From David Maughan Brown in York: Fundamentalisms

October 24

Assuming that any will still be around by the end of this century, social historians may by then have arrived at a consensus as to what it was about the fifty years many of us have just lived through that led to the development of so many different brands of fundamentalism.

Yesterday, the u3a* French conversation group I belong to spent its meeting discussing two articles extracted from French newspapers.  The first, which need not detain us here, gave an account of how the unfortunate Mr Eugène Poubelle, a 19th Century local administrator in Paris, came to give his name to French garbage bins.  The other was a copy of the very unusual, it claims unique, joint manifesto ‘in favour of freedom of expression’ recently published by the French audiovisual and print media titled (obviously translated from the original French), “Together let us defend freedom”.  This was a collective response to the beheading by a religious fundamentalist of Samuel Paty, the French teacher who had shown the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to those children in his class who were not Muslims.

Nothing Samuel Paty could possibly have done could ever have justified his arbitrary beheading, which was clearly the product of an extremity of what the manifesto rightly condemned as an example of the ‘novel totalitarian ideologies that are threatening freedom of expression.’   But I felt I was swimming against the tide of group sentiment when I argued that it was possible for the fervent upholding of the right to freedom of expression to shade into an equally totalitarian ideology.  It would have been perfectly possible for Mr Paty to make his historical point by describing the cartoons, rather than displaying them.  However well-intentioned, his discriminatory ejection of the Muslim students from the class before showing the cartoons demonstrated his awareness that what he was about to do in the name of freedom of expression would be considered highly offensive.  Telling a group of devout Christians that you are about to burn a copy of the Bible, but will kindly close the door so that they can’t witness your doing so, wouldn’t lessen the extent of the offence being occasioned, even if the repercussions would be unlikely to be the same.  As the old saw has it, the right to freedom of expression self-evidently doesn’t extend to shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, nor should it give totally free license to the provocative causing of unnecessary offence. For Samuel Paty to be posthumously awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his crass insensitivity was to implicate the entire French nation in the gratuitous offence he had occasioned.  My response to the manifesto, and to the huge crowds that gathered to align themselves with Samuel Paty, was ‘I’m sorry, but “Non, je ne suis pas Samuel”.’

An equivalent fundamentalism – in this instance free-market fundamentalism – has been the ultimate cause of the much less spectacular deaths of untold thousands of people in England over the past few months who should not have, and need not have, died from Covid-19.   Our pathetically inadequate test and trace system, which over the past week has been able to return test results within the necessary 12 hours in fewer than 15% of cases, and trace fewer than 60% of all contacts (in a context in which it is said to be essential for at least 95% of contacts to be traced if the disease is to be contained effectively), is the entirely predictable outcome of the Tories’ obsessional devotion to the private sector.   It required a wholly irrational faith in the free market for Johnson and company to by-pass local health authorities and the network of NHS GP surgeries around the country entirely, in the process squandering billions of tax-payer’s money on outsourcing companies with no relevant experience whatsoever, to put their largely useless track and trace system in place and then seriously imagine that it could ever be ‘world-beating.’   It still rankles that they should have been shamelessly deceitful enough to taint the name of our excellent NHS by calling their failing system “NHS Track and Trace”.

*  In the hope of literally downplaying the ‘University’ in the name ‘University of the Third Age’, which rather depressingly for some of us is apparently now regarded as having the potential to put people off joining, the decision has recently been taken to make the subtle change of lowering the case of the logo from ‘U3A’ to ‘u3a’.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Covid corruption

October 21st 

It would appear that the supposedly Right Honourable Robin Jenrick – Member of Parliament for Newark and Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – has achieved the elevated status of being informally appointed, in public school terms, as the Prime Minister’s private fag.  He is being sent scurrying all over the country, most often to media studios, running errands for Boris.  Most people have better things to do, even under Covid restrictions, than keep an accurate count of the number of hours the different cabinet ministers spend in front of microphones and TV cameras, but if anyone is keeping count they will almost certainly find that Jenrick is way out in the lead at present.   I suspect that, although he is so bland as to be instantly forgettable, his readiness to run errands enables Boris himself to get on with his other priorities in life which, if past record is anything to go by, involve spending a lot of time in bed – not with Covid-19 for company.  As the one Cabinet Minister who should very evidently have been sacked for corruption – in his case for his role in the Richard Desmond property scandal I wrote about on 28th June – it is entirely appropriate that Jenrick should be seen to be the government’s chief spokesperson these days. 

Anyone in the UK who stereotypically regards governance in Africa as endemically corrupt, needs to look closer to home.  Motes, beams and eyes come to mind.  Human Rights organisations around the world have been pointing to the extremely worrying extent to which the governments of a range of countries around the world have been taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to crack down on human rights.  Far less publicity seems to have been given to the extent to which the pandemic has provided cover for governments to line their own pockets, and those of their friends and associates, while attention has been focussed on the far more immediate issues of national health systems and economies that are on the verge of being overwhelmed.   Arguing the need to act urgently in these “unprecedented” circumstances, without any parliamentary scrutiny or oversight, the UK government has seen the pandemic as the ideal opportunity to pour billions of pounds without any need for a competitive tendering process into the coffers of private sector companies that in many instances have had no previous experience whatever of the services or goods for which they have been contracted.   We should all by now be detecting a very pungent stink of rat every time a cabinet minister opens his or her mouth to utter the word “unprecedented”. 

