Hideous Things, Leeds - The Covid crisis and the arts

I’m half entertained and half spooked by the fact that I titled our first blog post, back in February, ‘Sorry Guys, Do You Mind Not Dancing?’ At the time, everything that has happened since would have seemed unimaginable. Five months later I was playing my first gig after the lockdown and the venue owner had to say exactly that to an appreciative punter.

I’ve done this all my adult life and for a good portion of time before that – DJing, putting on parties – it’s been the main focus of my life and the driving force in everything I’ve done. I started planning Hideous Things as a label in 2019 and also started working on another project with a group of friends – converting a warehouse into a venue, art space and recording studio.

At first due to the warehouse conversion, then due to the lockdown and its impact on my income, the label side of Hideous Things has taken longer than planned. Through it all I have kept one thing in mind – we can’t lose the warehouse, we must hold on and continue. In a way we were fortunate. We hadn’t become operational yet – we had few outgoings, we didn’t employ anybody – we weren’t totally fucked or fucking anyone over. Another side to our project is setting up as a community interest company and offering studio time for artists and musicians, and holding workshops and offering tutoring. We are cracking on with all that. The venue side – well who knows?

It can’t not get to you. The things you’ve spent your life working towards are indefinitely on hold and you don’t know when, if ever, they will be able to begin again. That’s a sobering thought. Of course, the ‘if ever’ is very doomy, but uncertainty is difficult to deal with and can lead to dark thoughts.

I recently saw a post by a DJ – a memory on facebook of a gig two years ago – and she said: “Will probably never get to experience moments like that again, given the world we’re living in now.”

People are actually thinking like that. That is grim.

And of course I don’t blame anyone for having a grim outlook. Especially if you’re self-employed in the music industry.

Not enough is being done.

As far as the virus and response go, I’ve had a confused and shifting opinion throughout. I am not ashamed to admit that. People seem to think that they must have a definite standpoint on things, but there is no shame in being confused when things are so mixed up and a lot of the information is vague or constantly being disputed, and when the entire situation is dealt with in such a seemingly illogical way.

At the start of it all I questioned what was happening. I have never disbelieved in the virus itself – that would be silly. But I was willing to consider that there may be some other factors at play. I thought perhaps a global economic reset. This theory gained some credence when my friend said an email from their boss had suggested the same thing might be a contributing element. This coming from a professional person in a high position gave it credibility. That did not make me feel better. To think that my outlandish conspiracy theory might actually be a fact was deeply unsettling.

When the lockdown was announced I called up a friend back home. That didn’t make me feel better either. He is nearly fifty, a smart businessman and someone who tends to offer a good perspective on things.

“I need to ask you something” I said. “Has anything like this ever happened in your lifetime before? Anything as strange as this.”

“Nothing.” He replied. “Nothing even close. This is by far the strangest thing that has ever happened in my lifetime.”

That wasn’t the answer I was looking for. I was hoping he’d say ‘yes, don’t worry. It will pass.’

“What do you think it’s all about?” I asked.

“Global economic reset” he replied, without any hesitation.

I had hoped for reassurance, but that wasn’t what I got.

I had often chastised another friend for saying he wasn’t interested in politics because ‘they don’t affect my life.’

‘They don’t until they do’ I had said. I have always realised that the carpet can be pulled out from under your feet at any moment and I am grateful that I have thought this way. It makes it slightly easier when that actually seems to be happening.

As time went on and more happened, I cast my conspiracy theories and suspicions aside. I have several friends who are doctors and nurses and had first hand accounts of the situation from them. It seemed that the lockdown was necessary after all.

I’ve never been big on conspiracy theories. I don’t mean things that are dark but actual documented facts, like Nixon’s cynical ‘War on Drugs’ or the social media campaign to influence voters on things like Brexit. I mean all the proper tin foil hat stuff like 5g being bad for you or a global elite group practising Satanist rituals. Stuff like that.

