It was Randi’s birthday yesterday, so to add a special celebratory feel to our living room I spent the night before blowing up (and struggling to tie) 50 balloons while it slowly dawned on me that if I was currently infected with coronavirus then I was essentially just creating 50 mini biological weapons. But, fingers crossed, happy birthday! Randi gained an exemption to open her DIY poké bowl present from Tash a few days early in the interests of freshness, so we’d already been feasting on that throughout the weekend, and yesterday evening we celebrated with our first Honest Burgers delivery. Still great! We also had a very special socially-distanced doorstep visit from some of Randi’s colleagues. You heard it here first: in-person socialising is so refreshing, I fully predict this is going to be a hot new trend of 2021.
Of course, old-fashioned Zoom socialising isn’t going away overnight, and for Katie & Kim’s Thursday-night quiz Randi and I have recently hit upon the strategy of inviting people to join our team who are actually good at quizzes. This started a while ago when my colleague Erin joined the team, but we have now also absorbed Erin’s sister Kellianne, their LOTR-expert father and – our newest recruit – quizmaster extraordinaire Todd. In honour of our soaring performance due to the King family, and the fact that our new centre of gravity is firmly in Massachusetts, we’ve also rebranded as the New Kinglanders. Suffolkators: we have our eyes on you!
When not quizzing, we’ve also fallen into a black hole of documentaries about mountain climbing. First came The Dawn Wall, then the more political Sherpa, then A Line Across The Sky and now every other suggestion from the Amazon Video app involves climbing something. I also rewatched Argo so that Randi could experience the incredible tension of that final airport escape scene. (Somewhere in the back of my head I think there’s a bit of Argo playing every time I ever go through an airport.)
And, of course, we enjoyed Saturday night’s special Eurovision programmes to fill the Song Contest-shaped hole in our lives this May, but I’m genuinely excited about celebrating twice as hard next year. Balloons on me!
This week was this blog’s sixteenth birthday, which in the UK brings a raft of new rights including changing your name (which in this case happened a little early, whoops), choosing a doctor, having sex outside of Northern Ireland, buying a lottery ticket and – famously – ordering alcohol with a meal in a restaurant. Congrats! Of course, most of these are off-limits during lockdown so it will just have to wait a little longer. And at the risk of adding insult to injury, I’m a little thin on the ground for blog content to celebrate with.
Last weekend we had a lovely catch-up with the Dietz family and Toggolyn, during which Portrait of a Lady on Fire was recommended as a good film to stream and I had to kick myself for missing the opening to joke about Robert’s age and personal experiences of eighteenth-century France. Nevertheless, Randi and I selected it for our semi-regular Friday pizza & movie night, and enjoyed it on three distinct levels:
- It’s a good film!
- It’s a French film, so there are plenty of gaps in the dialogue where the characters stare meaningfully at each other. I reckon this could make a decent drinking game.
- It enables anyone to practice their literary film criticism by using lots of unsubtle visual symbolism (“the flowers have wilted!”). (Pro-tip: this combines well with #2.)
Todd would not have enjoyed watching this film with us. But we’re still grateful for the recommendation.
Side-note: I’m so glad I found the local cheap-and-delicious pizza place before lockdown! It was thanks to Katie, actually, during one of our Doctor Who/Picard combo evenings when we took a chance on London Pizza – a place so unassuming they haven’t even bothered to create a logo for their JustEat page. And yet they have rocketed to the top of our pizza preference charts, partly because they always phone in advance to clarify our primadonna requests about leaving such-and-such on the left and such-and-such on the right. Truly this is a worthwhile successor to my beloved Metro Pizza of Holloway Road from years gone by, where they once nipped out to buy some missing topping. Local pizza places are the best.
