I suppose we must be optimistic now that some of the hundred possible COVID vaccines are shown to be 90% effective; however we know that there are many hazards ahead before we are summoned to our local surgery – even though my wife and I are both in the second priority category, being over 80. The government had a thankless task trying to pick winners among the potential vaccines, but we can be grateful that it risked money on six candidates. We know little about most of them as the press has been focussed almost entirely on the Oxford vaccine giving endless optimistic and erroneous forecasts as to when it might be available. Meanwhile life in rural Yorkshire potters on, with very few interruptions. The local church has managed to hold one live internal service since March and one very short and thinly attended Remembrance Day ceremony in the local country cemetery with its Commonwealth War Graves. There are 42 of these for RAF dead dating from 1939 to the Iraq war; all based at the nearby Church Fenton air base; one striking feature of the graves is the very large number from all over the Commonwealth and the tragic proportion from the very early days of the war. Church Fenton was a base for Spitfires and in 1941 there was a fatal collision on a training exercise of two Spitfires, only a few yards from the cemetery, killing both young Polish pilots. It is good news that many people are recognising the benefits of living in the country. My son owns a small semi -detached cottage in the country down a stony track which he recently restored. Three days after advertising it for letting he had 15 responses, nine viewings and six definite requests to take it. The lucky selected tenant works for the London Borough of Islington and will continue to do so from his rural retreat. In another case a local house was let to a family relocating from Hertfordshire from a viewing two hours after it appeared online. Who says its Grim Up North? One sad aspect of our new life is that some things have disappeared temporarily but may never return. The local supermarket has shrunk the number and range of goods it offers; no longer is there a deli counter and several favourites are just not there. The absence of cash is certain to be a continuing feature. If I do wish to pay in coins or notes (and this is very rare, even in this traditional part of the country) I nervously ask the shop concerned if they take cash. The rapid universal adoption of Zoom is amazing. I have just attended the AGM of the local U3A which to its surprise achieved its quorum of 60 people on Zoom – and these are the ailing elderly generation that has to rely on grandchildren to get anything technical installed. Perhaps optimism is in order after all, to confirm our adaptability and resolve to survive
Post no 14. August 17. We are well behaved in this rural part of the country; masks are universal and even in the little village shop when the postmaster hands me my morning paper, I don a face shield. So far there is no sign of the virus erupting again, as it has in West Yorkshire, not so far away. The local hospital has not had a death since June 18th.
Some of the restrictions are proving frustrating. I saved Rishi Sunak £100 by taking all my grandchildren and parents to a wonderful tapas restaurant last week on a Thursday, just missing the £10 a head gift. The food was excellent as always (far better say the Spaniards whom I have taken there, compared to what they get at home) but the complex ordering system made me cross.
The menu was on the internet, so I printed off copies for everyone to save time. However we could not simply tell the shielded waitress what we wanted, but had to download the menu and an ordering system from a mobile app. As we were spread over two tables there had to be two orders and drinks were also online. The whole ordering process took 45 minutes but the waitress finally relented and accepted a drinks order before we had entered it on the mobile. Payment had to be made before the order could be sent to the kitchen; later the whole process was restarted for the ice creams etc that the children wanted.
Like many people I am still a little uncertain about the regulations; I may well have been breaking them when my wife and I went to the beach at Sandsend, a little village north of Whitby. On a lovely sunny day we joined our grandchildren for a light lunch on the terrace of their holiday house and then in deckchairs on the beach. But what a wonderful orgy of nostalgia it was, as I used to go to that same beach 75 years ago just after the war. However the young now have 21st century equipment such as wet suits and surf boards and are far more active than I ever was.
The weather has been far cooler than in the south of England and as a result our harvest has barely started. However those farmers that have combined, report low yields of poor quality barley – fit only for cattle feed rather than milling for food (or beer). Straw is very short and stubby so the income from this will be negligible. Wheat has still to be harvested and the potatoes are being drenched by huge irrigation pipes.
As ever, our local church has been slow to restore normal operations. It provides one Zoom service on Sundays for all four parishes in its benefice and a live one in the biggest church; it then lets the local churchwardens open up their churches for private prayer an hour once a week. No plans are given for full live services in the three smaller churches.
