From David Maughan Brown in York: The shapeshifter’s revenge?

Ever since a blackbird first overheard a child gleefully reciting a nursery rhyme celebrating the demise of four and twenty of its kindred ‘baked in a pie’, blackbirds have had good cause to be extremely wary of people and to regard the ‘kind’ bit in ‘mankind’ as somewhat ironic.   It is bad enough having twenty four of one’s kith and kin massacred for culinary purposes, but for people to then go around boasting about it is beyond the pale.   The odd poet here and there like Tennyson should not be allowed to lull any health and safety conscious blackbird into a sense of false security:  ‘O Blackbird! sing me something well: While all the neighbours shoot thee round, I keep smooth plats of fruitful ground, Where thou may’st warble, eat and dwell.’  As Tennyson acknowledges, he is the exception that proves the rule and blackbirds would be wise to worry about the neighbours.

I now find myself reluctantly contributing to this long history of inter-species conflict.  This year, of all years, a very determined and persistent blackbird has decided that a shelf attached to the side of our shed between the shed and the fruit cage would be the ideal place to build its nest.   The shed with the shelf has been there for well over twenty years, the cage with the Saskatoon bush has been there for seven or eight, and nobody has ever previously decided that the shelf is the absolutely perfect place to set up house and bring up the children.  Any other year we would have been delighted and felt warmly protective in an appropriately grand-parental kind of way; this year the shed is scheduled to be demolished in precisely three weeks time and all the arrangements have been irrevocably put in place.   The shed is past its sell-by date, the creeper is gradually overwhelming it from the outside and sending triffid-like tentacles through cracks in the sides deep into the darkness within.  Three weeks won’t allow even the most hyper-active blackbird couple to complete the nest, lay and hatch the eggs, and bring the chicks to maturity.   So, regardless of the crisis of conscience involved, a halt had to be called to the nest building activity. 

I mention the ‘blackbird couple’ by way of a gesture towards gender equality, but in this instance, contrary to Royal Society for the Protection of Birds information, the female has very seldom been putting in much of an appearance, and it is the obviously very woke male that appears to have been doing most of the building.   In fact so little evidence of a female was there that for two or three days of conscience-stricken nest deterrence I was under the impression that what I was dealing with was a gender-confused male blackbird building a bachelor pad in the hope of attracting a partner, rather than a couple desperate to bring some more little blackbirds into the world to make up for the four and twenty.  As he sat on a nearby roof, his beak stuffed with building material on the second morning, indignantly watching me remove the foundations of his house from the shelf once again, he probably thought that what he was dealing with was the kind of adolescent vandalism that culminates in the celebration of dozens of members of the extended family being baked in pies.   I painstakingly explained to him what I was doing, and why I was doing it, and insisted that it wasn’t mere vandalism but was in his own interests and those of his partner and potential future offspring, but he did not appear to be in the least mollified.   

Yesterday when I went out to see whether the deterrence had been effective I found an almost completed nest on the shelf and concluded that our blackbird, with or without a partner, must have been on night shift.  That enabled me very carefully to move the entire nest to an equally sheltered shelf between a bush and the wall on the other side of the garden.   I then removed the favoured shelf, which I should probably have done first time around.   However, I am obviously an ignorant amateur when it comes to ‘location, location, location’ where blackbird nesting is concerned, and he has rejected my alternative site and is now, with increasingly impatient partner in more active evidence, busily building a nest in a bush in the garden next door.

It is held to be good luck if a blackbird builds its nest near one’s house – so I’ve just donated our share of that to our neighbours.  But there is also a good deal of more sinister folklore around blackbirds, which tends to make one wary of annoying them.  The blackness of the male results in the blackbird sometimes being perceived as a symbol of death, but, because it isn’t actually black but a dark brown that merely looks black from a distance, it is also seen as a ‘shape-shifter,’ or an embodiment of ‘glamoury’ – an archaic term deriving from the original meaning of ‘glamour’, which denoted a magical or fictitious beauty.  And that isn’t all.  If you Google ‘blackbird symbolism you’ll be told, for example, that: ‘The dark wings of Blackbird give it associations with the Otherworld and the great Mysteries that haunt human souls; this also means it can fly as a messenger of death. Black is also often a colour associated with magic, mystics, and Witches. Some say listening to Blackbird songs helps the Shaman’s travels to different spiritual realms. The ability to move between the worlds and retain clarity is a powerful bit of Blackbird Medicine.’*   So the message comes across pretty clearly: ‘don’t mess with blackbirds if you don’t want a dose of powerful Blackbird Medicine.’   

Once I had relocated his house, the blackbird didn’t get on with the business of checking on the state of its nest, or of building a new one, but spent some time hopping from vantage point to vantage point speculatively eyeing our house, I assumed that he was contemplating which particular form of Blackbird Medicine would do justice to the circumstances with a view to appropriate retaliation.    The instinct for revenge was no doubt honed by this further evidence of the irony of its being a man – Tennyson, in fact, to compound the irony – rather than a nest-deprived bird, or one of the mourning relatives of the four and twenty, who had written the lines about ‘nature red in tooth and claw’.  

So far the revenge has been limited to removing as much moss as it could find from the kitchen roof and the gutter above the back door and dumping it on the door mat – no doubt in the hope of being able to watch a pratfall if I were to go out of the back door intent on demolishing or relocating anyone else’s nest.  I’m just hoping the accelerating nest-building now going on next door will serve as a distraction, and that blackbirds’ memories don’t rival those of elephants.


From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The Wicked Witch of Witham’

“Home is not a place – it’s a feeling”?

