2020: The year in review – Part 2: Blogging

It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that 2020 was an eventful year; certainly there has been no shortage of topics to blog about, and we managed to keep up a fairly steady stream of posts throughout the year.

Most of our pieces focused on politics. We obviously couldn’t avoid touching on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic (once we finally noticed how serious it was), but the bulk of our commentary concerned the two areas we had identified as important back in January; the US Presidential election, and the Brexit endgame.

The result in the US was not quite as good as we had hoped – our prediction of a President Sanders was a little over-optimistic – but nowhere near as bad as we feared during the summer, as the threat of a Trump coup turned out to be nothing more than empty rhetoric. Whether the election of Joe Biden represents a return to some sort of normality, or just a pause in the downward spiral, remains to be seen.

Over here, the Brexit saga dragged on through countless missed deadlines, before culminating in a last-minute deal that promises to be merely semi-ruinous, rather than a complete disaster. There is a chance that, now the political heat has been taken out of the issue, the country will be able to start quietly rebuilding relations with our continental neighbours, but that was what we hoped for after the election last year, so I expect that this story has a few more unhappy chapters still to come.

We actually wrote surprisingly little specifically about the pandemic, considering that it is probably the most globally significant event since WWII. I think that this is mainly because I am aware that my personal experience of the lockdown has been far from typical. My job has changed a bit, my social life has been slightly less active, and I haven’t had a proper holiday, but apart from that it’s been more or less business as usual. I’ve managed to avoid contracting Covid-19, at least as far as I know, and nobody of my acquaintance has died, or even been particularly unwell with it. If anything I’m better off than I was last year; with the pubs and cinemas closed I’ve been exercising more, and I’ve been getting paid extra while having less to spend the money on, so I’m in pretty good shape, physically and financially, a fortunate position when half the country is facing a bleak winter of enforced idleness and financial precarity. In any case, the true significance of events like these often takes a while to become fully apparent, so it feels like it’s a bit soon to comment. We may have more reflections on all this, particularly the social and psychological effects, in the months ahead.

In between all that excitement we also found time for a bit of cultural commentary, and a couple of obituaries. We even gave a rare mention to Second Life, though only in the context of comparing it unfavourably to Animal Crossing. Despite otherwise completely ignoring virtual worlds in a year when, arguably, they have been more relevant than at any time in the last decade, I did keep my connection to SL alive by renewing my premium membership. This now costs a not-inconsiderable $99, so I’m hoping that 2021 will be the year that Linden Labs finally produce a mobile app that will let me get back on to the grid.

Anyway, on to the statistics; here are our top ten posts of 2020 by traffic:

  1. The Linden Principle
  2. There is no land beyond the Volga
  3. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  4. Watching the Okhrana
  5. Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19
  6. Six hundred
  7. Furry traversing
  8. One further message to my friends in the US of A
  9. Lost Christmas
  10. Get well Boris

The good news is that, after years of coasting on our past glories, over half of the top posts were published in the last 12 months, perhaps indicating that we are engaging more with a new audience. Less encouraging is that the most popular piece, by some distance, is one from 2010, which owes its hits to people searching for something else entirely, specifically the Linden Method, a rather costly repackaging of standard anxiety-management techniques. I could probably monetise this confusion by directing visitors to my own website, and overcharging them for some proprietary self-help therapy, but that seems a little unethical.

Other posts I was quite pleased with this year:

Of all of this year’s output, I think our Camus review was probably my favourite.

The US and the UK still provide the bulk of our traffic, but we did see a big jump in visitors from China this year. Our posts were read in a total of 49 countries, from American Samoa to Zimbabwe; the top ten were:

  1. United States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. China
  4. Germany
  5. Canada
  6. France
  7. India
  8. Australia
  9. Japan
  10. Brazil

So, 2020, with all its challenges, has come and gone, and we’re still here, which feels like some sort of triumph. 2021? Bring it on, we say…

2020: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

2020 has, for obvious reasons, been the sort of year when I might have expected to have had plenty of time to watch all the movies and read all the books that I had been meaning to catch up on for ages. Sadly, that has not been the case, partly due my work schedule actually being busier than it has been for a long while, but mostly because any downtime I did have was spent trying to keep up with the latest news, then attempting to distract myself from the latest news with undemanding entertainment.

