From David Maughan Brown in York: Lockdown blood-pressure

June 14th

For many years in Pietermaritzburg I had my blood-pressure measured more or less every week prior to my having two pints of blood removed so that the plasma could be extracted for the manufacture of an anti-rabies vaccine and the red corpuscles returned to one or other of my arms, both of which still look as if I’ve been mainlining all my life.  My parents had been attacked by a rabid dog in Sierra Leone before I was born; without an effective vaccine I wouldn’t have been born; so it was a kind of pay-back.   Through all the years of apartheid Special Branch harassment, post-apartheid student protests, and everything else South Africa threw at us, my blood pressure, as tested on Monday afternoons, never varied an iota: 100 over 70.  In a much more relaxed retirement, weighing less, and with none of the usual risk factors, my blood-pressure has rocketed over the past two or three months to the point where  I am having to take medication to bring it down from the stratosphere.  Lockdown itself isn’t stressful, so the only possible cause I can come up with is the cack-handed way Covid-19 has been handled and, in particular, the blatant dishonesty and hypocrisy, and the blindingly obvious lack of logic of our ‘leaders’.

When it comes to the dishonesty, where does one start?  Given that I can’t spare the time to write ten pages, perhaps I should restrict myself to the first two blood-pressure-raising examples that to come to mind.  Anyone who has been paying any attention knows that the ‘official’ statistic for the death toll from Covid-19 that the government trots out every day, and the BBC dutifully repeats, having avidly listened with its virtual head cocked to one side like the dog in the His Master’s Voice trademark, is a deliberate lie.  It is the figure only for the number who have died after being tested and, as we know, Hancock and company were culpably slow in getting adequate testing up and running.  Even leaving aside the figure for excess deaths, they should be adding in the figures for those who hadn’t been tested but for whom coronavirus had been cited as a cause for their death on their death-certificates.  Meanwhile Matt Hancock keeps adamantly insisting that he ‘threw a protective ring around the care-homes.’   If he did throw his metaphorical protective ring around the care-homes, he must have smeared it with metaphorical novichok first.  How otherwise can one account for a ‘protective ring’ that results in the deaths of more than 16,000 of those it is supposed to be protecting?  Every time I hear another person grieving about a lost parent or grandparent who died in a care-home, that lie intrudes again.

Where hypocrisy is concerned, government endorsement of Cummings’ ‘perfectly understandable’ eye-test comes to mind, but today’s particular gem is ventriloquist-dummy Johnson, no doubt also listening avidly to his master Cummings’ voice, earnestly telling the world that he and Priti Patel won’t put up with ‘racist thuggery’.   What does he think he and his kindred spirit, Nigel Farage, have been doing for the past three years except deliberately flaming the virulent combination of English Nationalism, xenophobia and racist thuggery which took them to their marginal referendum result, then onward and downward to Boris’s success in the General Election, and has now contributed to the violence exercised against the Black Lives Matter protesters and the police?

Where logic is concerned, nobody appears to have even tried to explain the logic whereby one grandparent living by himself or herself can safely form a “bubble” with a family, but, if both are still alive, neither – let alone both – are legally permitted to immerse themselves in the very same ‘bubble’, irrespective of how rigorously they have been self-isolating up to now.   But the supreme illogicality, particularly for a government seemingly agonized over the economy, lies with the recently imposed quarantine on selected people entering the country.  Leaving the USA, Brazil and Sweden aside, almost every single one of the other 200+ countries in the world has handled Covid-19 better than our government, and has a population less likely than ours to carrying the infection as a consequence.  So our government ‘quarantines’ people who are less likely to be infected than the people they will encounter in UK, first by telling them to self-isolate for 14 days, and then by letting them wander off to catch public transport to whatever address they have decided to give, wherever they please in the country, on condition that they promise, ‘scout’s honour’, to be good.  Surely people don’t need Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, to tell them how stupid that is?  There are however, as one would expect, some sheer genius exceptions.  One of the many categories selected for exclusion from the ‘quarantine’ is long-distance lorry-drivers.  This may be sensible from an economic point of view but, given that almost all the countries in Europe have far fewer Covid-19 infections than the UK, it is very peculiar, to say the least, from the perspective of disease control.   Without wishing to impugn the behaviour of long-distance truck drivers, it is worth noting that the spread of HIV/AIDS in southern Africa has been tracked down the routes used by the long-haul truckers.

