From David Maughan Brown in York: Insanity

24th September

Regular readers of our Covid2020diary blog will have noticed that Covid-19 testing or lack thereof has become a source of morbid fascination for me.  It’s like watching an incompetent clown trying to ride a unicycle round and round a circus ring, falling off in an ungainly and far from funny heap at regular intervals, but endlessly persisting in getting up and trying again in full view of a tent full of varyingly astonished, bored or increasingly angry spectators, some of whom have been unsuccessfully trying to boo him out of the ring ever since his first pratfall. The tragedy being that people’s loved ones go on dying outside the tent.

Our supposedly world-beating Test and Trace system is disintegrating, as was apparent from my entry a few days ago about people with coronavirus symptoms being sent hundreds of miles for a test.  Fewer that 28% of test results are being returned from the inaptly named centralised ‘Lighthouse’ laboratories within the targeted 24 hours.  Some are taking up to 8 days, with rumours circulating that some tests are being sent to USA (improbable) and some to Germany or Holland (much more likely) for processing.  Contact tracing is nowhere near the 95% efficiency that experts are saying is required if the virus is to be kept under control, but, unsurprisingly, contact tracing by local health authorities is proving much more successful than the centralised outsourced system favoured by government for purely ideological, rather than health-related, reasons.  Serco, a private company with no previous experience whatever in the field has recently had its £300 million contract renewed by government without any invitation for competitive bids being issued.  NHS hospitals that have been doing their own testing out of desperation to have their staff tested so that they can continue to work have been instructed not to conduct their own tests.  Boris is at it again, pulling a new numerical rabbit out of the top hat and promising that 500,000 tests a day will be achieved by the end of October.   Either he has forgotten, or thinks that we will have forgotten, that he pulled exactly the same rabbit out of exactly the same hat on July 17th.   Then he had over a hundred days to play with, now he has 36.  We are still only managing around 40% of his target and the rabbit is getting a bit long in the tooth.   It won’t be coincidental that the latest figures on infections show that we have just exceeded the highest number of Covid-19 infections across the UK ever.  Increases in the number of hospitalizations and deaths will follow inexorably.

Today the Chancellor of the Exchequer cancelled this year’s budget speech, making it clear that now is not the time to start thinking about how to fund the hundreds of billions that have been spent so far on Covid.  As the furlough scheme comes towards its scheduled end, Sunak also announced another, much less generous, job-support scheme that may help to stave off some of the impending redundancies, but he also accepted that many of the jobs the furlough scheme had been supporting have effectively disappeared and should no longer be funded.  A huge rise in unemployment is inevitable.  Morrison’s is rationing toilet paper again because people are starting to hoard it again.

Today we also learnt that one of the benefits of the Brexiteers’ promised Brexit-land is going to be a police-patrolled border, not between Northern Ireland and Ireland after all (or not yet), but between Kent and the rest of the UK.  In anticipation of the real possibility, acknowledged by government, of queues of up to 7000 heavy goods vehicles spending up to two days each queuing as they try to negotiate the customs and other hurdles involved from January 1st in getting across the 21 miles of the English Channel, lorries without the necessary paper-work are going to be stopped at the Kent border.  That is probably not what people thought was meant when they voted to ‘take control of our borders’.  Concreting over large swathes of the Kent countryside to accommodate 29 giant lorry-parks is apparently not considered likely to be adequate to accommodate the HGVs.  Perishable goods will perish.  Entirely undaunted by such mere details, our stately ship of fools sails determinedly on into the sunset.  Under no circumstances will our Brexiteer cabinet contemplate postponing the end of the Brexit transition period from January 1st 2021.  It has been entrenched in law, they say, ignoring the fact that if their parliamentary majority could see to its entrenchment it could presumably equally easily make sure that it is disentrenched. 

Add Covid-19 + Mass unemployment + an economy in deep recession + No deal Brexit, and how do you describe anyone who thinks the sum of the four makes a good enough mix to be even vaguely contemplable?  Perhaps as suffering from a “mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality”?   That happens to be the first part of law.com’s definition of insanity.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The Rule of 6

September 23rd

With spasmodically jerking clenched fists and a steadfast, and studiedly serious, gaze down the camera lens, our Prime Minister, trying on a statesman costume that doesn’t fit, chose the autumn equinox as the cosmically appropriate day to tell us that his Rule of 6 (no groups of more than six are permitted to meet indoors) was likely to last through until the spring.  It is just over six months since I posted my first entry to this diary on our delightful youngest granddaughter’s birthday on 18th March.   This means that because Anthony and Kate have three children, not two, we are effectively going to miss out on the entirety of Rosie’s fourth year of growth and development, in spite of the fact that she lives little more than a mile away.  At least we are all still alive. And at least we can see Sarah and Andreas’ family from Sheffield, because they took the precaution of only having two children.  

