Under the Rainbow (Britain in Lockdown, Part 3)

IMG_20200410_131342April is cruelly sunny right now, giving us the rarest of beasts- a British Easter weekend heavy with blossom and twenty-five degree warmth. After a mild, wet winter, the trees are bending under the weight of flours and wildlife is running amok. In fact, last week I saw a partridge hopping along my silent street, and the foxes and birds are loving their brief vacation from human oppression. Unfortunately, we’re all still in lockdown, with the NHS barely coping with a thousand deaths a day. As a result, we can only head out for exercise, jealously eyeing up the multitude of free-flying birds filling the spring with song.

I’m in two minds about some of the measures the government has imposed to keep people safe. On the one hand, I appreciate the severity of the crisis, and the challenge faced by police who are honestly trying to keep people safe. On the other hand, in Cottonmill this week I walked through an empty park in the lush sunshine, just a stone’s throw from severe social housing with boxy gardens (or none at all). It does seem hard not to give people the simple pleasure of sitting, socially distanced in the sunshine in their neighborhood park. I feel incredibly grateful to be surrounded by beautiful nature, from the coppiced serenity of Leyland Wood, to churchyards shadowed by ivy and the sweeping expanse of Verulamium Park. I’ve never appreciated the green belt1 more than I do right now.

IMG_20200410_140132In one of those little historical ironies, the crisis has confined me in Saint Albans again. Four years ago, I got out of here, after a struggle with insomnia (and, I think, depression) left me unmotivated and sluggish. I love my friends and family, but I wasn’t doing anything- living for weekends at the pub, and working to drink. I promised I wouldn’t come back here and get into old patterns, but after a typhoon blew my plans off course in Japan, I needed to come back and save a little money. So I moved back in with my endlessly supportive parents, and promised myself that it was a short-term thing.

Then, just as I was emerging from a spartan, working winter, the next storm hit. Suddenly, I was grounded in a small cathedral town even more somnolent than usual, all but three of its high street shops shuttered for the spring. As an arrogant student returning from university for Christmases and summers, I complained2 with some exaggeration about living in a quiescent backwater town. I now find myself living for real in the fictionalised town I moaned about, unnerved- fascinated- by its mossed-over silences.

Mixed Messages

Meanwhile, the town thrums along at its new minimal pace. When I go out for my daily exercise, I see small circles of huddled conspirators in front gardens, drinking wine together in the sunshine. The joggers are multiplying, and every now and again you come across traces of an earlier time- the guy walking down the road puffing on a joint, who got a cheer from two stacked lads on bikes. But for the most part, the mood music is subdued, broken only by the conversations of the birds. I’ve never seen London Road as silent as it was this Good Friday.


As people retreat behind painted wooden front doors, life inside those private realms blossoms. The city centre is deserted, with maybe four shops still open, but the suburbs have a jumpy, millenarian vibe behind the rows of orderly tulips and daffodils. All across the country, kids (and some adults) have been encouraged to draw or collage rainbows, and put them in their windows as a symbol of hope and encouragement for NHS workers. The rainbow as a symbol of hope has Biblical pedigree, of course; God sent it as his covenant to Noah after flooding the whole world and destroying all but eight of its earthly inhabitants. Thus the rainbow stands for hope, but also for catastrophic destruction. It’s a curious choice, but maybe an appropriate one. You’re in the flood, health professionals, but one day you’ll see a rainbow over the sullen sea.

Speaking of professions of faith, I’ve seen more of them than ever before in the streets. On Alexandra Road, a banner proclaims ‘For God So Loved the World…’, leaving the rest of the verse unspoken, implicit. Elsewhere, I’ve seen written professions of faith and religious artwork taped in windows. It’s Easter, and in many parts of the world this would be utterly normal, but in button-down, unspiritual Saint Albans its something of a rarity. But the churches are all closed, and the kids are at home with nothing to do, and people are scared.


There are darker manifestations of that fear, too. Internet apocalypse fan-fiction is metastasizing, and spilling out into the real world. Anti-globalisation (and often anti-semitic) conspiracies about George Soros and martial law have linked hands with paranoia about 5G and vaccines, pulling Bill Gates into their gravitational field along the way. The internet has been clumping fringe groups together for years, building Hydra monsters out of individual strains of kookery, and in the past I’ve typically found it very funny. However, at least twenty 5G masts have been burnt down in the last few weeks, and it’s making it more difficult for emergency services to communicate effectively in some areas. I saw anti-vaxx and anti-5G graffiti on a road bridge and in a railway tunnel today. This shit is a problem.

