Front Window #4: Notes on Fear

Monday 30 March 2020

An empty day. Blissful, even. I read or wrote for all of it.

Tuesday 31 March 2020

I called the NHS hotline on 111 this evening. My girlfriend has had her dry cough for a week but that’s not what’s worrying me. After two days of it seemingly receding, her fever came back — and hard.

The nurse’s advice on the end of the phone was simply to take paracetamol, which was slightly anticlimactic. As I relayed her symptoms she said, “Yep, that sounds like Covid.” I could sense the adding of a line to a tally on the desk in front of her and a sudden urgency to get onto the next call.

It’s not that I wanted an air ambulance sent to whisk her to the field hospital at the Excel Centre but, to my mind, a fever this high that lasted this long would be more of a cause for concern under normal circumstances.

I suppose these are not normal circumstances.

It was good to have some sort of confirmation though. It’s also slightly surreal that this crisis has hit home like this. We’ve been sensible and disciplined, and anxious about the virus sooner than most people we knew. We haven’t left the house in over a week regardless of symptoms. In truth, we didn’t expect to get it but feared more for others than ourselves. And now it’s in here with us.

It’s still the boredom that is overwhelming. I’m keeping myself occupied but she doesn’t have the energy to open her eyes to watch TV. I’ve been reading Jane Eyre to her instead. I think we’re both enjoying it. I’ve read it before but not out loud. Out loud the poetry of it sings, and the existential turmoil of this young child in the opening chapters is so lucid and beautiful and witty. I’m left wanting to re-read all the classics out into the air. We might have the time on our hands to do so.

It feels like a miracle right now that I don’t have it too. If we both caught it simultaneously I think we’d waste away into nothing. Already the fridge is empty. We’d planned a trip to the shop tomorrow but I’m not sure that’s on the cards anymore. We’ll need to figure out a workaround.

Wednesday 1 April 2020

April’s fools are suddenly everywhere.

I wake up groggily to the blaring sound of our fire alarm. My girlfriend was already up and ready to go. I was less convinced and panicked by the situation. I work from home a lot. I am used to the false alarms.

The alarm was shut off before we made it through the front door, much to her frustration. A message later went around the building’s WhatsApp group that explained some plumbers had set it off.

I was surprised to hear plumbers were even allowed in the building but that was when I caught a glimpse of the developing hysteria. A plumbing issue can’t wait. Nevertheless, I felt afraid for those two men on the job. They were working on our floor just a few doors down. I felt like maybe we should put quarantine tape on the front door or something, just to warn the neighbours. It’s stupid, really, but I had these thoughts regardless.

With it being so early in the morning, and with nowhere to be, I decided to go back to bed. Once horizontal, I picked up my phone only to find a text from a man saying he was in the area to carry out some pre-booked energy efficiency testing. It was something the landlord arranged a few weeks back. We’d forgotten about it — him included when I text him to ask about it — and we were all very surprised to hear that the tester still planned to go ahead with the testing. Plumbing is one thing but I don’t think checking the efficiency of our flat’s insulation is all that pressing. I text him back saying so.

“We are still working under the current safety guidelines,” was the response.

The next thing I knew he was calling us from inside the building. “What’s your flat number?” he kept asking. I told him my girlfriend was sick with the virus and that it was unlikely he had enough PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to put our minds at ease.

“So you’re cancelling?”

Err, yes…

At around three o’clock I started to make a late lunch. We’re moving around so little that we barely have any appetite and the shocking deficiency of snacks in the cupboard meant we were spending more time talking about food and driving ourselves crazy.

There are plenty of people in the local area we could probably call upon to help us out but neither of us has the nerve to collate a list of comfort foods to get us through the boredom. We’ll just keep using up what we’ve got until her symptoms pass.

We’re not struggling yet anyway. I made some pasta and we sat in bed. My girlfriend put on the news which we’d decided to more or less ignore for the past week. The forced updates of social media apps are about as much as we’d like to know at this point

The BBC newsreaders were going through various reports and they all kept talking ominously about … The Peak. Just like that as well. They’d take a slight pause — dramatic but not melodramatic — right before they said the words, which were in themselves also slightly emphasised. The Peak. We are approaching … The Peak. How long is the government estimating it will be before we reach … The Peak. The death toll is rising daily — how bad is … The Peak … going to be? Then they start talking about plateaus. After … The Peak … the death toll will begin to plateau. “Plateau” is said with a little more urgency, with a certain relief. Peaks and plateaus. Plateaus and peaks.

We eat quickly and turn it off.

