Left Ear in Lockdown

Photo by Franco Antonio Giovanella on Unsplash

For the second time in less than a year my left ear has gone into Lockdown.  I have no idea why, but it is very unsettling.  My hearing is generally exceptional and my right ear is still operating at its normal threshold, so I can hear ok overall, but I have no idea where noises are coming from.  This is a very weird experience.  Everything I hear appears to be coming from the same direction, that of my good ear.  Bang a tray to my left and I spin to the right.  Now I know what goes on with my Sat-Nav when I set off for Edinburgh and wind up in Llandrindod Wells.  Stick a peanut in my ear and I would probably spin around in circles for eternity.  I don’t know why a deaf ear should be so disconcerting.

In common with most people at the moment, my life has surrendered much of its usual routine.  I am an inflatable flamingo being tossed around at the whim of the North Sea: like a middle-aged man, disconsolately following his wife around the aisles of Wilkinson’s, wondering what comes next.  And what comes next is beginning to bother us all, isn’t it?  What will be the new normal?  It looks increasingly unlikely that we are ever going to return to the way we were.  If we rid ourselves of Covid, we are still at risk from any number of mutations that might arise in any one of the hundreds of nations that are unable to rid themselves of it.  The world feels like a jigsaw at the moment: one thousand pieces, pulled apart, rattling about randomly in the box, waiting to be reassembled.  We all know that when we finally get around to it, when we can’t even find a repeat of Midsomer Murders with which to more profitably spend our time, there will be pieces missing.  (I can’t help thinking that makers of 1,000 piece jigsaws should have to print a disclaimer on the box: 1,000 pieces, but probably no more than 999 by the time you have spent a fortnight putting it together – check inside the cat.)  The world has changed ineradicably.

Some of the change may be good: nobody is going to fly around the world anymore for a business meeting that can just as easily be done on zoom.  Conversely, nobody is going to fly around the world anymore to meet new people or to understand a different viewpoint.  The world has become smaller, yet at the same time more unfathomable.  I can’t help but wonder how people will meet in the future.  ‘I knew he was the one for me the moment he unmuted.’  ‘Even at two metres distance, with his mask cockled-up over one eye, I knew we were going to get on.’  And as for the ‘other stuff’, how?  Two metres apart, masked and gloved.  ‘OK then, but I’ll just have to anti-bac you first.’  ‘Every head in the room turned as she entered, wafting the heady scent of Domestos behind her…’

Maybe I worry too much.  Maybe you don’t worry enough.  Each day the news offers cause for optimism, which it then cruelly snatches away.  ‘We are making amazing progress with the vaccination process – by the time we finish, it will be useless.’  ‘New Zealand has successfully eradicated the virus – and consequently nobody can ever go there again.’  Even the good news has become depressing.  It’s a perverse kind of comfort I feel knowing that both of my parents died before I had to worry about them catching Covid.

When I was a child I loved Look and Learn magazines.  Not new ones, you understand.  The only new reading material I ever got was the Beano.  These were passed down to me, from where I am not certain.  They came to me periodically, in batches, pristine as though they had never been read.  I loved them.  I learned about Ants and Bees and Romans and Kibbutzim and how a slot machine works and how a grasshopper ‘chirrups’ and I turned into the precocious little brat that I remain to this day.  If Look and Learn was about today, it would know the answers.  No disagreements between various world leaders, medical directors and WHO officials then: ‘Well, what does it say in Look and Learn?   Simple, definitive answers – often with appropriate diagrams – so clearly the way forward.  Not only that, but whilst we were waiting for the appropriate measures to take effect, we could follow the instructions on page 5 to construct our own formicarium from 3 pieces of wood and an old pop bottle.  Look and Learn was the nearest thing we had to the internet.  Not quite so quick, but much less likely to lead to your bank being cleared out by a Russian cartel based in Nigeria and definitely less likely to be full of porn – unless you mistakenly stumbled upon the vicar’s copy.

Our house was not full of books and yet I was an insatiable reader.  I read food labels, fag packets, my grandma’s Weekly News and Titbits, my dad’s Zane Grey novels, my mum’s Agatha Christie and yet I remember very few ‘children’s’ books about the house apart from Winnie the Pooh and an anthology of Grimm’s Fairy Tales which I still have today.  I had a library card, but the library was in town and I amassed so many late return fines that I feared having a criminal record by the time I was six.  Most of my book reading was done at school.  I was good at it.  Ahead of the curve in a way that I have never been with anything else desirable.

