow attach themselves to the old myths watched them online. I wonder that they don’t ask where their god is in times like this. I wonder that they don’t think this a perfect opportunity for their saviour to return. I also wonder whether this might be a big moment for the old religions; another great disappointment where beliefs have been tested a little too far and found to be wanting. 

We need a new story. 

It would be a mistake to expect normal to return. It would be a wasted opportunity to slide back into the easy answers and let the established systems return. It is not often that we get the big shake-up that forces changes like this and we need to listen to the message. 

I reckon that every couple of generations we get a jolt and we get the opportunity to take a look at the way things are going. It might be a war or some natural disaster; it might be a global pandemic. Even if these things are simply part of the natural process of time we should take them as a chance to take a look at the way that we’re going and see what changes we can make. 

We have a new story now but I wonder if we are strong enough to sit up and listen to it an add our own paragraph. I wonder if we will hibernate in these strange days and shut down in oblivion until the world returns to the way that we want it to be – familiar and same and the easiest option.  

When the bear, the hedgehog, the horse chestnut shuts down for the winter it does not make plans for a better year next year; it does not determine to make improvements when the spring returns or avoid the mistakes of the season just gone. It wakes and it does. It emerges zombie-like from its slumber and it does. It simply does. We must not do that. We must use this slow-down to learn about ourselves and to consider where we might have been going wrong and, more importantly, here we might go better. 

If we cannot do this then we are no more than the slumbering bear or the hedgehog in the woodpile or the inevitable bud of a potential leaf.