I’m sure Browning would understand if I alter his first line slightly in present circumstances: ‘Oh to be in Scotland now that winter’s here!’  In spite of opting for much tighter restrictions in the face of the exponential increase in coronavirus infection numbers, Nicola Sturgeon appears to understand that adding a three year-old onto the Rule of 6 mix is unlikely to increase the risk significantly, provided one is observing social distancing rigorously.  It is entirely unsurprising that Sturgeon’s approval rating among the people of Scotland is vastly higher than Boris’s is among the electorate here. Meanwhile, apart from gloomy prognostications and dire warnings about what might happen if the virus got out of control, and threatening us all with the army and the possibility of £10,000 fines, the only practical outcome of Boris’s speech was to introduce a regulation requiring bars and restaurants to shut at 10.00pm.  It would appear that he has belatedly discovered that the virus only gets out of bed at 10.01 pm.

I have just had to draft an email to the 1600 or so of our U3A members who have email addresses to alert them to the fact that, unannounced by either Boris or the media, the Rule of 6 exemption whereby we could continue to run our interest groups with more than six members – not ‘educational’, not ‘business’, not (fairly obviously) ‘religious’, but (somewhat oddly) ‘charitable activities’ – has now been rescinded.  So all the work that has gone into preparing for groups of more than six to resume their activities in the rooms we lease in the Friends Meeting House has been in vain – at least where the next six months are concerned.   I thought it appropriate in the circumstances to quote two African proverbs in my email.  One from Ethiopia: ‘Don’t blame God for creating the tiger, instead thank him for not giving it wings’ (not to mention for encouraging tigers not to live in Ethiopia).  The other from the Congo: ‘No matter how long the night, the day is sure to come.’

From David Maughan Brown in York: The Crown and Cushion

September 21st

It has been an exquisite early autumn day: perfectly cloudless; the temperature in the low twenties (Centigrade); a light wind, with just the faintest edge of a hint that we had better make the most of the sun as it will not be anywhere near as welcoming for much longer.  Probably not beyond tomorrow, in fact, as another cold front is due to arrive on Wednesday.  Definitely a day to be celebrated by an escape into the North Yorkshire countryside, particularly as the cold front seems likely to arrive in the unwelcome company of another tightening of the lockdown screw.  Our Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser were due to perform a pas de deux in Downing Street, warning us about the exponential rise in Covid-19 infections, this time without the encumbrance of our scruffily inept Prime Minister but, even so, well worth avoiding. This can only mean that the latter is, once again, taking pre-emptive precautions to ensure that someone else can be blamed for what is about to go wrong

But why worry about that on such a beautiful day?  So we head for The Crown and Cushion at Welburn, near Castle Howard, an ‘award-winning’ pub where we can book an outside table, a scenic and leisurely 40 minute drive from our house. Provided, that is, one can avoid the perpetually coagulating stream of traffic along the A64 ‘main road’ by going through Strensall, Sheriff Hutton, and Bulmer.  But we are turned back by a pair of police people on the main street in Strensall, which is swarming with police cars and ambulances responding to an accident of some sort, and we have to go across Strensall common – feeling relieved that the military operations that prominent notices are warning us about appear not to be taking place – and join the A64 after all.  It occurs to me that the army may well be somewhere in the city being trained on how to police the lockdown, a possibility currently being leaked to the media.   As we drive, I find myself wondering aloud, as I probably do every year, what it is that determines the order in which the trees decide that it is time for their leaves to ‘turn’ and take on their autumn colours – horse-chestnuts first, then oaks, and so on.  The trees, once again, don’t divulge their secret.

The pub lunch lived up to its ‘award-winning’ standing in suitably leisurely fashion.  Leisurely for those doing the eating and drinking, that is; anything but leisurely for the three members of staff doing the serving.   The pub’s already extensive outdoor seating area has been extended further by cannibalising the corner of the car-park nearest to the back door.  For lunch-time on a Monday, with the weather as perfect as it was, there was no shortage of customers, most of whom appeared, like us, to be retired.   It was a good fifty yards from the back door to the furthest occupied table and I commented to the member of staff who was serving us that she must be keeping very fit.  She told me that last Friday her Fitbit had recorded more than 20,000 steps between the kitchen, bar and tables.   After traditional pub fare of beer-battered fish with chunky chips and mushy peas, for me, and steak and ale pie for Susan, we were intrigued by the names of the (inevitably ‘award-winning’) cheeses on the cheese-board – Stottie Goat’s cheese, Swaledale, The Duke of Wellington, Ewe Beauty, and Flatcapper Northern Brie – and decided that (with the possible exception of the worthy Duke) they would be more appropriate to a Yorkshire pub lunch than our usual ‘affogatos’, which were also on the menu.  

The lunch was excellent, the release from the endless news about our increasingly dysfunctional Test and Trace system was almost palpable, and I only found myself on one brief occasion wondering fleetingly how many of our fellow customers – only two of whom I saw wearing the face-masks we dutifully put on when we went into the building – would still be with us by next Spring if the dire warnings about the second spike are proved accurate.  When it came to paying the bill, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The Crown and Cushion has extended its ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ £10 discount per person, scheduled to end at the end of August, all the way through September.  It seemed the least I could do to split the unexpected windfall with the staff by way of a compensation for the wear and tear on their footwear.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction

September 17th

Distraction from the catastrophic train-crash of our world-beatingly incompetent government’s Covid-testing programme being sorely needed, I stoically continue with the painstaking process of reading and correcting the proofs of Game of Stones, a novel I completed two years ago but delayed publishing.   I find I am pleased with some parts, less pleased with others, but only mildly frustrated that it is now too late to alter more than a couple of words here and there.   Because of the time lag since completing the final draft, I can look at it with relatively fresh eyes, remind myself what I was trying to do and make an at least half-detached assessment of whether I succeeded.

