LIKE most of us under lockdown, I’ve become better acquainted with being required to perform apparently impossible tasks or as we in the know call it, SMS. I now have an Instagram account I didn’t have before, or rather I did but didn’t know how to use it. People now contact me from all over the world on WhatsApp and Messenger. I don’t know why they don’t just use boring old email, or whether it is worth replying to people from whom I’ve heard not a word for ten years, but I always do. On Sunday I sat down to three Zoom sessions. A new etiquette is needed as I found, like attending a formal tea party, it was difficult to leave without a good excuse.
To occupy myself usefully I decided to enter the Grayson Perry Art Club, one of many art programmes springing up to keep the public busy. You had to upload a photo of your art work and make a three-minute video about how your creativity has been affected by the lockdown.
I had a feeling of dread, then thought how cowardly that was. But it wasn’t easy to find out how to do it; online information is confusing but I made a preliminary film and tried to send it from my phone to my PC into my Paintings File. From there I could send it to Perry. I looked horrible and seemed to be sitting in the dark, but I boasted to a friend who’d just been told make a film for a job interview: ‘I just went into settings and fiddled about a bit.’ The gods who hate the older generation must have heard because when I tried to move the video from phone to PC it wouldn’t budge. A message said: ‘Document too big.’
Online information was depressing: Android lacks the ability to resize images. I needed to download complicated and sometimes expensive apps. I asked a young neighbour for help. She called through the window that she was trying to arrange ‘a conference call with people in Tokyo’ so I would have to wait. I phoned an elderly neighbour who is usually good in times of stress.
‘Can’t talk,’ she said, sounding almost in tears. ‘Just got locked out of my Sainsburys shopping online. It doesn’t recognise my password – I couldn’t be out permanently. I’ve lost my whole order. I might have to start a new account which won’t recognise that I’m on the priority list!’ She added mournfully, ‘I’ve now got a problem that I didn’t have five minutes ago.’ We both knew it would be hers for the rest of the day, if not the week.
She mentioned a computer support shop which was somehow still open. A youth with dreadlocks had been very good to her when she’d rushed in with a new mobile she couldn’t work. I phoned and he gave me an appointment within half an hour. Before I set out a friend messaged to say she was having to set up lessons for her school classes on Zoom and had been on line so long she’d got ‘chills and pains all over by the evening’.
‘I have to keep thinking,’ she said, ‘about times when I won’t need any of these new skills to do what I like best about teaching but it seems a very long slog away.’
I slogged off up the road to find the support shop, puffing a bit, not as fit as I was two months ago when I swam every day. The road seemed to lengthen as the time got shorter. I caught a bus, something I haven’t done for weeks, wearing my mask for the first time. The only other passenger was an elderly black lady I call ‘the Commodore’ as she wears the uniform of the Sea Scouts with lots of badges and a peaked cap. ‘We are all imprisoned,’ she said defiantly to no one in particular.
Inside the shop two men sat behind glass, the one with dreadlocks smiling and welcoming his customer, the other tense but expressionless, like someone waiting for medical results which are probably terminal. He waved away any suggesting of mask or gloves, his expression suggesting he’d long ago given up fighting fate. He was like a balletomane forced to sell football tickets, obviously despising his public.
I fumblingly handed over my mobile to explain about the images.
‘Too big,’ he said with quiet doom. He fiddled a bit and handed the phone back staring at the wall behind me. ‘Try using your Google account.’ I wasn’t sure what this meant and asked if I could try a USB cable, mobile to PC?
‘If you can’t even do this, you won’t be able to do that,’ he said with a snort. He was probably right. He knew I was one of the damned, born before new technology. I wanted him to show me exactly where to press but his silence was implacable. I trudged back down the hill near to tears, trying to keep what little I had learned from him in my head. I had only two and a half days to get this sorted out and I hadn’t even started the oil painting, which was going to be 91 cm by 60, with a pile of drawings and photos made in London last year from which to work.
The girl who’d been talking to Japan came jogging past my house as I returned. She said she’d spent the weekend trying to get her parents on to Zoom. ‘It was a bit tricky but Dad’s OK at those things,’ she said, adding that he’d been a nuclear physicist. She sat on my wall and twiddled with my phone. I went inside to the PC and within about two minutes the document was successfully uploaded via Google Drive. I was so pleased that I offered to give her a packet of cleansing wipes to go home with.
All that was left to do was paint a masterpiece, then send it to Grayson Perry using the new ‘Wetransfer.com’. I knew that was going to be another nightmare, and it was. And my painting was not accepted. The producers of the programme seemed to prefer to see a lot of young people wafting about, who obviously knew a great deal about filming themselves.
This piece previously appeared in the Salisbury Review Magazine