From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction

September 17th

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Accountability

September 16th

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Copyright

September 13th

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

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

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Collateral Damage Part 2

September 1st

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

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

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Collateral Damage

August 28th

Collateral damage from Covid-19 manifests itself in different ways in UK.  At the most dramatic end of the spectrum it manifests itself in the number of excess deaths above what would normally be expected to have occurred over the months since the pandemic arrived.  That number used to be quoted fairly frequently, but it has for some not particularly mysterious reason disappeared from our screens in recent weeks.   The last time I remember seeing it, the number was at least 10,000 above the official figure for Covid-19 deaths, but since the latter total has been significantly reduced following the redefinition of a Covid-19 death as one that has occurred ‘within 28 days of testing positive’, the difference must be a good deal more than that now.   Another dramatic manifestation is the figure of 10 million that I have seen being cited, and now have a direct interest in, as an estimate of the number of people in UK who will be on waiting lists for elective surgery by Christmas.

At the other end of the spectrum are the relatively minor irritations that have resulted from enforced changes to the way the NHS normally runs.   Our 53 mile round trip to Malton for a Covid test ten days ago would be a case in point.   But even that was a one-off for me, as distinct from some of the far more frequent idiosyncrasies of everyday interactions with the NHS.  My GP changed one of my prescriptions three weeks ago and asked me to go to the local private hospital, currently being used as the NHS blood testing centre, for a non-Covid blood-test once I have been taking it for a fortnight.  Not a problem, I thought.  I must have had at least a dozen blood-tests in the time we’ve lived in York, and can’t ever remember having to wait more than 15-20 minutes, usually much less, in a far from luxurious, but perfectly adequate, waiting room in York Hospital, in no way exposed to the elements.

So, full of misplaced optimism, I drove across the city on Monday afternoon, on the one hot sunny day of the week, to have a test, took one look at the queue stretching all the way along the side of the hospital in the glaring sun and decided to try again later.   An hour later, by now mid-afternoon but just as hot, I returned to find the queue looking just as forbidding, but decided I’d better join it anyway.   I attached myself to the back of the queue for a full 15 minutes during which several people spared me the ignominy of being the last in the queue, but the queue itself moved forward not an iota.   After 15 minutes, one survivor who had succeeded in reaching the front of the queue and attaining the sought-after goal of having someone spend three minutes extracting a thimble-full of his blood, came out and told the only person near me who plucked up the courage to have her worst fears confirmed that he had been standing (standing being the operative word) in the queue for two hours.  So I ducked for cover and went to ask the PPE-wearing gatekeepers on the hospital’s front door when the best time to come might be, and was told “either before 8.30 am or between 4.00 and 4.30 in the afternoon.”  So I went home and drove across the city again to get there by 8.20am on Tuesday, this time in the pouring rain, only to find the queue just as long as it had been the previous afternoon.   Everyone was in rain gear and under umbrellas, so I couldn’t ascertain whether they were, in fact, by way of a Kafkaesque nightmare, exactly the same people that I was standing behind the previous day.   This time it was decidedly chilly, and the wind was threatening to blow umbrellas inside-out, so I looked at the weather forecast, saw that there was a reasonable chance of the rain having stopped by the evening, and decided that a fourth trip across the city would be the better option.  Getting a blood-test was beginning to assume the proportions of one of the ordeals favoured by Greek mythology.    

So Tuesday evening comes, the rain has stopped and the wind has dropped, if only marginally, and I make my fourth trip across the city.  As I drive in, I glance down the side of the hospital and see that now, believe it or not, there is no queue at all.  Eureka!  Patience and perseverance do, indeed, win out in the end.   What I didn’t spot as I drove in to park my car is that the gate at the end is closed and there is a notice on it stating the rather obvious: ‘Closed’.   I know from much ascertaining and verifying that it is only supposed to close at 5.00pm, so I go back to the gate-keeper and ask him what on earth is going on.   ‘Someone had a heart-attack and collapsed in the queue this morning, and the testing-centre has had to shut indefinitely,’ he said darkly, looking sufficiently sombre to leave me to infer that the unsuccessful queuer had, unlike the previous afternoon’s success, not been a survivor.  I tell him that I’m not remotely surprised, and ask ‘So what do I do now?’.   He’s sorry, but he doesn’t have any idea, it is all really rather unfortunate.

