The New Normal

What the fuck? The new? New, new, new what? Normal? Fuck no! Are you seriously telling me this is new? What, we weren’t governed by a bunch of self entitled, public school, ‘man of the people’ wannabees before this? No, and they couldn’t run a sack race or world beating track and trace before this either, yeah. This is not a revelation to me. Or you, I’m thinking, at least if you have a grasp on whether it’s Sunday or not and who Meghan Markle isn’t?

And have you heard it’s a virus that effects the poor, old, under classed, vulnerable, and ethnically other than white wealthy worse? What are the chances of that eh? Exactly, nothing abnormal or radical or different about this shite. So new that it’s no surprise. It’s exactly what it was before, the old unchanging order. Because, lets face it, the odds have been stacked breathtakingly high against the usual suspects for ever.

The only new is that that bunch of no marks are too incompetent to have worked out how to really squeeze the rest us of yet, even if their incompetent management is ensuring that those with least to lose are losing most. But don’t worry. they soon will have found a way of dodging the bullet – by using the rest of us as a human shield – even if Dominic Bummings and Dido Hardarse do decide to return to producing limp dance music. Because, while they are apparently very bright and see the real picture, they don’t exactly seem to be having the required surgical impact on the virus. They’re not the antidote. You need to worry though. You need to fire your fluffy little minds up about this, because their masters and mistresses are not up to the task of articulating a short sentence let alone killing the new cancer that is consuming our weakened corpse just as they throw away the EU drip.

In the Queue

In the seventies we used to be sniffy about queues. They were an Eastern Block thing. Behind the iron curtain you’d queue to buy anything; everything had it’s own queue.  A successful purchase could lift the spirits for the week. Pavlov has got wodka; he managed to swap his wife for two bottles, and his little Micha is queuing in Gdansk – for what, she doesn’t know – but we’re bound to need it by the time she arrives at the front. Oh, how we laughed at the foolish communists. Why queue for a Trabant?

Who’s laughing now eh? We got some lovely garden furniture and slug pellets. We were queuing for filler and paint, but you’ve got to take what’s available. It isn’t just shopping either: we now queue virtually as well and, frequently, without a clear objective in mind. Yes, I now understand online means you’re in the queue. It’s weird: I keep finding myself in the waiting mode – buying a ticket, logging in and then waiting in zoom. Time has changed. Anyone would have expected lockdown to make it less relevant. I mean, people are frequently working from home – they can do it in their pyjamas and, probably, whenever they like, but wifi has even inserted a queue there – because everytime you wait while the screen freezes or buffers, you are essentially back in a queue. My youngest gets up every Tuesday at dawn to get a place on the supermarket ‘merry go round’. Whatever we are, wherever we go, we are infront of someone and behind someone, and we don’t really know what we’ll be getting.

You can see it way off. The outriders on the hill down to the junction, along to the gates to the retail car park, and then the extended spiral that allows for social distancing, and on. But do take a trolley before you start, oh, and a novel, script, bottle of water, sandwiches – and always a sense of humour. Oh, you may as well dispense with the list, or at least write it whilst you wait, because, by the time you get there, you are going to be a different person, and stuff you thought you were buying may not be what you leave with.

Happy queuing!

The Plot

It’s been tidier, everywhere, here. I mean, normally they encroach on any area of vulnerability, the small, frail, tender and new. Anything emergent. This was seen as usual until recently. We have the new normal, the aged, depleted and compromised, and like before it is often someone we could identify if we ever saw them or spoke to them, types who are more likely to suffer. But in the main people have been put away, stored for their own good, shielded; we’ve been obedient, compliant and safe. But there are still junctions that allow us to fraternise. That’s what the plot is, an edge, a vantage point, a hide?  Where we can look.

Like any point that can be occupied, it has a defined area and edges, although faces might be more visual. These surround the centre of the plot and can be defined, or limited or, apparently, infinite. At least your eye could just keep travelling infinitely upward, but be under no illusion – the plot has limits. For a start, you can only really see things one way. When you look at something, you’re not looking at something else. Or is that a limitation in us and not the plot? I guess how this limitation changes us could only really be tested if we were like, maybe, ducks, with eyes on the side of our heads, or maybe the compound eye of a fly or nine eyes in or across our back. Anyway, within the plot, we are with our two eyes placed in parallel mounted on the front of our face giving us stereoscopic vision, and we have the element of time allowing for movement. Particularly rotation – the capacity to look different ways and then remember what we’ve seen before. But do we remember, or does what we see in the immediate downgrade our memory? Should I have asked this?

