From John in Brighton: Even a Haircut’s a Dilemma

28 June

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” wrote LP Hartley. In “normal times” I’d muster up a bit of small talk and visit the barber every six to eight weeks. My last haircut was 28 February and on a personal level I recall it as the weekend of visiting Bletchley Park and you may remember it as a very rare occasion – Liverpool lost (to Watford in case you’re interested). That weekend was very chilly and now we’re in a heatwave which means an expanding thatch is the last thing you want. Human hair grows about half an inch in a month and my couple of inches is clearly apparent. In fact if I were blonde then I could be mistaken for BJ…..from the eyebrows upwards; yes, it really is that bad. 
Which begs a question – if all the barbers and hairdressers have been closed, presumably furloughed and thus banned from any work then how come so many of the politicians and footballers look like they had a haircut just last week? And Pritti Patel living up to her homophone with not a hair out of place. Are they all that skilled with the DIY clippers or married to frustrated tonsorial wizards? In the absence of Wimbledon we could perhaps ask a past master of the shaggy barnet and headband what he thinks.  “You cannot be serious!”. Credit where it’s due though –  this could be a dictum that Dominic Cummings hasn’t breached – either thro’ lack of need or his impaired vision giving false reassurance. 
But the good news is that relief is on the horizon and for this year only July 4 has been called UK Independence Day and amongst the “freedom package” on that day will be reopening of the hair salons. But another question occurs to me is the rather illogical way in which aspects of the lockdown have been relaxed. Why have we had to wait so long especially as dentists resumed action in early June.  The hairdresser mostly stands behind you or at the side unlike a dentist peering directly into the potentially virus-ridden oral cavity. And if hairdressers are opening then why not nail bars or massage parlours (not that I’m rushing to patronise either)? But there’s a silver lining to most things and it’s back to the weather – not the heatwave but I’ve watched with a blend of amusement and fascination as to how weatherman Tomas Schaffenaker looks as his bouffant evolves. 
I’ve just watched Marr interview Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, and what a breath of fresh air after listening to politicians because he clearly knows what he is talking about and is definitive in what needs to happen. Based on the timing of relaxation he predicts a second wave of infection starting late June  / early July and if we don’t act swiftly and proactively then this could get worse as the winter progresses. This of course coincides with the multitude of winter viruses and ubiquitous coughs and colds which may be difficult to differentiate in the early stages of infection. Three key things he advocates are that we trust the Government (the track record doesn’t inspire confidence – my words not his), availability and reliability of testing and protecting the vulnerable especially the elderly and BAME. He stresses that particular caution is needed indoors and especially when mixing with a lot of people. So that  underscores my dilemma – I really feel the need for a haircut….. but despite the relaxation of lockdown and initial tentative casting aside of our shields old habits die hard and rightly so in the light of Sir Jeremy’s comments. Anxt and alertness underlie my every move and decision despite the false sense of security engendered by some government policies and observing public behaviour. We children of the 60’s can vouch for a haircut being non-essential as I wistfully recall Beatlemania and Woodstock. Enclosed space, high rate of throughput, close contact with the hairdresser – is that a risk worth taking? Prima facie it seemed like an easy decision, now I’m not so sure. Like it or not for the foreseeable future our every action, previously taken for granted, needs a risk assessment both to ourselves but also to society in general.

From Brenda in Hove: Grit your Teeth and Carry On!

The Challenge for the NHS

26 June

Spare a thought for the millions of people who have had various treatments and operations suspended or postponed for as long as it takes to bring this Covid virus under some sort of control. And another thought for all those people with symptoms who are not getting tested.  I had a taste this week of what it is like to not be able to see a doctor about a health issue I was struggling with.  

Unlike pre-Covid days, I simply could not get through to anybody – except Emergency Services and I couldn’t in all conscience bring myself to phone them. On our practice website the first telephone-only appointment you could book was a couple of days ahead with a doctor you had never heard of . Waiting for even a couple of days was unthinkable. Lucky for me I have a daughter-in-law who is an Accident and Emergency consultant and she prescribed the antibiotic. Enormous relief – and then the antibiotic didn’t work. That meant I would need further tests before the right antibiotic could be found. After trying (many times, over two days, and increasingly desperate) each of the phone numbers listed for the practice, including the ones that were described for other purposes, I finally got through to somebody and managed to get a nurse to agree to do the test. It came back negative and the secretary told me to go away and finish the course I was on. I refused to budge until I saw the nurse. I had to wait, of course, but when I finally saw her she was terrific – and phoned a doctor herself and described my problem and she prescribed another antibiotic. All this took four days and lots and lots of paracetamol.

