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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.

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.

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.

Conflicted by Covid

As recently as 14th/15th March, with the (now not-so-novel) Coronavirus establishing itself as “a thing” in the UK, the clouds gathering, the virus making itself felt in our daily lives, I’ll admit I felt scared. Anxious.

It wasn’t Covid-19 itself that worried me – I may get it, I may have already had it, and at just turned 58 and healthy I’m not very high-risk.

What I feared was societal breakdown. Already fractured by the shift to “online” and the agonies of Brexit, society, I reasoned, would be totally rent asunder by the weight of this latest onslaught. Cue the apocalypse. Anarchy. Survivors going feral. Shooting each other for a mouldy loaf of bread.

These are still relatively early days, but it seems I was wrong. While some news media need to take a long, hard look at themselves, much of the reporting (to date, anyway) has, to my mind, been measured, factual and non-sensationalist. (Though maybe you just need to know where to look.) And BBC Radio 6 Music has been nothing short of superb: a national radio station pulling off the neat trick of sounding like a local one, and somehow pulling a disparate nationwide listenership together with just the right mix of levity, concern, genuine warmth and great tunes.

Furthermore, my social-media feeds are full of positivity – which I did not anticipate. Ideas for how we can all help each other. Stories of how many of us – individuals, charities, businesses – already are.

I had expected people to run for the hills and pull up their drawbridges. (And to mix their metaphors, clearly.) What I hadn’t expected was a rebirth, a rejuvenation, of society, of community.

God, doesn’t it do the heart good?

But it’s not all upbeat. As I write, my brother lies seriously ill in our local general hospital, the Norfolk & Norwich (AKA the N&N), having suffered a perforated gall bladder 12 days ago.

He was taken to hospital on 15th March with severe abdominal pain, examined, and… sent home. Indigestion, that was the verdict.

The pain didn’t go away, but rather intensified. Forty-eight hours later he was properly admitted – and has since been on a course of serious antibiotics to fight the infection that the ruptured gall bladder, missed two days previously, has since caused; the latter cannot be excised until the infection has been beaten.

My brother’s wife has been able to visit. The rest of us, rightly, have been prevented from visiting because of the Coronavirus, but have been assured that he was “responding well” to the antibiotics.

That message now appears to have been stretching things a bit. The night before last he went into renal failure. Kidney function in a man of his age (68) and general state of health should be between 60% and 70%.

His was 3%.

A cannula was fitted to deliver essential fluids – and fell out. Despite repeated requests it remained unfixed throughout the night of 25th/26th March. So my brother set his phone to sound an alarm at 15-minute intervals; every quarter-hour, the whole night long, he woke himself up and forced himself to drink. It was the only way to stay hydrated, and alive. It is my belief that he is still with us only because of his own grim determination.

The latest news is that the N&N is likely to discharge him today. Not because he’s recovered, far from it; but because were he to contract Covid in his present condition it would definitely kill him; and the chances of coming into contact with it are increasing by the minute. The hospital is close to being overrun with the virus.

The National Health Service is a magnificent institution, of which we should be hugely proud; and right now NHS personnel are justly winning plaudits for their unceasing care and commitment. The NHS has its hands full dealing with Covid; we know that, and we make allowances.

But that doesn’t mean the organisation shouldn’t be called out when mistakes occur. A misdiagnosis is a misdiagnosis, and poor treatment is poor treatment.

To some extent of course, my brother is, tangentially, a Covid casualty; but in at least equal measure, he has been a victim of diagnostic ineptitude. Had his condition been correctly identified in the first place, when the N&N was not unduly busy, he would have been admitted on the Sunday, undergone surgery on the Monday, and discharged on the Tuesday: way before the virus made any real impact – in Norfolk as a county, never mind its central general hospital.

Instead of which, he faces an uncertain future. Self-isolation at home; weeks, possibly months, on antibiotics and a restricted diet; frequent visits from community healthcare professionals (when resources are already stretched); and at the end of all that, probably readmission for surgery when it’s considered safe (though gall bladders have been known to fix themselves). Self-isolation might be de rigueur for many of us at present anyway, but the rest would have been largely avoidable had the problem been correctly identified in the first place.

All of which is a bit long and rambly. I guess I’m conflicted, really. It is surely heartening to see (and be part of) the overwhelmingly positive outpouring of fellow-feeling that has overtaken the nation; and generally, our National Health Service has been, and continues to be, beyond amazing. But the NHS that is rightly winning across-the-board plaudits for the fantastic job they’re doing caring for Covid patients is the selfsame NHS whose misdiagnosis/negligence came close to killing my beloved brother. One to chew on.

Coronavirus: dry cough, fever, shortness of breath… and, as it turns out, cognitive dissonance.

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