friends

Sharing Isolation in an Asynchronous World

Back in 2018 when I got a new day-job it was a two-year contract so I knew that, all other things being equal, I would leave in mid-April 2020. As we began this year, what with Easter and accumulated leave my last day in the office looked like it was going to be March 31st. What perfect timing, I thought, for my last-Sunday-of-the-month blog post to be an amusing look back at office life, commuting, and the people-watching I’d done over the previous two years. Light-hearted thoughts about the pronunciation of acronyms and why I was inordinately fond of a database that sounded like it was called Malcolm, even though I knew nothing about its contents or purpose. Speculations on the sudden smartening up of a familiar stranger. That kind of thing.

As we’ve all noticed by now, however, March 2020 isn’t going to anybody’s plan (unless, perhaps, you’re one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – which really makes me want to go back and finish a comic fantasy story I started writing in 2012) and my last day in the office turned out to be, rather abruptly, March 16th. Because I mainly sit at a computer all day sieving and cleaning data and occasionally taking a SQL-spanner to the workings of the odd database, I can work from home. There are technical challenges that need to be figured out before we can work completely as normal, but basically I’m easily transplantable. Every now and then over the last couple of years I’ve had a day or two working from home for one reason or another and it’s been fine being on my own, peaceful and productive. Besides, after March 31st I was planning to be writing at home anyway, with OneMonkey working in the next room three days a week, so all I’ve done is move to the next (planned) phase of my life two weeks early. Except it doesn’t work like that because for those two weeks I still have colleagues.

I tend to keep the day-job out of this, but I guess with a quick search for my name you could find out what I do so it seems tiresome to talk around it in this context: I work (for the next week and a bit) on statutory returns at a university, sending student data to HESA and the OfS. Bits of it are fiddly and arcane, and at certain times of the year incredibly high-pressure, and the four of us in the HESA corner end up having long, detailed, technical discussions over whether some particular student in unusual circumstances should take this code or that code out of the five rigidly defined possibilities in the HESA specifications, and kind of forget that anyone else in the office exists. Believe me, we’re great fun at parties. Assuming that by ‘parties’ you mean gatherings of geeks who are particularly interested in student records. And like to quote Douglas Adams at every available opportunity.

Because that’s the thing you miss when you’re suddenly all separate. The in-jokes, the familiar joshing, the leaning round the monitor and asking what’s up when you hear the snort of disbelief from the other side of the desk. In my writing life I’ve never had that, I’m not missing out on anyone’s company by sitting at home rather than being somewhere else. I was gearing up for leaving my office job and I knew I’d miss everyone but it feels so odd suddenly never hearing someone’s laugh (or Terry Jones impression) and yet still interacting with them via email or text discussion, rather than having left them behind as expected.

We’re all getting to grips with using Microsoft Teams and apart from technicalities like getting headsets to work, we’re grappling with etiquette about why and when and how to initiate a voice call, which I’m sure will settle down after a while (though maybe not before I’ve left). In the office, I can see from the set of my colleague’s shoulders that she’s concentrating and I shouldn’t disturb her, but I can also see her stand up to stretch or get a drink and before she settles back to work again I can ask her a question or tell her some piece of information she might like to know but doesn’t warrant clogging up her inbox. At a distance, the best I can do is leave it in Teams and see if/when she spots it (as yet, we haven’t all got the hang of mentions and notifications and the like either). The Dilbert cartoons, the cat pictures and the Dungeons and Dragons memes that we might lean over each others’ screens to look at are missing entirely so far, as we try and keep the Teams feed ‘professional’, whatever that means.

At the end of the week we instituted a daily afternoon chat, half an hour of hearing each others’ voices (and seeing the one person with a working webcam) and it surprised me both how much I was looking forward to it all afternoon and how refreshing it was. Over the last few years I realise I’ve gradually slipped into asynchronous communication outside of office life. I don’t have the hour-long phone conversations with friend T that were a feature of our lives (however irregular) for twenty years, we text for quick updates or email if we want to include pictures. I went from Christmas Day to mid-February without hearing the sound of any of my siblings’ voices, in fact I still haven’t spoken to Big Brother – Sister Number One and I text each other so we all know what’s going on in each others’ lives (they all live in one place, I live 20 miles or so away). Nobody seems to watch TV programmes or even listen to the radio at the same time anymore, it’s all about catch-up services and convenience, and there’s so much choice and individuality that they’re often not watching or listening to the same thing anyway so all of the ‘did you hear..?’ has gone. I wonder if this enforced separation will change that?

