Reality and character

I’ve been thinking a lot about reality, lately. Especially now, with all this talk of new normal against a backdrop of online shenanigans, decision making on coronavirus lockdown measures via news management and even threats from the POTUS to close down social media companies in retaliation to precisely the use of the kinds of moderation measures that make their platforms safe and reliable for people to use.

The core concept of my current work in progress centres (so far) on the issues of power and control that new tech throws up. Specifically, I’m looking at political and corporate power and the hold these have over people’s realities. How the powers that be control reality, sometimes for the greater good and sometimes for other reasons.

But I’ve been thinking. The draft I’m working on is too dry. There isn’t enough on the characters’ own journeys, on their hopes and fears, on the stories they tell about themselves, and the ones they want to hide…So,  maybe the novel should be more of a character study, a look at the power people have over how they present themselves.

Freud said that our sense of self was made up of the ego, the superego, and the ID. The ego is how we present ourselves, the superego the reasoning part of us – the voice of reason inside our heads – and the ID is the animalistic, instinctive part. Without consequence, people aren’t afraid of letting rip, and the ID takes over. In a virtual reality, what are the real-world consequences of our actions? If we already allow ourselves to behave on social media in a manner we wouldn’t dream of in real life, how much more extreme could this be in a VR? Many of us have seen our children, in lockdown, live entirely new lives out on Roblox, Sims, CIVs and other VRs, where they behave like terrifying mini dictators. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Looking at the kids, and then turning my thoughts to my work in progress, this throws up lots of questions. Considering the ego, superego and the ID, which of these come more into play outside a VR and which are more dominant inside it? Are the characters truer to their real selves inside the VR, unfettered by the bounds of presenting a picture of how they wish to be seen to the outside world? And if so, what are the implications of this?

Furthermore, there’s the question of what reality actually is. Take ‘No Exit’, for example, a play by Jean-Paul Sartre about 3 people trapped in hell. One reading of it could be that people without the context of other people don’t exist, so interaction with others makes our reality and defines us. ‘Hell is other people.’ Maybe. Maybe heaven is, too. Do we have a fundamental need for other people in order to show ourselves? As Karl Marx said in The Grundrisse (1857), ‘Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand.’

So what is reality really about? To what extent are we already living in a VR? In modern society, we already have one foot in an artificial reality in that we are sometimes more about the stories we tell about ourselves. We no longer show our real selves to each other.

Could a VR, therefore, end up being more real than the real world?

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Filed under Novel writing

Parallel Lives

22-25 March 2020

This is how our lives should have run:

Mother’s Day is a joyful event planned and executed mostly by my middle child, who has planned to cook a roast lunch. He’s invited my mum and dad who gladly attend. There are presents and cards, laughter and Prosecco.

During the week, my husband travels to London every day and battles with a trendy millennial workforce to help build a franchise-able dark kitchen concept. He’s tired but happy. Seb enjoys his life in Grenoble. He’s going to the gym every day, skiing every weekend and working hard, albeit berating the stringent university regulations on attendance and completed assignments. We WhatsApp call every day and I’m happy to hear about all his adventures. He’s contented and thriving, and I wish I was 21 again and that I, too, could be enjoying life in continental Europe as a student, yet to embark on a fully adult life of 9-5 working and money worries.

I book my B1 Intermediate Italian language test, to be taken in June. It’s the only thing standing between me and an Italian citizenship application. Although people may have heard me moaning less about Brexit just recently, it doesn’t mean it’s any less prevalent in my thoughts, so I’m on a mission.

Thursday sees Leo pass his driving test and we’re all over the moon. He deserves the independence this will give him, and he desperately needs it.

Livia enjoys her last week of school before the Easter holidays: they spend loads of time outside in the vast grounds that the school enjoys. We start planning Easter Sunday with my mum and dad: who’s going to cook what, lamb or chicken, simnel cake or chocolate torte and whether we’ll have an Easter Egg hunt, and somehow this discussion of family traditions just fills me with joy.