An article by Ben Chu in Sunday’s Independent 1 titled ‘Has the government wasted billions on private firms?’ provides some revealing figures.   The desperately poorly performing “NHS” test and trace system, outsourced to companies like Serco, whose notoriety has up to now been based mainly on the crass way it runs detention centres and gaols, has quietly soaked up £12bn.  Serco apparently thinks its contribution to the programme has been a ‘triumph’.  Another 15bn has been allocated for personal protective equipment.  Ben Chu cites a figure of 1,997 private sector contracts that have been awarded to the private sector, to a total value of £12bn, since February. The absence of any need for competitive tenders has, inevitably, resulted in a number of suspicious awards such, for example, as a £840k contract for running focus groups awarded without competitive tender to what Ben Chu categorises as “close associates” (read “friends”) of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. 

In the context of this over-energetic pumping of tens of billions of pounds into the bank accounts of private sector companies – Serco’s trading profit for the first half of this year was up 53% at £76m – the additional £5m Boris Johnson balked at in his protracted negotiations with Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, is utterly trivial.  Burnham needs the money to provide support for those about to lose their incomes as a result of the imposition of Tier 3 on Greater Manchester and the significant, and wholly unexplained, drop in government support since the first lockdown.  Boris’s tactic of trying to pit the different regions in the North against each other by insisting on negotiating support packages with each region separately, rather than having a nation-wide formula, is cynical and contemptible but will almost certainly come back to bite him via its exacerbation of the North/South divide in this country.  A further example of the Tories’ utter disregard for the hardship and destitution being visited on so many families came with the voting down by a significant majority this evening of the proposal that free school meals should continue to be provided through the coming half-term and the school holidays until next Spring for children whose families qualify for them.  Angela Rayner, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was obliged to apologise for referring to one of the Tory backbench MPs as ‘scum’ during the debate.  She probably wouldn’t have got away with ‘lick-spittle’ either.

[1] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-independent-1029/20201018/281655372555692

David Maughan Brown in York: Covid dilemmas

October 17th

Covid-19 has brought with it a spate of novel dilemmas – some of great moment, some infinitesimally small in comparison.  But such are the peculiar circumstances of our time that even the very smallest can seem, at least to individuals, to loom disproportionately large.

The dilemmas of great moment are the ones at national level that one can do virtually nothing about: the simultaneously impending train smashes resulting from the wrong choices being made at UK government level where the Covid-19 (read ‘government of England’ for this one) and Brexit dilemmas are concerned. All one can really do with regard to Covid is make as sure as one can that one doesn’t become infected oneself, and that one doesn’t do anything that might pass it on to someone else, in the very unlikely event that one has become asymptomatically infected.  Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t have thought it was an insuperable dilemma to choose between saving lives and saving jobs – but that assumes that the pandemic is being competently handled at the national level, which all too obviously is not the case.  Where the obsessive self-laceration of Brexit is concerned, all one can do is try to stock up on the non-prescription drugs one needs that probably won’t be available for many weeks after January 1st, and watch the slow-motion train smash unfolding.   It is going to be difficult to avoid both the despair and the schadenfreude of seeing it being forced home on the Brexiteers just how fundamentally delusional their dream of a thriving post-“independence” economy is going to prove.   Too many people will have died; too many families will have fallen into destitution.

It is the small dilemmas that loom so large in a largely locked-down world in which we can seldom see, and never hug, our children and grandchildren that concern me here.  One example will have to do.

All that is left to harvest on the allotment now are the last of the apples and a few potatoes.   The conference pears should still be there, but I spotted a week or so ago that some seemed to have disappeared mysteriously overnight, with neither the rats nor birds being apparently blameworthy on this occasion.  Three or four years ago the entire tree was stripped some time in August and all the still green pears were lying, unpecked, on the ground.  A couple of magpies were sitting in a nearby tree cackling at me, from which I drew my own deductions.   This time I picked what pears remained and am still hoping that they will ripen.  The Charles Ross, as large as big cooking apples but a lot more attractive, were ready four weeks ago; the Ellison’s Orange a week after that.  More recently most of the Fiesta and Jupiter apples were ready, both with heavy crops considering that they have been cordoned.  That leaves the two trees of cooking apples – Bramleys and Howgate Wonders – and the final row of cordons, mainly russets, to pick later this month and into next.   The Ashmead Kernels and Tydeman Late Oranges are cropping particularly heavily this year and have the advantage of, at least in theory, keeping through the winter.  Three-year old Rosie hasn’t ever picked apples or helped with lifting potatoes, so Anthony brought her and James round for some socially distanced harvesting last weekend.