What I do now is go home and phone my GP’s surgery the next morning – which is a different kind of ordeal in itself.  An hour and three quarters later I achieve my goal of an appointment to have a blood-test at one of the group’s surgeries, inevitably the one on the outskirts of the city furthest from our house, the next day, which will (in case you have lost the plot by now – as well, probably, as the will to live) be Thursday.  A few minutes after I put the phone down, my mobile releases a fusillade of pings telling me that a rapid series of text messages has come through: one confirming the appointment, the others telling me in no uncertain terms to wear a mask and not to try to access the building without first ringing the bell and waiting outside.  Telling me once is apparently not adequate.  Clear enough – except that when I get there at the appointed time there’s a masked lady waiting outside, but no bell to ring.   ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ I ask myself out loud.  ‘Just wait here.  They’ll fetch you,’ comes a voice from behind the mask; a voice so funereally lugubrious that for a fleeting moment I have a vision of the door opening and an undertaker in full Dickensian mourning-regalia appearing to ‘fetch’ me.  The masked lady is invited in by a reassuringly normal looking nursing assistant, and I wait alone with my mask.  One of the other members of staff returns with her shopping and asks on her way in, ‘Do they know you are here?’.   I confess that I don’t know whether they know I’m there (but don’t add that I’ve been standing ten feet from the window of the receptionist’s office for the past ten minutes), and point out that the bell I have been instructed to ring appears to be non-existent.   ‘I know,’ she says sadly, ‘but the people who make the appointments obviously don’t know.  I’ll tell the nurse you are here.’  This she duly does, and a few minutes later said nurse, dressed comfortingly in white rather than black, opens the door and asks me whether I have an appointment.  I assure her that I have, and five minutes later (three days later, if one were to be pedantic) my thimbleful of blood has been duly extracted.   It will only take five days for the results to be processed, I’m assured (and it isn’t even a test for Covid-19.)  It is perhaps a good thing that the change in medication that was the occasion for the whole saga was an upping of the daily dose of blood-pressure tablets.

From David Maughan Brown in York: To mask or not to mask?

August 24th

So the ringmaster, who doubles as the lead-clown in the Tory circus tent, has folded the holiday one he pitched in the wilds of the Scottish countryside in the hope of inducing the Scots to hate him a little less, and is back on his version of the job.  Actually, suggesting that he either pitched or folded the tent himself is almost certainly an overstatement: the hard work is always done by someone else.  Having cleverly avoided being around to answer for the A-level results fiasco, Boris has popped up in time to reassure the parents of children in England not only that it is perfectly safe for their children to return to school, but that there is no need for them to wear face-masks when they do so.  He is obviously hoping that the same parents will have forgotten that he confidently reassured everyone, worried parents in particular, that the algorithm-generated A-level results were wholly reliable – “they’re robust, they’re good, they’re dependable for employers.”   So good, so robust, so dependable, in fact, that they had to be binned a few days after his robust reassurance because they just happened to be grossly unfair and discriminatory.   

It will almost certainly be no coincidence that the two leaders in the Western world who appear to have been most successful in their approach to Covid-19 have been women, Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern, and that, if one feels inclined to take the coronavirus policy of any of the four prime, or first, ministers in the UK seriously, it would be Nicola Sturgeon’s.   Sturgeon is following WHO advice on the wearing of face-masks in the communal areas of schools, but Boris knows better and asserts that they aren’t necessary.  In just the same way, Boris knew better than the WHO when it came to locking down and concentrating attention on tracking and tracing when the pandemic first arrived, and an estimated 20,000 deaths of predominantly elderly people resulted as a direct consequence.   It would, however, probably not be a good idea to bet the house, not even a very little Lego one, on our not being about to see another of Boris’s screeching U-turns.

The best compromise for Boris, given the latest round in the English culture war, this time relating to the singing, or otherwise, of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia!’ at the BBC Proms (of which more in a later entry), would probably be to accept that face-masks are a good idea, at least where singing is concerned, and relent on the masks in public spaces in schools in England.  That would allow him to distribute free Union Jack face-masks to all pupils in English schools (now that the Tories have discovered a forest of money-trees) and turn the return to school into a festival of ‘patriotism’ befitting the Tory circus tent.  Pupils could be encouraged march up and down the corridors wearing their masks and singing patriotic songs that glorify the Empire that still features so prominently in the New Year Honours the Queen awards every year.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Populism and Justice

