The Last Locked-down And Out In London

June 12th

Little girls chase the pigeons while they ride their bikes on the concrete in the park.

“Try not to kill them,” one girl says.

Life feels uncertain.

Learn to ride it like a mustang.

Yesterday, I went for a socially distanced walk with two friends and their respective son and dog. It was strange and it wasn’t. Previously, it’s been quite common for me not to see friends for weeks at a time, but the difference now is I haven’t seen anyone for months. As one friend points out, “It’s all been two dimensional.” The other friend says, how driving through London she almost burst into tears. The city’s been in this great slumber for so long “and how will it ever wake up again?”

I’m quiet in the company of friends. And I know I’m quiet. Which makes me quieter. I’m wearing Doctor Death leather jacket and a baseball cap and look and feel decidedly dodgy.

I’m given a loaf of bread and lose my footing. I fall into the 12th century.

There was a break in the overcast sky for an hour earlier in the week. It was then I heard my first cricket of the summer hiding in the reeds. Noticed thistles have been left to grow in wide patches. The crickets have been quiet ever since.

I watch a fly on a railing for longer than is strictly normal.

The back pain is back in a big way. Question this time is: what am I not anxious about?

There are more protests this weekend. Unless you’re going to cause aggro, I encourage anyone and everyone to go (wear facemasks). But there’s something from the last week’s protest that has been bugging me. As we stood in Parliament Square I watched two young white women, they had cardboard signs they were holding but seemed uncomfortable with them. They held their ‘BLM’ tightly to their sides. Then one whispered to the other and gave her her phone. She stood in front of the crowd and held up her sign high above her head. She proceeded to do several poses, including one from behind. She then asked her friend quietly if she’d “got it”, which she nodded she had. Then they swapped positions and the other friend did exactly the same thing. They stood around looking uncomfortable for a few minutes, with their signs down by their sides again. And then they walked off.

There was too much happening last week for it to be at the front of my mind but it bugged me. And it’s been bugging me ever since. I don’t doubt that those girls had good intentions, but somehow they let themselves get in the way of those intentions.

Me, I don’t have the answers to anything.

Four Dead In Ohio runs round my head. Crosby, Stills and Nash. I used to sing it thinking it was sad, but not knowing what it was about.

People are still dying of the virus, in this country and all over the world (except New Zealand). It’s still very real despite the growing feeling its happening behind closed doors. A conservative estimate is well over 400,000 people have now died. The rise in deaths from domestic violence since lockdown makes it hard to swallow. And I mean makes it physically hard to swallow.

The tomatoes that drooped green like a willow are ripe enough to eat.

Tens of thousands of turtles drift to nest on an island in the Great Barrier Reef. It’s so calm. So peaceful. The turtles so sure of their destination. There is no doubt. Their purpose and reason for being is absolute. 

We long to return to the water. I live in the bath.

I went to the Great Barrier Reef about fifteen years ago. I’ve never liked instructions so I ate melon and didn’t listen to the boat’s captain explain where to go and where not to. I swam away from the group and over a sort of reef precipice. It was blue. God it was blue. Blue like swimming pool blue. And covered in beautiful tropical fish and I couldn’t understand why no one else was over there. Just to the right of the reef was a deep deep dark crevasse. And when I looked down, meters below me were four reef sharks, circling.

Some words from the captain had made their way into my brain. “They won’t kill ya, but they’ll rip yer arm off.”

The elderflower champagne is adding an unexpected element of danger to our lives. My godfather has made it in Ireland before and gets advice sent from over there. He calls me with it. It’s not good news. Firstly, to prevent explosions, we’re supposed to be storing it in demijohns (expensive, enormous glass containers with diffusers to let pressure not air out) not wine bottles, and also, you’re supposed to wait a year before drinking, because there is a magic to it. This time next year, when the elderflower blooms again, that blossoming is also in the champagne’s DNA, and this is when you get the “petelance”, the fizz.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of things.

I need get back into the world, if only in the limited capacity of staring out the window, and get off the internet. There are some issues where there shouldn’t even be a side to take, there are some issues we should all be in agreement on. But that’s never going to happen and there comes a point when the internet stops being educational and it’s just people shouting at each other from either side of the valley. The internet makes all things binary, and what do we expect? It’s the nature of its code. In there, in here, it is a binary reality.

It’s warm this week and there’s a big wind. A big gentle wind blowing through deep layers of our psyche. It feels like an encouraging friend nudging us forward when it’s our turn to speak. History repeating itself is not necessarily a bad thing: there’s some unfinished business and it’s back to get finished. That’s the thing with the past, it’s always catching up with us.

Maybe tomorrow it will be sunny.

When all this started I read something Hunter S Thompson wrote: “When the going gets Weird, the Weird turn pro.”

It’s stayed with me throughout this. It’s our time, weird ones. Let’s go!

Ciao for now…

Locked-down And Out In London

June 7th

The weather turned again this week. Now we’re riding the gloom train until the tracks run out. Our last warm evening was Tuesday. The birds here have been agitated since then. That evening about a hundred ravens and magpies flew from the trees in front of the flat, squawking and cawing and barking. Something spooked them and they did everything to get that something out of their tree. It’s the numbers. They rally together. Every bird in the tree goes at whatever it is that is threatening them.