James, a wonderfully caring twelve-year old elder brother, took Rosie off to see whether they could find some very late autumn raspberries on the Joan G canes, whose leaves were already yellowing.  I watched from a distance as they shared the few they could find.   Then, from her low vantage point, Rosie spotted the hidden treasure of an unusually large and perfectly formed berry hiding under a leaf near the top of one of the canes and asked James to pick it for her.  James duly did so and gave it to her to eat.  She received it eagerly, but I then watched her deliberating over it for much longer than I would have expected.  She was clearly longing to eat it, but she looked up and saw me watching her, walked tentatively over to me with shining eyes and a winning smile, and held her treasure up as a gift for me. 

 What was I to do?  She had spent the week with 6-8 other children at childcare while the number of coronavirus infections in York grew at the rate of roughly 40% a day.  Seven months of careful Covid precautions could have been wasted had I accepted her raspberry from her well-licked fingers and eaten it.  But to suggest to her that she should eat it herself, however kindly, would have been to reject her gift of love, and what seemed to me the remarkable degree of selflessness it embodied.   In normal times I would have been able to give her a hug and either enjoy the raspberry myself or share it with her.  So what did I do?  I accepted her gift gratefully, gave a convincing pretence of enjoying it, and dropped the raspberry she had so clearly wanted to eat into a bush behind me, before rubbing sanitiser on my hand.  I have felt a sense of having betrayed her love ever since, but suspect I would have felt exactly the same had I somehow managed to reject her gift without upsetting her.  A Covid-19 dilemma: infinitely trivial in the grand scheme of things, but in a world in which I can only see her briefly perhaps once a week, and never get to hold, or hug, or read to, or even touch her, it assumed absurdly disproportionate dimensions. I guess very small things have loomed very large for most of us at times over the past few months.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Roosting chickens

October 14th

Flocks of chickens are coming home to roost on our Prime Minister, the supposedly Honourable Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and it isn’t just the odd stray feather they are contributing to his general air of lazy dishevelment.  When the great moment came on Monday for the unveiling the new Covid-19 tiered lockdown system that had been trailed so extensively for the better part of the previous week, Boris Johnson’s Chief Medical Officer, standing a socially distanced few feet beside him, calmly asserted that he had no confidence that it would work.  Immediately after the news conference, the Scientific Advisory Council for Emergencies (SAGE) released the minutes of a meeting it had held on 21st September at which the Government’s own hand-picked scientists unequivocally advocated a short, sharp, ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown as the only way to get the rapidly escalating incidence of infections under control. Boris Johnson rejected their advice and implemented his Rule of Six and the 10pm curfew on restaurants and bars instead, thereby comprehensively demolishing any last remnants of his endlessly repeated claim to have been ‘following the science.’  He can no longer get away with blaming the scientists.

The latest figures show that very nearly 20,000 people were diagnosed as Covid-19 positive in UK yesterday.  There has been an exponential increase in the number of infections, hospitalisations and deaths in the weeks since Boris and his lackeys took that September decision, and we are headed within the next two weeks to equal the March and April numbers in intensive care and we haven’t hit winter yet.  The trailing of the severe Tier 3 restrictions in Liverpool five days in advance inevitably resulted in the predicted partying in the streets on Tuesday night in anticipation of the midnight implementation of the new rules.  The almost unbelievable stupidity of that crowd differed only from the stupidity of the similarly maskless crowd that flocked to Donald Trump’s recent election rally in Florida in that, whereas the stupidity in Florida was suicidal given the age-profile of that crowd, in Liverpool the sozzled revellers appeared to consist largely of young people who probably won’t die themselves but will inevitably be passing the virus on to their elders, some of whom most certainly will die.  The measures brought in by Boris on 21st September as an alternative to the lockdown simply haven’t worked, and there is no reason whatever to imagine that his new Tier system will work either.   The number of infections in York, currently in tier 1, has increased by almost 50% in the past 24 hours.

If the current exponential growth in infections and deaths is stripping the Emperor of whatever clothes he had left, the wedges Johnson’s incompetence has succeeded in driving between the different nations of the supposedly United Kingdom will soon be making his unsightly nakedness even more glaringly apparent.  Northern Ireland has decided to implement the national lockdown Boris is refusing to agree to.  In two weeks time it will be possible to compare the results of the two different approaches to the crisis.  In the meantime the government of Wales has felt obliged to take the extraordinary step of trying to protect the public health of its citizens by banning cars from the North West of England.  Scotland, one gathers, is contemplating taking similar measures.  So some parts of the UK are, indeed, taking control of their borders – but, again, not in the way Boris anticipated.