I’ve already seen global book clubs springing up on Twitter, I think Robert Macfarlane for one was suggesting everyone read a particular book and then presumably they’ll discuss it somehow. Bands are live-streaming gigs with no audience, or filming to put them online. Writers are setting up webinar groups to write together to the same prompt at the same time as though they were in the same room. Even with catch-up or podcasts, you could agree with a friend that you’ll both watch or listen to the new episode on a particular day of the week and then ring up for a chat about it. Or even better, video call. Maybe when broadband is struggling with all the extra home-working and extra streaming of TV services to bored people in self-isolation I shouldn’t be encouraging extra strain on the capacity. However, having used Skype or Google Hangouts now and then to catch up with distant friends and family, I can recommend it if you’re not used to phoning particular friends. Particularly if you’re using a screen that’s larger than a phone screen, and preferably have it propped up somewhere (for a phone or tablet – you don’t have that problem with a laptop) so you don’t have to hold it for ages, it can start to feel more like a cosy chat in the same room than a potentially stilted phonecall. You get the body language cues of someone being about to speak so you don’t keep talking over each other, and it can include anyone in the household who wanders into the room, rather than it being one on one.

This pandemic is necessarily going to change everyone’s lives, at least for a while. We’re all going to have to get used to our own company but don’t misjudge the place of casual interactions. If you’re used to pointing to a passing peregrine falcon from the office window and sparking a conversation, or chatting about hair straighteners while you queue for the kettle, you probably need to find an equivalent of that while you’re in your weird new solitary world. Now excuse me while I make a cup of tea and see if my dad’s up for sitting quietly in front of distant screens making occasional observations about what birds each of us can see from our respective windows.

A preemptive playlist

Thus far, I’ve got about an hour and a half of the playlist I’m putting together for my fortieth birthday party. So what? Well, I’m not forty for another eighteen months, and I have no plans for a party when I get there.

Thus began the piece I sent to DNA magazine last year for their first issue (it was longlisted, then pipped by another playlist piece, unfortunately). We’re in the 3-month period in question, so I thought I’d share it here. Now read on…

I’ve never been one for parties, even as a student. I went to two eighteenth birthday parties thrown by friends of a friend, and then nothing. No-one in my circle had parties for their twenty-first or thirtieth birthdays, the few who’ve already hit forty haven’t thrown a party for that either. There were no engagement parties, nobody’s hit any milestone wedding anniversaries yet, and the single divorce was not the cause for celebration they’re made out to be in films. We don’t do Christmas or New Year parties, or any-excuse-for-a-barbecue parties in the summer. We did throw a house-warming party once, for two guests, and all four of us spent most of the evening chatting in the kitchen.

Next year in the space of three months my other half will turn forty, we’ll have been together twenty years, and then I’ll turn forty. Surely if ever there was a prompt to have a party, those three months would be it. Plenty to celebrate, lots to look back on, a broad timeframe with which to work. I realised that a couple of years ago, hence I started putting the playlist together. I knew that if I was going to throw only one party in my adult life I had to get the music right and ensure the optimum level of dancing. The only problem is the guests.

I have a crossover of musical taste with some but not all of my friends and close family. About half of them would hate at least half the music. In a way that doesn’t matter because the only potential guests keen on dancing are my parents and their hips will no longer allow it. Which highlights another party problem: is it safe to mix friends and family? My eldest sister didn’t exactly ban family from her fortieth, she just strongly discouraged us. It makes sense, few of us show the same version of ourselves to everyone, and there are anecdotes you probably don’t want your friends recounting in front of your mum. So, friends only?

Even if I figured that one out I’d still have a venue to find. Our flat will hold half a dozen guests comfortably, assuming no-one wants to dance. Then there’s food, drink, timing. The one simple, controllable thing is the playlist. I’ve got another eighteen months to fine-tune it so it’s perfect for the only party I’ll throw in my adult life. Then next year, sometime during those three key months, my other half and I can dance to it alone in our flat.

Summer story and science storytelling

As promised last week, here’s a link to my story Summer of ’96 at The Fiction Pool. I wrote it in June for the Ilkley Writers summer-themed evening of readings, as I mentioned at the time. Everyone will get something different from it, such is the nature of these things, but partly it was about it being time to move on, about not fitting but not necessarily seeing that as wholly a bad thing. I left school in the summer of 1996, aged 17, but I assure you I didn’t go to the coast with my friends and the story is entirely fictional (though Benjy has an element of a lad I was good friends with at the time). Though the link might not be obvious the story burst forth from my repeated relistening to Born to Run when I was reading the Springsteen autobiography of the same name, and the length and rhythm of some of the sentences are directly a result of that. They were kind of hard to read out, particularly with hayfever, so I’m glad it’s in print now and you can all read it for yourselves instead.

