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:
Like many people, my reasons for not wanting to get the coronavirus are not life and death. Yes, I’m lucky that my job can be done from home, but working from home still gives me cabin fever in addition to any real fever I might be nurturing. More importantly, it would really mess up our US travel plans that we have been really looking forward to! So I am now taking precautions in the most unobtrusive and British of ways, like “looking awkward when shaking hands” and “not holding on to the escalator handrail at Brixton station”. If I’m found in a heap at the bottom of the escalator at Brixton station, you’ll know what happened.
Despite this global plague we’ve had a hodge podge of fun events over the last few weeks, starting with a personalised tour of Walthamstow courtesy of Randi’s colleague Vici on which we tucked into baked egg dishes, fell into the neon-lit black hole which is God’s Own Junkyard and discovered the world’s greatest Spar. Thanks, Vici! In return, as part of an ongoing virtual tour of South London, I want to show off the view from the platform at Addington Hills which Randi and I discovered last weekend as part of London LOOP section 4. It may not show up amazingly in the photo, but it’s an amazing panorama of the City of London, Canary Wharf (and, yeah, Croydon) which makes it look as if Canary Wharf is a completely different city somewhere in the American Midwest. Whisper it, but for sightseeing purposes it’s a better spot than Parliament Hill.
A few weeks ago Tash suggested we go to a special screening of The Personal History of David Copperfield, hosted by Amnesty International and featuring an incredible pre-film feast and an enjoyable post-film Q&A with director / legend Armando Iannucci. I was glad of the film choice as it’s not something I would have thought to see otherwise, and although I haven’t read the book I thought the movie was wonderfully done with some very nice cinematic touches. (And yes, I was very excited when Peter Capaldi turned up as Mr. Micawber. There aren’t many actors I recognise but obviously Doctors are an exception!) At home one evening, Randi and I also caught up on the Dick Cheney biopic Vice which (a) didn’t make either of us fall in love with Dick Cheney, (b) has a really excellent mid-credits scene.
Just two more things, and then I’ll let you go back to washing your hands and stocking up on toilet paper! Firstly, we celebrated Pancake Day with Matt and Laura and had a wonderful evening of chef Randi’s British pancake starters followed by a sweetcorn pancake main course. There was originally a pancake dessert scheduled, but we reached our limit. Secondly, I didn’t want the Doctor Who season finale to go by without making excited noises on this blog. I didn’t love everything they did (although I am persuadable!) but overall you could really see the plan for the Thirteenth Doctor coming together this series and I wear my TARDIS rainbow hoodie with pride.
Embarrassingly, I had never been to Ireland before my one-night-only work visit to Dublin last week, our flights in and out carefully tucked between major storms. Obviously I could barely glimpse the city during this short window, especially as I spent a good proportion of the time in fancy multinational offices, but even our quick lunch in a nearby café bolstered the stereotype that people here might just be… friendlier. I will be very happy to come back for a proper visit and see! In the meantime, it was great to meet some people in-person who might previously have existed solely in the realm of Slack.
A week before I had an emotional rise-and-fall in my very brief career as a platelet donor. Since coming back to the UK I’ve been excited to be able to give blood again, and at one of my last sessions I was invited to test my blood to see if the platelet count was high enough to safely donate platelets instead. For years, I think I’ve been mixing up platelet donation with bone marrow or something else because I’ve associated it with something a lot more intensive and painful. Actually, donating platelets turned out to be easier and more enjoyable than regular blood donation. To get at the platelets, a machine removes your blood, separates out the platelets and then returns the rest back to you via the same needle. This means you’re much less likely to feel faint, since you aren’t losing much whole blood at all. The whole process does take longer (54 minutes in my case) but you can eat, drink and chat to staff while you wait.
Anyway, I was all excited that I had been inducted into this secret platelet club and then I got a call saying that my platelet count had dropped below the minimum threshold again and I had to switch back to whole blood donation. Boo. I commiserated with Joshua that night in a pub in our newly designated zone for North-South London meetups of West Hampstead. (Yes yes, I realise this is very much on the North side but it’s great for catching the Thameslink home again.) Thankfully Josh was able to cheer me up again.
Later that week I was back in North London for the QPCS Careers Celebration Evening, a networking opportunity where I tried to encourage every Year 12 student I met to become a Product Manager (we may end up with a surplus) but also gossip (which is basically networking) with former teachers over wine and sandwiches. Memo to the public high schools of Wisconsin: it is perfectly acceptable to provide wine at your public events.
This week, Randi and I have been on staycation. Hurray! I’ve never done this before, but we both had holiday days to use up (thanks, EU) and already have a big US trip planned in April, so we ended up replicating the aura of a rainy February half-term week only without the children. Our first act was to go see Parasite at the astoundingly good-value Peckhamplex cinema. Since this has already won the Oscar for Best Picture etc. you’ve likely already seen it and don’t care about my opinion either way, but I thought it was excellent – three-dimensional characters in a film which balances light and dark moments perfectly. Unsurprisingly, the intensely gory scene was too much for me, but I was glad that it came so close to the end that I didn’t miss much…
Otherwise, most of our staycation has centred on some very muddy walks. We completed our thirteenth London LOOP walk (Section 3), walked off brunch waffles through Verulamium Park in St. Albans (where I got nostalgic for the Romans) and were joined by my mum for a tour of deer-laden Richmond Park. On Wednesday night, we also saw my colleague Tabi on stage again as part of a Soul Stripped Sessions performance with three other artists: Natalie Duncan, Katie Coleman and Lisabel. The twist is that the venue was the basement of a Pizza Express in Chelsea, which means my life in attending gigs has progressed to “standing because that’s what all my friends are doing” to “hunting for a seat” to “sitting at a table eating dough balls”. Excellent. The performances itself were incredible, and Katie Coleman’s poppy Not Your Pin up Girl is actually still stuck in my head.
