From Brenda in Hove: Give a Little, Get a Lot

3 February

Four days ago I had the AstraZeneca vaccine. I didn’t hesitate one second when I got the text from our medical practice and booked the first available (day-time) appointment in two days’ time. The Brighton Race Course is not a place one would associate with medical activity (except maybe heart attacks) but there it is, fitted out with desks and cubicles and an ‘observation area’ where you are required to sit for 15 minutes after the jab.

The parking arrangements are not immediately obvious nor is the one-way system of getting people into the ‘production lines’ and the howling wind and rain didn’t help. We didn’t go up the right road the first time but I was anxious to not be late so my husband dropped me and I squeezed myself around a gate and through an unavoidable puddle and ran the last 100 metres. There were people directing you at every junction – even outside.

When I clocked in I asked the woman at the desk if she was a volunteer. “Oh, we all are, dear! Every single person here.” So mostly because I wanted to thank people who were giving their time like this but also because I was interested – and sure enough, every one told me they were volunteering. Doctors, nurses, secretaries, every kind of person taking on even the most menial tasks. Not much fun standing outside in that foul weather and directing people, not much fun scrubbing down the seats and tables, not much fun filling in the same forms over and over again, not much fun plunging needle after needle into arm after arm – yet every single one said things like “what else could I be doing that is more important?” or “the least I can do” or “much more cheerful here than stuck at home by myself” or “there is such a good spirit here that I enjoy it all very much” (nurse who works full-time at our practice and has a family but still gives two of her three days off to this exercise) or “best thing I could do with my days off” (doctor). As of today 10 million people have been vaccinated in the UK and counting. Extraordinary.

When my husband found a parking place he was worried as to how he would find me and  asked one of the parking attendants. She said not to worry because there was a one way system and he couldn’t miss me in the observation area. And so it came to be. When we were leaving James leaned out of the window to thank her for her help and she said “I am sorry to see you found your wife!” Hilarious laughter followed – even from me – but I couldn’t help wondering what he had told her. He is not to be drawn!

The last few days since the vaccine have not been easy. 24 hours after the jab I felt as if lead had been injected into my limbs. I could hardly move and felt dizzy and nauseous. As if that were not enough, I cannot sleep. The doctor tells me it will wear off in a week.

Then I will see if I can volunteer myself to do something useful in this national endeavour. Inside the building – not outside.

from Brenda in Hove, UK: Another ‘Blursday’

Prof. Brenda Gourley

‘Blursday’, ‘covidiot’ and ‘doomscroll’ are in Times Magazine’s collection depicting the year ‘2020 in Language. I relate to these three particularly. In the UK we are now in the third strict lockdown in a year – but, given the risks for our age group, my husband and I have effectively been in strict lockdown since last March.

You will understand my recognition of ‘blursday’ as an excellent way of describing my life at the moment, a life where one day is so very like another that it is difficult to know which day of the week it is.   

You will pardon my exasperation at Covidiots who include the members of government here who thought letting people celebrate Christmas with their families a good idea. With family in America you can well imagine that ‘exasperation’ hardly covers my feelings towards an administration that largely ignored the Covid reality – and encouraged that same attitude in its millions of supporters. It is , however, no longer useful to merely describe them and the many millions of Americans who clearly think the same way as ‘idiots’. There are deep underlying issues here.

That brings me to ‘Doomscrolling’. Watching the news began to feel like ‘doomscrolling’ some time ago and we decided to limit the number of broadcasts we watch every day. There is just too much bad news out there. And then came the events at the Capitol in Washington last week. I was back to ‘doomscrolling’. I would think impeachment is the least of the consequences in store for Trump. We will see. One is not filled with confidence. And, given the number of his supporters and their deep and strongly held sense of grievance, Biden will have a difficult job restoring trust in the system. And it is not just the US system where trust has been eroded. The whole Brexit debate was fuelled by the many who no longer believed the establishment in power was working for them.

But exasperation, and doomscrolling and the blurred focus of the days do not cover the one overriding feeling I have at this time – and that is a sense of grief.