Another thing you can read if you’re of a mind is an article in the SciArt magazine STEAM special, about Alice Courvoisier and I doing science-related storytelling in York last year (which you may have read about here at the time). STEAM stands for the usual STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) plus arts, and the special supplement is full of people from universities talking about interdisciplinary education. I had a minor moment of excitement at being on a contents list with someone from MIT (you may need a physics background to truly appreciate that).

Weekend creativity

Like those conversations in the pub that are full of great plans but never amount to anything, OneMonkey and our artist friend Mark and I have spent most of today drinking tea on the sofa and telling each other what to do, knowing 90% of it will be ignored. If we weren’t shy, if we had more confidence, if we were more organised, if we only had time to do this project justice… The excuses have been flying around, all of us about as bad as each other, but between us we’ve generated a few ideas that might pay off (not in terms of actual money, obviously, but maybe in terms of artistic satisfaction). It’s an interesting exercise having an outsider’s perspective (by which I mean I’m not a painter or illustrator, Mark and OneMonkey are not writers), asking the questions that are so obvious they’ve been overlooked.

So, in between all the book reviews I’m writing, all the books I’m reading, the 3 writing deadlines that are looming, and the continuing amusement of the interactive detective story I’m writing with OneMonkey (not to mention the art history MOOC I’ve just started and the philosophy MOOC I still haven’t finished) I’ll try following up on some of today’s suggestions. When was it I was supposed to sleep..?

Faint memory fragments through a different lens

A couple of weeks ago, a coincidence of reunions. Two people I know slightly, when brought into the same room turned out to have been at university together, more years ago than either would probably care to dwell on. Earlier that day a friend had told me about meeting the husband of an acquaintance – I know him, she said, now where from? Then the memory resurfaced, of one brief conversation 30 years ago in the woodwork room, with this boy who wasn’t in her class. She even remembered his name.

I reassure myself, when facts, dates and details escape me, that it’s all in there somewhere and I could retrieve it if I really had to. Whether that’s true or not, it’s the junk that remains a little nearer the surface that’s interesting, and the way it differs for everyone. In both instances I mentioned, one of the pair had a memory sparked off by the other’s presence while the other took more prompting (or didn’t have any recollection at all but was too polite to say so). Was it seeing the person that triggered the memory, or would they have spontaneously surfaced if the recaller had been asked half an hour earlier to think of people from university, or from school?

It made me wonder about all the paths I’ve crossed at 4 schools and 3 universities, not to mention everywhere else I’ve ever been. Spontaneously, I can remember all sorts of odd details about people even if I never knew their names, regulars from the bus I stopped catching 5 years ago, or girls the year below me at primary school. Do they remember me at all, or do I show up on the radar of people I wouldn’t even recognise if they introduced themselves to me at a party? Not that I go to parties, but maybe if they ran into me in the middle of Bradford or strolling through Eldon Square one Christmas. Does the girl whose pristine set of plain wood casing colouring pencils from WH Smith (W Aitchsmith, as she always said) that I can still picture so vividly remember that she owned them, aged 8? If she remembers me at all, is there some detail in the forefront of her mind that I’ve long forgotten?

I dread to think how some people remember me, and I’m absolutely certain I’ll have faded from some memories I’d rather have lodged in, but I’d like to think there are a couple of people in the East Midlands with hazy 30-year recollections of a little girl who always had a Snoopy flask full of tea.

The highly predictable review of the year, and a preview of 2013

With one mince pie and a heel of stollen left in the tin, it’s time to turn our attention to the changing of the calendar. A moment to pause and reflect on the twelve months behind, and start planning the next batch.

2012 saw the release of my first novel Wasted Years, as an e-book costing £1.99. It also saw, back in January, the free electronic release of the graphic novel I wrote a few years ago, Boys Don’t Cry. If you’ve read those and are eager for further output, you might not have to wait too long: plans are afoot for a small collection of my short stories (I would call it a slim volume, but it’ll be an e-book), mostly unpublished ones, to be called The Little Book of Northern Women. I’ve been designing the cover this very morning.