I thought you had to be in a position of power to wield any power. We can do things on the micro but on the macro, we feel helpless. “Impotent rage,” my mother calls it. But I think we’re starting to realise we’re all in positions of power and it’s time we started using it, because as many have already said: the UK is not innocent when it comes to racism, not in the past, and not now.

The world is turning faster than ever before, and it’s only natural that some of us will lose our footing every now and again. What’s important is that we find it again as quickly as possible. We could have done all of this, realised all this, a lot sooner.

And if you haven’t yet, it’s not too late to change your mind.

Protests change things. Riots change them faster. Small actions every day also change things. Pressure. Pressure. Pressure. Don’t let that pressure drop.

Like running cancer races, you go on protests because you don’t want anyone else to have to go through it ever again, because you want things to change, and you do it for the people you love, you loved. At the moment there’s the whole virus issue, which I respect and take very seriously. But when I heard today’s protest was starting in Battersea, a fixture of my childhood, the home of my late Trinidadian godmother, I knew I had to go. I had to show respect and solidarity to the people in my life. And I had to show it to strangers. They didn’t need me there, but I wanted to make up the numbers, because in numbers we change things.

It’s a fifteen-mile walk down to Battersea and back, but how hard can that be? I ran a marathon, remember. It’ll be like Virginia Woolf’s Street Haunting, I tell myself, a lot of looking in windows and watching lives go by. And to begin with, it is.

We walk past firemen practicing rolling up their hoses. We watch the multitudinous bike-riding families roll past. Down past closed and run-down frame emporiums, antique shops with brass candlesticks and old dolls, where ivy has been pulled off its sign recently, exposing leaf and vine-shaped green paint beneath the black.

There’s a dilapidated house, at its dark and empty window hangs large mustard yellow velvet curtains, one artfully drawn back.

The honeysuckle’s coming out and the sky is moody over the gothic St Pancras hotel in Kings Cross, but nothing like yesterday’s storms. We go past a plaque for Percy and Mary Shelley and I think of what I read this week, that his son took Percy’s heart from the funeral pyre and kept it. I think it’s kind of beautiful. Certainly more beautiful than it is gross.

Passing all these closed places, some of these closed places are places I used to work. In Holborn I remember the hideous period as a cocktail waitress in a “boutique bowling” alley – I get a kick out of seeing it shut now. I only lasted 3 or 4 months at that place, but somehow I made two lifelong friends there.

We head down a tree-lined street in Holborn that looks like an avenue in Paris, except someone in a moment of wishful extravagance has graffitied on an office “Abolish Work”.

We walk through Bloomsbury, where I met a friend at a bookshop and had coffee and pastel de nata—that was the last time I met with anyone before lockdown. At the time she said about her preparations: “I’ve bought an extra can of tuna, it’s going to be fine.”

Suddenly we’re by the river, I can’t remember when I last saw the river. By the time we get to the bridge you can hear the helicopters, chopping the stormish clouds above, and from there on out that sound doesn’t go away.

To my surprise, there are tourists on the South Bank for their post-apocalyptic holidays, dragging suitcases and looking lost as they go past a deserted and caged-off merry-go-round.

Big Ben’s covered in scaffolding and by the time my feet start to ache we’re in Battersea. The protest moves over Vauxhall Bridge and towards Parliament Square. Cars honk and wave signs from out their windows– the louder the honk the louder the applause from the crowd. People lean out from their flats waving their self-made ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs, someone waves a Sudanese flag. One woman shakes a Tambourine from her flat window.

We stay until I can hardly stand anymore, and then head back on the 7mile journey home. I can tell you, walking 15 miles in leather trousers is much harder than running a marathon.

Covent Garden is silent, and feels confused by that silence.

The rest of the walk home is horrendous. We didn’t get back long ago, and the last hour of the walk I started to feel drunk. Then I hallucinated (we hadn’t eaten since a crumpet at breakfast). There was a bunch of electric wiring tied to the wall of the newsagent that I thought was a man; I politely stood aside for the bunch of wiring to walk past. Fucker didn’t move, didn’t even say thank you.

We got home, and I broke in half.

Today, the protest, the whole thing was entirely peaceful – except for some fascists who felt the need to turn up and stand behind a line of police. People just ignored them. Yesterday however, whoever shoved a bike into the side of a horse—not ok. The poor horse doesn’t know what’s going on. Whether we like it or not (and as much as I like horses, I don’t in these situations) the police horses are there: don’t fucking hurt the animals. Don’t hurt anyone. But today there was none of that, and I think 98-99% of people were wearing face masks. And no, I agree, the timing’s not perfect, what with the pandemic and everything, but the time is now. No doubt about it.

And I’m not going anywhere for a couple of weeks, so…

As I write, the birdfeeder swings. A parakeet has, in the last week or so, got the hang of nibbling the peanuts. He’s quite a spectacle but I like the little chickadees. A few of which are fledglings now and incredibly scruffy. They bop about with their little mohawks in the drizzle.

Everyone seems to have a pet now except me and I fear I am turning into one for lack of one. I’ve started biting. I yowl like a cat just for something to do.

A group of men in suits congregate loudly in the communal gardens. It’s an odd sight. I haven’t seen the short-sleeved shirts and black trouser a combination since Barnstaple —the men all dressed up for a night on the lash outside Golden Lion Tavern in their short-sleeved shirts, hair slicked wet with Dax Wax, Jack Daniels belt buckles on. It seems to be a funeral gathering, and if it is, they’re all in remarkably good spirits. I’d be pissed off if I were the person who died!

