Throwing the book

I started this blog to support my efforts to get writing. It was a week before England’s second lockdown began. Like a lot of people, I believed I had a book in me. And I thought the pandemic would provide the room to write it.

I’ve done a lot of things during the pandemic. I got into the habit of long midnight walks. I worked out, and then I stopped working out. I got into Pokémon cards, podcasts, audiobooks and crypto. I watched the Adam Curtis documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head, countless episodes of Friends, and the third series of Succession. I’ve been hooked to social media.

I also got engaged. I moved from one newspaper to another. I reunited with (real) friends between lockdowns. I’ve felt happy and ordinary between the dark moments.

I’ve done a lot of things during the pandemic, yes, but not much writing.

A new idea for a novel came to me a couple of months ago. Let’s call it a ghost story. Late last year, I learnt of a new competition for first-time novelists. I planned to write thousands of words a day to meet the competition’s deadline in April. My present word count? 1,300. Every sentence is a room but I can’t always find the key.

I could have added more words tonight. Instead, I watched the first episode of Euphoria with some microwaved popcorn and went on a walk in the rain while listening to Foreverland, a book about marriage by Heather Havrilesky. And then I wrote this.

Mind the gap

It’s ten years since I left home and went to university in London. I’ve started thinking about who I was then, after my gap year.

I was essentially forced into taking a gap year. King’s College London had rejected me and I wanted to try again.* To complicate matters, my parents moved me and my brother to Grange-over-Sands in Cumbria. That felt a long way from Bolton and my mates.

First on the agenda was getting a job. My brother and I went round Lancaster handing out our paper-thin CVs in every shop. Shockingly, none were interested in my A-levels in English, philosophy, religious studies and law.

We ended up getting zero-hours contracts at a hotel near our new home, working in the restaurant. The kitchen in the evenings was a pressure cooker. It was perfect training for the Daily Mail newsroom, where I would eventually start my journalism career.

For several reasons I was not happy around that time.

The breakfast shifts were tough. On Sundays, TalkSPORT had a programme about fishing that began at 6am, when my radio alarm went off. My heart ached to the opening soundtrack, Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys. It’s about longing to run away from your troubles on land – in my case, a moribund long-distance relationship (she’d gone to uni in Bournemouth). But instead of tasting the salty tang of seaspray from my vessel, I was soaked in the filth of the hotel sink. I was often on potwash.

The other day I was listening to an old Spotify playlist I’d made containing every song that had ever meant something to me. I was working out. I’d skipped a few tracks when Fisherman’s Blues started playing. I looked around. I squeezed my eyes at the cat who’d come downstairs to see me.

I thought about how different things were now. I’m engaged. I’m in therapy. I devour audiobooks. We have a garden. I work in a job that ten years ago would’ve seemed an impossibility.

Without wishing to oversimplify things, it got worse before it got better, and then it got a lot worse before getting better again. Now I take the waves as they come.

*I got into King’s at the second time of asking.

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Shortchanged

I wonder if, years from now, we’ll look back at this time and marvel at how strange it was – the masks and the social distancing, the working from home, the going on furlough or losing your job, the fear of the outside, of what could happen, because nothing like this had ever happened. The isolation, the loneliness, the unimaginable loss. Or will our lives, years from now, be largely the same, so it won’t make sense to dwell on “how things were”? Many restrictions were removed in England on Monday July 19, so-called freedom day. But as cases remain high, it feels like nothing has changed at all.

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On the road again

Becoming emotionally attached to a football club is a risky game. They can let you down. They can be mismanaged. They can fail.

Bolton Wanderers, the football club I’ve supported all my life, nearly failed in 2019. Employees were forced to use food banks because they weren’t paid. The business fell into administration and the club was deducted points, which led to our relegation from League One. It was a devastating fall from grace for a club that once competed in the Premier League and challenged in Europe.

A lot has happened since that failure. A new owner was found and the club survived. And on Saturday I found myself taking a Tube, train and bus to Crawley to my first Bolton match in too long — not to watch from inside the ground, as Covid restrictions were still in place, but to cheer from the outside with about a dozen fellow Bolton fans, none of whom I knew yet. 

When Bolton won promotion from League Two on Saturday, we celebrated with the players as they joined us outside at full-time. 

It’s a risky game but when things go well, it’s a towering feeling.

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Sarah Everard

I wrote recently about my night walks, referencing the flâneur. I learnt about the flâneur during my English degree; it means someone who wanders around observing society. The flâneur is traditionally male. Because typically you have to be a man to feel safe walking alone outside.

