From David Maughan Brown in York: Exercising patience

Unconnected

January 24th

The temperature outside is -1C.  An unpleasantly gusty wind is strong enough to have blown our neighbour’s large potted olive tree over onto our hedge.  The Ouse is in flood, so the cycle path along its banks is under four or five feet of muddy water.  The traffic on the roads is busily affirming the widespread belief that the January 2021 lockdown is not being taken as seriously as the April 2020 one was.  So, one way and another, going for a ride on my bike is not an attractive proposition.  But I need to do something a bit more vigorous by way of exercise than playing the harp, so it is time to get to work on the large box containing an exercise bike bought with uncharacteristic foresight as a contingency against precisely the kind of adverse circumstances described above.  Said box has been sulking in quarantine near the foot of the stairs for ten days or so but should by now have shaken off any lingering traces of Donald Trump’s ‘Chinese virus’.   The box has indeed come from China, via Argos, as asserted by the label, but anybody other than the Donald would appreciate that any virus would have to be the responsibility of the Yorkshire-speaking delivery man who wasn’t wearing either a mask or gloves.

‘Get to work’ is the appropriate term, as the box has clearly been built with a view, firstly, to resisting any attempt to nick the contents en route; secondly, to giving the proud new owners the exercise they aren’t immediately going to be getting from the bike; and, thirdly, to giving owners under lockdown the mental exercise required to work out what on earth, in the absence of access to the municipal tip, to do with the mountain of residual packaging.  The kerbside waste-collection technicians will unquestionably have nothing whatever to do with it, notwithstanding its rigorous adherence to quarantine restrictions.  Having broken into the box and managed to extract the various components, one of which weighs the better part of 30kg, one is then confronted with the challenge of putting together however many of the total of 158 component parts aren’t integrated into the 30kg bit.  The advertising blurb gives an estimate of 1 hour as the time it should take to put it all together, but it doesn’t tell one whether the one-hour estimate assumes a tech-savvy ten-year old, a recent graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, or a distinctly tech-unsavvy elderlyish man with a bad back who is absent-mindedly meandering through his eighth decade.

All goes well for the first 90 minutes or so, give or take a few minor mishaps, such as forgetting to slide the bit of plastic that will eventually cover the screws joining the metal stem holding the handlebars onto the base over said stem before doing the screwing (note the confident grasp of technical terminology), which necessitates unscrewing it and starting again.  But then one hits the electrical engineering part of things.  The screen that will in theory eventually offer 32 choices of programme to get and keep one fit, including ones that mimic the ups and downs of the more hellish stages of the Tour de France, needs to be connected to the wiring coming up through the stem from the base. The first, relatively minor, difficulty is that the wiring in the stem has no slack at all, so it is extremely difficult to hold that end securely enough to enable any kind of connection to be made.  The second problem is much more troubling.  There are two connecting leads: one involves a perfectly simple single jack; the other is a connection that looks like a miniature mother-board with ten wires of various colours feeding into it that needs to be connected to a counterpart that, unsurprisingly, boasts ten identically coloured wires.  What is surprising is that after another 30 minutes of fiddling, pondering, trying to access advice on the internet and getting confirmation from an electrical engineering friend that one would expect the two sides to fit together so that the coloured wires feed into one another, it turns out that the only possible way the two ends can fit together involves the wholly counter-intuitive process of pushing them together so that the colours do not match.  

Everything having been assembled, it remains only to see whether connecting it up to the mains will produce a loud bang and fuse all the lights and every other electrical gadget in the house, and possibly the neighbourhood, or whether I will be able to start pedalling up the variety of Alpine ascents on offer.  But even I know that turning an electrical gadget on requires an electrical connection – and there isn’t one.  The final piece of the jigsaw is missing.  After half an hour of searching it is abundantly clear that part N on the exploded diagram is simply not there.  By now all help-lines and complaints departments have closed for the weekend, so the shiny new exercise bike is going to have to sit glowering resentfully in the corner for a day or two before it can be switched on to establish whether it, like the diagram, is destined to explode.  Approaching the Advertising Standards authorities with any kind of complaint isn’t going to get anywhere because, as closer inspection reveals, neither a single one of the advertising photographs online or anywhere else, nor the exploded diagram or list of components, reveals that the machine is powered by electricity and accordingly requires a fully fledged connecting cable before it will work. In the meantime all that can be done is tidy the box away into the shed to wait for the time when non-essential trips can be made to the tip, and to break the polystyrene packaging into small pieces to fit into garbage bags for the Monday morning kerbside collection.

So Monday arrives, the lines open, and I eventually succeed in getting to talk to Emma from ‘Customer Satisfaction’ who somehow manages within the first five seconds of the conversation to instill perfect confidence that she knows what she is talking about.   She agrees that the wiring connection is counter-intuitive but assures me that I don’t need to worry about it.   As for the missing piece N, she tells me it will have been hidden somewhere in the polystyrene packaging: ‘They put it in a small recess in the polystyrene and cover it over with more polystyrene.  You aren’t the first person I’ve spoken to who hasn’t been able to find it.’   Emma agrees that it would be a good idea for customers to be warned about this minor packaging eccentricity and tells me that part N together with a lead and plug, also supposedly embedded in the polystyrene I broke into small pieces, will get to me within a couple of days.  If they do, and the exercise bike doesn’t explode when I switch it on, Emma will have one marginally less dissatisfied customer.