Planes fly over late at night.

I forgot what normal was like.

There’s a break in the clouds for a while.

We watch a brilliant series called Rock and Roll America about the evolution of rock and roll, from blues in New Orleans and Memphis to the influence of the waves on Californian surf music. I watch girls screaming at the men on stage in total bewilderment.

I can’t imagine getting that excited about anything.

My loss, I suppose.

The other night I couldn’t sleep. The soles of my feet were hot. The wind was blowing the trees so hard if I closed by eyes I could have been by the sea. I needed to be outside. I got up, lit a candle and placed the hot soles of my feet on the cold tiles.

I found that I miss the world.

I’m reading Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (tr. William Rees). He was the dude who wrote The Little Prince, but he was also a pioneering airmail pilot who was shot down somewhere at sea. This is a book astronauts often reference; they call him a “mystic”. I can see why. After being lost with no fuel somewhere over the Sahara he and his astrologer, Néri, land in Casablanca.

“Neri and I would go down into town where there are little cafés already open at dawn…Neri and I would find a table and sit down safely, laughing off the night, with warm croissants and milky coffee set before us. Life would give to Neri and to me that morning gift. An old peasant woman finds her God only through a painted image, or a primitive medallion, or her rosary; we too must hear a simple language if we are to hear it truly. And so the joy of being alive was gathered in that aromatic and burning first taste, in that blend of milk, coffee and wheat which brings communion with peaceful pastures, with exotic plantations and with harvests, communion with all the earth. Among so many stars there was only one accessible to us, only one that could compose that fragrant breakfast bowl.”

In hedges everywhere brambles are flowering. What will have happened on the only star available to us in the months that form the blackberries?

Locked-down And Out In London

May 30th

Flies buzz around the flat, their wings the sound of determined futility; welcome to the sound of the summer. The year we realised we meant nothing.

There are people on the streets but it still feels quiet, quieter than London at Christmas despite the people on the pavement. There’s something missing. But what’s strange is: what’s missing is something, like anti-matter that “something missing” is in the makeup of reality, and you can feel it looming heavy over each and every one of us. It follows all of us out on the streets and in the parks and in the shops. It is a dark and vague uncertainty.

Is it safe? we say as we catch one another’s eyes.

Is it safe?

But then we blink. Fuck it, I guess is what most people think. Because there’s the smell of barbecues and hot coals and roasting meat. Midday is thick with it. There’s music coming from boom boxes out on the heath.

All the summers ever fill my head. I wonder what London Fields is like right now?

The same as it ever was, I guess.

Thank god I’m not (the same as I ever was).

It is the season of the rose, as you may have deduced from their use as a backdrop. I stop and breathe them in at every opportunity; yellow roses hit the spot every time. Big daisies called moon pennies are blooming. And for the first time in a couple of years I see foxgloves in someone’s garden. I’ll take my omens where I can find them.

Foxgloves in the Victorian Language of Flowers symbolised “riddles, conundrums, and secrets”.

Someone hacks into my old email, which now functions as a repository for junk, but also serves as a safe, a time capsule, for correspondences with people I love who are now dead. I pretend it hasn’t happened for almost 24hrs.

If you are not deeply concerned by what is happening both sides of the sea, not only have you not been paying attention, you’ve been brainwashed.

Go out and feel the wind, it will remind you what’s important.

I’ve written a note at the top of this dairy entry — “sense of humour failure” — and I have deleted most of what I had written angrily. People have said it already and put it better. But I haven’t found this week amusing. What I will say is, I’m in full support of whatever changes this shit immediately. The peaceful protests have been done already. And if you’re British, and you look at America and think it’s a disgrace, know that we are tumbling towards that.

Wood cracks in the heat.

My friend sends me a recipe for elderflower cordial and to my surprise, I find myself out one hot evening picking elderflowers, enough left for the bees and enough for me to make cordial and champagne – I am literally making booze in a bucket, that’s where we’re at now. It’s currently festering in the broom cupboard because I can’t be bothered to sterilise bottles, so it should have some decent fizz to it when it does comes out.

We sit on a wooden fence that circles the men’s pond on Hampstead Heath. It’s empty of men but surrounded by cow parsley and yellow irises, the water looks clean for the first time ever. I wonder if the ponds were ever empty before?

“Before all this shit started,” drifts up through our bedroom window one morning.

Before and…It doesn’t seem like there’s an after yet, only a before.

But if you go outside you would be forgiven for thinking nothing ever happened; even the two meter distance signs painted on park entrances have faded. But it’s there. All that’s ever happened is just behind us on the wind, and the trees are creaking with the weight.

Locked-down And Out In London

 

May 22nd

I sit outside and hear the world shutting up and closing windows after a hot day. It sounds like nightfall in a small Italian town. We had the first hot day this week, no chill in the air or in the shadows. As I sit listening to the world going to bed I think of all the talk about how we never had time for all this thought, focus, presence before. Having previously agreed, in this moment I realise I don’t think that’s true. We’ve always had the time; we just chose not to use it.

The reality is, if you’re not going out there’s only so much TV you can watch, only so much scrolling you can do before you put your phone down, turn off the TV and start to pay attention. I understand why we might want to distract ourselves from life, but distract ourselves from the planet, that I don’t get. Why are we not in a constant state of wonder? I suppose bodily functions have a tendency to bring you back to earth.

