Mass Observation


This Blog is entitled ‘In Surreal Time’ and experts are in agreement that there’s no time as surreal as the present. Inspired by this, some wag at HMG came up with the bright idea of encouraging everyone to ‘write their day’ in the style of the World War 2 Mass Observation project, on 12th May. I have never been a patient soul and so I shall write up just a typical working day in our house instead, drawn from a combo of last week’s days.

Our workplace – transport engineers in an office not a million miles from York Railway Station – had always had I.T. problems. That was, until about 15th March when, well in advance of HMG’s lockdown announcement, they found enough laptops, peripherals and connectors to send us all home to work. No-one – as far as I know – was lain off (although some one in 10 were furloughed last week). People who’d been working on-site were either redeployed or, with extra precautions and if qualified and willing, required to work alone.

I was literally the last to leave, carrying with me a lap-top that I.T. wanted back but couldn’t have, a screen belonging to someone else, and possibly the last HDMI cable in the building.

To my astonishment, the IT from home has (so far) worked flawlessly.

I get up at about eight, having had breakfast in bed (because basically I am spoiled rotten). I shower. The shower’s another piece of good luck: its predecessor had a slow leak (into the kitchen) and was replaced just a couple of weeks before it all kicked off. These days it would probably be illegal, barring emergency, to have a plumber work indoors.

There are two computers in the spare room: the laptop from work, and my ancient P.C. upon which (for example) I’m writing this. If I’m a little early I might post a few tweets first to catch the morning crowd before disconnecting the monitor, mouse and keyboard from my machine and hitching them up to the laptop.

We have a Teams meeting at 9 every working day. Words can’t do justice to the sheer genius of this idea: suddenly you’re not alone, there’s banter, information from high-ups, confirmation of what you need to do for the day, and of course the familiar faces of workmates (plus a chance to kneb at the places where they live).

The house turns into 2 offices for the morning: one here in the spare room, and one in Eugene’s study.

We generally make soup for lunch, and have it with bread, cheese and the like. This week it’s been sorrel soup made with leaves from the garden. My work lunchbreak is 12 till 1 and I generally stick to this. The University often end up making Eugene work through lunch hour in exchange for some daft time like 3 till 4.

I work though till some time between 5:30 and 6. I email with a summary of what I’ve done, then disconnect the computer so that I can spend the evening on my own non-work emails and twitter. Sometimes we watch the News (Channel 4 at 7 pm). Victoria Macdonald is the new Kate Adie for this disaster. This week the U.K.’s official death toll became the highest in Europe. As an island, and with the greatest lead-time, we should have had the lowest. Nearly all the health workers you see dying are Black or Islamic. My theory is stress (the extra stress caused by racism), coupled with Vitamin D uptake. An enquiry has been launched but I’m not sure who by, and no-one seems to have much confidence it’ll find the answer.

Over this weekend I’ve watched the confusion as government-sanctioned V.E. Day celebrations have collided with exhortations to stay home and keep calm. Not everyone has a front garden with enough room for a tea party. We do, but V.E. Day in this house is 9th, not 8th, and it’s not a time for tea-parties either. Eugene is up early to cycle on deserted roads in fresh sunshine to the memorial at Great Ouseburn to lay flowers (an even number, for mourning). Someone, since last year, has been good enough to fasten a vase beneath the two plaques (one in English, one in Russian).

I have been gardening. Two sacks of professional compost, bought on a belter of a sunny day after queueing for an hour in the car-park at B&Q (in a line helpfully decorated with 2-metre makers for Social Distancing), have revitalised the planters at the side garden and they are now full of seedlings (herbs salad, beans, sunflowers…). It’s remarkable how much better the professional compost holds the water than soil shovelled from the garden does. It also looks neater.

I can’t help but love the empty roads and the quiet. Yet for every car journey not made there is likely somebody’s daily wages gone, so it’s selfish of me in a way. The 80% furlough money covers far from everybody – only ‘old economy Steve’ types with a regular salary and PAYE.

I wear a paper mask if I’m going into someone else’s building, but not for general outdoors. I’d like to, but it mists up my glasses. No-one has come up with a solid work-around for this, though everyone with face furniture suffers it.

As for writing: it had already taken a bashing when I started work last June. Nowadays it’s almost impossible. I like to write set in ‘the present’ but where is that ‘present’ now? Think of all the characters in novels who travel so easily, who hug or shake hands when they meet; who are generally not in shock at what’s just happened. Do we set our tales in a generic near-past, now so out-of-time? Or in the actual present with its weirdness?

And if we write set in the future, what’s that going to look like? We don’t even know if a vaccine is physically possible. The common cold – also a Coronavirus – has no vaccine and it’s not for lack of effort on our part. We don’t know – I at least have not yet heard anyone mention it – what the psychological effects will be upon all of us when it finally sinks in that we are no longer top of the food chain.



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