The grief is prompted by my concern for what young people make of all this, and what it all means for the lives of our children and grandchildren. It is not just the pandemic – although that has certainly highlighted many of the fault-lines in our society and I suspect that life will never be the same for many of us. It is that – but so much more. We are seeing almost in real time major geographic and political shifts which are already reformulating many of the premises on which so many of us in the West have built our relatively comfortable lives.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on many lives and yet we don’t see urgency in the kind of responses that such catastrophe should elicit. Governments that have been unable to come to grips with a pandemic do not fill us with confidence that they are equal to this larger and more threatening challenge. No wonder the Greta Thunbergs of the world feel they have to act. They do.

The changes wrought by technology and all that it has enabled have made the world better in so many ways with amazing innovations being announced all the time (not the least of which is the new vaccine). But it has also exposed a deep digital divide and made many jobs redundant. New kinds of jobs are being invented and yet education systems have been slow to change accordingly – and it is young people who are feeling the burden of this, their schooling interrupted and even cut short, they are to be thrust into a cruel and ridiculous ‘gig’ economy (if they find a job at all) and equipped only with the education of yesteryear. They are the future architects of a new world and the support they are given wholly inadequate.

The balance of world power from West to East, long foretold, is happening at a much greater pace than predicted and helped along by weak leadership in the West and the rise of populist cultures fed on the thin gruel of conspiracy theories, ‘alternative facts’, the importance of ‘celebrity’ and social media untethered by the laws of libel, incitement and hate speech. Some call this ‘the age of impunity’ where all sorts of behaviours including egregious human rights abuses are tolerated. Young, impressionable minds need to be strong to resist the siren calls.  It is hard.

It is true that from great upheavals there often comes great change. I do hope that the Black Lives Matter movement prompted by the death of George Floyd and others will take hold and fuel change. I am only cautiously optimistic. If those storming the Capitol last week had been black or Muslim I can’t help believing that the police response would have been a whole lot more violent. So we are not there yet. But I do believe there has been at least some change – but can young people rely on this?

The success of populist cultures has exposed the inadequacy of so-called ‘democratic’ systems of government and with the inequalities between rich and poor are more stark than ever before, no wonder there are so many angry people. Again too many people, young and older, do not have the opportunities to fulfil their potential. 

No young people are sheltered from these realities. Social media ensures that. No place for innocence now. My heart grieves.  

From Brenda in Hove, UK: “Change your Habits, Change your Life” Scott Piles

December 5

Consider the following five quotes:

“Covid has saved my life”.

“Covid has changed my life for the better.” 

“Covid made me see the world differently.”

“Covid made me see my partner differently.”

“I have rather enjoyed lockdown.”

All these quotes come from people who have not had Covid of course – but they have had their lives dramatically changed by the lockdown measures – and have no intention of going back to the way their lives were before Covid.

1.“Covid has saved my life”.

This one is attributable to a friend of my son’s who used to travel four hours a day to and from work and was totally worn down by that. His firm has learnt that he doesn’t need to be in the office every day and wont be expecting him to resume his commute when lockdown comes to an end. This is a massive learning that has happened right across the economy and calls into question all sorts of infrastructure arrangements including plans to upgrade rail networks and roads which will be bearing far lower traffic flows – with the obvious benefits for the environment. I don’t imagine that everyone feels the same about not going into the “office.” Working from home can be quite isolating and even difficult with small spaces and family needing to be accommodated. Many of us have Zoom fatigue and would welcome the social interactions a workplace provides – to say nothing about the creative space that comes from bouncing ideas off one’s colleagues. But not every day!

2. “Covid has changed my life for the better.” 

This quote comes from somebody I know who tells me she hardly knew anybody in her street before lockdown but now, thanks to energetic and neighbourly individuals in the road she now knows them all and feels part of a community. One person in the road (a cul-de-sac actually) ran bi-weekly exercise classes that people did on the pavement outside their houses (clearly a summer thing), another organised a roster for weekly shopping to be delivered for those who needed it, and a third organised a knitting group to make blankets for refugees. This is obviously an extraordinary street but we have heard tales from up and down the country of ordinary people going out of their way for people they didn’t previously know. Such is the kindness of strangers. And all see a new emphasis on the importance of community.

3. “Covid made me see the world differently.”