On the road where children have been drawing NHS rainbows in chalk, I notice someone has taken a discarded nub and drawn a penis.

I look through a photo album I made last summer, and as I flick through the images I start to cry. What I find upsetting is the innocence of our faces. Smiling, we have no idea what is coming.

Acid lime Brimstone butterflies flash across the deep green vista I run through, like a splash of vinegar.

My mum, in Devon, goes to pick up eggs and veg from the honesty box at one of the farms up near the coast. She gets stuck in hours of tailbacks from day-trippers. Then I see a picture circulating Twitter of the blocked roads all around Woolacombe (just around the bay) and it’s even worse than I imagined. This kind of tourism isn’t contributing to the economy, it’s just making the lives of those who live at these “beauty spots” (typically relatively poor areas) impossible. While potentially putting them at risk.

Mum also questioned where these people were going to the toilet – seems as there are no pubs public toilets open at the moment, it’s a good question.

Earlier, I’d seen pictures of Hampstead Heath the morning after a hot day, covered in bottles, shopping bags, crisp packets and dog shit bags. And, though the hope had been that the virus would result in an evolution of collective consciousness, I can’t help but think we have learned nothing. Parks were elevated to near-sacred spaces during this and yet we still treat them like a tip. Which makes you wonder, what will it take for us—I mean a vast majority of us— to learn to respect the land we live on?

More than a pandemic directly linked to the destruction of the environment, it seems.

We sit in a park, our local beauty spot, after work under a big cedar tree and drink beer. I take off my shoes and feel the sun warm my bare soles. Watch pollen and insects swirling up on a thermal towards the sun.

Up, up, up. Until you can no longer make out the particles from the light.

Watching old documentaries about astronauts I start to question what I’m doing. I’d be there writing about the beauty of the moon rather than going to it. Like that Buddhist aphorism: looking at the finger pointing to the moon, rather than the moon itself.

Surely it’s better to be out doing something, rather than writing about doing something. Is writing even a worthy pursuit anymore? I think it might have been once. It may be again. But I do wonder if it is now. And if it’s not, how can you make so?

But I suppose it’s in our nature to question everything. In Tom Wolfe’s essay, Post Orbital Remorse, the astronauts came to loathe their celebrity – they weren’t individuals, apart from a couple, no one even knew their names, they were just “astronauts”, and then forgotten.

It is regretful that we even managed to politicise outer space. Will no nook of the universe be free from our small-mindedness?

I must be in a funk. I need to get outside more. I look into fruit picking jobs. There’s been a lot of talk about it, most of it I’ve missed, but the general vibe being that it should be the Brexiteers doing the fruit picking now … to me, that just seems like the other side of the same coin: the problem is hardly any UK nationals want to pick fruit. I do, but there’s no farms even remotely near travelling distance to London. And suddenly I remember I looked into this last year as well.

What’s that thing that guy said about doing the same thing and expecting different results?

One day I will work with my hands again. If we all did a bit, it wouldn’t be loaded in unmanageable amounts on other people.

It reminds me of when I had a realisation that for society to function we all have to play our bit in different roles, on different strata of society. If we were all only to stay at the bottom it wouldn’t work, same if we were all only to stay at the top. What works is the flux between the two.

That’s why you shouldn’t ever let the fuckers keep you down.

Not Letting The Fuckers…

Locked-down And Out In London

May 15th

 

After a cold, grey week of watching the wind bully the trees, we’re back to beautiful mornings. Cool in the shadows but warm in the sun. Disaster is coming. Or it isn’t. Like a fox on a country road, frozen under the full-beam of an on-coming car in an otherwise black night, I don’t know which way to turn.

Forwards or backwards?

The decision is made for me. I have to go for a (routine) blood test— this is the furthest I’ve ventured in 6 weeks. I wear brightly coloured trousers to ward off evil spirits. And in case that doesn’t work, I’ve got the Dr. Death leather jacket back on so the virus will know to back the fuck up.

I listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s Manhattan while walking through dirty London streets still creaking with the weight of a pandemic, and it feels rather smug. Billy Holiday’s more the vibe. Civilisation as we know it has been put into question, as have our individual identities, which means men in white vans demonstrate their virility by using anyone attempting to cross the road as target practice. Paying them no mind, a man with a mask cycles with no hands up the empty street. I much prefer these kind of cyclists to the mid-life Lycra set who bellow “watch out” as they scream round a blind corner twice as fast as the speed limit.

The ice cream van’s been out for about a month, and the local cemeteries have been open for a couple of weeks, presumably for anyone who wants to save themselves the trouble and just launch themselves into an early grave now.

Apparently, you can get that bored.

The ravens and rooks hobble around like boys in baggy trousers. Flame licked iris are out and pink, purple, and white rhododendrons have burst onto the scene; beyond their haze of colour twisted roots and branches loop each other like a mangrove swap. Magpies skim along the ground like stones across the water.

When I go for a run the air by the lake is filled with glowing pollen blowing off the reeds that rustle reassurances on the wind. The haze makes the scene look like the summers when everything was golden. Already the earth is dry and cracked in places like my hands.

Continuing my cottage industry, I’ve sold some black stilettos on eBay now. Maybe whoever bought them’s going to the cemetery.

I dig at a kiwi with a spoon and its seeded flesh oozes out like frog spawn. It’s not ripe yet and makes my mouth water. I ripen hard plums in a chipped white bowl in the sun. The tomato plant I grew from seed has been indoors and survived the winter; it now thrives in the sitting room and droops like a willow under its green fruit.

