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.

 

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Got Time To Watch Plums Ripen In A White Chipped Bowl

 

 

 

Locked-down And Out In London

March 27th

 

There’s the familiar, mechanical Predator cackle of a magpie in a tree. It is another beautiful day. A distant hum of traffic, or is it just my ears buzzing from the silence?

I wake early, every day. Today, my back hurts so I watch the birds on the feeder from bed. Little brings me such uncomplicated joy as this.

One blue tit is on the feeder and two are hopping about on this gigantic yellow flowering thing that has grown in one of our pots over the last few months. I let it grow out of curiosity. At first I thought it might be kale from seeds in the compost, then as it grew, I became sure it was tender stem broccoli and we were going to eat it when it got back from Devon. But in that time it started flowering bright yellow flowers. Now I’m pretty sure it’s poisonous.

(If anyone knows what it is…?)

The daisies I planted last summer along with the all the other now-dead wild flowers kept flowering all winter, and are still going strong, bobbing obediently in the breeze. Some of the seeds planted last month finally have tiny shoots coming up from the dark earth.

Nature is slow. That’s how it keeps its magic.

I’m reading Wide Sargasso Sea. It’s brilliant but it’s sinister. A lot of heavy overtones to deal with. A lot heavy undertones to deal with also.

I swing from feeling everything far too much to not feeling anything at all. Not sure which is more healthy at this point in time. The combination certainly isn’t. Last night we watched Aussie Gold Hunters and I cried at anything even remotely emotional—happy or sad, which meant I cried through most of the programme.

Someone got shot in The Wire and we had to turn it off.

Apparently you carry anxiety in your lower back. It would explain why mine’s been playing up again the last couple of weeks. I thought I was pretty calm compared to some people, but then denial is a river and it flows to my heart.

I painted my nails red and it made me feel better. I listen exclusively to reggae and soul. And ok, I admit, some madrigals and cantatas. I’ve lost all my paid work in the last couple of weeks. Instead, I work hard on my own writing. Yesterday I worked hard, got up too early, and was asleep by 8.30pm. I now consider that a very good day.

This virus has brought some enlightening things with it, especially via Twitter and Facebook. Lesley, who you were sure had a life-long career as an estate agent, is actually an immunologist, it turns out. She has been reading The Guardian’s Coronavirus Live Feed for two weeks now, so she knows exactly what she’s talking about. Terrence— who you’ve never been entirely sure what he does— announces he is not only a qualified immunologist, having read the many NYT pieces Belinda sent him, but he’s also been on a Preppers4Life forum and now he’s a professional chef – he can make a sourdough starter out of the skin of an onion and a sprinkle potash. When you next log on: everyone has become an expert on everything. You however, are a failure. You have not become an expert on anything in the last two weeks. Or, so you think. In fact, you have become an expert at watching other people miraculously become experts on things they previously knew nothing about. Congratulations!

Why not make something just for you, Terrence?

But, you know, whatever gets you through the day, Terrence. You too, Lesley. Keep on keeping on. I’m with you.

Last night we leant over the balcony railings and listened as the whole city clapped in darkness for the NHS workers. It meant something. What would mean more is if those who voted Conservative hereby make the decision never to do anything so destructive again.

It hits when you least expect it. Walking back one night from doing a shop for someone, it was dark and the streets were silent, except for a group of boys on bikes circling the area. “This is what it’s like to be in a pandemic then,” I thought.

But there are things to be grateful for: I have – after phone calls, emails and innumerable failed attempts – finally got my mum’s food delivery sorted and, without a shadow of a doubt, I have certainly become an expert on that.

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Mystery Plant

 

(And thank you, Sainsbury’s, for prioritising the elderly and vulnerable!)

 

Locked-down And Out In London

March 24th 2020

London

 

I would say it was a beautiful day, but I wake up with such a heaviness over me. The bright, bright sun has a blackness in its light. The outside world, its greenness, its grand display of new life as we face so much death feels a little hostile.

I think of the Triffids. A man coughs violently in the communal garden.

