Sunday, August 08, 2021

Journal of a Plague Year

2020 was going to be a good year. Holidays were booked and my older son, whose crippling anxiety had made him virtually housebound, was about to begin a programme of treatment that would gradually help him overcome his fear of the outside world. There seemed to be a lot to look forward to.

Of course, there were various reports in the news about a deadly new virus in China, but hadn't we heard it all before when we were warned about mad cow disease, bird flu and Ebola? These things always fizzled out. Even when the Italians were warning us that we were two weeks away from a crisis, people said "Ah, but that's the Italians. They're very tactile. It won't spread as quickly over here."

As the number of UK cases began to rise, I was still busily planning a weekend break in Luxembourg, while Boris Johnson was busy enjoying a two-week holiday with his girlfriend. Crisis? What crisis?

In hindsight, perhaps we were dutifully following Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's model for the five stages of grief, the first of which is denial. We told ourselves that the number of people with Covid-19 was only 12...37...93...168...279..., but by early March, creeping doubts were beginning to set in. Perhaps we were heading for a scenario that was more like this:

Within just a few weeks, denial quickly became replaced by anger and fear. How did we sleepwalk into this position? Who was to blame? Should we let the virus sweep through society until herd immunity was achieved, or should we batten down the hatches and risk destroying the economy?

After some Olympic-level dithering by Boris Johnson, the hatches were battened down. All non-essential travel was banned and a silence seemed to descend on the world. The normally thriving streets of Lewes became eerily deserted.

My son's CBT sessions for his agoraphobia were cancelled. After two weeks of being reassured that the outside world was a safe place, he was now being told that actually it wasn't and that it would probably be better if he stayed indoors. He willingly complied.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The first lockdown coincided with some unseasonably warm weather and many people enjoyed this unexpected holiday. The distant roar of traffic was suddenly replaced by birdsong and, in the field behind our house, children started to build makeshift dens and swings. It seemed like a glimpse of a more benign world. 

However, things were starting to turn ugly at the supermarkets, as a mass hysteria developed over a potential shortage of toilet paper. In some city-centre stores, fights were breaking out over the right to have a clean bottom and, while I saluted the protagonists' commitment to personal hygiene, it seemed a baffling thing to come to blows over. 

The toilet-paper crisis was swiftly alleviated by the beginning of food shortages, which meant that fewer trips to the loo would be required. Gripped by a fear that society was on the brink of collapse, people started buying up all the dried pasta and rice they could find. On a trip to Tesco, the whole meat aisle was empty, apart from two packets of Heck pork sausages.

We were quickly reassured that there was no shortage of food; we were just trying to all buy it at the same time, which made it very hard for the supermarkets to replenish their shelves quickly enough. At this point, Tesco swiftly instigated their National Emergency Plan:

Unlike the UK government, Tesco had prepared for this eventuality and, thanks to socially distanced queuing and a limit on the number of customers allowed in the store, the food shortages swiftly ended. I sometimes wonder if the Government should have resigned and handed over the reins of power to Tesco, who seemed to possess a sense of direction that Boris Johnson lacked.

On the home front, I instigated what was, in hindsight, an absurd "dig for victory" campaign in our garden, turning part of the lawn into a potato patch and planting grow bags full of tomatoes. The end result is that, several months later, we had more cherry tomatoes than we knew what to do with and enough potatoes to delay death from starvation by a mere three days.

But while my attempts at self-sufficiency might have been laughable, the local area came into its own. Many local farmers and market traders set up veg-box delivery services and every week we enjoyed a selection of fresh vegetables and fruit, all of which were apparently grown locally. It was a revelation; I had no idea that we grew avocados in Sussex.

Our veg-box deliveries quickly became the highlight of the week; partly because we hadn't spoken to another human being for days (I don't count the awfulness of a Zoom session as human contact).

Another thing that impressed me about the local area was the community spirit that quickly grew. A campaign by the Royal Voluntary Service to recruit people to help the NHS received around a million responses, while, on a more local level, neighbours began to shop for each other and provide lifts for medical appointments.

Encouraged by this growing neighbourliness, my wife and I volunteered to do a weekly shop for the elderly couple next door. They were both as deaf as a post, so it seemed like a good idea when the husband suggested sending their shopping lists to my wife by email.