Before I was lured onto “the dark side” and joined the senior management of the University of Natal after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, I spent the first twenty years of my academic career in the English Department, initially teaching English but gradually managing to introduce more African Literature onto the curriculum.  I was particularly interested in, and most of my research focussed on, the generally covert ways in which fiction invites its readers to agree with the political and moral perspectives of its authors.  This is most obviously true of ‘popular fiction.’ In the 1970s and 1980s rather more white South Africans were reading, and having their race attitudes shaped by, Wilbur Smith than Dickens or Conrad.  My doctoral research focussed on the very different ways a variety of colonial and indigenous authors treated the 1950s “Mau Mau” emergency in their novels, partly because the race mythology around the revolt was heavily referenced in white race attitudes under apartheid.   There were four distinct groups of authors: metropolitan writers who used it to add exotic local colour to their stories; authors like Robert Ruark and Elspeth Huxley who used it to propagandise the generally profoundly racist Kenyan colonial settler view of the movement; and two distinct groups of post-Independence black Kenyan novelists who tried with varying success to counter the colonial mythology.   Many of my later publications in the last decade of apartheid were aimed at unpacking the extent of the racism and sexism being promoted by the hugely popular novels of writers like Wilbur Smith under cover of their skill as narrators of fast-moving and gripping story lines.    

Throughout the managerial half of my academic career I felt a lingering regret about the abandonment of academic research and teaching necessitated by the commitment to helping to manage the transformation of a large research-intensive university in the decade after the formal ending of apartheid.  So when I retired I thought it would be interesting to explore fiction from the writing, rather than the reading, end – very conscious of the medium’s power both to promote and to question political and other perspectives.  What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that the interest would need to be extended to the intricate ins and outs of the publishing industry, such as the copyright issue I elaborated on in my September 11th entry, in comparison with which the mere business of writing is comparative child’s play.   

Both my first novel, Despite the Darkness, and the sequel, Game of Stones, explore the interface between fact and fiction.  The action of the former takes place in the months immediately after the declaration of the state of emergency in South Africa in 1985, with the fictional action being set very precisely in its apartheid historical context and geographical location in Pietermaritzburg and incorporating some non-fictional personal experience of secret police harassment.  Game of Stones is set in Sheffield twenty-three years later and ties up the loose ends deliberately left with a sequel in mind.   Perhaps ‘exploring’ the interface between fact and fiction is too seriously academic-sounding a description of what I was doing in writing the sequel – ‘playing around at the edges’ of the interface might capture what I was doing rather better.   So, although some of the subject matter the novel touches on is, again, very precisely located historically, and very dark – historical events don’t get a whole lot darker than the Rwandan genocide or the Hillsborough disaster, the novel plays with authorial identity.   The plot of this novel has none of the relatively limited  autobiographical elements informing the first one, but one of the key moments in the plot hinges on the police having hacked the main character, Cameron’s, computer and read a chapter he has written giving an account of the notorious Forest Gate police raid in 2006.  The chapter, carefully researched and footnoted, which appears as an appendix to the novel, has been written as a chapter for a book Cameron is preparing titled The Age of Overreaction.  As it happens, the first project I embarked on after my retirement was the writing of a book titled The Age of Overreaction, whose putative contents page was destined to feature a chapter on Forest Gate.  I decided that writing fiction would be more interesting and could be fun, and gave up on that project, but decided that, if most fiction is in one way or another a recycling of fact, that particular chapter could be usefully recycled as an addendum to fiction.  Writing fiction, however serious, is a kind of play, and I enjoy playing with words – so, as I grind through the proof reading, I recall and recapture some of the enjoyment I derived from playing around as I wrote it, and don’t bother that it isn’t destined for fame and fortune.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Accountability

September 16th

The ‘operational challenges’ (see my September 6th entry) wholly unapologetically identified by our esteemed Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, as being responsible for people with Covid-19 symptoms being sent hundreds of miles across the country to be tested are worsening, and are already resulting in a health crisis months before the predicted winter surge of the virus.  Yesterday more than 100 people, who, after hours – sometimes days – of trying, had found it impossible to book a test, are reported to have flooded the Accident and Emergency Department at a hospital in Bolton in a desperate attempt to get themselves tested.  Front-line NHS staff, including GPs, are having to stay at home and add to the burden being shouldered by their colleagues because even they are finding it impossible to get a test.   Hancock is now petulantly blaming people who don’t have symptoms for blocking up the system by getting themselves tested, or at least by trying to.  Somebody needs to point out to him that one of the many problems with Covid-19 is that people carrying the virus can be infectious even if they are asymptomatic.  So to advise GPs to go to work when they don’t know whether they are infected, as Hancock is implicitly doing, may well add a few more to the thousands of unnecessary deaths this country has already suffered.