All my life I have feared this, or something like this; I suppose now it’s here I can relax. No more waiting. The horror has arrived. All that is left is to face it. How I wish I could punch it in the face. Kick it. Kill it. My limited krav maga is useless now. (But may still come in handy if we revert to martial law…)

The deaths in Italy and Spain are horrifying. The mortality is so much greater than China, with their populations so much smaller. It makes it all rather hard to believe. It is all so much worse than we feared.

Yesterday I bought myself an orange rose to cheer me up. I wore latex gloves to the shops.

Last night we watched The Wire and for a few minutes I forgot what was going on in the world until I went to bed, setting my alarm for midnight to try and get mum a delivery slot for food. I failed. The site crashed and just showed me an image broken eggs.

Children scream. At lunch I wash a celery stick with soap. I’ve lost it already.

So what do we do now? Do I keep writing? Who for? Will there be books on the other side of all of this? I suppose I, like everyone else, just keep going blindly and hope I find my way in to the light. And that when I get there, everyone else is there too.

Quotes from Withnail and I have been circling my head for days.

“Throw yourself into the road, darling! You haven’t got a chance!”

“Reduced to the state of a bum!”

“You’ve got soup? Why haven’t I got soup?”

Visions of me in a week’s time rubbing myself with deep heat to stay warm and drinking methylated spirits because we’ve run out of red wine. It’s a small step. It’s a thin line, as thin as a stick of celery.

Pent up stress is making me twitchy and weird(er than usual). I go for a run. I have not been for a run since I had a breakdown and ran an ultra marathon 7 years ago — it must have been a breakdown, why else would anyone run an ultra marathon? I now remember why I haven’t run since, running is hard and boring.

But out here nature no longer seems so looming, so vivid. I stand a few feet away from a grey heron and we look into each other’s eyes for a minute or two, until he tires of me and walks back into the dry reeds. The first butterfly of the season flies onto the warm earth by my feet — a peacock butterfly. A new money North London couple call loudly after their dog, they have called it “Camden”. May the Lord preserve us. A carp half a meter long is visible in the lake, then disappears beneath a cloud of mud. Middle-aged men who don’t feel a pandemic is flying close enough to the sun  free-wheel down the 90 degree hill, just a small stone and a wheel-spin away from on-coming traffic.

That’s why I love mankind.

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Motherisms Feat. Memory Lane, Poet Laureates, and The Fiery Pits of Hell …

It’s that time of year again (my birthday), and to my mother’s delight (I’m sure), I imposed myself on her in Devon for a whole week. And we’ve actually even been speaking on the phone before then, which has led to many miscommunications …

 

I am in the last phase of my Master’s — it turns out it’s a lot of work, who knew? But now it is dissertation season …

Mum: Have you finished your dissertation?
Me: No, I haven’t even started it.

 

I’m on the phone to mum before her imminent London arrival ..

Me: We bought a nice organic chicken.
Mum: Oh yes, how is she?

(Apparently mum thought I’d said something about one of my friends. I’m not convinced though..)

 

Mum has now graced London with her presence and is tired of the whole thing by day two.

Me: It’s not just you, London is exhausting.
Mum: No but it’s different. For me it’s that your body is exhausted. You think you’re going somewhere and then another part of you drops off.

 

Mum’s been staying at my godfather’s in London, who has a very sophisticated TV set up by the sounds of it.

Mum: I pressed a button and then it started asking me hundreds of questions: how many hertz did I want, which of the 500 channels … I pressed some of the buttons and nothing seemed to happen, but I’ve probably launched a missile.

 

We’re on the leisurely 6 hour bus down from London to Devon together. We’re going through Chelsea, mum is giving me the guided tour of memory lane and is pointing at the roof garden of a flat my godfather rented …

Mum: The summer of Live Aid we were up there, listening to Cheech and Chong.

 

We’re sort of half-watching ‘Green Mile’ and our attention has drifted back to it momentarily ….

