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And you may ask yourself... where does that highway go to?

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March 2020

Once in a lifetime...

I’ve been thinking about how, last Christmas, if I had somehow magically been able to talk to myself 3 months in the future, the conversation might have gone like this. December Me: “So... I mean, how is it? Is there panic-buying? Is there a palpable fear of society grinding to a halt?” March Me: “Oh yes.” December Me: “Really? Shit — really?! So Hard Brexit really is that bad?!!” March Me: “Oh, no, not Brexit! No, we’re all a bit nostalgic for Brexit actually...” December Me: “...?” March Me: “No... it’s the global pandemic. Remember the Spanish Flu of 100 years ago? Well yeah, it’s a bit like that.” December Me: “OH YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING SHITTING ME.”

And I don't want to start off on too much of a bummer here, because who needs that right now, but the World Trade Centre bombings, the Iraq war, the Financial Crisis, the government surveillance programmes leaked by Edward Snowden, the Trump and Brexit elections... over the last 20 years it has felt like a pretty steady downward spiral. But the curious thing is that to me they all felt sort of connected. Each crisis seemed to open a door for the next one.

The COVID-19 pandemic definitely feels to me like the Next Fucking Thing in a long line of Terrible Things. But it doesn’t feel like it was caused by those previous problems. Yes, sure, governments should have been preparing for a global pandemic, and should have put $10,000,000s into building systems to handle it. But the thing is... the world has been on fire for a while now. With Climate Change looming in the background like the frozen zombie army from Game of Thrones. If you’d asked December Me if investing tens of millions into pandemic prevention was a good idea I imagine I would have said: “Sure, at some point...”

Now we're in a very different place, and for the first time in a long time there seems to be a certain amount of camaraderie amongst the crisis. Whole continents are in lockdown, with citizens confined to their houses unless absolutely necessary. We’re basically in a state of 'Total War', only the enemy is a virus. And we’re fighting not with ammunition but with social distancing. Other than that, it’s government emergency powers, and entire countries’ employment patterns derailed, and prioritising supply lines, and establishing who key workers are, and marshalling volunteers...

It’s this surreal, almost comedic situation where we are serving our communities and ‘doing our bit’ by... not leaving the house. I saw a tweet by Snoop Dogg that said “Your grandparents were called to war. You’re being called to sit on a couch. You can do this.” So here we are.

And yet, as ever, our experiences will vary dramatically. Once again, I feel I’m incredibly lucky (so far at least). H & I have been saying “I’m SO glad it’s you I’m under house arrest with!” to each other over and over again. Only Zora the cat seems to have succumbed to cabin fever.

But I know people at work, with kids, who have the disease now. I also know so many people who are desperately trying to stop their income from slipping through the holes in the government safety net. And then, of course, there’s my father, in his 80s, already in poor health, still recovering from a serious lung problem. I'm sure that’s a very common concern around the world right now.

I hope you, dear reader, are okay. If you’re living by yourself, or if you’re very concerned about where the money is going to come from, or if you’re particularly at risk with this disease, there are communities of people out there who want to help you!

This can be hard if your internet connection is limited, but even then, going outside and talking to someone (from a safe distance) might put you in touch with community volunteers who can provide support in lots of ways. Really, people want to help!

And if there’s no one, seriously, get in touch with me. I have time, and resources, and I can help to find solutions. Or I can even just listen, if there’s no one around right now to do that.

And for anyone who is clutching for a positive message from all of this, I feel like I have one. And it needs to be weighted against the fact that the COVID-19 disease has killed, is killing and will almost certainly continue to kill many many people, so I don't want to understate that. But the thing is... wars change societies. They change societies by inflicting tragedy on a grand scale, obviously, but they can also change them for the better.

For example, they force governments to invest in grand infrastructure projects that they otherwise wouldn't... couldn't even, because the media outcry would be too loud.

Take flying boats.