From David Maughan Brown in York: New Dawns

21st January

The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light.
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

The words of Amanda Gorman’s poem, read from the platform at Joe Biden’s inauguration by ‘a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother’ as she described herself, chimed perfectly with the President’s own words in his inauguration address: ‘And together we will write an American story of hope, not fear.  Of unity not division, of light not darkness.  A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness.’  The oldest man ever to be inaugurated as President and the youngest Poet Laureate ever to give voice to a poem at a President’s inauguration, who happens to be a 22-year old black woman, successfully combined to embody the watching world’s hope for a better America.   At one end of the spectrum, Biden gives the impression of epitomising the decency and goodwill that will be one of the main qualities needed if unity is to overcome division; at the other end, Amanda Gorman embodied the intelligence, energy and bravery that will be essential if the new dawn is to bloom – the bravery to be rather than just to see.  The events of the day brought hope.

There are new dawns and new dawns, and some give promise of a lot more light than others.  For all Boris Johnson’s empty words in welcoming Biden’s inauguration as ‘a fantastic thing … for a country that has been through a bumpy period’ one can only hope that, as he watched the ceremony from Downing Street, he began to realize just how exposed he is now that his fellow populist has exited Stage Left (like the bear in Shakespeare’s  aptly titled The Winter’s Tale – except, of course, that Trump could only ever exit Stage Right.)  Johnson’s compulsive overuse of the term ’fantastic’ – as when he said his signing of the Brexit agreement was a ‘fantastic’ moment – is telling.  Much as he would have liked his soul-mate Donald Trump to have won the election, the bad news for Johnson is that Biden’s election is no fantasy, and the contrast between the two is already starting to become glaringly obvious, even as the stench of rotting fish and other meat being discarded from lorries trapped at our borders by Johnson’s ‘tariff-free trade deal’ wafts its way towards Downing Street.

Leaving personality traits, such as Biden’s decency, modesty and empathy, aside, the most obvious contrast where the processes of government are concerned is perhaps already to be seen in Biden’s choice of cabinet.  Whereas Biden has brought together a very richly diverse and vastly experienced group of people to help him lead the country through the aftermath of the divisive Trump era, Johnson’s sole job specification was that candidates had to be short-sighted enough to join him in his fantasy that Brexit would be a good thing for the UK, or sycophantic enough to pretend to.  It won’t take more than a week or two for it to become obvious which is the better set of selection criteria.  It is, of course, possible that one of Biden’s undisclosed essential criteria was that his picks needed to have an intelligent view of Brexit.  So, for example, in his informative run-down of Biden’s cabinet in The Independent* James Crump reports that Antony Blinken, Biden’s new Secretary of State, ‘called Brexit a “total mess” and compared the decision to the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen.’

Unsurprisingly in this context, Biden’s approaches to Islam and immigration are two of the most striking areas of difference between the two new versions of dawn.  In his first few hours in office President Biden signed 16 Executive orders rescinding central pillars of Trump’s policy, including overturning Trump’s “Muslim Ban” on travel from majority-Muslim countries and putting a stop to Trump’s family separation policy.   Biden will call a halt to the building of Trump’s border wall, and his administration will stop referring to immigrants as ‘aliens’, and will extend protections against deportation for thousands of Liberians living in the US.  Another of the executive orders signed by Biden calls on Congress to legislate a pathway to citizenship for Americans who were brought into the USA as undocumented children – the ‘Dreamers’ for whom Obama sought to provide some legal protection against deportation via the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme.  All very far cry indeed from the deliberate creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, which Priti Patel eschews in word even as she embraces it in deed.  Boris Johnson and Priti Patel don’t need a wall, they have the English Channel which Patel has used very effectively to enforce her very own family separation policy via closing off legal routes for unaccompanied refugee children to join extended families in UK. 

Those are particulars.  If one is looking for examples of the contrast between the decency, open-mindedness and generosity of spirit that informed Biden’s inaugural address and the juvenile pettiness and meanness of spirit that characterizes Johnson’s government, one need look no further than its refusal to grant full diplomatic status the EU ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, and his 25-strong mission.   The Foreign Office’s rationale for this juvenile playground vindictiveness is that it wouldn’t be appropriate to treat an international body as if it were a nation state.  The fact that 142 other countries around the world grant EU Ambassadors the same status as those of sovereign nations is, of course, beside the point in a context where one of the few points of Brexit was to assert British exceptionalism.  In this respect, when it comes to Trumpism, ‘Britain Trump’ is, via his Raab Foreign Secretary side-kick, even succeeding in outdoing Trump who briefly downgraded the EU’s diplomatic status in 2019 before restoring it on the grounds, more articulately expressed by his EU Ambassador, Gordon Sondland, than he ever could himself, that the EU is “a uniquely important organisation, and one of America’s most valuable partners in ensuring global security and prosperity”.**  If even Donald Trump could understand that, Biden’s ascent to the Presidency seems unlikely to come to Johnson’s rescue where salvaging any benefit from the “total mess” of Brexit is concerned. 

There are new dawns and there are new dawns, and some give promise of a lot more light than others.

*  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/joe-biden-cabinet-picks-who-list-b1789950.html

** https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/21/uk-insists-it-will-not-grant-eu-ambassador-full-diplomatic-status


			

From David Maughan Brown in York: Vaccination

Not quite York Minster

17th January

Soothing as a gentle organ accompaniment would undoubtedly be, one does not need the sanctified Gothic surroundings of Salisbury or Lichfield Cathedrals to benefit from the efficiency of the NHS’s roll-out of its mass Covid vaccination programme.   The Park and Ride car-park alongside Tesco at Askham Bar on the outskirts of York is more than good enough for me.   I wasn’t about to allow mere aesthetics to deter me when I received a text message on Friday inviting me to book an appointment for a vaccination.