Oh, and our Would I Lie To You? episodes from May finally aired!
At 20.30, two and a half hours before Brexit, I bowed to the victory of the Brexiteers by sitting alone in a Wetherspoons pub and ordering British pie and British mash through the Wetherspoons app. (Thirty minutes later I realised I had ordered it to the wrong pub, but the staff kindly saved me from my own idiocy.)
At 22.00, one hour before Brexit, I was sitting on a plane with my seatbelt fastened, waiting to take off.
And by 23.00 I was safely in the air, somewhere over France…
I’d love to pretend that this was all carefully planned, but it was just a happy coincidence that Randi was working in Barcelona last week and suggested I joined for the weekend. Obviously I was happy to do so, because (a) it’s Barcelona, but also (b) the city has always gotten a raw deal on this blog. I visited twice in 2003 – once on a school trip and then later with my family – but alas this was a year before I started blogging so it left an annoying hole on my virtual scratch map. Until now.
Since we had both been here before – albeit a while ago – we didn’t feel any pressure to rush around ticking off all the tourist sights. Instead we did a healthy amount of walking and wandering: eating tapas, marvelling at how different big cities can feel from each other (there are no houses!) and saying silly things to each other like “this reminds me of Buenos Aires”. I was also pleased to confirm that, after over a year of Duolingo, my Spanish is definitely in a better state than it was in 2003. And sure, nowadays I’m even more aware that you’d be wiser to speak Catalan here than Spanish, but I hope that the bar for British tourists is sufficiently low that I passed.
The one attraction we did pay for was the famous Park Güell which consists of a small ‘Monumental Zone’ of Gaudi sculptures and a much larger free area with rewarding views of the city, the sea and the mountains if you climb to the top. We sat up here for a while in the sun, basking in the warm glow of an unhurried weekend trip and the knowledge that Europe is still right here, just over the water, and it isn’t going anywhere.
Last week, Katie and I supplemented our regular Doctor Who outing with the first episode of the new Picard series. It seems strange now but I didn’t discover Doctor Who properly until I was a teenager, while Star Trek was deeply woven into my childhood: my mum (the only one who knew how to program the VCR) would always make sure it was set to record if my dad and I weren’t going to be home to watch it live. It should be noted that my dad loved both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine the best, but for almost opposite reasons. The former is a utopian fantasy of peace and flourishing, the latter exposes the darker underbelly at the fringe. One is a manifesto, the other is a reality check. Both series need each other, and play off against each other.
From a dramatic perspective, however, you can’t tell any interesting stories if all you have is peace and flourishing. That wasn’t a problem for The Next Generation because it was set on a spaceship exploring new life and new civilisations. As long as those civilisations were violent and warlike then you had yourself a plot. But Picard is set on Earth, so it can’t play the same cards. Instead, the first episode features the perils of celebrity, xenophobia and a manipulative media… all good elements for a high-budget science-fiction show, but they also makes it feel like a show set in a higher-tech vision of Future America rather than a genuinely bold and radical imagining of a different social order.
This isn’t a complaint – I enjoyed the first episode and I’ll try to watch more – and even if it wanted to, the makers of Picard couldn’t recreate the The Next Generation anymore than my mum could still program a VCR. It was just a strange feeling, that’s all, that the vision of the future from the past now feels so much further away than our newer imagined future.
As for visions which look backwards: last Thursday I saw Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt with my mum and cousin Alix. I had never seen a Tom Stoppard play before but apparently he has a reputation and the official reason for inviting me to tag along was that I might be able to “help explain what I thought it meant” at the end.
Leopoldstadt tells the story of a wealthy Jewish family starting in early twentieth century Vienna. Some of the family members have converted to Christianity for social reasons although everybody is still very much culturally Jewish, and together they debate questions of assimilation vs. identity etc. One member of the family acknowledges that anti-semitism is still present but optimistically argues that “pogroms are a thing of the past” and things will only get better. The audience is supposed to feel haunted by the dramatic irony, I suppose. As staged, it just felt like a cheap trick.
I have a big mostly-Jewish family on one side, studied mostly-modern history at university and have seen an above-average number of plays. So maybe I’m not the target audience here. But I’m going to trust my instincts and just assert that this isn’t a very good play. The characters are given a huge amount of clunking historical exposition (the British Mandate in Palestine one moment, Bolshevik revolution the next) for no good reason, the plot is full of clichés and the script abounds with arched contemporary references to make the audience feel worthy and knowing. There are so many powerful and moving works about this topic, but this isn’t one of them.