One of our pages was getting a lot of hits: the data collection record in the platform was showing far more visitors than usual to the page about Cleaning up the ‘Net . So I decided to look at the underlying analytics and there found that today was 23 January, 2021.
Ouch. That’s the day after a birthday I really should not overlook. Then, I thought, how could I not know? I found my mobile phone lying unwanted and unloved in another room and went to the group chat. It had been silent for two days.
I looked at my other messaging systems (which, hooray, no longer include WhatsApp and I am Facebook Free although I am under no illusions that they are not still scraping information about me from other users). They had been almost silent, too. And e-mail was almost empty except for tedious marketing messages and spam. LinkedIn seems to have become a megaphone, notices tacked to lamp-posts, with very little discourse.
In this weird, disjointed, disassociated, fucked-up and fucked about world, we can, it seems, add disconnected.
In a world where you can’t dash off a note saying “do you fancy meeting for coffee” or whatever, a major reason for communicating disappears.
In a world where, as in my own and many other buildings, you can’t say “pop round for lunch” because visitors are not – and have not been for several weeks – permitted, why send a message?
In a world where you can’t say “do you fancy a drive out to the beach?” or “I’m going to visit a friend’s plantation, do you want to come” what is there to say?
After almost a year of sending messages saying “how’s your day” when you know that the reply is equally formulaic – and no one wants to say “there was no point in getting out of bed except to eat and now I’m getting fat” contact becomes almost something to dread. Everyone is being brave; everyone is feeling, well, not.
There are those who thought the first round of lockdowns were quite fun: there was a spirit of exchanging recipes, crowing about how many pounds people had lost within, say, six weeks, the clapping on the doorsteps, the singing on the balconies.
You can’t do that for 300 days in a row and still feel good about it.
There are those that rail against the restrictions, those who claim that the virus is a hoax, a right-wing plot to control the world. Or a left-wing plot to control the world. There are those that say that vaccination is the work of the Devil. There are those who say that masks have no value, that anti-social distancing is a a means of preventing discourse, that the closure of bars is a breach of their human rights when evidence is that if bars are opened, customers don’t keep themselves or others safe.
There are those who deny every piece of science not when it’s new and has political shock value but when it’s properly investigated and proved.
And so those who are following the stay-at-home, wear-a-mask, keep-your-distance mantra are increasingly isolated while those that don’t care if they become infected or infect others are happily frolicking in parks, private parties and underground clubs, bars, dodgy karaoke and brothels.
In the road behind my flat, police road blocks stop every vehicle. I watched a motorcycle as the rider spotted the roadblock, jammed on the brakes, turned quickly into an alley then, finding that blocked, turned back and rode the wrong way down two one-way streets to avoid being checked, all the time his passenger clinging on. Lesson One for the police. Station an officer 100 metres before the main roadblock to catch those who turn around to avoid it.
I have stopped going for my morning walks: an increasing number of construction workers, many not wearing masks and some coughing, crowd the streets in the early morning, visiting take-aways opposite their workplace. There is no need for this: the operator of the eatery could set up a table inside the construction site so the workers who, generally through no fault of their own, are the hotspots for the spread of the virus, can remain on site. The risk to the operator is not increased but the risk to the broader citizenry would be reduced to close to zero.
This is especially so given that, in Central Kuala Lumpur, all construction was to cease unless the workers lived on site or in company provided accommodation so as to keep this high risk group in a contained environment. Also, eateries are allowed only for take-away so there is no benefit to the workers in visiting the shop rather than to visit a tent in the construction compound.
The end result is that unless a valid but largely artificial reason can be generated, no one can go out. I can’t go anywhere that justifies using my car so it sits, in the garage, the battery dying unless I remember to disconnect it every time I park it because it’s so long between uses that the alarm drains it. But I don’t because when I park it, I don’t expect the world to be shut down again within days.
I’m fed up with this pandemic. I miss the simple things in life. Maybe that’s why today is proving a difficult day.
I got up, thought “I fancy brisket and tendon with choi sum.” OK, so maybe to you what follows won’t sound like one of life’s simple things but to me, it used to be.
In the past, when such a whim struck, I’d drive to the airport, get the first flight to Hong Kong and book a return, get the train to Kowloon station, get the free hotel bus into TST and walk into the hole in the wall place in an alley by HSBC in Nathan Road. After that, I’d walk behind the bank and have a browse around Tom Lee looking at instruments I know I’ll never be able to play but see as art and, perhaps, buy a gadget for my son, then go to the bakery and fill up my hand luggage bag with traditional gai mei bau and a couple of bollo bau for good measure. Then I’d hop back on the bus, get the train to the airport and be home in time for dinner, knowing that my freezer would contain those delights for.. well, not very long actually.