Face-mask, passport for photo-identity, and booking reference (neither of which last two was actually needed) carefully assembled, we drove out to the vaccination-centre in good time for my appointment at 3.45, and by 4.05 were on our way home again.  And the twenty-five or so minutes we spent there included a compulsory 15-minute wait on one of the serried ranks of socially distanced chairs at the exit end of the marquee to make sure there weren’t any dramatic adverse reactions:  one wasn’t allowed to leave until the release time stipulated on the vaccination card had expired.   The efficiency of the process was made possible by literally dozens of volunteers: I counted six men in bright orange overalls directing the traffic; several others had the job of meeting the cars and escorting people to the marquee; then there were the receptionists signing us in, the stewards guiding us to one of the ten vaccination booths, and two people responsible for the vaccination itself in each booth; and, finally, a group of volunteers keeping watch on those waiting to be released and checking the vaccination cards as we left.  Everyone we engaged with epitomized the ‘care’ in healthcare.

I had been wondering idly whether it would be the Pfizer or the Astra-Zeneca version of the vaccine that was being rolled out in York, not that I minded either way, but I didn’t need to ask the question.  Having been directed to one of the five booths on the right hand side of the marquee, I was asked a few routine health questions, one of which was whether I had any allergies.   When I mentioned that some 25 years ago I had experienced an episode of anaphylactic shock as a result of an allergy to an antibiotic, the vaccinator’s assistant immediately scurried off to find a supervisor who came over and ushered me into a booth on the other side of the marquee.  The answer to the question I hadn’t had the chance to ask was ‘both’.  The booth I had originally been shown to was using the Pfizer vaccine, the one on the other side was using the Astra-Zeneca one.  I was left to conclude that the Astra-Zeneca version is the less allergenic of the two.

Welcome as soothing organ music might have been as an add-on, it was the efficiency of the whole process and my gratitude to the scientists and volunteers responsible for my passport to what might with luck turn out to be a relatively normal future, that achieved the necessary soothing.  And some soothing was necessary.  When I heard about the mass vaccination centres being set up, my immediate response was to wonder whether it might conceivably be possible that our third-team government had learnt any lessons from the crashing and burning of its much vaunted world-beating Test and Trace system, now sunk (at least from the media) without trace.  So when I saw that the text message inviting me to book my appointment via an electronic booking form carried the logo of our GP practice I was reassured that there wouldn’t be the same communication problem as there still is between then centralized and community testing processes.  Wrong again.  The booking form was the Hannibal Lecter of user-unfriendly booking forms.   I’m nobody’s idea of an IT expert but I can manage any half-intelligently put-together electronic booking form. After struggling with this one for literally 90 minutes, I eventually got through to the climactic point when it told me that my GP practice, the one whose logo headed the form, isn’t taking part in the mass vaccination process.

I phoned our GP practice at 4.30 and eventually spoke to a harried receptionist at 5.30, well after she was supposed to have gone home for the weekend.  She told me that a phone queue with 11 people waiting to speak to the practice had leapt up to 77 people during the afternoon as people received the offending text message.  She offered to book me an appointment the next day but warned that it would take her ten minutes to do so, as it duly did.  She had no idea when she would get home that evening and isn’t paid for any overtime.   I couldn’t bear to ask her how many people were still in the queue waiting to speak to her. When we eventually emerge from the current crisis, as we surely will, it will be on the backs of the innumerable receptionists, volunteers, doctors, nurses, scientists and other key workers who have managed to carry those of us who are left through to the other side, in spite of the venal incompetence of those who are supposed to be in charge.

From David Maughan Brown in York: What are they thinking?

14th January

One of the problems associated with trying to preserve what is left of one’s sanity under lockdown via a high degree of selectivity where the news media are concerned is that it is extremely difficult to get a handle on precisely what the great British public is thinking.  Reading the Independent, Guardian and New European, and watching or listening exclusively to the BBC and Channel 4 news, doesn’t help very much when it comes to gauging just how much support there is for current government ministers or their policies.  One assumes that a populist government would be anxious to run its policy proposals past focus groups representing ‘the people’ in the interest of maintaining its popularity, but can it be doing so in present circumstances?  Or is it having to look for affirmation from the dwindling numbers of members in the Conservative Party whose average age was estimated by the Bow Group, a Conservative think tank, in 2017 as 72 (although others suggest the rather lower figure of 57).*   Now that Brexit is ‘done’, for ill or even worse ill, does Boris Johnson keep the likes of Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel in key posts in the cabinet, in spite of the levels of embarrassment they occasion, because he thinks the Tory-voting public like their policies, because he thinks the Conservative Party likes them, because they know too much about him, or just because he is beyond embarrassment?

Having kept Priti Patel at a safe distance from the 10 Downing Street press conferences since May, in spite of the fact that she is Home Secretary and thereby ultimately responsible to Johnson for the explaining and policing of lockdown measures, Boris Johnson absent-mindedly allowed her to front the press conference on Tuesday evening.  In response to questions about how the lockdown rules should be interpreted, Patel confidently assured the nation that ‘The rules are actually very simple and clear’, and went on to elaborate on what is permitted: ‘And then of course outdoor recreation but in a very, very restricted and limited way, staying local.’  Given that the point of the questioning was to ask what ‘local’ is supposed to mean, and given that ‘recreation’ is explicitly ruled-out in the government guidance – ‘It is against the law to … leave home for recreational or leisure purposes…’ – this was less than helpful.  Unsurprisingly, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick appears not to think that the rules ‘are actually very clear and simple’: she recently told the BBC’s Today programme that, ‘Anything that brings greater clarity for officers and the public in general will be a good thing.’

