2007 - 2020

Dystopian Banality and the New Interior


Immersed in the banality of it all I veer between my inner Delia and my inner Rorschach. One minute I’m mastering my Cauliflower and Broccoli Gratin (serves 4), the next I’m muttering a monologue about wiping the streets clean of vermin.

I. Can’t. Stop. Making. Shepherds. Pie.

Sometimes it feels like Slobdown, sometimes it feels like Sortdown. If only I’d listened to Marie Kondo. But then if my flat was a tribute to Zen minimalism what would there be left to do?

It’s difficult to know what’s going on. Lockdown trends and memes are difficult to track. Is this mass ornithology a real thing? Am I really noticing more birdsong or was that just a tweet I’ve absorbed and mistake for an actual experience?

In Little Parishes of Sky Richard Smyth looks at how our ‘territory’ has reduced to eyeshot or what we can see out the window. For many people their ‘parish’ has been reduced to their living room or their kitchen.

In the new Interior World ornithology is competing with voyeurism. We are all James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window  – “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change” says Stella at one point (and now we have no option).

Looking Out and Looking In.

The problem with all of the potential and positives in this new world is that it’s not voluntary. There’s no doubt this is a space for self-reflection, but it’s not one we’ve chosen.  Real social change should be intentional and democratic. This is forced and chaotic. As a friend explained: “there’s a difference between fasting and starving”. This makes the outcomes and consequences more random and difficult to navigate or steer.

This new interior is familiar to some and hostile territory for others.

Researchers are looking for insights by studying the experiences of people who have been held captive for years and learning lessons from how they coped and managed.

But experience varies massively.

Some people are living with stress, illness and isolation.

But for others the hardest thing they are enduring is the extreme scarcity of strong white bread flour.

This moment seems to melt between the dreadful and the banal. Boredom and terror gently blend. We thought dystopia would be like The Road or The Walking Dead, but its more like Ambridge.

Social Media boffins tell us usage and engagement rates of TikTok and Instagram’s live videos have gone through the roof during the lockdown. Masses of new content and views are being generated by users responding to a barrage of hashtags: #workfromhome, #homefitness, #plankchallenge, #TikTokchef.

We’re neatly divided into demographic platforms that cross geography and gender. Apps are a new social class. The new stratification is generational: Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter hosting neatly distinct ages and outlooks. Maybe this is what we need to do, ‘socialise’ in our mini-tribes [gym bunnies and yoga masters on IG, angry wonks on Twitter]? But it feels like we lack a collective shared space – and awkward encounters at ASDA don’t count.

And maybe the more important distinction is not between different platforms, it’s the digital divide between those who don’t have access to any of them because they don’t have the skills to use them or the money to pay for them.
*
Responses to what we’re going through vary, and it seems to have shifted. For the first two weeks there seemed to be a lull as people were taking it all in and learning the new rules. Now people seem to have bounced back to their default settings and patterns of behaviour.
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Sports radio broadcasting goes on as if nothings changed at all, super-served male audiences continue to be super-served. Men listening to Men talking to Men about Men playing football (even though nobody’s playing football). How long this can go on before somebody thinks of changing the schedule is anyone’s guess. While lots of people are measuring the scale of the economic crash to come, and some are anticipating the death of capitalism/and/or human civilisation others are wondering about Partick Thistle’s response to the latest SPFL statement.
*
Politically people are also reverting to type. The comfort of re-kindling old feuds or retreating to familiar one-dimensional arguments as the world falls apart is obvious. But I’m not sure how viable it is to retain deeply entrenched positions as this unfolds. Can your dead-certainty really be Absolutely the Right Position when everything’s completely changed? How is that possible?  Thinking or re-thinking where we are is also more difficult because we’re isolated. Thinking is a generative collective task, so we’re struggling to make sense of all of this and likely to just “churn” our old thoughts and clap whoever confirms them back to us.
*
Working from home is difficult. I find myself restless and have difficulty focusing. The constant stream of news is disorienting. In trying to understand things I seem to zoom in and out of perspective from the global to the hyper-domestic. Yesterday I found myself trying to read an epidemiology report about the contrasting responses to covid between Sweden and Norway while trying to locate Action Man’s lost shoe from under the sofa. A Skype call competes with blasts from the Xbox.  It’s quiet but it’s not peaceful. Energy levels and moods swing. Learning to be calm with this rather than immerse yourself in endless frantic activity and reading is difficult.
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Amanda Janoo and Gemma Bone Dodds have called it The Great Pause. They argue: “When you hear policy markers fearing a recession, this means they are fearing that GDP will fall for at least two consecutive quarters. As the economist Frances Coppola has argued, “recession is the wrong word, because it implies this is bad. Better to call it ‘protective contraction’. We need a huge drop in GDP. If we learn one thing in all of this, it is that we are the economy. As we take a moment to stand still, the economy equally becomes more still. Our tendency to move, gather and work together are fundamental drivers of the economy. As millions stay at home to protect themselves and others, the economy will contract. Doing anything other than reducing economic activity right now would be putting our collective wellbeing in danger. GDP will drop during this time, and that’s okay.”
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Collectively and individually that’s a really difficult message to absorb, but it seems right.
‘Do nothing’ is a hard sell when people are scared. But our everyday incomprehension is fertile ground for the political madness we are seeing as conspiracy theories flourish and coarse through the veins of social media. They are everywhere as Trumpism and paranoia swirls across the Atlantic. From Pizzagate and Soros we now have 5G and Epstein, wildly complex and stupid theories are getting free reign as faith in decency in public office crumbles. 
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This may really be a moment to take a moment to stand still, come offline and stop being so frantic.