The flocks of chickens do not cluck in unison.  Johnson is caught between several competing factions.  One flock consist of the supposedly ‘libertarian’, Tory backbenchers who oppose any kind of lockdown on the basis of the damage it does to the economy.   Closer inspection would probably reveal that that group really doesn’t care how many plebs in ‘the North’ die, just as long as their own shares in in the Wetherspoons pub chain don’t take too much of a hit.  That group would be better described as braying rather than clucking.  Another group, including extra-parliamentary experts, is warning the government about the destitution that will result if a lockdown is implemented without adequate support for those whose incomes will suffer: parents won’t be able to buy shoes for their children; women will have to prostitute themselves to keep food on their children’s plates.  The official opposition is demanding a national lockdown along the lines of SAGE’s September recommendations.  The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is still threatening to bring legal action against the government and refusing to cooperate if restrictions in his area of responsibility are raised to Tier 3 without adequate financial support being put in place

If the variously suicidal or homicidal crowds of revellers and Trump devotees can be fairly described as stupid, their idiocy does not begin to compare with Johnson’s stupidity as he steadfastly lumbers towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit in 10 weeks time, apparently intent on making sure that the worst crisis in UK since World War II gets a whole lot more catastrophic for everybody involved.   And ‘everybody’ includes the entire continent of Europe, even if it will be vastly more catastrophic for us in the still ‘United Kingdom’. Having opportunistically lied and cheated his way into the position from which he can do greatest damage to the country he is supposed to be leading, Johnson fully deserves everything the roosting chickens can dump on him.   If I sound close to despair, it is because I am.

From David Maughan Brown in York: A second wave, a second botched response

October 12th

The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic is now assertively with us in the UK, and the government of England, having apparently learnt nothing whatever from the experience of the first wave, is busy botching its response to the second wave just as badly.  For the past five days the media have been trailing a momentous speech that Boris was due to make in parliament today in response to the rapidly increasing number of infections and hospitalisations, to be followed by the news conference I can hear droning on in the background as I write.   Boris’s unique contribution to the history of governance – government via deliberate leaks to, and covert briefing of, the media – has saved everyone who pays any attention to said media the pain of having to watch him and hear him telling us what, well before this last weekend, we already knew to be coming up the track at us.   After six months of concentrated deliberation by the great minds in Downing St., they have had the bright idea of instituting the kind of tiered lockdown system successfully implemented in South Africa six months ago.  All that today’s grand announcement amounted to, apart from the predicted three-tier system, was the equally well trailed fact that Liverpool is destined to enter Tier 3 – the severest level of restriction, with no social mixing, no pubs open, etc. – on Wednesday, the only area to do so.

The government’s dilemmas as the pandemic threatens to get out of control again, which I don’t envy them, include:  how to balance the competing demands of public health and the economy; how to communicate the extent of the crisis to an increasingly sceptical public; how to establish an appropriate balance between centralised and regionalised decision making; and how to provide the necessary resources to combat the virus in terms both of equipment, person-power and an efficient test and trace system.  

At every level the response is being botched again.  Where the Public Health/Economy dilemma is concerned, the painfully obvious question to ask is, why on a Wednesday start covertly briefing about further restriction measures that won’t be formally announced until the following Monday and only implemented on the Wednesday?  That could only serve as an invitation to anyone who felt so inclined to spend the weekend doing his or her best to contract the virus, with only one possible outcome where the infection statistics are concerned.   And what conceivable logic can there be to introducing exactly the same restrictions for pubs etc. in the Tier 3 areas as in March, but reducing the financial support offered to employers to the point of making both the retention of staff, and meeting the costs of living for any staff who are retained, unviable?  Where communication is concerned, it is probably too late to simplify and improve the desperately poor communication of the past few months with any realistic hope that everyone will listen: too many people in England, in marked contrast to Scotland and Wales, no longer trust government.  After very belatedly waking up to the idea of consulting the leaders of the supposedly devolved regions in ‘the North’ (after already having decided what he intended to do), Boris claims that he now has the agreement of those leaders to his decisions: this, like so much else he says, is untrue, as evidenced by the intention of a group of them to bring legal action against the government for implementing the measures without providing adequate support.  The test and trace system is, in spite of Boris’s boasts and promises, still wholly inadequate – and must have had a part to play in the surge of new infections.  

Associating Boris with botching brought a distant echo to mind, which, when I thought about it, I realised came from very vague memories of reading stories about Billy Bunter (Boris Botcher/Billy Bunter), the corpulent clown of the Lower Fourth Form at Greyfriars School, when I was about ten years old.  For a very quick memory refresher I resorted to Google where one can find Wikipedia listing Billy Bunter’s chief characteristics besides his corpulence. He was, we are told: ‘obtuse, lazy, racist, … deceitful, slothful, self-important and conceited’ but combined these with a ‘cheery optimism’ and ‘comically transparent untruthfulness.’   It would be very unfair to imply that Boris is corpulent, given his partly successful efforts to reduce his weight after his hospital experience.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Universities

October 9th

It won’t be entirely coincidental that ‘the first of the new wave of alternative [Higher Education] poviders’, as the Guardian puts it, to be granted its own degree awarding powers is the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology founded by Sir James Dyson (note the honorific) and established as recently as 2017.  Dyson is a Tory donor who heads the UK ‘Rich list’ and was appointed to the Order of Merit in 2016.  An ardent Brexiteer who thinks the UK should just ‘walk away’ from negotiations with the EU (in spite of having called on the UK government in 1998 to join the Eurozone as soon as possible), Dyson is so confident of the UK’s future financial and commercial wellbeing outside the EU that he has moved his company’s ‘titular’ (Dyson’s word) headquarters to Singapore. 