Anyway, Look and Learn would know what to do about my ear.  Google is a waste of time.  It tells me to put olive oil in it, but all I get is a greasy ear.  It remains steadfastly blocked.  I guess sooner or later I will have to have a zoom meeting with my GP who will also suggest putting olive oil in it.  I’m not entirely certain that it isn’t actually blocked with the bloody stuff.  Last time it happened, I could actually go to the surgery.  He peered into it and said he could see nothing wrong.  I said ‘What?  I can’t hear you.  Can you talk into my other ear?’ and he gave me some drops.  I don’t know what they were, but it cleared up after a couple of weeks, which is what he said it would do naturally.  So I’ll give it a week or two for now and see what happens – and just hope that if I encounter a runaway bus, it comes at me from the right side.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Ex-Mas

Well, despite a brief summer window of optimism that it would all be over by the autumn (now delayed until next summer when, hopefully, the miracle vaccines will be proving their efficacy) here we are tottering towards our very first New Normal Christmas: a cheery three household bubble gathered around the laden seasonal table wondering how they are going to explain to Aunty Ethel why she has been excluded; no drunken games of Twister; pulling your own cracker…  The extended family as a liability.  Even if the rules are relaxed, who in their right mind is going to invite granny over, knowing that what she just might take home with her, could be the very last ‘gift’ she ever receives?  Not even the Christmas Day armour of sweet British sherry and egg-nog can offer sufficient protection.

The threat of post-Christmas ‘payback’ means that seasonal consumable stockpiles are likely to consist less of candied fruits, nuts and brandy butter, and more of toilet rolls, candles and flour.  This year’s must-have stocking fillers?  Possibly a family-sized bag of twirly* pasta, a personalized hand-sanitizer pump and a bag of any soft confection that does not pose a threat to ill-maintained lockdown teeth.

The sparkly, pre-Christmas twinkle of city centre shopping might return, but will there be footfall to justify it?  Can you imagine shoppers flocking into our current High Streets of boarded up buildings and whitewashed shop windows?  The usual Christmas Markets were all cancelled months ago – the gluhwein pans stowed away for another year and the cheap red wine poured down the sink where it belongs.  Carols, should they be sung at all, will fall more into the province of barber shop quartet than church choir.  There will be little chance of celebrating The Real Meaning of Christmas with socially distanced pews and not a single voice raised in joyous thanksgiving.  I fear that Jesus may find himself even more sidelined than normal amongst the new concerns of mince pie shortages, supermarket home deliveries that consider ten Brillo Pads as a suitable replacement for an oven-ready goose, and ‘who needs a new bra and pants set, when you haven’t been out of your pyjamas for nine months?’  I fear that madness beckons.

I suspect that our children will probably bear it all with greater fortitude: imagine a whole Christmas Day without being slobbered over by an ancient and hirsute aunt whom they normally encounter only once a year, when they have been penned in with little chance of escape.  Nothing in the world is quite as good news to a child as not having to hug adults.  And there will be positive gains to those of pre-school age in the ever-longer Christmas run-up.  Can you imagine what self-respecting adult would currently allow their child to be plonked upon the knee of an unsanitary, red-suited super-spreader for whom, with the best will in the world, a mask would prove ineffective.  What, I wonder, would be the ‘R-rate’ of a single ‘Ho-ho-ho’?  Imagine, no more having to pretend that you actually believe that the man in the cheap polyester Santa suit and white nylon beard, who smells of a gentle collation of Benson & Hedges, Johnny Walker and urine is the real Father Christmas.  No more having to pretend that you believe there is a real Father Christmas.  As long as Amazon do not cock up delivery, all will be right.

I may, of course, have got this all completely wrong.  Christmas might just continue much as it ever did**.  Granny will upset Aunty Norma by criticising the quality of her mincemeat, Grandad will melt a hole in the new sofa with his pipe and Uncle Derek will throw up on the cat.  When you clear them all out at midnight you will swear that, whatever happens, you are never doing that again, even though you know that you will, just as soon as you are allowed.  Nobody wants a New Normal Christmas when the Old Normal has so very much going for it…

*I appreciate that this is probably not the correct Italian terminology, but I bet you know exactly what I mean.

**In the UK we will find out what is to be allowed this Thursday – and possibly the January price we have to pay for our five-day communal debauch.