Despite the media’s dramatics, there is a sense that the government is trying to soothe people’s anxieties in the wrong way. They report on the numbers but with this tone that says, “Hey, you know, things don’t look too bad… Statistically, it’s mostly all fine… People die everyday… Things could be getting better sooner than we thought!”

It’s hard not to witness this and watch activity pick up again outside our window. We watch the frequency of cars passing increase with a certain terror. Some non-essential works are still going ahead without anyone taking the time to figure out the risks. Everyone seems to want to get in our building or into our flat to carry out works that can wait.

I feel like we have had too many close calls today, too many opportunities for the virus in our flat to spread through our building. Everyone seems eager to get back to work or get out of the house, and that’s understandable, but I can’t help but think it’s moronic. Although I don’t blame anyone. It’s like they are been pushed through their front doors by some unconscious kick — the myoclonic jerks of a capitalist system being told to go to sleep. Nevertheless, I wish everyone would stay indoors as stubbornly as we are.

We’ve got the fear today and the fear is real. It’s that same fear that used to emerge on the last day of the summer holidays. The fear that still emerges on a Sunday evening as you stare down the barrel of the week ahead.

“No more miserable Monday mornings” was Mark’s dream for himself and the world at large. In the introduction to Acid Communism, he took up this same phrase to write about the Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday” — a song through which “the fog and frost of a Monday morning [is] abjured from a sunny Sunday afternoon that does not need to end…”

We’re living through a very long Sunday at the moment and, the longer it goes on, the more monstrous the Monday to follow seems like it will be. Because it isn’t the dream of no work that keeps us in bed but the dream of no illness — or, now, not spreading the illness any further — and that seems like a drive worth listening to.

The lazy Sunday is over. Now we’re back to thinking neurotically about the correct use of soap…

Thursday 2nd April 2020

My Dad is texting us for daily updates now. He’s concerned but it’s nice. We usually only drop each other an email every few months. Today he rang me to see how we were getting on. A mundane gesture but unusual for him. His fear has been real for over a month. I laughed about it at first. I’m not laughing now.

I even had a somewhat wholesome chat with the landlord about how he’s talking this opportunity to potty train his kid (“That’s brave”) before he offered to relax the rent if things were getting tough. It was quite the relief.

I went outside to take the bins out and bumped into the neighbours. I think they’re new. They woke us up at 4am the other week whilst having what I assume was a house-warming party. I went round like a grumpy old boomer and asked them to keep it down. The walls in this building are very well insulated. You wouldn’t know anyone lived around you if it wasn’t for the occasion noise from the corridor passing under the front door. The fact they made enough noise to wake us up was saying something.

They looked pretty sheepish but I smiled and said hello. Everyone is different newly awake at 4am than they are during the day. Water under the bridge as far as I’m concerned. Maybe they weren’t sheepish about that though. Maybe they’d heard my girlfriend’s incessant coughing through the walls…

Front Window #2: Notes from the First Few Days of Quarantine

Sunday 22 March 2020

There was no church on Sunday.

At the end of our road, there are two churches. A Baptist church and a Celestial Church of Christ. The latter has a huge congregation. They wear these pristine white costumes and hats that make them look like bakers for Jesus. Their kids always play football after the service in a disused sports ground opposite our building.

Given this usual hive of activity, it was so surreal to open the front window and hear nothing; to look out and see no bakers.

The streets were so empty and still. They are seldom this quiet, even in the dead of night.

I spent the day going through my Dad’s old Beatles records, starting with The White Album. It set a train of thought off that turned into an essay for elsewhere.

Already, every song feels like it’s about quarantine. “Dear Prudence” was like a siren song sung by the coronavirus itself, tempting us out into the park on a day that was perversely beautiful for the apocalypse.

We resisted the urge to go outside. My girlfriend started rearranging furniture in the afternoon instead, kicking up dust and setting off my allergies. I would wheeze through the night for the rest of the week but it was worth it. The flat felt fresh. It immediately mitigated the pressure of being enclosed within the overly familiar.

As the dust clouds loomed, I spent most of the day hiding in our bedroom working on my next book. It is very much in its early stages. I have the trajectory more or less figured out, I just need to write it. However, I’ve also discovered various gaps in my knowledge, and you know what that means — buying books.

At the moment, I’m reading a lot of Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, and Juliet Mitchell. It’s intriguing — and perhaps surprising — to read these women so adamantly defending Freud’s legacy. Whereas the likes of Shulasmith Firestone and Germaine Greer would quite vehemently write against him, to read these other women makes the anti-Freudian feminists feel like they are shadowboxing. Every takedown is a misreading — but of course it is. Nevertheless, it makes Freud’s legacy all the more complicated than history’s intellectual victors would have you believe. Freud was repeatedly mistaken in his writings and concepts, no doubt, but it seems the real failure was that the female Freudians have been so thoroughly written out of history.

