As I’ve stated in previous blog posts, I’ve gone on a lot of short but frequent walks since the first national lockdown in March. It’s the sort of thing I should have been doing anyway, and yet it was only at the thought of my time outside being rationed that I felt the sudden need to make the most of it. Most of my time is spent sat on my hairy ass, because both my productive activities and my leisure activities are sedentary. I take a break from writing and reading in my chair by playing games or watching videos in my chair. Before the pandemic, I at least had my job to get me out of the house. Working at the pub kept me on my feet too, and while I wouldn’t exactly call it “exercise”, it was definitely a physical activity that tuckered me out. I would also meet up with friends back then as well, when our schedules aligned. But COVID-19 kinda took a hatchet to my job and my social life, so as soon as the reality of lockdown set in, I became paranoid about getting a Vitamin D deficiency from a lack of sunlight and my muscles atrophying from a lack of movement. I had this ghoulish image of myself post-Rona where I’d surface from my grotto skinny on the outside but fat on the inside. Skinnyfat. Isn’t that a thing? I’ll look like something Geralt has to put down with his silver sword.
Hence the walking. My last walk of 2020 was a funny one, because for the first time the streets were completely deserted. I think a lot of other people were gripped by the same restlessness that I had when lockdown came in, because all year long the streets have been full of life. Either that or I’m noticing it more because I’m weaving in and out of people to avoid the possible spread of infection. The weaving has really spiced up the walks. Randomized combinations of pedestrian traffic in the form of dog-walkers, strolling families, runners, cyclists, pensioners, mail carriers, delivery workers, and community nurses slide up and down the sidewalks like Goombas, each one the protagonist of their own story and a part of the challenge in everyone else’s. It makes sense. But this night, during my last walk of the year, I was the only one outside. It was about 6pm and pitch-dark, but no one was there. At first it struck me as profoundly bleak; as though one by one everyone had lost the will to keep trying. I probably thought that because the daily death toll had just risen to the worst since April. The news that the virus was now hitting us as hard as it had since the initial wave last spring made me interpret the stillness of the night as belonging to a grim portrait of the situation at large. It could well have been a coincidence of course. It was dark. But I’d still expect to see a few runners and dog-walkers at 6pm. Things got eerie when I realized that the only sound I could hear was that of my own footsteps. It was like a scene in a movie where there’s no music and no ambiance, just the isolated, too-loud clapping of shoes on concrete. I walked down an unlit path through a large green, unable to see a few feet in front of me, wondering if I’d make it to the other side without some shadowy figure bludgeoning in my skull with a blackjack.
But as much as my ego would like to believe that everyone in Nailsea could be a suspect, I’m just not significant enough to be murdered. As you can tell from my first paragraph, I was a borderline shut-in even before Rona came along. Only a handful of people know I exist. I’m a single drop of piss in the vast reservoir of toxic slurry that is the human race. My Year in Review posts in part explore that idea- my place in the wider world and how it looks from my perspective. After all, everyone’s vantage point is unique, and we all have our own story for 2020 to tell. Usually when I write these posts I don’t go far beyond my personal experiences, but I don’t see how it would be possible to write about this year without mentioning things at large.
When I think about 2017, I think about personal milestones and improvements in my mental health and productivity. 2018 was a year of travel, socializing, and a reinforced sense of independence. 2019 rushed by in a flash; a low-key, inbetweeny year of uninterrupted work, devoid of any defining moments but plenty of little, surprising ones.
When I think of 2020, I think of the challenge of crafting a structure for a structureless situation. I learned that just because I’m not naturally-suited towards organization, planning, and structure, that doesn’t then mean that I thrive on chaos and spontaneity. I’ve known that for quite a while, but 2020 really drove the point home by testing my self-motivation like never before. I’m at my best when I’ve got a schedule and clearly-defined targets- my issue has always been discipline and consistency.
2019 was a year of structure. Everything seemed to be defined by my relation to the pub. Even when I wasn’t there, I felt connected to it. My free time was defined as time not in the kitchen, and that gave me motivation to write as much as I could before heading back. There was a consistency that ran through everything when it came to my 2019 life. Impromptu trips in Carys and Freya’s Apple Tango-scented car, playing with my boss’ shaggy white dogs, watering the sunflowers that line the front of the pub in summer. Tickets became meals became dishes. The fat cat I nicknamed Tubbs waited in the parking lot for me to bring him leftover scraps of sirloin steak. My boss wiped his bald head with a paper towel while watching a football game being streamed on a propped-up cell phone. Freya would spike Carys’ drink with Tabasco, salt, or whatever she could find. In retrospect it was like a dream, all the repetitious images blurring together. That’s the mark of consistency right there.