In recognition of this momentous landmark for Higher Education – colleges of technology with 150 undergraduates, who are only expected to study a single discipline for two days a week, haven’t previously been granted degree awarding powers, particularly not after being in existence for a mere three years – Dyson was interviewed by Nick Robinson on the Today programme to mark the occasion.  Nick Robinson has the very big advantage of not being John Humphrys, whose role as the very conservative Today attack dog was presumably intended to demonstrate the political illiteracy of those who imagine the BBC to be left-wing – but there was no need for Robinson, even as a mere commoner, to be quite so deferential to this particular Knight of the Realm.  

In the course of the interview both Nick Robinson and Dyson referred to Dyson’s Institute as a ‘University’.  Although it would certainly help, one doesn’t need to go back to Cardinal Newman or Wilhelm von Humboldt these days to get a general idea of what a university is.   Were they to take the trouble to Google “What is a university?” it would take twenty seconds, literally, for Robinson and Dyson to discover that, according to www.dictionary.com, a university could reasonably be considered to be ‘an institution of learning of the highest level, having a college of liberal arts and a program of graduate studies together with several professional schools, as of theology, law, medicine, and engineering, and authorized to confer both undergraduate and graduate degrees.’   The same 20 seconds would inform them, were they to be interested, that the purpose of a university, this time according to www.pearson.com, is to be ‘the guardian of reason, inquiry and philosophical openness, preserving pure inquiry from dominant public opinions.’   However good it may well be at what it does, Dyson’s Institute is not a university.

All of which serves to remind me, if I needed any reminding, just how thankful I am that I am no longer involved in any way in the thankless task of trying to manage a university, and maintain the values remarkably well articulated in the fifteen-word quotation from Pearson, in 21st Century England.  The relentless passage of transient Ministers given responsibility for Higher Education since the turn of the century, most of whom seemed to think that having been an undergraduate qualified them to know how to run a university, and all of whom were anxious to leave their idiosyncratic mark on the sector before being moved on to something regarded as more important than Higher Education, has contributed towards universities being viewed as little more than soullessly utilitarian degree factories.  National league tables, incapable of recognising value-added, and self-evidently designed to perpetuate the elitism of the so-called “top” universities, have reinforced this.  Research metrics that focus on ‘impact’ and do anything but ‘preserve pure inquiry from dominant public opinions’ don’t help. So when one of said past Ministers, our esteemed Prime Minister’s brother Jo, asks James Dyson “Why don’t you start your own university?’’, as recounted by Nick Robinson, and Dyson sets up his Institute by way of a response, Dyson and Robinson are both able to think of it as, indeed, being a university.

I particularly don’t envy university Vice-Chancellors and their teams the quandary they have found themselves in as a result of the pandemic.   Having spent more than forty years of my life working with students, it always seemed certain to me that bringing students back onto campus at this juncture was bound to be asking for coronavirus trouble.  But most Vice-Chancellors will know that distance learning involves a whole lot more than simply asking their lecturers to put their lectures up on the web, and will be only too well aware that they are simply not equipped to do an adequate job of going fully digital, not even for one semester.   The creeping privatisation of the university sector has resulted in most of our universities being almost wholly dependent on fee income, and many will be facing bankruptcy if student numbers drop dramatically, or they have to discount their fees substantially.   Many universities are not coming out of the present government-induced shambles very well, but in the absence of anything resembling a coherent policy for higher education in present circumstances, it isn’t easy to see how, beyond making provision for quarantined students to have hot meals, they could have done very much better.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Hedgehog Autumn

October 4th

Our allotment is exuding an air of untidy and slightly weary fecundity, as though all the effort to produce its varyingly successful harvests in the face of the summer’s topsy-turvy weather has been just a bit too much of an effort, and it is looking forward to a good long hibernation.  The bean wigwams, still fully clad and leaning drunkenly towards the East under the influence of this year’s often very strong prevailing winds, are passively drying any bean-pods we were too late to pick when green. The slowly withering stand of sweet-corn stalks is making a better job of standing, with half the cobs, their outer garments shredded and stripped bare, providing glaring evidence that the rats that infest the 180 odd Low Moor allotments got to the cobs before we did.  But only half the cobs.  It is a fine judgement as to when to pick them before the rats get there, with one night being all it takes for all the ones that didn’t seem quite ready to pick to be gnawed clean.  The rats clearly don’t draw such fine distinctions.   

The main crop, potatoes, particularly good this year, have been lifted; the gem squashes, vines withered, are lying hoping for a last bit of sun; the asparagus, grown tall, is grateful to have been staked against the wind; the leaves on the trees and the berry bushes are starting to turn.   Our agonising about what we did so wrong that the tomatoes started blackening and rotting just as they began to ripen – too much shade? too much watering? not enough watering? too much fertiliser? etc. – has been stilled by the BBC’s Gardner’s World assuring us last week that the weather has been ripe for tomato blight and that it wasn’t anything we did wrong.  So the plants have been stripped and significant quantities of green tomato chutney made.

