The Owl of Minerva

Friday 29 May 2020. We’re all in this together. Except that some of us are more in it than others. The pandemic has exposed everyone’s technological limitations; if you can’t afford super-fast broadband and a decent computer, your lockdown life is going to be rather more locked than others.

My old desktop is dying, and the cheap (£75) mini-PC I bought to replace it can barely run Microsoft Word without stalling. So I finally buy a new laptop. The price is £250, which is the most I can afford. Happily, this just about works for video meetings, a function which for many is now the difference between employment and the dole. I have to spend an arduous volume of time updating the software. One might have thought that someone who had written a diary online for twenty years would be good with computers, or at the very least interested in their workings. But I am entirely incurious. I just want the things to work. And if you’re living on a low budget, things tend to not work. Still, I can speak to Mum via video now. At the beginning of the lockdown, we spoke every day.

*

Sunday 7 June 2020. The schools remain closed. I read a Sunday Times supplement on home schooling. Here, parents are provided with ready-made lessons written by teachers. One lesson on English grammar requires the pupil to identify ‘forward adverbials’. This is aimed at 8-year-olds.

*

Thursday 11 June 2020. A day of relief. I have my PhD funding extended, to allow for the obstacles created by the pandemic. I’ll now remain a full time PhD student until October 2021. By that point I’ll be fifty and (I hope) finishing the thesis. What then? No plans, but then no one knows what the world will be like in late 2021 anyway. The grant is still only £17k a year to live on, but it’s work I enjoy. And it certainly could be worse.

*

Tuesday 13 June 2020. I ‘attend’ an online arts event: a Q & A with the film director Carol Morley. The software encourages you to have your webcam switched on throughout the event, even if you’re not asking a question. I am distracted by seeing the silent faces of the other attendees watching in their various homes.  If this were a physical event it would be like letting audience members spend the occasion clambering over the seats, scrutinising each other’s’ faces and demanding them to explain their bookshelves.

*

Wednesday 14 June 2020. I watch You Don’t Nomi, an arthouse documentary about the strange afterlife of the 1990s big-budget film Showgirls. When Showgirls was released it was deemed laughably poor. Since then the film has acquired a cult following, almost on the level of Rocky Horror. It’s a good example of Sontag’s ‘naïve camp’ at play; camp by accident. That said, in this new documentary the Showgirls star and director insist that the whole thing was meant to be tongue-in-cheek from the off. I believe Gina Gershon, one of the other actors, though, when she says she played her role like a drag queen.  

We now speak of ‘optics’ – how something looks, though whom to is never quite specified. Something looking ‘bad’ can result in the tainting of a brand, even the sacking of staff.

But not always. Consider our prime minister, a ‘character’ with a strong look, who cares little what people think, as long as they’re looking. This is how camp becomes a weapon. If you make a surface exaggerated enough, it becomes non-stick. Bad films are redeemed with new appeal, bad politicians keep their jobs.

*

Thursday 15 June 2020. One sign of things returning to normal is that today I get a catcall in the street. On Dalston Kingsland High Street I overhear, in my direction: ‘Exterminate! Exterminate! He looks like f–ing…’

I presume they mean Peter Capaldi’s Doctor Who. Particularly in his later episodes, with his hair grown out, looking mad and untamed. He rather anticipated the lockdown look.

*

Tuesday 20 June 2020. My local bookshop, Burley Fisher, has re-opened but cannot let customers inside. Instead they have a table across the entrance. The staff stand behind this, fetching books like a kiosk.

*

Friday 26 June 2020. To Clissold Park for tentative drinks in the park with Ms Shanthi and friends. We try to socially distance, but this turns out to be quite difficult, particularly when we stand under a tree to shelter from the English summer rain. The instinct when in company is always to move closer. After a few drinks, even more so. The fear now is that two’s company, three’s an outbreak. Fun has become a minefield of worry.

*

Wednesday 28 June 2020. People are starting to go on foreign holidays where they can. I can’t share the sentiment: the germ is abroad too. At the moment, I’ll settle for being allowed to visit other parts of London.

*

Monday 6th July 2020. The lockdown has relaxed to the point where the London Library has reopened. This is my idea of civilisation returning. I’m keen to avoid public transport as much as I can, so I begin a new routine of long walks every morning, from Dalston into the city.

In the main reading room of the LL the armchairs have gone. All the desks are carefully marked, with chairs removed at some desks, so that everyone is at least 2 metres apart. I don’t last long in this particular space, though: someone behind me starts coughing.

*

Tuesday 7th July 2020. Haircuts are allowed again. Kommy at Cuts and Bruises, 57 Stoke Newington Road, cuts mine while wearing a clear visor. I wear a mask. Somehow he pins back the straps on my mask to the collar guard, so he can cut the hair around my ears. Colouring appointments are still not available, though, so I bleach my hair myself, using a Jerome Russell ‘B-Blonde No.1’ kit. £5.

*

Wednesday 8 July 2020. The pandemic has meant there’s more bicycles about, along with e-scooters, those powered standing platforms that are suddenly everywhere. The e-scooters manage to look unsafe on both the road and the pavement. I’ve seen a dad take his small daughter to school on one, the child holding onto his legs as he swerves around cars. I suppose that’s an example of risk assessment: avoiding death by virus, at the risk of death by traffic accident.

Each to their own, I suppose, though I resent the way this new trend also endangers pedestrians. Quite often now I find myself close to being hit by an e-scooter or a bicycle going at full speed, even though I am just walking on the pavement.

*

Thursday 9 July 2020. Am sitting in outdoor cafes more often, a new favourite being the one in Red Lion Square Gardens.

The virus has brought out the city in spots. London is covered in circular stickers on the pavement, marking the limits of two metres, or a one-way route, or both.

At the junction of Clerkenwell Road and Grays Inn Road: a sticker on a post: ‘MASKS ARE BAD FOR YOU’.

*

Saturday 11 July 2020. To Vout-o-Reenee’s in Tower Hill for a private view of Sophie Parkin’s paintings. All painted by her during the lockdown. This is my one big social evening out of the summer, though there’s still only a handful of people here, all invited and registered. I enjoy myself, but as with many of my occasional social occasions during the pandemic, I spend subsequent days worrying in case I’ve done something irresponsible.

*

Wednesday 15 July 2020. Much conversation online about the meaning of statues. Something about the invisible nature of a virus has heightened the awareness of more visible cruelties. Statues of slave traders are being pulled down by protesters, most sensationally with the Edward Colston statue in Bristol.

Toppling statues activates their meaning. It blows off the dust. Only then does the ‘valuable history lesson’ that their defenders point to take place. The Colston statue certainly failed to enter my consciousness until now, and I lived in Bristol for three years.

I’m intrigued by the date of the statue: late 1800s, a whole century and a half after his death. So it represents not just Restoration prosperity but also late Victorian anxiety over the end of Empire. And now, the toppling says something about the anxieties of 2020.

*

Friday 17 July 2020. Tickets are released for the reopening of the British Library. Predictably the servers crash at once. It’s Glastonbury for researchers.

*

Saturday 25 July 2020. First time back at the British Library. We’re allocated a specific desk in the reading rooms, but it’s only for three hours maximum per week. And we have to wear a mask.

I manage to stop my glasses fogging up after much initial frustration. What I don’t do is wear a mask with my nose poking out, which many people do as a compromise. Half-arsed faces.

*

Tuesday 28 July 2020. Thinking of Hilary Mantel’s new essay collection Mantel Pieces, I’m now wondering if Shooting an Elephant should have been called Orwell and Good. Against Interpretation could have been Sontag, Bloody Sontag.

*

Thursday 30 July 2020. Something the film director Whit Stillman shares with Angela Carter: they both put seminars on Ronald Firbank in their work (Stillman’s film Damsels in Distress; Carter’s radio play A Self-Made Man).

*

Friday 31 July 2020. Working from home isn’t easy for a lodger. My rented bedroom is not designed to be a full-time office for months on end. Thankfully, Birkbeck have allocated an empty classroom on the Torrington Square campus, in Bloomsbury, to myself and two other full-time PhD students. This will last until the college library reopens in October.

I’m usually the only one in the empty classroom; the security guards have to unlock the room for me specially. There’re so few people in the building, it’s like The Shining. One of the security guards says they’ve had to remove the occasional homeless person from the classrooms.

*

Thursday 6 Aug 2020. At the Museum of London. Some of the displays are still closed off, as they’re in alcoves where socially distancing is impossible. Instead there are barriers with signs saying ‘Please view from here’. With bleak irony, these include the ones on the Black Death.

*

Saturday 8 August 2020. To Enfield to house-sit for Shanthi S. ‘It’s like The Detectorists around here’.  

*

Tuesday 18 August 2020. From a documentary on Philip Glass, I learn that the composer has an Allen Ginsberg quotation taped to his piano, by way of motivation. It’s from Memory Gardens (1969):

‘Well, while I’m here, I’ll do the work –
And what’s the Work?

To ease the pain of living.

Everything else, drunken dumbshow.’

*

Weds 19 August 2020. First trip out of London since March, to see Mum. We choose to meet for lunch in Manningtree, a halfway point between Mum and London. I’m still too nervous about going much further out of the city. We eat outdoors in the garden of the restaurant Lucca. As per the advice, we sit at an angle rather than directly facing each other, and we don’t hug or touch.

*

Monday 24 August 2020. The more likely the end of the world, the more I shave and put on a tie.

*

Saturday 29 August 2020. Hurtling towards the age of 49. I ponder the increasing evidence in my face and consider damage limitation. And yet, I don’t want to be one of those men who grow a beard out of sheer resentment at not dying young.

I’m uneasy that I’m still a very odd person. On the plus side, it’s such a comfort.

*

As part of my PhD, I’m consulting the British Library’s archive of Angela Carter’s papers: her unpublished letters, manuscripts and notebooks. I recognise much of the material Edmund Gordon included in his biography The Invention of Angela Carter. One example is the phrase she uses when ending a letter to her partner Mark, written while she was away in America. ‘Please miss me’.

*

Tuesday 1 Sept 2020. To the Rio cinema for Tenet with Jon S. I give up trying to make sense of the premise and just enjoy the nice suits.

*

Thursday 3 Sept 2020. My 49th birthday. I take a solo day trip on the train to Brighton. Quite a lot of people about, albeit with signs advising social distancing, including on the pier. Prosecco dinner in the Palm Court on the pier. I sit in various cafes and bars, including the ‘Loading’ gaming bar on the beachfront. I don’t join in with any of the computer games or board games. I just look on with my glass of wine, a little confused as to how I ended up here or where I’m going next. But happy to still be around.

*

Saturday 5 September 2020. At the British Library, I find a note by Angela Carter in one of her journals from the 1980s, all the more amusing given she was once a Booker Prize judge: ‘The Owl of Minerva as a title – from “The Owl of Minerva flies at dusk”- Hegel. It’s got a nice, solid, Booker-Prizeish ring to it.’

*

8 September 2020. Life in 2020: seeing an unknown number on the phone and immediately worrying that it’s Track and Trace (it was a wrong number).

*

13 September 2020. A favourite quote, usually attributed to Doris Lessing: ‘Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.’ I’ve seen this quote many times, and though I like the sentiment I can’t find any proof that Lessing said these actual words.

‘Do it now’ risks giving Lessing’s name the quality of a Nike ad. Though perhaps that’s the ultimate goal for a writer anyway.

*

Friday 18 September 2020. To Bildeston in Suffolk for dinner at the Crown pub with Mum. This is my third trip out of London since March, and my first to the village I grew up in since last Christmas. We eat outdoors: it’s warm and pleasant. Mum is now making online videos for her classes on quilt-making. She has over two hundred subscribers.

*

Sunday 27 Sept 2020. Reading The Young and Evil, which is so rare I have to refer to a copy at archive.org. Some authors are claiming that archive.org breaches copyright to the point of piracy. They have no idea what a lifeline it’s been to students during the pandemic. I think of the remark made (I think) by Tim Berners-Lee around the time of Napster, with people downloading music. ‘Make it easy for people to do the right thing’.

It’s also like the 1980s campaign, ‘Home Taping Kills Music’. Home taping did the reverse: new generations of people, unable to afford records, were inspired to make music of their own. Why are these lessons never learned?

*

Friday 2 Oct 2020. The National Gallery does Titian face coverings. I wonder what kind of person would buy such a thing. Then I realise it’s me, and buy one.

Branded masks are the way forward now. Bands who do t-shirts need to get into masks. If this was 1990, the Inspiral Carpets would be known for selling more masks than records.

*

Tuesday 6 Oct 2020. Dinner with Shanthi S in Pizza Express, Upper Street, Islington. The place is close to empty. Many of the other branches of PE in London have closed temporarily or for good. She takes a couple of photos, giving me the air of an Edward Hopper painting.

*

Friday 9 Oct 2020. From my bedroom I attend the first online lecture of the new academic year. The lecturer supplies a video recording, seven days in advance, complete with slides and subtitles. Then on the evening itself we can put questions to her live. The lack of being in the same room is a drawback, but being able to pause a lecture and revisit different points is a great help to retaining the information. Something is lost, but something is gained.

*

Tuesday 13 Oct 2020. Mr Johnson announces a ‘three tier’ system for new restrictions, as the coronavirus cases are rising once again. New metaphors take the stage. What might happen now is a short return to lockdown, or a ‘circuit breaker’. What depresses now is the feeling of being trapped in time as much as place. A sense of these things never ending.

*

Thursday 22 October 2020.  To the Dalston Rio to see Saint Maud, an arty British horror film. The film is atmospheric and confident, if small in scale. It plays throughout with the question of whether supernatural events are really happening, or whether they’re all in the mind of the protagonist. There’s a good use of an off-season Scarborough, its beach and hills. The lead actor, Morfydd Clark, couldn’t be more different from the last role I saw her in, the dog-wielding Dora in David Copperfield.

The Rio cinema has managed to stay open into the second wave of the pandemic, and tonight there’s a healthy amount of audience, all socially distanced and masked, our temperatures checked on the way in. The nearest rival, Hackney Picturehouse, has closed along with the rest of the Picturehouse and Cineworld chains. The blame has gone on the big studios for postponing the noisier, big-budget titles, such as the new James Bond. This is a time of quieter films, for quieter streets.

**
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A Lodger In Lockdown

Sunday 15 March 2020. To the Tate Britain for the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition, principally as I suspect it will be the last chance to visit a gallery for some time. I go by myself and am careful to keep my distance in the exhibition rooms, not lingering too long in one place. There is a degree of irony risking a respiratory virus in order to see work by a man who coughed himself to death. But there is a positive lesson too, with Beardsley producing a large amount of work in a short life, all the time coping with a serious illness that he’d had from childhood. Of the works I see today, I especially like his androgynous self-portrait, ‘The Art Editor of the Yellow Book’.

The last room is on AB’s 1960s influence – the sleeve to Revolver, and a grotesque Gerald Scarfe caricature in which Beardsley has a sinewy nude female body, vagina to the fore, accompanied by a homunculus with an enormous erect penis. Even in 2020 this image is hidden behind its own pair of curtains on the gallery wall, as if it were a plaque waiting to be unveiled by a particularly permissive monarch.

A few years ago, I went to the British Library in St Pancras to consult Brigid Brophy’s Black and White, her illustrated monograph on Beardsley. The library filed the book as Restricted Material. This means you must go to a special designated desk in the Rare Books Reading Room, separated from the normal desks and close to the view of a staff member working nearby. I suspect it is unofficially known as the Naughty Desk.

*

Monday 16 March 2020. Coronavirus cases are now in their thousands. Britain is heading for the unthinkable: a state of national lockdown. I call Mum in Suffolk. Thankfully she’s in good health, and has friends and neighbours checking in on her every day, keeping their distance when they do so. We talk on the phone every day (and later, we Skype).

Arguments are circulating over the definition of ‘essential’, over what is permitted and what is not. The official advice is vague, so it’s no wonder everyone on social media has suddenly become an expert on a brand new disease.

Who is happy to admit that their work is not ‘essential’, though? Particularly in London, the city where everyone, even the lowliest entertainment blogger, thinks that what they do is of vital importance?

And oh, the constant content. The emails reminding one that everyone else is being so fabulously productive, with their new TV programmes on streaming platforms, with their podcasts and their articles and their virtual events. All of which makes it harder for me to write a word. Why add more drops to the tide? Logging on, or picking up the phone, one now goes from a world of stillness into a world of excess and noise.

I’ve found that one solution is reading more books, away from the screen. Books reset the brain into deeper thinking, forcing the mind into coping with one thing at a time. No scrolling, no live updates. A book never asks you to accept cookies. That is, unless it’s a cookbook.

Still, I know that what I write in this diary (and with the thesis, which is essentially a book) is exclusive and original in its own odd little way. It’s like Quentin Crisp’s description of the party at the end of the world: ‘that happy hubbub where everyone is speaking and no one is listening’.

*

Tuesday 17 March 2020. London’s galleries, museums, libraries, cinemas, bars and cafes are either closing today or announcing imminent closure. It’s my last day in the carrel at Senate House Library. I empty the little room and return the key.

The meaning of London has changed now. The point of London for me – and many others – is the cultural life. Things to go to. Without those, one might as well be anywhere. If so many people can work from home, where does home need to be? Perhaps when this is over there will finally be reasonable rents, to stop mass homelessness and society grinding to a halt. I idly dream of a great conversion of London’s empty offices into flats which even people like me can afford. Or perhaps that is truly thinking the unthinkable.

*

Wednesday 18 March 2020. First day of working from home in Dalston.  The house I live in is shared by myself and my landlady. With the lockdown, both of us are in the house most of the time, which makes me aware of my lodger status more acutely. A lodger shares a space, but cannot fully inhabit. As kind as my landlady is (she sometimes cooks us both dinner), I stay out of the kitchen as much as I can and try to be a minimum presence, to the point of invisibility. I never cook. I live mainly on pre-cooked cold supermarket food in lieu of the café meals I used to have: sandwiches, fruit, snack bars, instant noodles. I do all my eating in my room and stay in there most of the day, working on my PhD. Or trying to work. My days of taking the Tube or going on buses are over for some time.

‘A Lodger in Lockdown’ sounds like the title of a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett.

This is my life now. Just the bedroom, and sometimes the bathroom and the kitchen, occasionally going into the immediate neighbourhood of Dalston and Stoke Newington for shopping and exercise. It certainly could be worse. Many people are locked in with children all day, whom they now have to home-school. I do not envy them. There’s been some predictions of a baby boom, but also of a rise in divorces.

*

Thursday 19 March 2020. If children are the least at risk, and there are no schools, perhaps they can just run things. I have seen Bugsy Malone.

*

Friday 20 March 2020. The government has closed all non-essential shops, including  hairdressers. It is going to be an interesting time for hair.

Some inadvertent humour. Stonehenge has been closed, to stop people gathering at sunrise for the spring equinox. From the Guardian today comes the following quote from a frustrated druid:

‘Stuart Hannington, a druid, also stayed behind the fence, accepting it was fair to restrict access. “They’re closing the churches so it seems okay that they are not allowing us to get to the stones. It’s disappointing but we have to make sacrifices.”

*

Saturday 21 March 2020. Email from Paypal saying ‘we’ve noticed you’ve been particularly impacted by recent customer behaviour’. By which they mean there have been hardly any donations to my diary. If they really noticed, they’d see that this is not much of a change. Talk about rubbing it in.

One of the main reasons I prefer to work in libraries is that the house is too cold to be in all day during the winter months. I am sensitive to the cold more than most (and more than my landlady), and can’t afford to put the heating on very often. I am writing this wearing a coat indoors.

*

Monday 23 March 2020. My GP has suspended face-to-face appointments. Boris Johnson appears on TV to announce the official beginning of the UK lockdown, several days after many of us have made a start. So here we are in history. 

One of the new clichés being bandied around by journalists is the phrase ‘the new normal’. I find this doubly depressing. The repetition of the phrase indicates insincerity, while the implication is that this situation is permanent. New it might be, but this is not normal. If it were, we would not be holding out hope for a vaccine. The phrase is also a contradiction in terms: if something is new, it cannot be normal. Normality is a state of affairs that have lasted. Perhaps, like capitalism, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of PR.

*

Tuesday 24 March 2020. The government sends a text message to every UK phone: ‘You must stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’ Words chosen for their hardness, shortness, and impact, from the team who brought us ‘Get Brexit Done’. This time Britain is trying to exit a global pandemic, a sentiment which at least unites everyone.

*

Wednesday 25 March 2020. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a Windows Update. I’m spending hours wrestling with a mini-PC, bought cheaply to replace my aging and noisy desktop computer. Normally I use the PCs in university libraries. The only machines I can afford for myself are the ones that don’t work. It’s not just me: the whole situation has revealed just how many British households are without decent computers, or computers at all. Some poorer parents are home-schooling their children through their smartphones. We are being told that ‘we’re in this together’, but some are more in it than others.

*

Tonight I had been booked (unpaid) to appear at an event held by the University of London Bibliophile Society, to speak about collecting books on a gay and lesbian theme. Now, of course, it has to be done online. Thankfully the organisers are not expecting me to appear via a web-camera and some sort of software (the current preference is called Zoom), which is a relief as the cheap mini-PC has turned out to be so cheap that it can’t cope with web-chatting. As it is, I have no experience in addressing an audience through a web camera and am in no hurry to start.

Instead, the event takes place on Twitter, which I do have experience in. First, I publish my talk online as a Word file (https://uolbibliophiles.wordpress.com/2020/03/25/an-online-panel-discussion-collecting-lgbtq/).

Then I take questions on Twitter via my account there (@dickon_edwards), in tandem with the hashtag #uolbibliophiles. It’s a frustrating experience, as not only is my computer slow, but I realise I am so much slower at tweeting than most. I manage about three questions before the 30 mins of questioning is up.

I am a little unhappy about this, feeling forced into a new digital Darwinian era that favours only those who have fast computers and fast computer skills. I worry now that I have even less place in a pandemic-hit world than I did in the one before. 

Still, one positive result is that my enforced slowness makes me aware of my own sense of being out of sync with the world, and that this is something I should embrace rather then try to disguise.

The trouble with joining in is that you end up sounding like everyone else. So in this way, computer ineptitude can be a kind of dandyism. In a world of constant availability, it makes sense to play a little hard to get. I hope I can benefit from the value of rarity. The fear, though, is of being so different that no one will want to read my work at all.

Thanks to the event, I learn a new detail about my copy of the 1986 Penguin edition of Ronald Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot. The book is inscribed from John Mortimer, who wrote the introduction, to a ‘Phyllis’. I am now assured by one of the event attendees, @blackwellrare, that this Phyllis is PD James, whose copy it must have been.

*

Thursday 26 March 2020. I clap out of my window, trying hard not to shout ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.’

*

I fear my hair may be heading for the Peroxide Broccoli look. Still shaving and wearing a tie every day.

*

Saturday 28 March 2020. ‘Interesting times’ can do one. Ronald Firbank’s phrase for the First World War was ‘that awful persecution’. We could start using that.

*

Monday 30 March 2020. Getting hold of e-books online has turned out to be rather more time-consuming than I thought. The irony is that print would be quicker, if only the libraries were open. On top of the social inequality, the virus has revealed an inequality in digitised books. Contrary to what Google implies, a large amount of knowledge has never been digitised full stop.

*

Tuesday 31 March 2020. I go to the Post Office on Dalston High Street. The queue extends right down the street, with people standing at 2 metre distances from each other. It takes at least 30 minutes before I get to the counter, for a transaction of ten seconds. Supermarkets are the same. I find myself resenting people who queue as couples, as they take up more space inside the shop and so make social distancing even harder. What I am really resenting, of course, is that they are couples.

*

Tuesday 2 April 2020. A current social media idiom is ‘the hill to die on’, presumably coming from military slang. It means a belief so important that the person holding the belief is willing to fight to the death for it. I suppose the hill I’m happy to die on is Aubrey Beardsley’s Under the Hill.

*

Friday 3 April 2020. I have made myself laugh by using ‘untroubled’ as an insult.

*

Saturday 4 April 2020. PhD writing. I compare Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) to the ‘category is’ aspect of drag contests. It makes sense in context, I tell myself.

*

Monday 6 April 2020. Still shaving, still putting on a tie. As Boris Johnson goes into intensive care, I write about camp in Joyce’s ‘Circe’.

*

Tuesday 7 April 2020: ‘In 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible. And a gesture of helplessness, even of frivolity, might be the best way of doing that.’ – Orwell, Inside the Whale (1940).

*

Saturday 11 April 2020. I am just about to disagree with someone on Twitter when I stop myself. I hope that shows growth.

*

Wednesday 15 April 2020. A fly-tipper has left a bag of their rubbish outside our door. If they can be identified from it, I may track them down and play Patricia Highsmith-style games with their mind. Criminals often make the mistake of assuming I’m normal.

Later: I resist this impulse and blandly report it to the council. This time. The fly-tipping, not the Highsmithian impulses. This time.

*

Sunday 19 April 2020. The Sunday Times is now very thin, particularly the sections on travel and sport. In the travel section, what articles there are comprise memories of travelling in the past. Remember travel? A headline in the supplement on home furnishings reads: ‘Cheery Lockdown Linens.’

*

Wednesday 22 April 2020. Some personal good news. My work on the PhD has been deemed good enough to pass the mid-point ‘upgrade’. When PhD students start their course, they are registered as doing an MPhil (or more generously, a ‘MPhil/PhD’). An MPhil is a qualification halfway between an MA or MSc (ie a Master’s) and a PhD. The idea is that if your work isn’t good enough by this point you have the option of either redoing it, which takes even more time, or settling for switching to the easier MPhil. If your work is good enough, you are ‘upgraded’ to PhD student status proper. So I’m relieved and very pleased. Halfway through.

*

Thursday 23 April 2020. I have one of those days where being weird feels a crippling disadvantage. One must remember what weirdness can also be: a shield.

*

Thursday 30 April 2020. Not quite going crazy yet. But not quite not, too. Today’s slice of self pity: even prisoners can go to a library. The whole point of the bohemian rented room lifestyle is that the room is somewhere to rest one’s head, not to live in constantly. Still, even self-pity is a sign of some lust for life. Earlier today I couldn’t even be bothered to beat myself up.

*

Saturday 2 May 2020. Take strength from your own weirdness.

*

Saturday 9 May 2020. I have just discovered that Bic Orange Fine pens now come in a more comfortable ‘grip’ version. So it’s not all bad.

*

Sunday 10 May 2020. Another day in the Soft Apocalypse. Mr Johnson’s gesture of ‘drunkenly inserting the key in the Yale lock after a night out’ almost makes one yearn for the days of Mr Blair’s ‘here’s my big fish’.

*

Monday 11 May 2020. I wish I’d learned about Bentham’s theory of the Panopticon when I was at school. If only so I could tell the bullies who always sat on the back seat of the bus why they did such a thing.

*

Tuesday 12 May 2020. Am getting very little work done. It’s hard to be productive when you’re surrounded by historical events, major social change, and daily death tolls.

*

Wednesday 20 May 2020. Warm weather, and I’m finally wearing single layers, but am still feeling cold all the time. I report this to a GP, an appointment which can only be carried out on the phone. She thinks it’s more likely to be related to my lack of exercise. ‘Sitting is the new smoking’, she says. I want to say, ‘No it isn’t’. 

The problem is that no one is allowed to be ill from anything other than COVID-19. The arrogance of this virus. Other illnesses can’t get a word in edgeways. Only when you can mention the virus do you exist. Corona is the only game in town, as Karen Carpenter didn’t quite sing.

*

Thursday 21 May 2020. At 8pm I go downstairs and open the front door to clap for the NHS. Standing right in front of the house are three people, two women and a man in their 30s, eating hamburgers from polystyrene cartons, using as a shelf the wall of the house’s small yard. These unanchored face-fillers are completely unabashed by my appearance, even though I’ve suddenly materialised next to them. In fact, they join in the clapping half-heartedly, and we all stand there in silence, clapping away, resident and loitering scoffers alike.

Such is life off Dalston Kingsland High Street. I’ve occasionally opened the door to find someone sitting on the doorstep, using it to sit and eat, or smoke and drink. Reflecting now, I realise that one should currently be more sympathetic to the eating aspect. London’s cafes and restaurants are only allowed to operate in takeaway and delivery form. The pleasure of eating out is rather compromised by not being allowed an ‘out’ in which to eat out in.

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Saturday 23 May 2020. My first proper coffee in eight weeks. Pret a Manger in Dalston is open for takeaways. On the door is a sign requesting six customers at one time. Inside the café there are marks on the floor to ensure the customers stand apart at two metres. The counter now has a perspex screen with holes cut out at the bottom, like a bank. There is no sitting allowed inside, in line with the government rules. All those empty seats and tables, close to hand but forbidden.

I watch a documentary on the comedian Tony Slattery, who has suffered heavily from depression and alcohol addiction. One particular regret of his feels familiar: ‘Nothing gets done’. A therapist reminds him that he once gave up cocaine with no problems: ‘You’ve got form, mate’. Slattery ends the film hoping to sort himself out. The documentary’s popular reception should surely help him. Recovery is easier if you declare your goals before strangers. It’s when you keep them to yourself that they evaporate too easily.

*

Sunday 24 May 2020. The Prime Minister’s advisor, Dominic Cummings, is caught breaking the lockdown rules. A number of people, reportedly his neighbours, protest in his street as he goes to and from his home. It’s a pleasant, expensive street in Islington. If they are indeed his neighbours, perhaps some sort of Ballardian middle class riot is on the cards. It would be especially karmic for a PM with roots in the Bullingdon Club.

*

Monday 25 May 2020. The Cummings saga rolls on. There is something very British in arguing over when it is best to visit a castle.

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Thursday 28 May 2020. Some thoughts on craft. When trying to write, and battling the usual insecurities about one’s talent, it is useful to think about craft. ‘Talent’ suggests vanity, glamour, contingency. It suggests Britain’s Got Talent, standing up on a stage, only to be told to go away. ‘Craft’, on the other hand, suggests the opposite of glamour: an invisible artisan, sitting down in a workshop, toiling away with little credit. But it also suggests humility, productivity, accomplishment: qualities essential to any work. Craft shows, talent shows off. 

There is a good reason why the phrase ‘a waste of craft’ is less common than ‘a waste of talent’. A crafted work may be deemed underwhelming, but in noting its craft there is still the recognition that new work has been contributed, time invested, labour applied,  skills drawn upon. Take the recent film of Cats. On its release last Christmas, film critics overwhelming insisted that it was terrible. Yet craft it remains: work was done, something new was made. It can still be of use, if only as an entertaining example of folly. Or just as something to pass the time that is different. And someone somewhere might disagree with the critics (the director for one, I hope).

Talent says: ‘just do it’. Craft says: ‘just make it’. Talent lives in fear of being disliked, of being ‘cancelled’. Craft shrugs its shoulders and gets on with it.

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This online diary was begun in 1997. The archive contains over twenty years of exclusive knowledge, all searchable and free to read without adverts or clickbait. The author is in need of financial support, however. Giving money is a way to indicate that something has value. Thank you!

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