So far the Church of England is not coming out of this lockdown well. On June 15th the government announced that churches could be open for private prayer. This will not happen in our little local church until Saturday July 4th and then only for a tentative 2 hours monitored by our poor curate who has to follow orders from above. Just in case our wayward churchwardens get the wrong ideas they have been blessed with 13 pages of detailed guidance. This is “enriched” with the following:
- HM’s advice on cleanliness in the workplace
- A dedicated advice note on cleaning church buildings
- Advice on safely ringing bells
- Advice on cleaning surfaces that have been touched
- A “lone working assessment” for organists
- Central Council of Church Bellringers Guidance
- Guidance on gas safety inspections and boiler servicing
- Guidance on insurance cover
- And so on and on for four more pages
We are all told by HMG that churches may open fully after July 4th. If past performance is anything to go by, we can expect a belated set of more detailed guidelines from the church long after that date. A churchwarden tells me that one gem of a regulation is that the curate/minister must enter by a separate door to the rest of the congregation. We certainly expect that like opera houses we will be unable to sing.
Why is it that large organisations have to take comfort in large edifices of control and caution? In our tiny congregation and PCC we have senior company/organisation managers and directors with many times the experience and competence of the immediate clergy hierarchy. Yet they cannot be trusted to interpret (or possibly improve on) general directions and apply their common sense. How sad.
One area where to my great surprise there is very little control is the award of grants to small businesses. Readers of my previous posts will recall mention of a livery business in our village. We were encouraged to apply for financial help from our local council to offset the loss of business and extra costs from Covid 19. I filled in the form which was just one page requiring little more than name of the business, address and bank details. Five days later the grant arrived in our bank account. This remarkably simple process will undoubtedly be open to fraud and misuse by some and no doubt will be the subject of questioning from the Public Accounts Committee. On the plus side the process brings immediate relief to those that have needed it and illustrates how there does not have to be an edifice of monitoring and control.
Part of my light relief in the last few months has been reading original letters to and from my family in the 1840s. It was a time of great upheaval politically and my great great grandfather was at the centre of it. He was a great reforming MP and his letters cover all the major ills of the day; from limiting the hours of factory workers to ten hours (his main interest) to tackling the inequities and inhumanity of the Poor Law and attempts to promote universal suffrage. At one stage he was responsible for introducing a vast petition by the Chartists into Parliament.
His family business was centred on spinning and weaving cotton and the family mills were possibly the largest in England, making family members very wealthy. Despite this he wanted to reduce the workers’ hours and claimed that this would not reduce output or profitability; if he could do it, he argued, so could other millowners.
The breadth and range of letters cover all branches of society; from fellow campaigners such as Lord Ashley (later Earl of Shaftesbury), Richard Oastler, Richard Cobden and Charles Hindley to committees of working people from Yorkshire, Lancashire and even Scotland. Most cover the ups and downs of trying to get the ten hour legislation through Parliament against regular opposition backed by other millowners and the editor of The Economist. Flowery or militant language is regularly used – the talk is of the struggle, our enemies and battles. The letters tell of riots, demonstrations and processions, (as well as political underhand dealing and an assassination attempt on Sir Robert Peel), chicanery and backstabbing. Plus c̡a change. Fielden’s wealth was a great advantage; he was able to finance Richard Oastler and help him out of prison and he helped other individuals in financial hardship; thus, many of the letters are begging for his support for all kinds of causes.
Today’s postal service is pathetic compared with that shown by these letters. The one penny postage guaranteed next day delivery throughout the kingdom and writers apologised profusely if they failed to reply within one day. Since many of the letters are long and obviously handwritten by gas or candlelight (and often accompanied by a painstaking copy of a reply), this is a great indicator of the time devoted to correspondence – as well as the speed and efficiency of the mail coach and train. Mail collections were very frequent and reliable and this continued for some time; in the 1960’s there were six collections a day from the humble street in Islington where I lived; thus allowing a response to a letter posted in the morning to be received later the same day.
The language and style in nineteenth century letters is a delight. There is enormous courtesy even between close family members – “Honourable sir” or “My dear father” is a wonderful change from “Hi”, while to conclude “I am Dear Sir, yours truly” to one’s father beats a grinning emoji.