Except none of this happens.

Mother’s Day is strange and empty.

At 3 pm, we walk to town to our store, a good 30-minute walk. My daughter kicks off but then seems to enjoy the fresh air. Avoiding other people, also walking in family groups, is awkward. Everyone looks away, embarrassed to find others on their path, trying not to breathe anywhere near the others. I expect we will be told not to walk in groups of more than two, soon.

When we return to our house, our probable cage for the next three months, everyone kicks off their shoes creating a kind of instant disorder which makes my chest go tight.

Monday, at 8.30 pm, the Prime Minister addresses the nation, no longer using his usual array of bizarre hand signals or flippant turns of phrase. Dominic Cummings is nowhere to be seen. Do not leave your homes, he says. I return to that mental graph I hold in my mind and mark on it: Lockdown. We are still exactly 14 days behind Italy both in terms of how the disease is progressing and in the way it is being handled by our political leaders.

Tuesday, Wednesday…we rise to beautiful, cold sunshine and an eerie silence outside, broken only by the sound of birdsong and the occasional ambulance siren. The house buzzes with the sound of multiple televisions or devices streaming online art classes, HouseParty gatherings and Netflix videos. My family of five, imprisoned at home together, is united for once, probably for the very last time. When this is all over, both of my boys will be gone, only to return for holidays and special occasions.

Post after post appears on my Facebook feed from business owners, like me, who have had to shut up shop. Some have lasted longer than us, their optimistic posts about surviving on takeouts and getting creative on delivery packages gradually dwindling until the inevitable final post: we are very sorry, but given the current climate we have decided to close for the foreseeable future. Sometimes, they sign off with a cheery ‘see you on the other side’. Often not. #Staysafe, they say.

And I keep thinking. We’re running from an invisible enemy, not the virtual reality algorithmic one I imagined. Maybe the challenges of a virtually manipulated world aren’t so different after all. This challenge, too, must be conquered by maths, science and ingenuity. More importantly, by pulling together, by leaving our egos behind.

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Filed under COVID19


19 February – 21 March 2020

It starts with a vague feeling of unease.

We see the coronavirus headlines from Wuhan, decide to travel to Grenoble in France for the half-term break to see our eldest son, Sebastian, who is studying there. We travel across land using the Eurotunnel, hoping we’ll be safe enough avoiding planes, enjoying a lovely week, mostly walking in the mountains, eating cheese and drinking French wine…

On 22 February we return to hear stories that parts of northern Italy have been locked down: 14 small towns. It seems drastic. Skiing trips returning to the UK from that area have been quarantined, in fact, anyone who has been in the area after 19 February has to stay away from school and work for 14 days. We joke about how packed out the French service stations were on the way home – but at least we weren’t flying. At least we went to the French alps, not the Italian ones. But in the back of my mind I keep thinking: should I get my boy home?

On 2 March an email pops up in my inbox. It’s entitled ‘The future of Grace Dieu Manor School’. My daughter’s school, the place that has nurtured her since she was three years old, is going under. After 80 years of providing a wonderful education to many generations (my uncle and my two older boys included), the governors are very sorry, but they have no choice but to shut in the summer. My daughter already has a place in its sister school for the beginning of the next school year. Nevertheless, it feels like the end.

On 9 March I receive a message from a friend of mine in Saronno, northern Italy. The whole country is now in lockdown. She is beside herself: stiamo vivendo un’incubo. Living hell. I stare at the message. Google throws up several stats pages that I inspect, doing a few quick and dirty calculations in my mind. I want to know: how far behind Italy are we? The same number pops up again and again: 14 days. Everything is as normal here, but I’m reminded of the peaceful tranquillity that occurs just before a Tsunami. I wonder if, in two weeks’ time, we will be running for our lives.

I insist that Sebastian flies home. I’m not waiting any longer. We do a quick WhatsApp call and book one of the last Easyjet flights out of Lyon and the by the next day, 15 March, he’s home.

