1. An update on life under the Covid-19 lockdown conditions

    Posted March 27, 2020 in covid19, Diary  |  No Comments so far

    It’s nearly two weeks since I posted “Asda on the Edge of the Apocalypse“, in which I described a visit to Asda. I held back from describing the atmosphere of that weekend as “weird”, because…

    …while this weekend might seem like a weird phase today, it might not seem weird at all by next weekend… Next weekend might present us with a new understanding of what counts as “weird”.

    Well, it’s hardly an understatement to say that it’s got weirder since then. During that weekend – the weekend of 14th-15th March – almost everything was happening. My son’s parkour and swimming classes were running. People weren’t queuing outside supermarkets.

    Yes, Apple had only just closed its stores outside of mainland China, so when in Westfield we saw a line of staff outside the Apple store; presumably to inform customers about the closure, though if I saw them now I’d think they were there to fend off looters. And yes, the supermarkets had sold out of toilet roll and painkillers, and Superdrug was limiting the amount of painkillers a single customer could buy. That was enough to make me toy with the idea of using the word “weird” to describe what was going on that weekend.

    But writing today, nearly two weeks on, I can say that it really wasn’t weird. If you drew a line with what I’ll call a “normal state of life” at one end and the way things are now, at the weekend of 28th-29th March, at the other end, that day when Apple stores had shut wouldn’t be halfway along it. It would be far closer to the “normal state of life” end.

    Here’s a subjective account of what happened between when we went to Asda and now. I’ve written this just from memory rather than using Google.

    Monday 17th March

    By this time the UK government denied “herd immunity” was its strategy. This might have been the time that Boris Johnson started giving direct daily updates – up until then ministers had been communicating policy through anonymous briefings to favoured journalists. I was working from home by this point but schools were still open.

    Wednesday 18th March

    Rumours were flying around that school closures were imminent. Some kids were being kept home due to their families self-isolating, but, more materially, some teachers had started to self-isolate too, so schools were increasingly concerned about their staffing levels. At this point the government was saying you and your household should self-isolate if you had any symptoms. It was unrealistic to think you could get tested so you had to assume you were infected and self-isolate for 14 days.

    Towards the end of the day it came out that the schools would indeed close from Friday.

    Thursday 19th March

    This was a day where, for me personally, it started to really feel like a crisis. The previous evening, journalists were being told that London was close to being put under lockdown, possibly cut off from the rest of the country, to slow down the spread of the virus. I went out for a run early that morning and took this picture.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    It was a pretty bleak scene. Cold, damp and grey, with this notion of imminent isolation hanging over the city. I felt perturbed by it but didn’t disapprove. I felt like severe measures were needed. This was also the first day I started to notice strangers observing social distancing – runners moving out into the road to remain distant from each other, that sort of thing. But when I went for this particular run the streets were a lot busier than I thought they’d be.

    Later that day the government denied quite strongly that there plans to seal off London, so who knows where all this had been coming from the night before.

    Friday 20th March

    The last day of school. Boris Johnson appeared on TV that evening and said al pubs and restaurants had to close. Also, Rishi Sunak announced the government scheme to cover 80% of employee’s salaries for at least three months, in the hope of warding off a tsunami of redundancies. It was a major intervention although it had no provisions for freelancers. I started to feel at this point that the government was recognising and responding to the severity of what was going on.

    Saturday 21st – Sunday 22nd March

    After Friday’s announcement and the indefinite closure of school, I woke up on the Saturday feeling like this was really the first day of a new phase of our lives. It wasn’t easy. I was still in a cycle of looking at the news and social media almost all the time and having a rolling anxiety attack, which would sometimes intensify or subside but never ended. It even felt like it was happening while I was asleep – I’d wake up feeling burnt out, then would immediately reach for my phone to top up on the stress.

    Monday 23rd March

    There were lots of reports of people over the weekend failing to observe social distancing guidelines, so that evening Boris Johnson announced that the rules were hardening as a result. More businesses were to shut, the police would enforce rules about congregating with other people, you weren’t to visit anyone, only a certain amount of outdoor trips allowed per day and for only certain reasons.

    I watched his announcement live and, yes, it was fair to describe that experience as “weird”. It was a combination words I would never have expected to hear coming out of the mouth of the prime minister. Yet even though the measures being introduced were quite strict, it was pretty much a description of how I’d been living for around two weeks, so it didn’t signal any major changes for our family.