John Rentoul, The Independent’s chief political commentator, claims that Patel is popular among Conservative Party members, which raises the question as to whether there really is wider support beyond that very limited (in several ways) group for the short-sighted and xenophobic viciousness of Patel’s policies on asylum and immigration.  So, to take just two examples this week, in The Independent on Sunday 10th  Rob Merrick reported that, in line with Patel’s crack-down on immigration, our government had refused the EU’s offer of the ‘standard’ reciprocal visa-free exemption for performers and then, predictably, lied that it was the EU that had refused the UK’s request.   This had been greeted with outrage from the music industry, which stands to lose a significant portion of its annual income as a consequence.  On Wednesday 12th The Independent carried an excoriating critique of Patel’s ‘brutal’ approach to asylum-seekers which risks ‘whipping up an unpleasant reaction to some very vulnerable people’ by no lesser figure than Caroline Noakes, Priti Patel’s Conservative predecessor as Home Secretary.** Where asylum-seekers are concerned, Noakes suggested that commitments to change the Home Office following the Windrush scandal had been ‘torn up, disregarded and rendered clearly completely irrelevant’, citing a camp for asylum-seekers being set up on Ministry of Defence land in her Kent constituency that has no electricity or water mains and will not be provided with healthcare.  Noakes concluded that asylum ‘is an incredibly hard nut to crack, but I don’t think you crack it by being inhuman towards people; I don’t think you crack it by being brutal and muscular in your policies.’

So we find two markedly contrasting approaches within the same Conservative Party: the one brutal and inhuman – and one could cite reams more evidence against Patel in that regard; the other compassionate.  If Rentoul is right about the Patel being popular with the membership of the Conservative Party, it seems reasonable to suppose that Caroline Noakes probably isn’t.  But the critical question for me, in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol in Washington by white supremacists, is just how much support the Tories have among the great British public for their brutal and inhuman approach to immigration and asylum.  One has to assume that, at the very least, Johnson and Patel must be confident that support for their brutality extends well beyond the limited membership of the Conservative Party.  I would like to think that, despite the best efforts of the Sun and the Daily Mail, the majority of the British public would, if it came to it, disavow a policy of calculated brutality and inhumanity towards exceptionally vulnerable people seeking refuge in our country.  But I could be wrong.  As I acknowledged at the outset, I don’t have a finger anywhere near the pulse of the general populace.  If I am wrong, it really does matter.  Because if I am wrong that would suggest that England is nurturing a hard core of white supremacists and assorted extremists who might well be capable of the violent storming of the Palace of Westminster at the behest of a maverick political leader, just as their counterparts in USA stormed the Capitol.   

*https://fullfact.org/news/how-old-average-conservative-party-member/

** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/home-office-immigration-caroline-nokes-priti-patel-uk-b1776208.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: The Boris and Donald Duo

Follow my Leader

January 9th

One of the more surprising things about Wednesday’s first storming of the Capitol in Washington since August 14th1814 was how surprised and shocked the majority of the world’s politicians and media commentators purported to be.   Trump had pre-emptively started to call the validity of the election, particularly of all postal votes, into question long before Election Day on November 3rd.  For the previous five years, Trump’s Twitter followers, now numbering over 88million, had been encouraged to live in an alternate reality, regaled with a narrative that cast him in the role of the Swamp-Draining Super-hero who was on their side in the battle against the swamp-dwellers.  With that narrative as the base, it was easy for him to build the grand delusion that the election had been fraudulently stolen from him and them; their votes had counted for nothing.  Rather than countering the myth-making, every single one of the 62 failed lawsuits contesting the outcome of the election merely served as further proof to his followers that there was a grand conspiracy at play and that their votes had been stolen.  The indistinguishably socialist/communist/Marxist swamp dwellers were in the process of illegitimately seizing power.

So when, after an inflammatory speech outside the White House, Trump said ‘After this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you.  We are going to be walk down to the Capitol…’ and continued with ‘… you’ll never take back our country with weakness.  You have to show strength, and you have to be strong’, his followers took him at his word and invaded and trashed the Capitol headquarters of the swamp-dwellers, at the cost of five lives.  Trump had omitted to mention that, while he would be with them in spirit, he sure as hell wasn’t going to be with them in person: he had retreated to the safety of the White House.   It is clear from interviews with their leaders in the Capitol that the motley gang of what Biden rightly called insurrectionists genuinely believed that in invading the Capitol they were reclaiming their democracy.  The next day, Trump, having earlier tweeted to the rioters in telling them to go home that ‘We love you. You’re very special’, clearly awoke belatedly to the realisation that his immediate interests lay in disowning any responsibility for inciting the insurrection.  So he promptly betrayed his followers by executing a U-turn worthy of Boris Johnson and declared: ‘Like all Americans I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem.…To those who broke the law, you will pay.’  

The comparison with Johnson, whom Trump once approvingly labeled ‘Britain Trump’, is not coincidental.  When asked, Johnson condemned the invasion of the Capitol and Trump’s role in inciting it: “I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way that they did in the Capitol.”  But, inadequate as ‘disgraceful’ was as a label for what went on, Johnson’s condemnation came across as the equivalent of Trump’s own volte-face from incitement to insurrection to ‘outrage’ at the insurrection he had incited.  Johnson was Trump’s man and vice versa.  As Foreign Secretary in 2017 Johnson is on record as saying that Trump was doing ‘fantastic stuff’ and ‘making America great again’; in 2018 Johnson bizarrely made the case for Trump to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Needless to say Trump agreed with him: “I’m going to get a Nobel Prize for a lot of things — if they gave it out fairly, which they don’t.”  The admiration was mutual.  Prior to Johnson’s election as Prime Minister by the Conservative Party, Trump told The Sun: “I actually have studied it very hard. I know the different players. But I think Boris would do a very good job. I think he would be excellent. I like him. I have always liked him.”  