May 5th

A week is often said to be ‘a long time in politics.’  That is usually intended to convey the idea that a great deal can happen in a mere seven days, but it can equally well mean that shameful stories about the same political dispensation and politicians can keep coming out day after day after day without making a blind bit of difference to anything.  Seldom does a day go past without another scathing critique in the Guardian or The Independent of some contemptible utterance, policy or appointment from our Home Secretary, Priti Patel.  But she just sneers serenely on her way. It is not for nothing that a recent Tory Secretary of State, Sir Alan Duncan, a Knight of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, no less, refers to her in his memoirs as ‘a nothing person, a complete and utter nightmare, the Wicked Witch of Witham’.*

On Wednesday last week, a cross-party group of MPs concluded that the Home Office should no longer be responsible for asylum accommodation because it was consigning asylum seekers to ‘totally inappropriate’ living conditions.  This conclusion backed-up a British Red Cross report that warned that asylum seekers were being forced to live in ‘unsafe, unsanitary and isolated’ accommodation that fell far short of expected standards.**  Having closed off all ‘authorised’ routes to asylum seekers, Patel appears intent on deporting all asylum seekers who arrive by ‘unauthorised routes’, in other words all asylum seekers, without anyone even bothering to consider the merits of their claims for asylum.

On Thursday, May Bulman reported in The Independent that cross-party MPs ‘have attacked Home Office plans that will see more trafficking survivors locked up in immigration detention and threatened with removal, warning that it is a “hugely retrograde step”.’ ***  As with the arbitrarily slashing of the Foreign Aid budget, the Government appears to recognise that this might not get the approval of Parliament and is accordingly using the undemocratic device of a ‘statutory instrument’ to drive the change through without formal legislation.  John McDonnell described the move in Parliament as a ‘disgraceful act of inhumanity’ and made the point that victims of trafficking could be deterred from trying to escape from their traffickers if that just meant that they were going to be detained and deported without further ado if they did manage to escape.

On Saturday, The Independent reported that the government is being urged to remove the Windrush compensation scheme from the Home Office as more than 500 Windrush victims have been waiting for more than a year for their claims for compensation to be assessed and paid.  To date only 20% of victims have received compensation, while the Home Office refuses to disclose the number of people who have died while waiting for compensation.  The Independent has established that at least nine such victims had died uncompensated by August.  Patrick Vernon, a campaigner for the Windrush victims, is reported by May Bulman as having ascribed this failure to ‘institutional racism in the conduct, behaviour and procedures of the Home Office staff and the executive and political leadership’.  This last certainly rings true where Priti Patel is concerned, even if ‘leadership’ rather overestimates her abilities.

On Tuesday The Independent reported that Priti Patel has appointed Robin Simcox, who recently worked for a Donald Trump linked think tank, as our new commissioner for countering extremism.****  Simcox is sceptical about islamophobia  – ‘a word used to limit the parameters of legitimate debate’ – and thinks Boris Johnson should be ‘wary’ about any internal investigation of possible ‘islamophobia’ in the Conservative Party.  As far as he is concerned the term ‘violent extremism’ was only ‘dreamed up as a way to avoid saying “Islamic” or “Islamist” extremism’, and defining ‘hate crime’ as offences motivated by hostility based on perceived race, religion, sexual orientation or disability is ‘far too broad’.  So our new commissioner for countering extremism is of the view that most extremism isn’t actually extremism.  So he should have a pretty easy life; as will our rapidly increasing number of far-right extremists. 

Last week I was one of tens of thousands of people who signed a petition opposing Priti Patel’s ‘New Plan for Immigration’ on the grounds that it will: ‘put people at risk of being sent back to torture and persecution; make it more difficult for torture survivors to build a new life in the UK; prevent families from being reunited; and force torture survivors to live in inhumane conditions in isolated reception centres.’  But the petition won’t make any difference because, as John Rentoul pointed out in an article on Sunday debating whether Boris Johnson is a left-wing or right-wing Prime Minister (he concluded, astonishingly, that he is the most left-wing PM ever): ‘Even Patel’s absurd plan to build an asylum processing centre on Ascension Island had more support than opposition among the British public.’*****   It is this stampede to the right, encouraged in part by the rhetoric around Brexit, that anybody in England who cares about human rights is up against; and it is this that keeps Priti Patel in a job for which she would in the relatively recent past have been regarded as all too obviously wholly unsuitable. 






From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The shame is on us’.

Every day is a bad-hair day

May 3rd

It is difficult to assess which of two starkly contrasting political environments results in the greater sense of frustrated impotence.   Being governed by the corrupt and ruthlessly authoritarian representatives of a racial minority who maintain their power through the violent suppression of a disenfranchised majority; or being governed by the corrupt and ruthlessly self-seeking representatives of an electorate based on universal adult franchise whose every worst instinct is assiduously cultivated by an alliance between untrustworthy politicians and unprincipled popular media.

In South Africa under apartheid one was up against an adamantine regime intent on suppressing any dissent as it bulldozed its way towards its racist goal of ‘separate development.’   In trying to resist that process in whatever minor ways one could one knew that it wasn’t going to make any kind of dent in the monolithic edifice of apartheid, but one could be confident that those efforts had the implicit support of the vast majority of the population, and there was some small, somewhat perverse, satisfaction in being woken at three 3am by telephoned death threats from Security Branch operatives which indicated that someone, somewhere, was taking some kind of notice – however intimidating that tended to feel.

Here, millions can take to the streets in protest against the invasion of Iraq or the stupidity of Brexit without it making a blind bit of difference.  One can blog and write letters to newspapers and speak from platforms without having to worry about exposing oneself to the risk of a minimum five year gaol sentence for saying something the government doesn’t approve of, for example expressing support for the ANC, but it feels as if one might as well be blowing bubbles to be wafted away on the wind. 

We have a contemptible government that can behave appallingly – cutting Foreign Aid in the middle of a global pandemic; treating asylum seekers with deliberate cruelty; being nonchalantly prepared to throw the Good Friday agreement to the dogs; lavishing rich contracts on incapable companies owned by their friends; cynically cultivating xenophobia along the road to Brexit; etc., etc., etc.  – in the certain knowledge that, however shamefully they behave, our predominantly right-wing media will continue to lap it all up, and will continue to hold sway over the electorate.