    Also, this was the first day of home-schooling while trying to work from home. That’s a subject for another post…

    Tuesday 24th – Friday 27th March

    We’ve started to get some indication of the economic scale of what’s happening. Look at this chart of US unemployment claims that came out on Thursday. The vertical line to the right is not the y-axis. Is this the economic equivalent of the Chicxulub impact event?

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    In this period I’ve been outside for two early-morning runs (not on the same day of course!) and to collect some fruit and vegetables from a scheme we’ve been signed up to for a few years. I think that’s it? Unless you also count when I stepped out of the front door to join in our street’s applause for the NHS.

    When have gone out there is very much an air of emergency, crisis, drama, whatever you want to call it. But that atmosphere isn’t one of screaming, shouting and urgency: instead, it’s the quietness, the stillness, that feels dramatic. It’s the edginess of people who work in shops, doing what they can to protect themselves with plastic gloves or t-shirts pulled up to cover their mouths. There is hardly anyone you see out and about who seems to be acting normal, who you would expect to be confused if you asked them about the pandemic. Back on that weekend of the 15th-16th March, when nearly everything was still happening, it definitely seemed like a lot of people were still oblivious. They aren’t any more.


  2. It’s no longer the time to be saying Let’s Not Worry Too Much

    Posted March 20, 2020 in covid19, Diary  |  No Comments so far

    A few days ago, Imelda Flattery’s tweet made me curious.

    I wanted to find this original report, possibly with the hope that finding it would give me a brief nostalgia rush, taking me back in time to what now, authentically, feels like a different era from the one we now inhabit.

    After locating and defeating Twitter’s “Advanced Search” interface – not to mention a lot of vertical scrolling – I found what might be one of the earliest pieces of BBC reporting on the coronavirus.

    Here’s the first tweet I could find from Stephen McDonell that explicitly references it. It’s part of a thread and I’ve included the first three here. You can read more on Twitter.

    Obviously it feels strange now to read the “let’s not worry too much” sections in this very early reporting, but it’s really unfair to be critical of it. Bear in mind the niche nature of the story as it was back then. If somebody in mid-January had published an accurate prediction of what the virus would do to the world, it would have come across as deranged, its author banished to the internet’s hinterlands.

    As the virus unfolded in China and began to spread to other countries, though, we did accumulate enough data and information to make more accurate predictions about its impact. Some of that data can be understood by looking at these excellent charts from the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch:

    You can see from the second chart in particular that the UK had more deaths than Italy did at a similar stage in its infection curve. So this gives us an indication of the likely severity.

    Despite this, there is still a bit of a “let’s not worry too much” theme here in the UK. Even as recently as a week ago prominent media figures were reacting with shock and disgust whenever an institution acted more cautiously than government guidance required:

    What I find interesting about the above tweet is that the Wellcome Trust’s decision was being framed through the kaleidoscope of UK party politics – that it was somehow “anti-Tory” to take the decision that they took.

    But it’s far from being the only example of this. Across the board, the UK’s political culture made it difficult to advise caution and take decisive steps without it being seen as an anti-government stance to take. It led to awkward contradictory messages such as the below:

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    People in the future who look back on this time might underestimate the degree to which ideology influenced the country’s virus response – they’d be unwise to do so, I think. There’s a lot to learn about how political factionalism can warp perceptions of reality and affect a society’s ability to make decisions in a rational way. Sometimes you do need to look clearly at other countries and learn from their mistakes.

    The damage from this initial framing is still being felt. A lot of people read these opinion pieces when they were coming out and took the decision that they wouldn’t change their routines, that they’d keep socialising and working as usual, whether to “own the libs” or – perhaps more bizarrely – to “own the virus”, by denying it a moral victory.

    (“I’m hardly changing at all, because if you do that then you give into it…”)

    Normally, two months doesn’t seem like a long time. Stephen McDonell’s first BBC report on coronavirus didn’t come out all that long ago. But we’ve learnt so much about the coronavirus in that time, and it’s fair to say the world has changed profoundly. There’s no reason why we should still be hearing people say, “let’s not worry too much”.