It all worked very well at first. Every week, my wife would received a shopping list that seemed particularly focused on prunes and bran (but never loo paper, strangely), which we would then print off and take to Tesco. But then, other emails started to appear and their tone began to acquire a more disturbing nature.

At first, it was simple innuendoes, which we put down to the attitudes of a different generation. But then the content started to become more explicit. I'm not quite sure why a man born in 1935 felt compelled to share his sexual history with my wife. He seemed to imagine that he and my wife had a special connection and would send creepy emails with lines like, "I noticed that you were up very late last night". As the saying goes, there's no fool like an old fool.

Thankfully, the rest of the people in our road were better behaved. Nobody subjected us to any impromptu live gigs or salsa-dancing sessions and the slightly Orwellian hand-clapping sessions never quite took off. There was a vague attempt to have a VE Day street party, but I felt under no compulsion to join in.

Life went on. At first, many of us were so terrified of ending up on a ventilator, we regarded a panting jogger or cyclist with the same horror as someone wearing a suicide vest, while a random cough in a supermarket saw people fleeing in all directions. Fortunately, the fear gradually subsided and as the death rate began to fall, some restrictions were lifted.

The 'new normal' was like the old normal, but with masks, handwashing and a Cromwellian ban on public fun. I welcomed the introduction of table service in pubs and the ban on social kissing and hugging was an added bonus, but overall it was a strange, melancholy time.

To complicate things further, my older son had his first epileptic fit and had to be rushed to hospital. He had been found by his younger brother and, for weeks afterwards, every strange knock or bang would send our younger son rushing upstairs to see if everything was all right.

The one highlight of that lost summer was a trip to North Yorkshire, where an old friend gave me a guided tour of the local moors. It was exhilarating to be somewhere different. Indeed, I felt the same level of excitement that I usually reserved for exotic, foreign holidays.

But on the way back, reality crept back in. Kings Lynn was a ghost town and I spent a rather lonely evening eating a very indifferent meal, alfresco, in a deserted market square. Where had all the people gone? On the other hand, perhaps this was normal for a town next to the Fens. Did they all come out at night?

I had thought that a visit to the quaint coastal village of Blakeney might provide some semblance of normality, but even here, it was impossible to escape from the bogeyman. Wandering around the deserted streets, I felt as if I was in an episode of Doctor Who.

But the worst was yet to come. Having a lockdown in the spring was one thing, but shutting the country down for three months during a relentlessly grey, wet winter was another. People who had never suffered from mental-health problems now found themselves experiencing depression for the first time in their lives. I stayed at home, watched television and put on a stone, courtesy of Mr Kipling.

Fortunately, there was light at the end of the tunnel and, after a succession of balls-ups, the British government finally got something right with its vaccine programme. My son's epilepsy diagnosis pushed him to the front of the queue and he received his first Pfizer jab.

As his carer, I was also bumped up the queue and a few weeks later, I received my first AstraZeneca vaccine. On both occasions, I was really impressed by the efficiency of the whole process and the dedication and patience shown by the staff, particularly the volunteer vaccine stewards. Indeed, I felt so grateful, I ended up becoming a vaccine steward myself. 

Being a vaccine steward was exhausting. In Brighton, I was on my feet for six hours, with just one 15-minute break. The work was monotonous but vital, as it meant that the NHS staff were able to get on with their jobs rather than wasting time directing people. According to my phone, in an area that was a mere 25ft long, I walked over 8000 steps.

After the miserable winter lockdown ended, I took a train to London and discovered that it was still closed. 

I suppose the empty train and PPE vending machine at Lewes Station should have given me a clue. But the idea of a deserted city seemed the stuff of science-fiction films, where the silence was only broken by marauding triffids or gangs of looters. In Trafalgar Square, three police vans were parked on the perimeter and I realised that I was under observation, which was a little disconcerting.

Since then, life has gradually returned to normal. Relaxing the rules resulted in a spike of new Covid cases, but that now seems to be in reverse and the number of people wearing masks in crowded places is slowly declining. Friends have started kissing again, so we're now back to the nightmare of trying to remember if so-and-so is a one- or two-cheek-kissing person.

