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From the pandemic ashes
Following another period of site inactivity, Slarek faces up to the unexpected impact that Covid-enforced isolation has had on him and his productivity, gets pissed off at government incompetence and makes a plea on behalf of those for whom normality shows no sign of returning.
11 September 2020

If you’ve been following or even intermittently visiting our humble site for a while, you’ll be aware that it’s had its share of ups and downs and that I’ve tended to only report on the downs. This makes sense, as when things are running well they’re running as they should, and when they’re not it’s only natural for regular readers to wonder why, and I’ve tended to be up front about the reasons. Most are down to me, and being site editor and lead reviewer this does tend to make itself felt more acutely than it would if one of our contributors met with similarly life-disrupting misfortune (and this has happened). My intermittent runs of bad luck and health are no worse than what many others have had to muddle through, but when something hits you hard you tend refocus your priorities, and much as I’ve loved running the site and writing about movies and disc releases over the years, when a crisis hits this has to take a back seat.

So is this a build-up to the announcement I’ve hinted at a few times that I’m winding the site down? No, at least not yet. Indeed, it’s less about what’s coming than what hasn’t been appearing over the last few weeks, and a peek at the home page will reveal that I’m talking about film and disc reviews. As you’ve probably noticed, there have been precious few, and I thought it about time I got into why, and how we’re attempting a reboot in what are unquestionably difficult times. And yes, this will get a little self-indulgent, and for that I apologise, but as site regulars will be aware, I don’t tend to subtly hint at things that are better stated clearly. Okay, so where do I start?

There’s no question that all of our lives have been turned upside-down by a global pandemic that has at the time of writing infected over 27 million people and killed over 884,000 worldwide. In my last blog – written back in May – I mused on aspects of the lockdown on which I could consider myself more fortunate than others. At this point it had only recently been enforced and still had an air of novelty about it, if that’s not too trivial a word for something that has proved so deadly to so many. It forced a complete lifestyle change for all but dedicated Hikikomori (people who live alone and never leave their houses, once thought to be a largely Japanese phenomenon that has since been documented in a number of countries) and I had no issue with that. It may have come too late for the many who were killed or made sick by the virus while the government dithered and tried to cover its worthless arse, but the reasons for imposing it were absolutely sound. When it began, I felt almost as if I was in a movie. When I stepped outside I was no longer Slarek of Cine Outsider, I was Cillian Murphy in the opening scene of 28 Days Later or Edward Judd walking through a deserted London in the final sequence of The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Three months later, as deliberately confusing guidelines are widely flouted and information coming from the government makes less and less sense, I feel more like Luke Wilson in Idiocracy.

I should probably note that the part of the country in which I live has more than its fair share of spectacular dumb-asses, but the warnings that the warm weather had woken the wankers came early round my way, when two weeks into the lockdown, barriers around road works near house were dragged into the middle of a main road late at night by giggling dickheads in the hope of causing a car to crash. Just what hospitals needed when Covid 19 cases were peaking. Even before the restrictions were erratically and unwisely eased, local people and a troubling number of visitors to the area were behaving is if the virus had magically vanished. I live near the coast and watched on in disbelief as people flocked to beaches in tightly-packed droves, met up in large groups to exchange hugs and handshakes, and even got into fights as soon as the hot weather hit. Responsibility for this really does lay primarily at the feet of a government that deliberately muddied its contradictory messaging – aided and abetted by right-wing media barons – as part of a long-term strategy to blame everyone but themselves for their own monumental and lethal cock-ups, coupled with a resurgence of its prioritising of the economy over the lives of the citizens whose interests it is supposed to represent. Adding to this mountainous incompetence has been a frankly staggering level of corruption that saw contracts awarded to suspect companies without being put out to tender, companies that repeatedly failed to deliver the goods. Who could forget the one for ferry services handed out to a company that had no ferries, no experience of working with ferries, and whose terms and conditions were lifted from those of a pizza delivery firm? Then there’s the £32 million (which was originally claimed as £108 million – nothing dodgy going on here) for medical equipment handed to, of all things, a pest control company with only 16 employees and assets of just £18,000. And while you’re spaffing taxpayer’s money up the wall, how about the £12 million given to a mate of Dominic Cummings for a track-and-trace app that never materialised? I could go on for some time. The Good Law Project is currently suing the government over another highly suspect misuse of public funds (you’re all paying for this, remember) that again involves close associates of the poisonous Mr. Cummings, a man who famously hit the headlines for breaking rules he helped devise and for testing his eyesight by driving his family to a castle as a treat for his wife’s birthday at a time lesser mortals were prevented from seeing their loved ones in their final hours. Sorry, but I really hate that fucker. And don’t get me started on the absolute shambles surround PPE procurement, with money thrown at incompetent and inappropriate vendors when no orders were placed with British firms who’d been making this stuff for years and who ended up exporting their products instead. As Johnson and his posse of malicious bumblers barked at us plebs to return to the workplace (where many bosses either continue to work remotely or are safely isolated in private offices), I suspected that the movie I now found myself in was a metaphorical take on Jaws, one in which the shark was Covid 19 and Matt Hooper was the scientific and medical community whose warnings were being ignored by pig-headed Mayor Boris Johnson in his prioritising of commerce over public safety. In case you think that fanciful, it’s worth remembering that Johnson once claimed that for him Mayor Larry Vaughn was the true hero of that film.