Three Cheers

I don’t have much more to say at the moment. I thought having more time to write would fizz me up with ideas, but instead I’m slipping into a peaceful, slightly sad stupor. Apparently, so are all the other people I’ve been tapping for information, and so my attempts to chronicle the lockdown are going very slowly. Hopefully I’ll have some stories for you soon from key workers, and from lockdowns around the world, but time feels bent out of shape at the moment.

I’ll leave you with a video from home. In England, as elsewhere, people have been clapping for the NHS workers. Maybe it’s helping morale; maybe it’s just helping the government to paper over the cracks of an underfunded healthcare system. I really don’t know. All I know is, the folks working in our hospitals and clinics deserve a fucking hand.

‘Til next time (and Remain Indoors),
From Your Correspondent in Lockdown.

1- if you’re not British and not familiar, the green belt is the area of exurban land and countryside around the outskirts of London where new building is restricted. With London growing by hundreds of thousands of people each decade, it doesn’t really work anymore, but it’s much loved.

2- to anyone who would listen.


Shimaguni Part 1: Island Mindset

IMG_4479Japanese has a word: shimaguni. It means ‘island nation‘. Unremarkable, you might think. Yet bottled in four syllables is a distillation of a supposed national spirit, the adduced explanation for everything that is unique about Japan. Not just island nation, but island mindset, island culture, island existence. You can apparently see shimaguni in the excessive focus on harmony and consensus in Japanese culture, the strange fads, the jumbled up religious loyalties, and the double economic miracle that the country enjoyed in the early 20th Century, then again in the 60s and 70s.   Fervent nationalists will tell you that Japanese simians have more peaceful social orders than mainland monkeys, and that Japanese people love the cherry blossom because they have a unique appreciation of fleeting things. Some will even claim that Japanese people hear music with a different part of the brain than Europeans or the Chinese. Serious-minded academics will swear that Japanese people can communicate heart-to-heart by a kind of telepathy due to their shared values. Who dares suggest that shared values  lead to shared assumptions? It’s hardly magic. Continue reading “Shimaguni Part 1: Island Mindset”

Kid Culture (Summer Camp, Week 4)

In Akasaka 7-chome.

This morning in Tokyo, the rain is torrential, and I am delighted. Summer Camp has been a rewarding experience, but summer, as a concept, I am more or less done with right now. Consequently, I am thinking of moving to Narnia. Continue reading “Kid Culture (Summer Camp, Week 4)”


The late afternoon sun suited them.

This has been Golden Week, and it’s been manic. There’s been all manner of celebration in Hiroshima, with the Flower Festival, which was as much cheap booze, taiko drums and rawk n’ roll as it was garlands of flowers. There was competitive flower arranging though. There’s a BBC2 primetime show in there, for sure. Elsewhere along Heiwa-odori, I saw comedians, maximum-energy choreographed teen dancing and also the more traditional kind. Hiroshima Sanfrecce deservedly lost to Yokohama Marinos after some poor theatrics. Familiar faces were back in town, emotions were running high. Summer is coming. Continue reading “Reiwa”

Quantum Politics (or, Batman! Robin! Let’s Do Local Election Apathy!)

Campaigners drive around in cars with megaphones on the roofs, waving at people and blaring messages. Around the city, there are neat, respectful lines of posters up advertising the candidates. The elections are for the city council, and they won’t bring down any government, but they’re still the kind of thing that an election otaku like me ought to find something to say about.


Continue reading “Quantum Politics (or, Batman! Robin! Let’s Do Local Election Apathy!)”

The Japanese and Everybody Else (Immigrant Song)

‘There’s the Japanese- and then there’s everybody else’.

After I started the ball rolling on moving to Japan, I heard this one friendly warning time and time again, from a range of different people. A friend of my mum’s who worked with Japanese clients, a British-Nigerian dude who had worked in Osaka. Former travellers and Nipponophiles. On first impulse, it felt like a bit of a cliché, but now I’ve been here for six months, I thought I might revisit the statement, and evaluate it. Long story short? It’s totally right. But then again, it’s also completely wrong.* Continue reading “The Japanese and Everybody Else (Immigrant Song)”

Thank you for the Muzak

There’s a café/bakery at Itsukaichi called the Little Mermaid, which I dearly love- it’s part of some behemoth baking conglomerate, but hey. I love it because serves tasty pastries and bread products, alongside donuts filled with cauliflower curry (which are bloody good) and sesame-coated pounded rice cakes containing sweet red bean paste*. I love it because it’s light and airy, and feels like part of a community. The coffee there, and generally in Japan, isn’t quite to my taste, but it’s still half-decent.

Continue reading “Thank you for the Muzak”