The mutual admiration is not a case of opposites attracting.   Both men appear to be entirely lacking in either principles or scruples when it comes to getting what they want.   Both men have been caught out lying countless times, are inveterate womanisers and seem compelled to handicap their effectiveness in government by  surrounding themselves with sycophants of limited or no competence.  Both men belong to a minority social elite, have a history of racist utterances, purport to be men of the people, and, somewhat surprisingly, seem to manage to convince a significant proportion of ‘the people’ that are just that.  Both men foster grand delusions among their voters in order to achieve their political ambitions: Trump’s most recent one being the stealing of the election; Johnson’s being the delusion that Brexit can be of benefit to the UK.  Johnson’s distancing of himself from Trump at this juncture will, as always, be a matter of expediency and opportunism, not principle: he needs now to try to cosy-up to Biden.   The only question for me is whether in similar circumstances our wholly unprincipled Prime Minister would be prepared to incite an invasion of Parliament if he saw it as being in his interests to do so.  He was very happy to prorogue Parliament illegally.  He was entirely comfortable with introducing legislation in Parliament to renege on an international treaty he had himself signed less than a year previously.  I’ll leave it to you to consider the extent to which scruples about democracy would get in the way of Johnson’s ever inciting his followers to violence if he saw it as being in his interests to do so.

From David Maughan Brown in York: School is out

January 5th

So, another year, another lockdown.  One day last week – it doesn’t much matter which, they are all the same – someone, probably our exemplary Prime Minister (in the Concise Oxford’s enigmatic second-choice meaning: ‘serving as a warning’), switched our Secretary of State for Education on and pointed him in the direction of the BBC’s Today studio.  Once he got there, it transpired that he had been programmed by mistake to audition for the BBC’s ‘Just a Minute’ programme by talking non stop, without pause or hesitation, for the full ten minutes of the interview on the subject “Education is our nation’s top priority”, digressing only to complain without hesitation that the Today presenter who had drawn the short straw kept interrupting him by trying to ask questions.   His programmer appeared not to have been told that one of the rules of the game was that he was supposed to avoid repetition.  It became apparent very rapidly that whoever is responsible for robotics in Downing Street hasn’t yet got on top of programming Williamson to voice his repetitive message in something other than a monotone.  The gist of what he had been programmed to say was, you will have gathered, that education is a national priority, and that schools would most certainly reopen on schedule on 4th January.

On December 30th the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (the SAGE that scientific experts decided they needed to establish when it became apparent that Dominic Cummings was trying to exert his malign influence on the official SAGE) warned that a third national lockdown, was “vitally necessary”.  On 18th December the Office of National Statistics had calculated that the rate of Covid19 infection in children was much higher than that in adults: the proportion of the 2-6 year-old population in England infected with Covid19 was more than twice that of those who were over 50, and that of the 7-11 year-old population more than three times that number.  A study released by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on 23rd December had concluded that the government would have to close primary and secondary schools and universities if the infection rate was not going to continue to worsen.  

On Wednesday 30th the Government yielded to pressure and postponed the start of the Spring Term for all secondary, and some primary schools in London, to mid-January, in spite of education being a national priority.  By Saturday 2ndthe government had performed another U-turn, telling primary schools in London not to open the following Monday, generously allowing parents almost the whole weekend to make childcare arrangements.  This was somewhat ironic given the same government’s threat to take legal action against some (Labour) London Councils for trying to ignore the fact that education is a national priority by closing their Covid-hit schools for the last week before Christmas.  On Sunday 3rd it was reported that the National Association of Headteachers was urging all schools to move to home learning and that it was taking legal action against the Department of Education, demanding to know the scientific evidence on which the insistence on keeping schools open was based.  At the same time the National Education Union reminded its members that they were not obliged to go to work if the conditions they were expected to work in were unsafe.

All of which was a slow and painfully protracted lead-up to the moment on Monday 3rd when Johnson, hair half-brushed and spasmodically jerking clenched fists for once kept more or less under statesmanlike control, announced our third national lockdown – despite the fact that education is our national priority. At our resurrected Downing Street daily news conferences that afternoon, when Johnson was asked in effect why he had waited until millions of potentially infected children had been brought back to infect others at school for just one day before closing all schools, colleges and universities as part of a national lockdown, he replied: “We wanted to keep schools open but, alas, it became clear that the data wasn’t (sic. – and he prides himself on his Latin) going to support that.”  Given that the day before he had baldly declared that “schools are safe”, the implication was that the data from 18th December had only become known the night before.  Telling the entire nation such a bare-faced lie on such a critical matter would not have been regarded as particularly statesmanlike in the pre-Trumpian era.  So the classrooms were empty today while over 62,000 people in UK tested positive for Covid; 30,000 people suffered in hospital with Covid; over 1000 people died From Covid; and our official underestimate of Covid-related deaths in UK rose to over 77,000.   The wheel has come full cycle and “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives” has once again trumped education as the national priority.  One just has to hope it isn’t too late to save the NHS

From David Maughan Brown in York: Having one’s fishcake and eating it.

