:: Buzzwords Archive: April 2020. Click here for the latest posts.

3:AM in Lockdown 45: Matthew Jakubowski (published 24/04/2020)

The President’s Bucket
By Matthew Jakubowski.



This isn’t really the kind of story I want to tell. But it happened. It’s still happening. So it must be told.

A small part of it grew from the extra time I’ve been spending with my son since the lockdown began. He’s eight years old, really likes to build. The other day he built an obstacle course in our tiny backyard. He set a few bricks on the ground far apart to leap from one to another without falling. He, his mother, and I cheered each other on leaping from brick to brick in our quiet neighborhood.

Indoors he has Legos and a fort and he’s cried more in the past few weeks than he has in the previous year. Like so many others this is where we are now generally, in small spaces together between tears. But we are home together (which is a comforting thing, most days).

My son has naturally asked about what happened. Why is everything including his elementary school shut down? We’ve told him in measured, even terms about the virus and the bigger picture. Explaining it for an eight-year-old, we say President Trump won’t listen. That’s his main problem. If he did listen to other people, especially the scientists, we could’ve avoided this. My son nods and looks away. Then he speed-talks for two full minutes in a calm but rising voice that my wife and I understand as stifled fear and fury. It hurts to see but we know it’s good he’s pouring words out at what’s happening.

The larger story of the past few years is gargantuan. I haven’t shared the dark story below with anyone until now. It grew from a day-long fugue state I expelled late at night onto my screen after years of that same calm anger my son mirrored to us. This hyperbolic satire (which flatters the intelligence of such a titanic imbecile) may not be for everyone. But I think millions of us have our own versions. Some people have shared them. I think it would help if more of us did.

So if I had to tell it the way it is, the way it feels, in a scene that sums up the last few years for so many people in this country who are dead, in poverty, dying, diseased, living but contemplating suicide daily, without help or hope, and the millions who’ve been thrown toward that kind of life over the past month, this would be it, because the tens of thousands dead and counting during this pandemic are the capstone on the entirety of Trump’s presidency. The story goes like this:

Trump is standing with some soldiers and some children on the playground outside a school. The children are between five and six years old. Nearby, a shiny tin bucket full of water has been bolted to the concrete. All the schools have these now to advertise Trump’s global real estate empire, with his name stamped on the buckets in gold letters.

Trump tells a soldier to take one of the kids over to the bucket and face the group. The other soldiers stand behind the other children. When Trump says go, the soldier grabs the child and forces him forward, shoving his head into the gleaming bucket. The child kicks and flails, but he’s no match for the soldier.

The children watching scream and try to break free. The soldiers hold them back. “Stop! No!” the children scream. Some cover their faces. The soldier doesn’t stop, of course. When the drowning child stops thrashing the soldier releases him. It takes very little time. The child’s body rolls over onto the concrete. Water spills from his mouth. The soldier gets up, stands aside, and stares into space.

The children stare at their dead friend and are allowed to scream for as long as they like. When their screaming tapers off, Trump walks over and points to the dead child. “You probably feel pretty sorry for that kid, don’t you?” A few of the terrified children are lost enough in fear to scream back, “Yes! Yes! You’re insane! I’ll kill you!” Trump lets them vent.

“Sure, I bet you’re mad. Of course. This is sad. I get that. OK? But who thought about my bucket?” He waits. “I thought kids were supposed to have imagination. Isn’t that what you’re learning to have in school? But none of you really care. What do you think that was like just now for my bucket?

“Look at that bucket and think about it. You’re really going to remember it.” The soldiers unsnap their holsters so the children hear the click. “When I look at you I think you’re good kids just like your friend. You care about everyone don’t you and everything. Except this bucket. My poor bucket. Look, it just keeps shining. Poor little bucket. Try saying it when you look at it. Come on. Poor bucket. Poor bucket. Try that. It feels good.”

The children don’t repeat the words at first. But as he repeats it slowly and calmly and the soldiers start to whisper it then say it as loudly as Trump the words start to sound a bit comforting, almost like their own kind of poetry. And one child then another can’t take their eyes off the shiny bucket, right beside their dead friend, and they say the only two words it feels safe to say.