August 22nd

Populism is a political trait inextricably woven into democracy, whose essential meaning, according to the Concise Oxford, simply involves having concern for the views of ‘ordinary people’.  Which, of course, begs the question of whom Oxford regards as ‘ordinary people.’  Chambers, usually to be relied on for more colourful nuance, defines a populist as a ‘supporter, wooer or student of the common people.’  In the era of Trump and Johnson, ‘populism’ tends to be used mainly in the implicitly pejorative sense conveyed by Chambers’ ‘wooer’, and refers to the process of winning votes by pandering to the worst prejudices of as many people as possible who already entertain, or can be imbued with, those prejudices.   Countering that kind of populism is always going to be an occupational hazard for any decent person entering politics.    But populism should, surely, play no role whatever in a judicial system, and I get increasingly concerned that that is exactly what is happening. 

One doesn’t need to be a practising Christian to endorse the quaintly archaic wording  of the 1662 prayer for the Church in the Book of Common Prayer, ‘grant … to all that are put in authority … that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice….’ ‘True’ justice must, surely, be ‘indifferent’:  it should be based on a complex mix of precedent, compassion, retribution, and recognition of the need to protect society.  The passing of sentence should be the business of independent and experienced experts – but populism, of course, doesn’t like experts.   Justice should not be based on the emotionalism cultivated by the tabloid press and by the encouragement of victim statements, however heart-rending the latter often are.   If a 65 year-old man is beaten to death by a couple of teenage thugs, he may well have a wife, children and grandchildren who can all tell a court how devastated they are by his death, but he is obviously no more dead, and the crime is no worse, than if he happened to be homeless and to have no family or friends to be devastated by his death.  Justice should be ministered ‘indifferently.’

Two recent controversies over sentencing come to mind.  The first is over the sentences handed down to the three teenagers who were responsible for the killing of PC Andrew Harper, who was caught up in a tow-rope and dragged to his death behind a car when he intervened in the theft of a quad bike.  The driver of the car was sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment and his two eighteen-year old passengers to thirteen years each.   Harper had only been married for four weeks, and his widow, Lissie, who is very personable, very articulate and clearly heart-broken, believes that the sentences fall into the category of being ‘unduly lenient’, and is campaigning for a new law to make life sentences mandatory for people who kill police officers and other emergency workers.  Suella Braverman, our worthy Attorney General, has entirely predictably decided to refer the sentences to the Court of Appeal.  She it was who destroyed any iota of credibility she might have had left as Attorney General after agreeing to join Johnson’s cabinet of all the talentless by fully endorsing Dominic Cummings’ jaunt to Durham at the height of lockdown as ‘responsible and legal’, prior to the Durham police having had time to consider whether or not it was, in fact, legal.   The way PC Harper died was, as Bravermann said, ‘horrific’; his death was indeed ‘shocking’.    But 13 years in prison for two teenagers, who happened to be passengers in a car that drove off with a man inadvertently caught in a tow-rope dragging behind it, is ‘unduly lenient’?  What does it say about a prison system that can’t reform a teenager in two or three years, never mind 13?  Mandatory sentences were a favourite recourse of the fascistic apartheid government in South Africa: their object is to deny the judges the right to use their discretion, to overrule and discredit expertise, to toss red meat to the yapping right-wing Law and Order brigade.  Lissie Harper does not come across as a member of that brigade, and one can only feel desperately sorry for her, but her tragedy has taken place in a media climate that fosters contempt for experts and militates against rational judgement.

The other recent sentence worth commenting on is the minimum 55-year sentence handed down by the judge in the Manchester Arena bombing case, which, the court was told, would have been a ‘whole life’ sentence but for the legal preclusion of that sentence on the grounds that Hashem Abedi was under age at the time of the offence. There is no question that Mr Justice Baker was right in saying that: ‘The stark reality is that these were atrocious crimes: large in their scale, deadly in their intent and appalling in their consequences.’  But one wonders what the choice of 55 years was about, if not to pre-empt an outcry that anything less would be ‘unduly lenient’ in the face of the harrowing victim statements read out in court by survivors?  What is the point of sentencing the English State (which seems likely to be all that is left of the Union by then) to cover the cost of Abedi’s board and lodging for a minimum of the next 55 years?  Do we no longer believe in the possibility of reform and redemption?  Not even over, for the sake of example, 40 years rather than the somehow magic 55 years?  I suppose the one thing we should be grateful for, in the context of a justice system that has to try to keep itself afloat in a sea of populism, is that even David Cameron had the good sense not to call a referendum on the restoration of the death penalty.  But don’t hold your breath on that score as long as Johnson is in nominal charge.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Risk Management