The Conker King

December 31st

So, as 2020 shuffles embarrassedly off the stage, our ever-modest, ever-honest, ever-understated Prime Minister has finally, as far as he is concerned, ‘got Brexit done.’   As of 11pm tonight it will all be a thing of the past, the bright new dawn will break in the middle of the coldest night this winter, and we can all come together again and rejoice in our newly won freedom and sovereignty.  Not only has be ‘got Brexit done’ but, as he announced to the evident astonishment of BBC’s outstanding political commentator, Laura Kuenssberg, who was interviewing him yesterday, he has achieved what the skeptics regarded as being impossible by way of ‘cakeism’:  he has managed both to have his cake and eat it.  Given that we have actually had a sovereign throughout the four and a half long years of the Brexit saga, I’m hoping it isn’t too outrageously pro-EU of me to wonder whether he has taken the trouble to ask Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II what she thinks of his cake deal.  It isn’t difficult to guess what the answer would be, were the protocol to allow her to tell him. 

The ‘democratic’ process of parliamentary approval of the deal left something to be desired.  After those very long, very fraught, four and a half years, our elected representatives were allowed all of 24 hours to read the 1200/2000-page (estimates vary) agreement, and given five hours to debate it.  Leaving aside the minor detail that the cake deal only looks at trade in goods, which account for only 20% of our GDP, and completely ignores the other 80% that relates to Services, there remains endless potential for years of ongoing wrangling with EU negotiators on a wide range of important issues, such as: the mutual recognition of professional qualifications; data sharing; and, perhaps the most serious, security, as the deal cuts the UK out of the Schengen Information System database, which provides real time information on serious crime and terrorism and was said by a senior police officer to have been checked 603 million times by the police last year, and the EU’s policing agency, Europol.  Our Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, assertion that the deal will make UK ‘safer and more secure’ is manifestly untrue.

The great ambition of Brexit was for the UK to ‘take back control’ of its destiny which, bearing the island heritage of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Admiral Horatio Nelson et al. in mind, meant the need to demonstrate symbolically that Britannia Rules the Waves.  The grand announcement of the agreement of a deal was delayed hour by hour, pizza by pizza, through the night into Christmas Eve as the 0.12% of UK GDP represented by the off-shore fishing industry was haggled over to this end.  Given that HMS Victory, the Golden Hind and Raleigh’s ship the Ark Ralegh (which he gave to Elizabeth 1st who ungratefully renamed it the Ark Royal) are, regrettably, no longer in service, the waves these days apparently have to be ruled by fishing trawlers.  One might have imagined that the triumphant gesture with which Johnson greeted the news of the agreement (see above) – the eleven-year old who has just been crowned Conker King of the second form – signified that he had achieved his goal of having his fishcake and eating it.  But far from it.  The Independent’s analysis tells us that:  ‘EU boats will continue fishing in UK waters but their share of fish will [only] fall 15 per cent in the first year and 2.5 per cent in each of the four following years…. By 2026, UK boats will be allowed to catch approximately £140m more fish.’   After that there will be annual negotiations, and no doubt more late night pizzas (despite Brexit being ‘done’ five years before) to decide how much of the catch each side gets.  The UK could, of course, decide at that point not to allow anyone else’s fishing boats into its waters, but then not only would the EU be entitled to place tariffs on UK exports (including all the fish the UK can’t eat as it is), but someone has also uncovered a paragraph buried among the 1200/2000 pages entitling the EU to cut its supplies of petrol and gas to UK in such an eventuality. SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford has spotted, buried in the detail, that the deal Johnson is busy celebrating means that Scottish boats will actually have less access to cod and haddock than they do now.   Apart from being yet more grist to the Scottish Independence mill, this means that whatever fishcake Johnson thinks he can both have and eat is unlikely to be made from either of our two most popular fish.

I hope it won’t sound too hollow if I take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year as Covid2020diary turns 21, in fact if not in name.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Christmas 2020

Occasional poet and novelist since retiring as Deputy Vice-Chancellor of York St John University in 2013

30th December

So Christmas has come and gone and, like so many of the paradoxes this strange and difficult year has thrown up, ended up, thanks to modern technology, being as social as any we’ve ever had, in spite of our being largely socially isolated and, for the couple of hours when we weren’t, maintaining a very careful social distance.  Present-opening in Cape Town over breakfast; followed by present-opening in Sheffield; followed by present-opening on my son’s lawn in York, as the temperature warily edged its way up to 3C.  Followed by mulled wine and snacks round a brazier for an hour on a friend’s lawn; then Bingo with all children and grandchildren in the afternoon; and a 90 minute chat with my four siblings and partners variously in Johannesburg, Namibia, Devon and Washington DC to end the day.  So another grand conjunction: this time between Zoom and the weather gods’ cloudlessly sunny day.

Christmas 2020 for us seemed to be characterized by a particular generosity of spirit which came partly perhaps from a recognition and thankfulness that our family has so far been one of the lucky ones that hasn’t been too badly affected by Covid19.  The only slight shadow on the horizon was the persistence of the underlying worry that my son-on-law was due to go back on duty as an A&E consultant in Sheffield in the evening, and that for some peculiar reason, unlike NHS staff in some hospitals elsewhere, the hospital staff in Sheffield have not been prioritized for the vaccine.   While stories abound of the vaccine being sent out to GPs for the prioritised elderly – whose continued existence provides living demonstration that they can self-isolate perfectly well – and the GPs not being able to use it all on the elderly, so calling in their friends and relatives to jump the age-priority queue, those NHS staff putting their lives at risk in our hospitals every day are being bumped down the queue.