That said, the year wasn’t a complete wash-out, culture-wise; the complete list is on our Tumblr, and here are the highlights:

Film – Towards the end of 2019 I got back into the habit of going to see a movie on the big screen most weeks, and I kept this going into 2020, alternating between the multiplex and the arthouse, right up until the cinemas were shut down. Of the mainstream films I saw, my favourite was probably Parasite, though The Lighthouse and Little Women get honourable mentions. I did sign up for a Netflix subscription after lockdown kicked in, but I haven’t really made much use of it; my pick from that service would be Uncut Gems. My personal Oscar for 2020 goes to an independent movie screened during our local film festival; Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, a delightfully surreal Spanish-Estonian-Ethiopian-Latvian-Romanian co-production, concerning secret agents trapped in a VR dystopia, featuring Batman, ninjas, Joe Stalin, the titular Saviour, 8-bit computer graphics, and much more. If if wasn’t for the evidence of its existence on the internet, I might suspect that I had just dreamt it.

Books – I got through shockingly few full-length books this year; my reading time was consumed by keeping up with political developments, and trying to stay on top of the professional updates I needed to do my job effectively. I didn’t manage much recent fiction, but I did finally complete Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, roughly 30 years after my first reading of Swann’s Way, and started on another classic series, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, by revisiting Justine, which I had first read when I was 15 (though I didn’t really appreciate the work’s psychosexual depth at that tender age). In the current circumstances I could hardly avoid returning to the plague-haunted Oran, vividly described by Camus in La Peste, and my literary travels also took me to pre-revolutionary China, in the collected works of Lu Xun. In non-fiction, I explored cosmology and quantum theory with Dan Hooper and Sean Carroll, and the origins of consciousness with Daniel Dennett. My favourite book of the year was another old one; Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice, an unsettlingly phantasmagoric evocation of impermanence, loss, and gendered violence, set amid a world succumbing to a creeping environmental catastrophe – just the kind of cheery tale we need in times like these.

Music – I may not have had the cognitive bandwidth to fully engage with serious literature and cinema in the last 12 months, but I did listen to a lot of new music; here’s a fairly arbitrary top ten:

  • If You’re Dreaming – Anna Burch
  • Devotion – Margaret Glaspy
  • Song For Our Daughter – Laura Marling
  • Jetstream Pony – Jetstream Pony
  • The Black Hole Understands – Cloud Nothings
  • The Making Of You – Snowgoose
  • Ballet Of Apes – Brigid Dawson & The Mothers Network
  • Consummation – Katie Von Schleicher
  • It Will Come Easier – Emma Kupa
  • Honeymoon – Beach Bunny

I didn’t see much live music this year; I did have tickets for a few shows, but most of them ended up being cancelled. Of those that did go ahead, I enjoyed a recital of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, and a very rare trip to the opera house, to see a revival of John Adams‘ Nixon in China.

Television – For the first time in more years than I care to remember I followed a TV series in its entirety; Mrs. America, an examination of the political struggles in the 70s around gender and race, which gave a human face to the history underlying today’s culture wars. I have a few other shows bookmarked on Netflix; we’ll see if I ever get round to watching them.

Last December I resolved to spend more time on cultural pursuits, and less time obsessing over the news. I guess, with the year we’ve had, I can be forgiven for falling a little short of that goal. We’ll cover some of what distracted me in our next post.

Lost Christmas

Just when it seemed like humanity was finally getting on top of the whole Covid thing, and we could to go back to worrying full-time about Brexit, the virus has apparently mutated into a new super-infectious strain, precipitating a fresh surge in cases, and prompting Boris Johnson to reintroduce a lockdown, effectively cancelling Christmas for much of the population.

This isn’t actually going to have much practical effect for me, since I had no plans to do anything over the festive season other than sit in the house watching TV in a state of semi-intoxication, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the sense of gloom that has swept the nation since the news broke. Restrictions that were just about bearable during the summer seem especially grim in the darkness of midwinter. We have little to look forward to, and a lot to be apprehensive about, not least the aforementioned Brexit, which promises to plunge the country into a fresh crisis in less than a fortnight. The government’s shambolic handling of the pandemic, with the U-turn over Yuletide only the latest blunder, does little to inspire confidence.