There are some surprises in the bundle of papers. A curious letter to my gt gt grandfather from George Hudson (known as the “Railway King”) enclosed a third party’s defence of him against a passenger in the same railway carriage who had accused him of dishonesty in the way he raised funds for a new railway. In fact the critic was absolutely right, since Hudson was carrying out a massive Ponzi scheme and three years later his fraud was unveiled and he ended up in prison. Another little curiosity is a Harrogate hotel bill from 1827 of £18 for 8½ days that includes a charge for just four hot baths at three shillings each (for his family of three), as well as lots of sherry, brandy and ale. Perhaps they all shared the same hot soapy water.
After my immersion in all this I return to earth with a thump; at least we have more and cheaper hot water, but the political climate is very similar. It’s back to demonstrations, political chicanery and huge societal challenges.
Now that we are in a strange interlude between the crisis and recovery, I have been looking at what it has all meant for local activities in my area. Some activities have thrived, some stalled and some continue exactly as before. Since we can get out and talk to people the impact is becoming clearer.
The thrivers are surprising; I hesitated before emailing a local picture framer to ask if I could collect two lovely prints that he had framed for me in March. His workshop was heaving with parcels and he said that he had never been so busy. Equally and unsurprisingly two local garden centres were trying to cope with pent up demand. “I have got rid of 84 pallets of compost” one said “and I am waiting for deliveries of almost everything from the shop”. An enterprising lady has launched a small fresh vegetable stall beside her garage under a simple pop up tent; it was busy on a self help basis and unmanned and she trusts one to put the money through her letterbox.
I would classify the local hospital and our local surgery as thrivers since their non-Covid service is much faster than before due to a total change in the procedures. Telephone calls are answered almost at once and many actions delegated to specialist nurses, who follow up by phone; our last involvement required us to text a photo of a damaged ankle prior to a strange inspection in the car outside the surgery later that day. My son had a nasty accident to a finger requiring a visit to an A&E (almost empty), a follow up by a consultant (the following day) and an operation (the day after).
The local livery stables that I mentioned in an earlier post is stalling a little, since some owners are unemployed and can no longer afford to keep their horses, while others have time on their hands and come in to do things that in other times they would have asked the livery staff to do. Finally, by a sad coincidence there is a case of suspected strangles which means that no movements of horses are allowed outside the livery grounds.
For most outdoor workers there has been little change because of the virus. The farmers have other worries. The dire drought over the last 9 weeks (until last night – see David Maughan Brown) is causing them great anxiety. Two very large potato fields (of about 200 acres) have only a few small green shoots poking above the neat ridges. The farmer has over 600 acres of potatoes in total and is struggling to provide irrigation facilities in areas that are remote from streams and dykes. Few fields were able to be planted because of the winter floods, so spring planting has been completed later than usual, but the crop’s growth is badly hit by the drought and causing much anxiety (but then farmers are perennially unhappy). The graziers are less worried; most of their large grass flood plain was under water for over a month earlier in the year so it will have benefitted from deposits of nutrient rich silt.
Charles II’s ministers issued very clear and comprehensive Rules and Orders in response to the plague in 1665, which were binding on all JPs, mayors, bailiffs and other officers. Many of them are very familiar today. However the plague was much more virulent than Covid19 and thus the impact of the Rules and Orders far exceeded the confusing rulings of Messrs Hancock and Johnson.
The key instruction was the removal of any infected person to a pest house set well away from the town or village. A few such structures remain today; the neat little one below is in the corner of the churchyard at Odiham Hampshire where I used to live. It is larger than many such buildings and is in effect a tiny cottage.
Clause 10 of the Regulations expected each community to identify “able and faithful searchers and examiners sworn to search all suspected bodies for the usual signs of the plague”. I wonder how many of these noble people survived without themselves being infected. It was unlikely to be a role for which many volunteered. Once the sick person had been identified he or she was immediately placed in the pest house and their own house “be shut up for 40 days and have a Red Cross and LORD HAVE MERCY UPON US affixed on the door”. After the 40 days were over “at the opening of each infected house a White Cross be affixed to the door, there to remain for 20 days more …. before any stranger be suffered to lodge therein”.
After this quarantine period there were very tough rules on cleaning all infected houses. Clause 12 says “the said house be well fumed, washed and whited all over and with lime; no clothes or household stuff be removed out of the said house or into any other house for at least three months after.”
