Mass Observation (We’re Being Watched!)

“My membership of the Society of Authors came through today! I’ve been accepted.” (Kenneth Williams, Diaries, ed. Russell Davies: entry dated Mon 12 May 1980)

Mass Observation Diary, 12 May 2020:

I’m 32 years old, from Brighton but now living up North. I spent years working as a trainee architect but now I am employed as an Account Manager. I was born male, and remain male, but apparently nowadays (according to the gossip on Twitter) it is not unknown for men to simply declare that they now ‘identify as female’, and, despite having all the characteristic physiology of mature male humans, demand the right to use women’s toilets and changing facilities.

Because of the lockdown, it is easier to think of the world in terms of the things we cannot do, rather than those which we can; simple things like travelling to work or going to a café.

Today is Thursday, when the bins get emptied by the council rubbish collectors. Many years ago, the binmen would come once a week, but that was changed to every other week in order to save money. Of course, ‘binmen’ is an archaic expression from the seventies when jobs and careers were strictly demarcated; refuse collectors were always male, nurses were always female.

My partner Simon claims that this is the highlight of my month. We live together – we have little to do with the neighbours, and some of them (so I understand) are under the impression that he is my son.
We live in a rented flat; many people in the UK own their homes (or will do so after paying a monthly mortgage for twenty-odd years) but we have to pay rent to a distant landlord. Technically we are in Salford, a deprived region of Greater Manchester, but our flat overlooks fields, so really we are on the edge of Cheshire.

I work for an electronics firm, and like many people in Britain I am being allowed to work from home. This policy was announced by the government to slow the spread of the coronavirus, by cutting down on travel. Lots of people are being ‘furloughed’ so they can remain at home, getting 80 percent of their wages from the government and being kept ready to resume work once the epidemic has died down.

Normally I would walk up to the local station and catch the 7.12 train to Oldham. The route is a busy one, and the trains are often delayed or cancelled. Sometimes the passengers have to stand for the entire journey in desperately crowded carriages called ‘Pacer Trains’.

The train journey would carry me past the ‘station park’ – a miniature replica of Frodo Baggins’ cottage in Lord of The Rings – and then past the Bredbury Power Station, and on to Manchester where the skyline is a forest of cranes. Spaces that were formerly car parks or derelict shops are now being transformed into cities in the sky.
I would leave the train at Victoria station, then walk twenty minutes to the office where I work, passing the homeless people in sleeping bags under the bridge, passing the smart restaurants and bars, past the estate agents’ offices with expensive sports cars parked outside them, and past the Gothic fantasy frontage of the John Rylands library.

Usually I would buy a sandwich for lunch from a supermarket, and then make my way on towards work, passing the Oast House, a trendy bar assembled from weathered beams and rusted farm implements.
This bar has a large courtyard where drinkers can enjoy the warm evenings and watch live music or broadcast sport; a life-sized poster shows one player from each of the six nations rugby teams, with a vertical scale in the middle for lesser mortals to see how they measure up against these giants.

Like all sporting events, the Six Nations was suspended in March.

So, instead of this journey to work, I now walk from the bedroom to the spare room where I have a desk and computer set up to carry out my work. The miracle of technology allows tens of thousands of workers round the UK to remotely access their secure office networks and so carry on processing customer details.
My monthly season ticket for the train costs about £215, so the process of working from home brings financial benefits.

Breakfast: toast, cereal and coffee. I boil the water in a kettle on the gas stove rather than use an electric kettle. The handle is fixed to the kettle lid using a mild-steel screw which has started to rust. I was hoping to have avocado on toast, but the fruits themselves were hard. ‘Perfectly ripe’, it said on the wrapper, which I am guessing was Greek for golf balls.

We don’t have a dishwasher, so all the dirty plates and cups were waiting for me in the sink when I got up today; I set about washing-up, cleaning the crockery along with a couple of plastic ice-cream tubs. But we do have a washing-machine, so I no longer have to carefully decant laundry powder into old margarine tubs and take the half-hour walk to the washeteria.

Social: during the day I correspond with my work colleagues and ask them for advice using an online messaging service called ‘Microsoft Teams’.
I would sometimes go into Manchester on Tuesday nights to meet up with friends and play board games in the pub. Without the standard family network I (and many other gay men) rely on the pub scene for conversation, affirmation and company. But now we are still instructed to avoid unnecessary travel, and all the pubs and restaurants and cinemas and libraries and shopping centres are still shut, so I stay indoors and watch television.