Nothing is ripe yet.

Nothing is ready.

It’s all too soon.

But the sun is shining and there’s weed on the wind. As the evacuated stay in their second homes, gardens run wild and buttercups stand tall, begging for chins to glow up. The dust-covered cars are on the move again. Walking home laden with shopping, I listen to Bob Dylan and make a decision to serve no one but the ones I love.

We put on Rambo for some easy watching and are surprised to discover that it’s a masterpiece. It starts with a small incident and explodes into this epic psychological breakdown. Stallone is practically silent throughout the film, and only in the last five minutes does he really talk, and when he does, it floors me. The trauma. It floors me.

“Nobody would help! No one helped! He said, I want to go home, Johnny, I wanna drive my Chevy…”

An opera shrieks from the radio while I’m in the bath. It’s von Suppé’s The Devil on Earth, and what I gather is that in von Suppe’s future everyone is eccentric, but at a party two brothers are unable to elicit either any mischief or any romance. They conclude that in the future the devil has distributed himself evenly among everyone, so is everywhere but impossible to find.

It’s been a long time coming: face masks are fashionable, and they aren’t called face masks, they’re face coverings. I see a female politician wearing a coordinated mauve outfit and mauve face “covering” and find it infinitely more terrifying than the clinical alternative. I’m all about reusing masks and making them out of whatever fabric you want but… it’s the coordination. The consideration. This is our new reality and it’s unsettling how quickly something so sinister is assimilated into fashion.

May joy be unconfined, our downstairs neighbour’s taken up the bongos. Occasionally, the bongos are accompanied by some vigorous throat singing, which when it catches you off guard can be quite alarming, but I appreciate it’s certainly more musical than just screaming into a pillow.

I’m reading Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle this week. As well as being a surprisingly enjoyable read about a poisoning, it is a book about a type of isolation that makes what many of us are experiencing seem almost communal. I suppose all stories are stories of isolation if you look at them right.

 

IMG_1645
Got Time To Watch Plums Ripen In A White Chipped Bowl

 

 

 

Locked-down And Out In London

May 8th

 

“Pandemic! Got that pandemic.”

We can continue with The Wire as someone is feeling a bit stronger this week – less overwhelmed and more outraged. Eerily, season four’s first episode opens with the kids on the corner selling their wares, previously given names such as “WMD”, “Bin Laden”, and “Red Top”. Today shouting, “Pandemic! Got that pandemic!”

It rings out through the empty streets of the episode. And the next, and the next. Possibly through the whole series.

“Pandemic! Got that pandemic.”

The children’s play area in the local park is covered by metal grating to stop the kids passing the virus on to each other as they play, to their mothers and their fathers; the reality of dystopia is much more subtle than it has been portrayed in books and films, and that’s all the more unsettling.

Old men sit solo on their benches, catching the rays two meters apart, as if the park was designed with this very future in mind.

On an empty bench, there’s a plastic bottle filled with stagnant water and red carnations to remember the dead. She was called Clara and she died in 1998, when this future was still a twinkle.

I watch Graham Brady, the Tory MP who thinks people like staying at home during a pandemic too much, in disbelief. As his foul utterances limp off his tongue, his mouth becomes dry and cloying, his body so ashamed of the words coming out of it that it tries to shut his mouth in any means possible, directing all moisture away from this orifice and towards his armpits. But his self-assurance is a fiercer force and it keeps him talking, pushing for lockdown to be eased before it’s safe. People are “too willing” to stay at home and not go to the jobs they’ve hated their whole lives in order to save their lives, and their loved ones lives, and possibly even this guy’s life.

I think of a time earlier this year when a friend and I were walking back through Soho, only to find Old Compton Street closed off by police, then Wardour, Greek, Frith… everywhere rushed to be closed off by a large number of police. It must be serious; this is literally the whole of Soho. I ask a policeman what’s going on, he is busy and, unanswering, he shoos me along. Up at Soho Square, I ask another.

“Bomb threat,” he says.

Oh shit.

Behind him, his colleague is trying to stop, and physically block, a man desperately trying to return to work. Having informed the man there is a bomb threat, he’s trying to shield this man from something that could kill him, and the man is pushing and saying, “I don’t care! I have to get back to work! It’s just over there, just let me through!”

The desperation to get back to his job, the fear at being late back from lunch, the complete disregard for his own life for want of his job was very sad. My friend and I agreed that surely, in any sane country, you’d just leave for an hour or two and then return. Or, should the bomb go off, just clock off for the day.

On the news later, it turns out they had discovered an unexplored WW2 bomb. So don’t tell me people don’t cling to their jobs. I just think people like Bradbury have found it a surprise that most people cling to their lives more dearly.

And so, there is hope.

I hear the first scree of a swift: summer has arrived on May 6th – at exactly the same time as it arrived with my sister, it turns out. And the swift and the summer is more welcome than ever. With the swift’s forked tail trails every summer that has come before this one, good and bad, happy and sad, every future summer, every blue sky and setting sun. And we long for it. We long for them all.

The plane trees that were pollarded within an inch of their lives are thick with green leaves that wave like a celebration.

I miss the charity shops, the displays in their windows have been the same for two months now and they used to take such pride in changing them every week. I miss going in and saying how overpriced everything was: “£65 for a pair of Miss Sixty sunglasses?! Fuck off.” Only to find an absolute score hiding on the rails.