Prisoner (inexplicably) testing the electric chair for someone else and reciting his last wishes (?): Fried chicken dinner with gravy on the tatters and a shit in your hat and have Mae West sit on ma face cus I’m a horny mother fucker.
Police man: Hahahahaha
Tom Hanks: Ahahahaha
Other police man: Hahahaha
Mum: What an extraordinary sense of humour.

 

I’ve had a very big job cancel last minute and need to conjure some financial magic. Mum has a suggestion ..

“If you want to raise money just pretend you’re a dog with a problem.”

 

We’ve been out for a charming day at a stately home like normal people, and even had a cream tea like normal people. Unfortunately we arrived when there were still a lot of other, truly normal, people there. However, we got lost on the guided walk and emerged 3hrs later through the undergrowth, having had to walk around a 10ft high ‘ha ha wall’ (not so funny) and my 73 year-old-mother climb over several fences, and by then everyone else had left …

Mum: That’s why it’s nice to come later in the day not all these people in brightly coloured kagools ruining the view.

 

We’re walking around the lovely stately home, it’s not too big, it’s not too small. Got a lovely garden, some fields, a stable, a pond, some chandeliers, a William Blake (on loan)…

Me [wistfully]: Yeah I could actually live somewhere like this I think.
Mum: Well, you’ll have to marry some chinless twat.

 

A Panty liner advert is on TV…

Advert: Women don’t have to be soft and bla bla …
Me: Oh god yes we know, you’re tough and a right old fucking bruiser. Good for you.
Mum: “Even on my period I’ll kill you.”
Advert: ….you can do anything, even if you are woman bla bla bla …
Mum: Oh god who writes this shit!

 

Mum’s friend has helped her locate a new car, a lovely little (10yr old) VW.

“He’s prouder of this than he his that Mossad wagon of his.”

 

Brexit news is on, we were never going to be able to avoid it entirely …

Mum: Ahhhh… Let’s see who killed who tonight.

 

It’s a couple of months ago. Mum has asked to read a poem of mine, I have duly sent it to her and have, after a week, received no feedback. I’m curious …

Me: Did you read my poem?
Mum: No … yes.
Me: Well you can’t have thought much of it if you forgot.
Mum: No, I think I noted its arrival but didn’t read it. I like everything you write.
Me: Ok.
Mum: Carol Anne Duffy’s coming to the end of her term.
Me: Yes, I think unfortunately I’m still a little obscure to become Poet Laureate
Mum: Obscure is so cool.

 

Mum is a firm believer in watching some good old fashioned mindless television, and then talking over all of it. ‘Bake Off’ is on..

Man making bread: I like a pert bun. *wink wink, nudge nudge*
Me: It always amazes me the amount of innuendo people manage to get into any sentence involving food
Mum: Oh yes it’s probably scripted innuendo now, sort of mandatory.

 

Mum hasn’t quite worked out how to work her touch screen phone with complete success.

Mum: When you call it says ‘sweep up’, so I sweep, and nothing happens!
Me: I think that’s swipe up mum, just touch it and move your finger up.
Mum: No, it’s sweep!
Me:….ok…..

 

There is such a thing as ‘Archers Anonymous’, and Mum’s on it …

“Let’s stir the buggers up! My daddy would have loved the internet.”

 

We’re watching a programme about 1992 as it’s the year mum started building our beloved house that is no longer ours. There’s a segment on ‘Wayne’s World’:

Mum: What’s this?
Me: Wayne’s World
Mum: Hmmm…not sure about this.
Me: No, I think this is right up your street — you liked ‘Dude Where’s My Car’.
Mum: … Yes I did.

 

The 1992 programme is now talking about Achy Breaky Heart (a song I’ve decided I very much like).

Someone with an angular haircut who thinks they’re very cool and probably into moaning at parties: Line dancing is the spawn of Satan.
Mum: There’s worse things than line dancing
Me: I’d do it.
Mum: I think I would too.
Someone else with angular haircut: It’s all hideous diamanté and frilled skirts.
Cutaway to exactly that.
Me: Looks great, I’m into it.