2020 began much the same way. I had no reason to think this pattern wouldn’t continue to unfold. In January wildfires raged across Australia, Kobe Bryant died, the U.K formally left the E.U, and there were reports of a mysterious virus in Wuhan, China. As awful as these things were, I didn’t think of them as omens for the year or anything like that. The loss of Kobe really got to me- which surprised me at first, because it’s not like I grew up watching him play. I’ve only been seriously into basketball for about six years or so. But the idea that he was now dead and being talked about in the past tense as a historical figure sent a shiver down my spine. He still had so much he wanted to do, and it was obvious the past few years that his daughters, not basketball, were his life’s biggest passion.
In February I left for Texas, not knowing that the structure of the pub would no longer be there once I got back three weeks later. My vacation across the Atlantic was easily the best thing that happened to me in 2020. I got to see my best friends Aaron and Anne-Marie for the first time since their wedding in 2018. I got to spend some real quality-time with Adelaide, now five years old but having lost none of her puppy-energy. I got to try out some awesome new restaurants in the great “dining-out capital” of America, from smoky Central Texas style barbeque to delicious sushi, and authentic Tex-Mex to cozy, homemade Italian. Also, Houston got a Voodoo Doughnut joint since I was last in town, making it one of just ten locations across the United States, so I had to check that out.
Aaron’s parents Ted and Sylvia joined us in Houston and it was great to catch up with them too. They’re like a second set of parents to me. After checking Addie into a doggy-hotel, the five of us left Houston on March 1st for our week-long cruise around the Caribbean. I got to see my nineteenth U.S. state in Florida and two new countries in Belize and Mexico. I couldn’t have asked for a better first-time cruise experience, and we were lucky that Rona didn’t ruin the whole thing.
When I got back to the U.K. the next week everything had changed. Cases were on the rise and there were now recorded deaths too. I remember it being shocking news that 20 people in the U.K. had died from the virus (at the time of writing, that figure is now 73,512). Five days after my plane landed in Heathrow, the government urged people not to go on cruises or go to pubs. I stopped by the kitchen to quickly get my wages and say hi to my boss. When I checked the parking lot on my way out, I couldn’t see Tubbs anywhere. The streets were silent.
A few days later we entered our first nationwide lockdown and it seemed like there was nothing but empty time ahead. That’s when my walks started. I went running too, although I don’t really like running unless it’s on a treadmill. On a treadmill I can zone out, listen to music, and motivate myself by checking the timer and thinking “Just one more minute!”. I hate running outside. I can’t get into the zone when I’m constantly having to cross the street, watch out for pedestrians, or plan my next route.
Bullet-journaling became another feature of my year. I’d dabbled in it while in Houston and tried to emulate the way Anne-Marie would categorize her tasks according to importance. With nothing but time on my hands I needed some kind of structure. So I started writing the next day’s targets every night before bed, setting my alarm to ensure I woke up early, and measuring exactly how long I spent doing concentrated, uninterrupted work by setting a timer. My goals were to finish the novel I was halfway through writing, submit articles to small online magazines, read as many books as I could, start putting together a professional portfolio, rewrite my CV from scratch, and for fun I decided to make a 20-min film of my cruise. I definitely felt the pressure to make the most of all this time indoors. When I’m not being productive, I get restless and depressed.
I find that I can’t play games all day like I did when I was younger. I need to feel like I’ve earned it somehow. The big titles I played since lockdown were Doom Eternal, The Last of Us Part 2, Ghost of Tsushima, Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition, and Cyberpunk 2077. To motivate myself, I made a rule that I could only play in the evenings once I’d finished the tasks I set myself. In case you couldn’t already tell by my 10,000-word essay on it, The Last of Us Part 2 is my Game of the Year for 2020, but Doom Eternal is a close second.