August 21st

Throughout my time in University management in England I managed to avoid line management responsibility for staff whose lives were dedicated to Health and Safety and Risk Management.  Very important areas of activity, but ones that never exactly stirred my blood.  I was well and truly inducted into the arcane mysteries of the sect when I was required to attend a Health and Safety Committee meeting as part of my induction to my new university role in York.  It was soon enough after my arrival for me still to be driving my car around York with windows and doors firmly locked to avoid being hi-jacked, and still making a point of backing into parking bays to the same end, both being legacies of having lived in South Africa for the previous 30 years.   There were two substantive items on the agenda:  a four-page paper titled “The Safe use of Ornamental and Christmas Tree Lights” (it was November after all); and a six-page paper titled “The Dangers of Working Alone”.   Enough said.

But the management of Risk Management has now caught up with me in retirement, and is taking its revenge.   When I accepted nomination as Chair of the U3A in York, the crystal ball a colleague gave me as a parting present when I left the University of Natal for a primarily ‘Strategy and Corporate Planning’ role at York St John failed rather dismally in its responsibility to alert me to the impending onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.   U3A is gradually easing itself out of lockdown, and every tentative step has to be risk assessed.  We are acutely aware of the extent to which the vast majority of our members are, by definition, in the ‘vulnerable’ category, and very conscious of our responsibility to try to make sure that, in resuming their U3A activities, they will be as safe as we can possibly make them.   

In some instances, particularly with outdoor activities, that is relatively easy.  So, for example, we just have to review the risk management measures advised by the Croquet Association, and make sure the members of our croquet group are aware of them and happy to abide by them.  But even with outdoor activities there can be complications.  We have a number of walking groups of various sizes.  The Ramblers Association allows parties of up to 30, but we have group insurance through the Third Age Trust and their advice is still that only six people from different households should meet outdoors, as our cycling group is doing.  So is it OK for our large walking groups to divide into groups of six, each with a sub-leader who has reconnoitred the route with the Group Leader, with a view to many more than a total of six going out on the same walk, but at five minute intervals?

The restarting of group meetings indoors makes the complications of outdoor activities pale into insignificance.   We have an excellent relationship with the Friends Meeting House in York where our office is situated and where we rent meeting rooms for a significant portion of the well over 100 groups who meet indoors.   The Friends will take responsibility for the regular cleaning of the meeting rooms, but what about the ‘touch-points’ between sessions: door handles, light-switches, window-catches etc.?  And what about our office, storeroom, and equipment? Assorted Group Leaders, some probably about as absent-minded as I am, will be accessing the office at different times, taking PCs, projectors, cables etc. from the storeroom, and returning them at assorted times.   Is it reasonable to expect them all to remember to clean all touch-points as they go in and out? And what about cleaning the equipment?  None of this is insuperable, and we are expecting a very gradual return to indoor meetings from our understandably cautious membership, but it is taking a great deal of time – particularly for our Groups Coordinator.

A kindly neurosurgeon came to my aid on Wednesday.  He didn’t offer to help with the solution to the problems of cleaning the touch-points in our office, but he did put the occupational hazards of being Chair of a U3A branch with ultimate responsibility for risk management in a time of Covid into perspective.  His aim was clearly to make 100% certain that, in signing a consent form for a fusion operation on my spine, I was graphically aware of the risks involved.  ‘See that thin line there,’ he says, pointing to a very thin line on the MRI scan up on the screen in front of us, ‘if I nick that, you die on the operating table.  It has never happened to me – yet, touch wood, but it has happened to most of my colleagues, but only once.’   I was inclined to think that ‘happened to’ might, perhaps, be more appropriately applied to the patient rather than the surgeon. ‘You obviously have to be lying on your stomach, probably for around two and a half hours, so if we don’t have your head positioned correctly, there is a risk that you could be blind when you wake up,’ he continued, adding as an afterthought, ‘and if we don’t have your arms positioned right you could end up with permanent nerve damage.’  Those were by no means the only risks he enumerated, and he is not a man to pull his punches, but, oddly, he managed to be quite reassuring at the same time.  Reassuring enough, at least, for me to try to fit my signature into the appropriate box on the consent form for an operation which, he hopes, will be in time to ensure I am not one of the 10 million people predicted to be on NHS waiting lists by Christmas.   I just have to hope that there is plenty of coronavirus-free wood around for him to touch from time to time as he goes about his business.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Exceedingly Testing