What I’ve found is that the people who buy into that stuff tend to either be simple minded and very easily influenced, or intelligent and curious, but poorly educated. The latter group tend to look for answers and find them in the wrong places – and because they don’t have the basic knowledge to apply to and question these theories, they buy into them. I don’t really blame them either. When the people in charge of governing our country do not behave in a trustworthy manner, many people will start instinctively mistrusting everything and looking for alternative explanations to those on offer.

The tin foil hat people started really doing my head in during lockdown. Social media posts about it all being linked to 5g masts in Wuhan were really too much. Or that the entire thing was a lie. By this time, I had friends working on the Covid wards in various hospitals.

One friend was in tears at the thought of it all. He explained how in its final stages Covid-19 causes similar lung damage to SARS. He was about to start working on a Covid ward and he was scared. Reporting back later, he said that the ward was full, and on average there had been one additional death per day in the hospital compared to normal numbers. This was definitely real.

Although this was all terrible, I was relieved to hear that things were as we were being told. That there was no subterfuge. It was unsettling to think that people I cared about were at risk. I never particularly worried for myself (younger people have only a 0.2 percent chance of dying from Covid-19, compared to 14.8 percent for the elderly). It was also unsettling to not know how long this would go on for. But if it was all for good reason so be it.

At that point, the world had stopped. Pretty much everyone was furloughed, including the self-employed, on 80%. My immediate life had become like one long seshy sleepover and it wasn’t entirely unenjoyable.

Weeks passed. My friend told me the wards were now empty. Lockdown ended. We were encouraged to ‘eat out to help out’. Nightclubs remained closed. Some closed permanently. Not enough was being done. There are different kinds of vulnerability, and the vulnerable, in situations like this, are not just the sick and the elderly. Businesses, under normal circumstances thriving, that suddenly cannot operate, are potential casualties of the crisis.

The rules we were given seemed illogical and contradictory. Some of it was laugh out loud stupid. I couldn’t really see the sense in having to wear a mask in a shop or on a train, but being able to sit in a pub without one.

The shoddy way that our government has dealt with this from the start has bred mistrust. The contradictory advice, the backpedaling, the Dominic Cummings fiasco (I noticed a marked increase in people flouting the rules after that) – none of it encourages anybody to believe what is being said.

Also media jargon like ‘the new normal’ I find disturbing. None of this is normal, nor should it become so. It is a time of extremes and it is important to remind people that it is not permanent.

I heard from three friends working in three different hospitals that there were no new cases, that the wards were now empty. Meanwhile, a close friend of one of my closest friends died. Not from Covid. They had cancer. They had been battling cancer for several years, received regular treatment and managed to live a fairly normal life. Then, in August, one of their regular appointments was postponed and then postponed even further, and two weeks later they were dead. This made me angry. This should not happen.

Meanwhile, I did not know a single person who had died of Covid-19. This itself raised interesting questions. I know a lot of people. Surely I should have at least heard of someone who had died from this, even if I did not know them personally? I knew of one person who died from a heart attack and it was put down as a Covid death, and about the people in the hospitals in April. That was it. That seemed a bit sketchy to me.

In August I caught up with two friends who work in care homes. Both said the same thing – people who were obviously not dying from Covid were being put down as Covid deaths. That was the final straw for me. I went full circle back into total mistrust. What was this all about? I wondered.

I started talking to groups of people who were feeling similarly to me. We joked about setting up some speakers on a grouse shoot so we could have a party. A friend who had previously argued against my standpoint that the lockdown was unnecessary – I’d said the economic repercussions would have a greater impact on peoples’ wellbeing, and ultimately cause more deaths than Covid; he’d said that this was a very right wing take on things (I disagree) – this friend, a well informed person, observed that there seemed to be a pattern with the greatest increases and most stringent measures happening in areas that Boris dislikes. I wondered if there was something else at play, if maybe this really was the new normal. This was a grim thought.

I looked into protests. Inspired by a friend who had begun something similar, I embarked on an art project – I started writing things like ‘Gaslighting goes global’, ‘Keep 2 chevrons apart’ and ‘What will happen to the homeless in a cashless society?’ (The last one is a fair point. I have spoken to a couple of homeless people and they are struggling even more than usual. But that comes down to a lack of support that pre-dates and goes beyond all this.)