One might have thought that running a country of over sixty million people would carry a greater level of responsibility, and should accordingly carry a higher level of accountability, than running a FTSE company.  Under Health and Safety legislation, company directors are responsible for ensuring that their company complies with its obligations relating to the health, safety and welfare at work of its workers.  Company directors whose gross negligence leads to the death of even one of their workers can be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter and find themselves in prison.  But gross negligence on the part of a government, leading to twenty thousand deaths of their citizens, carries no such accountability.   Had it done so, to cite just one example, even our cavalier Prime Minister might have thought twice about not bothering to attend five consecutive meetings of the Cobra emergency committee held to discuss Covid-19 in the weeks before the virus arrived in UK.

But then, if the same code of conduct applied to running the country as pertains to company directorships, Boris Johnson wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a national emergency committee.  According to a Begbies Taylor advice article, ’Company directorship brings with it a legal obligation to act in a “proper” manner when undertaking company business. If you are found to have acted improperly, you may face disqualification as well as other penalties and fines,’ or even ‘a possible prison sentence in the most severe cases.’ The article goes on to point out warningly that, ‘Company director disqualification can stop you from acting as a company director if you fail to fulfil your legal duties or demonstrate improper conduct.’   It might be thought that ‘fulfilling your legal duties’ probably doesn’t extend to unashamedly announcing an intention to flout international law.

In the lead-up to the election of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party (note the irony in the name), on 25th May 2019, Peter Stubley published an article in The Guardian titled ‘Boris Johnson: The most infamous lies and untruths by the Conservative leadership candidate.’  Johnson has repeatedly been fired from jobs for dishonesty, on one occasion for lying to the then Prime Minister about one of his many affairs.  There can surely be no question that he would have been disqualified from company directorship for improper conduct on more than one occasion, a disqualification that lasts for 15 years.  Yet here he is, negligently mishandling the most deadly pandemic our country has experienced for a hundred years, and simultaneously cocking a snoot at international law as he leads the charge of the morally light brigade over the cliff-edge of a no-deal Brexit.  And there isn’t even a company AGM at which he can be held to account.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Copyright

September 13th

I’ve been asked in response to my remarks about proof-reading in my last entry why I’m doing my own proof-reading, which is notoriously difficult for writers who know what they wrote and accordingly ‘read’ it as they intended to write it, even if they happen in the process to have inadvertently left out the odd punctuation mark, or little words like ‘to’ or ‘the’.  Don’t the publishers see to the proof reading? Not if one is self-publishing – on which hangs a very long tale.  I’ll try to truncate it.

In South Africa, and no doubt many other countries, aspirant authors can send manuscripts directly to publishers; in the UK, one almost invariably has to acquire a literary agent to do that on one’s behalf, as very few publishers ever invite or accept direct submissions.  There are hundreds of literary agencies, all of which have agents with more or less specialist interests.  So one has to go through the lists and try to identify likely sounding agents and then tailor one’s submissions according to their varying requirements.  Some want the first chapter; some want a fixed number of pages; some want particular fonts in particular sizes; most, but not all, want double-spacing.  They all have differing demands in relation to covering letters, plot summaries, CVs, ‘elevator pitches’ (how you would sell your novel to a stranger during the time it takes the lift to get you both to the 15th floor of a building), and so on.  So each submission has to be individually crafted.   Part of the crafting, the advice goes, is to try not to let the agents know how old you are if you are over 35-40: agents and publishers are interested in investing in careers that they can shape and make money from, not in individual novels.  I ignored that bit.  Knowing that only around three in every thousand novel manuscripts are ever taken on by agents doesn’t make for much in the way of optimism.

Once you have spent hours, sometimes days, tailoring your submission, you then send it off and have to wait a minimum of six weeks, usually much longer, to get a response, if the agents bother to respond at all.   Over 50% of the agents I submitted to didn’t – and the rejections are usually curt, formulaic ‘regrets’.  Some try to be vaguely encouraging; some are simply stupid.  On what possible basis, for example, can an agent, having read four pages of a manuscript, tell an author that his 140k-word novel is ‘too long’?   Provided it is tightly written, a novel is as long as it takes.  Ask the Booker Prize judges.

Having started out on the traditional publishing route, I decided to stick with it, in spite of having been advised from the outset to self-publish.   Being retired, my livelihood doesn’t (fortunately) depend on book sales.  Some 55 submissions to agents later, I finally hit on a very enthusiastic agent whose readers provided some helpful advice for relatively minor revisions, and I sat back to await the responses he received from publishers, in the knowledge that between 20% and 25% of novels still don’t find publishers even after being submitted by recognised agents.  To cut a very long story short, my agent was busy moving from London to Edinburgh where he was setting up his own agency, didn’t sell the manuscript to the first ten major publishers he tried, and lost interest.  So I eventually rescinded my contract with him and, deciding that life was too short to bother with trying for another agent, self-published after all.  I could have had the manuscript proof read professionally, but that would have cost an extra £600, so I did it myself. 