The main reason for the allotment’s overall look of dishevelment probably lies with the fact that it hasn’t been strimmed for several weeks.   There are two and a half good reasons for that.  The half reason being that strimming with a heavy-duty petrol-driven, but theoretically self-starting strimmer, is not entirely compatible with degenerative spondylolisthesis – but it can be done, and was done earlier in the season, so it is only half a good reason – or perhaps one half-good reason.  A better one is that the strimmer itself has a degenerative fault – not caught from me, I hasten to add – and is going to have to be replaced.  A small plate designed to restrain the medium-duty strimmer line from unwinding itself and disappearing in a dangerous flash into the undergrowth, or, more worryingly, into the face of someone walking along the public path a few yards away, has fallen out and disappeared into the undergrowth itself.  Having been obliged over the past few weeks to focus intensively on the Health and Safety for those in the population who have attained the often dizzy heights of the Third Age, it wouldn’t do to decapitate a slow walker with a couple of feet of lethally rocketing strimmer cord.  But much the best reason is that we are, it turns out, proud landlords to a hedgehog family.  The family bit we have to take on trust from Harry who cultivates the next door allotment and tells us he has seen mother and baby – we have only seen the mother.

The mother is an eccentric – which probably suits the allotment, and may well be her reason for choosing us as her landlords.  I first met her walking towards my shed along the path down the middle of my allotment several weeks ago in the middle of the afternoon on one of the few seriously hot days we had this summer.  I told her that I presumed she knew that she was supposed to be nocturnal, and that I had to assume that she was very unwell.   She paused for a few seconds to eye me, rather more frostily than the weather dictated, and proceeded to divert from the path and lie down for a siesta next to one of my thus far unpatented rhubarb-forcers, an old metal dustbin which must have been radiating an unseemly amount of heat.  I assumed she had chosen that as her final resting place and that she might be trying to get on with the cremation part of things as well as the dying bit, but decided that putting an accessible container with some water near her was probably the best I could do.  

I went back early the next day half-anticipating that I might have to be a one-person burial party, but I was delighted to find that the water container was empty, and there was no sign of her. Susan and a friend spotted her a couple of days later heading up the path at a surprising rate of knots, and both Harry and I have seen her separately since.   As excuses for not strimming the allotment go, two facts are salient.  The first is that July 30th saw British hedgehogs being included for the first time in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List for British Mammals, i.e. it is now regarded as seriously vulnerable to extinction. 

“Goodbye Mrs Tiggy-Winkle” is not a phrase anyone wants to hear. From an estimated total of over 30 million in the 1950s, the number of hedgehogs in UK is now down to fewer than one million. Our allotment’s one is the first live hedgehog I have seen in 15 years. The second salient point is that I have it on good authority that, in 1066 and All That terms, hedgehogs regard strimmers as very definitely falling into the category of “not a good thing”. What better reason could there be for a somewhat dishevelled allotment?

British hedgehog now officially classified as vulnerable to extinction

From David Maughan Brown in York: Hulk or Home Office?

October 2nd

What is being contemplated with regard to asylum-seekers unwise enough to think that England’s green and pleasant land might be a desirable destination is becoming simultaneously clearer, murkier, and much darker.   It seems from a couple of interviews in yesterday’s edition of the BBC’s Today programme and a report in the Guardian that it isn’t just our execrable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who would really, really, really like to find a way of getting rid of pesky asylum-seekers by transporting them to Ascension Island (or, one gathers, St Helena) in the South Atlantic, but the Cabinet Office and “Downing Street” as a whole (i.e. Dominic Cummings with Boris Johnson in tow).  There is a move afoot, according to a Guardian source, to “radically beef-up the hostile environment” in 2021 as soon as the Brexit transition period comes to an end.  The Windrush disgrace and our government’s declared intention to ignore international law where Brexit is concerned have apparently not done enough damage to our increasingly wafer-thin international reputation.

A smorgasbord of options other than rocky islands in the South Atlantic has apparently been put before civil servants to consider in a despairing effort to keep asylum-seekers off our sceptred isle. The options are said to include Morocco, Moldova, Papua New Guinea (only twice as far away as Ascension Island), disused oil-rigs, and ships anchored off-shore.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  The cunning wheeze of using disused ships to house prisoners was conceived in the 18th century, as anyone who has read Great Expectations and made the acquaintance of the escaped convict Abel Magwitch will know.   Permanently moored prison ships, known as ‘hulks’, were never one of the hallmarks of a civilized society and their use was discontinued in 1856 because they were regarded as inhumane.   But the hallmark of Conservative parties is, of course, to conserve the past.