I miss my family.

The whistling sound of pigeon wings haunts us like an angel of death. Except it’s the angel of shit.

Blue, white and black face masks litter the streets. They are like all things left on the street, a sorry sight. When I lived in Dalston it was strands of weaves that tumbled and drifted along the roads. Saturday and Sunday morning it was like walking through a Sergio Leone set. I preferred the weaves.

A friend sends me a poetry exchange that I don’t take part in in any orthodox manner, I “break the rules”. And because I broke the rules, they break the rules and don’t send me a poem, but a song by a Brazilian man called Caetano Veloso:

I walk down Portobello road to the sound of reggae
I’m alive
The age of gold, yes the age of old
The age of gold
 
The age of music is past
I hear them talk as I walk yes I hear them talk
I hear they say
“Expect the final blast”
 
I walk down Portobello road to the sound of reggae
I’m alive
I’m alive, vivo muito vivo feel the sound of music
Banging in my belly
Know that one day I must die
I’m alive
 
And I know that one day I must die
I’m alive
Yes I know that one day I must die
I’m alive vivo muito vivo
In the eletric cinema or on the telly
Nine out of ten movie stars make me cry
 
I’m alive
And nine out of ten movie stars make me cry
I’m alive
 

A few days later I think of this song as a man drives with his top down smiling and listening to loud reggae. And as the sun pats my cheeks and the reggae drifts in to the distance, I think, this is living

 

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“Baby Hats! Got them Baby Sun Hats!”

Locked-Down And Out In London

 

May 1st

 

“Like ghosts, adders are something I have always wanted to but never seen,” I note down while intoxicated. White wine is a new addition to my diet, and it’s going down well. Later that evening I dream a ghost for the first time.

The woman next door not only does an excellent impression of a whale trapped in the bath, but in recent weeks she also does battle with the flush mechanism of her toilet. It is pumped as if the flush were billows and she is desperately trying to start a fire. Or possibly she is hoping to take off, and who can blame her under the circumstances. But something is deeply, darkly wrong in there and has been for some time. It, or she, may be possessed. Soon I will have to say something, it’s just a bit… What do you say?

“Excuse me, burly neighbour who could certainly do me some damage, what in God’s name are you doing to your toilet? Do either of you need an exorcist?”

Having done a week in bed like an unproductive Edith Sitwell, a fresh start is in order. I get up one morning and pull up the daisies planted with the wildflowers last summer; that lasted all autumn, all winter, all spring. They had taken on a sickly colour and smell, like rotting honey.

George Elliot’s The Lifted Veil proves a perfect companion to the melancholy and hard-done by mood I experienced this last week. I am a misunderstood clairvoyant. A fragile poet muddling my way through life in Italy and a bucolic rural estate on my father’s money, waiting to be poisoned in quite a passive aggressive manner.

The first part’s accurate and anyway, it doesn’t matter now, the mood’s passed.

Over the last couple of weeks a large number of people have become fixated with lockdown ending, aggressively so. It’s a bit like saying: well we burnt all the bottom half of the rice but since we put a lid on it we can’t smell the smoke so might as well turn the heat back up.

The problem with stupid is not that stupid gets angry, but that stupid acts on it.

Meanwhile in South Africa, people queue for over two and a half miles for food parcels.

The vista has flashed parakeet green, with the occasional blood blister of red and pink. It seems likely all, or at least the pioneers of Impressionism had myopia. The rest just copied, like when your friend breaks their arm at school and you’re jealous of their signed cast. So maybe you pretend to have an accident too.

My bi-weekly runs are filled with beauty and poetry, albeit fantasised sometimes. Having admired two paired swans in the lake, I am on my way home again. I pass two teenage boys on bikes dressed in Adidas tracksuits and hoodies, who are loitering dodgily outside the park. I must have misheard their conversation because in parting one calls to the other, “Seventh in line to reign, my love!”

This week I have learned that chess is not a game of instinct; it requires a lot of thought. And having played it as a game of instinct three times, I have lost three times.

In a thrilling twist of fate, I sell a (clean) top for £5 on eBay to a charmless woman called Ann. This may prove to be divisive, but I’m afraid I firmly believe you should never fraternise with an Ann without an ‘e’ at the end of her name, it suggests a lack of levity and this woman is confirmation of this. I regret the extra, unnecessary 6p spent on the postage of the top. What’s it called? Nominal determinism, where the name dictates the fate of the person. But Fate also has a twisted sense of irony, so watch what you call your offspring.

It’s gone from Animals of Farthing Wood to Animal Farm here. The pigeons and squirrels I welcomed St Francis-like last year, have gone from friends to pest to nemeses, and no longer respect me just because I am human. They’ve heard on the winds of change a rumour. The bastards.

There is a long queue of people outside Tesco that I join. We wait in line and step forward our allocated two meters, then stop, forward two meters, then stop, timed as if in procession down the aisle of a church rather than the supermarket.

There’s a rainbow and then it’s blown away, leaving half the sky blue and half the sky dark with a shroud of black cloud. Seagulls appear from nowhere and drift and wheel on the wind, it’s like I’m back in Barnstaple again, by the estuary, the wrecked ships and the wading birds.

I miss home not in the sense of a house, that went a long time ago, but the landscape of home.