I leave the room momentarily, then return.

Mum: Oh no, it’s getting a little hitler youth now.
Me: Oh, shame.

 

All the houses down mum’s road seem to be being re-painted (very slowly)…

Mum: I like the colours they’re painting these.
Me: Yes maybe they’ll eventually reach that penis.
Mum: What penis?
Me: The penis that’s been spray painted on someone’s doorway for about fifteen years.
Mum: Oh that penis! Yes, it’ll take a while to get rid of that.

 

Somehow — how exactly I do not know — mum has signed up to a cat website, she has no particular affection towards cats …

Mum: You’ve got to get me off this cat website.
Me: What cat website?
Mum [genuinely distressed]: I don’t know but they send me hundreds of cats a day, and I don’t know how to stop them!
I’m laughing.
Mum: They keep talking about their “babies”, “this baby”, “my baby”, “your baby” … it’s dangerous: it’s a cat.
Me: Ok. We’ll just unsubscribe you.
Mum, back-tracking: Well, one or two a day, that’s cool, I like animals ..

 

We’re watching the end of ‘Celebrity Masterchef’. I only recognise Zandra Rhodes, mum is helping me identify one of the other contenders …

Mum: He’s Joey Essex.
Me: Is he.
Mum: Yes he seems rather sweet actually, he just needs watering twice a week and that’s it.

 

We’re sitting down and ready to get competitive watching ‘University Challenge’….

Me: Jeremy Paxman hasn’t aged at all.
Mum: I was just thinking how much he had.

 

The students on ‘University Challenge’ are doing their “Hey, I’m James, you might remember me from …” intros and it’s making me cringe.

Mum: I do wish they wouldn’t do this “first name only” thing.
Me: It’s almost like they’re auditioning to be a presenter, it’s horrible.
Mum: It’s because it’s got to be caj. Everything’s got to be caj …. I’m surprised they’re even allowed to compete anymore.

 

A programme about WWII is on as I’m flicking through the channels…

Mum: Oh no! It’s handsome chaps doing serious stuff — amazing guys.

 

We have continued flicking, mum now has the remote and has hovered on the ‘Mash Report’…

Me: No.
Mum: Give it a chance, give it five minutes.
Me: No that’s far too long.

4 seconds later …

Mum: Yeup it is.

 

I’m on the phone to mum with a lovely paper bag full of ingredients for supper …

Me: I’m just walking back through the park from getting mushrooms.
Mum: Be careful foraging.
Me: I haven’t been foraging, I went to the shop!

 

I don’t know what mum is watching in the other room but I have a feeling it’s ‘Beverly Hills Housewives’ or some variation of because I hear her shouting at the television …

“Kick him to the curb honey!”

Two minutes later….

“He’s a twat get rid of him.”

 

I am a blessed angel and have cooked and washed up for the sixth night in row and just want to check it’s been recognised …

Me [impersonating mum]: Oh Jade, thank you so much for washing up again, you are a saint. When is your canonisation, please can I attend?
Mum: Yes I’m sure it will be very soon and I’ll be in the fiery pits of hell.
Me: Probably.
Mum: With all my mates.

 

 

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Pregnant Witness

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There are two guys fighting on the street.
One is in a car
mouthing off,
revving,
head twisted back,
one hand on the wheel —
the other, I assume, is on the hand break.
The second man pursues the creeping vehicle up the hill,
speaking in tongues.
The first talks in spits and swerves his wheels.
I can’t hear what they are saying;
I’m sure it’s very important
but I am watching the pregnant witness
who looks out the window opposite.
Glasses on, she can see their very animated picture,
but she opens the window to better hear the drama
because her life is empty of it.
There is no darkness in her
refurbished house in leafy suburbia.
I would like a life like that
but I’ve too many shades on me, it would seem,
a spinning prism is my diadem.
So I’ll watch the pregnant witness
watching the two men screaming on the streets;
she’ll get some junk mail later
and that’ll be as bad as it gets.

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Photo: Martin Parr