I noticed that I was getting very depressed. I am generally a very active and driven person, and I was struggling. I couldn’t start things. I felt like everything was pointless. This was not my normal state of mind. I wondered, if I really felt like I was fighting against something, if I would feel like this? Or had I just brought myself down by constant, extreme negativity? Was I just like the tin foil hat people? Adding two and two together and coming up with seventeen thousand? I realised I possibly was.

While a lot of people seem to genuinely think that this is some dystopian new world where crowds are discouraged and we are all being forced to stay in our boxes, and that this may be a permanent ‘new normal’, that just doesn’t make sense. It’s not just clubs, it’s football matches, West End shows, massive mainstream events that bring huge amounts of money into our economy. And in Wuhan, where this all started, there are no new cases, clubs are open again, normal life slowly is resuming.

It’s easy to look at all these events and imagine that there is some mysterious puppet master at work, that it is a global subterfuge for something darker. But it is also important to look at the facts.

One theory I’ve noticed people buying into is that there is some sort of conspiracy to scare people. I can see why some people would think this and I can give a good example of why it may appear to be, but is not the case. One friend told me about the extreme cleaning policy of the school where he is a teacher – fogging multiple times daily, hazmat suits, you get the picture. Hearing about things like this, it’s easy to imagine dark forces at work, pushing fear into the minds of children. The truth is though, this is not some dark conspiracy, it’s just something that has happened. The contracts for cleaning schools are dealt with by the individual schools themselves, not dictated to them by a higher power. It is simply the case that in this particular instance, the head teacher, or whoever is in charge, felt it necessary to impose this extreme cleaning routine. The climate of fear is encouraged by individuals’ choices.

For a time, I felt admiration for people who had protested. It genuinely seemed to me that the measures in place were too much and I was pleased that people were making a stand. Then I read about a recent protest in London. Piers Corbyn and David Icke made speeches. I have to question any cause where the spokespeople are figures like that.

As far as not knowing anyone who has died from Covid goes, that is, actually, given the statistics, highly likely and it does not mean that there isn’t a pandemic. The measures that have been taken seem extreme, and it is true that huge hospitals were built and remained largely empty, but these decisions were based on the fact that our NHS would struggle to cope should the worst case scenario happen, and based on intelligence showing huge numbers of people being admitted to hospitals in Wuhan late last year.

I have said, and do feel, that another way of dealing with it would have been to protect the most vulnerable and let everyone else carry on as normal. It surely would have been possible to bring in legislation to prevent people who are genuinely at risk from being sacked, provide them with furlough or sick pay and let the rest of us continue. But then it also comes down to the fact that this would most likely still see a rise in cases and with an underfunded NHS, hospitals may not be able to cope. It’s a difficult one. Also, businesses would still most likely suffer and possibly even more so – because people may choose to go out less, go to shops less, etc, etc. and then profits would still go down and there wouldn’t be any support system at all. Not that the one in place is adequate. That is not what I am saying here.

According to a friend, who is a medical professional in a Leeds hospital, working on the Covid ward, cases have risen and they are fairly full again. Leeds City Council apparently wanted a local lockdown a couple of weeks ago, but the government did not agree. For me that is a good example of two things – one being that the government are not handling this well (nothing we didn’t know) and two, that the government are not involved in a conspiracy to keep us all confined to our homes forever.

I struggled with what I had heard about the care home deaths. It seemed strange and dark that deaths were being deliberately misreported to boost figures. Why would this be? That was the issue that swung me over to the side of total mistrust and it was the issue that kept me there. Who was making these decisions? Thinking about it logically, it seemed unlikely that they would come from some higher power – and to support a theory of a global conspiracy, ultimately it would have to have been fed down all the way from somewhere like the IMF or the WHO. That strikes me as a bit far-fetched. Realistically, what is far more likely is that these care homes were not receiving enough funding, support, or necessary equipment such as PPE, and the higher the numbers of deaths reported, the more likely it would be that they would be prioritised. In that kind of scenario, if someone had died of cancer, or quite naturally of old age at 103, but they had at some point tested positive for Covid, to put them down as a Covid death would be a reasonable way to attempt to help your cause. It could be as simple as that.