The spirit of generosity that informed our Christmas was introduced for me this year by a Christopher Duigan concert we enjoyed shortly before Christmas.  In my entry on July 18th I wrote at some length about the hour-long piano concerts live-streamed via You Tube twice-weekly from his house in Pietermaritzburg that have been among the relatively few highlights of a year’s social isolation.   At one point during the Christmas concert it was reported on a corner of the screen that 462 people currently subscribe to Christopher’s concerts; they deserve to have many thousands more.  The Christmas concert saw Christopher being joined by Bongiwe Madlala, a brilliant Zulu soprano who gives concerts with Christopher on a fairly regular basis in normal times, although we haven’t had the pleasure of hearing her before. During the course of the hour, she told Christopher that it was the first time she had sung for an audience of any kind since March.   The concert consisted mainly of well known arias sung by Bongiwe, interspersed with classical piano pieces and a bit of improvisation from Christopher, ending with a couple of Christmas carols.  I found the fusion of Western culture and African culture almost unbearably poignant at times.  Where cultural artefacts were concerned, there was, in fact, relatively little that was African:  the Zulu lullaby, ‘Thula, thula, baba’, and one verse of ‘Silent Night’ sung in isiZulu.  But the warmth and humanity of Bongiwe’s singing, and the whole ambience of the concert, felt to me to be quintessentially African and richly redolent of ‘Ubuntu’, variously interpreted as ‘A person is a person through other people’ and ‘I am, or we are, because you are.’ 

Bongiwe Madladla’s voice has a richness and strength, but also a warmth tenderness, that convey the humanity and concern for others that Ubuntu seems to be all about, which harmonizes perfectly with the care that Christopher and his partner Barry take to ensure that the visual context out of which the music flows via the live-stream is as richly appealing as the music is itself.  The backdrop to the music – the colourful wall-hangings, the paintings, the assortment of large, beautifully framed mirrors, the brilliant displays of orchids, or, for Christmas, poinsettias – is subtly changed for every programme.   There is a painstaking, deeply thoughtful, attention to detail, to making the whole sensory experience of sight and sound as beautiful as possible, that reflects a gratuitous generosity: people tune in for the music, and Christopher’s informal commentary, the visuals are a bonus, an unasked for gift.  And what a gift that concert was.

From David Maughan Brown in York: It’s all in the stars.

December 23rd

Manston Airport in Kent: 22/12/20

‘It’s all in the stars’ – or, more accurately, to be a bit of a killjoy, in the planets.  A Grand Conjunction only happens once every 800 years so it must, of course, be redolent of cosmic significance, and Jupiter and Saturn chose to align for our benefit at the winter solstice in 2020.  What could be more significant than that?  Given what 2020 has dished out to everyone, astrological significance should come as no surprise, but when it comes to comprehensive interpretation one has to rely on the wisdom of astrologers.  What better authority to call on to tell us what it all means than the Daily Telegraph’s tame astrologer Carolyne (sic) Faulkner who informs the world that this conjunction is occurring in Aquarius, which is an air sign, and that all other conjunctions for the next 200 years will be occurring in air signs.  She goes on to say that whereas “Earth energy triggers people to become more grounded, practical, sensible; to have respect for politicians and institutions. Air energy triggers cerebral, less tangible happenings.”

I’m glad she told us that.  If we had been told that it was Earth energy that was holding sway over us we would have had to conclude that the energy, like that of the pink mechanical rabbit in the battery advertisement, was grinding to an arthritic halt.  There is very little that is grounded, practical or sensible in the way we are being governed, and respect for politicians, and many institutions – the NHS being a notable exception – dribbled away long ago.   On the other hand, if air energy ‘triggers cerebral less tangible happenings’ that explains why our entire economic and societal future is currently caught up in an ideological wind-storm with no tangible benefits whatever in prospect.  To take the latest example of the utterly delusional cerebral forces determining our future (giving the benefit of any doubt that anything resembling a brain is involved), one only has to cite our representative Home Secretary, the inimitable Priti Patel: ‘The government has consistently, throughout this year, been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures.’  She then went on to correct Boris Johnson’s absurd claim that only 170 HGV’s were queuing in Kent, by claiming the number was 1500, in itself a serious underestimate (today there are said to be 5000- 8000), and then pointing out that the number was constantly fluctuating as “lorries are not static”.  Tell that to the drivers of the seemingly motionless lorries ‘stacked’ on Manston airfield in the photograph above.   She might also like to tell them where they are supposed to find food, water and loos – never mind somewhere to sleep – for the three or four non-‘static’ days they are having to spend in Kent before being forced to be away from their children for Christmas.

The Grand Conjunction, symbolically hidden from the view of most of the UK by impenetrable clouds, should probably be taken as nothing more esoteric than a stark cosmic warning – a preview projected in the stars – of the much less grand, but probably equally far reaching, conjunction of Covid19 and Brexit.  The French government, understandably panicked by our callow Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock’s, ill-judged statement that the new variant of the virus was ‘out of control’, promptly closed their borders to all people coming from UK, and every single state in the EU, apart from Greece and Cyprus which are retaining strict quarantine regulations, immediately followed suit.  Many other countries around the world have now done the same.  So our proudly independent and sovereign little island nation is completely cut off; nobody wants us anywhere near.  Our rabidly jingoistic tabloid press promptly and predictably erupted with age-old Francophobic fury, accusing President Macron of playing politics.  Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian politician, reflecting on the current chaos and probably on the empty supermarket shelves to come, commented that the British people “will now start to understand what leaving the EU really means….”  Matt Hancock, gaze fixed firmly on the national navel, and unable to see beyond the white cliffs of Dover, had been intending his comment to persuade those living on his little island to abide by their Tier restrictions, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world was bound to be listening.  Those trying to argue that lorry drivers don’t pose any risk of transmitting the virus because they spend their time ‘alone in their cabs’, and should have been allowed to cross back to France, have the same problem with national navel-gazing: they would appear not to have heard that HIV/AIDS research in South Africa has demonstrated very clearly that the spread of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa can be traced along the routes taken by long-distance truck drivers ‘alone in their cabs’.