In a lengthy article on Friday titled ‘Scandal upon scandal: the charge sheet that should have felled Johnson years ago’, enumerating the seemingly endless list of scandals that should be being laid at Boris Johnson’s door, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland concluded: “Or maybe the real scandal lies with us, the electorate, still seduced by a tousled-hair rebel shtick and faux bonhomie that should have palled years ago.  Americans got rid of their lying, self-serving, scandal-plagued charlatan 100 days ago.  They did it at the first possible opportunity.  Next week, polls suggest we’re poised to give ours a partial thumbs-up at the ballot box.  For allowing this shameless man to keep riding high, some of the shame is on us.”*

The shame may well be on us, but saying so in the Guardian, or on a WordPress blog, isn’t going to make any difference.  It is a shame that appears to be felt even by some Tories, to judge by the rapidity with which Sir Alan Duncan, who only left politics in 2019, has been trying to cleanse himself of the smell, and wash off the stain, left by having been Johnson’s deputy during the latter’s embarrassment of a dally as Foreign Secretary with the Foreign Office.   Duncan’s description of Johnson in his recently published memoirs, as quoted by Jordan King in the Metro on Saturday, is less than flattering:  ‘I try to be the dutiful number two, but have lost any respect for him. He is a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgement. He is an international stain on our reputation. He is a lonely, selfish, ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot.’ **   

It feels much better to live in a country where Freedland, King and Duncan can freely say it as it is, and publish articles describing the Prime Minister in terms like ‘selfish, ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot’, without being subjected to death threats, or worse, from the police (as distinct from the social media);  but it would be even better to live in a country whose electorate didn’t allow itself to be so easily and willingly seduced into supporting our very own ‘lying, self-serving, scandal-plagued charlatan.’



From David Maughan Brown in York: May Day

Route to handy vaccination centre

May 1st

May Day.  Variously, and somewhat contradictorily, regarded by some people as a celebration of the fertility and fecundity of Spring, deriving in part from the Roman festival of the flowers, Floralia, and by others as marking the transition from Spring into Summer.   The day the cows could safely be put out to pasture because the winter was finally over.   Given that the April just passed has been the first on record to boast a damaging frost every single night of the month somewhere in the UK (in our case an allotment on Low Moor in York), the farmers may be getting cold feet on that score.  If they don’t, the cows certainly will as another frost is predicted for tonight.   There won’t be too many people dancing around May-poles today:  a 5,000- strong maskless rave in a very large tent has been scheduled as a government-sponsored Covid-19 infection trial, but there won’t be room for May poles.

The particular significance of the date for me is that it is now exactly three weeks since my second Covid-19 vaccination, so I am technically about 90% safe from being infected, give or take any of the global variants busily developing around the world in an effort to thwart that statistic as the pandemic rages on.  But I wouldn’t be dancing around a May pole even if there were one in the back garden.   Being vaccinated isn’t going to make much difference to the way I live my life for some time to come.  Nor was the vaccination experience itself a particularly celebratory occasion.

When I had my first vaccination I was given two different dates for the second one: Easter Sunday, 11 weeks after the first one, or the Saturday after that.  When I hadn’t received any formal notification reminding me about the second one by Good Friday, I set about trying to establish which was the correct date.  A long story later I was directed to a website which told me brusquely and entirely erroneously, with a disapproving virtual finger wagging in my direction, that I had missed the date for my second one already and needed to book another one.  It then offered me a generous array of vaccination sites to choose from, which didn’t include the York vaccination centre three miles away.  Distances, I am helpfully told, are measured in a straight line; roads in the UK tend to have the odd bend here and there.  The closest was the Rimmington Pharmacy in Bradford, said to be 29.8 miles away, which I assume must be owned by a Tory friend of one or another Tory MP or cabinet minister in Westminster.  If I didn’t fancy Bradford, there was an option in Hull 33.2 miles away, and one in Darlington 42.7 miles away.   Perusing the list, I was torn between the attractions of the one in Bishop Auckland (54.5 miles away) helpfully ‘located in-between care home and GP surgery’ and the one on Cemetery Road in Darwen, 59.5 miles away – in fact 73.7 miles away by the shortest route if one doesn’t happen to be a bird – but I decided I should enquire further.

Another long story later, the Saturday date was confirmed and I set off for my 9.00am appointment needing to get back home to chair the monthly u3a Saturday morning meeting by 10.15.  When I got to the front of the queue I was mysteriously, but full of misplaced optimism, directed to much the shorter of the two subsidiary queues of eager punters waiting to be summoned to a booth.  In spite of being much the shorter queue, ours was static:  when a dozen or so people had been called from the other queue, with no movement at all from ours, it became apparent that I had been told to come on a Pfizer day for my AstraZeneca injection.   Nine out of the ten booths were offering the Pfizer ones, the tenth appeared to be having difficulty with a patient who must, to judge by the time being taken, have been trypanophobic.   Soothing organ music in a mediaeval cathedral might have helped better with the stress levels than a noisy tent in a carpark, but I did eventually manage to get back in time to log in and chair the meeting.  So not particularly celebratory.