The third quote comes from a friend and came out of a discussion about how we don’t see our lives going back to where they were before. Many things that we took for granted now seem extravagant and indulgent – even reckless. Travel is one example. The cost to the environment of us taking off to here, there and everywhere without thought for the long term consequences was not sustainable anyway but this massive disruption to our habits has occasioned a more thoughtful approach. There are so many other examples that bear thinking about, some quite small in the scheme of things. Why, for example, did we buy so many clothes? Mad. The fashion industry alone has imposed a massive burden on the environment – and what made us go along with that? I had a cupboard full of clothes and didn’t see myself ever buying another thing. I now feel part of the new ‘circular economy’ and give some of my clothes to an organisation like ‘Thrift’ where they will be sold and some of the proceeds going to charity – and many more to charity shops. What was I thinking?  This new economy is not limited to clothes of course. Even big brands like Ikea are joining this ‘circular’ movement. It took a pandemic to get us to wake up to exactly how gross we had become and how heedless. 

4. “Covid made me see my partner differently.”

This statement needs no explanation because the divorce statistics say it all. Divorce lawyers say they are extremely busy and domestic abuse cases have rocketed. Counselling services are being strained and one counsellor tells how many calls are being made from cars and sheds and streets where people can speak more freely than they can at home. Couples that just about managed when they could spend a lot of time away from each other absolutely cannot manage 24/7. Previous coping habits just don’t work anymore. And they are doing something about it.

5. “I have rather enjoyed lockdown.“

The last quote comes from a friend who has many grandchildren and tries her best to be available to them all. Being released from duty over lockdown has made her realize how exhausting it all was and how little time it left for her to choose what she wanted to do. She has blossomed over lockdown, discovering a talent for painting, growing her own vegetables and fruit, and a host of other quiet pleasures she didn’t have time for before. Hers may be an extreme case but all of us have had to learn new ways of spending our time – and many have found it revelatory.

All this got me to thinking about how many of the ways we spend our time are habitual. We know that new habits take time to establish – and the lockdown period has been long enough to develop new habits. We might not have made the effort to change without the pandemic but now we have – and the chances are that our new habits will endure. We had better be careful we chose the right ones. We know that many of them will be formed about how we see the world. And that has changed in this last year.

I am reminded of the story that the writer David Foster Wallace told a class of graduating college students in 2005. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. He nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit, and eventually one of them looks over at the other and says ‘What the hell is water?’ *

————————————————————————————————————————

*Quoted in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

From Brenda in Hove: When the going gets tough, the tough gets going: a matter of resilience

21 October

The Economist tells us this week that resilience has become “the buzzword for governments in the face of the pandemic (and) covers not only supply chains but also the ability to forge a political consensus around a strategy.” (October 17th) How fortunate that one of our bloggers (Louis van der Merwe) is just about ready to publish a book on that very subject: Gauging the Resilience of City and Town Government: A Manual for Strategists. 

The book addresses the issue of resilience in organisations – and especially resilience in those organisations that go to make up the government of a country, its towns and cities and other units employed in managing an increasingly complex world. It not only gives practical guidance on how to gauge the levels of resilience, but also ways of developing strategies to improve resilience.

The manual does indeed come at a fortuitous time. We would have done well to pay more attention to organisational resilience before the advent of the Covid19 pandemic. Emerging economies as well as developed economies are all experiencing serious economic decline as they struggle to adjust to the realities of life in a pandemic. Their lack of readiness to withstand the challenges posed are being exposed in most areas of public life: health, transport, supply chains, education, human capacity management, and governance systems, to name but some. It is almost like the sticking plaster that was keeping things together has been ripped off and the wounds below are exposed – fault lines if you like. Some would argue that this pandemic and how we steer our way through it is just a “dress rehearsal” for the much larger disrupter that lies ahead: climate change. However one frames the issues, there can be no doubt that making sure we have resilient towns and cities is a significant way to rebuild economies and organizations and prepare ourselves for a future that is significantly different to the past. We will be surely tested to the limits. Louis’ work and the research that went into the book (with a doctorate collected along the way) will be useful.    

Resilience is of course not just a matter for organisations but also for individuals. A couple of years ago, The World Health Organization described stress as the “global health epidemic of the 21st century” and building resilience (physical and mental strength) has been on the agenda of healthcare professionals for some time. It has also been on the curriculum for training in leadership for several years. And that was before COVID (and its attendant recession) and the prospect of climate change.