There’s the issue of disaster capitalism too. Yes there are large corporations – and some smaller businesses too – who are profiting from this. There have been opportunities for them to do so and they have taken those opportunities. That is what businesses do. A lot of large corporations have also lost huge amounts of money due to all this.

And the grouse shooting thing… I mean, if I had to impose a load of restrictions, but I had the power to say ‘let’s make an exception for gatherings of 200 people in low-ceilinged rooms with some decks and a stack of speakers’, maybe I would. Because I like gathering with 200 people in low-ceilinged rooms and playing music. That, unfortunately, is human nature.

I will add that protests are also exempt from the ‘rule of six’.

As for ‘the new normal’ – I suppose it’s a way of getting people to comply with things that seem extreme and uncomfortable. To me it seems very negative and harbours a sense of doom. If these terrible catchphrases must be used, then perhaps it would be better to coin a term that encourages people to remember that this is a non-permanent crisis and not just the way things are.

It’s easy to see this as a situation where the entire world is being gaslighted. You have all the right factors at play – guilt (you may be putting your loved ones at risk), fear (you or your loved ones might catch this terrible virus and die), but also you actually may be putting your loved ones at risk and there is a virus.

What we need to be fighting against isn’t some vague and indefinable puppet master, but against the lack of support and the shoddy way in which this is being dealt with. I do not deny that it is likely that this is being taken advantage of in some ways – for example the introduction of a cashless society, something that unfortunately would have happened anyway, but perhaps less swiftly – but I do not believe that it is a global subterfuge.

It is important to focus on some basic facts: businesses in certain sectors – the arts and hospitality particularly – are not getting the support they need. Neither are many individuals. To be old at this time, could be a tragedy. But to be young at a time like this is also a misfortune. It is horrible to think of people alone in student halls, and it has been difficult for everyone to have their normal social lives put on hold for the most part of a year. Many people working in hospitality have been laid off, and many businesses are struggling to survive. Meanwhile, the self-employed will receive another furlough payment – but it will be just 20% this time. For people who have genuinely lost all possibility of doing what they do through this, that is pitiful. Of course, people have said things like ‘well maybe musicians can find other jobs’, but right now there are less jobs out there.

It is not just the music scene. I recently watched a debate with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Melvyn Bragg on the panel. Not enough is being done to support the arts in general. Theatres are also struggling. This isn’t a conspiracy, it’s bad management of a crisis by the government and a failure to adequately support those in need. Venues and those who perform in them are an important part of our culture and our communities, and not enough is being done, something else is needed. Also, in the long term, if these businesses don’t survive, it will have a huge knock on effect for our economy.

I don’t know what the solution is – I’ve struggled to even understand the problem – but I know that a lot more needs to be done and there must be a better way than this. If the hospitals are overwhelmed then just opening everything again is unfortunately not the way. Waiting for a vaccine is likely to take too long – and I don’t believe that a vaccine should be mandatory. What we probably need is a better testing system. I’m not a fan of the mass gathering of data, due to the fact that this data can be misused. But ultimately, something like that would mean that all businesses would be able to open again. And our data is already widely held and used anyway. And we are already traceable. You probably pay with your card for most transactions. You have a phone. You probably have location services switched on. Even if you don’t you are still traceable.

Currently, the government have proposed a widespread fast testing scheme – Operation Moonshot. Should this go ahead, it is likely mass gathering events would be able to happen again. Now I may not be a fan of a world where things like mass virus testing become part of our lives, but I’m also not a fan of having to stay inside, pubs closing at ten and thinking that some of my favourite venues may never open their doors again. And surely nobody can think it acceptable for our hospitals to be overwhelmed and peoples’ lives lost. I can see that some might read this as the ‘guilt’ part of the gaslighting campaign. I hope you see the point I’m making here.

In the meantime, there needs to be a better support system for those who are in danger of losing everything because of this crisis. That is what we all need to focus on at this time.

Words and Photo: Roya Brehl

A petition to give further financial support to the Events and Hospitality sector can be found here

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