Several things were noticeable. You are not allowed into the medical practice building without an appointment (good luck to you). Even if you had an appointment you were required to wait in the carpark if the doctor or nurse was not yet ready for you (not great for elderly or frail people). You were definitely on no account to even think about going inside if you had any covid symptoms (fair enough). I was asked on the phone, on the intercom and by the receptionist, if I had symptoms. I hope everyone knows what all the symptoms are because the list gets longer every day. You are required to wear a mask (fair enough). With a mask on my face and a Perspex screen between the receptionist and myself, I had to repeat myself several times (too bad). The building seems deserted but there are obviously people lurking somewhere – although the voicemail had informed me most people were working from home (fine for some). The waiting room had all of the chairs bar three stacked up and facing the wall and no magazines (I was tired of reading about the Titanic anyway). The whole experience was very alienating and uncomfortable. Eerie. But credit where credit is due: there was a good outcome.

The list of doctors with whom one could make an appointment (they were not the practice doctors) seemed to have surnames from everywhere in the world. Somebody needs to tell all these Brexiteers. Where would the health services be without them? All appointments have to be made online and there are precious few fifteen minute slots for a medical practice that boasts 10,500 people. This cannot be much fun for the doctors and it certainly is difficult for the patients. Physical examinations are clearly out of the question. Where do we begin? Temperatures? Even the nurse who saw me couldn’t stick to the 2 metre rule and take my temperature. Blood pressure? No chance.

There have been several articles in the papers about the fact that doctors are worried about the backlog of cases building up and the many people whose health is almost certainly being compromised. It is all very well saying that most of the population must resume their normal activities (and I agree that this is necessary and reasonable) but for health workers it seems to me that nothing will return to normal for a very long time.

I found the past week and its relatively minor travails very chastening. I have been railing at the humdrum nature of my new life but just take away good health and the humdrum becomes something much to be coveted.

I am also conscious of the fact that my situation was relatively minor and my heart goes out to all those (some of whom I know personally) who endure serious conditions and painful symptoms – while they wait for our heroic nurses and doctors to be able to attend to them. Nothing normal about that either.       

Guest Post from Jonathan Merrett in Sallèles d’Aude, France: three activities …

In February I had three activities lined up:

our house was already rented out for six weeks over the summer holidays, and we expected the gaps would be filled in;

I had six weddings booked over the same period (I officiate at weddings at a local chateau); and

I was due to go and inspect schools in Nepal for a week in May.

By the end of March, the Nepal trip had been cancelled and so had the house bookings. As I write this, one wedding has moved to October, one has cancelled, and the remainder are waiting to see what happens.

Looking at the house bookings, since the French government has loosened the travel restrictions, we have had a number of French families and groups book the house (about five weeks’ worth currently). This reflects the government’s move to encourage French families to take holidays within the country. They have not gone as far as the Polish government, for instance, which has given out financial incentives to people to holiday in their home country, but the message in France has been to encourage people to stay within the country and take advantage of the wealth of opportunities here for rest and relaxation. With beaches now open and restaurants and bars being able to serve food and drink (with a one metre distancing rule and clear instructions about table service) the local tourist industry can operate, partially, and hopefully survive.

The wedding situation is much less clear as all of the couples and their families are UK-based. Will borders be open or not for what might be classed as non-essential travel? The bizarre introduction of a 14-day quarantine by the UK government has made things even more complicated – families don’t know whether to book their travel or not and don’t know whether they will have to fulfil quarantine rules or not on their return home. I say bizarre as so many of the rules in the UK at present seem to be not rules as we know them but sort of ‘indicators to follow if you feel like it’ – thank goodness most people are sensible and follow the rules and resist driving to Barnard Castle.