  3. Asda on the Edge of Apocalypse

    Posted March 15, 2020 in covid19, Diary  |  2 Comments so far

    We’re at a phase in the coronavirus situation.

    When I said “a phase” just then, I intentionally didn’t insert any adjectives like “serious” or “weird” because while this weekend might seem like a weird phase today, it might not seem weird at all by next weekend. Next weekend we might be looking back at today and thinking about how normal it felt, that it was anything but weird. Next weekend might present us with a new understanding of what counts as “weird”.

    So all I can say, really, is that we’re at a phase in all this. It’s different from how it was last weekend and it’s different from how it will be next weekend. It’s a phase.

    During this phase shops are still open and it’s not against the law to leave your house. My children’s usual activities like swimming, parkour and ballet class all happened. Public transport was running. Does all of this normal, banal stuff sound weird to you, if you’re reading this one week or one month from now?

    We went to Asda in Walthamstow. It was different from yesterday, when we went to Waitrose in Westfield. Waitrose had sold all its toilet roll and kitchen towel – which would have seemed very weird two weeks ago, come to think of it – but otherwise Waitrose seemed normal, if a little quiet. I got a much stronger sense of impending social collapse in Asda today.

    Several sections of the shelves were completely bare. There was no toilet roll, no dried pasta, no painkillers. The image of the empty painkiller shelves stuck with me. It wasn’t a big surprise to see that but really, that would have seemed very weird two weeks ago.

    People didn’t really seem scared or panicked in Asda but I don’t think the phrase “mildly spooked” would be overstating it too much. Maybe a lot of them were feeling the same thing as me, the weirdness of seeing these empty shelves, of seeing up close these early indications of the strain being applied to the unseen systems that supply us. Maybe if I’d been there earlier, when the shop still had toilet paper and pasta and painkillers and people were trying to buy all of it, maybe there would have been more fear and panic in the air then.

    After visiting Asda we walked through the main shopping mall and I looked at the shopfronts and adverts. These posters and displays still wanted people to buy things like clothes, or perfume, or mobile phone contracts. A little bit optimistic on their part, I thought. People only care about toilet roll and pain relief now. For a moment I remembered the scene in Threads where survivors of the nuclear holocaust barter over bags of dead rats against a backdrop of a faded Standard Life advert.

    Picture of nuclear holocaust survivors in front of 1980s advert

    Post-armageddon advertising

    In Superdrug, there was an explicit policy that no customer would be allowed to buy more than two items of any painkiller product. Again, the signs saying this would have been very surreal to even contemplate a month ago, but when I saw them I just thought it was a sensible thing to do. We were able to buy some Calpol. And also, in Superdrug, there were still a lot of people, mainly younger women, who were interested in things that weren’t toilet paper or pasta or painkillers or bags of dead rats – instead, they were intently studying makeup and hairspray and other items in the cosmetics section, as if it was just another day. Will they still be doing that next weekend, though? Or will that have become weird too?


  4. Having the courage to admit that you’re wrong (about notebooks)

    Posted July 13, 2018 in Diary, work  |  1 Comment so far

    In 2013 I wrote a blog post about how I was only going to buy cheap notebooks.

    My rationale at the time was that a high-quality notebook repelled low-quality content; in other words, that my reluctance to scribble half-formed thoughts and sketches on such a pristine medium undermines the very purpose of having a notebook in the first place. A cheap notebook, on the other hand, would offer a less judgemental home for incoherent scrawls, and so I would be encouraged to write and draw in it all the time without fear of my contributions being put to shame by the paper on which they were borne.

    I can now look back and say that I was categorically wrong about all of this and, what’s more, that my flirtation with cheap notebooks didn’t last. In around 2015 I ditched them and before long I found myself drawing and sketching far more than I’d ever done before. Moleskines (which I was in the habit of buying when I wrote the abovementioned blog post) were replaced by Leuchtturm notebooks and since then I haven’t looked back. I now always have an A4 and an A5 Leuchtturm1917, both dotted: the latter to carry around and take notes, the former for more serious in-depth sketching.

    Pokémon and diagrams

    And it’s not even more expensive either. The Leuchtturm paper is extremely thin so a single notebook lasts for a long time. The A5 one I’ve got with me now was first used in January 2017 (I know because I write the date on every page) and it’s only now in July 2018 that it’s running out of space. And I’ve used it a lot.