August 18th

There is a school of thought that holds that you aren’t in any position to criticise, and can’t write really authentically about, anything that you haven’t experienced yourself.  It isn’t a position I have a lot of time for – apart from anything else it would rather limit the scope of the writers of crime and thriller novels – but after months of irregular diary entries about coronavirus testing, I am in the privileged position of now being able to reassure members of that school that I am in a position to write from personal experience about the joys of being tested.  Pace Boris it wasn’t a world-beating experience.

Sunday saw the high-point of a two-week self-isolation build-up towards a pain-blocking epidural for my progressively degenerative spondylolisthesis, scheduled for this afternoon.  For anyone wondering why I bother to accord it the dignity of its full tongue-twister name, the answer is that getting my head and my keyboard around its name is the only means I have of asserting any kind of control over it when the analgesics stop working.  On Sunday I was not merely allowed out of strict lockdown, but actually, by way of enjoying my freedom, required to take a spin through the Yorkshire countryside for a test.   

‘Countryside’?  Those of you who know I live in York may be inclined to ask.  Isn’t there a testing site in York?  Yes, there is, there’s one in Poppleton, a village on the outskirts of York four miles the other side of the city from where we live, and, as it happens, two and a half miles from the York Hospital clinic I need to go to.  But I have been told to go to Malton for my test, 20 miles down the A64 towards Scarborough.   So I phone the relevant number and ask whether I can’t have my test at the Poppleton Testing Centre instead.  No, I can’t.  Why not?  “Because the centre at Poppleton isn’t connected to the hospital in York.”  So the centre a couple of miles from the hospital isn’t ‘connected to’ the hospital, but the one twenty miles away is?  “That’s right.”  So who gets to go to the one at Poppleton then? I ask.  “People who have phoned 119”, comes the answer.  “Ah”, I say, light dawning, brilliant idea arriving, “can’t I just phone 119 and go to Poppleton instead?”  No, comes the answer (they have thought of that wizard wheeze), you can’t, because if you do we won’t get the results in time.  Silly me.  48 hours is obviously not nearly long enough to get the results across the gaping two and a half mile distance from the testing ground to the hospital in a world-beating system.  The swabs must have to go to Birmingham or somewhere properly centralised to be processed.

So we are sent off down the A64 towards Malton for a scheduled appointment at 11.30 on a Sunday morning in the middle of August.   For those unfamiliar with the geography of the North of England, the A64 is the main route from Leeds, the third largest city in England, to the seaside.  For those unfamiliar with what is referred to as the North-South divide in UK, the road from Leeds to the seaside just happens to be single carriageway for a good part of the way.   The nearest equivalent in the South is probably the road from London to Brighton, which just happens to be a motorway.   For those unfamiliar with the seasonal cycle in UK, a Sunday in August is guaranteed to be peak traffic-jam time for everyone heading for the beach during the school holidays.  It happened to be raining, so I naively thought I might just try the A64, but when did a mere spot of rain deter the hardy citizens of Yorkshire from heading for the beach? As soon as we got to the first single-carriageway stretch just beyond  the York ring road the traffic was a bumper-to-bumper crawl, we weren’t going to get to the appointment in time so I ducked off the main road as soon as I could to go the far more scenic but round-about route through Sheriff Hutton.   To cut a very long story short the expedition involved a stressful two-hour, 53 mile, environmentally unfriendly round trip, all in aid of a highly efficient, less than 90 second, testing procedure.  And all the while the lucky 119 callers were being tested in Poppleton.

As I write, an SMS has just appeared on my mobile phone from the York Hospital Out-patients Department asking me to tell them about my Sunday experience.  I think I might just do that.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Investing in a whelk stall?