Over the past nine years I have travelled to southern Africa, South America, Nepal and various bits of Europe inspecting international examination centres for Cambridge Assessment. What will be the future of international exams now, or even exams in general, now we have had a summer without them? Students have graduated and will pass on to universities (though what are they going to look like in September?) without having sat or passed exams – perhaps this already suspect way of assessing students will change?

And what about international air travel? When will we feel safe to travel inside that oversized sardine tin again, breathing each other’s air for hours at a time? Will countries that have reduced the effects of Covid welcome guests from countries where it is still rampant (the UK, for example) and will we want to visit countries where the virus is still active in the population?

All three of the above are income streams which the virus has affected. None is our sole income, all are significant; but what of the future?

Guest contribution from Christopher Merrett in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: the sporting question

Runners in the Comrades Marathon

June 9. From the Thornveld: I had expected that lockdown might provide us with blessed relief from pollution, litter, noise – and professional sport. That was naïve. The airwaves and newspaper pages remained saturated with the clichéd thoughts of players, endless speculation about the completion of leagues and resumption of ‘normality’, and truckloads of utter trivia.

Sebastian Coe, head of global athletics, recently spoke of ‘frustration’ that ‘top events’ had no firm dates for resumption and said that athletics might act unilaterally and without approval. His attitude was deplorable; but also self-defeating because national health authorities make the decisions he appears to want to arrogate to himself and they are backed by legislation. But he demonstrates a blatant example of sports hubris fuelled by popular adulation and millions of dollars. And it is the last factor that is behind the agitation for leagues and competitions to resume as soon as possible: big money deals.

Here in KwaZulu-Natal it was not until 8 May that the Comrades Marathon Association (CMA) accepted there would be no race this year between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. Given that it has been blindingly obvious for months that a (perhaps the) main cause of viral infection is human proximity and density, clearly the CMA has been living on another, apparently Covid-19-free, planet. The very essence of the ultra-marathon is mass: the numbers of runners, the packed nature of the start, the race culture of group running, and the exuberant involvement and sociability of spectators (see the photograph above near the end of the 2019 race in Pietermaritzburg). Some of the classic moments of this gruelling race involve runners physically assisting others, particularly at the finish. There’s a very high chance that there will be no race in 2021, the centenary year, either.

One problem according to the CMA was that T-shirts had been printed and goody bags prepared. Sponsors had already coughed up funds, so yet again it all comes back to money. But it goes beyond financing to issues of entitlement and continued refusal to recognise that professional sport is simply a business. Indeed, many critics persuasively argue that it is just another arm of global capital.

Lockdown has cut a swathe of destruction across economies and societies. Many businesses will disappear without trace and hundreds of thousands of people will never work again in the formal sector. Why should professional sport think it is owed any favours; any more than, say, theatres, opera houses or concert halls? Commodified sport produces nothing of lasting value, material or intellectual.

But perhaps the virus and its lockdown will produce a positive outcome. Vast sums of money are locked up in sport courtesy of sponsorship and broadcast rights. In some sports people who have minimal skills beyond dealing with a ball earn enormous salaries and perks. Teams fly endlessly around the world impressing a gigantic carbon footprint. We are told the world will never be the same again. If so, maybe a great deal of this will end and international sport will be cut down to more appropriate dimensions and influence.

From the Thornveld is a site that provides access to writing by Christopher Merrett, a former academic librarian, university administrator and journalist based in Pietermaritzburg. He has written on a wide range of topics – specialising in the past on human rights issues in South Africa, particularly censorship and freedom of expression, and on the politics of sport.

from Steph in London: transport or teleporting?

June 15. So, the shops can open tomorrow – it will be interesting to see how successful it will be and who will venture forth.

It made me think how we will get into London when it’s time to go – public transport being off limits for the foreseeable future. We made a conscious decision to run a small car several years ago. It is great for city living, can be parked in the smallest spaces and suits us…. Or it did suit us. Faced with no trains, UK holidays and car travel to Holland to see the children do we need to think about a different option – slightly larger, more powerful and more comfortable for long journeys? It goes against our environmental philosophy to think about it but we are all being pushed onto the road again. I’m not sure how that will play out.