I have long been interested in resilience as a topic to address in mentoring and other activities. There are all sorts of ways to build individual resilience and most of us are familiar with the mantras of exercise, meditation and other good practices in our daily lives. What is less discussed are the casts of minds that help people through difficult times. One of these is optimism. Optimism is certainly helpful in maintaining resilience. I am a naturally optimistic person, but I must say I have to concentrate on staying that way, at the moment. In the UK we have a government which has not distinguished itself in handling the Covid crisis. We learn that the NHS did go through a disaster management exercise a few years ago – the kind of exercise designed precisely to gauge its resilience in the face of something like a pandemic, and simply shelved the result. No-one has been held accountable for this unpardonable failure of leadership. Books, manuals, strategies all rely on implementation – and on accountability.

The very heart of democracy seems to be under attack – even in those countries which we have come to believe are models of democracy. I point to the UK and the US as just two. Both have leaders that seem to defy the very fundamental underpinning of democracy in action – and get away with it. I long for the American people to call out these things as they go to the polls and I hope they restore our faith. I am holding my breath.

In the meantime, I cling to the motto of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, a motto he described as having “the pessimism of the intellect while at the same time having the optimism of the will”. That is, our intellect tells us that there is much to concern us, but we know that humans are good at solving problems. Exercising our will to be optimistic means we have hope that the difficulties we encounter can probably we resolved to a greater or lesser extent.   

Neither the adaptation to the covid virus nor the greater challenges that need to be wrought in the face of climate change will happen by wishful thinking. Helen Macdonald in her powerful new book (Vesper Flights) warns against the danger of “apocalyptic thinking being antagonistic to action.” There are all sorts of ways in which we can act, she says: “we can exert pressure, we can speak up, we can march and cry and mourn others, and hope and fight for the world, standing with others, even if we don’t believe it. Even if change seems an impossibility. For even if we don’t believe in miracles, they are there, and they are waiting for us to find them.”   

Congratulations to Louis for playing his part.   

From Brenda in Hove: A Walk in the Park – and the new “Rule of Six”

12 September

I went for a walk in the park today. I haven’t ventured there very often in the last two months and I was fascinated to see the differences since early July. They were quite dramatic.

The whole park was a buzz of cheerful activity. All the things that had been halted when we went into lock-down were back in full swing. The children’s playground was full of happy youngsters doing their thing. The tennis courts were full (I do like the royal blue courts are painted nowadays). The café was open (although only one person at a time can make an order) and, while are no longer tables inside, there are more outside (all occupied). Football markings were back on the grass and there was one kids’ game in full swing (with shouting parents on the side) and further on, there were about 50 children, in groups, getting soccer training. The climbing wall was full and the basketball court had lots of people playing. There were numerous people walking on the paths, alone, in twos and threes, and no ducking off the path to maintain distance.

There were some things that one didn’t see much before. Firstly, there were a lots of people having picnics – in groups ranging from eight and upwards. Secondly, there was a large children’s party with decorations hanging in the trees and around the tables. Thirdly, there were at least four traders setting up shop along the road abutting the park: a large van with several tables in the park selling farm produce, a van selling coffee (big queue there),  a pizza van (who knew?) and an ice cream van (not new but doing a cracking trade). And finally, there was a book club meeting.

I didn’t see one single mask (fair enough, you might say because we were all outside) – but I also saw little evidence of ‘social distancing’ in any of the activities I have described.

Most of this is about to come to an abrupt end. The government has just announced new rules for England. They come into effect the day after tomorrow – and they limit gatherings to six people both indoors and outdoors, and apply to all ages. There are some exemptions such as gatherings for work – whatever that means. A new report this morning quotes a police union as saying that the public must not treat this weekend as a “party” before the rules apply. The fines for disregarding the rules are quite steep – £100 for first offence, doubling on each further offence up to £3200.  

This all means that the number of cases in the last couple of weeks has been steadily rising and there are several local outbreaks necessitating localised lock downs. It is also a reaction to the fact that the R number has been raised to between 1 and 1.2 for the first time since March. The signs of a second wave, long expected, are there. Clearly strict measures are appropriate.

Which puts me in mind of one unusual thing that happened on my walk: a child of no more than 6 years old with his younger sister in tow has lost his father and as I walked past him was shouting “Daddy, f……. hell, where are you?” I looked at him. He looked at me. “F …….hell”, he said. Little did he know he had come to the right place for support. I couldn’t agree more.              

From Brenda in Hove: It’s a small world

29 August

My son, Ian, in South Africa was attending a virtual conference recently and one of the speakers was Shaun Tomson. For those of you who weren’t paying attention to surfing competitions, Shaun was the World Surfing Champion in 1977 and since then has received many accolades. He is regarded as one of the 16 greatest surfers of all time (Surfing, 2004) and is listed as one of the 25 most influential surfers of the century. (Surfer, 1999) He was also one of my students at the university in Durban where I was teaching at that time. He was, and still is, a legend.