    So that’s it, I just wanted to make it known that I recant the blog post of 2013 and am back on the side of decent notebooks.


  5. I Watched Some People Get Owned By Seagulls And Didn’t Envy Them At All

    Posted June 5, 2018 in Diary  |  No Comments so far

    We were on Brighton beach, in the most touristy area right next to the pier. This must be the part of the beach that seagulls particularly like.

    A man and woman came and sat down not far from us. They had bought some fish and chips from Harry Ramsdens and when they unwrapped it I could smell the salty, vinegary, fishy food. Seagulls must love eating this stuff.

    One seagull was curious about the fish and chips so it walked over to take a closer look and have a quick peck at the man’s chips. The man flapped his hand at the seagull and it hopped off. I suppose seagulls are accustomed to being brushed off in this way.

    The seagull came back but this time it didn’t walk but flew instead, landing beak-first in the man’s chips.

    “F-ck off!” the man shouted, flailing. “You f-cking c-nt!” The seagull flew a short distance away.

    At this point I find it hard to explain what happened. Maybe the seagull squawked in a certain way, or sent a coded signal with an artful flap of its wings. Maybe it communicated via telepathy.

    But whatever it did was successful: in less than a second, around thirty seagulls descended from the sky and, undeterred by profanity, took control of the situation. Their victory was decisive, total and near-instant. The couple who now found themselves at the centre of this shrieking yellow-beaked maelstrom leapt to their feet and bolted, propelled by entirely understandable terror. I don’t think they stopped running until they were well clear of the beach.

    With the humans out of the way, the thirty frantic seagulls made quick work of the Harry Ramsden’s fish and chips. After twenty seconds there seemed to be no edible substances remaining. The party was over. The seagulls lost their motivation and stood around dumbly, like NPCs in a computer game that have reverted back from some mission-specific subroutine into their default wandering behaviour. All humans in the immediate vicinity regarded the aftermath in horror.

    At that point my wife arrived with a brown paper bag that contained our own takeaway lunch.


  6. From the archives: my post from 7th July 2005

    Posted July 7, 2016 in Diary  |  No Comments so far

    This is a blog post I wrote (on Livejournal) at lunchtime on 7th July 2005, the day 52 people were killed in terrorist attacks on the London transport network. This was written not long after midday and, as the final sentence shows, before the full horror of the attacks had come to be known.


    I’ve just got back home from Yorkshire via central London, and thought I’d write an account of the morning’s events while my memories are still fresh…

    I arrived at Kings Cross from York at 9.30 and was initially annoyed that the staircase down to the tube platforms was sealed off. That annoyance turned to genuine bafflement when it turned out that the whole station was sealed off, and the police weren’t letting anyone out.

    The exit to York Road was still open, though, so I came out and turned right, expecting to have to walk along to Euston Square. That turned out to be a daft idea when I saw the chaos outside the station – the roads were gridlocked, and people were swarming everywhere. I decided to head down to Russell Square and either get a bus or hop on the Piccadilly line (if it was running).

    Loads of people had the same idea as me, so I weaved through the confused commuters and was eventually coming down Marchmont Street towards Russell Square station when I heard a loud explosion. That was the bus on Tavistock Square, but I didn’t know it was a bus at the time.

    I kept walking until a wave of panicking people shouting “go back!” swept past me in the other direction. A policewoman walking behind them confirmed that it was indeed an explosion and that the whole area was being sealed off. At this point I thought I’d phone the office to tell them I wouldn’t be able to make it in.

    As I made my way eastwards, there were still huge waves of commuters coming down towards Russell Square who were unaware of Tavistock explosion. It was impossible to get them all to turn back, so those of us heading away just talked to who we could and pushed against the tide.

    Eventually I made it back to Angel, via quite a roundabout station-avoiding route. What I’d heard at this point, through text message exchanges with Guy and brief phone conversations with Fiona at work, was that there had supposedly been a series of power surges on the tube network, that it had been shut down, and that people with blackened faces had been emerging from tube stations. I knew that power surges weren’t to blame at Tavistock Square, having heard the explosion, and the general semi-militarisation that had gripped central London – helicopters circling overhead, police everywhere, entire areas roped off.