It is a good thing not to be reliant on book sales for income.   Amazon, which inevitably becomes the main outlet these days, creams off 65% of the cover price of paperbacks (whereas Troubador, the publisher’s bookshop, only takes 15%) and Amazon graciously allows the author roughly £1.00 per copy for an Ebook priced at £3.99.  For doing precisely what?  One might well ask.  That level of exploitation, which one only discovers once one embarks on the publishing process, pales into insignificance beside the copyright costs I have learnt about via the novel whose manuscript I am currently proof reading.   Having photocopied poems, and quoted extracts from books in critical articles, all my academic life, as permitted for educational purposes, it didn’t occur to me until it came to the publishing part of the exercise that I would need to obtain copyright for my main characters to quote a total of 13 lines from an e.e.cummings poem at the culmination of the novel.  It took two months to get a response from the US company who are the copyright holders. They eventually got back to me and agreed that it would be permissible for me to quote the lines at the cost of a mere $130.00 – $10.00 a line for 100 copies – regardless of whether they are paperback or Ebook copies.   $1.00 a copy for doing precisely nothing, beyond belatedly sending a letter quoting the price.

e.e. cummings (he didn’t do capital letters) died in 1962.   The poem quoted in the novel, ‘somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond’, was published in 1931.  The poem was originally published under a Faber and Faber imprint, but the copyright has been sold on, so neither cummings himself, nor his estate, are benefitting in any way from his creativity.  As debt can be packaged up and sold on, so, apparently, can the proceeds of creative writing. An American company stands to make £1.00 from every copy of a novel I manage to sell around the world, 90 years after cummings first published the poem.  Readers who have been paying arithmetical attention, will have noticed that this effectively wipes out any income whatever from the Amazon Ebook sales, which, given that Troubador doesn’t have a distributor in South Africa, is a large segment of my very limited potential market.  Had the copyright ‘permissions’ come through before the initial printing of the novel, I could, at least in theory, have considered altering the ending. But I like the ending (pretty obviously), as (much less obviously) do the readers I have run it past, so I wouldn’t have rewritten  it.   And now I need to watch sales of paperbacks and Ebooks alike like a hawk to ensure that I seek further permission to transfer some more money to the copyright owners’ bank account in New York at the point at which combined paperback and Ebook sales (over which I have no direct control) look like exceeding the permitted 100 copies.  It is, it bears repeating, a good thing I am not reliant on book sales for income – but spare a though for those who are.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction and fact

September 9th

Most of my time is currently being divided between painstakingly working through the page proofs of a novel scheduled for publication at the end of November, and trying to ensure that members of our York U3A who are venturing cautiously out of their homes to involve themselves once again in their widely differing interest groups are going to be as safe from Covid-19 as we can make them.

Were I ever to venture an application to become a Mastermind contestant, my specialist subject would not be either Risk Management or Health and Safety.  But the basics are relatively straightforward as long as the parameters within which one is working are clear and relatively constant.   We pressed the starter button on indoor meetings last week with a ream of cleaning, access and other requirements in place, only to find our selves suddenly subject to the Boris & Matt ‘Rule of Six’ Act.  Having been heavily, and justifiably, criticised for increasingly confused messaging for the past few months, Matt Hancock declared that the time had come for the message to be ‘absolutely clear’, which inevitably meant that for some people it is anything but clear.  The rule precludes ‘social gatherings’ of more than six people, but is not applicable in educational and business settings.   Our language classes, for example – German, French, Italian and Latin – are unquestionably educational, but the Friends Meeting House where we rent rooms is not an ‘educational setting’ – or is it, given our educational activities there?  It is a ‘business setting’ in that it rents the rooms to us, but would the government regard it as such?  It is undoubtedly a ‘religious’ setting, but we aren’t using it for religious purposes.  We are still waiting for absolute clarity, as is the Third Age Trust to whom we look for guidance (and insurance cover).

Proof reading wouldn’t be my specialist subject either.  Last time around I sent back 84 out of 440 pages that needed minor corrections – typos, the odd word left out, punctuation (mainly misplaced or absent commas), and so on – and felt it was a job pretty well done.  That was until the proofs came back for checking and I decided not just to check that the corrections had been made, but to proofread the whole lot again.  That time I sent back 90 pages.   I also try to be alert to plausibility where the minor details are concerned as I go along.  Could a protest march from the assembly point to the City Hall in Sheffield, for example, really be completed in the time I allowed?  By the time it gets to the proof reading stage it is much too late to start asking oneself whether the major points on which the plot depends are plausible.   But that, like Covid-19 risk management, is time-dependent too.

I wrote about fictional plausibility in my entry for July 10 and chose, as an example of what wouldn’t be regarded as plausible in a novel, the appointment of Chris Grayling, ‘Failing Grayling’, to the Chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee – ironic as the ‘Intelligence’ bit would have been.  As it happens, Boris’s cunning plan was foiled and Grayling wasn’t appointed.   In July it would have been regarded as too wildly implausible to choose as an example of possible fictional implausibility the idea of a government Minister of any political complexion standing up in Parliament and brazenly acknowledging that the legislation our government was about to introduce would be a deliberate transgression of international law.   A Conservative Government of the United Kingdom deliberately reneging on a treaty it had willingly signed up to less than a year ago? Come off it!

