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Two-year anniversary and Covid brain fog edition
Normal service resumes
So, here I am, disappointing/delighting you by appearing suddenly after a hiatus. Sorry about that. Either way.
What started out as a two-week trip to the Mordorland (sorry, Britain, Motherland), for camping, exploring, seeing friends and generally being out and moving in the world wound up differently than hoped.
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In retrospect, the signs were always there. A long delay at Calais, before crossing to Folkestone, which I now interpret as a warning. Are you really sure? There's still time to change your mind.
The rave next to our secluded camping field. This in a place where nothing ever happens except sheep and a small group of ageing men, who gather there once a year to wrestle with genuinely historic camping equipment and more food and drink than is good for anyone.
It wasn't so much the fact that someone was staging a rave, per se, that rankled. There was an illegal rave in the woods near my house here a couple of years ago and I could only admire the professionalism, along with the fact that my friends were there and the police waited until the morning to break it up. The rave next to us, in our Welsh valley hideaway, was rubbish. It was all the noise and none of the energy flow that should drive a dance party.
Try sleeping when the DJ can't mix, or maintain consistent levels. As First World problems go, this was bad.
I felt like going over to say "I'm not angry with you, I'm disappointed."
The fact that it was the first time anything had ever happened (except sheep) in this secluded corner of North Wales and it was occurring while we happened to be there was bad enough, but hearing Toca's Miracle twice really hurt.
Still, I'd swap lying in a tent wondering how to sabotage a diesel generator (Fairy Liquid is apparently good) for what came next. Because I got Covid.
Yes, it turns out there's still a pandemic.
So, a Sunday dinner gathering with my old farming neighbours in Montgomery featured a guest who seemed unusually quiet and left early, but not before infecting at least four of us with the rona.
This was bad for all concerned. Like George, with 200 sheep and 200 cows to look after, who got shingles on top of it. The culprit's own wife, who was supposed to be starting a trial treatment for her resurgent leukaemia the next day. George's wife, who was flying off on a rare holiday with her daughter a couple of days later. And me, who wanted to see his 103 year old auntie and his kindly 94 year old childhood neighbour, before returning home.
You've probably had Covid, so you know how it goes.
Annoying, was the main feature for me. But also, unexpectedly useful for forcing me to pause and take stock.
To be fair, I didn't spend any whole days in bed, but it's the 'brain fog' that surprised most. The other day I wrote for two hours and it was like cutting the lawn with nail scissors. You'll never read those efforts because they're as dull to consume as they were hard to write.
It was about how everyone on the culture war front lines is right and also wrong about a specific recent controversy and how this is always true. It was also about how intensely obvious it is that certain currently popular propositions aren't really for describing the world, but for saying I am the kind of person who knows/thinks this thing that less sophisticated people cannot see.
I was labouring to articulate some 'good points' I haven't seen made by anyone and so I decided to come back to it later.
And then I just got fed up. Bored with myself. Bored with the world of information, controversy and opinion.
I was offering a 'hot take'. A 'thinkpiece'. A waste of bandwidth. Yours and mine. The kind of writing that goes 'oh look, I found another way of arguing how such & such is actually mistaken, stupid and bad' which is designed to make a few people clap, before rapidly moving on to read something else just like it.
We all know that everything is stupid. I read countless other writers who tell me this.
I don't think it's the Covid brain fog - although it has certainly been helping - but I am suddenly exhausted by 'takes'. Including my own. This feeling has been growing for a while.
There is something about the weary - and often ironic - detachment with which they are articulated that seems dishonestly avoidant. There is this thing that I have a certain vibe about, but rather than writing about that in a personal and reflective way here is an 'argument' that says why I am 'right' to have this vibe about it.
And this is when they aren't explaining how we're actually on the edge of absolute catastrophe.
We have this when literally anything happens.
Out come the thinkpieces intoning how some smallish thing that few people noticed and even fewer cared about proves that everything is falling apart.
And they are so contrived.
Which got me thinking about opinion writing in general and how there is literally nothing that you can't argue, from a vague impression coupled with half an idea.
Chatty makes a reasonable fist of developing that first one as an actual thinkpiece, as I’m confident that it would with all the others too. (Edited, to remove padding.)
... traffic jams are ... an unexpected catalyst for building stronger communities ... the potential to foster connections, enhance social cohesion...
...egalitarian in nature...we all share the same fate... shared experience ... a sense of unity among strangers...
...compel us to slow down and take notice...force us to pause, reflect, and appreciate the nuances of our urban environment...
...alternative routes are explored, clever shortcuts are discovered ... a sense of solidarity ... patience and resilience...
And so on, it goes.
(Someone should suggest this as a PR talking point for Just Stop Oil, next time people are upset about them blocking the roads.)
But this horseshit, so blithely trotted out by a Large Language Model, is conceptually indistinguishable from, say, the thoughts of a man like Noah Berlatsky on why Schindler's List didn't say enough about why the Nazis were bad.