We moved a huge pot containing a Cornus Kousa (dogwood) up to the top of the garden today to finish off the design in that area. Having time to get the whole garden replanted and organised has been a joy and for the first time since we moved in, we feel as if the garden is now ours. All we have to do now is keep everything alive.

Relationships with lockdown and Covid appears to have changed considerably. Is it fatigue or a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to get us out of this mess? They certainly have lost the confidence of many- to the point that we no longer believe almost anything we are told. How could it have been handled better and why on earth wasn’t it?

 Answers on a postcard …

From Brenda in Hove: Picnics, more or less

“There are few things so pleasant as a picnic eaten in perfect comfort.” W. Somerset Maughan

Namaqualand daisies by James Gourley

14 June. Lockdown restrictions are easing here in the UK. So when I went for my usual walk around our park today, I was interested to note the differences this occasioned – especially as it is a Sunday. There was much that was very different. Teenagers, in particular, seemed to have embraced their freedom with a vengeance – especially the boys: riding their bikes and skateboards as fast as they could manage on the tarred path; having riotous games of basketball; having football games; and generally hanging out with their friends with no heed at all for social distancing. I suppose they have read about their odds of getting the virus and even the longer odds of dying from it. I felt very sympathetic towards them. Lockdown must have been very difficult for youngsters that age.

There were also more people in the park than has been usual – many of them picnicking. Picnics seem to me to be the ideal way of meeting your friends when social distancing is required, and they are seeing a resurgence. But I have to say that either none of them today seem to have had much experience of picnics or they were all very unimaginative. If a picnic is to be enjoyed there needs to be some sense of occasion to the affair.  

I have been spoilt in this department. One of my very best picnics was at Glyndebourne during the opera season. I have a generous friend who does the spoiling. One year, he ordered everything it was possible to order for a picnic during the interval. He had a table (no less) with six chairs, draped in damask, cut-glass wine glasses, silver cutlery, champagne on  ice, and an excellent three course menu served by a waiter. Somerset Maughan would have approved!  

Another standard-setting picnic years ago was in South Africa on a trip to see the Namaqualand daisies which come out once a year for about three weeks and are as spectacular as anyone could wish for. We and a group of friends had booked out a very small boutique hotel near a place called Velorenvlei (the name translated from Afrikaans means ‘lonely marsh’ describing an estuarine marsh on the Atlantic coast and a bird lovers’ paradise). We had left the booking to our friends in the Cape and left the arrangements to them as well.

We didn’t realize that one of the hotel’s claim to fame was its cuisine. One of the arrangements made was that the hotel pack us a picnic basket for a day out to one of the nature reserves in the area. When we arrived at the reserve we picked out a suitable place to have our picnic and set about opening the three massive hampers that the hotel had furnished. The most astonishing things came out of those three hampers. All the ingredients for a three course meal (including, I seem to remember, ostrich eggs) – complete with a printed menu for each of us! Damask cloths on the lawn, beautiful crockery, silver cutlery, you-name-it, even silver cigar cutters.

One of our party used to write the wine guide to South African wines every year and he had brought us just the right wine for every course (in an ice-packed hamper). I can’t drink wine so it was wasted on me – as was the conversation discussing the merits and demerits of every wine. At first, it was hilarious – again Somerset Maughan would have approved – but then we found that the reserve was on the tourist trail and we had settled ourselves very near to where all the tour buses parked. Dozens and dozens of people from all over the world who had come to see the daisies (!) were absolutely amazed to find this decadent scene of South Africans having a serious picnic. Out came the cameras and we were the subjects of an untold number of photographs. So embarrassing. How were they to know that none of us, before or since, had ever had such a picnic?

Moving on, we are planning to have some picnics of our own in the near future with much missed friends and family. They might not meet Somerset Maughan’s standards but they won’t descend to the minimalist fare seen in the park today!  

From Brenda in Hove: “It is the lives we encounter that make life meaningful.”

11 June

 “One key feature that we have come to appreciate about Covid-19 is that it is a disease of old age. The chance that a person over 75 will die from it is actually 10,000 times greater than it is for a 15 year-old who gets infected.” * If you are, like me, over 75, that sentence concentrates the mind. It also puts you on notice that, unlike most people in the population, your life won’t change dramatically when lock-down is lifted until a vaccine is found. Even then you are highly unlikely to be anywhere near first in line to get a vaccine. Administering a vaccine to a sufficient number of people to make a difference takes a long time – a very long time. Years.