 

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Finding Quartz Down In Devon One Summer (pic: Alexandra Waespi)

 

Locked-down And Out In London

April 24th

 

When the wind catches the Cyprus tree its leaves turn silver.

I walk past a woman whose perfume takes me back to an untraceable image from my childhood. Maybe it’s not even from a childhood this time around. It’s a rich person’s perfume. A person from another age, another time and place, who has somehow washed up in the strange experience two thousand and twenty is proving to be.

On Monday night I find I have been wearing my trousers back to front for the whole evening, this sums up the whole day, the whole week, the whole decade. I have had the worst week of my professional writing life this week. And previously, I have had some bad weeks.

I played the game and found the game to be rigged. The world is falling apart and all I asked for was some organisation from an editorial department that was set to be a quite big break for me. But that’s too much to ask. And I’m sick of putting my life in the hands of people who are not worthy of it.

So, I am done doing what I am supposed to do. I’m done working hard every day god gives me. I’m done. I’m on strike. I have been in bed for most of the week.

It feels as if I have been physically injured.

A broken wing.

Grief has brought out latent eccentricities in my character. A heartbreak is all it takes to turn someone from a (just about) functioning member of society to a batshit mad woman. And I have felt that break. This morning I find myself eating breakfast in the sun, wearing a baby’s sun hat, sunglasses, cycling shorts and a Chinese dressing gown.

The baby hat and Chinese dressing gown are only the start of this. I’ve never fitted in and I realise that it’s time I stopped trying. I hate the lot, so why did I convince myself I needed to be a part of it in order to succeed?

The magnolia tree blooms, like a thousand cupped hands waiting for something good to fall into them.

A side effect of going running that I had not anticipated is that I seem to be getting fitter. My lazy jog twice a week to rid myself of some anxiety seems to be having a noticeable effect on my stamina. Just outside our flat we have a near vertical hill. Running up it was a madness reserved solely for psychopaths, and possibly criminals evading the law. Now I am among their ranks. I pant like a dog when I get to the top, but still, I feel good in a very primal way (could be being at the top of a very high hill). And yet, I am wary. This is how you start getting ideas like, “A marathon might be interesting…”

I am slow to do an online shop for mother. She threatens to “mask-up” and go to the shops herself. I completely lose it, go apoplectic even at the suggestion. It is thus that I come to understand all the frazzled parents I have seen over the years, screaming at their bastard children as they attempt to launch their little bodies gleefully into on-coming traffic.

The Thursday night clapping and banging of pans for the NHS scares the pigeons and the spirits from the trees. It’s become the closest thing to a ritual we’ve had in this country for a long time.

My friend recommends putting banana skins in water for the plants. I do this on a particularly warm day, and add a bit of bruised banana flesh for good measure. Turns out it’s not just plants who like rotting banana water, within minutes we are invaded by plague-like clouds of fruit flies. Then the taps start dripping blood. Or was it frogs? I forget.

On this hot day, a man in his late 60s runs up the hill I am running down wearing a black face mask, he’s obviously struggling to breathe and is sweating heavily. I fear that at this moment the facial accoutrement is a greater risk to his life than the virus.

Seconds before witnessing this man’s potentially mortal miscalculation, I have an important realisation that has probably been evident to everyone but me for a very long time: although I often write because I need money, I don’t write for money, I write for people to read it. That’s partly why this week has been heartbreaking.

Given the context of the time we are living in, I feel we can agree that heartbreak has various degrees. This degree, a nasty, sharp forty-five degree break, is not the full three sixty. And so, though unable to fly, I can still crawl in a rather jaunty manner, and I am still aware I have so much to be thankful for.

From afar, I am witnessing an old friend right their course. Like they went off track a long time ago and this is giving them the time and space to rediscover who they really are. It’s a heart-warming thing to witness in the midst of all of this sadness.

 

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Magnolia Fingers

 

 

Locked-down And Out In London

17th April

 

“Another day in paradise.” I hear a neighbour say.

It’s no longer worth noting what makes me cry. But I do wish Diego Maradona could’ve had a better second half to his life.

I haven’t been working quite so hard this week, which means the fear starts creeping in.  I have to be treated like a baby for large portions of the day, stroked and told “everything’s going to be ok” over and over again.

Large portions of spaghetti also help.

Having been forced to seriously consider, I now know my five essential items that I simply cannot live without: spaghetti, olive oil, candles, garlic and salt. But then this means I don’t have coffee on my essential items, and I really need coffee. So it turns out I need less that I thought, but more than I would hope, to survive contentedly.

I wear a shirt my father gave me. He stopped wearing shirts a long time ago.

I go for a run and see a total of three guys jogging topless. My first thought is: this virus is spread by bodily fluids and yours are leaking out all over the fucking place. My second is that it is April, in England. It’s really not that hot…

This week, I’ve mostly been reading articles in a Rolling Stone anthology and Orwell’s Books v. Cigarettes. I read a lot of Hunter S Thompson when I was a teenager and therefore figured I’d sort of “done” it. But I just re read the Fear and Loathing piece and you don’t see it any more. I certainly don’t. That madness. Features have become so dry, for the most part. Everything seems so dry and mediocre.

It all rings out like a bum note that everyone can palate.