    The bus I boarded at Angel had just been prevented from going south of City Road, so it had kicked out the passengers turned round to go back towards Hackney. Within seconds of sitting down we new passengers were all talking about the “situation”.

    Everyone was quite surprised to hear about the Russell Square explosion, but a few minutes into the journey we all got a bit of a shock when we found out that it had been a bus. I got a text from my flatmate saying “stay off the buses!” just as an American, on the phone to his net-surfing wife, got the same piece of news. The conductor wasn’t happy to hear this at all, and spoke of resigning, while we all laughed nervously and seriously considered leaping off at the next set of lights.

    So eventually I made it back home and wrote this blog entry. Looking back at the events of the last few hours, a few things come to mind: for example, the speed at which the police had sealed off the Russell Square area was surprising. They were roping off the bottom of Marchmont Street within two minutes of me hearing the explosion, which goes how to show how serious the situation was being taken by them even then, fairly early on.

    Also, the initial story about power surges would seem to have been intended to enable a mass evacuation of the tube network without an accompanying mass outbreak of panic. It’s strange to imagine what the atmosphere would have been like at Kings Cross at 9.30am if it was common knowledge that bombs had been going off; most of us were in the state of agitated determination that commuters enter when tube lines are shut down and routes need to be recomputed. If panic had swept through the crowd, it would have been a shitstorm.

    At the time of writing it looks as though the fatality rate is low – two dead at Aldgate – so let’s hope that that remains the case.


  7. I Moved House So You Don’t Have To

    Posted September 24, 2015 in Diary  |  No Comments so far

    I moved house recently.

    Just before the Moving Company in Grande Prairie came that morning I sent this tweet:

    But when the horror started, the last thing I wanted to do was to “live tweet” about it—I was far too busy enduring it.

    And I wasn’t able to “live tweet” about it when it ended either, because it has yet to end. Let’s put it this way: despite moving home nearly two months ago I’m writing this post from a Premier Inn in Chingford because our house is essentially uninhabitable at the moment. So you see, the horror endures to this day.

    I was going to write a kind of retrospective diary-style post about the whole experience of moving but then I decided that would be too dull.

    Instead, there’s a blog post I read just before the day of the move which is titled “13 Killer Moving House Tips”. I’m going to quote each “killer” tip and then talk about it from the perspective of my own move, which I wouldn’t describe as “killer” (although it did nearly kill me).

    Be warned, though, it is still pretty dull.

    1. MOVE DURING THE WEEK IF POSSIBLE

    At first I thought I was on to a winner here, because I was moving on a Friday which is generally regarded in the UK as being “during the week”. But when I read on I found out that Friday was not just part of the weekend but actually the busiest day of the weekend.

    …weekends and especially Fridays are the busiest when it comes to moving house.

    I wish someone would tell my boss that Friday was part of the weekend.

    2. TAKE TIME TO RESEARCH A MOVING COMPANY

    Simple searching in Google alone is not enough.

    I was on a bus going round Old Street roundabout when I saw a van with the name of interstate movers company on it. I googled them on my phone and when I found that they had a website, I was sold.

    Later on, instead of coming to my flat to quote for the move, the manager found my flat’s “for sale” listing on Zoopla or Rightmove and put together his quote based on the photos our estate agent had taken. Rather than being perturbed by this, I marvelled at his ingenuity. It didn’t occur to either of us at the time that in the estate agent’s photos we had made an effort not to include the big piles of junk we own in each shot.

    This led to the first major incident of horror on moving day, when we all realised that there was far too much stuff in the flat to fit into the moving company’s van, and desperate measures had to be taken. So my spin on this tip would be to not just research a moving company, but to make sure the moving company takes time to research you as well.

    3. PACK YOUR ITEMS PROPERLY

    Take some time off and start to pack as early as possible. 2 months prior to your move, for example.

    2 months?? You can imagine how I felt, reading this the day before I moved and having done barely any packing. Well, I’d packed my records and books into boxes and thought I was doing pretty well. Little did I know what a small percentage of the overall mess those records and books comprised.

    4. DECLUTTER YOUR HOME

    You would be surprised how many items you’ve collected over the years. [Get] rid of the ones you no longer need…

    I’m totally sold on the idea of decluttering. In fact I’ve even bought Discardia, a book which is all about the joys of decluttering. I still haven’t read it though.