More implausible still would be a Prime Minister boldly declaring that the international illegality he was embarking on was, in fact, to protect the one precious thing his actions seemed ineluctably bound to destroy.   There is no way the extraordinarily hard-won Peace Accord in Northern Ireland could survive the erection of physical check-points for customs and excise purposes along the border with Ireland, which Johnson is effectively daring the EU to set up to ensure the integrity of the European single market in the absence of the checks at the Northern Ireland ports which Johnson signed up to in the Withdrawal Agreement, but is now intent on ratting on.  On reflection, describing Johnson’s behaviour as ‘ratting’ is unfair to rodents that can’t be expected to abide by any moral code as they go about their business of eating, sleeping and breeding.   Boris Johnson isn’t stupid.  He way well have been, probably was, too lazy to read the detail of what it was he was signing up to, but its full implications will have been explained to him, and he is now, for once, refusing to make one of his regular U-turns.  He isn’t stupid, but he is deeply immoral, and the way he is behaving is as far out of bounds where fictional plausibility is concerned as it is when it comes to international law. But then one would only have to go back two or three years for it to have seemed wildly implausible that any dystopian writer could get away with imagining that a man like Boris Johnson could ever be appointed as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Shooting at the moon

September 6th

My first diary entry about our Covid-19 testing incapacity in UK was on March 31st when the UK was managing to achieve some 7,500 tests a day, at a time when Germany was testing 500,000 people a week.  There followed a series of wishful-thinking targets that were never even close to being met, as the our Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care competed with each other to raise the bar to 25k, then 100k, then 200k then 500k tests per day by way of distracting the dumb masses from noticing that each ever more ambitious goal wasn’t being met.   Well over five months later they are still at it.  We are now, in early September, managing to test around 320,000 people a day, still well short of the 500,000 target, but we should all ignore that minor detail and, with joy in our hearts, celebrate the fact that we will soon achieve lift-off.   We will soon be testing four million people a day, a target which was apparently down-graded by the incorrigible pessimists in the civil service who didn’t think it was realistic to aim for ten million a day quite yet.   This wondrous escalation in our achievements will, appropriately enough, be called “Operation Moonshot”.  Seriously.  This isn’t a belatedly discovered Monty Python sketch; not even the combined wit of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman could have come up with something quite so ludicrously absurd.

This is in a context in which Boris’s ‘world-beating’ testing regime is requiring people sick enough to feel the need to get themselves tested to drive over a hundred miles  – from, for example, London to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, or the Lake District to Dumfries in Scotland – to get a test.  Distances that even Dominic Cummings might think twice about before driving by way of an eye-test.   When confronted with what might seem a bit of a flaw in a world-beating testing system, our inimitable Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, was wholly unapologetic and pointed out that there were bound to be ‘operational challenges’ with any national system.   He is undoubtedly growing into the big job his support for Brexit earned him: instead of being diffidently incompetent he is now super-confidently incompetent.   He has also learnt from experience that the best way to appease the plebs is just to change a target: with the lordly manner of the monarch distributing alms to the poor on Maundy Thursday, he graciously undertook to ensure that nobody in future would need to travel more than 75 miles to get a test.   I was irritated enough at having to make a round trip of 53 miles to get a test when I was feeling perfectly well a couple of weeks ago.  If anything were beyond belief where this government is concerned, it would be beyond belief that the man responsible for the nation’s health should be quite happy for a sick person to be expected to drive 150 mile round-trip for a blood-test.  And this is the same man who expects us to believe that we will soon be testing four million people every day.

It is, of course, just remotely possible that I am misjudging Hancock and that the “Operation Moonshot” moniker represents an exceptionally rare moment of honesty for a cabinet minister in the Brexit cabinet.   Perhaps a momentary flash of self-perception has enabled him to appreciate that his new target is wholly unrealisable while he is in charge, and his patently ridiculous name for it is a coded admission that he recognises that he is aiming for the moon.  It is much more likely, though, that the moon he is shooting at is made of green cheese.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Collateral Damage Part 3

September 3rd.

111 is a magic number, to which a variety of superstitions are attached.  Perhaps the best known one, at least for anyone who has an interest in cricket, where it is referred to as ‘Nelson’ (one arm, one eye, one unmentionable) is that it is unlucky and that the only way to combat the incipient bad luck is to make sure that one’s feet aren’t touching the ground.   So when a batting side finds itself on 111, or multiples thereof (‘double Nelson’ etc.), all the members of the batting side in the pavilion are wont to sit down and lift their feet in the air until the score moves on.   Umpires who are superstitious in this way do, however, have some difficulty in levitating.  The portly David Shepard was a commentator’s delight whenever a batting side reached Nelson or multiples thereof, as his sterling efforts to keep his feet off the ground always made it look as if something exceedingly uncomfortable was happening in his nether regions.   Wikipedia boasts a wealth of esoteric information about 111 in the unlikely event of anyone being interested.   For those who correctly point out that Wikipedia will often be found to be very much less than reliable when it comes to factual accuracy, I can only respond by saying that it is, at least, far more reliable where the truth is concerned than the members of Her Majesty’s government’s cabinet, either collectively or individually.   For those who might, not unreasonably, think I have cracked under the strain of the lockdown, a brief discourse on the magic properties of the number 111 is not quite as irrelevant to the topic of collateral damage as it might seem.