Adam Holloway, very Conservative MP for Gravesham in Kent, made it clear when interviewed by the Today programme that Patel’s and Downing Street’s object in considering these literally outlandish schemes is to provide ‘some sort of deterrent’ to discourage asylum-seekers from wanting to come to the UK.   Putting them in the stocks or giving them public floggings for having the temerity to think that England might be a good place to seek refuge from persecution and torture might seem a bit too strong by way of a deterrent for all but the retired colonels in the shires.  So what about a nice “detention centre” in the sunshine of Morocco, for example?  You wouldn’t need to go back historically as far as the hulks, the archives will be sure to have kept the blue-prints for our Anglo-Boer war concentration camps.  If you are planning to outsource your interviews with asylum-seekers anyway, you could outsource them to locals in Morocco – think how much cheaper that would be.  If you are aiming at the 99% failure rate of the much lamented “fast-track” process, it wouldn’t matter if the locals couldn’t speak the asylum-seekers’ language and didn’t know anything about asylum law – it would be easy enough to make sure UK journalists couldn’t get anywhere near the concentration camps.  It’s been done before. Of course, even if you were to intercept the asylum-seekers in the English Channel before they arrived in England, you would need to break international asylum laws by taking them ashore to an airport in order to deport them to Morocco, or wherever else, without assessing their claims first, but we are soon going to be an independent sovereign state, so, once again, to hell with international law.

I find myself wondering why I find all this so deeply depressing.   It isn’t so much because of its callous inhumanity towards people so desperate to find a home here, and in some instances join family here, that they are prepared to put to sea in inflatable swimming pools.  Xenophobia and inhumanity is what one has long come to expect of the Conservative party.  It isn’t so much the utterly absurd and impractical options that have been put forward by Patel and “Downing Street” more generally for serious consideration by civil servants.  That is entirely in line with the wholly fanciful, and ultimately delusional, construction of a United Kingdom better off economically and politically outside the European Union – the Conradian “fixed idea” that obsesses the Brexiteers. What is probably the most depressing aspect of this whole sorry business is the extent to which it lays bare the apparently irredeemable shortsightedness of our politics.   The asylum-seekers who are taking to small boats and enriching the people smugglers are only doing so because more conventional ways of getting here are closed off to them.   They are showing themselves to be courageous, determined and resilient.  Most of them happen to be young; many have skills that are needed here.  I’ve made the point before, but it seems particularly pertinent here.  Who, precisely, do Johnson, Patel and rest think is going to be driving our economy in 30 years time as our population growth declines and our current workforce grows old?  Who, for that matter, will be left to look after them in their old age once their fatal combination of xenophobia and negligence has decimated our Health and Care sectors?  Better surely to offer genuine, which means competently assessed, asylum-seekers a home rather than consigning them to concentration camps in the desert or the modern equivalent of the hulks.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Send them Home Office

September 30th

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”   The words of Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, “Do not go gentle into that good night”, come to mind – not in relation to old age burning and raving at the close of day, although there is no doubt a bit of that – but in the context of the liberal values our country has tried to uphold for so long being slowly but steadily extinguished.  This is a process that has been gathering momentum ever since the attack on the twin towers in 2001.

Following another of the more or less daily revelations about the Home Office that I wrote about in my entry for September 26th, today’s editorial in The Independent  draws readers’ attention to the malign intentions towards refugees and asylum-seekers articulated in the Tory manifesto at the last election, which included a commitment to reform the Human Rights Act, impose limitations on judicial review, and abandon the EU Dublin convention which establishes the criteria and mechanisms for determining which Member State is responsible for examining an asylum claim made in the EU.  As if that weren’t enough, the editorial also suggests that the Tories are considering passing a new law that would override “the UK’s treaty obligations under the 1950 European Human Rights Convention”, which would be another transgression of international law.

Yesterday’s revelation, again from the pen of May Bulman, was about an unnamed Ugandan woman who this week finally won her case against the Home Office for rejecting her asylum claim, made on the grounds that she is lesbian, that gay relationships are illegal in Uganda and that she would have been under threat of harm had she stayed in Uganda.  She arrived in the UK in 2011 to seek asylum but was, unsurprisingly, one of the 99% of applicants who fell foul of the Home Office’s “fast-track system” for assessing asylum applications, whereby applicants were kept in detention and allowed two weeks to obtain the evidence necessary to back their claim for asylum.  Her case was rejected on the grounds that whoever interviewed her on behalf of the Home Office didn’t believe she was gay.  The system was discontinued in 2015 following a High Court ruling that it was ‘structurally unfair’, but the applicant in question had already been deported back to Uganda in December 2013.  Once she was back in Uganda, her fears were fully realised when she was gang raped – presumably an example of the appalling crime known, in South Africa at least, as “corrective rape” – and ended up pregnant.  The High Court ruled last year that her deportation was unlawful as she had not had enough time to obtain the evidence necessary to support her case, and simultaneously ruled that her detention had been unlawful.

This might all be regarded as past history – after all, that particular system was discontinued in 2015 – but for the fact that it required a High Court decision last year before she was allowed back to the UK, and, even then, the Home Office appealed the High Court’s decision so that it had to go to the Appeal Court this year.  Anyone who might be inclined to interpret the Home Office’s behaviour in this regard as being gratuitously and viciously vindictive would be vindicated by the fact that, believe it or not, the Home Office is reported to be considering appealing once again, this time against the Appeal Court’s decision.  Being gang-raped is obviously not enough to indicate that an asylum–seeker is in some danger.