Comments (31)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    “This may really be a moment to take a moment to stand still, come offline and stop being so frantic.”

    Aye, have sort of done that. The utter imbecility of our government in handling this has annoyed me so much that my mental health was starting to suffer. Through their policies the lives of people I know are now threatened by the triage system if they get the virus. Or put another way, my government wants my partner, her sister and her mother to die. With people like that in charge, who actually needs the news?
    And the latest revelations from within the Labour party show clearly that the entire political mainstream doesn’t care, so why should we even carry on caring for a system that doesn’t care for us?

    So, yes, I’ve stopped watching the MSM (which was basically the Guardian pages), stopped looking at the Worldometer bodycount, and spending less time even in the doomosphere. As a recent commentary there states: “switch off and go gardening” which is as good a mantra as any.

    It’s probably good practice anyway, for when there isn’t constant internet nor constant energy.

    1. Jo says:

      ‘As a recent commentary there states: “switch off and go gardening.”‘

      Sound advice. Highly recommend it.

      My neighbours, mid 30s, small garden like mine but not gardeners. They’ve given me permission to tidy theirs up now that my own is done and I’m just watching flowers and shrubs coming alive. I’m overjoyed!

      Thank God the weather has been kind for quite a few days now.

  2. Anna says:

    Sorry Mike, you’re wrong about sports radio broadcasting being just “Men listening to Men talking ….”
    I am not a man and that first Saturday of the lockdown, I listened to Radio Scotland for 7 hours as I painted my bedroom ceiling – 4 hours of Off the Ball + 3 hours of Sportscene in between. The various options for finishing the football season were discussed with passion, humour, insight and knowledge. I couldn’t believe that they could keep it going in such an entertaining way, but they did. It was wonderful and just what I needed that particular day.

    1. Well that’s good, but it is overwhelmingly a male audience, overwhelmingly about mens football and overwhelmingly male presenters and pundits. I’m a big football fan but I do think its kind of hilarious that they havent changed the schedule at all.

      1. Derek Thomson says:

        Anna is bang on. With so much uncertainty, chaos and tragedy all around us, it’s very comforting to have things like Off the Ball and Sportsound carry on as if nowt had happened. Soothing. Also, absolutely perfect for painting a ceiling, not that I’d know, my wife does the painting!

        1. Anna says:

          Yes, it was Sportsound I should have written, not Sportscene. Thanks.

      2. Jo says:

        Mike
        Female here and, like Anna, I’ve been tuning in too. Have seen some great repeats of well remembered matches and thoroughly enjoyed it.

        I really don’t have a shred of interest in women’s football.

        1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          My wife who has little interest in football has been a great fan of “OffThe Ball” for several years. She thinks that the presenters are so sharp-witted, so incisive and, generally, so intelligent.

          Stuart Cosgrove was a pupil at Perth Academy just after she had left, and, if pushed, she would say she was a St Johnstone supporter. She went to the Cup Final a few years back.

          1. Jo says:

            They really can be hilarious Alasdair, tho’ brutal! Very entertaining. And, yes, very sharp and clever.

            Last weekend they did a programme discussing some huge past Cup semis and had a couple of players on the line who’d featured prominently in those matches. It really was good to listen to and a welcome distraction from the other stuff.

  3. Susan Macdiarmid says:

    How we choose to use this space is important..chaos is the birthplace of swift and powerful change and we collectively need to learn we have the power to direct this energy. Infinite growth, increased GDP is the mantra that can destroy our world. ‘Now’ is a chance to break our habits, alter our activities and destroy the gross, multinational corporate monster that hypnotises us to consume our world and enslaves us to waste our lives in making money for the few.

  4. Wul says:

    Never mind the country. I’m no longer able to run a household.

    Should I “allow” a 19yr old to stay up ’till 5am playing games and having breakfast at 2:30pm?
    Do I get everyone out of bed early for wholesome gardening work and chores? Or just leave them all to it and confine myself to my shed, tools and Spotify playlists? What’s my goal here? Healthy minds in healthy bodies or just avoiding familial homicide?

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Wul, put on Up on the Roof by the Drifters, and see the upside of getting above things for clarity, away from the crowds, choosing a select few for company. A bit like…

      If you want to promote healthy long-chain, slow thinking about serious things, perhaps a night-owl pattern that gives you a good 8 or 9 hours sleep is a rational adaptation?