Yesterday saw a good deal of further engagement with things medical.  Apart from the promised and hard-won mid-morning blood-test, I needed to talk to a doctor about what I suspect are some unpleasant side effects from the blood pressure tablets.  So the day got off to a déjà vu (my spellcheck thinks that should be ‘deejay’ – which would be a welcome alternative) telephonic start as I set about getting a same-day gold-dust opportunity to talk to a doctor.   The automated voice tells me that the line is very busy but kindly offers to ring me back when I get ‘near the head of the queue’.   This it does sometime later when it informs me that I have been promoted to the dizzy heights of third in line to speak to someone.  But my hopes are dashed when the someone I eventually get through to tells me she is sorry but all the morning slots are taken, so I need to phone again at 2.00pm.  

By this time I need to start thinking about trundling across town to the blood-test appointment mentioned in my previous instalment.  All goes well, not least because this clinic does actually have the promised bell to ring, the masked figure who comes to interrogate me manages to convey a degree of friendliness from behind the mask, and it all goes to plan.   The thimbleful of blood is duly extracted – an entirely painless process these days, given the scar tissue built up over the course of donating over 500 pints of blood for plasmapheresis, in the later years for the production of serum for the treatment of rabies, which I always feel obliged to explain away lest it be assumed that I’ve been mainlining for the past fifty years.  When the process has been completed, I indicate that I am puzzled as to what was so dire about the results from the last test that I had to take another so soon, so the blood-letter kindly says she will have a look for me.  She starts off by telling me that the results indicate that the sodium reading is a bit low and then pauses before saying ‘Oh dear!’.   ‘Oh dear what?’ I ask, fearing the worst.  ‘The message they sent you says “a further test is advised” – it should have said “in four weeks time” but the doctor who sent it forgot to put the “four weeks” bit in.’  So the visit to the clinic to pick up the form, the further visit for the test, the low-level anxiety in between, were all entirely unnecessary.  And, joy of joys, I will need to go through the whole process again in just over three weeks time.

So home I go to take the 2pm telephone endurance test involved in trying once again to talk to a doctor.   When I eventually get to the head of the queue again, the telephonist makes a show (in so far as anything can be shown via the telephone) of looking at her booking form and tells me she is very sorry but all the slots are taken today – I must phone again tomorrow.  “Well, if I really can’t speak to anybody today, can I book a slot for tomorrow?” I ask despairingly.   No, I can’t.  These days they only deal in same-day appointments, it is impossible for her to book an appointment for tomorrow or any other day.  I must phone again in the morning.  Is it any wonder our Accident and Emergency departments find themselves under pressure from people who haven’t had an accident and don’t really think it is an emergency?  She agrees that it is an impossible system for patients, but she is very sorry there is nothing she can do about it.  After we have spent a minute of two mutually agreeing what an ordeal the whole business is for her, me and all the Medical Group’s patients, and trying to console one another on our lot, she says, her voice conspiratorially lowered, ‘You could try 111.’   I tell her I’ve had experience of telephoning the NHS non-emergency line before and found it completely useless.  ‘Ah, but it is different these days,’ she says mysteriously.  ‘Are you implying that someone on the other end of 111 might be able magically to find me a slot with one of your doctors this afternoon when all the slots are full?’ I ask.  ‘They sometimes can,’ she says cautiously, sounding as if she might be worried that she has let a black cat out of the bag.

So I phone 111, get straight through to someone who asks me a long but sensible series of questions which seem designed not only to elicit my answers but to leave me glowing in the knowledge that I must have an IQ of about 250: every time I give an answer, apparently always the right answer, he responds by saying ‘Bril’ with ever increasing enthusiasm.  When he has finished massaging my ego he says, ‘Right, I’ll get someone to phone you, but it may not be for ten or fifteen minutes.’  10 or 15 minutes – I’ll believe that when I see it.  Intrigued by what I am discovering, I ask him as a matter of interest how may slots he has available for the medical practice I belong to.  ‘There are only eight or nine left today,’ he says.  ‘Do you always fill them all?’ I ask.  ‘Usually,’ he says.   Sure enough the phone rings ten minutes later and the Holy Grail of a same-day conversation with a doctor has been achieved.

So, unbeknown to most of the long-suffering, both literally and figuratively, patients who stick with the practice, a significant slice of every day’s doctors’ appointments (all telephonic) is allocated to 111 and entirely beyond the control of the employees of the practice whose wretched responsibility it is to have to bear the brunt of disappointed, angered and unwell patients anxious to talk to a doctor when the practice’s limited allocation of its own appointments runs out.   If that isn’t collateral damage I don’t know what is.  I got the impression that the practice telephonists have been trained to try avoid letting prospective patients know the magic number unless and until the they give the impression of being about to spontaneously combust or expire in more mundane ways on the other end of the line.  They probably withhold the magic formula for good reason: I won’t bother to go through the ordeal of phoning the practice in future, I’ll just dial 111 and keep both feet on the ground.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Collateral Damage Part 2

September 1st

Any regular readers who had the stamina to soldier on to the end of my last entry might have been left with the uneasy feeling that that might not be the end of the non-coronavirus testing saga, and that they might find themselves subjected to a further chapter in the not too distant future.  If so, their apprehension is about to prove well-founded, probably a lot sooner sooner than they might have feared.