Last summer we went to a talk at our local bookshop —£5 including a free glass of wine, cheap night — with the grandson of the original Faber, who was flogging his new book. He had some good stories. And he went on talking about all these luminaries and the lives they had and the parties, and not once did he mention any of his experiences at the place… I think he worked in the marketing department or something. I never usually ask questions for fear of so many things, but there was an agent there who kept asking questions about rights and royalties that she should’ve known, and he was getting quite irritable. So I put my hand up and asked him if he thought it used to be more fun being a writer and a publisher? Whether people were wilder and had better parties?

He didn’t think so, and said he loved working in an office with people who loved books so much.

I mean, we all like books, mate, that’s why we’re here. But it’s all got rather clinical, hasn’t it? Let’s be honest. But he wasn’t. I guess it would’ve been a sad thing to admit to himself; but we would’ve all shared in that sadness. We are the generation of The Numb But Productive. For which, I blame rent and house prices. You can only be a drifter for so long before you become homeless. It’s a thin line and in my time I’ve trodden it bare.

Maybe we’ll have great parties again when this is all over? When will this all be over?

I offer help to several people this week, albeit a compromise between their needs and wants, and am surprised that every one of them has told me the help I offer is not good enough. I mean, we love mankind, we surly do, but I have to say I have been surprised by people’s inability to compromise during a pandemic. We have got so used to being able to get what we want whenever we want it that anything less than that is…not good enough.

Personally, I find that attitude not good enough but I’m probably lost up my own arse as well.

A man skips all afternoon in the communal gardens. When someone starts skipping you know it’s bad. Butterflies float around; they seem lost, like they’ve turned up to a party and everyone’s left. The insects know that something dark is going down, they’ve seen it all before.

Apparently I only continue to spread misinformation about barbed penises. My sister informs me that foxes indeed do not have barbed penises, but some other terrible mechanism I won’t be googling. Where did I get all this misinformation? I didn’t just make it up and believe it for ten or twelves years, did I?

Never hold on too tightly to your beliefs, they might be a barbed penis.

 

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Still Smiling (Sometimes) In My Father’s Shirt

Locked-down And Out In London

 

April 12th

 

It’s black outside. As black as it gets in London. Orange-black. When the clouds pass through the sky like factory smoke. Nightly, there is the noise of torture below. It’s mating season. The foxes are at it, and we are party to this abysmal orgy. This means I am reminded on a nightly basis that foxes have barbed penises. Like there weren’t enough fucking horrors in this world.

Day and night, there is the background noise of sirens; Verdi’s Requiem plays and feels wholly befitting.

We did an unpleasant shop for a neighbour last week (rammed supermarkets, queues round the block, dirtiness, people sidling up next to me in the aisles – stinking, drunk men, they seem particularly liable to forget social distancing is a thing). This week, in return for that shop, we were given some rhubarb from our neighbour’s allotment. I’ve never bought or cooked rhubarb. But that night I stewed it and have been eating it on porridge all week.

This is the thing: only give what we can. You cannot be all things to all people all of the time. Sometimes you won’t be there for someone. Of course, we are each the centre of our own universe, so it seems unjust that someone should choose to look at the moon instead of tending to the sun. But I’ve been looking at the moon all week.

I don’t know many people who haven’t lost work because of the pandemic, but I envy the people who complain of boredom, who have no one to shop for, no one to look after but themselves. Too much navel gazing is never a good thing, so if you are that bored, maybe you could be doing more to help?  This is that much discussed hour of need. It was not before and it is not after, it is now.

What are you safely (physically and mentally) able to contribute? It does not need to be the world, which is what key workers are currently giving us all. It might be your skills. It might be understanding. It might just be a bunch of rhubarb. That’s enough for now.

I am afraid to say, the translation of my copy of Beowulf is infuriating. The dude cannot stop hyphenating. And, although I enjoyed the overall story, reading it was mostly boring. It largely consists of very long speeches in mead halls about fifty glorious people whose names all begin with ‘H’. However, there were a total of three (!) monsters, to my delight. There was also this quote, which stuck out:

“Both bad and good, and much of both, must be borne in a lifetime spent on this earth in these anxious days.”

Now, all this talk of barbed penises reminds me that, many years ago, I read a piece about how early humans had barbed penises, or I thought I did. I happened to mention it in a blog post – these were the early days of my writing career, when I posted with whimsy and without stringent (or any) regulation of the facts. About a year or so later, I attended I gathering of hip, young intellectuals. How it came up I do not know, but a discussion about barbed penises in animals ensued. I thought, this is my moment. And, having been unsure of my intellect among such esteemed (loud) people, I decided to break my silence.

“Ancient humans had barbed penises,” I announce.

Suddenly, the whole party’s attention is on me. Everyone is laughing.

“No, really. I read about it, in the paper…”

There is much dispute over my anatomical knowledge of our early ancestors.

“Ok, I’ll look it up!”

I search frantically on my phone for proof. The internet, in its infinite curve of fact and bullshit, only pulled up one reference to this.

“Oh, that’s weird. It seems the only reference to it is on my blog…”

I dare not Google it again.

On Friday morning I got up at 5am. It was before the sun had risen and there was only light coming from an invisible source in the left-hand corner of the sky. To my right, the luminous yellowish moon loomed over the buildings in a light blue sky, slowly sinking behind the trees that have blossomed white. As I stood in the middle of these two orbs, exhausted, it felt like something fundamental was coming into balance. If not in the world at large, then at least something in my world. And I am pestered by a near-constant desire for champagne.

 

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The White Blossom.  (This weekend I have returned to my most time-consuming hobby: taking pictures of things through binoculars.)