For many years I had no television and would listen to records or read library books, but now I have no turntable or speakers so I can only listen to music online or by playing CDs through a DVD unit. Online entertainment is a miracle – you can simply tap into a keyboard and immediately listen to almost anything without having to pay a fee or search through library catalogues…

Weather: since I am not travelling to work, it doesn’t matter what today’s weather is going to be like. It’s glorious outside, bright and cold: I watch the neighbour’s cat go trotting daintily past the wheelie bins with a mouse.
Food: the arrival of the Coronavirus sent thousands of people rushing off to their local supermarkets to stock up on tinned beans, long-life milk and toilet rolls. I have several tins of soup and rice pudding and a large jar of olives. We bought a couple of bags of flour and have been making pancakes and shortbread. This is delicious, but I realized, after polishing off most of the batch, that I have eaten half a packet of butter in one day.

For lunch I turn back into a student and treat myself to beans on toast with grilled cheese. In the evening I decide to prepare an ornamental salad with tomatoes, eggs and leaves. ‘You don’t like olives, do you?’ I call from the kitchen. Simon says no, not really, and I point out that it is a line from Victoria Wood. ‘Or perhaps it’s from Abigail’s Party…’

Work: I sit at a small desk with a dainty laptop computer and take customer enquiries. On the bookshelf there is a picture of me with my older sister, taken 5 years ago at the Coliseum in Rome. At work, we are required to clear all personal belongings off the desk at the end of the day, so people rarely bother to put on display any personal items or photographs.
I sit at my desk taking phone calls and webchat messages; the great thing about working from home is that I don’t have to trudge from the office to the station, worrying about how late the train will be. Instead, I can saunter into the bedroom and have a brief power nap before getting dinner ready.

TV news: the news is all about Covid-19, and the recent announcement that people in the UK will be allowed to travel greater distances to get their unlimited daily exercise. However, after discarding their slogan ‘Stay Home’ the government went on to say that people should still avoid going out if possible. I log onto the internet to read the news headlines and see the latest grim statistics. We are advised to return to work but not to travel by public transport, a declaration that has prompted widespread scorn.

To cheer myself up I watch the jazz Rachmaninov scene from ‘Groundhog Day’ on the Youtube website.
Earlier today it turned grey and damp, the tarmac bruised with gleaming puddles. But now it is glorious again, late low sunshine bouncing off the trees and the power station chimneys.

‘Look what I’ve found’ said my friend, offering me a black fabric bag. I peered in and saw a pair of headphones. When I didn’t show any excitement, he went on: ‘Look what else is in there.’ And deeper in the bag I found my Hitachi MP3 player, a flat rectangular capsule full to bursting with Prince, Doves, and Berlioz. I bought this player ten years ago in Truro, and spent hours listening to it. Then it went missing a few months ago and I was distraught, worried that I had lost it somewhere.

The evening is cool; behind our flat, the trees make ornate silhouettes against a soft grey sky that drifts from lilac into amber. On the news we have the Chancellor telling us that thousands of jobs have already been lost due to the Covid lockdown, but the treasury would carry on paying furlough wages to companies whose workers had been temporarily laid off.

The day is nearly over; we watch a TV drama serial called ‘The A Word’, all about the issues surrounding autism in children. I think about the funeral hymn, ‘The Day thou Gavest, Lord’, and wonder if it’s time for an alternative version, where the draughtsman puts the finishing touches to his utopian blueprint, or the technician at CERN initiates the voltage-ramping procedure that will lead to a staggering discovery.

This time last year everything was radiantly optimistic, with Boris suggesting that the threshold for higher-rate tax payers could be raised from fifty to eighty grand a year. This time next year we could be plunged into a recession, with a ban on air travel, interest rates at twelve percent and the Qatar FIFA world cup on the brink of cancellation. Only time will tell…

“I donate my 12th May diary to the Mass Observation Archive. I consent to it being made publicly available as part of the Archive and assign my copyright in the diary to the Mass Observation Archive Trustees so that it can be reproduced in full or in part on websites, in publications and in broadcasts as approved by the Mass Observation Trustees. I agree to the Mass Observation Archive assuming the role of Data Controller and the Archive will be responsible for the collection and processing of personal data and ensuring that such data complies with the DPA.”

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