Ian sent him a note saying how much he had enjoyed his presentation and signed it off as ‘Ian, from Durban’. Much to his surprise, Shaun responded – and then they spoke on the phone for nearly two hours and found they have many shared passions, including school education. Shaun spends a lot of his time talking in schools, not only where he lives in California but also in Durban, where he grew up, and elsewhere in South Africa. As they talked, Shaun was amazed to hear that I was Ian’s mother and remembers going to my lectures, sometimes right off the beach and still in a damp wet-suit.

The surf was very good along the coast of Natal where we lived and lots of students (including my sons) were keen surfers. I remember going to beach once with my children and group of hunky, glamorous surfers called out to me “hello, Mrs Gourley” – and , as I waved back, I realised my children were looking at me with an awe I was not usually accorded.

Anyway, Shaun got in touch with me to say hello – and send me a link to one of his talks: https://bit.ly/3akAgbx:). He has written a book called The Code – The Power of ‘I will’, an inspirational book that tells of how he developed a personal code for living – and hopes to persuade all young people to do the same. I hastened to read the book. When it was published in 2013, one of the reviewers, Steven Hawk (former Editor of Surfer Magazine) wrote “ although The Code sells itself as a self-help book for teens, it is a much richer mix than that. It’s part memoir, part surf rap, part homage. Above all, it’s a gut-punching journey of emotional resurrection. Shaun Tomson confronts the darkest tragedy – the death of his own son – with grace, intelligence, and a historic kind of hopefulness. The lessons herein penetrate in unexpected ways.”

I am part of a Commonwealth of Learning mentoring programme and I immediately realized that this was a book and a message to be shared with not just the young people I mentor but all the people in the programme. I told Shaun about the programme and I didn’t even have to ask.  He promptly offered to give one of his talks, pro bono, to all the people on the programme, mentors and mentees alike.  

I still can’t believe the timing and coincidence in us coming together. I had been giving a lot of thought as to how to inject more focus into the mentoring journey. All the young people I mentor (and this must go for millions more) are finding life very difficult with this Covid menace. It is taking its toll wherever you are in the world and whatever your circumstance – and mentoring takes on a different complexion.  The advice and inspiration and motivation that Shaun shares so selflessly has never been more needed.

Another reviewer emphasises this and I think is worth quoting: “ The world today is very much like a wave: it’s shifting and changing virtually every second. Like surfers, we are defined by the decisions we make in this dynamic environment. Shaun draws on a life of learning, both on waves and off, and offers some sage advice for drawing the best line through life.” Jim Moriarty, CEO “Surfrider Foundation”, 2013

From Brenda in Hove: Goodbye Persona

9 August

I had occasion to check myself into an Accident and Emergency department recently. It was a sobering eight hour experience.

Once one gets through the Covid screening – and you haven’t got an axe in your head (so to speak) – there is a quick triage exercise: blood pressure, blood sample, urine sample and a list of questions.  A male nurse asks me how much pain I was suffering, on a 10 point scale with 10 being child birth. Naturally I answered “one or two” and thus sealed my fate.     

The department was really busy. Part of their problem is that doctors are only giving telephone appointments and if they can’t fix a problem are recommending the patient to Accident and Emergency, a department already over-burdened without the now standard Covid arrangements being added to its load.

The waiting area was adjacent to the area where paramedics bring in those needing attention. Even though I wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t been rather desperate, I felt my problem diminishing with every arrival.  

The first thing one notices is how calm and focused the staff are – and how kind. It was truly impressive. And they have to demonstrate such perseverance. One man was being questioned right next to me. “Do you know where you are?” (Not really) “Do you know what day of the week it is?” (Not really). “Are you married?” (Yes) “Do you know the date you got married?” “C’mon, mate, your missus will be really cross if you don’t remember that one!” It turned out he had had a fall at work and been brought in by someone he works with. He was carted off somewhere.

The system is also impressive in the way it orders you through the various possibilities. It would normally take you weeks to get examined by three different specialists, get a scan, and a lab test – and there it takes hours (somewhat spread out, but nevertheless).