The timing of the Grand Conjunction so close to Christmas 2020 has reawakened discussion of the theory that the star of Bethlehem in the story of the nativity could have originated with the conjunction of Jupiter with Venus (rather than Saturn) in 2BC. For those inclined to read messages into astronomical events, there might be a message there for our nationalistic ‘Christian’ xenophobes as they ponder the Nativity story in their unsung Christmas church services.   Perhaps the writing in the stars might be inviting them to compare the fates of two families, and two very young children in particular.   On the one hand, 15-month-old baby Artin who drowned in the English Channel in 2020, along with his parents, Rasoul and Shiva, his nine-year-old sister Anita, and his six-year-old brother Armin, after the family had fled from the violence in the near East, travelling from Iran to Turkey, Italy and France before having to try to cross the channel in a small boat because Priti Patel had closed off all legal and safe ways to get here under the pretext of Covid.  On the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth, whose parents had also had to flee violence in the near East, but who found refuge in a non-Christian country that was happy to provide refuge to asylum seekers long before there were international agreements requiring countries to do so.

It’s all in the stars – if one only knew how to interpret them.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The Light Thickens

December 19th

It feels as though we in UK are on the cusp of an historic moment of enormous significance, as Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, tells us that there is still a chance of a free trade agreement with the EU, but emphasizes that the path is narrowing very fast.  Will our portly and lumbering Prime Minister manage to squeeze himself along that narrow path above a cliff-edge, whose dangers he has been warned about ad nauseam for the past four years, without either stumbling or throwing himself over the edge, taking us all with him?  Does he even want to try?  Boris Johnson, the supreme opportunist, who only decided to support the ‘Leave’ side in the referendum because he thought that was the best route to becoming Prime Minister, is rumoured now to be the most extreme Brexiteer of them all.

We have saddled ourselves with a government that is capable of threatening to bring legal action against the Labour Councils of Greenwich and Islington for having the temerity to close their schools for the Christmas break a week early and do their teaching online one week, because ‘Education is a National Priority’, and the next week of instructing schools to open their doors to only a minority of their pupils for the first week of term after Christmas and do their teaching online so that they can roll out an entirely unfeasible coronavirus testing programme.   It won’t have been coincidental that the legal threat was directed at Labour-run Councils.   So schools that had up to 21 members of staff away, either with the virus or self-isolating because of it, were forced to stay open, and teaching staff who desperately need a break after a very difficult and demanding term will have to spend their Christmas and New Year preparing for the logistically extremely complicated roll-out of the testing, that includes the training of hundreds of volunteers to administer the tests before the start of term.

Responses to the Tories way of handling their ‘National Priority’ have been vitriolic.  Paul Whiteman, the leader of the National Association of Headteachers has called it a “shambles” and accused the government of having ‘handed schools a confused and chaotic mess at the eleventh hour.’  The National Education Union has told Gavin Williamson, our adolescent Secretary of State for Education, that his plans are ‘inoperable’: “Telling school leaders, on the last day of term [for many schools], that they must organise volunteers and parents, supported by their staff, to test pupils in the first week of term, whilst Year 11 and 13 pupils are on site for in-school teaching, is a ridiculous ask.”   Both unions have, as one might expect, been too polite to put it more bluntly and say that, once again, our government has shown itself totally incapable of distinguishing its collective arse from its elbow or, in more northerly terms, of ‘knowing t’other from which’.

Meanwhile the key sticking point in the post-Brexit trade negotiations appears to be the fishing industry which represents 0.12% of our national GDP and employs less than 0.1% of our national workforce.  What remotely sane government is prepared to hole its entire Covid-hit economy below the water-line for the sake of ensuring that its fishermen can rule its waves, even if those fishermen will still have to try to sell the majority of their newly-tariffed fish into a justifiably unforgiving European Union?

It is difficult for pessimism not to outweigh optimism when looking to the new year, and four more years of a shambolically incompetent and dishonest government, elected, as much as anything, on the strength of lies and populist xenophobia.  The ‘Home Office’ label suggests that that particular disgrace of a government department can be taken as representative of the country that is our home.  Leaving the issue of immigration entirely on one side, recent figures have shown that, under the auspices of the Home Office, black people in UK are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched, than white people; five times more likely to have force used against them by the police; and four times more likely to be arrested.  With memories of apartheid South Africa still all too vivid, it is perhaps unsurprising that pessimism should from time to time find its way into one’s poems.

Light thickens
 
Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood;
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
(Shakespeare: Macbeth)
 
Light thickens.  Hope – hollowed to husks,
unsettled by stirrings in the air, 
whispers from the long grass –
waits for the wind to blow it away.
 
Dark shapes circle.
Hatched on the fringes of our rooky woods,
gorging on hate and fear,
they devour to husks the seeds of hope.
 
Their hate and fear is of the other, 
easy to sight, eagle-eyed, 
in the clear bright light of day,
but colour fades in the thickening light.
 
All sentinels who sound alarm
are othered now with stiff salutes,
as crosses are raised on distant hills
to await their time for burning.