This is taking a nascent argument within my book into interesting new depths. Freud himself was Oedipus, in ways he was not aware of, but as in Sophocles’ plays, his daughter Anna (and others — Klein especially) seem to take on the role of Antigone, escorting the beaten man through the wilderness and developing his legacy in ways that are intellectually loyal but theoretically less orthodox. As such, their loyalty makes for a far more interesting transgression than the loudness of his critics.

As a result of this current train of thought, this old tweet feels more and more accurate by the day. It’s likely to be a chapter title.

The other (unsurprising) travesty is that the contributions these women made have been diminished by the sheer volume of the male Freudians, who are been given more credit simply for repeating their earlier discoveries. It has become a very fruitful area of inquiry and one that will likely keep me occupied for much of this lockdown.

Monday 23 March 2020

On Monday I still had to go into work… Or out to work… I picked up a colleague and we drove smoothly through rush hour London without the rush, up to Hampstead Heath where we were scheduled to take a series of photographs as part of some undisclosed architectural project that had the potential to impact on one of London’s many protected viewpoints.

We were anxious to be working under the current conditions and had set out a few restrictions for ourselves. She would handle all the camera equipment today. Usually, I prep lens and other things whilst she takes pictures so that we can take all the photographs we need smoothly and efficiently. Today I was to be the driver and little else. We didn’t want to contaminate anything unnecessarily.

Few other people out that day seemed to share in our anxiety. The Heath was busy. Perhaps not as busy as it was on your average Monday but you certainly wouldn’t have thought there was a pandemic going on.

At one point we were accosted by some stupid woman. We’d taken a series of photographs looking out over the London skyline. She was sat in the foreground of our picture with about ten friends. She waved at us and asked us to delete any photographs she was in. We said we were just trying to do our jobs and we weren’t interested in her. She wasn’t in them anyway. She persisted and asked to see. We said no. We informed her we had every right to take the photographs we had taken, and were doing so precisely to protect this space and its view for others enjoyment. She asked why we didn’t take the photograph somewhere else instead. She was oddly hostile. We told her we needed to take the photographs from the exact spot where we were positioned, above a survey pin in the pavement, placed there by the council. She persisted still, taking our names and the name of the company we worked for and generally being a jobsworth, as we slowly and tactfully revealed to her that he really didn’t know what she was talking about. The temptation was to say, “We’re working — you should be social distancing. Back off.” I doubt that would have gone down very well.

I don’t know why it annoyed me quite so much as it did. She was very irritating but it’s not like these questions and interruptions were unusual for us. I think I had a very low tolerance for stupid that day. Other people’s and my own. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be outside.

Elsewhere in the park, we passed two men trying to negotiate an exchange. One man really wanted to tissue. The other man felt obliged to give one to him, as you would, as if he’d just asked him for the time, but you could see he was struggling to fulfil what would otherwise be a basic act of decency. He didn’t want to do it. It was as if the crisis wasn’t quite over the threshold yet that allowed his Englishness to be sidestepped. The very agony of the situation was already incredibly English. He was stuck in a feedback loop of Englishness and it looked like his head might explore.

That was amusing. Less amusing was the gaggles of meatheads in the outdoor gyms, going on about how the virus would cull the unworthy, as they slathered their hands over those germ farms.

I’d never been a germaphobe previously but I was suddenly desperate for a mask and gloves. I felt vulnerable. We were scheduled to go out again the next day but I didn’t want to.

That night, Boris Johnson made the lockdown official. Frankly, I was relieved. As far as I was concerned, at least in stupid London, the crackdown was necessary. People had no idea what was coming or what had already happened elsewhere.

Tuesday 24 March 2020

I woke to the uncanny sound of birdsong. I didn’t know where I was. It seemed to echo and feedback on itself. I slid back the bedroom door to see my girlfriend sat on the floor by the open window, answering emails, the sparse birdsong of the real world competing with a dawn chorus emanating from her laptop.

London was on lockdown and she was working from home but this did not apply to the builders down the road. Their banging and clanging continued. She was playing birdsong to try and drown them out. It felt like an odd premonition of what our lives would be like in a few weeks or months when the lockdown applied to everyone and the outside became a toxic space.

