22 May 2020

Staying Connected in the Time of Coronavirus

This post is rather more personal than usual but I wanted to write down some thoughts during these most uncertain COVID-19 times. Normal coffee- and travel-post service to resume...at some point, I hope.

“I never realised you were so into football,” a colleague said to me last year. It was a fair point: although I had mentioned the game and my team — Wolverhampton Wanderers — periodically over the five years we’d been working together, I'd also been inflicting my updates on my non-football-following co-workers with increasing frequency.

In fact, I’ve followed Wolves for as long as I can remember. My family are from the Black Country and Wolves are a ‘family team’. But my interest has waxed and waned over the years, rather like Wolves’ own fortunes. For much of my childhood and teenage years, their performance could perhaps best be described as ‘underwhelming’ or ‘frustrating.’ Jumping more solidly onto the bandwagon during the recent (old) golden period could be seen as glory hunting, but it’s more complex than that. For one thing, as a Wolves supporter living in London it’s easier to follow them when they’re in the Premier League and appear on TV and radio more often, and enjoy more media coverage.

But there’s another factor too: the sense of community following a football team instills, the agony or the ecstasy — depending on the result — shared with thousands of others. This was represented perfectly by the only two games I was able to attend last season, both at Wembley. Our Twixmas comeback against Spurs, leaving even newly MBE-ed Harry Kane powerless to stop us winning 1-3, was a delight to behold. Four months later, the tables were turned as we took on Watford in the FA Cup semi-final. At 78 minutes in, Wolves were up 0-2; nothing could go wrong, and then in classic Wolves fashion it did. We lost 3-2. It took me almost a year to get over the defeat — yes, I know it’s only football, but the loss aversion bias is always strong. And there was a comfort in knowing there were thousands of others feeling exactly the same.

As for why I’ve been particularly motivated to rediscover football during these past two years, well, as more and more friends have married and started families, it’s sometimes hard to feel as closely connected to our divergent presents, despite our shared history in common. I love my friends as much as ever but my life and my experiences sometimes feel less relevant.

One of my coping mechanisms was to throw myself, Red Queen-like, into travel, ticking off new cities, new countries, new bucket list items. The sense of discovery and adventure set off my endorphins and my constant string of trips gave me something to look forward to, something to talk about given my apparent lack of recent ‘life events’. I have the same job, same flat, same lack of partner, same lack of kids, but I hiked the Inca Trail, skydived in New Zealand and ate insanely fresh sushi in Tokyo. The same could also be said for my interest in speciality coffee, where the community — online and offline — has brought me joy, taught me a great deal and allowed me to meet a lot of wonderful people.

And this is why the current pandemic has given me the lockdown blues. The things that I love — watching football, travelling the world and visiting speciality coffee shops — are on hold indefinitely. Coffee Twitter, at least, is still active but I’ve also been avoiding Twitter more, of late, because of the toxicity and judgement, which has become harder to avoid. I’ve been sharing one photo per day on Instagram of something that brings me, and perhaps others, a little happiness — usually coffee, food or a photo from one of my daily runs or walks in and around Bermondsey. I am, of course, relatively very lucky: I am healthy and have a safe, comfortable place to live. I have a secure job in scientific publishing — one that keeps me busier than ever during the COVID-19 crisis and one where I can work from home. But I still miss my friends and family, and my old life.

The human mind is remarkably adaptable, however, and well equipped to seek companionship even during times of physical distancing. As such, I found myself tumbling down another internet rabbit hole and into another community. It was by chance that I happened to read a Relative Values column in The Times with Richard Osman, of Pointless fame, and his brother. I hadn’t made the connection before that Richard’s brother was Mat Osman, the bassist in Suede — one of my favourite bands of the 1990s. In the Britpop wars, I chose Oasis over Blur, but Suede’s music — and especially Brett Anderson’s darkly poetic lyrics — spoke to me more. Inevitably, I also had a massive crush on Anderson himself, but the playful subversion of the music and the band themselves was also very appealing; they've always wanted to start their own 'tribe', for those who couldn't find their place among those that already existed.

Although I came for Coming Up, released shortly before my 13th birthday in 1996, I stayed for Stay Together, a bleak tale of love in the time of apocalypse, released on Valentine’s Day, 1994. The song has remained a regular feature of my primary ‘current’ playlist on and off ever since. In 'normal times', I don’t have a lot of time to listen to music, so when I do, it has to be special music that has emotional resonance for me. Working from home recently has meant more time for background music, though, so I downloaded Suede’s entire back catalogue, including the three albums released since their reunion in 2010, and listened to everything pretty much non-stop for the next few weeks. I watched old interview clips and gigs, I read Anderson’s two well-regarded memoirs and watched the excellent documentary The Insatiable Ones.

Then I discovered an active and welcoming Suede fan group on Facebook. Each Wednesday during lockdown, they organise a ‘stay home’ Suede activity. As part of this, I’ve recreated my own Suede album cover — shot underneath some local skyscrapers, in the style of the Stay Together EP — which got more likes than anything I’ve ever done on social media. I also wrote a poem for this week’s competition, 12 lines, one to be a Suede lyric. Although Afterlight, appended below for posterity, didn’t win, it was nice to know that Anderson, who was judging, had read it. It was satisfying to find a productive output for my lockdown creativity, to connect with like-minded fans, and to be soothed by the transformative power of music that matters.


I bought a Suede t-shirt too; like my Wolves shirt, it serves as a heraldic banner, signalling my fealty, my tribe, and sometimes I receive a friendly salute from passersby. “That’s quite a strong statement, isn’t it?” said one barista reading the words, ‘it starts and ends with Suede’ on my t-shirt. Maybe he was a Blur fan…

It didn’t have to be Suede and it didn’t have to be Wolves or speciality coffee. The topic is almost besides the point. But the search for knowledge and for human connection is really what has driven these ‘obsessions’ of mine. I want people to feel a frisson when I quote a Suede lyric. I want people to get my Wolves in-joke. I want them to find my coffee and travel features useful. I want to contribute. I want to fit in.


Afterlight

Not a sole cloud taints the burnt orange sky,
Not a soul on the street, no passersby,
An early summer in London town,
An early summer and no one’s around.

I daydream into oblivion
Of a recent time, now long gone,
Where we’d lie on our backs in parks for hours,
Gazing up at featureless towers.

I daydream of you, struggling to fight
The urge to converge in the afterlight,
But as the febrile world mulls its plight,
All the people say, ‘stay at home tonight’.

[The final line is from We Are the Pigs.]

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