Disconnected from popular culture: 2020 special

I’ve mentioned before how I’m adrift from popular culture and the majority experience as portrayed in the media. I haven’t owned a TV since March 2002, I don’t read tabloids, wear make-up, follow fashion, or own a car or dishwasher. Ordinarily it means I don’t always get the references on Radio 4 comedies – I haven’t seen the advert or sitcom they’re referring to, or I haven’t experienced the frustration they’re talking about since I don’t own a smartphone. Trivial stuff, on the whole. At its worst it makes me feel old, that I’ve been left behind by modern life, but then I see some spat on Twitter and I’m glad I’ve never bothered to find out who Kim Kardashian is. I shrug and get on with it. 2020, however, is a different matter.

This year of turmoil is the ultimate in ‘all in this together’. As a human being, never mind a writer, I should be carefully observing all these changes to everyday life so I can look back on this notable, disruptive year. The insidious little things like adding ‘mask’ to the leaving-the-house checklist, or ‘you need to unmute’ becoming a kind of catchphrase. And yet, largely, I’m not experiencing them.

Because my day-job contract was about to end anyway when lockdown hit in March, I spent eight days working the day-job from home. Eight. During the mad scramble phase where we knew certain systems wouldn’t work and we were leaving some complex tasks ‘until we got back to the office’. It felt like a crisis and an intriguing novelty at the same time, but it also felt temporary, for my colleagues as well as for me. I never had to face the realisation that we wouldn’t be going back to the office anytime soon, or the protracted loneliness of interacting with colleagues in a work context but not getting to natter to them in the kitchen anymore. I didn’t even have the forced jollity of a morale-boosting quiz night in Microsoft Teams. All I had to do was accept that my rainbow striped mug was out of reach on a desk that was no longer mine and my leaving drinks weren’t going to happen, even the ‘come back and have a proper goodbye in the summer’ version. And since I’d been planning on taking the rest of the year to concentrate on my writing I haven’t (yet) had to look for jobs during a time of major redundancies, or do an interview via Zoom, or be a new starter when everyone’s working remotely.

OneMonkey worked from home most of the time pre-pandemic, so we’d been expecting to be at home together most days from April onwards. We’d worked like that before, when I took my previous writing-focused break (Nov 2016 – Mar 2018). It’s been weird not having one day a week where he’s in the office so I’m not tempted to wander into the next room and chat when I reach a tricky plot knot, but not that far removed from our plans. We don’t have children so we never had to juggle any of this with home-schooling or try to explain to a toddler why they can’t go to the park and play on the swings. Because neither of us had unexpected downtime, we didn’t bake sourdough or take up new hobbies, and I haven’t caught up on classic books I’d been meaning to read, in fact I’ve read less than normal.

I didn’t have a camera on the computer I was doing my day-job from so I never took part in a video meeting while worrying about my PJ bottoms becoming visible if I stretched. My laptop doesn’t cope well with playing video, and the tablet we have only seems to consistently pick up my mic if I’m in a Zoom break-out room with fewer than 4 participants so I’ve generally avoided events on Zoom that aren’t simply presentations. Against my better judgement I’ve signed up for the odd one that requires interaction, then got frustrated as I can only make myself heard intermittently, and can’t type on the chat fast enough to take part in the conversation. I have never been interrupted by a pet or family member wandering into shot, oblivious.

The big one I’m missing out on is the mask. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been mixing indoors without one, I mean I haven’t been anywhere. I’m easily flustered and my dodgy back means I often can’t carry much shopping, so back in early March when we decided it was fairer on retail staff if we didn’t shop as a pair (before that became the rule) it fell to OneMonkey to do all of the grocery shopping. He took photos of the empty shelves to show me because I thought all the talk of panic-buying was exagerated nonsense. Mid-April I walked down the local high street for the first time since lockdown and marvelled at the Easter displays fading in shop windows, beneath posters still advertising events for March. It felt weirdly post-apocalyptic but on the plus side it was possible to dance along the main road watching red kites soar overhead, a road that’s normally hard to cross due to the amount of traffic – unless it’s shut for the Tour de Yorkshire.

I took the phrase ‘non-essential’ to heart, and decided when the shops re-opened it wasn’t worth risking passing the virus around just because I fancied buying a new notebook or browsing through the books in a charity shop. I don’t even know if you were allowed to browse through the books in a charity shop. This is the kind of detail I’ll be unaware of if I choose to set any fiction in this pandemic era. I haven’t been to a city since March 16th – I haven’t been anywhere I can’t reasonably walk to. I have no pressing need, and our local council has been consistently advising that public transport should only be used if unavoidable (remember, we have no car). I get claustrophobic just thinking about being on a train for half an hour with a mask on, anyway. Consequently I haven’t seen the changes wrought by remote working except through photos online. Neither have I had socially-distanced meetings with friends or family, or been inside a pub or restaurant under the new guidelines. I don’t know how people have been behaving, how you choose your pint from the selection of guest ales, what the new signs look like (are they using signs or is it gaffer tape on the floor, or a system of roped-off areas?). I don’t know the new retail etiquette, or if there is any new etiquette, how people queue when they can’t get close, how conversations arise if everyone’s wearing a mask.

So as usual I’m listening to Radio 4 comedies and either not getting the references at all, or recalling an article I’ve read about it in The Guardian. But somehow it doesn’t feel as trivial as usual. In one way, the writer way if you like, it feels like a missed opportunity to observe a (hopefully) temporary phenomenon. On a human level I also feel guilty that I’ve largely dodged this, like I’m shirking some kind of responsibility. It also serves as a reminder that Radio 4 comedies with their white-collar Zoom-laden rule-of-six vibe haven’t been reflecting the experience of everyone. People who have been working as normal in supermarkets, hospitals or factories for instance, or were living under tight restrictions in the north even before the new all-England lockdown. Like my sisters, whose situation as undervalued ‘key workers’ inspired me to write the short story Twelve Weeks’ Rest during the first lockdown. And I’m not saying Radio 4 is always entirely middle-class and London-centric, but that does make the times feel somehow more normal.

If you enjoyed Twelve Weeks’ Rest you can always buy me a cuppa…

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