Although the Plague had a devastating impact in London, it also spread to a lesser extent in the country. The best known case is the village of Eyam in Derbyshire that suffered with the loss of 70% of its population because it was visited by a trader from London (who did not self isolate).
Charles’ Rules and Orders conclude by suggesting how towns and parishes should help each other by levying taxes “such that visited poor may have sufficient relief”; it also ordains that all collections at religious services be used for a similar purpose. The key message was that each community should be responsiblefor managing the plague in its area. No centralisation, no PHE, but still clear guidance from the state on how to cope.
Money doesn’t grow on trees but planting them is good for morale in the short term and for the planet (we hope) in the long term. As foresters are one of the professions free to roam outside at the moment, my son and I met the man who has been organising the creation of two small woods for us. With generous help from HMG via a Woodland Creation Grant we planted six hectares with hornbeam, oak, birch and some conifers in two fields in 2019. We are located in the middle of the proposed Northern Forest that aims to plant 20 million trees stretching from Liverpool to Hull; this may have helped with the grant.
It was clear early this year that most of the conifers had not survived the floods this winter, but the broadleaved trees had. So our man arranged for what is called “beating up”, meaning the replacement of the dead young trees in early March. He also sprayed around each tree so that its growth was not suffocated by weeds and grasses. Last week we went to inspect them and found to our dismay that this time 99% of the replacements had died due to the current drought here. So we are back to square one as regards over 3,000 saplings.
This experience confirms what a very long term venture tree planting is. In England last year the nation planted about 2 million trees on 1,420 hectares (3,507 acres), a tiny step towards the target of achieving 17% tree cover compared with the present 10% and the Committee on Climate Change’s aim of adding 30,000 hectares of new planting each year.
Some of the trees we have planted will still be thriving and absorbing CO2 in a hundred years, but all that time they will need occasional thinning and protecting against deer and squirrels. In financial terms the activity is cost neutral, as the annual maintenance expenses may be balanced by sporadic income from logging and thinning. However there is the longer term CO2 perspective; “Planting or restoring trees is like putting money in the bank,” says Rob Jackson, a Professor in Earth System Science at Stanford. “Extra growth from carbon dioxide is the interest we gain on our balance.”
The global picture is gloomy. Over 15 billion trees are cut down each year and we struggle to plant 5 billion. Our small step makes a tiny contribution towards this, even though Mother Nature in this part of Yorkshire is not on our side.
A few days ago I happened to watch a programme on measuring intelligence. It included the sad evidence that as one gets older ones capacity to learn new things shrinks significantly. This has led me to ask: “What, if anything have my wife and I learned during this lockdown?” The answers are not very impressive.
- We have mastered one or two of the means of communicating online. Years ago from about 1988 to 2010 I thought I was reasonably in command of technology. But now the communications world seems like a land of Babel with no common language like Esperanto, except possibly Zoom, in sight. So we can now use (or be at the receiving end of) Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp and Facetime, but fail when it comes to things children and grandchildren prefer such as Whereby, Teams, Meet or whatever.
- My wife Claire has rediscovered the joys of having about 1,000 cookery books (The Nation has not been told yet, but it may sometime receive it as the National Collection) and I benefit from very imaginative meals, including some following the traditional model of getting four meals from one joint of meat.
- One very esoteric skill I have acquired is deciphering tightly written Victorian letters. For some years I have been looking at an old box of family papers from the 1840’s that contains letters to/from my great, great grandfather a radical factory-reforming MP. Finally, with the time that is now available I have catalogued and summarised them. It fills me with awe that busy people like him could not only write very long letters (and take neat copies of their reply), but in all cases do so within 24 hours of getting the letter.
- I have learned more about the wildlife that surrounds us in profusion. I can now identify the bullfinches, goldfinches and greenfinches that use our bird feeder – as well as all the usual tits and an unusual woodpecker. As for the friendly blackbird that watches me dig with eager eyes, I wonder at its ability to look at me, while hopping around uneven clods of soil and at the same time spotting hidden worms. This is more than triple tasking!
- With the help of Monty Don I am becoming a little more professional in my veg patch. We have had only 6ml of rain here in the last seven weeks so making holes in the earth (even with the blackbird’s help) is hard. If it ever rains, my veg could be rather good.
