Should I stay (in) or should I go (out) now?

I finally broke the seal on it last month – I went out and was Around Other People. After the minor trauma of contracting the coronavirus in March, something has definitely shifted in my hindbrain. In some ways I’ve been social distancing for years – workplace water cooler conversations about “Strictly” or “Bake Off” curl my toes to the point they might break, and I made it a point of avoiding every single event where I was made to be in a social space with people I have almost nothing in common with. Casual chats with other new Dads in my kids’ early years at things like stay+play or parenting courses also for some reason also made me generally run a mile, possibly an unconscious unwillingness to accept the increasingly grim and shit-covered reality of where I was finding myself. But come any messy nightclub with sweaty, dancing lunatics; a crowded bar talking to randomers and shouting to be heard; a rave in some grim warehouse in the middle of an isolated industrial estate; and/or some dirty after party in a flat in Whitechapel or Bethnal Green – I would be there in spades. Any place or occasion with those of a similar stripe was generally adopted with abandon. But after me and my older son getting sick, and no doubt swayed by the enveloping layer of dread and panic laid down like a huge sheet across the world, the thought of being in any of these types of scenarios again filled me with a fundamental unease.

In retrospect I should have known that it would have gone this path as I was off the leash with the kids away, and the sun had been baking all day. It started innocently enough with some pleasant outdoor beers with Conor, TT, and Big Hen in the outdoor space in Deptford Market Yard. I brought my little two-can alcoholic enabler cooler bag and tulip glass so I wouldn’t have to step inside anywhere to get myself a drink – I seem to have developed a phobia of indoor spaces where other people have been. This also seems to be extending to the likes of record and bookshops, which is causing me no end of hurt and regret. (Getting the Tesco Red Eye at 6:15am to avoid the crowds is also slowly killing me). Fuelling up on double or triple IPAs from the Beer Mile is generally fine once you stick to the limit of Just Two Cans. But of course (and when does it end?) there was the inevitable tip into the orange and then the red, with that Just One More turning into a few more. Rather than call it a night at a respectable and reasonable hour, I parted ways with Conor and TT, and hung around the yard like a bad smell opposite Aaja, with a freshly purchased 9% can, until Benny finished his show at 11pm. After another with him, on the slippery slope downwards, I pointed the bike in a general west direction though New Cross, somehow reconnected with Big Hen (17 years my junior, jesus) and ended up Out In Peckham, which I guess these days is more of a state of mind then actually being out in Peckham.

Even in that incoherent state, I remember this enormous wave of anxiety crash into my psyche as we approached the door of a venue. It sobered me up and I hesitated to go in. Can’t we just keep drinking on the street somewhere? I was coaxed around, reassured it was an outdoor space with socially distanced table service (and it was), but I still found it very difficult to handle and did my best to push (and wash) the rising trepidation down. The next day, faced with the usual hungover guilt and paranoia as I reviewed the litany of semi-blackout antics (such as drink-dialling, leaving the oven on, and painting some plasterboard) there was something far more sinister surfacing from deep within. Should I go get tested? Was anyone spraying aerosols on me in that venue? Big Hen and his mates are those infamous “young people” I keep hearing about on the radio – what if one of them has it? What if someone at the venue had it, was the distance enough? That shambolic track and trace form at the door entrance, surely I could have just put any name and number on it? And why was I repeatedly trying to contact Cosmic Bob when I knew he was out on a date all night? All of these and other hypochondriac panics swirled around in my consciousness all day, leaving me pretty much unable to focus on anything the next day except lying down and wishing it all away.

In some respects it gave me an answer to a question I had been mulling over in my head since the start of the lockdown. The absence of being able to go out anywhere had been gnawing on me. As I get older and have more responsibilties, the opportunities for going out from 11pm to 6am and coming home on the bike with a tight jaw and massive pupils are less frequent and also less appealing. The Tuesday trough is harder to absorb, and school age kids whining about “bits” in their food aren’t quite the tonic for a serotonin crash. So the lockdown should have been not so much a change to current practice anyway. BUT: when the option of doing something is taken away from me, I really want to do it! There had been a pre-lockdown renaissance in illegal raves which I’d never quite got around to dipping into; but now every week I found myself getting messages from the likes of Pleasureroom and The Sunday Afters advertising their lockdown raves, a mixture of indoor, outdoor, and canal boat shindigs. They have even been holding them hyper-local to me down in the no-man’s land around the MOT on Surrey Canal Road, and bravely enough in the Arches along the channel between Raymouth Rd. and the Rennie Estate, which I could have crawled home from. No surprise that particular one got shut down promptly being so close to residential spaces. Anyway, the option to scratch the itch was there, and still is despite the threat of a £10k fine for any promoters.

I don’t want to start offering a half-baked opinion as an internet epidemiologist, which is almost replacing the weather as the small talk du jour. There’s been enough written about the ethics of attending “plague raves” elsewhere – some thoughts here and here more or less summarise where I stand on it, I think. But is it Bugs Bunny or some other WB character? who used to have a conscience angel and a devil on each shoulder telling him which way to pivot when he was faced with a decision… I also have that little devil on my shoulder whispering “go on, it’ll be fine, stop being such a crybaby, the chances of you getting C19 again are really small” and “don’t you want to go out anymore?” and “look, there are thousands of people on trains and in bars every weekend, you don’t see them labelled as ‘plague tubes’ or ‘disease pubs’ do you? no it’s just the media blaming raves for everything just like they’ve always done, don’t listen to them”. But after that day of panic from a minor incursion into the socially distanced Peckham venue, I don’t think I could handle the next-day psychological fallout from attending a dancefloor with people in various states of wear and tear, brushing up against each other, sweating and shouting. For the moment it’s an isolation of sorts then, I suppose. I am trying to socalise in the outdoors as the remnants of an Indian summer pass through London, in state-sanctioned groups of six or less, avoiding crowds and indoor spaces as much as possible. But what’s going to happen in the winter? Or next summer? Outlook is bleak, man.

With that rising dread in mind, next Monday’s show (10pm on Aaja) is a dub techno special, with all the related rumbling bass and haunting ambience, but let’s still try and make a party of it.

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