We’re not much of a movie-watching household, whether self-isolating or otherwise. So it says something about the depth of Randi’s disinclination to continue watching the second of BBC Four’s back-to-back Top of the Pops episodes from the month I was born (despite featuring this engaging 1989 remix of Pop Musik) that she brightly suggested we watch a film instead, and I can therefore thank Robin Scott and his suit with “thousands of pounds worth of CDs” for the chance to finally rewatch The Usual Suspects. Note: if you don’t want spoilers for a film which came out 25 years ago, skip the next two paragraphs.
I can’t remember how old I was when I first watched The Usual Suspects, but I know that Daryl and Ermila were staying overnight with my parents and somehow we all ended up watching a VHS recording from Channel 4 with a couple of minutes missing from the middle which had accidentally been taped over with something else. (If you ever need to date someone, check whether that last sentence provokes bafflement or fond childhood nostalgia. Or, in a decade or so, sheer disbelief that friends ever visited each other in person.)
Anyway, like everyone else I thought the ending was cool and mindblowing and everything, but also I was tired and went straight to bed and it was only in the morning with Daryl that I discovered I had formed a completely wrong interpretation of what had actually happened. In my head, Inspector Kujan realises that all of the clues had been around him the whole time: Verbal’s story is all true, except for the fact that he’s also Keyser Söze, and it’s only an untidy office which saves him from getting caught. Daryl convinced me I was wrong – that the vast bulk of the film is all fabrication – and of course this makes much more sense given that the ‘clues’ in the office include the underside of a coffee mug and a manufacturer of office equipment. But it was enjoyable to go back and realise that my initial childhood interpretation hadn’t been totally crazy… after all, something had to have happened to place all the characters there in the first place. In truth, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either way, but it was good to get some closure on this mid-90s mystery.
This rare film screening kicked off a four-day Easter weekend which, despite being homebound, still managed to feel rather special and lovely. The highlight was waking up on Easter Sunday to find that Randi had hidden an impressive stash of chocolate around the flat to find, followed by a delicious brunch. We also did battle with two wasps and a giant bee (humans 2, insects 0), finally finished Season 4 of The West Wing, caught up with Robert/Bernie/Willow on a walk and played a gender-stratified game of Codenames with Catherine, AJ, Christian and Erika.
But the real point of this post, and to commemorate that next week is my one-year anniversary of moving back to London, is to overshare some graphs! Specifically, graphs like this:
Yes, as you can see, the startling underlying conclusion from a year’s worth of my TfL travel history is that between June 2019 and March 2020 I used to commute to work. But more than just commuting, though, because the minimum Mon-Fri there-and-back commute would only require 10 train journeys, yet most weeks registered more. Very good, very social.
Weekends were a lot more varied, obviously, and a lot more bus-heavy. Note that none of this includes non-Oyster/contactless journeys, so forays to Hope / Stockport / St. Albans don’t count.
But the real purpose of these graphs is to celebrate Brixton station. In 2019, when TfL made yet-another-attempt to take over the forlorn rail franchises of South London, they said this about Brixton specifically:
Each day 33 double-deck bus loads of Londoners living within a 10 minute walk of West Norwood station use a bus to access Brixton Tube station instead of using their local rail service.Strategic Case for Metroisation in south and south east London, TfL
Well, I am one of these Brixton-groupees. Look!
Brixton isn’t just my most-frequent starting station, it’s the clear soaraway winner. There’s no flattening that curve – a combination of a daily commute and the starting point for many weekend journeys too. Conversely, it’s only my third most popular exit station, because frequency and reliability don’t matter so much when you’re coming home.
And from my top 10 most popular bus routes from the past year, the top 5 all go via Brixton too:
Some people long to work from home forever, but I can’t wait to get back to the warm embrace of Brixton and its many buses.
I’m cobbling together a blog post, even though there’s obviously slim pickings to write about, because this is still a remarkable time to be alive and when I look back in future I don’t want to have completely forgotten what it was like.
It goes without saying that Randi and I have things comparatively very easy, with little sacrifice required. We’re both busy with work during the week, but have plenty of space to get work done from either end of our (miraculously extendable) dining table. Thanks to a prompt delivery the other week we’ve even been upgraded to a full monitor/keyboard/mouse set-up each, and of course there are no children or elders for us to be responsible for aside from the rota of elderly relatives to call which has been distributed around my family via Google Sheets. I sometimes think my Grandma wishes she could apply for a GDPR opt-out from these calls.