The killing of Sarah Everard has led to an outpouring of anger and grief. It has put the misogyny at the centre of society in the spotlight. Here are some voices that say things far better than I ever could:

Sarah Everard deserved better than this (The Cut)

What happened to me was nothing — the nothing women know all too well (The Guardian)

Sarah Everard’s death has shown women’s fear and the need for men to step up (The Herald)

To stop women like Sarah Everard going missing, the conversation must start with men (City AM)

Women are human beings: an apparently radical take (Roar News)

Men are now feeling the discomfort we’ve been living with for years (The Telegraph)

The vigils were not just about Sarah Everard, but about the whole justice system (The Guardian)

The Sarah Everard case has shown how frightened women really are (The Spectator)

It is only luck that it wasn’t me, or maybe you, on that Clapham street (The Times)

The Met’s dumb mistakes at Clapham Common turned Sarah Everard’s vigil into a protest (The Times)

Let me tell you what women and girls can’t do (The Times)

Extending police powers cannot and will not end male violence (Refinery29)

She was just walking home (The New York Times)

The police will never keep women safe (Huck)

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Night walks

There are people in the distance. For a few seconds I can’t tell which direction they’re walking in — towards me or away. I’m often the first to cross the road to avoid proximity. If we’re going in the same direction and I begin to catch up with them, I’ll slow down. Not necessarily because of Covid; I just don’t want to be seen when I’m on my night walks.

Every night after work I pound the pavements in my bubble in north London like a flâneur. Work tends to finish around midnight. This is my latest lockdown obsession

Sometimes I change the route, discover a new street, a house for sale, a dead end. I watch the empty Tube train going over the bridge (the Northern line is the loudest). I’m followed by a friendly fox. I pick up the pace when it’s uphill, I slow it down when it gets too hot under my coat. I put my head down when cars approach. I never look at my phone.

I see the allotments with waiting lists that go on for years. I see the stained glass windows, the front doors, and the houses owned by other people.

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Card connection

My latest lockdown obsession is Pokémon cards. I’ve become a collector again, 20 years since I begged my mum for packets of the original set.

I’ve bought 30 packs from a modern set called Champion’s Path and I plan to open them at Christmas. Each pristine card will be laid on to a soft mat before it is placed carefully in a plastic sleeve and then, finally, a cushioned binder.

I try to talk to friends about it but they’re not really interested. My girlfriend is just glad I’ve got a hobby.

Have I gone mad? Maybe. I’m not alone though. Interest in the game — and the value of vintage cards — has shot up during the pandemic. I’m joined by thousands of people when I watch hours of live pack openings on YouTube. Silly money is being spent on Pokémon cards. What else can we spend our money on at the moment?

And what else can we do with our free time? My previous obsessions were working out, going on long walks, and for a few days, Habbo Hotel, the animated chatroom that had a nostalgia-powered resurgence during the first lockdown.

There’s more time at the moment, more space to think, to reconnect with ourselves and who we used to be. That could explain it.

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Take a deep breath

Every November I realise I’ve been holding my breath for days, sometimes weeks. The world feels heavier, my brain foggier. It’s a product of the days getting shorter. I see less light, I don’t go outside as much, and work begins and ends in darkness.

I’ve got better at noticing the changes in my mood at this time of year. It used to be a different story. As a teenager I never saw the clouds descending. I didn’t know what was happening when I suddenly found myself in darkness.

These days, I try to foster good habits. I exercise, meditate and listen to my body. I’ve learnt a lot about breathing. I notice when scrolling through Twitter is making me anxious and I put my phone down. I take vitamin D supplements.

This year’s worse, of course, with the isolation and the restrictions, exacerbating mental health problems. It’s easy to feel helpless in the chaos.

Just got to keep breathing.

Walk of life

A few months after moving into our house in north London, I stumbled upon the Dollis Valley Greenwalk. It was a rainy Monday. I don’t mind the rain, I welcome it. It makes for a quieter walk, and when I do cross paths with other walkers they tend to be alone like me.

Recently I took two friends on the journey, and when it started to rain they wanted to get the bus home. I wasn’t happy.

It was a similarly wet day when I set out on my walk yesterday, alone again. The Dollis Valley Greenwalk winds from Mill Hill through Barnet to the Hampstead Heath Extension. I join the ten-mile trail in Finchley and tend to continue into Hampstead Heath.

My walk takes in rivers, woodland, playgrounds, suburban gardens with summer houses, and a dual carriageway. I see how the other half live when I go down the mansion-lined street along the Hampstead Extension.

My legs are weary but these walks occupy my mind and remind me of what’s important. As England is placed into a new lockdown, it helps to see the wood for the trees.

Seriously writing

I go for days, sometimes weeks, without writing. I should read more, too. I check my phone too often, even after turning all my notifications off. I watched all of The Sopranos in the first few weeks of the lockdown. I thought I would begin to seriously write after that. But the only thing that makes me write is sitting down to do it. Is this serious writing?

National novel writing month, or Nanowrimo, is round the corner. You write 50,000 words in a month and you have a novel. I took part in 2017 and booked the first week off work to get a headstart. It worked. I got the T-shirt. The novel was bad, obviously, but it was good practice.

I won’t be taking part this year. I prefer to go at a slower pace. Not as slow as recently, though.