Overall, I wouldn't say that Covid-19 has had a huge impact on my life. The people who have suffered have been the young, those who haven't been able to see loved ones and, of course, those who caught the virus. I was already leading a life of self-isolation looking after my sons, so the lockdown didn't change things much for me.  

However, I did learn one important lesson: make hay while the sun shines. Spend more time with friends and loved ones, visit the places you've always wanted to see and don't spend all your days at home eating Mr Kipling's Almond Slices. I hope that there won't be another long year like this in my lifetime, but this is, after all, an age of uncertainty.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Since Then

For part of the 1970s, London-based viewers of the TV soap 'Crossroads' were six months behind the rest of the country. I can't remember why, but I do recall that part of the excitement of going on holiday was being able to watch an up to date episode. It was like travelling into the future.

As with all good time travel stories, I was shocked by some of the things I saw. Why was Sandy in a wheelchair? What had turned Amy Turtle into a common thief? Where was Ted Hope? How could so much happen in six months?

In the end, Thames Television decided to catch up with the rest of the UK and a special update was filmed, with motel owner Meg Mortimer explaining what had taken place in King's Oak.

As it's been a long time since I've written a blog post, I thought I'd emulate Thames and provide a brief update of what's happened here.

1. I Have a New Home

When my mother died, I'd hoped that we'd finally have the opportunity to swap our terraced Victorian broom cupboard for a decent-sized house in Lewes, where I could hide from people and everyone would have the space to potter around. By decent, I mean normal; a three-bed semi with a garage and a garden longer than 20 feet.

Sadly, I soon realised that my small inheritance wouldn't even cover this modest ambition, as the prices for non-terraced houses suddenly shot up. Disheartened, I began to think the unthinkable: leave Lewes.

Long story short: we now live just outside Lewes, in a detached house with a view of the South Downs. Thanks to postcode snobbery, it was almost exactly the same price as our old house. I love it.

2. I Am No Longer Gainfully Employed

In a normal family, my older son would probably be at university by now or in full-time employment, while his younger brother would be going to the local school and hanging out with friends. None of this has happened. Instead, I have gradually become a full-time carer to both boys, home educating the younger one.

There are two types of people who home educate their children: those who want to and those who have to. I am firmly in the latter camp and would far rather be working. For all its frustrations, work brings camaraderie, a sense of purpose and, of course, money. At the moment, my time is spent almost entirely at home, as neither boy likes going out.

After six months of this, I started to go a bit stir crazy, so my wife very kindly suggested that I went off on a little jaunt somewhere. This turned out to be a very good idea and I am now making full use of EasyJet's cheap flights. Visiting a city like Berlin certainly clears away the cobwebs and stops me feeling that my life is in a complete rut.

As for the home education, although I may be a reluctant teacher, I am trying my best to ensure that my son has a thorough grounding in the basics, but is also free to follow his enthusiasms and passions. Sometimes we'll read a book together, but at others we might watch a film or YouTube clip and discuss it.

So far, my son seems to be enjoying his lessons and is much happier than he was this time last year, so I'm quietly hopeful.

3. Reading Helps

It can be hard to maintain a positive outlook when you see your loved ones struggling. I feel haunted by the ghost of the carefree childhood that my older son never had. I have been assured by professionals that we did all the right things, but it is hard not to experience a residual feeling of failure. We do not bring children into the world to suffer.

On gloomy, winter days, I wonder if this is it. Will I work again? Will my sons ever find their way in life and if not, what will happen when we are old? Will I even make it to old age if I live a life where I rarely get any exercise, because my son won't go out but doesn't like being left alone?

Of course it's ridiculous to think along these lines and when I worked, I was far too busy. But during the afternoons, when the lessons are finished and lunches eaten, my quiet time can be a mixed blessing, so thank God for the novel. What greater pleasure can there be than getting stuck into a novel like Buddenbrooks, spending hour upon hour in 19th century Lübeck?

Blogging also used to be cathartic, but without the stimulus of work and travel, I've been rather short of material. I haven't wanted to share my recent experiences because I didn't think it wouldn't be terribly entertaining, but I'm not quite ready to join the increasing number of people who have given up blogging.