One can just about cut Johnson a little slack on his response to Covid; it is after all the sort of once-in-a-century challenge that might have tested any leader, though it’s not hard to see how his administration could have done better. The Brexit debacle is unforgivable however; an entirely self-inflicted wound that even a semi-competent premier should have avoided. Both issues highlight Johnson’s essential weakness; having attained his position by deploying populist rhetoric, he now finds himself unable to make decisions that might prove unpopular, particularly anything that reminds his supporters that a course of action he commended to them will inevitably involve unpleasant consequences.

The irony is that, had he shown more decisiveness, Johnson could have exploited these extraordinary circumstances to entrench the Tories in power for a generation, in the way that his predecessor Margaret Thatcher used the economic turmoil of the 1980s to unravel the post-war social compact, and tip the class struggle decisively in favour of capital. As it stands though, barely a year after his triumphal entry into Downing Street, Johnson’s authority has all but completely ebbed away, and his downfall in the next 12 months is not unimaginable.

Johnson’s departure might be a welcome outcome, but it’s not clear whether, given the opportunity to choose a new course, the country will go for the Biden option of comforting centrism, or double down on the nationalist extremism. Sadly, there isn’t much indication that the population is ready to take a turn towards progressive radicalism, though perhaps collective solutions will become more popular as people observe the inability of the free market to respond to the Covid emergency.

Any sort of happy ending may seem a long way off, but it’s the winter solstice tomorrow, and after that the days will be getting longer, reminding us that, however cold and dark it is now, spring and summer will always come around.

[We haven’t had a musical link for ages, so here’s a suitably seasonal one, if you’ll excuse the pun.]

Summer of discontent

In recent times, as the reality of mortality has impinged ever more forcefully upon my consciousness, I have fallen into a routine of working through the winter and taking extended summer breaks, in an attempt to maximise my remaining time in the sun. This year I had scheduled another long, secluded retreat, but events disrupted my plans somewhat, as I heeded the call to help combat the national emergency.

Obviously, being obliged to work in a well-paid job for a few months instead of taking a holiday doesn’t exactly make me the biggest victim of the coronavirus pandemic, and, truth be told, I could probably have weaselled out of it, since what I ended up doing was mostly routine. I did cover for people who were off doing more important things I guess, which was just about enough to convince me that I had fulfilled my civic duty, and to confirm my rather narcissistic belief that I am a vital cog in the health service machine.

Whatever, the government has decided, almost certainly prematurely, that we are over the worst of this, and that everyone should get back to work already, so I’m set to slot back into my usual winter post at the end of next month.

I do have some belated time off before then, and I had considered going away somewhere, but the options are limited, the weather is getting colder, and, in any case, I’m not sure that I’m in the right frame of mind for relaxation. There’s a low-level haze of unfocused anxiety floating around on the edge of my awareness, which might just be due to me not having had a break for a while, though I think it’s more likely to be my brain’s fairly reasonable response to the objectively terrible situation we find ourselves in.

What’s most unsettling of course is much of it is beyond my control. The thing over which I have most influence – my personal risk of contracting coronavirus – is the thing I’m least worried about. I should be able to do something to ameliorate the effect of the epidemic on my immediate community, since I’m not completely out of touch with the local activist scene, and perhaps my professional skills, such as they are, will come in useful if and when the second wave of infection hits. But when it comes to the big bugbears lurking in the background – Brexit and the US elections – my only recourse is writing about them in this blog, which seems unlikely to make a significant difference.

Still, even useless activity feels better than doing nothing, so look out for some posts excoriating Johnson and Trump, as I attempt to exorcise my feelings of impotence by superstitiously scribbling.

Alternatively, I could make like a Polish pachyderm, and up my weed intake. It would probably take elephant-sized doses to calm me down though…

176400

Today is another one of those dates that seem like they must have some sort of significance, and certainly the proliferation of marijuana-themed ads across the internet today is a sign of something, though I expect it has more to do with the increasing commercialisation of weed than anything more deep and meaningful.

A few of my friends, who have unexpectedly found themselves with time on their hands this month, are planning to celebrate the double 4/20 in an appropriate fashion, but it’s a long time since getting high on a Monday night was something that I could seriously contemplate, even if we weren’t in the middle of an international health emergency.

Perhaps in a month or two, as the population grows increasingly unmellow about being cooped up indoors indefinitely, the government will develop a more liberal attitude towards the social benefits of dope. Sitting on the couch all day watching TV is exactly what people need to be doing for the foreseeable future, so the case for legalisation on public health grounds will be unanswerable. It won’t do much good for those of us who are having to work through all this, but I guess we will be able to enjoy it after we retire.

Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19

Mentioning The Plague last week inspired me (like everyone else on the planet apparently) to re-read my old copy of Albert Camus’ classic novel.

[Some spoilers ahead – if you haven’t read The Plague already I’d highly recommend it.]

I first read La Peste when I was at university, more than 30 years ago. Although chronologically the mid-1980s are slightly closer to the present day than to the late 40s, when the book was first published, culturally my student days firmly belonged to that period after the Second World War when the conflict was still a living memory. It was thus natural that I read the work as allegorical, specifically relating to the German occupation of France, which Camus had lived through, and which he played a central part in resisting. This was certainly how it was received when it came out, though the novel’s nuanced depiction of what had become a French national myth was not universally popular, and Camus was criticised by contemporaries, including Satre and de Beauvoir, for representing the conscious evil of Nazism as an apolitical pestilence.

The last month or so has, unsurprisingly, seen a flurry of articles attempting to relate The Plague to our current circumstances. Interestingly, the authors of most of these pieces seem to have taken the novel more or less at face value, as a story of men struggling to persevere in the face of an overwhelming epidemic, and have dismissed or overlooked the connection with the Occupation. I guess that is understandable, given our present concerns, though I think that it does reflect an underlying current evident in modern-day discourse; a tendency towards ahistorical analysis that is so focused on what we are personally experiencing right now that it cannot appreciate that the past isn’t always best understood when viewed through the prism of our latest preoccupations.

Having revisited the beleaguered town of Oran, so vividly depicted in The Plague, I can see how the book can be appreciated as a straightforward narrative, as, at that level, it is a gripping story. Camus masterfully builds a sense of dread as the unseen enemy relentlessly advances. The main characters may inhabit allegorical roles, but this does not obscure their individual humanity. Key scenes, such as the death of M. Othon’s son, or Grand’s grief outside the toy shop, are powerfully moving. The resolution is somewhat downbeat, but satisfying in its ambiguity. (I would like to have seen Dr Rieux reunited with his wife; this perhaps betrays my over-sentimental nature). There are some shortcomings; the complete lack of non-white characters in a story set in North Africa for example, or the way that the female characters are mostly ciphers who exist only to illuminate the male characters’ internal motivations. Overall though, after reading the novel one can appreciate why Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

Despite the seeming relevance to our present difficulties, I would still say that The Plague is essentially about France’s reckoning with the legacy of the Occupation, though Camus clearly broadens that out to encompass a theme familiar from his other work; the necessity of struggling against the absurdity of existence. The pestilence is life itself, with all its arbitrary cruelties, and the protagonists grapple with the question of how to live and act ethically, when everything is ultimately meaningless. Some, like Paneloux, look to God to guide them, though they are forced to acknowledge that His intentions are incomprehensible. (Secular orthodoxies, as Tarrou points out, are little more helpful). Tarrou and Rieux find purpose in doing what needs to be done to relieve suffering; the former is somewhat demoralised by the scale of the challenge, while the latter is sustained by focusing on the immediate tasks, and by his belief that humans are mostly decent (as exemplified by Grand, who, despite his own problems, makes his contribution uncomplainingly). Rambert (the character with whom I can most identify) is initially angry to find himself cast into the situation by misfortune, and makes plans to escape, but cannot bring himself to abandon his fellow citizens, and joins in the fight. (Rambert, unlike Rieux, is at least rewarded by seeing his wife again). Even Cottard, who accommodates to the new situation, and profits from it, is portrayed sympathetically, as motivated by fear and weakness rather than malice.

I’m not sure that the current crisis, significant though it is, has quite reached the level of seriousness of a world war, where individuals are forced to confront such pressing existential dilemmas. Certainly I have not felt moved to closely examine my ethical outlook, though perhaps that is because my response to events has been largely dictated by my professional circumstances, and I have not, as yet, been obliged to make any choices that are more difficult than usual. I hope that, if it comes to it, I will act as admirably as Dr Rieux, though I suspect than I will lean more heavily on ideology than Camus would have approved of.

In Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins, Henri, the character based on Camus, recalls the intensity of wartime, when he “was busy writing his editorials, a revolver in his desk drawer.” I don’t know if I want to go through that much excitement (and it would obviously be better for all concerned if the situation was resolved without too much more social disruption), but perhaps this dislocation will do me some good in the long run, even if it is only to force me to make my own peace with the Absurd.