Yesterday an NHS envelope arrived inviting my 42 year-old son in Cape Town to make an appointment for his first vaccination.  I forwarded a photograph of it to him and invited him to drop in for tea on his way.   In the meantime my 44 year-old elder son received a similar letter in York a few days ago and has been trying unsuccessfully to take its advice and book a vaccination.   So far the nearest vaccination centre he has been offered is in Wakefield (32.4 miles away) – presumably at a Tory-owned pharmacy somewhere near a crematorium.   It would seem the vaccine is in relatively short supply and that the York centre is fully occupied trying to inject second vaccinations into the arms of older cohorts.  So why the rush to invite younger and younger groups of people to try their luck booking vaccinations when they are very hard to come by – the required age dropping a year or two every day or two?  The answer is painfully obvious:  there are local elections in a few days time and our cerebrally challenged electorate has somehow allowed itself to be persuaded that the success of the vaccination programme can be attributed to the government rather than the NHS.   It wasn’t the NHS that generously and in all seriousness offered me a vaccination in Darwen, 73.7 miles away.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘An affront to the conscience of the court’

April 26th

In spite of a range of well-known miscarriages of justice and cover-ups – the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, Hillsborough, to name a few – we tend to think of ourselves in UK as an example to the rest of the world of democracy, justice and general fair play.   We have even had a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities recently confirming for us that any institutional racism our country might ever have been guilty of has now miraculously evaporated.  Where things go wrong they can be attributed to a few bad eggs, not to any intrinsic institutional failures.  So it is with a combination of disbelief and impotent anger that one reads about the way sub-postmasters across the UK have been treated by the Post Office, the CPS, and our courts for the past 25 or so years in what has been described as ‘the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history’, a scandal brought back to mind by the Court of Appeal’s clearing of 39 sub-postmasters of theft, fraud and false-accounting last week.  It is just a shame that three of the sub-postmasters had already died before their names could be cleared.  

In 1999, the publicly owned Post Office rolled-out a new accounting system for its branches, ambitiously called Horizon, to every post office in the country.  For the next thirteen years, until 2012, the Post Office busily brought an average of one prosecution every week against one of its sub-postmasters for theft, fraud or false accounting – all on the strength of alleged accounting shortfalls revealed by the new Horizon programme.  A total of 736 sub-postmasters were prosecuted. They all denied the charges and said there was a problem with the Horizon software. In July 2013, a report commissioned by Second Sight, a firm of forensic investigators, established that there were, indeed, bugs in the Horizon system; another report, two years later in 2015, found no evidence of theft by postmasters, while whistle–blowers were reported by the Telegraph to have told the BBC that, exactly as the sub-postmasters were claiming, it was the software that was responsible for the missing cash.  In December 2019 the Post Office agreed to pay 550 of the 736 sub-postmasters a total of £58 million as compensation for its wrongful prosecution.  It took until December 2020 for six of the 736 to have their convictions quashed at the Court of Appeal when the Post Office admitted that the original verdicts had been unsafe.*

So the lives of 736 families over the course of twenty years were ruined:  some of the sub-postmasters served time in gaol; some lost their life savings and were bankrupted; families broke apart as some were divorced; at least one committed suicide; many were abused by their former customers and had to move to live elsewhere; many had their health ruined; all had their reputations destroyed.  

A BBC report by Susie Rack in December 2019 outlines the stories of three of the sub-postmasters affected.**  Balvinder Singh Gill, from Oxford, found that his books simply would not balance and unaccountably showed ‘massive shortfalls’, with the result that he was accused of stealing £108,000 from the Post Office. He was, tellingly, informed that his was the only such case; he was threatened with prison if he didn’t pay it back; he ended up bankrupt and divorced; and he suffered a metal breakdown that led to his being sectioned. His mother was found guilty of stealing £57,000 from the same branch.  The family ended up working for the minimum wage in kitchens and petrol stations.   Wendy Buffrey, a former sub-postmistress from Cheltenham, is reported to have been advised to plead guilty to false accounting in 2010 to avoid jail, in spite of having always maintained her innocence, after a shortfall of £26,000 was identified in her accounts.  She was given 150 hours of community service instead, while having to pay back the money she was alleged to have stolen. She also lost her business and her home.   Rubbina Shaheen, from Shrewsbury, was accused of taking £43,000 from her branch – and ended up serving three months in jail – in spite of having identified at least 11 errors on the Horizon system to no avail.  She and her husband were both on suicide watch for a time and ended up in failing health and had to live in a van when Rubbina was released from prison.   The commissioners responsible for the recent report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities would no doubt claim that it was purely coincidental that the names of two out of the three families so disastrously affected by this scandal just happened to be names originating from the Indian sub-continent.  I rather doubt that Harjinder Butoy, a former sub-postmaster from Nottingham who was convicted of theft and jailed for three years and four months in 2008, would agree.

As early as December 2010 when Seema Misra, another noteworthy name, was given a 15-month jail sentence for theft, in spite of being pregnant, the judge acknowledged that there was ‘no direct evidence’ of theft, and ‘nothing incriminating’ at her home, just a discrepancy between cash reserves and the Horizon system.  In last week’s judgement on the 39, the Telegraph reports that ‘three senior judges said the company had “steamrolled” sub-postmasters in its pursuit of prosecutions, despite knowing there were serious questions over the reliability of Horizon.’  The judges had further declared that the ‘Post Office Limited’s failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the Horizon cases an affront to the conscience of the court.’

This begs a number of questions.  If the prosecution of any of the Horizon cases is an ‘affront’, as it obviously is, why were all 42 convictions, not just 39, that had been brought before the judges not overturned? Why, for that matter, were all 736 convictions not overturned by default?  Surely there should have been a presumption of innocence for all 736 after this finding? Why is it necessary for anyone to have to pay legal costs to have the remainder overturned?  When Bavinder Gill was told his was the only case, was that just a barefaced lie or was the Post Office itself not able to join up the dots?  Why were the police and the CPS also apparently unable to put two and two together and ask themselves what was going on when hundreds of sub-postmasters were being accused of theft and all were denying responsibility and pointing to the faulty software?  How could not a single one of 736 convictions, all based on flawed accounting software, have been averted by a forensic analysis of the Horizon accounting package? Where had Fujitsu, the developers of the software gone missing to while their software led to 736 wrongful convictions? Why was the Post Office, a public entity, allowed to spend £320,000 suing a sub-postmaster, Lee Castleton from Bridlington, for £25,000 he was falsely accused of stealing, despite his having called the Post Office’s helpline nearly every day for three months?*** Who, if anyone, is going to be held responsible for the hundreds of millions of pounds this is going to end up costing taxpayers as futile efforts are belatedly made to compensate those victims who are still alive for the way their lives have been ruined by a deplorable phalanx of institutional failures?





