Shadow Of A Life Mirza Babic

Shadow Of A Life

April 1, 2020

Written by:

Garth Cartwright

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And so it goes: another day spent sitting around doing not very much. If I have a routine it goes something like this: breakfast around 10 AM with BBC radio on for news updates. A skim through social media and emails, now accompanied by music (all kinds but 1950s-60s era jazz is what tends to dominate right now), perhaps an attempt to work on a feature or a report for radio (this is about music, not Covid-19, although reporting on the late Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango did fuse the two) or to develop a chapter of this book or that book which I might have envisaged writing in the future.

I take plenty of breaks to make hot drinks and eat. If the weather’s OK I go out for a cycle. But as almost everything except supermarkets is shut I lack the focus needed for cycling to a destination. So my bike trips tend to be brief.
Thus we become troglodytes, hiding inside even when the “all clear” has been given for society to restart, people only venturing out on the odd occasion. In many a post-apocalypse movie the survivors are seen to be lurking in darkness, only a brave few venturing into the ruins of what was once their civilisation.


A walk in the park.
A walk in the park.
As of writing London’s parks remain open and cycling in my nearest finds plenty of joggers, parents with small children, the usual sodden alcoholics (who still nestle close together, health not being their foremost concern) and people out for a stroll. This means I have to cycle slowly and carefully. Doing so on Thursday I slowed for two joggers coming from the opposite direction and one panted so heavily I could feel his breath on my cheek. As they passed I realised they were speaking Italian. I immediately felt queasy and rushed home. So far no symptoms but this fear of anyone getting near is something new. New and unsettling – I live on a south east London council estate so have neighbours above, below and on either sides of me. Indeed, I live amongst one of Europe’s most densely populated neighbourhoods: all around me are red brick or grey concrete estates, thousands and thousands of people packed into a warren of streets bordered by the Old Kent Road. I take it for granted that we are close to one another, whether queuing for a bus or waiting to get served in a shop or just hanging out, then suddenly I’m scared of Italians. And pretty much everyone else.

So I spend ever more time home alone. And this gives me an excuse to spend even more time on the sofa reading newspapers or books or trying to find something I want to watch. Netflix might offer a plethora of choices but much of it I give up on after a short viewing. I’ve never been one to simply kickback and watch anything. And now, with the anxiety that inevitably comes from being cooped up and isolated, I’m hyper critical, unable to stay with anything that’s not absolutely engaging. Remember what the youth used to say a year or so ago, “Netflix and chill”? Me, I’m more “Netflix and nervy”.

Nervy. Fidgety. Unsettled. I find myself dozing off when watching interesting BBC documentaries yet I’ve done almost nothing all day. Where is this exhaustion descending from? And I find it hard to finish things, even though I have more time than ever. I guess I’m feeling somewhat caged – nowhere to run and thus being stuck at home with only myself to engage with feeds dissatisfaction. The way things are going I’m likely to have an argument with myself. Maybe I’ll stop talking to myself. Eventually I could find myself sulking, pissed about the idiot I have to share my space with. I know, I’m being flippant and am fortunate when many others are forced to share lodgings with people they truly don’t care to be around 24/7 – or in many parts of the world, have no lodgings (the World Service, which occupies much of my radio listening, has just reported on tens of thousands of poor Indians who are walking hundreds of kilometres back to their home villages – no subsistence work since Modi's insanely immediate lockdown so no rupees to pay rent with). But my point is, I’m not that comfortable having only myself to engage with. I’m a writer (a solitary pursuit) who is also very much a social creature: gigs, exhibitions, pubs, local shops, catching up with friends, movies, theatre, popping in for a cuppa… this is all part of my routine. And now its removed I feel anxious.
Natural adjustment
Natural adjustment

Music of Beauty and Unease

Perhaps that’s why modern jazz is so often my soundtrack, those flurries of notes, the tenderness paired with despair, a groove starts (say Bobby Timmon’s ‘Moanin’’) and I nod along, tap my toes, then the focus gets overtaken by the musicians’ desire to play and play, building up then coming down. There’s a rush to express themselves, the sense they can’t escape their situation. No vocals – I do still listen to a lot of music with vocals, Stevie Wonder is another constant right now. Again, I’m unsure why, maybe because his voice has such confidence and directness and emotional truth – but it's jazz I listen to most and the jazz I go for is vocal free. Much of it seems to be music created during the Civil Rights era – Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Les McCann; these are some of the artists on regular rotation. Balkan tunes too, especially the Roma brass bands who are also largely instrumental and conjure up something wild and reckless. Turkish and Persian folk too. They occasionally feature vocalists but their tongues are foreign to me so simply become another instrument, a sonic texture. I think what connects all of these artists – from Stevie Wonder through McCoy Tyner to Anatolian Sufi singers – is that they create a music of beauty and unease (Stevie’s not just ‘I Called To Say I Love You’ - a nice sentiment right now – but the righteous anger of ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’’ - directed at Nixon but also appropriate right now).