The second thing one noticed is how stoic the patients seemed to be. I wouldn’t know if this is generally true but the ones around me were. One elderly woman with a face covered in blood after a fall insisted that she really didn’t need to be there and had been brought in under protest. She found herself on a trolley fairly smartly. Stoic they may be, but they are also so vulnerable – probably a lasting condition for some of them.     

Behind a curtain somewhere a woman with a posh accent was saying “Stop that. Don’t do that. Leave me alone.” I was told later she has dementia. A significant proportion of Accident and Emergency patients have dementia, I am told. Imagine their disorientation magnified by all these people in masks. Jesus wept.  

You have to suspend any sense of normality in these situations and you have to also abandon your persona and identity at the door. I was lucky in that I didn’t have to strip and don a robe with an opening at the back! You might be the CEO of your company, mate, but lying on a trolley clinging to the back of your robe and flat on your back, you are nobody in particular! You are in no position whatsoever to call the shots. You are definitely not in charge here. Nobody (apart from the immediate staff) even ‘see’ you. We naturally avert our eyes from people at their most vulnerable lest we invade their privacy but perhaps that also makes them feel invisible and even more disoriented than they already are?  A lonely business.

Eight hours might seem a very long time but I was not complaining and I went home much chastened.        

From Brenda in Hove: It’s only a matter of time

27 July

Our valiant cleaner phoned the other morning to ask me to open the door to the building for her. “Oh!” I said, “I thought you were coming on Wednesday.” There was a slight pause. “It is Wednesday,” she said.

Losing track of time is supposed to be something that indicates how engaged or happy you are doing whatever it is you are doing but in my case I rather think it’s because I am beginning to lose the plot! It’s all become a bit of a blur, one day very much like another and none of them particularly memorable.

I realise that virtually all my life until March this year, time was something to be checked and measured. I was in good company. After all, as Simon Garfield reminds us in his book Timekeepers,  “time is the most precious thing we have.” His book is about “our attempts to measure it, control it, sell it, film it, perform it, immortalise it , and make it meaningful. ” And here I am, wishing it away.

 I recently read a couple of books by Alexandra Fuller and she describes growing up on a series of farms in Zambia and other African countries. You can well imagine that time on a farm revolves around seasons (one of the books is called “Leaving before the Rains Come”) and time, for a lot of people at least, revolves around the planting and harvesting of crops – as, indeed, it used to be long ago in much of the world, and still is. It wasn’t necessary to synchronize clocks in the UK, for example, until people started using trains to get to work etc. Greenwich Mean Time was introduced – and all that. School holidays to this day in the UK are timed to coincide with the harvesting of crops. Fuller describes the first thing that she noticed about the United States (to where she emigrated) was the attitude to time. “They believed time belonged to an individual. “Don’t waste my time,“ they said.”  She realized that on the farm they didn’t bother trying to “hoard what could not be safeguarded, restrained, and stored.”   

I am afraid I cannot change everything about my attitude to time. In March I finally gave up on paid employment – and then lockdown happened. That was a double whammy for me. I was so used to being busy and focussed on completing one task or another that I have found the last few months very trying. The worst part is that I know I could be “busy” reading great tomes that I have neglected until now, doing virtual tours of all the important museums, listening to opera and other concerts online – but a curious ennui overtook me. I am ‘waiting’ – and waiting is not something I am good at, that is for long periods of time. Added to that is the knowledge that waiting, in this case at least, is a futile pursuit anyway. I am far away from getting a vaccine. My bucket list looks increasingly fanciful and I am extremely limited in the places I can visit. Two holidays have been cancelled so far and I have no taste under present circumstances to embark on train or air travel.  There is a limit to William Davies’ warning about “a life where there is no time to stand and stare”. I need to make another plan.    

And I have: another job – and the bonus is it is a job worth doing.

From Brenda in Hove: The Rich get Richer, the Poor get Poorer

19 July

Twice a year the ‘wealth management’ firm that looks after our modest savings usually invite their small clients to London for a talk on how it sees the markets and what position it is taking on various sectors. This is accompanied by a extravagant lunch and a choice of afternoon activities: tickets to a play or private tour of an historic building. It is meant to convey that all is well with our little world as long as we stay in their hands. This year such an occasion was clearly not possible so we were invited to a Zoom meeting.