Pondering what this means to my life put me in mind of the novel A Gentleman in Moscow and an arresting quote: “Adversity presents itself in many forms, and if a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them.” The novel is about a Russian aristocrat, Count Rostov, who is ordered by a Bolshevik tribunal at the time of the revolution to spend the rest of his life in a luxury hotel in the heart of Moscow. He has to vacate his suite of rooms in the hotel and instead take up residence in the servants’ quarters – and all his activities are bound by what can take place in the hotel. It feels a bit like what we oldies are to endure – and how we can find meaning and pleasure in our much reduced circumstances.

When we started out as a group recording this time of Covid, I was immediately pre-occupied by getting my affairs in order, dealing with the practicalities (like wills and other personal papers) as indeed the Count does in the story. The Count is portrayed as a very disciplined person who does not allow himself to drop his personal standards in the matter of dress and daily exercise. He also sets himself the goal of reading the books he has always meant to read (Essays of Montaigne!) but never got around to. Intellectually, one agrees that these things are important when confinement is visited upon one. I even set out to do the very same things! I failed – not miserably, but a ‘fail’ nonetheless. I can’t say I feel ‘mastered’ by circumstances but I do feel challenged. Standards have definitely fallen around here. I wear the same clothes for days on end (who cares?), my hairstyling is left to the tender and haphazard mercies of my husband, my exercise regime goes in fits and starts, and my concentration levels don’t seem to extend to the great books I was so determined to read at the start of all this. Getting the apartment in order after our big move doesn’t seem that important any more. We will take it at a much slower pace. One thing is true and that is that my bridge has improved. Better than nothing, I suppose. Even the inestimable (fictional) Count didn’t get to finishing Montaigne!

If television and YouTube and the vast domains beyond are to be believed, the on-line world is practically humming with self-improvement: virtual exercise classes of one sort or another, language lessons, choirs, orchestras, zoom encounters from one end of the world to the other. I am lost in admiration – but I can’t help noticing it is mainly younger people who are keeping all this going. It is one thing to throw yourself into these activities to pass the time until lock-down ends, it is quite another to embrace this as a new way of life. My world is enhanced by real people interacting with real people in real time. Of course I miss theatre and concerts and exhibitions and dinner parties and book clubs and journeys to far-away places – but they all seem relics  of a life denied for the foreseeable future. Does this challenge my will to live? No. Not even close. Maybe the phrase “master my circumstances” is a bit too ambitious. It could be that we are coming to understand the essentials that make life worth living.

Certainly the essentials for me are the people in my life: my family, of course  – but importantly, my friends. Strange to relate, Covid has brought us closer together. Thanks to the wonders of Whatsapp I can spend hours and hours, week after week, talking to friends all over the world. Most of them I have known for a very long time and we never tire of talking to each other, sharing our ups and downs, our insights and issues, our families’ fortunes and misfortunes, exchanging book and film titles, tips for getting on and leading meaningful lives. It was Guy de Maupassant who said “it is the lives we encounter that make life worth living” and how lucky am I to have such marvellous friends  – and, it must be said, to live in a technological age. Where would we be without technology?

*The Guardian quoting Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, 7June.   

from Steph in London: If you’re not bothered about uplift …

June 4. Shiny graphs galore and an inbuilt belief that, if they look good, they will be telling the truth and, even more importantly, will be proving we are not the worst country in Europe and nearly the worst country in the world for the virus … David Blunkett when Minister of Education once said, “Learn to measure what you value not value what you measure”. It might help!

Shutting the borders so that those countries with a worse record than ours don’t send people over to contaminate us … I am sure that the fact that we are (almost) the worst country in the world will mean that anybody with any sense will keep a wide berth of the UK for ages.