This isn’t a story for my son, but he’s growing up amid fascism. I wonder if deep down he knows what’s happening as he innocently builds and leaps and cries. He’s learned that our neighbors and communities have to work together to keep each other safe from every element of this administration’s vindictive, triumphant greed. Later he’ll learn how it came about, created by every person who voted for Trump, and those who’ll do so again, and everyone who’s given him political room to breathe. The story of these childhood years of his will be told in many other ways beside little bucket stories, by our historians and journalists who’ve chronicled the suffering in America since this man was elected. But in the meantime, most urgently, we have to stop the campaign to re-elect him. Because four more years of Trump will be far worse for all our children than a mere six months or a year more of potential lockdown.



3:AM in Lockdown 44: Anna Aslanyan (published 23/04/2020)

What Will Last Longer?
By Anna Aslanyan.



Today I went on a date. I had a feeling it would be special, and so it was. For the first time ever, we found ourselves completely alone. There was no one within sight or earshot to disturb the intimacy of the moment. This relationship has now lasted a few months. There is still some novelty to it, I’m happy to report, as well as some mystery.

Under lockdown, people turn to things that have always been there but only just acquired a special meaning. For most of us it’s books, films, albums; but what about buildings? For it is Angel House, a fine interwar warehouse in Goswell Road, that I have been obsessed with. An example of the Chicago school often seen in London, it has four ceramic plaques on its facade, featuring a train, a sailing boat, a steam ship and a black cotton picker. This last has intrigued local historians for years. If the building, as it has been thought, was designed for a tobacco company, what made the architect choose the cotton motif?



Reader, I know the answer. In fact, I am quite possibly the only person in the entire pandemic-gripped world to know almost all there is to know about this building. Designed by Herbert A. Welch, FRIBA, it was completed in 1930 and was occupied by a number of institutions — International Tobacco (not the original owner, but no spoilers yet), the Royal Mail, the Royal National Institute for the Blind — before being converted into offices. The puzzle is almost complete; the only bit missing is the artist who made the roundels. Having narrowed the possibilities to a handful, I have to wait for the archives to reopen before I can verify my latest conjecture. Anyone with relevant information, do please get in touch. While waiting, I’m trying to figure out what exactly I’m hoping to find: a brief revealing some colonial prejudice? a racist review? correspondence between the artist and the model?



Whatever it is, I hope to share my findings with the world in due course. Will I become an architectural historian by the time it’s safe again to approach the object of your passion? Unlikely; but it doesn’t matter. Even if this relationship, which currently has me spending most of my government-sanctioned exercise time opposite Angel House, is doomed, it will never feel like a mere fling. Buildings will always be there (and so, of course, will be books). What will last longer: this passion or the lockdown? Who knows or cares? Many things, I venture to predict on this fine day, 4 April 2020, will last longer.


3:AM in Lockdown 43: Wendy Erskine (published 22/04/2020)

The Contemptus Mundi Beat
By Wendy Erskine.



Many years ago, back when smoking was allowed on public transport, I got on a particular bus. From the back, as if through a cloud of grey dry ice, came the voices of three teenage girls, singing over and over again the words, ‘Life is just a piss in the air, Life is just a piss in the air! ’ as the bus made its way along the Antrim Road. I watched them when they eventually got off, laughing and pushing each other, making faces at the dreary passengers who had stared at their tatted hair and ripped fishnets. The words they were singing haven’t ever really left me.

Periodic internet lyrics searches over the years have never come up with a song they were from and maybe that allows for a more thrilling conclusion. These fourteen, fifteen year olds — just as effectively as any painters who, with their fading flowers and withering leaves, walked the vanitas or contemptus mundi beat — managed to capture the essential precariousness and brevity of human life. While wearing Miss Selfridge bondage gear lite.

The other week I wrote a story where, as is usual in my stuff, someone thinks about dying, or dies. Like I said, those lyrics have never left me. Plus, as dispositions go, I’m doomy. I was asked to remove a sentence where a man notices the giant clock outside an undertaker’s. I was happy to do so. It was clumsy. It was memento mori writ large, underlined and italicised, although in real life such outsize clocks do exist, bracketed to the walls of funeral directors’ facades.