There are also things that we have forgotten in our isolation. Yesterday I found some round metal things in my pocket. I think they are called “coins”. Perhaps someone can remind me what our civilization used them for.
Sadly, neither my wife nor I have any memories of VE Day. We were both aged 6 in our various remote parts of England. My father was a local JP and my mother drove ambulances for the Red Cross, but neither told me anything about their daily work. We had no immediate family involved in the war despite a long history of be-whiskered and be-medalled generals on my wife’s side of the family. However, there was one of her cousins whose tale illustrates one point – that VE Day meant little to those in POW camps in Germany. For them the key event was the liberation of their camp, which occurred at various times as the Allies advanced.
The unpublished diary of Lt Eric Keen tells us a lot about this. He was captured at Dunkirk in May 1940 and spent five years in POW camps all over Germany. During that time he wrote and illustrated a diary that in cool and objective terms describes his experiences. The entry for May 8th has no mention of peace or VE Day, but is devoted to part of his efforts to get home.
During April 1945 he and fellow PoWs from his camp were marched up to 15 miles south every night away from the advancing Allies. German guards from his column were deserting each night. He finally arrived in southern Bavaria at a place called Moosberg (Stalag VII A) a vast transit camp holding 29,000 PoWs from all countries. Bartering occurred among the many nationalities – one gold ring in exchange for a large biscuit.
Finally at 12.12pm on 29th April the US Third Army, after a little local fighting, enters the camp and the diary exclaims WE ARE FREE! After many ups and downs Lt Keen arrived in England on May 10th. Sadly he died barely a year later, having suffered ill health from his five years of captivity, but leaving behind his fascinating diary.
The PoWs’ unawareness of VE Day does not diminish its importance to the millions who endured the wartime deprivations at home. The modest deprivations we have today help to highlight the stoicism and courage of the generation before us.
In 1937 a prescient government committee called the Committee of Imperial Defence compiled a list of buildings that they might have to requisition if there was a war. It came in extremely useful in 1940 as immediate action could be taken. My family’s house was on the list and after Dunkirk a very sad cohort of bewildered soldiers was housed in a large stable building behind the main house. A local resident described it to me in 2007 long afterwards:
“And then there was this convoy came and there was 150 soldiers, Scottish Reg… some in Scottish Reg… all tattered and torn they were, but none of them were wounded or anything. Some of them were a bit mental and shell shocked. And there were two Lieutenants and a Captain came with them. And I remember the first morning … they were building them up. They got plenty of food ‘cos they were just shattered. Some of them had been on road through France and all this… all over. And they commandeered pigs and all sorts. They really fattened them up.”
This was just the first instalment and by the end of the war the grounds around our house were covered with Nissen huts in which WAAFS slept, the stable were dormitories in which the RAF men slept (well away from the girls!) and the largest empty building became an operations centre for the North Yorkshire network of airfields. (It still exists today with a rather ghostly tier of balconies overlooking the central room where planes were plotted on a vast table).
Nowadays in the fight against Covid 19 the wartime metaphor is being used and there are still requisitions. At first it was hotels or hostels to house those on rescue flights from overseas; then it was conference centres for the Nightingale hospitals, and latterly store car parks have been taken over for testing centres. There are others we do not know about; several very smart London clubs have been commandeered to house the top military brass who are overseeing the contributions that the armed forces are making to the effort. One club has reported what has happened to its members:
The Ministry of Defence needed to move military personnel around to support the fight against Covid-19 so they mobilised a lot of staff and moved them to London. They chose us as one of the few places to accommodate their officers, so at the moment we offer them accommodation, and breakfast and dinner only, because most of our guests are in service during the day. The head waiter wrote “Right now it’s important to keep a distance. We bring a buffet, don’t get close to the tables, people serve themselves and we just clear the tables after they leave. We use gloves and sterilise the equipment on a regular basis.
When we serve drinks we leave them on the side of the table too, and all is charged directly to the guests’ rooms so there’s no credit card, no cash, no contact at all. I just served one beer last week, but the majority of what we serve now is soft drinks, because most of our guests are on call 24/7: if something happens they have to step in straight away and take over.”
Someday it will return to normal. The stores will get their car parks back and the clubs can take in members. There may even be compensation. In my family’s case we got £250 in 1946 when the RAF moved out and we are the proud owners of a World War II Operations Room, wondering what to do with it.