I settled down, filled with apprehension, expecting to hear that our savings had plummeted and we were not in as good shape as we had hoped for our retirement. I listened in sheer astonishment at the smooth, assuring and assured presentation telling us all that we were doing rather well, actually. Really?

The quarterly news letters continued along similar lines. Take this extract: “The possibility of a second wave in America has shaken US markets, which have had an astonishing quarter. The S&P 500 gained significant traction between the end of March and the start of June, posting the greatest 50-day rally in the history of the index.1 The Federal Reserve has played a key role in boosting US markets, and the gradual recovery of cyclical stocks since May suggests that investors are adopting an increasingly ‘risk-on’ approach as lockdown measures are progressively eased. Oil has made a swift recovery over the quarter after the price of a barrel turned negative for a brief period in April: prices are currently their highest since early March.2   

The contrast between markets and economies, however, is striking. Unemployment in the United States remains at a historical high, and the GDP of the world’s advanced economies is expected to tumble by over 6% this year, surpassing the fallout from the global financial crisis.3 Global output has been badly damaged; world trade fell by 12.1% in April, by far the largest drop ever recorded.4 While the optimism in global markets is encouraging, the risk of permanent scarring on the global economy should not be overlooked.” Really?

https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/record-stock-rally-big-companies-edge-coronavirus-pandemic-jim-cramer-2020-6-1029284194

You can guess that wealth management institutions stick to the big companies – especially with people our age who have a low risk profile.

I asked for a private meeting with the person who manages our small portfolio in early March when it was clear there was stormy weather ahead. I was told by this very assured young man that our portfolios were very well placed for what was unfolding. I said that was some kind of minor miracle. The biggest collapse in economic fortunes for many, many decades – and we just happened to have the ideal portfolios! He stuck to his guns and sent me the latest quarterly report and the company news letters to back him up. And events so far have proved him right. I am under no illusion that this state of affairs will continue but in the meantime, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It was ever thus.  

I can see no defense at all for not increasing taxes for the rich. It seems not just a practical necessity in these difficult times, but a moral imperative.

From Brenda in Hove: It’s Part of my curriculum

the Toulouse-blue crepe van

11 July. I have been feeling a bit poorly for a few weeks and haven’t been out much. Truth be told, life felt somewhat joyless. Covid and attendant restrictions are getting to me. Today I felt a bit better and went to the park to find out if my legs still worked (they did). I trod my usual paths and looked out for anything different since I was last there. Same old thing: lots of men with very shaggy beards; lots of men who haven’t heard of clippers; lots of women with weird hairdos who clearly haven’t made it onto the appointment lists; boisterous teenagers being the only people who at least don’t seem as subdued as the rest of us but behaving rather recklessly nonetheless. No joy there.

I noticed that there are now well trodden, clearly discernible paths alongside the main paved paths around the park – made by people like me trying to keep an acceptable distance from the people on the paths – lots of them. I read somewhere (The Observer, 14 June) that these are called “desire paths” (can you believe it?) – paths trodden by people who are usually intent on a shortcuts but are now intent on keeping to social distancing measures. It struck me how furtive and suspicious we all seem now – avoiding each other as if our lives depended on it (and they may). If an alien landed from another planet, it would think we were a very unsociable species. And that is before we don our masks. No joy there either.

The children’s play area was open. Now there is a joyful thing! I love children and I love watching children play. They have been kept away from the playground for so many months that they were relishing being back. Children walking with their parents on the path and spotting the playground just took off, faster than they have ever run before. Amusing. And joyful.

And then I caught sight of a dear little Toulouse-blue van advertising French crepes (gluten free, by some miracle). I felt genuine joy! I love crepes and haven’t had a single one since I went on a gluten free (dreary) diet. The brand name was “Oui!” I leapt to it – even though I had to go back to the apartment for my card. It was delicious. It reminded me of what I already knew: joy can be found in small things. It doesn’t do to be too ambitious.

I read a book some time ago called The Book of Joy by Douglas Abrams in conversation with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. There was much to be learnt from it. One story stuck with me and comes to mind as I try to come to terms with a life after Covid (challenged as I am by my advanced age). The author’s father had fallen down some stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury – with no guarantees that he would ever return to his former self. As it happens, he did, eventually. When one of his sons said that he was sorry he had had this terrible experience, the father replied, “Oh no, not at all. It’s all part of my curriculum.” (page 157)    

I think it is very much like this with Covid. We have to learn to find joy in new ways. It’s part of our curricula.