We still went outside. I had records to post. As successive nations go under lockdown, I’ve noticed that I have been receiving a flurry of Discogs orders from each one. I had two records to post out that day and so we went down to the post office. It’s a busy branch and everyone was queued up outside, two metres apart. It was an odd sight, like a Yeezy fashion show celebrating the British working class. All pyjamas and jogging bottoms, posting parcels or trying to pay their electric bill.

On the way home, we did a few lengths on the abandoned running track. Four lanes, one hundred metres in length, the spongey ground oddly full of potholes. I was newly aware that every building around us was full of people. I’d never felt so surveilled before.

We went home for the last time. We haven’t left since.

Front Window #1: Notes from Quarantine

I’m not sure whether I’m isolated or not at the moment. London is already isolatory by default.

Is that a word? “Isolatory”? I don’t think it is, but maybe it will be soon enough. I’ve already heard a dozen different euphemisms for “shitting it on your own”.

Every journey I take on the bus is defined by psychosomatic symptoms. All I want to do is clear my throat and touch my face. By the end of a thirty-minute bus ride I feel like I am definitely coming down with the sickness — at least until I feel fresh air on my face and then I’m okay again. It is worth noting, however, that this is only a mild intensification of what it feels like to take any mode of public transport in this city. I am far from a clean freak but it is palpably germ-ridden.

The first year I spent living here I had to start going into work sick because I caught so many colds, one after another, that my place of work started suspecting I was faking it. I wasn’t. I was just spending ninety minutes on the bus every morning and getting hit in the face by unending clouds of germs.

Last Friday, on the bus home from work, I passed two people in head-to-toe hazmat suits wheeling a trolley out of an old people’s home, opposite the local Lidl. We passed the scene too quickly for me to see if it was a body bag or a still-living patient. It didn’t matter. Such a sight — unnerving but too fleeting to cause a stir — felt like the sort of unsubtle foreshadowing you see in a camp zombie movie.

When I got home I watched Children of Men for the umpteenth time.

The pressure not to come into work is growing from the news and other sources whilst, at the office itself, the attitude is very much one of making hay while the sun shines sets. I’d rather not make a decision for myself either way. Typical freelance oddjobs have dried up. I’m worried about making ends meet.

When I was younger, I’d typically have anxiety attacks as I was on the verge of falling asleep. Eyes closed, hovering somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, my body turned decidedly towards the wall, falling naturally into “the recovery position”, I would find myself in a state of drift, leading to successive disembodied hallucinations.

(I’ve never been big into drugs and these experiences are mostly why. I have always been good at auto-affecting my brain into unnatural states — for better or for worse.)

It was a meditative state that was addictive but terrifying. I used to have a similar habit of holding my arms in the air whilst watching TV, letting the blood run out of them until they no longer felt like mine, then grimacing through the oddly pleasurable sensation of blood rushing back to my finger tips — an activity that becomes less and less enjoyable, the older I get. Now it happens inadvertently, like every time I sit down on the floor or fall asleep on my front with my arms entangled underneath me. These oneiric states were the cognitive equivalent.

In this state, I would become pointedly aware of a lack of spatial awareness. The wall, mere inches from the end of my nose, was, in my mind, thousands of miles away. My goth bedroom, with its black walls and black-out blinds behind black curtains, was less an echo chamber of adolescent reverberation and more an anechoic chamber where a half-sleeping self became lost in the universe of a box room. Six feet by twelve. Cosmic cognitive coffin.

I don’t get the tube for much the same reason I don’t like to fly. I don’t like feeling like cattle. I don’t like being shipped from one destination to another. However, this hatred of feeling like the bleating member of a homogenous mass is reciprocated by the absolute terror of disconnection and sensory deprivation that comes from utter isolation.

Both experiences are a kind of existential irritant. I find myself feeling both claustrophobic and agoraphobic, swinging between the extremes of an embodied disembodiment.

It is the normalisation of this feeling that I am expecting over the coming days, weeks, months ahead. I worry about getting lost in our flat. Unable to go outside, the self, like a recklessly sheared toenail, begins to grow inwards. I’m sure I’ll be working from home soon enough. I wonder if the day will come when I can’t work at all.