Because where we are now in the plot? Our plot seems quite overwhelming. I’m engaged with a cone of experience that projects from me. I move, it moves, the world shimmies. Suddenly I have neighbours. How do they operate? Do we speak? Do I engage? Do we both? When we do engage, it seems better to me – at least richer. I watch them unfold, and, if they engage with me, we find ourselves dancing, shadowing, allowing. Some information sticks: his face, how I placed my tools? Where they’re from? But not their name or the distance thing. Did I step too close? When they’ve moved on, I am no longer engaged, but I construct them. He: big head almost as wide as his shoulders, quilted jacket, curly hair, eyes like black olives, teacher, political, funny. She: scatty, frizzy ball on a cone. Arms gesticulating, jointed? Teacher, geography, Tallis, thinks she had the virus. Agree on everything with them or at least everything we say.

The dances with other neighbours are different, but the scorecards reveal after the event.

A phrase:

’Work in telly’ and I’m split. Part of me says.

’What does he do?’ Yeah he looks like an editor. Another part continues to weed and dig the border. I don’t ask for detail, just as I don’t ask her is she scared? Because I know it puts me in the wrong territory. I must not be too interested. We are allowed to compare our plots, but with self critical amusement and irony, and without actually saying what we think. He is jumpy, small head, suspicious, thinks I’m going to be too close to his beloved. She, girlish, frail, dry dark humoured, has the air of not-quite-dead crow, road kill, limping but bright-eyed and sharp, able to forage and possibly exaggerating her gait. Her mask is medical grade, not cheap disposable, no full PPE filter. She takes pride in it.

The newbies, one man and his puppet child, clearly get in everything including the way. He feints inexperience. But clearly does it by the book. Each day he leaves a neat illustration from the Readers Digest Home Garden Manual, down to the fork and sacking bookend. As the weeks pass, his master plan emerges: bamboo palaces, pyramids and teepees, dust surrounding de-potted seedlings, bought already striving.

The plots surround and jostle for attention. Further back, they fall into types; the diggers, the builders, the ornamentalists and then the warden.

He who watches. His plot immaculate, admired. Everyone knows his name. He decides: strimmer or not? Tidy your plot border. Even an email reminding us not to allow those from other households on our plot, because it had come to his attention that someone was bringing visitors to the site. Yes, and avail yourself of the sanitiser, with rigour to hands and handles, at the beginning of your time with us and at the end.

Secretly, his perfection rubs me up the wrong way. I intentionally choose to plant my plot without a rectangular grid. My planted areas include curves, and I frequently deviate from the mono cultured rows. Every little poke gives me a little more pleasure, and I hope he somehow knows it and resents it.

Ian Macnaughton,

 

 

 

Many Diminishing Returns

It’s not helped by the weather.  I mean, it’s definitely that time when you start thinking about getting away.  Dawn chorus is actually getting louder; maybe it’s just the contrast.  I mean, there’s nothing happening.

Anyway, that’s the time for me.  We always used to set off then.  Car was packed, evening before, and then we’d eat something.  And I mean something; Mum was always thrifty – Dad said ‘Mean.’  So, whatever was left in the fridge was cooked and eaten, then off to bed, too excited to sleep.  Eyes shut, make it pass quicker, then woken by my dad saying “Shhhh, it’s time.”  We’d dress in that curious garb only worn for holidays.  Dad’s weird trousers that had zips just above the knees so they converted into badly fitting shorts.  Then downstairs without breakfast, off through the empty streets.  How long before we see another vehicle?

Like now.  The rumble behind all the other sounds is gone.  But we are still waiting to go away, to escape, to be released, for the summer, vacation, va-ca-tion?

Well it seems more vacant than a holy day.  I mean, the next step is unlikely to be a celebration.  It is not a return.  The new normal is not so easy to shed; it has to be tailored to fit the circumstances.  We’ve not been here before, and this journey is not a reversal – more a gradual course adjustment, a slight curve.  People say ‘when it’s over’ but can it be?  Over the horizon perhaps?  Which means we might glimpse further ahead.  Are we there yet?  Yes, we’re always there.  Is there a real ‘us’? Maybe the immediate household.

The family has, for some, returned to staycation; children are suddenly familiar with family.  For some, this will be a positive discovery; for others it will be ‘domestic.’  For some, it will be duty or servitude as carers; for others solitary ‘lives in parallel.’  Our main community is. in many cases. now digital and is itself fragmented.

So, which ‘us’ are they briefing?  Who is in it together?  The death rate among the solitary and the marginal has risen, the rest shunted into a virtual world in which social relations are through a screen, muffled, partial, and easily monitored.  Does this contribute to a sense of disempowerment; of being done unto?  It might be a contributory factor to recent rise in active protest.  Is that where ‘we’ need to be next?