Photo by Mauru00edcio Mascaro on Pexels.com

The whole world has become one, single Zoom generation.  Old talk to young – well, as long as the young set it up – and we have all learned to chat with an inbuilt response delay.  We have all grown used to the ‘You’re breaking up.  No, I said breaking up.  You’re… Oh, she’s gone.  I can still see her.  Has she muted?  Have you muted?  I said… Oh, she’s gone altogether now…’ conversations.  We have all grown used to having the quality of our internet connection questioned.  We have all grown used to having an in-depth conversation with a family member’s crotch; to being invited to view the contents of their nose whilst they try to sort it out.

This is the New Normal of only one strand of a conversation at a time; of waiting your turn; of finding that the relevance of what you had to say disappeared whilst Aunty Norma described the shattered condition of her bowels; of finding that your killer punch-line has just lost its feed.  It is also the time of seeing yourself as everybody else sees you: of hearing your own voice and realising quite how like an exceedingly camp country bumpkin you sound (although, maybe that’s just me).  Nobody wants to see themselves talking – it’s just not natural is it?  If God had wanted us to enjoy seeing ourselves talking, he wouldn’t have invented Michael McIntyre.  (I’m not entirely certain what I mean by that.)

Zoom has also become the go-to family quiz medium and, as a nation, perhaps as a planet, we have never needed to know what the Patagonian flag looks like as much as we have over the last few months.  Zoom has become the medium by which the Family Smart-Arse has been uncovered and reviled.  If you are that person – and you will know if you are – don’t think you can mend the damage you wreaked by accusing grandma of cheating and having the Reader’s Digest Compendium at her side, by deliberately getting the Rick Astley question wrong.  You cannot.  Being the last to close down the connection will not stop everyone talking about you.

Zoom also means that you cannot disguise the fact that you haven’t crawled out of your pyjamas all day and that you really are eating cornflakes out of Aunty Doreen’s Royal Dalton wedding present.  ‘What are you eating?’ is the general starting point of every conversation, followed by the more detailed inquisition of whether they deliver, do they charge for prawn crackers and is the batter gluten-free?   Such Zoom conversations often take wings, drifting off into questions as diverse as, ‘What did you eat yesterday?’ and ‘What are you eating tomorrow?’  It is never long before all involved are comparing gin and tonics.

The nuclear family has been dissipated and our current travails have, in some ways, dragged us back together.  Our own family Zoom evenings have resulted in gatherings of such number that the lights dim all over the village.  We get together weekly in numbers that we would have formerly gathered together only on Christmas Day – and nobody is stressed over the bread sauce, the dishwasher has not coughed thirty litres of sludge over the kitchen floor, and little Billy has not swallowed the plastic toy out of Uncle Norman’s un-pulled cracker. 

It is very odd how a pandemic, bent on driving us further apart, has actually pulled us closer together.  How we have all discovered that we can easily manage a couple of hours with the in-laws when we don’t have to actually share the same room.  How we have discovered that the grandkids understand the limitations of the internet even less than we do.  How we have all discovered that we can detect the ‘beep’ of somebody else’s dishwasher through the hubbub of twenty consecutive conversations, three different channels on the TV and the stutter of somebody’s connection as they simultaneously try to stream Game of Thrones and Love Island Revisited*.  A zoom lens makes things appear to be much closer than they actually are.  For a short time, a Zoom conversation, brings us spiritually closer.  It is the only silver lining I can find in our current cloud, but it is one we wouldn’t have had twenty years ago…

*I think I just made that up.  Unless anyone can prove otherwise, please consider it copyright.

Oh, and just to prove to James that I actually have no musical taste whatsoever, the music playing in the background as I finish this piece is Zoom by the Electric light Orchestra, and I’m not even going to apologise for it… 

Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I had not a single view. I did not publish anything, but they are quite often my best days. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Oh well, I suppose I’ll have to keep on prattling after all…

The Power of Sixty

Photo by Tim Cooper on Unsplash

‘So why,’ I hear you ask, ‘as the country is just beginning to stagger uncertainly out of lockdown, blinking into the unaccustomed glare of The New Normal with all the untold possibilities it presents, have you decided to write a blog about a number – and a pretty unprepossessing one at that?’ Well the truth is, having recently reorganised a life’s work in my office I found, in amongst a forest-full of failed books, sketches and unheard pitches, a stack of carefully preserved cards from my sixtieth birthday, and it set me thinking. It is, in fact, the third week in which I have attempted to write this blog, but each time I have settled down to do it, self-isolation effects have rolled over me and I have written about those instead. It has become something of a Millwall around my neck*. I return to work on Monday, so I thought that the time was probably right to try and bash my head into some kind of shape and this seems as good a way as any of doing so. If it is disjointed, it is because it needs to be. It is where my head is – and it’s so far up there, quite honestly, that I can’t quite see back out at this minute.