I found these constellation of sensation captured beautifully by Matt Levin in an article for The Paris Review. He writes:

An extended self-quarantine resembles, in many aspects, any religious-minded circumscribing of the daily round — a meditation retreat, a monastic cloister, a ritual purification. There is the same restraining force, liminal and protean, keeping one within the enclosure — not quite mandatory, not quite voluntary, but a volatile mixture of superego, conformity, altruism, and the anxiety of social sanction. There is the withdrawal from social life, the distillation of most personal interaction to the telegrammatic and unavoidable. There is the ascendance of repetition — the same cycle of meals, the same rooms, the same window, the same orbit of light from that window. And within that tightened repetition, unintentionally noticing, finding yourself incapable of ignoring, certain physical tics and emotional reflexes, patterns that were previously subliminal. Brushing a chip in the wall paint as you round a corner, lifting yourself just barely but entirely off your chair as you pull into the kitchen table, discovering the tonic thrum of the refrigerator under the clicking of the kitchen clock, the uniquely personal sound and resonance of your spoon scraping, inadvertently but consistently, on the chipped bottom of your bowl. Both retreat and quarantined life become microcosm magnified to macrocosm, like the map drawn to the same scale as its territory in Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science.” The most minor elements of the daily routine flower to monstrous proportion — I have known, in the midst of a retreat, the consumptive, totalizing desire for just one extra bread roll; the tattooed memorization of the flowering, spidery cracks on a poorly plastered ceiling; the gnawing curiosity about what lay beyond the finite universe to which I had confined myself. And above all, there is the imperative to focus obsessively and intentionally on reflexive actions that were, in the previous life, unnoticed, the white noise of bodily existence — in the case of a meditation retreat, it is one’s breath; in the case of the coronavirus, touching one’s face moves from compulsive background to neurotic foreground. Every touch is monitored, assessed, brooded over.


The “distortion” extends both outward, to the touch, and inward, to the sense of the body itself. A retreat, a quarantine, a sickness — they simultaneously distort and clarify, curtail and expand.

Like a man after my own heart, this fellow Matt is using the quarantine to write about the immersive experience of reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Woolf occupied much of my mind during the last few months of 2019 and, right now, this feels like time well spent.

Along with the works of D.H. Lawrence, quarantine feels like a good time to continue travelling inwards. I only hope I don’t get stuck there.

Levin continues:

[Quarantine] is an ideal state in which to read literature with a reputation for difficulty and inaccessibility, those hermetic books shorn of the handholds of conventional plot or characterization or description. A novel like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is perfect for the state of interiority induced by quarantine — a story of three men and three women, meeting after the death of a mutual friend, told entirely in the overlapping internal monologues of the six, interspersed only with sections of pure, achingly beautiful descriptions of the natural world, a day’s procession and recession of light and waves. The novel is, in my mind’s eye, a perfectly spherical object. It is translucent and shimmering and infinitely fragile, prone to shatter at the slightest disturbance. It is not a book that can be read in snatches on the subway — it demands total absorption. Though it revels in a stark emotional nakedness, the book remains aloof, remote in its own deep self-absorption. The opening of the first monologue describes the strong spectral presence of the novel itself, lays down its own gauntlet: “‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.’” I have read the opening pages at least a dozen times, but have not yet been able to string together the unbroken attention required. There is no better opportunity than this moment to try again, for The Waves is itself about this estranging and revealing state. The characters, in a ring, each take turns to talk to themselves, speaking to their interior landscapes with total clarity, and with all the hallmarks of extended isolation — the simultaneous telescopic intensity and dazed distance, the noticing of sensation and reflex as if they were new, numinous. Goes the round of private proclamation: “‘A caterpillar is curled in a green ring,’ said Susan, ‘notched with blunt feet.’ ‘The grey-shelled snail draws across the path and flattens the blades behind him,’ said Rhoda. ‘And burning lights from the window-panes flash in and out of the grasses,’ said Louis. ‘Stones are cold to my feet,’ said Neville. ‘I feel each one, rounded or pointed, separately.’ ‘The back of my hand burns,’ said Jinny, ‘but the palm is clammy and damp with dew.’” The descriptions of the exterior world are, fittingly, given to a disembodied third party, with a suprahuman eye — a bracing blast from the outside, to which we will eventually and inexorably return. For now, though, we are given the time to explore the close, feverish, interior world of The Waves.  

It is odd to read this in our dystopian present. As elusively lucid as I’m sure Woolf is under these particular circumstances, I can’t help thinking of the non-sequiturs that define Blade Runner‘s diagnostic tests. ‘There’s a tortoise on its back…’

Give me a week of quarantine and I think I’ll be all too ready to tell you about my mother.

I’m not sure if or when I’ll be going back into work but I know for certain I’ll be on personal lockdown, at least until Friday. I have a text to finish — on the Apocalypse, most appropriately! At some point I’m going to set up a camera and a tripod and watch Rear Window.

This blog series, if it manages to become such a thing, will be an isolation diary. Expect pictures and paranoia from the street below our only window — the front window.