Before I get to the meat of this rambling piece, there are a few things that I should probably clarify so you know where I’m coming from. I’m no longer a young man and am in less than perfect health, and as a result do not know how Covid 19 might impact on me, but I somehow doubt it’s something I could simply brush off. I’ve read many reports about people far younger and fitter than me who have been completely floored or even killed by the virus, and I’m not quite ready to check out yet. More importantly, my partner is in the high-risk category and my sister – the only surviving member of my immediate family – has a health condition so serious that she’s been warned by medical specialists that catching Covid 19 would likely prove fatal. She was thus quickly slapped on the Secure list, and on the advice of those very same medicos has not left our late mother’s house in almost six months. I do shopping for her (mostly online now) and keep a check on her condition, but due to the highly infectious nature of the virus I make sure to limit my visits and keep a safe distance from her at all times. Because of all this I’ve had to be particularly vigilant, observing and going beyond social distancing guidelines where I can (one scientific study I read suggested that the only really safe social distance would be 8 metres and above, and that the risk doubles with every metre you get closer), wearing a facemask whenever I go out and making regular use of the hand sanitiser I keep with me at all times. A virus that can pass from person to person as exhaled droplets in their breath is one thing, but one that can live on hard surfaces for up to five days and be passed on by people who have no visible symptoms? Thanks a lot, nature. I guess you win this round. To be sure, I wipe down every item of shopping I buy with disinfectant and leave any non-perishables for at least a week before handling them again. When you and those close to you are potentially vulnerable, the old adage applies – you genuinely cannot be too careful. And if any of this seems at all over-cautious, imagine how the average parent would be if the virus was primarily taking the lives of children instead of the elderly. The next one might. Then see how you react if older people start walking around without facemasks and not bothering with things like social distancing.

When the lockdown began, a small few who probably thought they knew me better assumed I’d easily adapt to a lifestyle that was not really any different to the one I was already leading. To a degree I probably thought so too. Oh, if only. As I suspected from the off, I quickly began to miss just relocating to an office to do a day’s work, and I’ve had to adopt a rigid morning ritual to make my home feel like a workplace and not where I come home from work to relax. I then hit a problem that has doubtless affected some of those reading this as well when one of my health issues took a sudden dive and a new one developed. Back in the pre-virus days it was simple, you make an appointment and go to see your doctor (or join the triage and wait for the call to see if you qualify to do so – another effect of Tory cutbacks), but that’s all now changed. Doctors are on the viral front line and are understandably reluctant to see anyone unless the condition in question is potentially life-threatening, and what would since have taken a simple examination to diagnose has become a less reliable game of Twenty Questions instead. During one such call, the doctor I was talking to even asked me what I thought the problem was, presumably unaware of my complete lack of legally recognised medical qualifications. Since then I have had telephone conversations with a string of sympathetic medical professionals and was asked to describe symptoms and pinpoint the locations of pains with a carefully considered choice of words that would not be required if physical examinations were still a thing. Possibly the most comical of these was with an orthopaedic nurse, who directed me by phone to perform a number of exercises and stretches that I think I was doing correctly – some standing, some sitting, some lying on the floor – not to effect a cure but to decide which specialist would be calling me next.