We really need no more reminders of mortality. Each day the statistics, unreliable and partial as they might be, break down the numbers dead in different countries and immediate localities. Put in your postcode for the latest info on Covid-19 in your area. The daily death tolls appall, frighten, shock, anger. Life was there and is gone.

But those girls, they also conveyed something that I understood even though I was just a kid myself, and one with no preternatural perspicacity. Viewed against the sweep of historical time, life may well be just a piss in the air, but for just a little while that piss is a glorious golden arc. And those lippy, cheeky kids, dreaming themselves up, were probably, hopefully, in the ascendant trajectory of it.

Catch that streak of piss glinting in the sunlight! Beautiful really, if you look at it. Just as a red jumper seems saturated with colour on a grey day, so lockdown and all this hanging around imbues ordinary things with such consequence. You’ll have seen plenty documented: the way the light plays on a rug; the crystalline freshness of a morning run; the crust of a loaf; certain guitar solos; melting butter; a family around a table; a line of poetry; a message from a friend; a kid’s drawing; a shoot; an old photo; your three favourite books, your five, your eight, your ten by novelists whose names begin with B.

Writers, maybe somebody like me who is beasting the hell out of a piss metaphor, don’t have more interesting experiences day to day than anyone else or more interesting thoughts, but just a greater inclination to write about them. So I also want to know just how the people still having to visit hospitals three times weekly for kidney dialysis are doing. What’s it like for postal workers? (Thank you Kevin Boniface!) How’s it going on the farm, when you have to pour your milk away? What’s it like to work on the checkout? How are you managing in the Chapel of Rest?

And here’s a recipe for caramel ice-cream and a good tune from Khana Bierbood:

225g castor sugar
4 egg yolks
large pot of double cream (600g)

Put the sugar with 100ml cold water in a saucepan. Heat slowly, stirring until the sugar has dissolved then boil until it starts to turn caramel coloured. Let it go really dark if you want a strong caramel taste. Keep your nerve.

Remove from the heat. Add another 200ml cold water, slowly. Bring to the boil again, then leave it to cool.
Whisk the egg yolks until they’re pale and thick. Slowly stir in the caramel.

Whip up the cream to floppy kind of peaks, then gently fold into the caramel custard. Take your time. Pour into a container and freeze it overnight.



3:AM in Lockdown 42: Susana Medina (published 21/04/2020)

Notes Towards a Virtual Lockdown
By Susana Medina. Pictures: Derek Ogbourne.


Looking at exponential graphs, at data, numbers, statistics, every day.

First Italy.

Then, Spain.

Thinking about my friends, old neighbours in Spain, and that Italy has warned us what to expect: I’m filled with sorrow for you, Italy, a country I lived in for a year. Spain, the country where I grew up. Daily, the numbers are horrific, and sorrow cannot be exponential.

Knowing that in two or three weeks, Corona will reach the UK.

Then checking on Germany, where the death toll is unusually low: mass testing and a prepared, robust health care system seem to make a difference. Or is the death rate calculated in a different way?

And our government in the UK … What can I say?

The brutal lessons are there, from Wuhan, South Korea, Italy, Spain, and yet, sovereignly unheeded. Herd immunity is going ahead. That’s what all the staggering incompetence, dithering and delayed lockdown spell out.

This is an unexpected epic tragedy within a well-known and foretold epic catastrophe which remains largely ignored: the climate and ecological emergency. The Covid-19 pandemic is a drill for it. Hopefully, it will be a catalyst for transformation. Covid-19 affects everything. It’s pandemonic. And so will be the climate emergency. We’ve been re-imagining our society for a long time now. We know that we have to reinvent our societies. We do in all the ways we can. Now the questions remain: how to alter the political will that is poisoning us? How to turn fear into hope? I’m talking about large swathes of voters here. The task is never-ending. We have to keep on marching, doing, undoing, hoping, speaking out.