August 16th

In the unlikely event of future political scientists or historians perusing this diary in future years, they might, depending on their political leanings, be inclined to start making deductions about the effect of lockdown on the mental health of those who have been locked down.  Her Majesty’s Government, duly elected by a mature electorate to grace the illustrious benches of the Palace of Westminster, the Mother of Parliaments, in December 2019 couldn’t possibly have been as utterly hopeless as diarists have tried to make out.  The grumpy carping must have been an irrationally resentful response on the part of mentally fragile people, who happened to have nothing better to do than write diaries, to the wholly rational decision on the part of government to lock them down for their own good.  The tempting alternative would have been to allow a ‘herd immunity’ strategy to sort them out and save billions on state pensions at the same time.  You can never please some people.

A rapid run-through of a random day’s coverage of ‘Home’ news, in this instance yesterday’s, August 15th, by the Independent, a broadly liberal and by no stretch of the imagination radically leftist newspaper (not that ‘paper’ has much to do with an exclusively digital compilation of news-reporting and commentary) might give the historians pause to reconsider that diagnosis.   With the exception of a nod in the direction of VJ-Day, a story about a man who nearly lost a leg as a result of being bitten by a ‘false widow’ spider, and an article on the implications for the Arts of a premature termination of the current furlough arrangements for employees, the rest of the coverage focuses entirely on four issues:  the quarantine regulations, in relation to France in particular; the government’s handling of various NHS related issues; the A-Level debacle; and the on-going situation with cross-channel migrants.  I’ve written about these individually (in some instances several times), but the cumulative impact when they are all extensively covered on the same day is impressive.

The photograph on the front page is of the queues of people at the airport at Nice trying desperately to get a flight back to UK in time for them to arrive before the magic 4am deadline.  The editorial takes this as its topic for the day, suggesting very mildly that, given the implications of 14 days of quarantine, a collective shrug on the part of government and ‘Well, you knew the risks when you went’, isn’t good enough. It goes on to suggest that 30 hours notice of a deadline, generally poor communication, and weak quarantine enforcement, in a context in which the Cummings episode shows that the rules apply to some but not others, aren’t conducive to public confidence or compliance.  For my own part, the 4.00am Saturday deadline left me wondering which particular bit of science the government was following that dictated that anyone who set foot back on British soil at 3.59am was bound to be Covid-free, but anyone who did so at 4.01am needed to go into quarantine for 14 days to protect the rest of us.

Where the NHS is concerned the reports focus on the government’s declared intention to keep the outcomes of inquiries into the Covid-related deaths of 620 health and care workers secret; the recall from NHS hospitals of 200,000 defective gowns, following closely on the heels of the recall of the 50 million defective face masks; and the quiet removal of 1.3 million tests from the running total of coronavirus tests nationally as a tacit admission of double-counting.

The on-going debacle over the A-level ‘results’ was covered in four separate articles, one of which predicted similar levels of chaos when the GCSE ‘results’, based on the same algorithm are released this coming week.   It is anticipated that up to 2 million results are likely to be downgraded, with the examining bodies already swamped by appeals against the A-level outcomes.  As one commentator put it in relation to the A-levels: ‘Unless Gavin Williamson [the Secretary of State for Education] can set up an appeals procedure that resolves the worst cases within days, he will destroy any illusions that his government could run a whelk stall.’

One article on the migrants who have been crossing the English Channel in small boats in their tens and twenties during the calm weather was written by May Bulman, and focuses on our bombastic Prime Minister’s assertion that “this is a very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do.”  Bulman draws on legal opinion in pointing out that there isn’t any legal obligation on asylum seekers to seek asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, and that they aren’t, in fact, committing any unlawful act in crossing the channel in small boats to seek asylum.  She argues that making the crossing is neither ‘bad’ nor ‘stupid’ if they are seeking asylum and choosing a country in which they would be joining known communities, and there are no alternative routes to do so.  Bulman quotes Frances Timberlake, coordinator at the Refugee Women’s Centre in Calais and Dunkirk, in this regard: ‘I would use stupid to describe most of the policies [in this regard] the UK has proposed so far, which have totally failed.’

The anti-migrant rhetoric is obviously intended to pander to the xenophobic right wing of the Tory party and the populace as a whole.  Any one of the other three debacles – the mishandling of the response to Covid-19 and its impact on the NHS, the A-levels disaster, and the quarantine issue – should, one might have thought, be enough to sink any government without trace in the opinion polls.   Future historians, even those sceptical about the mental health of those of us who have been self-isolating for five months, seem likely to agree.  But, while Johnson’s own credit rating is falling, the polls suggest that responses to his government as a whole seem to remain astonishingly little affected.  So anyone up for investing in a government-run whelk stall?