Having been told to anticipate that the results of last week’s hard-won test would be available in a mere five days time, I received an SMS yesterday evening announcing their receipt a day ahead of schedule.  Verily I say unto you, a truly world-beating testing regime – even if it isn’t for Covid-19.    The SMS said: ‘The result of your recent test has been received.  A further test is advised – please collect a form from the surgery at your convenience.’  No three-minute phone-call to say that the result had been received, and not to worry but they thought it would be helpful for me to have another test, or something similar.   Just a bald SMS giving no indication as to who it ‘is advised’ by, or for what reason.  One could only assume that whatever the test had showed up couldn’t be too serious because the style of communication suggested that if, for example, the test had revealed a third-stage brain tumour, the SMS message would have read something like, ‘The result of your recent test has been received, the purchase of a coffin is advised’ or, perhaps more humanely, ‘investment in a funeral plan is advised.’   ‘At your convenience’ rang a little hollow, given that last week’s saga was initiated by the receipt of an electronic form for me to print that didn’t require me, in a Covid-ridden world, to drive in and collect a hard-copy from the surgery.

So, at my inconvenience, I drove into the surgery first thing this morning, idly  wondering whether the NHS might not be on a secret mission to stack up the mileage so that petrol sales could contribute towards life-support for the economy.  I arrived at the surgery half an hour after it was supposed to have opened to find the front door locked and no sign of life whatever, although there were a couple of cars in the reserved parking spaces.  There was no sign on the door indicating opening hours and, as with last week’s surgery, the NHS had not been able to afford the installation of the promised bell to ring.  I checked that my mobile was still boldly declaring the surgery to be OPEN, which appeared to be an outright lie directly out of the Johnson playbook.  So I waited for ten minutes hoping somebody would come, and then steeled myself to try the surgery’s telephone number, which of all the telephone numbers I have ever phoned is the one guaranteed to ensure the most rapid loss of a caller’s will to live.   An asset for an undertaker but not, one might have thought, for a Medical Group.  When the interminable advice about Covid-19, which I must have heard thirty times over the past few weeks, had dragged itself to an end, I opted for the ‘Reception queries’ number and after a miraculously short two or three minutes got a real living person on the end of the line, which seemed a good start.  It didn’t last. I asked whether the surgery, which claimed to be open, was in fact open, the operator said she didn’t know (which seemed odd, given that the number I had phoned was ostensibly the number of the surgery outside whose very front door I was at that moment standing) but she would find out for me, and asked me to hang on for a minute, at which point the phone went dead.  I tried to phone her back after a few minutes, only to be told that the ‘Reception query’ number was now closed and that I should try again in two hours time.  Kafka came to mind again.

After another ten minutes of waiting, I decided that there couldn’t be any harm in banging on the door – it looked strong enough to withstand the force of any pent-up frustration the exercise might release.   Sure enough, a little bit of sustained, but commendably restrained, knocking dragged an extremely surly receptionist out of the bowels of the building, clearly deeply resentful of being interrupted doing whatever it is that receptionists do when doors are locked to ensure that there isn’t anybody to receive.   ‘Do you have an appointment?’ she shouted through the door.  ‘No,’ I replied, at which point she turned around to walk back to whatever it was she had been doing. ‘I was told to come here and pick up a form “at my convenience”,’ I added hastily.  The weight of irony I injected into the last three words passed her by entirely.  She demanded to know my name, date of birth etc. and went off to check whether I was lying.   When it turned out that I wasn’t just a stray passer-by who had nothing better to do than waste her time telling lies and pretending to want a blood-test form, she grudgingly opened a folder that had been lying just inside the door all along, waiting for me and others like me, handed me the form and told me to go to the infamous Nuffield Hospital, scene of last week’s tribulations.   I told her what had happened last week, and asked for an appointment at one of the Group’s clinics.   She couldn’t give me an appointment, that wasn’t her job, I would just have to go to the Nuffield Hospital, which she assured me had reopened for tests, and have the test done there.

Wearily resigned to my fate, I headed back to my car to try my luck at the Nuffield again.  As I got into the car my phone rang and the original receptionist I had managed to contact apologised profusely that I had been cut off.  I thanked her and told her I was on my way to the Nuffield Hospital for the blood-test.   ‘Oh no, you don’t want to go there,’ she said hastily. ‘They are only doing emergency blood tests there now.’ ‘Wouldn’t having to have a retest count as an emergency?’ I asked.  ‘No, I don’t think so,’ she said.  ‘I think you would be in the queue for a very long time on the day after a public holiday, and when you got to the front of the queue they would probably say yours wasn’t an emergency.  But, in any case, I’ve managed to get them to fit you in for a test at the Water Lane clinic tomorrow, if you would like that.’  I assured her that I would like that very much indeed, and thanked her profusely for her kindness.  There was no need for her to have done that for me, and her thoughtfulness went much further than she could have imagined to ease the frustration. But, dear reader (as the rather quaint saying goes), don’t bank on this being the last chapter of this particular saga.

There was a time not so long ago, before the blindly ideological drive for ‘austerity’, and the viciously xenophobic immigration policies of the past decade of Tory government put unsustainable pressure on GP practices, when I would have been phoned with my results by my GP, told what they meant and invited in for a blood-test on the same day.  Sadly, those days are gone, and will almost certainly never return.