20 March and the schools close. My friend takes a picture of four girls standing outside the school in their uniforms and blazers, rolling green fields and the school’s little white chapel in the background. My daughter is among them, smiling and happy, but her smile fills me with a strange sadness. They have all been there since they were three year’s old. Everyone still has a copy of the photo another friend took of the same girls queuing for their reception class at four years’ old, chubby, baby-faced and shiny in their brand-new big school uniforms, some smiling, others clinging to parents’ hands. I think of both photos, knowing they might never return to Grace Dieu after this day… and I can’t help thinking: this is the end of childhood. God only knows what the world will be like when they stand at the school gates of their new schools in September.

That same day, we receive the same order as all bars and restaurants across the country: to close our store. I knew this day was coming, but I am overwhelmed with grief. We clutch at straws, look at figures, promised government grants and rates relief, at takeout and delivery strategies. The next day the store opens for takeout and delivery. We find a regular customer wandering around town. He’s over 70 and lives on his own. Most days he comes into our café three times: breakfast, lunch, tea. He meets his friends there, sometimes dines alone, always enjoys a chat and a laugh with my team. Francesco, my husband, asks him if he has anyone to help him at home, should he be locked down – we omit to mention that technically, he already is. He tells us, no, so we quickly write down our numbers on a piece of paper and give them to him. Ring us, we say. Anything you need.

Back in the store, Francesco is distraught. We put so much into this place.

And this is only the beginning.

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I nail my colours to this flag

I nail my colours to this flag


So, here I stand

On the dank green of Parliament Square

Amid the liberal elite,

Who later you’ll see at the ballet,

Or in a field in Wales in May.


I stand resolutely with them,

With their representatives

Who shout tearful slogans,

Who call to mind the world wars,

Who remind us the future is for the young.


They eat their picnics,

Their vowels all so very round,

Their raincoats no less than Burberry,

Their EU flags all hand sewn.

‘Bollocks to Brexit’ stickers

Offered with a polite smile.


Lucas speaks, tears in her eyes,

Voice red raw.

Lammy rabble rouses,

Theresa May must go!

Heseltine tells us what nobody dared say:

Never, never, forget.

Instead, beware.


Later, though, I turn,

To find my way back;

Back to the bridge through a sea of bodies

So thick, so silent, so densely packed,

Respect weighing down the March air.

I turn, and there’s the sea, the tide that’s turning.


Back at the hotel

European staff see the slogan:

Put it to the People!

The see the European flag.

And they thank me.

I will nail my colours to this flag.

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Filed under Poems

It was great before

Freedom for Honecker picA phrase I heard often in the former GDR (German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany) just after the Wall came down in Berlin at the end of 1989 was how great things had been beforehand. Not everything was as the media would have us believe. Yes, there was the STASI (State Security Police) and the regime that prevented East Germans from travelling to the West. Yes, the East German economy wasn’t in great shape (even though it was one of the more efficient economies in the Eastern Bloc). And the East Germans knew their West German cousins – the so-called ‘Wessis’ – were revelling in a wonderland of endless consumer choice. Or so they had heard.

However, endless choice isn’t everything.

With it comes responsibility, transparency, competition. All of these can liberate. But they can become a heavy burden too. And this is what East German people found out after 1989, when a common lament around the Bohemian bars and clubs of Leipzig’s trendy university district was ‘Well, it’s okay now, but it was great before.’

In my current work in progress, I examine this dialectic. Did Germany throw the baby out with the bath water after 1989? Is capitalism really the best way forward? Maybe communism was flawed at the end of the twentieth century but it wasn’t all bad. My protagonists debate this from their western standpoint with their East German counterparts. Ultimately, they don’t know in which the direction things will go, that come 2016, almost all traces of the communist values they once knew will be gone. Good or bad? Is freedom the ultimate prize for which you should sacrifice everything else?


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Filed under Philosophy of life