If it's possible to opine, it will be opined.
This week I discovered that the German industrial art metal colossus, Rammstein, is under scrutiny for potentially appealing to people of a nationalistic bent.
This is one of the least edifying articles I've read for a while. The argument is made that because there is a resurgent right in Germany, some of the Rammstein vibe is now in tune with a certain political sentiment. And? So? The article never explains, while relentlessly hinting that there is something that is now worrying about Rammstein.
It's all vibe, of course. Ably assisted by some sexual assault allegations that the article really seems to be hung on.
Maybe it's the Covid, but I'm now exhausted by this kind of cognitive junk food - a phenomenon that we all seem to like (when it supports what we already thought) but which fills us up with empty calories and consequently has us seeking more all the time.
Is it the Covid or is it that I'm tired of people being worried about things that aren't really that bad, in the grand scheme?
I have to be honest here. There's only so many times you can tell me that Trump, Biden, the Tories, Keir Starmer, transgender people, migrants, conservatives, liberals, centrists, 'the culture', the feminisation of the culture, toxic masculinity, Tucker Carlson, AI risk, disinformation, censorship, Covid vaccines and every other fucking thing that people think are the best thing ever or the worst thing ever are going to save or destroy us all before I become inured to it. That point seems to have arrived.
Something seems to be happening with some of the writers who I have enjoyed following for the past couple of years. They are becoming unbending in their opposition to whatever-it-is - or they're casually making sweeping generalisations about how irredeemably terrible everything is, day in day out.
Maybe I should just turn this into a recipes and music blog. What do you think?
I'm bored by all the outrage and fear, the endless moral calibration of every human peccadillo, the relentless doomerism that fills almost every digital moment.
It's all so much narcissistic noise and I'm wondering at my own inclination to add to it.
Oh, I so wanted to share my views on the stupid episode which saw a shitty posh bank closing down the account of a shitty posh person, when I first sat down to write this. But the news cycle has moved on and that should be enough to tell you that it wasn't really that big a deal. The world didn’t need to know what I think about it.
At this point, the truly transgressive act seems to be refusal to be moved by things that people want me to be excited or angry about.
Perhaps this is the new practice.
Perhaps it's just the Covid brain fog.
But, right now the dog needs feeding. And Youna doesn't give a fuck for any of this shit. This currently seems to me to be the right attitude.
Things I'm wondering about lately...
Why are French drivers so stupid?
I was driving north from Folkestone when something strange happened. A car was joining the motorway, from the slip road on my left. I moved out to the middle lane to give them room and they joined alongside me. Then they dropped back. Momentarily I wondered what might be happening here. Had they seen a hazard up ahead? It was a good few seconds before I realised. They were driving properly, is all - with due respect and courtesy toward other users, according to the law. I keep forgetting that this is how people drive in Britain.
British motorways are typically narrower and much more congested than those I drive on here. And yet driving on them is much less stressful. This isn't just vibe. In Britain there are 2.9 road fatalities annually per 100,000 population, compared with 5 in France. Drive in France with a collision avoidance system turned on and almost everyone who overtakes you pulls in too soon, even if the road ahead is completely clear. I idly tested this observation recently and found that 7 out of 10 overtakers forced me to drop back, to maintain a safe distance (independently assessed by the collision avoidance system informing me that I was too close to the vehicle in front).
You cannot use cruise control here because no one can bear to be behind you. So they hop past, then slow down. You can be the only two cars on the road and it inevitably becomes a game of leapfrog.
Charles de Gaulle famously declared that it was difficult to govern a country with so many varieties of cheese. This is nonsense. The problem is that the French are just idiots.
But why? What is it about the French psyche that makes this so?
Alexithymia. Also known as lack of emotional intelligence.
Don't blame me, Francophiles. Blame The Science.
(I'm joking, obviously, but there's definitely something about the French psyche that makes them seem weirdly dumb and antisocial in certain contexts.)
America is doing my head in. How do I stop this from happening?
Someone I know, who was always quite conservative, has become fully radicalised and his talking points are all based on events in the United States. More than half of the most stupid culture war dumbfuckery I ever wrote about in Rarely Certain was about events in America. My favourite podcast - Blocked and Reported - is about American online stupidity. America is like the dirtiest, most appealing, least healthy fast food ever invented and I'm completely hooked on its absolute brokenness. Substack is inevitably mostly an American platform, so I'm doing myself no favours by reading so many 'stacks.
I'm only half joking. It feels like American affairs occupy way too much space in my mind.
What next for Rarely Certain?
A propos of being bored with everyone being constantly upset about something I'm thinking about taking a break from opinions altogether and writing a lot more from personal experience. Stories from my days as a reporter and an investigative journalist. Observations that flow from experience of things like online dating, living in a bohemian kind of cultural milieu (here in Normandie), confessions from the times when I spent far too much of the days online and more reflections on what it feels like to sometimes experience something approaching a 'good life'. If you signed up for hot takes, expect a period of disappointment.
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