‘We should do our wills, you know?’ I said to Derek during the first days of British Corona. Not that we have much. But our mothers own a house each. On 2 April, I went to Tesco, wearing a mask, and gloves. On leaving, with unwittingly unconvincing tone, I said to the black security guard: ‘Have a lovely day’. He looked at me, and there was fear in his eyes. And I feared for him. And all the doctors, nurses, cleaners, factory workers and bus drivers on the frontline, risking their lives, came to the forefront. Not that they haven’t been in my mind, having closely followed the dance of death in Italy and Spain.

Why isn’t everyone wearing masks? And why the lack of pandemic protection to those exposed to the public and those who risk their lives day after day to protect us?

Neoliberalism: So many countries casting the vulnerable to their deaths, key workers being collateral damage.

Faceless and nameless numbers. At some point, there will be some faces and names.

At first, fear for family and friends. Will I lose a friend? A relative? An acquaintance? Real fear. For everyone. And panic, an inner tantrum, when a beloved high-risk friend, living in a remote place without doctors, doesn’t answer an email for a few hours, not knowing he has to walk to an internet hotspot.

Before the plague, I used to go for a walk every day, around my pretty deserted block. Now, is now and again, always with a mask and gloves, crossing the road when I see a human looming a mile away. On my walks, I would meet Andrew, the postman, with whom I’m on chatty terms. Will he be here after lockdown? I would also meet and chat with William, an old Irish gardener, who walks his dogs every day. I’ve talked to him from three metres away, begging him to get in touch with the local association who’s helping high-risk people. Will he be fine?

So instead of walks, it’s long spells in the garden, which is more like a meadow, a lush profusion of ivy, wildflowers and interesting weeds: lilacs, daffodils, dandelions, speedwell, lesser celandine, brambles, nettle, sticky plants and creepers running up the trees. So privileged to have a garden, to be with my loved ones, my cats and the blessings I can’t go into here, which remind me that one of my main inner narratives makes me smile and remains partly unchanged, except for the thought: what does tomorrow hold? Privileged to have a roof above my head, be able to wash my hands, and no worries about food or bills, so far. Working in the garden is de-stressing and handling soil is good for the immune system. On the first gardening day, a memory strikes me: the months after my dad parted, and, unexpectedly, in January and February, I spent long spells tidying up the garden. I am grieving, I tell myself, except there is also now the urgent need for fresh air. In the garden, my cats self-isolate.



This spring is both dystopian and glorious. If I rewind the Corona tape, 11th March was the last day I went out. To a poetry Shearman Books launch. Being a part-time carer for my high-risk mum, I was already physical distancing, people seemed surprised, and it took them a few seconds to understand. And that’s the last people I met. I stopped going swimming. A couple of readings were cancelled. Then, a barrage of work, and editing. Continuity. I work from home. I teach online for the Open University. Lots of marking. All the windows in my flat face the garden, and with the exception of birdsong, the quiet is absolute. Nothing has changed, and everything has changed. It’s home, sweet home, except for a few trips to the shop: One day, I had to go to six supermarkets to find toilet paper! It reminded me of a picture of me Derek altered a few years ago with toilet paper to make me look like a mummy. He probably made it after returning from the Middle East. What the hell was he thinking? It’s a kind of Corona picture. Shall I change my profile pic to this one? It’s inappropriate. Is it?

And then, the last edits, more home, sweet home, though one day we cycled to Hampstead Heath, and another one, to a nearby reservoir. And there is some good news: at long last, I have finished Spinning Days of Night, a long novel I started to write back in 1247 AD, with many interruptions, as I lost my dad, and became a carer for my mum who has a chronic illness, suffers from mild dementia and is now in a wheelchair. While I was writing my novel, I also published and promoted two books and a half, and last year, I became increasingly involved with Extinction Rebellion. In the devastating company of Total Cases, New Cases, Total Deaths, New Deaths, Total Recovered, Active Cases, I wasn’t happy the day I finished my novel, so many years in the making. There was supposed to be a before and after with my novel. On finishing it, I was planning seeing more of my friends, read their books, start collaborations and be more visible on social media. Instead, there is a before and after Corona. There will be time, there will be time, I told myself as more work came my way.