As far as other forms of entertainment go, The Last Dance was my favorite TV show of the year. I’d been anxiously anticipating the documentary since it was first announced, and while I thought that it would be amazing, it somehow ended up surpassing the high expectations I had for it. That’s not a phenomenon that happens very often. Usually when you hype something up it disappoints (kinda like Cyberpunk 2077, eh lads?). The way a TV show- or indeed a book, video game, film, or any piece of art- transcends genre, subject matter, or milieu is by exploring themes universal to the human condition. If they just focused on basketball, it would have been a good watch for basketball fans, but it wouldn’t have expanded beyond that audience. The scene where Jordan insists that he’s not a bad person before breaking down and asking for a time out from the interview was the most powerful to me. In my opinion that encapsulates what the show is all about- you’ve got this guy who skyrocketed to unparalleled stardom that could never live up to the image created for him, because he’s just as human and flawed as the rest of us. It reminds me a lot of Elvis. Because of their extraordinary talent, people need them to mean something extraordinary. We turn them into symbols. You’re not meant to watch The Last Dance and come away thinking that Jordan is a “good guy” or a “bad guy”. The series does a terrific job of celebrating his achievements while also demonstrating that he’s just like everybody else.
This discussion of symbols is a nice segue to the next topic of 2020 that was important to me. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was torn down in my hometown of Bristol and dumped in the harbor. In spite of the pandemic, I wish I had been there. It was uplifting to see that there were still good people here, intent on reclaiming their city and cleansing it of its racist past. I also salute whoever graffitied “was a racist” on the Churchill statue. Whoever you are, I’ll buy you a coffee. In time I hope that that statue comes down too. These statues don’t have historical value- they’re not relics of ancient civilizations, they’re symbols upheld in positions of prominence by our current one. The symbols we erect in public say something about the kind of values we want to project and the kind of society we want to be. And statues glorifying a slave-trader and a pro-imperial racist are incompatible with a progressive, tolerant society committed to diversity.
Unfortunately, this country has a problem with symbols, messaging, and facades in general. It manifests in the kind of people that display performative allyship when an incidence of overt racism occurs, or when watching a historical film depicting slavery, but who can’t bring themselves to say “Black Lives Matter”. It’s a pretty simple sentiment, and if you find some kind of flaw in it, or try to qualify it in some way, then you can’t not be racist. It manifests in all the people who clapped for the NHS yet voted Conservative. George Orwell defined “Doublethink” as the capacity to hold two contradictory beliefs at once, and nothing encapsulates it more perfectly than those that voted for the party that’s gutted the NHS for years who then celebrated NHS workers as heroes. They don’t want your empty gestures- they want funding.
The summer was filled with anger and angst about this and other issues in the world. Sometimes it seemed like there was nothing to do but sit there and be force-fed depressing stories. But as lockdown ended and summer began in earnest, I at least found a few opportunities to get out of the house and socialize. Not much, admittedly. I met up with my friends a few times to chat and kick a ball around. My brother got engaged to his girlfriend of eight years, so we threw a small engagement party for them on the outdoor patio, complete with champagne and a giant lemon cake. I also attended a similarly socially-distanced garden-gathering for a friend’s birthday party; a relaxed, low-key affair of drinks, customized cupcakes, and storytelling.
When fall came around, I visited Oxford for a day to see George and Elizabeth. We had lunch at a café called The Nosebag (I opted for the lamb casserole), we walked and talked for hours on end, and finished at a pub called The Lamb and Flag where I got myself a rum and coke for the first time in ages. As a birthday gift, the two of them got me a beautiful handmade notebook with a liquid marble design and a stylish ink-dip pen to go with it. So far, I’m using it to write quotes I like from books I read.
Naturally I followed the American presidential election with great interest, but I’m not gonna go too much into it for fear of straying too far off-topic. I was pleased that Biden won- or rather, that Trump lost. Bernie Sanders would have been my choice, but sadly that ship has sailed. I’ve got no love for the corporate Democrats, but they’re more approachable to progressive lobbyists than Trump at least, and an obvious improvement on him and the Republicans, who aren’t even trying to hide their proclivities toward fascism anymore.
But how do I sum all of this up into some kind of lasting statement about the year? I don’t think I can. A lot happened- on the global scale at least. Not too much happened to me personally, or those close to me. Some of my close friends got COVID-19 but they pulled through. I’ve been furloughed, and for the most part I’ve used my time productively. Other than my trip to Oxford, I haven’t really interacted much with society, except for a few visits to the bank and the pharmacy. My year was spent almost entirely indoors, in my own company. I’ve enjoyed video calls with Aaron and Anne-Marie every week, sometimes several days a week. I bought a posture-corrector and a foam roller for my back, given that I’ve been at my desk all year. I’ve watched more Kings & Generals videos than I can count. That’s about it. That’s everything. It’s been a surreal year, with lots to be sad about, but personally I’ve been very lucky and done alright. I have no faith that 2021 will be any better- but I hope I’m wrong.