      1. Wul says:

        @Sleeping Dog. I shall check out the Drifters’ song, thanks.

        I hadn’t thought of that; teenagers becoming nocturnal as a kind of “night shift” /rota way to get some peace & privacy. Good point. One of the reasons I’m (guiltily) letting the young yins lie in, is because I quite like having the kitchen & living room to myself in the mornings.

    2. Jo says:

      Chuckling here Wul. Stay sane!

  5. SleepingDog says:

    So, a (metaphorical) hacksaw will set us free, by painfully sawing off those ties to the material world that keep us bonded to a condition spiralling only deathwards?

    Or perhaps imprisonment is a (necessary) prelude to enlightenment, like Evey’s, or Ibn al-Haytham’s?

    In an unexamined life, our minds are our prisons, and we dwell in dark caves mistaking the flickering lightshow of puppeteers for reality?

  6. Zoonotic Gnostic says:

    Corona hysteria is making me nostalgic for Brexit hysteria.

  7. Colin Crombie says:

    And about that digital divide, there’s another set of folks who choose not to join any social media. They’re in the minority, admittedly, and may have differing reasons – luddites and otherwise.
    For myself, for example, I’ve no smartphone, so it’s basically a non-starter. My old basic domino of a phone does me for texts and calls. I limit myself to about 2 hours a day online, and some days don’t even log on.

    1. You’re so right Colin and I’m sometimes envious of the people that aren’t caught up in all that 24/7 social media. Definitely pros and cons.

  8. RMac says:

    ASDA? C’mon Mike. We know you shop at Waitrose…

  9. Stewart Bremner says:

    I feel like a reply is somewhere in me but I can’t find it. Something, something, attention span. It’s 2:30am and I’m grinding my teeth, sitting in a chair I’ve barely left in… well, weeks. Should I sleep? Maybe I’ll watch a film. I think I go to bed between 4-5am now. Maybe.

    Everything that was certain in life about a month ago is undone. For so many of us, the purposes of our lives – defined mostly by what we did to earn money – has been removed. Previous political certainties seem almost irrelevant, when our primary political concerns turn to who can best navigate this horror. Is Piers Morgan really doing a better job of holding the government to task than the opposition? Are Labour talking about lockdown-exit strategies, in some kind of investor appeasement armageddon? Is any of this real?

    I was chatting with a friend on Skype a few days ago and there were bird calls. I couldn’t tell if they were here of there. I’m not sure this is a reply.

    1. Jo says:

      Stewart

      Of course it’s a reply and I’m sure many will relate. Bear in mind, however, that Piers Morgan has never done anything in his life for honourable reasons or in the pursuit of truth. So don’t let your mind play tricks on you!

  10. Alison says:

    I love this article and all the replies. We definitely need some light-touch coronacomedy (dystopia being like Ambridge) but also considered reflection (such as social change needing to be “intentional and democratic”) and you’ve nailed both.

    However, one thing I think needs more discussion is the issue of the economy and GDP contracting. What’s important is how we do this. At the moment, the UK government is just shutting almost everything while mainly making sure the banks are fine and the big companies are okay enough so things can revert to inequality as usual afterwards ( or rather, inequality ramped up and revamped). There was a good article on Source News (the revamped Commonspace site) on this the other day, suggesting that what we specifically need is a “hibernation economy” rather than a general shutdown, and I think this distinction is crucial:
    “Under this plan, the economy should shrink, but it should shrink in the way the diameter of your hand becomes smaller when you make it into a fist: securely and together. Becoming smaller while maintaining the current structure of the economy is not hibernation, its exhaustion and ultimately collapse. ”

    I’m not explaining it brilliantly but read about it here: https://sourcenews.scot/forward-to-the-hibernation-economy/

    Alright, that’s my tuppence worth. I’m living alone on a boat so cabin fever is a literal concern although I’m in the Highlands so can go for plenty solitary walks at least. Indeed, I’m one of the fortunate ones because although I now have almost no income, I had kept the boat well-provisioned and still have two bags of flour!

    1. Jo says:

      Alison

      “I’m living alone on a boat so cabin fever is a literal concern although I’m in the Highlands so can go for plenty solitary walks at least.”

      Fabulous setting. Envy abounds here.

      (I’m assuming the boat is berthed and you’re not hinting that you can walk on water? )

      1. Alison says:

        Yes, I’m on a dock so can walk ashore, although I do have a rowing boat lashed on deck which I can put in the water if exercise on land ever gets more restricted… 😉

    2. Thanks Alison, and thanks for the Source article, they’re doing great stuff over there …

      Thanks for the comment and keep us informed from the Cabin!

  11. Al. says:

    Can I have some shepherds pie?
    Assuming it’s made with ethically sourced shepherds.

    1. I ‘m not really sure what this means, but I’m sure you don’t. But you’re welcome

      1. Derek Thomson says:

        It’s a joke Mike. Quite a good one too.

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