In the meantime we wait and watch to see what happens with the freedom that has been given to us … there are definitely more cars around. Five of the grandchildren are back in school 3 days a week, one is having a full day of lessons on line much to her horror and the others are getting very much  better at table tennis and baking cakes. The six-year olds spend the day in ‘bubbles’ of 15 with 2 teachers. They do everything together and are separated from everybody else at break and lunch time. Then when they are dismissed at 3-ish they all pile into the playground, throw themselves at their friends from other bubbles then go home.

 My eldest son is planning to be working at home until December with the younger members of the team going into the office on a fortnightly rota. The logic of that is that the “youngsters” may not have the space at home to work there long term and the oldies (those over 35!) who can work in a separate room will do so, and just visit the office once a week for the odd meeting.

Life has become strangely more agitated for us all. Do we go out? With gloves, a mask, nothing? We’ve bought disposable cups for friends so we can serve coffee (in gloves) and safely. Are we being totally neurotic and is the R number in London only .4? It was strangely calmer when the world had stopped … but it is the summer and if it had gone on into the winter there would have been many (more) stir crazy households.

So, the conversation about uplift was a joy – two very jolly over 80s discussing comfortable underwear.

The rest is censored …

From Brenda in Hove: “I can’t breathe”

a ‘meme’ that is travelling the internet

3 June

The picture of George Floyd being murdered clutches at my heart – as indeed it has clutched the heart of hundreds of thousands of protesting people across America and other parts of the world.  

Sadly, I am not new to protests nor police brutality in the face of those protests. I spent most of my life in South Africa where apartheid and all it entailed ruled supreme for too long. Scenes of protest marches turning into massacres were reported all over the world –  Sharpeville perhaps being the one that seared itself most dramatically on the minds of the watching world. If anything, matters got worse in South Africa after Sharpeville – but it was, I think, a turning point. Maybe, just maybe, the George Floyd murder will also be a turning point in American history.    

I worked at a university in South Africa which was designated ‘white’ until freedom came in 1994 but was at least part of a small group of “liberal” universities. We all had to deal with increasingly draconian measures after Sharpeville until the late 1980s when pressure started to build for radical change.  Much of the pressure was evidenced by protest marches in the name of one cause or grievance. Many of those marches got out of hand, sometimes because people who had other agendas used the event to further their own ends – but more often because the reason for the march was not addressed and some reasonable way forward not found.

Achieving freedom in South Africa without a bloody conflict was seen as almost miraculous and Nelson Mandela hailed as a truly great leader. Even then, the country still had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hear and redress at least some of the awful crimes committed during those long years of struggle.

Clearly the protests rocking America are vast in number and being managed by multiple agencies – but there seem to me to be some basic mistakes made at leadership level. Is it asking too much that there be some acknowledgement that there is some systemic problem that needs addressing? Is it asking too much that civic leaders be called to come together and forge a way forward, perhaps city by city, state by state?  Is it asking too much of a president that he be seen to be leading such efforts to seek some unity in finding a solution?  

It defies belief that the leader of “the free world”  could only come up with two ideas:

  1. Threaten the protesters with military action – which is probably unconstitutional; and
  2. Stand in front of a boarded up church and wave a bible at the cameras. This must be as bizarre a sight of an American president as one could possibly imagine. But it is also a sight that might represent a turning point. Waving goodbye to his re-election, and ushering in a true leader who will address the grievous racism in his country.

from Steph in London: turning point week

May 31. Capacity over strategy, instinct over compliance, self righteousness and the divine right of kings over competence … all in all a turning point week. Tempers are strained and it’s not the lockdown that is causing the frustration. It’s as if dear Boris and his henchmen are bored now- we are distinguished in having almost the worst figures in the world, nothing is working smoothly, the R number remains steady at too high and now a few more deaths won’t really matter … 10 weeks of grasping at straws, over promising and under delivering tests even the most loyal in society.

Essentially nothing has changed but we are being released albeit slowly (but are the over 70s?)

So now we have to think about meeting the world again – well, up to 6 of them at least. From being a extrovert who loves being with people I feel anxious about being with anybody other than my nearest and dearest, even in the garden. So, Book Club could meet in a garden, as could our Ladies who Lunch group – do I want to? No thank you, not yet.

Happy birthday to my middle son, who turns 45 today. He lives in the Netherlands and heaven knows when I can next give him and the grandchildren a hug – and a present!