If this incident seems indicative of more than a little madness on the part of whoever makes such decisions in the Home Office, today’s further revelation suggests a seriously dangerous level of insanity.  It is reported, both on the BBC’s Today programme this morning and in The Independent, that our inimitable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has in all seriousness been contemplating flying asylum seekers out to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic – a rocky island in the South Atlantic 4000 miles from UK with 800 inhabitants – to have their applications processed.  If Robben Island, a mere 5 miles from apartheid South Africa’s mainland, was far enough to stop prisoners from absconding, 4000 miles should do the trick for the Tories.  This is the kind of story that any half-intelligent newspaper editor would reject as being too obviously implausible to fill the annual April Fools slot in the April 1st edition.  Quite so – but the mad Patel apparently thinks it could be a goer.  This is taking things a lot further even than Theresa May’s ill-judged 2013 “Go Home” billboards, and smacks of a slavish attempt to imitate Australia’s inhume incarceration of asylum seekers on Nauru island in Papua New Guinea.   Patel must either be verifying the purity of the drugs her police force is confiscating, or she must be so xenophobic as to be comprehensively insane.  Either way, Boris Johnson would be wise to get rid of her – preferably to Ascension Island – as soon as possible.  But when was Boris ever wise?

From David Maughan Brown in York: Signs and signals

September 28th

Every time a significant new announcement is made with regard to Covid-19 regulations, which seems to be around twice a week these days, the BBC News dutifully does the rounds of the four countries of the supposedly ‘United’ Kingdom’ in turn, so that those of us in England can be kept up to speed with the invariably much more sensible variations on the theme being proposed in the other three countries.  Not, of course that the BBC would ever be likely to venture such a value judgement at a time when the right wing of the Conservative Party (i.e. about 90% of it) is baying for the BBC’s blood on the wholly specious grounds that it has a left-wing bias.  What I am finding increasingly irritating about this regular tour of the UK’s four constituent parts is not the regular reminder that Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers respectively, are so much more articulate than their English counterpart, whose stumbling inarticulacy, however plummy, so often gives the lie to the notion that he is a good communicator.  What gets me much more viscerally is the glaring absence of a signer in the background whenever Boris delivers one of his portentous orations, by stark contrast with the ever-present signers helping the First Ministers to communicate with the people in their countries who are hard of hearing.

It is beyond comprehension both that Boris would not narcissistically want to admire his own speeches, and that he would not be compulsively drawn to watch his Scottish and Welsh counterparts’ speeches, not because he is interested in what they are saying, which might require too much concentration, but to prove to himself how much better he is at oratory.  Does he not notice the signers in the background?  Does he think that English superiority and exceptionalism must mean that we don’t have any people in England who are hard of hearing?  Are the signers, to him, simply an unusually animated part of the furniture that isn’t worthy of his attention? Or does he perhaps think that what they are doing is translating spoken language into signs for the benefit of the backward descendants of the Celts and Gauls who inhabit the mountainous outer reaches of the UK and haven’t in consequence yet developed to the point of being the proud owners of a spoken language?   Or does he, quite simply, not care?  And what about the Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health (sic)?  Or the Minister of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (sic)?  Or any of the rest of our Cabinet of the talentless?  Do they neither notice nor care either?  Or is it that, just like the First Ministers of the other countries they only get to speak to Boris once every three months and our ministers are so awed by the privilege that they don’t want to rock the boat by asking awkward questions?

If the absence of signers is signalling to those who want to read the signs that our government in England (the government, in theory, of the whole United Kingdom) is a lot less caring and inclusive than the governments of the Scotland and Wales, it has not been the only sign over the past six months that has signalled that we have plenty to worry about where our government is concerned.   A handshake is normally a sign of greeting and friendship; when Boris Johnson invites the cameras to photograph him shaking hands with Covid patients in hospital it signals a reckless braggadocio that, all too literally, bodes ill.   The meaning of ubiquitous signs saying “Stay at Home” is crystal clear – until Dominic Cummings jaunts off to County Durham and cabinet ministers from the Prime Minister downwards, falling over themselves to claim that he has done nothing wrong, signal that the injunction only applies to some people, not everyone, and half the population, picking up the signal, thinks ‘what the hell’ and starts following the Cummings example and interpreting the advice and regulations to suit themselves.

My personal assumption about the reason for the absence of signers from our screens when Johnson is exercising his oratory is that the necessary animation of a signer in the background inevitably attracts the attention, however fleetingly, of viewers who aren’t hard of hearing, and Boris is always desperate to have the full gaze of the nation exclusively, and he no doubt assumes admiringly, focussed on himself.  Of all the warning signs visible on our screens over the past six months signalling that the consequences of Covid-19 are going to be very dire for our incompetently governed country, the most telling sign, paradoxically, has probably been that glaring absence of signers.   What it signals, at least to me, is that we are being told what to do, rather than led, by a self-obsessed narcissist with a hand-picked Cabinet of the like-minded who are ultimately interested only in themselves and their chums.  All talk of inclusivity and ‘levelling-up’ is simply window-dressing.