Isolated musings

One might think that our current circumstances, while clearly troubling, would at least provide some encouragement to bloggers, especially those inclined towards philosophical speculation, as the enforced idleness allows plenty of time for writing, and the situation naturally inspires commentary on all sorts of deep topics, like the nature of society, the limits of scientific knowledge, or the ultimate meaning (or meaninglessness) of life.

And, who knows, perhaps some bloggers are seizing this opportunity to compose memorable posts, but, as readers may have noticed, I am not among that number. I’m actually a good bit busier than usual, as the health service gears up to meet the challenge of the anticipated wave of infection. I’ve been redeployed into the sort of forward position that I haven’t occupied for a couple of decades, so I’ve spent the last week or so furiously refreshing my basic skills, which has at least kept my mind engaged. I’m glad to have the routine of work, which gives me an excuse to get out of the house, keeping me anchored to some sort of normality, though it also allows me access to information indicating that we are not quite as prepared for the coming storm as the the government would like the population to believe, which makes me think the immediate future may get quite rough.

So, it might be difficult to find time to post much over the next few weeks, but I guess I should try to make the effort, because these are the kind of times that’ll I’ll look back on in the future, and be glad that I recorded my contemporaneous impressions. Perhaps, if I live through this, I may even produce my own version of La Peste.

Viral concerns

Despite the occasionally gloomy tone of this blog, I am by nature a basically optimistic person, aided, no doubt, by the fact that, as a older, white, male, I can be reasonably confident that society is arranged to minimise the chances of anything really bad happening to me.

I am thus unsure that I am treating the looming Coronavirus pandemic with the requisite degree of seriousness. I live in an advanced, industrialised country, with a freely-available, high-quality health service; everyone I know who works in public heath is pretty sharp, and well able to handle this sort of situation. The city where I dwell, while not completely off the beaten track, isn’t particularly cosmopolitan, and is geographically situated in such a way that it would be fairly easy to control people coming in and out. Personally, I’m in good shape physically, and not in the age range that seems to be most at risk of serious complications. All things considered, I probably shouldn’t be panicking, despite all the alarming stories on the news, with scenes of hazmat-suited personnel quarantining entire neighbourhoods, and the ever-lengthening list of countries where cases are cropping up.

And indeed I am not too worried; my biggest concern at the moment is whether my spring holiday travel plans will be disrupted. I guess that this complacency may come back to bite me, but one can’t live life fretting about things that one can’t control. If people start dropping dead in the street then I might consider wearing a face mask and using hand sanitiser, but until then I’ll keep calm and carry on.

02022020

Today, the 2nd of February 2020, or 02/02/2020, is a palindromic day. The previous one of these was 20/02/2002, but that didn’t work in the US, where they inexplicably put the month first when writing the date, nor in China, where, more logically, they use the yyyy/mm/dd format. The last global palindromic day was way back on 11/11/1111, though I guess no one in North America or the Far East would have been interested in the Julian calendar in those days. The next one is due in 2121, on the 12th of December.

I’m fond of things like this, that seem as if they must have some deep cosmic meaning, even though the scientific part of my mind knows that it’s all quite arbitrary. I’m self-aware enough to recognise that it’s an attempt to ward off existential despair by imposing narrative order on a chaotic universe, but even an absurd hero has to embrace irrationality sometimes, so I’ll allow myself this little foible.

Last exit to Blighty

So, today was my final day as a citizen of the European Union. On a practical level, this is a bit of a non-event for me; the UK’s departure will not have any huge consequences in the short term, since there is now a one-year transition period where everything stays much the same, and even in the longer term I’m not likely to personally suffer any significant detriment, because I’m an old, middle-class, white male, and we generally do OK, whatever the circumstances.

Still, I’m feeling rather bereft. The EU, for all its many faults, represents an optimistic vision of an internationalist future, born from the ashes of a terrible war. That we are now retreating behind a national frontier, trying to regain a mythical past, seems like an ominous development.

Then again, it probably won’t work out as badly as I fear. The social gains of the last seven decades are not just going to disappear, however much the right try to turn the clock back, and in years to come we might look back on this episode as a minor bump in the highway of human progress, the last stand of reaction against the tide of history.

Anyway, whatever it says on my passport, nothing can change how I define myself; I’m a proud member of the worldwide proletariat, and I will be until I die.