More quietly problematic is the effect that this ongoing isolation appears to have had on my mental wellbeing. As I noted in my previous blog, there’s a difference between living alone and solitary confinement, and that difference has proved to be greater than I might have imagined. It’s been argued that Homo sapiens are social animals, and being largely housebound and not having any face-to-face conversations with friends or colleagues for weeks on end started to create in me a sense of reality disassociation. That said, others have certainly had it worse than me. One person I know well is battling a nervous breakdown, another recently attempted suicide, and that’s just within my own limited circle of friends and acquaintances. Both, it should be noted, are also living alone – if you’ve been holed up with a partner you genuinely care for and still felt isolated during the lockdown, believe me you don’t know the half of it. The effect on me of this still ongoing social isolation was not what I would have predicted. I did not get depressed or overly stressed – I’m sure someone will challenge that statement when they read what follows – but was instead hit by a constant tiredness and crushing lethargy that severely whittled down my attention span and crushed my enthusiasm for just about anything. The insidious thing about it is that it crept up on me so slowly that I genuinely wasn’t aware that it was happening. My initial lockdown diet of two movies a day was almost imperceptibly reduced over the course of the next few months to maybe two or three a week. When my daytime workload spilled over in to the evenings and weekends, it dropped even further and what little free time I had was spent instead idly browsing YouTube videos and complaining to myself about the chronic overuse of terms like ‘awesome’, ‘you guys’, ‘super’ and ‘bunch’. Everything now, no matter what or in what quantity, is in a fucking bunch. Hmm, and I said I wasn’t stressed. My early determination to do some repair work to the house soon faded and the site seemed to subconsciously melt into the background – I found myself failing to post news stories because I’d already put one story up that evening and now it was late and I was tired and, wait, what day is it again? Never mind that, what month is it?

I became dimly aware that the site was stuttering and in danger of fading from existence when I found myself struggling to engage for the umpteenth time with a half-completed review of Eureka’s Blu-ray release of The Man Who Laughs (which is great, by the way, and well worth getting). As I sat dozily staring at the iPad screen, vaguely realising that my brain had lost the ability to generate the words needed to describe how I felt about the movie, it dawned on me that I’d only written and posted two disc reviews in the past month. Not since the worst stages of my late mother’s decline had the site been this empty of new content. Of course, my malaise is not the sole cause of this – with cinemas closed and film releases delayed, fellow reviewer Camus’s prime source of review material had been effectively cut off (this is something he is soon to expand on in his own piece on this subject), and I have a feeling that lockdown fever is also at the heart of a promised review that never made it to the finish line from America-based site contributor clydefro. Interesting disc releases have also been fewer in number than is usual for this time of year, with even the ever-reliable Indicator pausing for a month to put finishing touches to titles that must have been harder than ever to complete with everyone working remotely. None of which excuses the discs that still found their way to me and that I failed to get to grips with, of course. Of all the times I’ve been given cause to ponder on the future of the site, this was the closest I have probably come to winding it down and just sinking into a self-indulgence morass.

What helped me to pull my head out of my arse was the reappearance of site contributor Jerry Whyte and his typically fired-up enthusiasm for the upcoming London Film Festival. While I’ve been wallowing in a disconnected dream state, he’s been hunting out interesting and little-known films and getting fired up to write about them. “Hey mate,” his emails seemed to subconsciously yell at me, “this is how you used to be in the earlier days of Cine Outsider. What’s happened to you?” It also reminded me of how much work I and many others have put in to the site over the years, that I alone have written over 1,000 reviews and articles for it and that it is the home of almost as many written by a range of talented but unpaid contributors. I felt as if I’d taken a much-needed metaphorical slap to the face. Snap out of it, you dozy prick, there’s a website to run!

Freshly awoken, my intention is thus to get back up to speed over the next couple of weeks, to reprioritise the site over more trivial concerns and get going on reviews again. Although now hopelessly late, I intend to finish my piece on The Man Who Laughs and have a couple more Eureka discs lined up for coverage. My aim is to be fully functioning again by the end of the month, as both Jerry and I have been granted press accreditation to cover this year’s London Film Festival, which being primarily digital this year (due to you-know-what) is actually perfect for someone in my situation. When the next Indicator discs arrive there’s one I’m hoping to throw Camus’s way, and both Camus and Jerry are planning to cover a couple of titles in advance of the LFF, so you should see new content start appearing over the next few days and weeks. About bloody time.