From David Maughan Brown in York: Wind and fire

Jagger Library Reading Room: Before

April 21st

It was with a visceral sense of shock and loss that I watched video footage of buildings on the upper campus of the University of Cape Town, and the Jagger Library in particular, going up in flames over the weekend.  A ‘vagrant’s’ cooking fire had got out of control on the slopes of the mountain above the university, a strong North Westerly ‘Berg’ wind had blown the flames down through the tinder-dry brush and the pine trees on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, consuming the restaurant at the Rhodes Memorial, and on down the mountain to set fire to a number of university buildings, including two of the residences and the Jagger Library.  The fire jumped De Waal drive and destroyed Mostert’s Mill, one of the best known landmarks in Cape Town, built in 1796 and until Sunday the oldest surviving mill in South Africa.   4,000 students had to be evacuated from the campus.  There was a lull in the wind on Sunday evening before it changed direction to become a violent South Easterly that blew the fire round the flank of Devil’s Peak and onto the lower slopes of Table Mountain, threatening the suburbs above the Cape Town city centre.

The library collection dates back to 1829.  My mother went to UCT in the late 1920s; three of my four siblings and I were students there in the 1960s and early 1970s; all three of my children and two of their partners were students there in the 1990s.   Apart from my mother, who lived in one of the residences that caught fire but who was a student before the Jagger Library was completed, we will all have spent time in that library, so the loss feels directly personal.  

Although the full extent of the losses and damage has still to be assessed, it is clear that much of the African Studies collection, housed in the reading room, including the entirety of its film collection has been lost.  A loss I feel particularly acutely as a former Professor of African Literature. The film collection was the most extensive one of its kind anywhere, with over 3,000 films available for research and viewing.  Fire doors and shutters were triggered and did come down to shut off parts of the university’s collections, but it is not yet known how much damage has been done by the intense heat.  It can only be hoped that the collection of very rare books has survived.  This includes, by way of example, a copy of a 1535 Dutch Bible, believed to be the oldest in South Africa, in an edition that was suppressed with almost all the copies burned and the publisher condemned to death for its publication, and a copy of the first book to contain photographic illustrations, William Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature, published in 1844.  The oldest book in the collection is said to be by a first century Roman historian and moralist, Valerius Maximus, titled Facta et dicta memorabilium, published in Mainz in 1471 by Peter Schöffer, who took over Gutenberg’s press.    So there was, and one hopes still is, much to treasure.

The botany building that houses the Bolus Herbarium, the oldest functioning herbarium in South Africa, was also seriously damaged.  Although the herbarium appears to have survived, the Plant Conservation Unit, where researchers tracked changes in climate by studying fossilized pollen and comparing historical photos with current-day images, has, according to the unit’s leader Timm Hoffman, a historical ecologist, been totally destroyed.

South Africa is one of the countries of the world in line to be worst affected by climate change.  The last time we visited Cape Town, some 18 months ago, the Cape Peninsula was just coming out of a three year drought so bad that at one point the entire city had come within four weeks of having the water mains shut down, and as adults we were effectively rationed to using 35 litres of water a day.   The winter that followed saw ‘normal’ rainfall re-established and enabled the dams and reservoirs to fill up again, but the summer just ending has been very hot and dry and the temperature on Sunday was an unseasonal 36 degrees centigrade.  Given the prolonged period of drought, and the backdrop of global warming, one might have expected additional precautions to have been taken to protect the University campus from wildfires on the mountain by extending the firebreaks, but this would appear not to have happened.  There have been very many wildfires on the slopes above the university since the first buildings were erected on its current site more than a hundred years ago, and none has ever affected the university badly before, but the point about global warming is that events such as this are becoming increasingly likely, which makes suitable measures to combat them the more imperative.

The University of Cape Town is, by all measures, Africa’s premier university.  I find myself wondering whether the absence of any coverage of the devastating damage caused by this wildfire from any of the news broadcasts I have seen here, in stark contrast to the coverage of the wildfires in Australia and California in recent years, can be attributed to the fact that this wildfire didn’t kill anyone, although several fire-fighters have been injured, to the fact that it only damaged a university rather than much in the way of residential property, or simply because Africa is perceived not really to matter much.

From David Maughan Brown in York: An “unfussy” funeral.

All alone

April 20th

One didn’t need to be a Royalist to be moved by images of the Queen sitting on her own, bowed with age, at the funeral of a husband to whom she had been married for 73 years, or to feel that the numerous accolades for the Duke of Edinburgh’s loyalty, dedication and public service through all those years were fully merited.   The funeral service had by all accounts been meticulously planned by the Duke himself, and in terms of its relative brevity and lack of sermonising, as well as the beauty of the music, it would, one assumes, have met with his no doubt somewhat sardonic approval had he been around to watch it.   The sound of the bagpipes playing ‘The Flowers of the Forest’, fading as the lone piper slow-marched out of the chapel while the Duke’s coffin was lowered into the vault, will live long in the memory.

We listened to the funeral service in the car on the way back to York after taking advantage of a perfect Spring day to meet with my daughter’s family for a released from lock-down picnic at Nostell Priory, a National Trust property near Pontefract, and then watched the televised broadcast in the evening.   Where the music was concerned I was particularly struck by the beauty and appropriateness of the exquisitely sung ‘Russian Kontakion for the Departed’ which I hadn’t heard for the better part of sixty years, and which Prince Philip had presumably chosen in part as a nod towards his mixed European, including Russian, ancestry.   It brought back memories of my time in the ‘Special Choir’ at boarding school in Cape Town where we were each paid 2/6 for singing at weddings and funerals in the school chapel, not caring particularly whether we were taking part in a ‘matching’ or ‘dispatching’ ceremony as long as we were able to double our weekly pocket-money on the strength of a couple of hours of practice, often of the Russian Kontakion, and the sacrifice of part of a Saturday afternoon – the only times I came anywhere close to being a professional singer.