    On the day of the move, however, it became clear that most of my decluttering had involved moving unwanted things into a cavernous floor-to-ceiling storage space in the corridor of our flat as opposed to actually getting rid of them. Increasingly innovative ways of organising the junk had, over the years, resulted in a solid 20-square-metre pillar of dusty old drum machines, Iomega Zip drives and monstrous SCART cables. This tottering tower of detritus was, naturally, not included in the photographs our estate agent uploaded to Zoopla, and the moving companies movers felt sad when they discovered its existence.

    The point is this: I wish I’d read Discardia.

    5. ARRANGE PARKING SPACE

    I can be a bit smug about this because it was one of the very few advisable things I’d done ahead of the move.

    6. CLEAN BEFORE YOU MOVE OUT

    Clean as you pack.

    For a few years the flat we lived in always seemed like quite a small and pokey flat, a bit cramped even. Yet it underwent an unexplained and unnatural transformation in the 48 hours before the moving date, expanding telescopically in size like the interior of the Tardis. Hitherto undiscovered vistas opened up before my eyes as I explored this now vast territory with my overworked hoover. The cleaning I thought would be so straightforward once the flat was empty became an insurmountable challenge. Long after the movers had left in their van, I was still roaming the unconquerable carpeted plains of our flat hoovering up dust and coins, wondering why I did not apply for the moving maid services in Houston.

    7. DEFROST YOUR FREEZER

    I didn’t have to move our freezer and am greatly relieved about that. My advice would be, don’t move your freezer at all. Just leave it where it is. It’s happy there.

    8. LEAVE YOUR CHILDREN AT A SITTER DURING THE MOVE

    This is another one of the few things about the move which I can look back on and think, “well that wasn’t a completely insane and self-destructive idea”.

    For a few days either side of the move our children were hundreds of miles away, in Cornwall. I can only imagine the chaos that would have unfolded if our three-year-old son had been in the mix. My advice to anyone with young kids moving house would be to forget babysitters and get your children as far away from the blast zone as possible, preferably in a different timezone.

    9. LET ALL YOUR CLOSE ONES KNOW OF YOUR MOVE

    The way I did this was with the above-quoted and by now ironically prophetic tweet. Because all of my “close ones” are looking at Twitter at 7.30 on a Friday morning, obviously.

    10. FILL IN CHANGE OF ADDRESS DOCUMENT

    It’s lucky for me that the internet exists because I did most of this stuff online the day before I moved, and some of it on the day itself.

    11. NOTIFY IMPORTANT INSTITUTIONS

    Same as the above.

    12. HAVE EXTRA MONEY

    You might think you’ve got all the aspects of your move covered, but unexpected expenditures can always occur.

    Going through a house move is similar to being a financial trader operating in the peak of a wild speculative bubble (or, better, a global economic meltdown) who has chosen to take strong hallucinogens on the way into work. What I mean by that is that your normal relationship to the world of money becomes completely abstracted and the rules of conventional economic logic no longer apply. Huge sums of money will drain from your bank account while you shriek with terrible laughter, utterly unable to comprehend what it means for your finances.

    When things calm down later on—and it’ll be much later on—you won’t even be able to calculate the financial damage so it’s best not to try. So yes, it’s good to have extra money.

    13. PREPARE A BACK UP PLAN

    What if your move takes longer than expected? What if you need to leave some of your items in storage?

    This is another great tip. The backup plan I suggest you prepare is quite simple: abandon the move and just stay where you are. I’m sure it’s lovely.


  8. How I’m taking control of my oversized vinyl collection, one record at a time

    Posted December 10, 2013 in Diary, music  |  No Comments so far

    I own far too many records.

    These records total over 2,000 and they’re sorted in alphabetical order by artist. A couple of months ago I decided to go through them systematically, one at a time. For each record I find, I ask myself a simple question: do I want to listen to it, all the way through, then and there?

    If I don’t, then the record gets listed for sale on Discogs. If I do, and I like it, it gets to stay; but if it gets a “meh”, then it gets listed for sale too.

    When I started this exercise I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. Now that I’ve passed the 200-record mark – still less than 10% of the total – I’m realising that it’s going to take ages to finish. Which is not such a bad thing. This long-running triage project is, after all, good fun. It’s nice to re-immerse myself in records I’ve not listened to for years. And it’s curious, almost exotic, to subject myself to its strict alphabetical discipline.