In case anyone’s interested, my submission level for 2012 was higher than ever before, but since it mostly consisted of competition entries I have very little to show for it, at least in the way of publications. In the way of fun, friendships, silliness, and mentions in the Telegraph (here and here), there’s been quite a bit, thanks to Louise Doughty and the SSC. Apart from Kelvin and JulieT, I don’t think I can point you at any of my SSC comrades, I don’t even know most of their names, but I can point you at one of the best stories to win the monthly competition, which happens to have been written by possibly the most active member of the SSC: go read ’76 by Kipples, I’ll be here when you get back.

I hope you enjoyed that story, I did. Anyway, apart from SSC output, I’ve been reading the usual mix of Doctor Who novels, crime, fantasy, sci-fi, writing manuals, and literary fiction this year (and a history of British trade unionism). I got an e-reader for Christmas (Kobo mini, since you asked) and I’ve already started filling it with Anthony Trollope novels I haven’t yet enjoyed (he did write an awful lot of books). So many books, so little time, as ever.

May you all have a year filled with all the books you most want to read, all the story acceptances you warrant, and some understanding relatives for when the deadlines are looming. See you on the other side of midnight.

A writing career kindled

My name is JY Saville, and I’m a self-published novelist…

Yes, it had to happen eventually, I’ve released Wasted Years (the one that used to be known around here as the serial novel, when friend T was reading it in instalments) for the Kindle. It wasn’t as easy a decision as it might have been – why charge for that (£1.99) when the graphic novel’s free to download, for instance? There is no simple answer but I came to an agreement with myself, and there it is. I’m pretty sure you can sample the start of it for free so do go have a look, give me feedback, and if you feel you may enjoy it you could always buy a copy. You don’t even need a Kindle, so I’m told – there are apparently .mobi readers for PC, Linux, smartphones etc.

The novel is set mainly in West Yorkshire (well of course it is) and is about lasting friendships, trying to work out what you want out of life, and realising there’s more than one measure of success out there. Alternatively it’s about 16 years in the life of 2 accountants as they stumble through love, loss and Christmas parties. You can read more about it here.

I’ll leave you with a tantalising picture of the cover I made using the ever-useful GNU Image Manipulation Program:

Cover of Wasted Years

Differences in the similar – the lack of a shared experience

In The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart mentions people listening to a particular wireless programme because everyone at work will have listened and they want to be able to join in when people are talking about it. I remember something similar when Friends was first on British TV, with twittering groups of girls at school the next day saying ‘did you see the bit when…?’ (I wasn’t one of them, but I’m sure you’d guessed that). I’ve watched a most annoying episode of Doctor Who just so I can talk about it with Big Brother later, keeping us in touch when we’re apart at Christmas, but is there much of that left?

To stick with TV for a moment, there are so many cable, satellite and Freeview channels available now that it would be a big coincidence if a colleague had been watching the same programme as you (a friend with a certain amount of shared tastes is a different matter – I forget what the programme was but I’d watched something minority-interest on the iplayer a while ago and was amused to find that friend T had watched it too). And with on-demand services (whether internet-based or a catch-up TV channel) and the possibility of recording it to watch at a more convenient time, even if you watch the same programme, by the time one person’s seen it, the other’s forgotten what it was about.

Music is easier to get hold of via the internet, not like the days of browsing through the rock section in HMV and taking your pick, and internet radio means we’re beyond the days when you could guarantee that someone would have listened to Tommy Vance because his was about the only rock show available. There’s more scope for being able to introduce people to music they might not have come across (that was always a popular way of trying to impress someone as a teenager, as I recall) but not so much of the joy of discovering that the person in your class that you’ve fancied for ages is also a big fan of (insert your favourite rock band here). Incidentally, even then it’s not plain sailing: OneMonkey’s happiest with the petulant edginess of The Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys, whereas I’m often more inclined to wrap myself in the ribbon-festooned duvet of Bloodflowers.

With multiplex cinemas charging extortionate ticket prices and DVDs getting cheaper, excepting the occasional must-see, even going to the pictures isn’t likely to provide a talking-point later at work. And books aren’t worth considering in this context.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the only truly shared experience like the ones Hoggart mentions seems to be the awful reality TV dross. It’s so picked-over in the media that if you want to watch, say, some sort of dancing final to get the excitement of seeing who wins, you need to do it within a few hours of it first being on TV, so you and all your friends will at least have watched it on the same evening. And if you want the shared experience without having to go through the pain of watching it, just pick up a tabloid on the way to work and you can join in all the highs and lows, as well as who’s hot and who’s not. Sharing’s not all it’s cracked up to be.