I know little of numerology. In fact, until I Googled ‘60’a few moments ago, I was unaware of its very existence but, never-the-less I was directed to its webpage where I discovered that, ‘the number 60 is a number of family, home, and nurturing. It is also a number of harmony and idealism, the ideal generally related to a harmonious family relationship. 60 has maternal and paternal instincts.’ Well, that’s ok isn’t it? So far, so good, but then, curiosity piqued, I searched a little further on and slipped a little way off piste where I discovered that 60 is the direct dialling phone code for Malaysia and the atomic number for Neodymium. (A strongly magnetic metallic element. So strong, indeed, that a stray limb, dangled recklessly between two such magnets, could find its bones shattered. I am working on my episode of Midsomer Murders as I type, and also the kind of seal that does not allow me to leave the freezer door open after a 2am ice-cream raid.) 60 is also the highest obtainable level in the World of Warcraft – I do not know if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but I estimate that I am probably about 61 years too old to ever find out.

I then slipped a little further into Google, where I discovered that, mathematically, the number 60 is ‘a composite number, with divisors 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60, making it a highly composite number. Because it is the sum of its unitary divisors (excluding itself), it is a unitary perfect number and it is an abundant number with an abundance of 48. Being ten times a perfect number, it is a semiperfect number’ and decided to stick with numerology because, even though it is obviously utter tripe, I can, at least, understand the words. I estimate that I understand about one in sixty of the words in the mathematical definition, and then only by removing them and inserting them into a sentence about chocolate.

I thought that perhaps, as the most interesting occurrences of my own life are firmly behind me, I might find a little more interest in the historical facts associated with the number 60. There are, of course, two years 60 in the Gregorian Calendar, so I started with the first of them. Well, the most notable thing I could find about the year 60BC is that it appears to be the birth date of Ptolemy XIV of Egypt who was murdered by his own sister, Cleopatra, in order to ensure the accession of her illegitimate son (by Julius Caesar) Caesarion – who might just have entered the world via the sunroof. This kind of behaviour was, apparently, all the rage at the time, especially for Royalty and rulers who did not have to worry about public opinion or an appearance on the Andrew Marr Show. Although I do seem to recall that Cleo actually died having clasped an asp to her bosom (or vice versa) so, presumably, at least some sense of accountability there – ‘Infamy, infamy; they’ve all got it infamy…’** In truth, the most interesting thing about 60BC, for me, is that nobody living then could possibly have had the faintest idea that that is what it was. Imagine not knowing what year it is! (Ok, ok, time to own up to the fact that I once spent an entire year mistakenly telling anyone who asked me that I was fifty-eight, only to realise on my subsequent birthday, that I was actually fifty-seven, just about to become fifty-eight.)

Jumping on 120 years (I think that’s correct – do I add, subtract, or both?) to AD60 and the most notable thing, to me, is still that nobody would have known what year it was. There were any number of ways of denominating the year and even two common ways of deciding what day it was (I know, I know – neither have I for the last few months) and, believe it or not, nobody even thought about checking their mobile. The world was dominated by the Roman Empire which was challenged, in some parts of England, by Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, who proved, like Luke Skywalker, to be a complete thorn in the Empire’s side. Her crusade led to the slaughter of thousands (although not, to the best of my knowledge, the destruction of any planets) and eventually her own death which, ironically, facilitated our eventual access to tarmac roads and flushing toilets.

I do find a pleasing synchronicity in the knowledge that those born in 1960 will, themselves, be 60 this year and the most notable thing about them is that they will not have the faintest idea what year it is. There was so much free love and LSD in the air back then that anybody who has survived the Sixties will be completely addled. Do not worry: at 60 it is perfectly normal to know what day it is only after you have read your pill packets. People born in 1960 include Jeremy Clarkson, Diego Maradona, Bono, and RuPaul – which just goes to show….

*With thanks to the spirit of the great Hilda Baker.

**Second best in-dialogue one-liner of all time. We all know the best…