I will try to ensure that my next post is more amusing.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

A Year in Books

This post originally appeared on my other, now defunct blog, in December 2016.

At the end of last year, my wife and I swapped roles. It was an easy decision, as I was the only one of us able to drive our sons to their new schools. My wife joined a publishing company and thrived, while I joined the world of stay-at-home fathers, and withered. However, although this has been a challenging year, I've been grateful for the opportunity to read more books than ever. I began the year by resolving to abandon my Kindle and enjoyed some serendipitous discoveries in charity shops. However, almost a year on, my teetering piles of books have reminded me why I bought a Kindle in the first place. Here are a few of the titles that made a particular impression on me: 


Philip Roth's novel 'The Plot Against America', published 12 years ago, takes place in an alternate timeline in which Roosevelt lost the 1940 Presidential election to Charles Lindbergh. At the time, a story about an experienced politician losing to a celebrity with fascist sympathies and no experience of government seemed rather far fetched. Of course, Hillary Clinton is no Roosevelt and Donald Trump is no Lindbergh, but the essential message of this book is worth heeding: democracy can become quickly debased if we allow it. 


I'd always assumed that Norman Collins' novel 'London Belongs to Me' was a dreadful old potboiler, so it was a pleasant surprise to find that for all its faults, it was a compelling and vivid evocation of London on the eve of the Second World War. Set in a boarding house that has seen better days, the novel eavesdrops on the lives of its occupants with insight and humour. 


The perfect comfort read, 'London Belongs To Me' has been reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic, with a glowing recommendation on the cover from Sarah Walters.


The name VS Prichett meant little to me apart from his occasional appearance in short story collections, so I was intrigued to find a novel by him in the Lewes branch of Oxfam. Largely set in the Amazon jungle, 'Dead Man Leading' reads like a Conradian tale as written by Evelyn Waugh, with a finely-tuned sense of the absurd. But although it is faintly reminiscent of the last part of Waugh's own 'A Handful of Dust', Pritchett has a clear, confident voice and the result is a book that is odd and unsettling, but strangely compelling.


'The Life & Times of Michael K' by JM Coetzee was published in 1983, winning the author his first Booker Prize. There is an awful lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic genre fiction being published at the moment and some of it is very enjoyable, but Coetzee's brilliantly stark vision has yet to be matched.


I enjoy a good thriller and with a Kindle I can read any old trash without anyone knowing, but I've no patience with books that suffer from lumpen prose, implausible characters and cliche-ridden dialogue, no matter how good the plot is. Fortunately, Sabine Durrant's 'Lie With Me' is a cut above the average thriller and a worthy successor to Patricia Highsmith, intelligently written and well plotted.

I thought it was much better than the overrated 'The Girl on the Train'. Durrant does a very convincing job of narrating the story from the perspective of a man in his early 40s and her depiction of an affluent South London family rings horribly true. I also enjoyed her evocative descriptions of a Greek island, written in a clear prose style that avoids the overwritten cliches of many genre novels.


The subject of John Preston's 'A Very English Scandal' will mean little to anyone under the age of 45 and absolutely nothing to anyone outside the UK, but it is a story that will appeal to many. Jeremy Thorpe was the charismatic leader of Britain's Liberal Party, with a lust for power that was only exceeded by his penchant for young men. When the latter threatened the former, in the guise of a troubled individual called Norman Scott, Thorpe asked a friend to have him killed.

Beyond some smutty 1970s playground jokes ("What do Jeremy Thorpe and Captain Kirk have in common?), my only memory of Thorpe was a sympathetic one - a good man defeated by the bigotry of a different age. How wrong I was. The Thorpe that emerges in these pages is a charming psychopath, callously exploiting the extraordinary loyalty of his friends and family to further his political career.


'A Very English Scandal' reads like a thriller and is utterly gripping from start to finish.


'The Serious Game' is an extraordinary 1912 novel by Hjalmar Söderberg, who in his native Sweden is regarded as the equal of Strindberg. On the face of it it's a simple enough tale of a young couple who fall in love, but end up being unhappily married to other people. What's remarkable about the book is its modernity and insight, containing a candour that no English novelist would have dared to attempt in Edwardian Britain.