Dear You

I remember the first time I saw you. The light haloed you. What do they call it? An aura? Yeah, you had something about you. Something that drew me in. I knew I wanted to …. not to question but know, know you. Not like an address book, no I wanted to understand what makes you tick, at a molecular level, (chuckles). I wanted to be close to you. Yes you were beautiful, different, easy to look at, fit, elegant, nothing overstated, something drew me. Maybe your taste, I’m sorry, is this too much? Curiosity killed the cat. Or maybe the Cat had nine lives?

So I surveyed you. I’m not one to leap in. I like to know my locale. I’d find a comfortable position in the middle of the class. Part of your inner circle. I start to know you, through them. The neat way you take in the world, your habitat, the community? You are a warm, reliable, person. Not one who needs to see themselves liked by social media; a people person, touchy feely, a hugger; people feel they can rely on you, and you smell good. Not cheaply floral, no, broad, sweetly herbal, maybe spice and a healthy scent of exercise. I wanted to be immediate to you. The thought of being confined with you tickled me; in a warm closet or airing cupboard, dry and warm, intimate, shared breath, I can still feel your heat, smell your hair, taste your constrained breath. Your body frames mine. Clasping together. Your brother searches having reached ten. I was still small, too small to be taken seriously. But I meant it. Even then I was feeling it and it would only get stronger. But I had to bottle it. I, in the …. past, well, I suppose I’ve been too obvious, wooden, gauche. To win you, it had to seem like your victory. Otherwise you might think I was a stalker.

I love you. I don’t mean in a half hearted flirtatiously attached sort of way. Not dalliance, not a teasing exchange. You make me complete. I no longer imagine going places without you. You’re long term. Not just a travelling companion. In you I’ve seen myself. I can see our potential. You embody it. I commit to you fully.

But what do I get in response? Fear, I can taste it. The way you distance yourself. Not just slyly relocating the table tent at the meeting so as to avoid being my neighbour. No, excusing yourself from events, soirees, involving our mutual friends, always a reason, not a school day, migraine, need to catch that train and look, they can all see it. They know we fit together. Complimentary flavours, primary colours in our social palette. But you don’t buy it. Anyone would think I was toxic, I just need to be close. I’m not asking for conscious commitment. Choice is irrelevant. Our willing compliance is unnecessary. Our connection is fundamental. It seems trite to say we’re made for each other.

An item; we have a future; potential to make something simply beautiful. So this change in your behaviour, this cruelty will not go unanswered. I’m afraid, or rather I’m not. To be brutal is a mark of my passion. It’s all or everything. You can’t just cut me. I know where you are. How you behave and how to exploit your instinct. Take a long hard look at yourself and reconsider. Because I’m resilient, persistent and patient.

C

Viral Times

Deliverance it said.

I have been reading. I mean I do read especially if I’m waiting. For a delivery. You become very aware of time. When I’m logged on, when I’m not. You find yourself kind of quantifying your day by how long and how much; like your score.

Anyway, back to what I was saying. I am part cyborg. Or rather we all are. I read somewhere that increasingly we’re kind of fused with our gadgets. Actually it’s not gadgets as a term – I mean, it sounds like they’re toys – but it’s more than that, and anyway they aren’t toys. In fact if I was talking toys, we’re the toys, or, rather, we feel like toys, as though we’re toyed with. You know – the ones the baby suddenly throws out.

Thrown out, or, rather, dropped; it’s like, I imagine, a bungee jump. You’re falling through life, I don’t know, eating breakfast or digging the garden? And suddenly, ’ding dong,’ it chimes. You’re yanked upward or out of it, delivery! And then it’s like, not exactly panicky, just fiddly – laces, pulling the fleece or jacket or maybe even waterproofs on, faffing but only until you’re on the bike, and the phone is mounted on the handlebars, then it goes smoother as your legs kick in, a change of gear. Almost like film being reversed, because you don’t feel completely there; still tasting the eggs.

From there on you can see yourself doing the routine: showing the number, standing back, social distancing, offer the bag, zipping up and back on the bike. Your senses are attuned to the information on the road. Your mind is elsewhere – maybe back at home, or maybe asking will there be another delivery after this. Until you get to the address, when you complete; then you’re back biking it home or ding dong again. This happens whenever you’re logged in; when it doesn’t happen you feel disappointed, because you’re not earning, and when it does you feel disappointed, because you have to sever yourself.