The commentators made much of the ‘ordinariness’ of the Queen’s funeral experience under lockdown:  the lonely widow, sitting by herself without the close support of her family, with attendance at the funeral restricted to the Covid regulation limit of 30, rather than the five to eight hundred who might have been expected at a funeral that hadn’t had to be ‘scaled-down.’  But this was, of course, no ‘ordinary’ funeral.   The ‘chapel’ in which it was held is large enough to be a cathedral, even if the ‘choir’ only consisted of four singers.   Ordinary funerals, ‘scaled-down’ or not, don’t feature 700 members of the armed services lined up in socially-distanced ranks awaiting the arrival of the funeral procession.   Most people, for that matter, don’t get to design their own hearse.   For somebody who, we were repeatedly told, ‘didn’t like a fuss’, there was quite a bit of fuss not to like, much of which the Duke had planned for himself – which is not to suggest that the fuss was not appropriate as a send-off for someone who had spent a life dedicated to public service of the highest order.   

To the extent that Covid-19 necessitated the foregoing of the pomp and circumstance of a funeral with over 500 assorted guests, the Duke of Edinburgh might well have been pleased to have a pandemic-affected departure.  There was certainly less fuss than there otherwise would have been.   The Queen might well also not have been too unhappy to be obliged to endure the funeral without close family beside her if the upside was that she also didn’t have to survive the sight and sound of a repugnantly self-absorbed Prime Minister using the occasion for self-display.  Of all the 14 Prime Ministers of the UK whom the Queen has seen come and go during her reign, Boris Johnson is the one whose total lack of principle or morality she is likely to have found most at odds with her own, and her husband’s, principled dedication to public service.

The funeral provided some interesting insights into the quirkiness of British ceremonial tradition.   Three struck me in particular.  The first was the way in which the decision not to allow the mourners to wear military uniform – which we were allowed to understand was to spare the blushes of Prince Harry who has been stripped of his – resulted in the rows of medals standing out much more prominently against the background of the dark suits and coats on which they were worn than they would have on uniforms.  Rows and rows of medals, most of which, one could only assume from looking at the somewhat motley array of mourners, had been awarded in recognition of the great favour those sporting them had done to the world by having granted it the favour of allowing themselves to be born into it.  The second was the Garter Principal King of Arms’s proclamation of ‘the styles and titles of HRH The Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh’, most of which the Prince had presumably acquired as a result of whom he had married, dressed in a tailored Royal Standard that made him look like the King (if not the Joker) from a pack of up-market playing cards.   Lastly, the fact that the ‘Lady-in-waiting’ who supported the Queen by accompanying her in the car to the funeral, the only one of the 67 or so million population of the UK who was with her to offer that support at that exceptionally difficult moment in her life, wasn’t even allowed the dignity of a name in the commentary – she was a mere functionary.  So, for that matter, was the Garter Principal King of Arms, but who needs a name when you can wear a fancy-dress costume like that?

The funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh also offered interesting insights into our society and culture more generally.   One was the extent of the media obsession with the detail of the lives of the royal family: which of the ‘senior’ royals, for example, had allegedly snubbed Harry at the funeral, and why their cousin Philip had been placed between the two princes in the funeral procession, but then deferentially hung back about eighteen inches behind them.  Why would anyone care?   Another was the very many thousands of pounds that had been spent helping florists out of their Covid-induced financial slump by the laying of thousands of bouquets outside royal residences, only for them to be taken into the grounds, piled up and, presumably, composted, the majority of their messages of condolence unappreciated.   Couldn’t the money have been better spent by one of the late Duke’s many charities?  Perhaps most bizarre of all, the large numbers of royalists, crowded together in their maskless lack of herd immunity behind the barriers lining the roads along which the funeral procession had never been destined to process.  Why were they there, adorned in their jingoistic accoutrements, unable to see anything whatever of what was going on, in spite of all the earnest requests from those to whom they were supposedly paying deferential homage to ‘stay away’?   Because, they said, they ‘just had to be there’, they ‘couldn’t stay away’.   The ‘herd’ bit came to mind, even if the lack of immunity only seems likely to become all too apparent in a week or two.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of flames and ashes

Belfast in flames again

April 15th

It took 30 years of violence during the euphemistically termed ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, at the cost of more than 3,500 lives, before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement enabled the more than twenty years of peace that followed.   It took all of three months from the end of the one-year Brexit transition period on December 31st for the petrol bombs to start being hurled again, and buses and cars in Northern Ireland to start being torched.  It is reported that more than ninety policemen in Belfast and elsewhere have been injured in the riots over the past couple of weeks.   A quaintly deferential pause has been called by the ‘loyalists’ to the escalation of what is rapidly becoming a deeply worrying conflict between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the great divide in recognition of the week of mourning following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, but this ‘truce’ has no more chance of lasting than the unofficial truce that broke out on the Western Front at Christmas in 1914. Boris Johnson can’t pretend he wasn’t warned.

Northern Ireland was always going to be the single intractable and ultimately irresolvable problem with Brexit.   As the legacy of slavery hangs over the United States, and to a somewhat lesser extent over us, so the legacy still endures of the ‘planting’ of Protestants in the north of Catholic Ireland that began some three hundred years ago.  As long as Northern Ireland remained one of the four component parts of the United Kingdom, and Ireland remained part of the European Union, the former’s departure from the EU was going to have to result in a border of some description between the two if the EU was going to be able to maintain the integrity of its trading standards.   It was abundantly clear that a land border of any description would inevitably, and very quickly, put the fragile peace accord of the Good Friday Agreement in serious jeopardy.   So Boris Johnson, very late in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, adopted what seemed to be the lesser of two evils and agreed to a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain down the Irish Sea.