What Happened To Giant Flying Boats? The Saunders-Roe Princess Story

This is a video I stumbled on yesterday. I had no idea (did you?) that before World War 2 it seemed likely that air travel would mainly be made by giant flying boats, that were like ocean liners, with restaurants, and... a promenade?! Sea planes seemed like the obvious form of transport, because they could land on any large body of water. You didn't need to make runways for them, and therefore take up huge chunks of urban real estate in making airports. You could just use maritime infrastructure.

But airports were built all over the world during World War 2 for military planes, and after the war that infrastructure was transferred to civilian use. And from that point on, the bottom line made land planes more economically viable.

Now okay, this is perhaps a bad example, because we lost giant flying boats, and if you don't think giant flying boats sound amazing then I don't know how to help you. And yes, this led to more air travel which is a big climate change problem.

But (a) I thought this video was cool, and was going to sneak it into this newsletter no matter what, and (b) you could throw in advances in computers, communications, encryption... it forced the development of technology that has become essential in solving our everyday problems.

And then, of course, there's the example of how societies can become more integrated. How their attitudes to outsiders change, because their attitudes to their own identities change.

Here's something else I've been watching recently: a Netflix documentary in which 5 current Hollywood directors (Steven Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Greengrass and Francis Ford Coppola) tell the story of 5 Old Hollywood directors (William Wyler, Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Ford and John Huston) who signed up to help the US Armed Forces make propaganda films in World War 2.

This is the trailer. It's cheesy, and makes it look overblown and daft, but that's what trailers do.

Five Came Back | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix

From this documentary we learn a number of things. We learn that William Wyler was a badass, and John Huston was an annoying Hollywood brat.

But there's one thing I found particularly fascinating. These Old Hollywood directors were still (broadly speaking) wielding massive egos, and each of them wanted to release their documentaries to the public so they could win lots of Oscars, even if their military supervisors felt that would mess with the war effort. To begin with, the directors were trying every trick in the book to get critical acclaim and, above all, good box office.

But there comes a point where a junior director in John Ford's film unit decides to go rogue. He's been sent to a Pacific island to show how the troops have been coping with battle. And he decides to extend the half hour film he's tasked with into a full feature, and he fleshes it out with racist speeches and caricatures against the Japanese.

John Ford goes to the island to check up on him, and is shocked. Ford promptly takes over, and cuts it back to half an hour, removes the racist sections, and instead focuses on the reality of the soldiers' lives.

Because, according to this Five Came Back documentary, by this point in the war those five Old Hollywood film directors had sussed out what the American public really wanted to see.

They wanted to see the truth. They wanted an accurate, realistic picture of what was actually happening. They didn't want to be told what to think. They might have accepted being fed opinions (particularly entertaining ones) before the war when they were busy with their jobs and their families, but now this was serious, and they were engaged and paying attention.

Times of national emergency can be very challenging for those who gain power by peddling fear. Because suddenly everyone stops listening. Suddenly the public only cares what those on the front line think, and if your information is unreliable it will just be ignored.

Another example. There are almost unimaginably vast fortunes to be made from privatising and asset-stripping the NHS, but that project is going to be impossible for at least a year. Which brave politician is going to speak out against the infrastructure that citizens have been standing outside their quarantine homes and applauding into the night sky? (And also, there are many events in the upper class English social calendar that billionaires wouldn't be caught dead missing — but without an NHS they might literally die from attending.)

The campaigns of hate and fear that we have seen grow worldwide over the last couple of decades take time to build up momentum. Every day that the COVID-19 pandemic lasts, that momentum ebbs away...

Perhaps that's being overly optimistic? Yeah, perhaps. Certainly, a quick scroll through Twitter would suggest that. But tweets only get retweeted if they are unusually funny, unusually outrageous, unusually inspiring or unusually informative. Probably in that order. And so by definition Twitter is pretty much the polar opposite of a balanced view of what is actually happening.