Anyway, reading: this journalist said that technology is becoming more integrated with our lives and work and that algorithms are increasingly ‘making the big decisions.’. He talks about a crisis in liberal democracy. That it has lost its way. It’s becoming less humane: the poor are getting poorer, the one percent are getting richer and governments increasingly are incapable of protecting the interests of the less well off. He says that we are just expected to behave -in particular ways that we’re nudged to, that the market is seen as the highest good, and human beings are no longer special, in themselves, but only ‘big data’ – just a herd whose behaviour can be nudged into particular directions. Technology is part of that. We kind of fit in with it. Not just the web, no, but everything. Social media, it kind of extends us; we live through it but it actually uses us. The power of it for those who own it is big, big data.

And I kind of get that. I do deliveries to people: they pay for food delivery, and we jump, and it is delivered. We are, notionally, clients engaged in a relationship, a business relationship with the company or more specifically the App. We have a very defined part to play, or be played. We do the moving, the physical part. We can say no, but then there’s always the question, will we get another? Will our stats count against us? It’s like sin, karma. Anyway, we don’t really have a choice if we want to get paid; we say yes, and then we do it. We behave by doing the action that they specify. Then we are rewarded. Our fees are increased – not our pay, because we’re not really employed. They invoice us to tell us how much we are receiving.

We are that thing – the zero hours contract thing. All they expect from us is to behave in a particular way, and if we get lucky we get sustenance. But it is quite fickle, the App; it’s an arbitrary god. At least it feels like that. One day it’s all milk and honey: tips galore, short runs, short waits and doubles. You are cooking on gas. But then, will you still love me tomorrow? Clearly, all too often the answer is no. The next day, week or fortnight is a regular desert, with skeletons littering it. Your mind starts playing with you. When it’s going smooth you think you’ve mastered the App.
If I only accept doubles, or short ones or long ones before six, then I will make enough. But the App has no charity. Because then you spend night after night not delivering. Every passing ‘ped’ is someone else receiving blessings, but you’re fated to die. The system always twists the knife. So the App is a cruel, capricious god. Just like the old gods. Just as you feel blessed, a bird shits in your mouth.

Now someone must have coded that, or made it a feature, because there are definite red letter days, and each rider has them and they rarely coincide. It all seems calculated to keep you guessing, hoping that today will be the day. Maybe it’s a behavioural nudge.

He who wrote the book says we can make one powerful choice, that is to refuse. He sees these moments of refusal as the significant moments. He even goes back to the old gods. Apparently the end of the persecution of Christians within the Roman Empire, and the empire’s subsquent adoption of Christianity, came about as people gave up on the daily performance of rituals in temples to those old gods. People recognised that the routine sacrifice and repeated offerings given actually made no difference to the run of fate. The character of the gods in legend and myth was frequently cruel and despotic, as though the storyteller was trying to explain their indifference to the lives of their worshippers.

The algorithms of the gig are similarly disinterested. Nothing moves them other than wealth accrued. The system similarly relies upon a stunted belief that human needs can be easily met by a greasy morsel presented by an economic inferior, kept in line by a system that favours any who own, and that promises a ladder of improvement to those who buy into acquiring first, a bike and then, a moped with all attendant insurance and security paraphernalia – those willing to submit to the futility of chasing the next good day. This all presented as the nature of the world. It is a line that cannot be questioned. The owners have always owned, and everyone needs to be driven by hunger and need. I wonder how, if ever, the rejection of the old gods can ever be echoed by a similar refusal to labour for such meagre reward?

Maybe the virus has created a window through which another vista is visible? It has certainly created a moment. A kind of sustained pause, a buffering point, at which our frantic ritual travel seems more intensely futile. Against the static painted backdrop, we plunge through the night – only the ambulances have similar urgency – every time the notification chimes. Our status as ‘key workers’ has risen. People frequently tip us and comment upon our service to them and the community. Strangely, this kindness of strangers throws the austere fees we receive from the App into sharp relief. This all occurs in a moment when the economy is faltering, economic activity largely halted.

This gap is less bridgeable for some. Many are living on borrowed time. Reserves are stretched. Disposable income is no more. Some who hoard wealth can sit back on their haunches and wait to pick the carcass clean. But we can all make a decision to not be bound by this, to not deliver. To not accept property as the rule. Eat the food you were to deliver. Insist that hoarded wealth in offshore havens pays out and is redeployed. Bankers bail society out rather than the reverse.

The writer I refer to as ‘journalist’, is Paul Mason, who’s book ‘Clear Bright Future’ I highly recommend.

Ian Macnaughton

Ian is an actor, writer and Deliveroo courier who lives in London.