One minor problem with this solution was that Johnson had visited Northern Ireland the previous August and assured the political and business communities, hand on heart, that access to the markets the other side of the Irish Sea would remain entirely unfettered:  ‘There will be no border down the Irish Sea, that will happen over my dead body.’   Whether this was a deliberate, bare-faced lie, like some many of his others – his conscience and any ethical sense he might ever have had were dead and buried long ago, even if his body hasn’t yet followed their example – or whether he simply hadn’t bothered to look at, or think through, the detail, is immaterial.   Trade in both directions is fettered; many businesses in Great Britain have decided it isn’t worth the hassle to continue to deliver to Northern Ireland; the supermarket shelves there are depleted; and unionists, in particular, understandably feel betrayed.

Even as the petrol bombs exploded and the police were trying to quell the rioting last week there was little indication that Downing Street gave much of a damn about what was going on.  Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, went to the verbal extreme of declaring that the injuries to the ninety-odd policemen were ‘unacceptable’. But I suspect that for all his protestations of devotion to the United Kingdom Boris Johnson himself, ensconced as King of his Little England castle, just doesn’t care about what happens to those he probably thinks of as the ‘Paddies’ and ‘Micks’ of Ireland, precious few of whom ever got to Eton.   Ireland, like France, is the other side of a stretch of water and full of people who, because they aren’t part of England, are all essentially foreigners, even if the ‘loyalists’ don’t agree,  and even if they all speak a version of the Queen’s English.   But Johnson would do well to remember that, with Biden now President of the United States, if the Good Friday Agreement goes up in flames, which seems pretty well inevitable if Johnson keeps on down the path he is taking at present, any hopes of a trade deal with the United States, supposedly the one big, fat prize of Brexit (however deluded that ambition was in the first place) will be consumed to ashes by those very same flames.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Wrapped in the Union Jack

Prime Minister grimaces as flags close in, threatening to crush him.

April 7th

One of the stranger and thus far insufficiently analysed – although frequently observed  – symptoms of the changes the Covid-19 epidemic has brought about in England is a rash of red, white and blue flags that can be seen to have broken out in the offices of cabinet ministers.  It is widely suspected that this may somehow be linked to the UK’s departure from the European Union.   While it isn’t considered likely to be fatal in itself, there would appear to be a possibility that, like other prolonged side-effects of long-Covid, this could be seriously damaging and debilitating for England in the longer term.   It is worth noting that the same side-effect is not being observed in the other three countries of the currently United Kingdom, and is not thought likely to prove dangerous for them.   Indeed, it is even possible that it could in the long run result in their separation from England, and thereby protect them from this peculiarly English variant.

The rash of flags has in recent months been largely confined to the stage sets for ministerial press conferences and interviews, and the offices of generally male, and generally somewhat adolescent, cabinet ministers who appear to have been vying with one another to see who has the biggest one.  But the rash will soon be breaking out over all government buildings.  ‘New rules surrounding flying of the Union Flag’ were published by the Government on March 24th, although, as with so much else, our government of all the talentless couldn’t make up its collective mind and so concluded the announcement by saying:  ‘This update is guidance only and will apply from the summer.’ *  So not ‘rules’, then, just ‘guidance’.  But, unsurprisingly, it will be a rule, not just guidance, that planning permission will be required before anyone can fly the flag of the European Union.

Currently, Union jacks are only required to be flown on all UK Government buildings on some 20 designated days every year – the quirkily British designation often having to do with the birthdays of members of the royal family – but the expectation is that in future they will be flown every day.   And it isn’t just the government’s expectation; it is apparently also the expectation of ‘the people’, whose minds our psychic government is always confident it can read.   As Culture [Wars] Secretary Oliver Dowden put it: ‘The Union flag unites us as a nation and people rightly expect it to be flown above UK Government buildings. This guidance will ensure that happens every day … as a proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us.’  The ‘rightly expect’ bit was obviously one of the key phrases the children were required to learn before they were allowed out to play, as the announcement also quotes Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP saying:  ‘Our nation’s flag is a symbol of liberty, unity and freedom that creates a shared sense of civic pride. People rightly expect to see the Union Flag flying high on civic and Government buildings up and down the country, as a sign of our local and national identity.’  Lord Nelson missed a trick when he forgot to include the ‘rightly’ in ‘England rightly expects every man to do his duty.’  The honesty of Jenrick’s recognition that the nation’s flag might at best be creating ‘civic’ rather than national pride was probably inadvertent: it certainly won’t have been in the script.  

If the rash of flags really is intended as a proud reminder of the totality of our history, it would suggest that selective amnesia needs to be factored into the equation as one of the more worrying side-effects of whatever it was that brought on the rash.   It is difficult to believe, even of our current cabinet of the clueless, that the likes of Dowden and Jenrick could really be proud, by way of example, of the deaths of the women and children in the Anglo-Boer war concentration camps in 1901-2, the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, the Hola detention camp massacre in 1959, and Bloody Sunday in 1972, to mention just four of the many moments of our relatively recent history that vanishingly few people can feel proud of.

Flags are a serious business, under no circumstances to be laughed about, particularly not by our revered national broadcaster.  The BBC recently shame-facedly reported that BBC Breakfast presenters Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty had to be ‘spoken to’ following complaints after the former had gently mocked Robert Jenrick’s flag at the end of an interview: ‘I think your flag is not up to standard size, government interview measurements.  I think it’s just a little bit small, but that’s your department really.’**  Another BBC presenter, Huw Edwards, was apparently made to remove a tweet of the Welsh flag that poked fun at the row over the union jack.  And Tim Davie, the Director-General of the BBC, who will probably have done the talking to Stayt and been responsible for the pressuring of Edwards, was himself recently castigated by a Tory MP, James Wild, who is reported to have told Davie that his constituents would “expect to see more than one flag” in the BBC’s 268-page Annual Report. *****  It has not as yet, however, been made mandatory to hug the Union jack in the way the immediately past President of the USA was sometimes wont to hug the Star Spangled Banner.