And unease is very much my state of mind. Unease about Italian joggers. Unease about the UK government. Unease about the food I buy – must I disinfect every item I bring into the apartment? If so, how do I disinfect fresh bread? And baklava? Unease about my asthma and how I will survive if/when the virus strikes me. Unease about my elderly parents (way away in New Zealand) and unease about how my friends are coping: I call/text/email/WhatsApp/Facebook them and receive a variety of responses – a couple have the virus but are coming through it, some have fled to their family homes on the European continent, preferring to isolate there rather than be extra isolated in London, others are holed up across a dozen nations. We wish one another well, say “stay safe” and wonder when we might next see one another. No one has yet cracked, shrieked that they can no longer live an interior life (or live with those they share the property with – the stress of having to rub up alongside one who you find not exactly compatible must be punishing). Inevitably, this will come. Here, on the estate, the kids that used to kick a football around the carpark are kept indoors and their absence – all that excitement and glee! - is felt. Soon, I’m sure, they (and their parents) will be busting to get outside. This endless time indoors is a confinement of the soul. But as the virus rages its a confinement we have to adjust to.

What else will we adjust to? Our governments have granted themselves ever greater powers – they are unlikely to want to hand them back. And as many of my friends work in trades that aim to increase human happiness – musicians, writers, record shops, record labels, artists, food, entertainers – then they are likely to find themselves largely bereft once the virus is vanquished and the economy slowly begins to rebuild. The small, the unique, the quirky, all are likely to suffer while airlines and fast food outlets and automobile manufacturers and engineers and software designers and accountants and lawyers, no matter how much they complain, will find demand returning (and government funds readily available). This is a time where those who are most vulnerable are likely to find out just how harsh our societies can be.

Perspectives on Isolation

What positives might there be? Well, in the UK’s case a nationwide understanding of how the NHS needs funding, not the death-of-a-thousand-cuts successive Tory governments have inflicted. Possibly more emphasis on health-not-wealth and friends + family over the residual gods of consuming/preening (then parading such on social media) that has governed us for too long. Sadly, I fear any real changes are unlikely – late capitalism is not going to give up its hold on the individual; instead, it's likely to want to find us a way to sell us our isolation experiences. And right now those with the most wealth and power are studying Covid-19 for opportunities: Trump’s removal of US environmental laws so to allow manufacturers to pollute is just the first strike of what Naomi Klein defines as "disaster capitalism". Many more will follow – crisis times tend to bring out both the best and worst in humanity and, while health workers are hailed as heroes for putting their lives on the line for everyone, those who value endarkenment are surely treating us as pawns in their game.

Something to think about: will people return to cinemas and music venues and theatres and festivals and sports grounds once Covid-19 is conquered and lockdown’s over? Or will the virus be the tipping point for many who, having been forced to live in isolation, decide that consuming all the arts/culture/entertainment they need is easier done via screens and sofa? To some degree, I think this could be so. The multiplex cinema chains might find themselves following the Blockbuster video stores into the retail junkyard: Blockbuster died quickly once the internet provided alternative ways of watching movies and, with the studios suddenly offering many new films online, those who once regularly took trips to the cinema might decide watching even new releases in the comfort of their home is easier and almost as good as the cinema experience. While the high street, already desolated by the likes of Amazon, may exist only as a ghost town, everything from department stores to cafes finding people have become so used to ordering by app that they no longer venture outside.

Thus we become troglodytes, hiding inside even when the “all clear” has been given for society to restart, people only venturing out on the odd occasion. In many a post-apocalypse movie the survivors are seen to be lurking in darkness, only a brave few venturing into the ruins of what was once their civilisation, and while coronavirus does not leave shattered buildings and empty roads it may prove to be a significant factor into ensuring our society stays at home. Football matches, movies, concerts, theatre, opera, doctor’s appointments, shopping… they could all be reduced to virtual experiences, the age of the crowd and the queue coming to be seen as archaic as public executions or summer excursions to pick crops.

Or maybe everything will quickly revert to what we consider “normal”. Humans are social animals and those who once used dating apps regularly are surely likely to want to rapidly reengage with potential mates. Pubs, clubs, record and book shops, bakeries, restaurants, street markets, independent vendors, music venues, record labels – you name the traders you most miss – they will see many of their regulars surging back. But will it be enough? And will those traders, having endured a lockdown that meant they couldn’t work and so had to rely on government funding, want to try and restart their businesses? Or will they simply call it quits? As with coming up from a deep dive there will be a time to decompress, to see if humans can adjust to being back in the sunlight. Or will they hide in the depths? Scarred by fear and now certain that all they need is a click away? I don’t know. But the sound of Charlie Mingus leading his magnificent ensemble through ‘Better Get It In Your Soul’, rumbling and churning, uneasy yet struggling to convey all the raw beauty and humanity they could, makes me hope we will emerge into the sunshine and once again shine. Otherwise, well, I guess we could get used to living without interacting, remaining in isolation, fearing what’s out there. A shadow life. Or, perhaps more correctly, a shadow of a life.

*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Garth Cartwright

New Zealand born, London based journalist, critic, DJ and music promoter. He is the author of several books including Princes Amongst Men, More Miles Than Money, and Going For A Song.

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