    In this digital age of expensive algorithms and the mind-bending calculations they perform to choose music that takes us to the precise centres of our comfort zones, it’s an odd experience to step away from the “Genius Mix” or the “Recently Played” playlists into an unforgiving regime of alphabetically-sorted vinyl. So you didn’t want to listen to Analord today? Tough. Thinking of leaping out of sequence to Sun Electric just because you ‘feel like it’? Again, tough: list or listen, that’s the rule. Selecting music based on what mood I’m in or what I want to hear will often bring me down the same old pathways to the same old group of albums, and this project is forcing me to do something different, which is great.

    I’ve come to realise that a lot of my record collection had become like junk DNA, lots of seemingly useless detritus that pads out the interesting stuff. Records that I’d regularly flick past without considering, on my way to the releases I wanted to hear. But, like junk DNA, many of them have turned out not to be so useless after all. Having to stop and subject each record to the “list or listen” test has kind of re-connected me to each one of them, encouraging me to remember why I bought the record in the first place, and to imagine future situations where I might regret having sold it. And there is some good stuff in there too. I’ve discovered that even records you’ve purchased can be ‘slept on’.

    OK, this all sounds like a convoluted description of a straightforward nostalgia trip, which it is in a way. But as much as I harp on about rediscovering music and things like that, this whole exercise has one clear and unsentimental objective, which is to reduce the size of my record collection. I’ll probably always own too many records, but one day I hope they’ll all be records I actually want to listen to.


  9. I finally made it to the Milliennium Dome

    Posted October 28, 2013 in Diary, London  |  No Comments so far

    I finally went to the Millennium Dome yesterday.

    I didn’t want to. The plan was to head east with our toddler and cross the Thames on the Emirates cable car. A bit of wind was blowing, however, so the cable cars had been mothballed by the time we arrived. The resulting toddler rage meant we needed to go somewhere else to mollify him, and as he’d shown an interest in the Dome upon passing it earlier, we decided to go there.

    The Dome

    The Dome. A building once so synonymous with costly failure that it could have been rebranded as “The White Elephant” and few would have noticed. In fact it exemplified that idiom so much that many people, when talking about wasteful follies, referred not to white elephants but to the Dome instead. Despite doing better as a metaphor than as a tourist attraction, I had lots of friends who popped down there to see the Millennium Experience exhibition even though their expectations were rock-bottom. I thought about going too – this was the Age of Irony after all – but while an afternoon of cringing at high-budget naffness sounded appealing, it was never quite appealing enough, so I didn’t bother.

    Eventually the exhibition shut down and the Dome spent years in planning limbo. Would it become a sports arena? A cinema? A metaphor? No-one knew. The uncertainty dragged on for so long that the whole story became boring and everyone forgot about it. Then the Dome popped up again, rebranded as the O2 Arena. If Bruce Springsteen or Cher were going to play in London there was a good chance they’d play there. There were restaurants and bars in there too. That’s all I ever picked up about it though – like nearly everybody else, I’d lost interest. And I still thought of it as the Dome, not the O2, whenever I thought of it at all.

    So back to today, and to our unscheduled visit to the Dome. We didn’t have a clue what we’d find in there. And while our toddler seemed keen enough when it was a distant spectacle on the horizon, his enthusiasm faded as we reached the door, shouting “other way!” as he tried to run back outside. After some cajoling, he finally entered.

    I could understand his reluctance: it’s a bleak space. The curved walkways around its inner walls are lined with the sorts of tourist-trap bars and restaurants that are rarely seen concentrated together so densely. If Angus Steak House applied for a slot here I imagine they’d be turned down for being “too authentic”.

    Dome Couture

    Makes Leicester Square seem like a foody-bohemian paradise

    Another thing that struck me about the Dome was how confused and disjointed it was. The interior and exterior are not reconciled at all. Yes, you can see the ceiling and that gives you the sense of being inside the Dome, but most other things inside it look like they were designed for somewhere else and ended up here by accident. It was how I imagine a big film studio, a vast warehouse-like space cluttered up with unrelated bits of fake buildings and props and scenery. All of the interior objects looked out of place. Although the wall in the photo below would look daft anywhere.