About my ability to adjust to this new normal I remain less certain, a sentiment doubtless shared by some of those reading this waffle. The future really is uncertain in all respects. Our shared fear of infecting each other has kept myself and my partner apart for six straight months now and looks likely to continue to do so well into 2021, by when we’ll likely also be reeling from the hardships that a disastrous no-deal Brexit will bring. For me, the stakes are simply too high to start taking unnecessary chances, and with so many seemingly willing to risk infection for a semblance of what they once knew as normality, I have no option but to be doubly cautious. I’m thus not going to be eating out at restaurants, visiting pubs or even cinemas any time soon, despite any precautions that have been put in place. It’s a similar story with my daytime job. I work in education but my role is one that does not require direct contact with others, so despite the questionable decision to pile students back into schools and colleges (I passed a school on a cycle ride today where the students were on a break and they were packed together in groups with no social distancing), I and several others have been asked to continue working from home for now in order to minimise the number of staff on site. This not only makes sense but is, despite requiring me to continue the isolated existence I’ve spend much of this blog pondering worriedly about, the preferred option for someone who is trying his damnedest to avoid potentially lethal contact with others.

So once again I have to offer my apologies for the recent inactivity on the site. My daytime workload has eased just a tad and is no longer spilling over into what should be my free time, and my attempts to revive some sort of exercise program seem to be paying some dividends (I’m still knackered, but in a better way). I’m aware we’ve all got some rough times ahead but have been persuaded that I’d probably be in a better place to face it if I was keeping my mind active rather than sitting in a self-indulgent swamp. That I didn't completely sink is primarily down to two of my closest friends, who together have done a solid job of keeping my head above water. One of them arranged the only in-depth socially distanced face-to-face conversations I’ve had with anyone since early March, despite the fact that he had to go into work during the lockdown and has been working with his partner to keep their parents and their three children safe. The other instigated a regular Monday online game night before the lockdown started, which has ensured that once a week I get to converse and even laugh remotely with three friends, two of whom I’ve never actually met in person. He’s also the one who’s been keeping the closest tabs on me and my metal wellbeing, hauling me into impromptu online gaming sessions when he detects I’m maybe just a little down, less to play a game than to converse using the HD clarity of the Playstation Network. Sirs, I really do salute you.

Finally, in this current headlong rush to return to normal, it’s worth remembering that the virus has not gone away or become less infectious or less deadly, and a key reason the death toll is lower than it was, even though infections are once again is on the rise, is that a sizeable number of the most potentially vulnerable are taking the same sort of precautions as I am. Wearing a face covering and continuing to social distance when in public places is less about protecting yourself than protecting others you might asymptomatically infect, and frankly a refusal to do so shows the sort of disregard for the safety of your fellow citizens that I’d usually associate with terrorist thinking. I’m genuinely not sure what it is about the British that makes so many of us so self-centred and anti-social, though wiser people than me have traced it back to the Thatcher years and her famous claim that “there’s no such thing as society.” In that respect any subsequent Conservative government reaps what it then sowed and has since cultivated, but in the process of doing so it cuts down the blooms of a better, fairer and more caring society it despises for not turning a profit. In Japan, just about everyone, from the elderly right down to young children, currently wears a face covering whenever they go outside, and when I asked a resident of the country why this is, they seemed surprised by my question, as it seemed only natural to them that you do what is good not just for you but the society in which you live. And ponder on this. Japan, where face coverings are ubiquitous in public places, has one of the lowest per-capita death rates from Covid 19 in the world, with 1,516 deaths from the virus at the time of writing out of a population over 126 million. In Britain, whose population less than half that and where most seem reluctant to cover their faces unless forced to do so (and even then many do not or wear masks around their chins or under their noses like fashion accessories), we’ve had over 41,000 deaths, and that’s the official, politically down-adjusted figure and doesn’t include many of the earliest deaths from the virus. So please, take care, and try to give a thought not just for your own safety, but also for the lives you might inadvertently destroy by not taking a few simple precautions.