The real highlight of the weeks are the Thursday-night pub quizzes hosted by Katie and Kim which gather a decent audience over Zoom and are always really fun to play together, even if Randi and I (or team Hyper-Adipovid!) can only ever muster a middling-to-terrible result. And of course there is a pause at 8pm while everyone in the UK leans out of their windows to clap and cheer and bang pots and pans together for all of our amazing NHS workers and other carers on the frontline. It was pretty lovely the first time this happened as we looked up and down our street and suddenly saw everyone who lives on our road out together for the first time.
My oddest lockdown experience was last Tuesday, when I had a blood donation appointment at the West End Blood Donor Centre near Oxford Street. Since this was legitimate medical travel (honest!) I thought I might enjoy the opportunity to ride the Tube in this twilight state but it just ended up being a bit paranoia-inducing. It’s obviously not possible to stay 2m away from anyone on a still decently busy London Underground carriage and if the last few weeks has taught me anything it’s how quickly I can become conditioned to react to any other nearby human as a potential mortal threat. Perhaps this is a window into the minds of those who have always hated busy cities…
Anyway, while the journey there-and-back was unsettling, it was totally worth it for the extended interactions once I got to the donor centre itself with – gasp – other real-life human beings! Great experience. Would recommend. Just not right now.
P.S. I do admire the attempt to stage a socially-distanced HIGNFY last night, but it did feel like watching the awkward few minutes of banter before a Zoom conference call…
If any future historians are reading this – and don’t worry, I know there aren’t actually any future historians reading this – please take note of the change in tone from last week’s post. Background levels of coronavirus conversation amid fun social activities have now been replaced by mass economic shutdown, with Randi and I now coming off our first week of working from home together in our hastily-assembled home office / bunker.
Thankfully my industry is already well-adjusted to home working and I’ve always worked with remote colleagues, but it was still a surreal moment to watch Monday afternoon’s Downing Street press conference from the office and realise that it might be quite some time before I set foot there again. I walked down the street to St Pancras with my desk monitor jammed halfway into a Tesco bag for life, boarded an emptier-than-usual Thameslink home and apologised to the guy sitting next to me when I sneezed.
I’m sure things will keep changing quickly, but at time of writing we aren’t living in quite the same extreme situation as the “lockdowns” and “shelter in place” orders elsewhere. This morning Randi and I went on a long walk – nowhere with public crowds – and there’s still lots of life around. But obviously we are sticking in the flat most of the time, indulging the pseudo-wartime vibe by migrating to the sofa for the government’s daily broadcast. (And yes, if there are any current historians reading this, I am aware that Skyping friends and family or playing group games on the Ticket to Ride mobile app* before popping out to the Co-Op for dinner does not qualify as WW2. Apart from anything else, during WW2 they probably didn’t keep making postmodern WW2 references.)
Anyway, none of this will be news to everyone else who’s all living the exact same thing. But it is an extended excuse for an upcoming dearth of content on this blog. It seems like such a long time ago that we joined Steve, Simon and Fleur for deep-dish dinner at Jape’s, but actually it was only last Thursday. I present this one photo of Steve and Randi arguing about the size and shape of pyramids you would need to construct a cube (yes, really) as an homage to a lost age.
On Sunday we walked our last Loop for a while (sniff) before the Great Pause officially began. So I guess my final meal out for a while was actually at The Full Monty café where I stockpiled a Full English in the most direct way possible. “Oh, that’s a rare thing – customers!” cried the guy behind the counter when we walked in. But the next time you find yourself around Coulsdon South – and it might be a while – you should follow our example.
*A group game which I actually won! So I think it’s important to share the message that you too can prosper by providing decent, hardworking Midwesterners the dedicated railway services they deserve: