To contact me, call 07500 337460, or email jaybee@joinedupletters.co.uk

Withdraw on principle – or stay in the game?

A shortish post, this.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an abomination.

The West – through NATO, the EU or the UN, or all three – is united in its condemnation of what is fast shaping up to be a military atrocity, and has imposed stringent sanctions on certain high-profile Russian individuals and almost all the country’s “outward-facing” business interests. The aim is to isolate and strangle the Russian economy, and to an extent it appears to be working; though Vladimir Putin as yet shows no sign of any willingness to withdraw – nor, really, to negotiate.

In addition, the West is supplying arms and other aid to Ukraine, as well as taking in huge numbers of refugees (though the UK’s participation in the latter has, to date, been lukewarm at best), but so far has stopped short of any direct military involvement; NATO is worried – with good reason – as to just what the clinically insane Russian president might do were the war to escalate further.

I’m too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis first-hand; but I heard about it, and this feels uncomfortably similar. And Khrushchev wasn’t mad, whereas Putin, I believe, is.

So, against that backdrop: Shell and BP are to sell their interests in, respectively, Russian energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft. Which sounds right and proper – and maybe I’m being stupid.

But sell to whom, exactly?

And, if they are selling (at a huge loss, I’m sure), all they’re really doing is divesting themselves of toxic assets – which doesn’t sound quite so virtuous.

I’m sure I’m missing something – but would it not be more sensible, more morally justifiable, to hold on to their (substantial) stakes, and use their leverage, their place at the top table, to be as awkward and obstructive as possible?

Rather like environmentalists taking a financial interest in a fracking company. Or – one for the teenagers – the anti-apartheid protestors of yesteryear buying shares in Barclays Bank. The point being it allowed them to attend AGMs, and be disruptive. BP and Shell could surely use their Gazprom and Rosneft holdings to do the same – on a rather larger scale.

Meanwhile, the world waits in a state of high tension. For what it’s worth (probably not much) I think much of the global population is already suffering from varying degrees of Covid-related PTSD. Which is why the war in Ukraine – and the threat of war elsewhere – feels particularly acute.

I can’t offer a universal panacea. But if your anxiety levels are skyrocketing, you could try a combination of a bit more wine than is sensible, hi-NRG dance music and restricting your exposure to current affairs. Works for me.

I’m not being glib; my heart goes out to Ukraine, and Ukrainians the world over. But to a degree we are all victims of Putin’s warmongering. Mental health is a fragile thing, and we must do what we have to to preserve it.

We must remain robust. Otherwise what use are we?

High time for a bit more of this…

Wow. Where did the last five months go? I’ve just checked – and my last Drum & Monkey post was at the end of April. How shaming! Or it could be, if I let it. But I’m not sure how many people read this guff anyway – and besides it’s my blog: I’ll do what I want.

And what I want, it turns out, is (as far as possible) to take summers off. Not that we had much of a summer, weatherwise; but, in common with many others I suspect, I experienced an odd kind of burnout earlier this year. It can’t have been pressure of work – I was fortunate that I had just about enough; my workload was eminently manageable and, working from home, was even more so. But I think the stress of last winter – the UK’s rocketing Covid-19 numbers (of cases, hospitalisations and, sadly, deaths) with, at least to begin with, no vaccine in sight – left all of us suffering some low-level form of PTSD.

Whether I still am is for others to judge – but by and large I’ve enjoyed the past few more or less indolent months. I love summer sports, and the return of Wimbledon, complete with crowds, and the well-attended Test cricket series against New Zealand and India gladdened the heart. The results hardly mattered – it was enough just to see people gathered together en masse.

And of course there was football, and Euro 2020: held a year late – but oh what a circus, oh what a show. With matches staged all over Europe it was, to some, a colossal waste of money and an unpardonable splurge of environmentally-unfriendly profligacy. Others (me) found it massively uplifting: an example sans pareil of the resurgence, the indomitability, of the human spirit.

If you were to ask me, do I like football, I would unthinkingly answer yes. And it’s true I like to see Norwich City do well – it’s my home town, my home team, and the city feels a marginally happier place when “the Canaries” are on a winning streak. (Which, at present, they aren’t.) But I don’t get bent out of shape when they lose (which as just as well). I just don’t feel that invested in it, somehow.

Give me the World Cup or the Euros though, and I’m all over it. Especially in the early stages. I lose a bit of enthusiasm once teams start getting eliminated and the whole thing becomes more ponderous; but the first days and weeks… Four matches a day? A riot, a rainbow, of colour, drama, excitement? Massive crowds of people going nuts in the hot summer sun? Bring it on.

Turns out it’s not really football I love; it’s tournament football.

This year especially – partly because it was such a poke in the eye to the pandemic; but also there was England’s performance to sustain my interest. There was no shame in their eventual loss to Italy – just inexperience, and a certain naivety.

Bring on the World Cup.

***

Where there was shame, however – and rightly – was in the widespread reaction to the trolling of England penalty takers Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford, all of whom missed from the spot during the penalty shoot-out that decided the match, thus handing victory to the Italians.

Much has been written about the so called “culture wars” being waged in the UK and elsewhere. Pro-vaxxers versus anti-vaxxers. Climate crisis deniers versus eco-warriors. The “woke” versus the “anti-woke”. The list goes on and tediously on; but what characterises these conflicts, these differences of opinion, is absolutism – a total unwillingness even to acknowledge that there might be a point of view other than yours. Simply because of how it works, social media – Facebook especially – encourages this polarisation, this reductive, binary tribalism, devoid of nuance.

And our government, shamingly, has jumped on the bandwagon. Crude populism, enabled by social media, is what brought about Brexit, and what got Boris Johnson elected.

And while culture wars, the extremism of culture wars, does not in itself give legitimacy to trolling, it does provide an environment where it can exist: where trolls feel encouraged to hurl their disgusting insults with relative impunity. And where, if it’s not too much of a reach, radicalised wingnuts can find justification for carrying out atrocious acts, of which last week’s murder of Southend West MP Sir David Amess was merely the latest.

Consciously or not, most of us who use social media (and I use Facebook a lot) are operating in an echo chamber. We become friends with people who share our opinions – and every exchange with our Facebook friends just reinforces our confirmation bias. It’s how the algorithm works. And if someone disagrees with you? Hey presto: just unfriend them.

But it’s not necessarily how friendships work in real life. With real, flesh-and-blood folks, your friendships are yours to make – not down to some bloodless, soulless, sinister piece of computer code.

It’s probable that most of the people you choose to spend most of your time with share most of your opinions – but not all. I have a friend whose views on certain issues trouble me (because they don’t chime with my own) but who is one of the most generous, thoughtful, kind-hearted people I know. Am I going to terminate our friendship because we disagree on one thing (albeit a fairly fundamental thing)? No I’m not. I’ll continue to press my case, and to call my friend out when they say something that I find offensive. And we’ll continue to make each other laugh, to commiserate with one another when needed, and “have each other’s backs”.

It occurs to me that perhaps I need to consciously expand my real-life friendship groups – to extend the hand of friendship to those with whom I might, on some subjects, vehemently disagree. It’s got to be healthier than allowing Mark Zuckerberg to arrange my social life, or access my headspace.

***

Like many cities, Norwich is characterised by narrow streets lined with Victorian terrace houses. I live in one such.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. The street where I live is pleasing to the eye, characterful, and the neighbours are friendly and helpful. As I hope I am to them.

Traffic is a concern. And that problem will continue to grow unless and until laws are passed limiting car ownership, and car sizes, per household (which may be the subject of a future Drum & Monkey). But it’s one we put up with, for now.

Or did. I can’t be the only one whose equanimity has been seriously challenged by the profusion of delivery vans on our streets: an issue that predates the pandemic, but which has become a great deal worse over the past 18 months.

Actually it’s not so much the number of vans that upsets me – I order stuff online myself from time to time – it’s the behaviour of the drivers.

If you’re doing a drop, and there’s no place to pull into nearby: fair enough. Stop your van, do the delivery sharpish, jump back in, and off you go. I can be patient for the couple of minutes or so that that takes, and we’ve all got to make a living.

But when did it become acceptable to just slam on the anchors, stick your hazard lights on, and leave the van in situ for 10 minutes or more while you do a bunch of deliveries? Traffic backing up behind you all the while? Worse: WHEN THERE’S A PERFECTLY GOOD PARKING SPACE AVAILABLE?

DPD drivers: I’m looking at you.

Covid: five lessons learned

At the time of writing, given national variations the UK reached Step Two of UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s “road-map” out of the Covid-19 crisis two-and-a-half weeks ago. So far, so good, and I think we can be reasonably confident that Step Three will happen on schedule on 17th May. As will, we all fervently hope, Step Four on Midsummer’s Day.

But as we emerge, blinking, into the sunlight, seeking to rid ourselves of the “prison pallor” of repeated lockdowns (a word borrowed from jail jargon) and tier-based restrictions, is it too early to draw any meaningful conclusions from our collective experience of this wearisome scourge?

Yes, it is – and probably always will be. We don’t know, cannot know, how long Covid will be with us, what shapes it might assume, or what effect future variants might have. But it’s a fair bet that locally, nationally, globally, society will have to adapt and mutate, just as the virus does.

There’s been much talk throughout the pandemic of the “new normal” – of learning to live according to changed parameters: wearing masks in crowded areas, sanitising here and there, undergoing frequent Covid tests, (maybe) carrying vaccine passports, and so on. But the phrase is misleading, implying as it does that we will simply have to get used to living under a new set of rules. As long as the Coronavirus is mutable – surely one of its key characteristics – there can be no fixed new normal. The best we can hope for is that whatever steps we have to take to counter new mutations stop short of what we’ve had to put up with thus far; but what I see going forward (and I’m no clairvoyant) is not a new normal, but an unending succession of constantly changing new normals.

But the past 14 months or so have certainly been a time of sustained introspection for many. For me, anyway. And I’ve learned five not-necessarily-edifying things about myself, which I will pass on to you here. Egotistical? Guilty as charged; but this is my blog, not yours. If you want to read on, read on. If not, go write your own.

In no particular order, then:

First, I’ve learned that it is possible to be selfish and selfless at the same time. Selfishly speaking, I want Covid restrictions to be lifted according to my criteria – what’s important to me – but I find it hard to care too much about other people’s priorities. I want to be able to go to pubs, restaurants, the movies etc as (was) usual: to be elbow-to-elbow with strangers at the bar, to revel in the hubbub of a busy eatery. I want to be able to travel on buses and trains without wearing a face-covering. I want to dispense with masks altogether, actually – I don’t like them. Most of all I want to be able to hug my family and friends. But foreign travel? To all those desperate for overseas holidays, or who have family living abroad: sorry and all that – but it’s not important to me right now, and therefore I don’t really give one.

I know: me me me. Appalling. But in mitigation I should add that at the outset of the pandemic I signed up as a volunteer delivery driver for the local food bank, and I’ve been doing it ever since. My three days a week have since been reduced to one, but I’ll carry on with it for as long as there’s a need. Which there will be, for the foreseeable.

See? Breathtakingly selfish, and at the same time ready to help those less fortunate. To do my bit for the greater good. Odd, no?

Second, I don’t mind being alone for longish periods – as long as it’s on my own terms. Wordsmithery is a solitary occupation; but being alone for much of my working day has never really bothered me. Nor do I necessarily hanker after company at points during, or at the end of, the day; I can be quite happy on my Jack Jones for several days at a time (though whether that is healthy or not is a whole other matter). But the above, arguably misanthropic, state of mind is predicated on being able to see people, to socialise, should I choose to. I have found it very hard to handle that option being removed – in fact I’ve resolved, once that element of choice is fully restored, to make much better use of it.

Third, my boredom threshold is surprisingly high. I’ve always considered myself a bit of a restless soul: someone who needed near-constant stimuli, from different quarters, in order to be at my scintillating best. Not so, as it turns out. Yes, like many I have binge-watched most of Netflix (other streaming services are available); but I’ve also been quite happy to sit quietly and daydream – and for quite long periods at that. Whole afternoons can go by with me doing little more than staring into the middle distance. If you wanted to dress this up you could call it meditation I suppose, except that implies there’s an element of discipline, of structure, to it. Truly, there isn’t; but I seem to emerge from these “trances” clear-headed and emotionally calm.

I’ve also rediscovered books. An odd thing to say for someone who makes his living out of words, but while I read – a lot – latterly it’s tended to be in short bursts, for research purposes. To have the time to immerse myself in a well-written novel, and let my imagination run free, has been a total joy.

Fourth, I’m not comfortable with uncertainty. When we went into this year’s lockdown, I felt bullish. Yes, it was winter. Yes, we were on a post-Christmas comedown (though in truth it wasn’t much of a Festive Season anyway). But, I reasoned, as we had a way out of this, lockdown was a price worth paying.

Except we didn’t. The vaccination programme started in December; but throughout early January and into February it did nothing to lower the death or hospitalisation rates. Until Boris unfolded his road-map on 22nd February, we had no indication of when, or how, restrictions might be eased as we clawed our way back to something like the way of life we knew – and, it turned out, loved.

And those six or seven weeks I found close to unbearable. A daily diet of bad news, and no end in sight, really messed with my head. If – God forbid – we have to put restrictions in place again, let there be a start date, and a firm end date. Be as pessimistic as you like; as long as the date is fixed, I won’t care.

Finally, I’ve learned to value my freedom. An unlooked-for benefit of being a voluntary food bank delivery driver is that I’ve had both jabs (Pfizer) a little ahead of time, which makes me theoretically more or less bulletproof. However, should a variant happen along that can pierce my armour, and only a risky, untested vaccine can stop it? Bring it on. Use me as a pin-cushion. Throw vaccine-loaded darts at me. I don’t care. I don’t even much care if the vaccine is effective; but if having jab after jab means that, after 21st June, I can continue to walk out of my front door and lead something like the life I want to live, then being stuck full of needles, and suffering any side effects short of death, is a price worth paying.

A is for apple. And for advertising…

Pictures and words. Words and pictures. Which matter most?

When you first pick up a book, first begin learning to read – or earlier even, when you first start being read to – pictures are integral to the experience. “A is for apple” is a lot easier to absorb when you know what an apple is; and the best way to connect the word to the object is by looking at one.

As literacy develops, the emphasis shifts. We can read about apples, and know what they are without having an image of an apple in front of us. Words take on the heavy-lifting.

For those of us who read for pleasure, there is no pleasure greater than losing yourself in the written word. A well-crafted historical novel, say – or perhaps a reasoned treatise on the links between business strategies and the game of chess, as written by advertising photographer and CGI artist Joe Lenton, my friend and associate whose pictures adorn this page – is a joy.

Elsewhere, words provide context. If you visit an art exhibition, you’re there to see what’s on show; though you’ll get a much more rounded experience if at the same time you’re able to learn about what you’re looking at: when, and in what circumstances, the work was created. Hence the catalogue.

Woman at the window – who is on the outside? Do we fear for her or does she fear for us?

In both the above examples, an investment is required: of money, possibly; of time, certainly. Since most people don’t involuntarily start reading novels or visiting art galleries, we can take that investment as a given.

RGB – exploring colour

But how do we snag someone’s attention when that attention is focused elsewhere? When they’re time-poor, or busy doing something else? How do we peddle our wares to a less receptive audience – who may not even know what those wares are, still less why they should buy them?

That’s where advertising, or promotional material, comes in – and where the marriage of impactful images and well-chosen words is absolutely key.

There are three rules of thumb to bear in mind when deciding how to promote what it is you do. Bear in mind: what follow are all generalisations…

First, do you provide a product, or a service?

If the former, let the pictures do the work. If the latter, it’s more likely to be about the words.

For example (admittedly an extreme one), if you’re selling sexy sports cars, the imagery should convey 90% of your message. All the words have to do is name the make and model, with maybe a pithy, aspirational, phrase tacked on. “The ultimate driving machine”, for instance. While if you’re selling funeral plans, or insurance services, it’s harder to get the message across pictorially. There’s a place for carefully chosen images, for sure; but it’s down to the text to persuade.

Second, consider what you’re selling, and who you’re selling to.

For many start-ups this is easy: “We want to sell to everyone! All the time! For the highest-possible profit margin!” But as your business matures it may well become more nuanced.

And even long-established businesses need to keep in mind what business they’re in. For example, Bic and Scheaffer both make writing implements; but only one sells pens. The other sells gifts. Your choice of media, and the tone of your promotional material, should be appropriate to the market you’re trying to address.

Third – and finally – keep it as simple as possible. Not your advertising – that can be as complex, as ‘high-concept’, as you like (remember the Benson & Hedges ads of yesteryear?) – but your aim. Which is, and should always be, to trigger a positive response in your target audience and, at the very least, make them want to know more.

Which is why the combination of words and pictures, when you’ve got the balance right, is so effective. People’s response is primal. Owning a sports car – looks like fun! That insurance package – saves me a headache. That biro – something convenient to write with.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – so says the old aphorism. The same could, and should, hold true for successful advertising.

This is an apple. A juicy, rosy-red apple; doesn’t it look scrummy? Crunchy, zingy, healthy and full of flavour; doesn’t that sound great?

Words and pictures. Pictures and words. Fine on their own; but so much stronger working together.

Tempted? You should be.

All images © Joe Lenton

Pilots of the airwaves: I salute you

Written and posted just before our Prime Minister announced a month-long England-wide lockdown…

In much the same way as our parents and grandparents talked of themselves (and others) as having had a “good (or not-so-good) war”, I fancy that once (please God) this now not-so-novel Coronavirus is behind us, we’ll talk about what we’re currently living through in similar fashion.

Me, if I had to rate my pandemic experience thus far on a scale of nought to 10, with zero being “Covid? What Covid?” and 10 being a total horror show, I’d give it about a three. Maybe four. I had a soft landing; I was lucky enough to be welcomed back into my family home for the duration of the (first) lockdown. A strange experience, but these were, and are, strange times; and we made it work. I chafed against being confined to barracks (comfortable though those barracks were) and became fixated about taking my hour-a-day’s exercise (and not a minute less). My alcohol consumption went up. And I indulged in a lot of introspection. Self-examination. Not difficult, as I consider myself endlessly fascinating.

Others had an even easier time of it; and certainly there were many who had it tougher. But since lockdown ended, life – my life, at least – has returned to something I recognise as near-normal. Being a writer is a solitary profession anyway, and working from home makes it even more so. Leaving aside whether that’s healthy or not, work having (thankfully) picked up it does mean I can spend great swathes of time in total denial that Covid is even a thing. When I do finish for the day and venture out to the shops or the pub, I don’t regard wearing a mask as much of an imposition – though I’d hate to have to sport one for hours at a time.

While early 2020 saw many of us hoarding loo roll, pasta and pulses, one commodity, or diversion, we have not been short of this year is – or are – things to watch, or listen to. Lockdown provided a perfect opportunity to gorge on visual and audio treats – to take our fill, and then take some more. To binge on box-sets, plough through podcasts and – for once – catch up with catch-up.

Personally, I scared myself silly rewatching the terrifyingly prescient Years and Years; sought light relief in Sex Education and Young Offenders; and discovered Danny Baker’s Treehouse podcast (I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s a hero of mine. The first 60 or so episodes are available free on various platforms; accessing more recent content means paying a small subscription fee). I’m currently working my way through another podcast: My Dad Wrote A Porno – breathtakingly rude at times, but bloody funny.

Lockdown 2.0 (don’t pretend it isn’t coming) will doubtless mean more of the same. Which is all fine; but what I’m finding is that I am increasingly drawn to live broadcasts. Television, yes; but especially radio.

My attraction to live TV is easily explained. I am, or at least I was, a journalist; and there’s still enough of the newshound in me to go in search of up-to-the-minute information. Yes, we can get our news from the papers, and off the internet – and I do both of those things – but there really is no substitute for live reporting, especially with this godawful virus continuing to wreak such global havoc. I’m not interested in what happened 10 minutes ago, I want to know what’s happening now, and what the implications are, or might be, for me and those close to me.

My fondness for live radio, however, runs much deeper. It always has.

Working from home, alone, is not something I mind overmuch. As I say, there are many who maintain it’s not good for a person – and maybe they’re right; though I think it depends on the individual. But I will admit it can get lonely; and whatever the pandemic has or hasn’t done, it’s sure as hell exacerbated that feeling.

Which is why it’s so great, and I’d argue so important, to be able to hear a friendly voice, talking to you in real time. Personally, and as I’ve said here before, I’m a huge fan of BBC Radio 6 Music, which is broadcast from studios in London and Manchester – in both cases hundreds of miles from my home in Norwich.

That doesn’t matter. This is not about being in the same location, or experiencing the same things – the same weather, say – contemporaneously. But, with 6 Music’s mixture of uplifting tunes and grown-up chat, it absolutely is about knowing that the person fronting the programme is doing it live – that you are listening as he or she is talking; not an hour, a day or a week later.

I can’t explain why this matters – but it really, really does.

Podcasts and box-sets have their place. Prerecorded radio shows have their place too; and 6 Music airs its fair share of those.

But live radio is a friend indeed.

A new civility, thanks to Covid

I’ve always hated officialdom.

Feared it too, on occasions. The apparatus by which government policies are executed (the word doesn’t seem inappropriate). That faceless body of (un)civil servants: pen-pushers, bean-counters, above all cheese-parers, whether at national or local level. Unyielding and unbending – yet, conversely, well able to turn on a sixpence if the rules need to be changed in response to the latest governmental wheeze.

But one positive that has emerged from the current Covid-19 crisis is that – guess what? – our administrative overlords are not so soulless after all.

Moving house, in the teeth of this thing, has been even more nightmarish than it should have been; but my dealings with the local council, over council tax, parking permits and so on, have been (almost) a pleasure.

Ditto communications with national bodies. Unfortunately, for reasons I won’t bore you with I fell through the cracks as regards business grants and the 80%-of-income scheme; and I didn’t (and don’t) want to take out a loan – from the government or anyone else. (I know myself too well!) But my efforts to find out what I was (or in most cases wasn’t) eligible for have been met with empathy – and sympathy, where appropriate.

As I write, we seem to be returning to something like normal – that, or we’re getting used to living our lives according to an altered set of rules. As far as I’m concerned, normality – real, “normal” normality – can’t come soon enough; I’ve missed it, and I want it back. But if a legacy of the pandemic is a kinder, gentler bureaucracy? Well, perhaps that’s one nugget of positivity we can take from a year which, to my mind, has been almost all slurry.

***

Why going back to school is more than going back to school

Talking of normality…

The Department for Education has been getting it in the neck over the last few days for its failure to come up with a fair means of awarding grades for A-level exams that, because of Covid-19, students were unable to sit. A flawed algorithm created by exam regulator Ofqual meant that students’ grades were not just based on their teachers’ recommendations, but on the past performance (according to numerous criteria) of whichever school they attended. The system was manifestly unfair, and the government has belatedly and humiliatingly climbed down.

This government has been slow on the uptake throughout the pandemic, and has made a lot more wrong decisions than right ones. Where I think they are right, however, is in that same department’s insistence that all school-age children should return to school next month.

Because this is not just about our children’s education – vitally important though that is. I believe that one of the reasons that Covid has had such a damaging effect on the nation’s psyche is that it has disrupted what we’re used to as the rhythm of the year. Okay, we might have good years and bad years – as individuals, as families, as a country – but broadly, our 12 months follow a pattern. Sport has a major part to play in this: you may not be interested in football, or tennis, or horseracing – but I bet you know roughly when the FA Cup final is, or Wimbledon, or the Grand National.

There are other markers, too; but “back-to-school” is a biggie. It’s when, with a heavy heart, we pack away the garden furniture and the barbecue, put the roof-rack luggage box back in the attic, and get back to work. Next stop: Christmas.

Of course with the economy apparently tanking so badly many of us may not have work to go back to; I don’t know about that, though I hope that much of the panic is down to media scaremongering. Don’t get me started on that subject…

But what I DO know is that we need structure in our lives; and this year, that – more than loo roll, or pasta, or pulses – has been in seriously short supply.

Moving forward

In 2019, aged 57, I was finally forced to face up to a deep-rooted mental health issue that, in retrospect, had affected my thinking and my conduct for some 40 years. I knew I had to have help; but I also knew from previous experience that the problem – or problems – couldn’t be medicated away. The alternative was therapy.

However, therapy (or counselling if you prefer) costs money. As indeed it should – therapists are professionals, who have undergone rigorous and lengthy training to get where they are. But it was money I didn’t have.

Thank whatever God you believe in, then, for the St Barnabas Counselling Centre. A Norwich-based charity, staffed by qualified counsellors who, for their own altruistic reasons, give both their time and expertise to help folks like me, who pay what they can afford. Folks like you, too, maybe.

I have been attending weekly, one-to-one meetings at St Barnabas (or if not on the premises, under its aegis) for the last eight months. My therapist is both kind and empathic; though these sessions are by no means easy. She is forensic, homing in on details that at the time I’d rather she didn’t – and she will not quit. But the benefits have been, and continue to be, huge. Forty-plus years of bad knitting takes a lot of careful unravelling, but I feel we’ve made, and are making, fantastic progress.

In March 2020 the UK was hit by Covid-19, and our face-to-face meetings were forced to cease, moving instead to an online environment. I was worried that the switch to an online platform would render the sessions less effective; but I needn’t have been. If anything, being able to talk to my therapist from the comfort of my own home, with my own familiar things about me, has made me more open, not less; and while I hope that we can resume our face-to-face sessions as the Coronavirus threat diminishes (don’t get me started on that one), I think a mixture of face-to-face and online may well be the best way forward.

Talking of own homes, another big change.

For personal reasons I left Norfolk, my home county, for Wiltshire in early 2017. Due to my character flaws (the flaws that therapy is in the process of fixing) the new life I’d hoped for didn’t work out. I returned to Norwich last August prepared for a short period of sofa-surfing while we sold the family home.

Twice we had a sale agreed – and twice it fell through. In February this year, a third buyer came forward. After a bit of horse-trading we agreed a price, and began the tortuous process of selling up and buying two (smaller) houses. Conveyancing, as it’s known.

More tortuous even than normal as it turned out, thanks to the pandemic. When lockdown was announced in late March, I may actually have shaken my fist at the heavens; yes, I had erred – but hadn’t I been punished enough? That sofa was getting mighty uncomfortable. Then I checked myself; even my ego is not so colossal as to believe that a deadly virus would be visited upon Planet Earth solely to upset my own personal apple cart.

We finally completed the deal on 3rd July – not far short of a year after I left Wiltshire – and I am now occupying my own home. As I write, the word is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a bid to kickstart the housing market post-Covid, is poised to suspend Stamp Duty on house purchases – which, had he done it sooner, would have saved me £2,300. So thanks for that, Mr Sunak. But hey – at least, at last, I’m in.

How long I’ll stay here I really don’t know. Therapy (which I might add is horrible) might indirectly provide some clarity – although that may be asking too much of it. Once the dust has settled and I’m living my rewired life, I’ll take a view. But (a) my chosen profession is extremely portable – just a laptop and an internet connection, and I’m there – and (b) so, it turns out, is my therapist. The same criteria apply.

Housing aside – a red herring, but I just wanted to vent a little – we all have our own issues, our own personal reasons, for seeking help. The St Barnabas Counselling Centre is with me on my journey towards finally, belatedly, becoming the me I want and need to be. Wherever I’m living.

The financial cost? Affordable. The benefits? Beyond price.

On a journey of rediscovery, post-Covid

The British chapter of the Coronavirus story may be drawing to a close. Or not. But going away for a few days remains a distant dream in the UK; and venturing abroad is set to remain well nigh impossible in practical terms for the foreseeable future.

Two weeks on the Costa del Sol might sound delightful, but it rather loses its appeal when you’re faced with spending a further fortnight in quarantine on your return. Furthermore, unless and until a Covid-19 vaccine is found, or a reliable treatment developed, or we collectively shrug our shoulders and accept the threat of the Coronavirus as something we just have to live with (not inconceivable in the long term, but unlikely in the short), cheap mass overseas tourism is dead in the water. It just can’t happen, the maths doesn’t stack up. If social distancing were to be maintained, planes would have to fly a quarter full: non-viable with ticket prices at current levels, and passengers would be unlikely to swallow a fourfold increase in airfares.

The holiday forecast in Britain doesn’t look much brighter. At the time of writing, people in England are free to drive any distance to other destinations in England, such as beaches and parks, but are not allowed to stay overnight away from home (even if they intend to bed down in a second, owned, property). And we are (rightly) being discouraged from venturing too far afield in any case; beauty spots such as Cornwall and the Lake District – and Norfolk, my own county – do not need visits from potentially Covid-afflicted incomers. We have enough of our own.

Meanwhile, across the nation self-catering cottages, Airbnb properties, campsites, hotels and holiday parks will remain closed until the start of July, at the earliest.

Nonetheless, I think there are grounds for optimism.

My gut feeling is that there is already massive, and still growing, pent-up demand for UK holidays. Four drivers (in no particular order): first, we look to be having a decent summer; second, we’re desperate for a break from our own four walls; third, many people’s circumstances are straitened thanks to furlough and/or redundancy, and staycations are cheaper; and fourth, we can’t go abroad, even if we could afford to or wanted to.

Though there is still a hunger for foreign travel – and I believe it will be possible, but we might need to be more intrepid and inventive than has been the case in recent decades.

Back in the days before wide-bodied aircraft brought cheap transport to the masses, travel was seen as the preserve of the rich; aboard luxurious liners, or as part of the jet set. And that could well become the case once again. But there were ways to get around the globe on the cheap.

And still are. If you can be flexible as to time and destination, why not book passage on a cargo vessel? Most of the major global shipping lines offer paying passengers an opportunity to travel with them. As a paying passenger, you are accommodated in guest cabins and have access to most parts of the ship. This is not a cruise – there’s no nightly cabaret, no boutiques, no health spas, no deck tennis – but spending a week or two on a working ship is a fascinating experience in itself. And you’ll have plenty of room: a definite plus if (by then) you’re still pursuing a self-distancing policy. Predictably in these internet-driven days, a number of freighter travel agencies have sprung up to take the ‘hard work’ out of booking your passage. Thanks but no thanks; you will be much better served, and save a considerable amount of money, by contacting the shipping lines direct.

Meanwhile, with many airlines going to the wall (especially the low-cost no-frills carriers), those that remain will inevitably raise prices – partly to recoup losses, partly because of conditions imposed on them by Covid-19, and partly because of the simple principles of supply and demand. Your job as a traveller is to fight back.

And here’s a weapon for your armoury: I predict the re-emergence of courier flights.

Popular in the 1980s and 1990s as a way to travel the world on a budget, courier flights involved handing over your baggage allowance to, say, Federal Express or TNT (the latter has, I learn, now been taken over by the former), and therefore travelling with hand luggage only, plus a manifest of what was actually taking up your space in the cargo hold. In return for your sacrifice, you got a cheap ticket.

Courier flights died a death in the early noughties. Why? Three reasons. First, 9/11 made carriers super-wary of what they were carrying. Second, air travel became cheaper overall, to the point that there were no longer significant savings to be made. And third, many courier companies – certainly the bigger players – improved their logistics operations (in some cases using their own fleet of aircraft), so that there was no longer a requirement for couriers to be drawn from the ranks of the public.

With Covid-19 still globally rife, it’s too early to say for sure what new economic and communications matrices will establish themselves. But in these stay-at-home days record-busting numbers of letters and parcels are criss-crossing the globe (many ending up at our doors via Hermes, Parcelforce and DPD); and I’m betting demand for that will continue, post-Covid. Which is good news for logistics companies; but I think volumes will be such that, once travel restrictions are lifted, there will be renewed demand for people (on a reduced number of flights, remember) prepared to cede their cargo space in return for reduced airfares.

A Corvid pandemic? Stone the crows

As a writer for hire – latterly a writer for hire by one particular company – I am often called upon to rattle off a piece about wildlife. In recent years I’ve written at length about bird watching in southern Europe; the ongoing revival of the UK’s osprey population (though as a migratory bird, strictly speaking I don’t suppose the osprey is a native of anywhere… sorry, getting off the point); the lizards on the Majorcan island of Sa Dragonera; and especially Britain’s red squirrels, about which I now know more than I ever thought I wanted to.

Now I’m as fond of untamed fauna as the next person; but I wouldn’t say I’m any more fond, if you see what I mean. If asked to submit an article about, say, pine martens in Scotland, I gen up on the subject, submit my 1,000 words, and send off my invoice. Then it’s on to the next thing. The natural world is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

As luck would have it, a short while before this awful virus visited our shores I was doing some background reading on jays and magpies prior to turning in another avifauna article (which has been spiked for the time being). In some ways the success of both is a non-story: neither is endangered, in fact if anything numbers are on the increase thanks to both human activity and the birds’ willingness to share breeding territories. But common as they may be, they are lovely to look at and surely undeserving of their associations with the malign and the sinister.

Anyway there I was, making notes… one of which was the fact that the two birds belonged to the crow family. Corvidae. Corvids.

What a difference an ‘r’ makes. As pandemic-related rumours coalesced and became news, I spent at least a week prey to the delusion that we were facing an altogether more Hitchcockian nightmare.

Compared to which the novel Coronavirus is… well… chicken-feed. Strictly for the birds.

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Bubble etiquette: a minefield in the making

As (please God) we Brits approach the end of our nationwide lockdown, or as our government at least begins to think about exit strategies, there is talk on the BBC website (and probably elsewhere) about expanding the “social bubble”: ie the friends and family one is permitted to see and spend time with while (as I understand it) NOT observing the two-metre distancing rule.

With the caveat that nobody knows anything: I expect bubble expansion to start sometime in May. I hope so, anyway.

But someone pointed out that it could be a bit awks. What if, for instance, I wanted to expand my social bubble to include you, but you didn’t want to include me in yours? Or vice versa? “Sorry – I’m only allowed 10 people in my social circle, so I’ve chosen the folk I really like. And you’re not one of them.”

Tricky.

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Taking freedoms for granted? Not any more

Nothing like depriving you of something to make you realise how much you miss it, is there?

Shopping, food shopping especially, has always been a chore. An unavoidable, wallet-lightening once-a-week trip to Lidl or Aldi (plus Waitrose for posh). When the big supermarkets started doing home deliveries it felt like liberation.

Not any more. Right now I would no more book a home delivery than fly to the moon. Have groceries delivered and miss a chance to leave the house? Only a hermit, an anchorite or a misanthrope would consider that a preferable option.

Similarly, I’ve never been particularly exercised by the need to exercise; but now my freedom of movement has been curtailed, I’m out there with the best of them. My location of choice is the local cemetery: two large, open areas bisected by a main road. A full, walking lap of both takes almost exactly an hour, and is almost exactly 10,000 steps.

I’m getting to know the place pretty well. I wouldn’t say I’ve unearthed all its secrets – but I know where the bodies are buried.

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