    Stupid wall

    I really don’t like this stupid bit of wall. What’s it trying to be?

    But most of all, the Dome feels like an earlier, failed, version of the experiments that would eventually produce that whole wave of shiny, branded spaces that make up the new east London: Westfield Stratford, the Olympic site, the new Overground stations, and so on. When you visit Westfield you might not enjoy yourself but you have to acknowledge it succeeds on its own terms, and it also makes those terms quite clear, with visitors being left in no doubt what Westfield Stratford was created to do.

    It’s the opposite with the Dome. Even though it’s now a functioning music & comedy venue, the sense of purposeless it was so notorious for in the early 2000s still lingers in the air beneath its canopy, and will probably never dissipate. Next time I visit that area I really hope the cable car is running.


  10. How I Turned Out To Be Wrong About Self-Checkout Machines

    Posted November 6, 2012 in Diary, London  |  No Comments so far

    I can still remember my first encounter with self-checkout machines, at the Sainsbury’s near Angel. I thought they were great, that they’d change the world. And they did, I guess – just not in a good way.

    Back then this Sainsbury’s was the only serious supermarket in the area so it got pretty busy. Weekday evenings were so crowded that shoppers unable to cope with the queues would dump their baskets and storm out enraged to the point of tears, since there are many sites where you can get the right baskets for different purposes from sites as amishbaskets.com.

    Maybe the horror of shopping at this branch was why it became a trial site for self-service checkout machines. Initially, though, they seemed to make matters worse. Shoppers feared these new devices so piled into the other lanes, making the existing queues longer. Sainsbury’s responded by forming a kind of evangelism team who would lure people away from the queue and into the glorious new world of the self-checkout. Gradually they chipped away at our resistance to change.

    Me, I didn’t take much convincing. After my first try I was hooked. I particularly loved how they repelled other shoppers. For some time the self-checkout machines, untroubled by the masses, offered we who understood them an opportunity to escape Sainsbury’s early and enjoy our lives.

    Eventually the appeal of the self-checkout machines spread beyond the early adopters. The Sainsbury’s evangelists spent less time frogmarching shoppers to the machines and adopted a peacetime role offering support to willing users. The machines had been accepted; they had gone mainstream, which meant they had their own queues and no longer represented a queue-free exit from supermarkets. The golden age was at an end.

    One major benefit remained, however: the avoidance of conversation. Londoners famously like to minimise interactions with strangers. Think how rare it is for anyone to greet bus drivers nowadays: the only interaction is between our proffered cards and the businesslike beep of the Oyster machine. The self-checkout appeals to the same tendency. It avoids conversation about what we’re buying, the weather, not wanting a bag for that single item in our basket. Like the Oyster reader, the self-checkout wants nothing from us but a proffered object and gives nothing back but a businesslike beep. It satisfies our yearning for the impersonal.

    Along with many others I embraced the alienating aspect of the experience. Even in empty supermarkets with vacant manned tills I would veer towards the machine rather than the human. I was glad for the choice and thought it was the way of the future. But I now realise I was wrong.

    I recently moved house and now live near a Tesco and a Sainsbury’s where the self-checkout has become central to the routine of shopping rather than an auxiliary exit lane for the anti-social and technically adept. Adoption is so widespread there that the early days of the technology seem like a distant era; the fear and confusion with which we once approached those machines is a behavioural relic, like the firm-jawed way Victorians once posed for photographs.

    No-one needs help any more, apart from when the machine actually breaks. Grandmothers and schoolkids alike process their shopping like seasoned professionals. The dwindling human staff linger unoccupied, a legacy technology, needed only for fetching cigarettes or to green-light alcohol purchases.

    I don’t like it. It wasn’t so bad when only a few people used self-checkout, but when everyone does it feels faintly dystopian, like airport security or Argos. In the queue we don’t know where to look. We certainly can’t rest our gaze on the bored staff – they inspire too much guilt, because deep down we all know that by choosing the self-checkout lane we’re telling them they aren’t needed. We’re all dehumanised. The worst thing about it is the broken contract, the polluted relationship between customers and staff, how we now occupy the same space but have nothing to do with one another.

    So every now and again, when given the choice, I opt for the checkout with the human being behind it. The self-checkout still has its place if we want to leave a supermarket quickly – but if we want to change the world, let’s do something else instead.