For me at least, as someone who has been following British politics for pretty much all my adult life, seeing the following statement from prime minister Boris Johnson in a BBC newsletter yesterday is a big deal. Whatever the reasons for it might be, a Conservative prime minister choosing a moment of national emergency to bring Margaret Thatcher's 'anti-socialism' stance into the conversation, purely to say she was wrong, suggests a profound shift in the political climate.

At a national level, crises can reshape how life is lived. They can also do it on a personal level.

We all tend to lead lives that don't allow us to stop. We have careers we need to pursue. We have families to look after. We don't want to be bored. Even when we take a break we are Taking A Break: ideally to a specific exotic destination, with a specific itinerary, with specific books to read and a specific kind of relaxation to experience.

But an enforced pause like we're in now tends to be the sort of time when we have experiences and develop skills that shape us as people for the rest of our lives.

I've had a number of experiences where it has felt like life has suddenly come crashing to a stop. The time at school when a girl had an allergic reaction, went into anaphylaxis, and the school nurse couldn’t save her. She died within an hour. And the whole school came to a halt. There was the time when I dropped out of university, and then pretty much the rest of life, to look after my mother's health. The time I had a serious spiral of depression in my mid-twenties. The time I broke up with my last girlfriend, and went to live by myself on a houseboat far away from everyone. And also, a couple of years ago, the time when I gave up my day job to focus more on music, and found myself sick with chronic fatigue, and in another spiral of depression and ill health.

It's curious: each time I went through one of these experiences, the same few song lyrics would come into my head. "Into the blue again, after the money's gone... once in a lifetime... there is water underground..."

It seemed to express that feeling, of suddenly being cast out of your own life, out into the wide blue sky or blue sea. Having lost everything, but also being able to choose a new direction to go in. And all the while, there are forces bubbling far beneath you, that you are aware of but have no control over. Grief, but also hope. A dawning sense of clarity. Being open to new possibilities.

I'm hoping that this might be what society, or at least parts of society, might be going through. I'm hoping it might signal a casting aside of outdated beliefs, and a new confidence that we can fight these things and we can win.

And hey, of course, it might not. Things may continue on that downward spiral. "Here the twister comes... here comes the twister..." But even if does, I think we're getting pretty battle-hardened now. And it's not like we're all passive spectators here, powerless to affect any change.

At some point, things will return to normal. A new normal. For anyone that isn't firefighting right now, this really is a rare opportunity to shape what that normal is going to be.

Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime LIVE Los Angeles '83

P.S. Mental Health Tips
from Pandemic Experts!

Mental Health Tips from People Who've Been There

Almost forgot to share these tips on how to maintain mental health while social distancing in a pandemic, from charity Partners In Health via author/YouTuber John Green. I've been finding them really useful. Quick summary:

  1. Social distancing does not mean emotional distancing; use technology to connect widely;
  2. Clear routines and schedule, seven days a week, at home—don’t go overboard;
  3. Exercise and physical activity, daily if possible;
  4. Learning and intellectual engagement: books, reading, limited internet;
  5. Positive family time—working to counter negativity;
  6. Alone time, outside if possible, but inside too; but remember, don’t isolate;
  7. Focused meditation and relaxation;
  8. Remember the things that you really enjoy doing, that you can do in this situation, and find a way to do them;
  9. Limit exposure to TV and internet news; choose small windows and then find ways to cleanse yourself of it;
  10. Bathe daily, if possible, to reinforce the feeling of cleanliness.

Ask me things

I'm really bad at asking for people for help, but if you're feeling overwhelmed at the moment, now might be a great time to approach old friends and close family on social media, or over the phone, and just talk things through.

And again, if no one springs to mind right now, just get in touch with me by clicking on of those buttons below. It may seem like an uncomfortable thing to do, but that's often because it's the courageous thing to do.

Although my caffeine intake is way up right now, so if I seem a bit hyperactive, that's probably why.

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  • Click on the images to see the originals. (It just means less admin for me this way.)
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