Anyone who reacts with a measure of cynicism to the outbreak of a rash of flags will find him or herself in extensive, and often very good, company.   Given Jenrick’s own history of dodgy dealing with Richard Desmond (see my entry on 28th June), and the corruption around the PPE and Test and Trace contracts, Bill Moyer’s cautionary note is salutary: ‘They’re counting on your patriotism to distract you from their plunder. They’re counting on you to be standing at attention with your hand over your heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, while they pick your pocket!’   David Lloyd George’s comment, ‘The man who tries to make the flag an object of a single party is a greater traitor to that flag than any man who fires at it,’ would serve as a suitable put-down of the Tories’ transparent attempts to outdo Labour where the size of their respective patriotisms is concerned.  As for being proud of the totality of our history, particularly such darker corners of our history as those listed earlier, Howard Zinn put it very well when he said: ‘There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.’  Johnson and company might also do well to think both about Laurence Peter’s aphorism, ‘The man who is always waving the flag usually waives what it stands for,’ and Arundhati Roy’s, ‘Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.’   But perhaps the most pertinent comment of all in view of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill I wrote about on April 5th is the warning about America attributed to Sinclair Lewis, adapted for our own country: ‘When fascism comes to the United Kingdom, it will come wrapped in the Union Jack.’




From David Maughan Brown in York: At the end of the line?

The end of the line.

April 5th

Last week saw country-wide protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently making its way through the Committee Stage in Parliament that I wrote about on 19th March.   That’s the one that envisages a ten-year penalty for causing ‘serious annoyance or inconvenience’ during a protest, which has been described by lawyers as ‘an existential attack on the right to protest.’   The Bill hasn’t been passed yet, but even so it would appear to have given the Metropolitan Police the confidence to feel that they now have free rein where protests are concerned.  On Saturday night two legal observers from Black Protest Legal Support, who were observing a protest in London, were detained by the police who were, it is reported, perfectly happy to acknowledge their status as observers: ‘Both people arrested were acting as legal observers at the protest.’*

All through the last thirty-five years of apartheid in South Africa, starting in 1956, the Black Sash – described by Nelson Mandela on his eventual release from prison as ‘the conscience of white South Africa’– held protest stands and marches to protest against the vicious cruelties of apartheid.   Protest stands were held on Saturday mornings in Pietermaritzburg through the 1970s and 1980s during which the members of the Sash, wearing their black sashes to symbolise the death of the constitution, would stand on the pavement of the main street holding their placards, having to stand well apart from each other to avoid infringing one or another of apartheid’s draconian anti-protest laws, most notably the Riotous Assemblies Act.   Isolated as they were, the women were easy targets for Security Branch intimidation as well as for abuse from apartheid-supporting white passers-by, so two or three men, of which I was sometimes one, were always asked to monitor the protests.   The police knew who we were, and knew we were monitoring their behaviour at the protests, but no one was ever arrested merely for observing one of the protests.

A Black Sash stand before the Riotous Assemblies Act came into force

Saturday’s arrests of two observers followed the arrests of four others from the same organisation on March 16thwhich had already prompted Liberty to bring legal action against the Metropolitan Police.  Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty responded to Saturday’s arrests by saying: ‘Liberty is already taking legal action against the Met for previous unlawful arrests of legal observers. Continuing to arrest independent monitors is a scandalous attack on the right to protest, and demonstrates exactly why people are taking to the streets against the government’s plans to give the police even more powers.’  

The same week saw our Home Office issuing a press release in which our honourable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is quoted, according to a Microsoft News report, as stating that modern slavery safeguards are being ‘rampantly abused’.  The press release, we are told, claims that there have been ‘major increases’ in ‘child rapists, people who threaten national security and failed asylum seekers […] taking advantage of modern slavery safeguards’ in order to prevent their removal and enable them to stay in the UK.**  No evidence of these ‘major increases’, let alone any evidence of an increase in failed asylum applications, is given.  A group of barristers is reported to have submitted a complaint to the Home Office accusing it of misleading the public on immigration issues in the UK in breach of the civil service code by, among other things, equating ‘child rapists’ with ‘failed asylum seekers’, and in the process of contravening core values in the civil service code: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.  No surprise there where Patel is concerned. 

The coordinator of the barristers’ complaint, Rudolph Spurling, said Patel’s gratuitous attacks against the asylum system were particularly concerning in view of the new immigration plan she launched a few days later.  He added: ‘Lumping in failed asylum seekers with “child rapists” and “people who pose a threat to our national security and serious criminals” was an egregious attempt to demonise people who’ve not been shown to pose any danger to the public. Furthermore, there was no attempt to justify the rhetoric with relevant statistics.’  One of the more striking features of the new immigration plan is its prioritising of the way in which asylum seekers arrive in the UK over the merit or otherwise of their claims for asylum.

Last week also saw a report in The Independent revealing that the Home Office is intending to carry on until September keeping to the same high-density concentration of asylum seekers at Napier Barracks in Kent that resulted in almost 200 people being infected with Covid-19 in January.***  This is in spite of a report by Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group on 20 January that stated that there were ‘too many people housed in each block to allow adequate social distancing and to prevent the risk of spread of infection’, and in spite of, to quote May Bulman’s report, ‘an assessment of the site by the government’s immigration watchdog last month [which] found that opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier had not complied with official health and safety guidance and that a large-scale outbreak had been “virtually inevitable.”’  A representative of the Kent Refugee Action Network is quoted as saying that it is ‘horrific’ that vulnerable asylum seekers are being ‘packed into entirely inappropriate communal living situations against the advice of PHE [Public Health England].’  Given their vulnerability, it is almost certain that some of the asylum-seekers will have died as a result of contracting Covid at the Barracks.  I haven’t been able to establish how many, but it is all too painfully obvious that the Home Office wouldn’t care how many, and assumes that the rest of us won’t care either.

Outlaw the democratic right to protest; arrest those who are charged with monitoring police behaviour; demonise and ‘other’ particular groups in society who are too weak and vulnerable to resist; create a climate in which the general population doesn’t care what happens to those who are being demonised.  That is the line at the end of which, if people allow it to be built, the concentration camps lie in wait.**