Sooner or later the UK would have to go on lockdown. But it wasn’t happening. Those were the days of supreme angst and a non-capisco-verdaderamente-no entiendo feeling, when seeing mega-mass gatherings, such as the Liverpool-Atlético Madrid football, the Chelteham Festival, the Bath Marathon, and pictures of crammed pubs, trains and airports. Of being angry, livid, and scared when the government shamelessly announced its ‘herd immunity’ strategy. After participating in the 24h yum-yum banquet Les Éphémères, a virtual lockdown global gathering of 24 inspiring prize-winning writers, I felt immensely relieved when lockdown was finally announced, inexplicably late, on 23rd March.

In lockdown, life continues. Love, humour, beauty continues. Prompted by some images of Bruno Ganz on Twitter, I thought the time had come for the most special of treats: I watched Wings of Desire. Years ago, I used to watch it every so often. It’s my favourite film.

I look at exponential graphs, at data, numbers, statistics, every day. It is both very real and remote. There is one regret: I wish I could make a difference. I’d love to volunteer, if I wasn’t caring for my demanding, high-risk mum. The UK has such a great tradition of volunteering. In fact, so many things are run by volunteers. At some point, I think: lockdown suits me fine. How many days since self-isolating? Today is 10th April. One month! And I haven’t gone mad yet! A little voice tells me: That may be because you already are!

In lockdown, laughter and tragedy go hand in hand on social media, while yoga classes and funerals are conducted on zoom. Like most of us in lockdown, I have developed a new type of agoraphobia, and as I process these new realities, and soap and water and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, and disinfect the post and the shopping, listen to and comfort paranoid relatives, and conjure up necessary distractions, I feel waves of sympathy towards those who have lost loved ones, great admiration for those working to save lives, and sympathise with those self-isolating by themselves and all the families, friends, lovers, tragically separated by Corona.



These days the weather is splendid, and online we get to see wild animals exploring the city. In these strange sunny days of loss and isolation, I think about the economic reverberations, and that universal basic income is essential. I also think of failures, inconsistencies, and clear blue skies caused by the sudden drop in carbon emissions. There must be a measurable drop in the deaths caused by air pollution, which causes 64,000 early deaths in the UK every year, and worldwide, 8.8 million early deaths. As of today, almost four months since the first Corona death, there are 103,000 fatalities worldwide. How is this different from the 8.8 million early deaths caused by air pollution? Are they lesser deaths? Is it because the Spanish Flu in 1918 caused more than 50.000.000 deaths and there is panic Corona could come near to this? Or is it because the will to seriously and urgently transition to a free fossil fuel world is lacking?

The air pollution death toll is a permitted catastrophe I have written about, and whilst it’s not as intense, dramatic and unexpected as Corona, imagine a world where we had daily shivering data about it on the news. The big silence shouts about an unforgivable complicity and betrayal on the part of our governments, economy and media bought up by fossil fuels. We do not have a cure for Corona yet, but we do know what we have to do to prevent deaths from pollution, which are one current devastating dimension of the manifold tragedies unfolding from the climate and ecological emergency.

It is early spring, nature singing its well-known song. Does it have notes of irony, this time round? Can we afford to despair at this stage of lockdown, when this is just the beginning? We are mired in it for the long haul, and this is the beginning of a double crisis. But it can also be a beginning, which means hard work, resilience, empathy and fostering the spirit of cooperation and community born of these crises. To cherish life like there is no tomorrow, while caring about our uncertain future. It is something we have to do. Always. In the face of mass death, we have to redouble our efforts. Let’s invent a new carpe diem, which is about celebrating and respecting life. End with a positive note, I tell myself as the UK records the highest single-day coronavirus death toll: 980. Spread hope, write something positive, something like: ‘An admirable example to follow is New Zealand, where only four deaths have been recorded, thanks to the ever-wonderful Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has led a vigorous elimination strategy.’ Or something light-hearted: ‘Let’s not tell some people when lockdown is over!’ Maybe something deeper? ‘Dearest Reader, during the days ahead, I wish you moments of quiescent perceptiveness.’


3:AM in Lockdown 41: Joshua Alexander & Steven J. Fowler (published 20/04/2020)

The Animal Drums
By Joshua Alexander ansd Steven J. Fowler.