In the middle of January, I embarked on an experimental news diet. In the early days of the new decade it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Back then, it seemed possible to step back from the 24 hour news cycle and the promptings of Twitter in an attempt to avoid the time-sink – not to mention the probable rewiring of the brain – that following it seemed to involve. The arrival of Covid-19 has changed everything. We have entered a world of lock-down where knowing what is happening in the world beyond our front door can be for some a matter of life and death. The emerging pandemic promptly ushered in a bewildering round of briefings, comparative charts, and mortality figures that are a daily and even hourly reminder of the urgency of the situation we find ourselves in. The calls on our attention are even more clamorous than before and there is the nagging feeling that following the daily twists and turns of the corona narrative is somehow our civic duty. So has the central argument about following the news changed? Or is the attempt to wrest our lives back from the damaging effects of monitoring the constant stream of new information as relevant as ever?
I can divide my time since early January into pre- and post-Corona. In the pre-Corona period, or The World As We Used To Know It, the effects of the news diet were almost entirely beneficial. My periods at the desk, particularly in the morning, were immediately more productive. I got there earlier, and I got there with a clear head. Finding the space where the writing happens is a constant battle. To simply begin can be the hardest thing in the world. And without the constant information upload it had become easier. The experience was akin to putting on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to cut out distracting sounds. The only difference was that the noise suppression seemed to have happened internally.
I had been on the point of starting a new play. What surprised me was that I started two. When the first slowed , I turned to the second. I was reading more. In the extra time that had appeared in my day I was actively listening to much more music. My screen time – at least on the phone and the ipad – dropped from an hour or more to minutes. My time with my partner was more rewarding. My world might have contracted but it was richer and I felt more a part of it. I was sure as I could be that whatever happened I would be unlikely to go back to my old habits.
And then Corona arrived.
First slowly, then abruptly, life changed. I found myself in a world where something as mundane as going to the shops needed a carefully executed plan. The virus was proving so contagious that even the government’s team assembled to deal with the pandemic came down with it. Within days the Prime Minister was in intensive care. Contacts with friends moved online. Zoom and Facetime replaced real life contact as the infection spread through the community. In the empty streets joggers gave each other a wide berth. Nor are the changes happening on a local scale. The pandemic is wreaking havoc world wide. The death toll could reach a million. And bizarrely, in the street outside, a man is pollarding limes in a front garden.
This is not normal. Or rather this state of affairs has become the new normal.
So – inevitably – the news diet was an early casualty. Once again The Guardian live feed was open on my desktop, so too was my Twitter feed. The daily 4.30 briefing found me in front of the tv. Life became noisy again. For a few days work at the desk carried on. It was a little less satisfying and my grip on the project I was working on slipped. It was harder to hold things together on the page. And then, also inevitably, it all got away from me. Writing stopped.
I dug a pond. I made mesh covers for the raised beds. I planted lettuces. I baked bread. I photographed a buzzard in the empty sky over the house. But on the play – nothing.
So as the lock-down drags on the obvious question becomes: can I take the lessons learned from the pre-corona days into the changed world of today and start writing again?
Of course the idea of a news diet never did mean closing my eyes to what’s going on in the outside world. It was the constant moment by moment distraction of the feeds that I was trying to cut out. So to make life more productive again I know what I have to do. I have to close the news channels and Twitter on my desktop. I have to let them do the 4.30 briefing without me. By limiting my exposure to the current crisis to a once a day catch-up I ought to be able to both stay abreast of developments and get back to work. Or at least that’s the theory.
Ok. Let’s try that.