I can’t do that because I can’t travel to KLIA unless I already have a ticket booked and have permission to travel outside the borders of Kuala Lumpur; I can’t get on a plane unless I have a clear virus test; on arrival in HKG, I have to have another test and stay in the airport until the results are out; then I have to go into 14 days’ quarantine. I can’t use the train to get into the city because that would break quarantine. I can’t use the bus. And after I get back to KLIA – they won’t let me in because I hold a British passport. I am a guest in Malaysia, with no right to reside, a state of affairs that allows many foreigners to live but not establish ourselves here. Having said that, I have a home and a car that I’ve had for longer than any home or car I’ve ever had anywhere else: I regard myself as very, very lucky to live here. There is almost no where else I can go. And if I did, I’d have all the same rigmarole that the trip to HKG created. Even if I were allowed back in I’d be in quarantine – even though my own apartment actually provides more isolation than the quarantine hotels. And I can’t pass the gadget to my son because for more than eight months he was trapped in Taipei and now he’s in China.
Even if I did all of that, who knows if the places I want to go to are open and, if not, if they are closed temporarily or for ever? Have I eaten my last ever gai mai bau, the best food in the world? Bar none. But not the “modern” messed about versions. Nor the close but not close enough versions in London or Sydney?
In another life, when I was in practice, the owner of the bakery in London’s Chinatown was a client. He brought the people and the equipment from Hong Kong and it still wasn’t right and no one knew why. No, I want the old-fashioned ones, in bakeries that have been in the same place for more than 50 years, that have survived everything. So far. Not far away, my previous favourite, opposite the wonderful Roadside Bar (it’s full with a dozen people so that must be struggling, too) closed when the building was sold by those who had owned it for generations and the new landlord demanded a huge rise in rent then converted it into a restaurant that, if there are patterns, is now probably unable to pay its rent.
Bakeries, one hopes and expects, should fare better so perhaps, in the small lane behind the bank, there is still some hope.
So here’s the thing: in my freezer, I have my own masterstock (if you don’t know what that is look it up and then say, either “you do what? Yuk” or “that’s a great idea, I’ll get on it immediately”). I have brisket. I have beef tendon. I have all the herbs and spices in my cupboard. I have the fresh and dried ingredients, too so as to liven up the stock. I can easily make it. But it’s not the same.
I can cook fish and chips but when I’m in the UK, I want them from the chippy. It’s not about the product, it’s about the going out to get it, the sitting in a crowded, noisy restaurant with cooks shouting across the room and looking at me, the sole gwai loh in their tiny, scruffy place, slurping the nectar they have been churning out for decades, trying to avoid splashing it on my shirt or dripping off my chin. And being happy.
But, I digress. That’s another feature of these weird times.
What is it about this who situation that is making the concept of time so elastic?
I stick, more or less, to office hours, albeit my hours are a full working day adrift from the office in London. I do regular (woefully inadequate) exercise. I do housework. I cook. I shower twice a day and have clean clothes every day. I change the bedding. There is no slobbishness.
This is nothing like the houses of the depressed elderly that I used to visit in practice, where increasing mess – and smell – was gradual so the people didn’t notice. But there is a feeling that it’s all rather pointless: for three months, I have had boxes of pictures in my TV room – I put up some then got bored and later decided that if no one ever sees them, why bother taking them out of their packing cases?
So, there they sit and the sofa is still on its end to make it possible to work around it and the TV is still in my study. If I am the only beneficiary, why bother? Yesterday, I put waterproof tape in the kitchen to prevent water from the mop going under the kick-plates. It took half an hour. I’d been putting it off for weeks.
The quality of my writing has deteriorated: my sentences are poor, words are missing, Sometimes a paragraph stops mid sentence. When I go back to re-read it, it’s difficult to see it as my own work. Often, I lose the thread mid paragraph or, worryingly, mid sentence. Worse, what should take me a couple of hours is taking me two days and then it’s so shit it has to be done again. Why? How can it come to this?
One day, I put on my Spotify collection and sat in a chair, not even reading, for several hours, absorbed in the music, entirely unaware of the passing day. True, it’s 30 odd hours of great music (not all of which did I listen to) but even so: I really should get off my arse and do something.
I am prevented from cooking for people which is the activity around most of which my social life, in the pre-CoVid-19 days, revolved. The only thing I can do, para-productively, is to sit at my PC and work. But after so long, that is now so lacking in originality that thought slows; my body is so used to sitting in one position that it often moans when I tell it to do something else. Cooking is a release because, unlike blips on a screen, there is something tangible and, ideally, edible at the end of it.
I am not the only one, I am not alone in this situation – in the sense that there are many others in the same position and much, much worse.
But, hell, how do you not notice a birthday that you’ve been celebrating since 1978?
Buck up, Nigel.
This really isn’t good enough.
And try to write something that isn’t total bollocks at the first attempt.