'The Deadly Percheron' by John Franklin Bardin is one of those rare novels that transcends its genre. What begins as a rather eccentric mystery novel set in New York quickly changes gear, taking the reader on a strange journey into the darker recesses of the human pyche, where nothing is what it seems. Written in 1946, this novel has been largely forgotten since it was republished by Penguin during the 1960s, but has enjoyed a cult following.



'Chernobyl Prayer' by Svetlana Alexievich is a brilliant piece of reportage, collecting eye-witness accounts of people affected by the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. One of the most shocking stories relates how some robotic devices - sent in to move irradiated graphite rods - kept breaking down after a bried period of exposure to radiation. In the end, men were dispatctched to pick the rods up by hand, wearing only the flimsiest of protective suits.

Told that they couldn't have more than 40 seconds' exposure to the graphite, the men soon discovered that it was impossible to do anything in under two minutes and went ahead regardless. For me, the most harrowing part of the book was reading a wife's account of how she nursed her husband during a long, debilitating and painful illness, following his exposure to a massive dose of radiation. When he finally died, his body treated as radioactive waste, buried in a lead-lined coffin.


But if this all sounds too upsetting, I should also add that 'Chernobyl Prayer' also contains some remarkable stories of heroism, compassion and survival. It is a gripping read that reveals the best and worst of humanity.


I really enjoyed Dorothy Hughes's 1940s noir thriller 'In a Lonely Place' and was keen to explore her backlist. Sadly, 'The So Blue Marble' is one of the most ridiculous books I've ever read, with an implausible plot and a selection of unbelievable characters. Thinking that Hughes must have had an off day, I tried another novel by her and was equally nonplussed.


Adam Roberts' 'The Thing Itself' is a high concept novel that bandies ideas about Kantian philosophy, quantum physics and artificial intelliegence around with the ease of someone talking about the weather. A description of the plot would be no help at all. All I can say is that it's a playful, witty, knockabout tale that wears its cleverness lightly and is consistently funny.



I'm a big fan of Justin Cartwright and really enjoyed reading his 2002 novel 'White Lightning'. With a narrative that alternates between South Africa and England, this is a poignant tale of grief and loneliness that is redeemed by the author's wit and humanity. I was particularly amused by Cartwright's description of a 'saucy film' shoot, only to later discover that in the 1970s, he wrote the screenplay for 'Rosie Dixon - Night Nurse'.

These were the books that made a big impression on me, but I should mention that I also really enjoyed Kate Summerscale's 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher', Trollope's 'Doctor Throne', Jonathan Franzen's new novel 'Purity', Andrew Hurley's superb 'The Loney', Lionel Shriver's latest book 'The Mandibles' and Derek Raymond's grim but brilliant 'Factory' novels. I also read three books by Dutch people.

Next year I intend to not read any DH Lawrence or Commonwealth novels with lengthy descriptions of marketplaces, fruit and wise old men, but other than that, I am open to almost anything.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Present Imperfect

Many thanks to the people who have posted kind comments about the last post. I wasn't expecting anyone to notice my stealthy return to this blog, so I'm touched by the response.

Two years ago I decided to finish this blog and try something new on Wordpress, as I thought that it would enable me to create something more impressive. I went through the process of signing up, buying a domain name and even read a guide to Wordpress. However, I was like one of those people who think that buying a pencil and a sketch pad will make them an artist.

I managed a year with the new blog - 'Present Imperfect'. I hadn't quite turned it into the multimedia spectacular that I'd envisaged and my disappointment gradually turned into total inertia.

However, I was stirred into action a couple of days ago, as my domain name expired and the company that hosted the new blog shut it down. I won't bore you with the finer details, except to say that restoring Present Imperfect would be a complicated process and, more importantly, cost me £75 - money that I'd rather spend on a kite or a hunting horn.

I thought that the posts on the new blog had disappeared into the ether, but the html is still on Wordpress, so I'm gradually moving the material over here. In between transferring posts (which involves a tedious resizing of images), I will try to add something new.

I return to Blogger like an errant husband, after an affair with a younger woman. I thought that Wordpress would inject a new potency into my blogging, but instead I discovered that I didn't have the energy to keep up with its demands. While I dallied away, Blogger patiently waited for me to come home, older and wiser.