There is, however, a possible blood-pressure lowering interpretation of this otherwise absurdly illogical ‘quarantine’.   Perhaps our government, instinctively inclined to avoid being upfront about anything at all, for all the supposed ‘transparency’ of the daily Downing Street news conference, has undergone a radical, road-to-Damascus-type conversion.   Perhaps it has relinquished the comfort of its ‘hostile environment’, recanted on its implicit endorsement of Johnson’s ‘piccanninnies’, ‘watermelon smiles’ and comparison of women in burkas to ‘letterboxes’, regretted its racist handling of the Windrush scandal and decided it really likes foreigners after all.   Perhaps it really likes them so much, in fact, that it wants to protect the ones who are forgiving enough to visit our country from the possibility of being infected by the rest of us.  Two foreigners did, after all, save Boris’s life – perhaps this is his pay-back.  Our government couldn’t, of course, be upfront about so radical a conversion, as that would instantly lose them every last shred of their credibility with their Trumpian ‘base’.  Perhaps – but, then again, perhaps not.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Dickens and the San

June 12th

David Vincent’s very pertinent blog about Charles Dickens, with its vivid quotation from Little Dorrit describing Victorian lockdown in London, raises an interesting issue in the context of the current Black Lives Matter protests.  That relatively short quotation is enough to illustrate Dickens’ excellence as a descriptive writer whose extensive body of fiction fully justifies his reputation as one of England’s leading novelists.   In addition to being a powerful novelist, Dickens was a social reformer whose fiction is regarded as having assisted with bringing about positive social change during the nineteenth century.  But, unsurprisingly perhaps, there were other sides to him, as there were to the ‘philanthropists’ Cecil Rhodes and Edward Colston, not the least of which was, by all accounts, the way he behaved towards his family.

In the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, the mention of Rhodes and Colston in a blog reflecting on Dickens is not inadvertent.   Dickens visited the exhibition of ‘Bushmen’ in the Egyptian Hall in London in 1847, and wrote an article in Household Words in 1853 excoriating the notion of the Noble Savage.  In that article, he announces that he ‘abhors, detests, abominates and abjures’ the ‘horrid little’ leader of the San group on display ‘in his filth and his antipathy to water, and his straddled legs, and his odious eyes shaded by his brutal hand.’  But he goes further than merely expressing his abhorrence when he declares: ‘I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage…. I call a savage something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth… he is a savage – cruel, false, thievish, murderous; addicted more or less to grease, entrails and beastly customs….”  Dickens’s casual countenancing of the genocide which took place in parts of South Africa in the nineteenth century, which is implicit in the desirability of “civilizing” savages off the face of the earth, is made explicit later in the same essay: “All the noble savage’s wars with his fellow savages (and he takes no pleasure in anything else) are wars of extermination – which is the best thing I know of him, and the most comfortable to my mind when I look at him.’

While the language is as vivid, and the description of the San leader as powerful (in this instance as powerfully offensive), as it often is in his fiction, this is clearly not the Dickens of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol.  In so far as Dickens appears to be advocating genocide, the extent of the explicit racism expressed here goes beyond that of Rhodes and probably, although I haven’t read any of his writings, of Colston.   Colston needed his slaves to be alive if they were going to bring any money in for him; and Rhodes needed black labourers to dig for his diamonds.  So should the Black Lives Matter movement be moving on to have statues of Dickens removed as well, and while they are about it, have his books removed from our library shelves and burned, once all the statues of Victorian slave owners and other overt racists have been removed?

The obvious answer is a resounding “no”.   That, of course, is what anyone would expect from a retired English professor.  But isn’t that a bit hypocritical, coming from someone who has been a strong advocate for the removal of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, and has expressed regret the Colston’s statue wasn’t removed in response to earlier petitions?  Why not statues of Dickens as well?  The argument that Dickens has enriched our cultural life immeasurably, and that his fiction was promoting progressive social causes won’t wash.  As philanthropists, Rhodes with his scholarships and other donations, and Colston with the money he gave to schools in Bristol will unquestionably have brought social benefit, in spite of the sources of their wealth.  The tired argument that Dickens, like Colston and Rhodes, were ‘men of their time’ isn’t any more convincing.  There were plenty of mid-Victorians who didn’t think that genocide was a good idea.

Leaving aside the obvious argument that burning books isn’t a good idea in principle, there seem to me to be three main arguments for distinguishing between Dickens on the one hand and Rhodes and Colston on the other.  First, Dickens’ abhorrent views about ‘noble savages’ didn’t inform his fiction in any significant way, unlike, for example, the way Wilbur Smith’s racist ideology has informed his best-selling novels and influenced for the worse hundreds of thousands of readers’ racial attitudes in the process.  Second, leading on from that, Dickens’ racial views have not led to thousands of deaths.   The genocidal Afrikaaner settlers who murdered all the San in the Orange Free State were not inspired to do so by having read Dickens’ articles in Household Words.  Third, anybody looking at a statue of Dickens will recognise it as a tribute to an unquestionably important novelist whose major legacy is his body of fiction, not anything he wrote in Household Words.  In fact, perhaps regrettably, the chances of anybody, including any possible San visitors to U.K., knowing anything about his views on the San are vanishingly small, so it is highly unlikely that his statue, unlike those of Rhodes and Colston, is going to be hurtful or offensive to  anyone.   

From David Maughan Brown in York: Happy Birthday

June 10th

I woke up this morning to the sound of a military band playing the national anthem and gathered that this was in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh’s 99th birthday.  How bizarre is that?  It happens every year and the same happens on the birthdays of other members of the Royal family.  The oddity of the ritual never ceases to astonish me.   I commented in an earlier blog on the eccentricity, to put it politely, of a supposedly ‘national’ anthem whose exclusive focus lies on a single individual.  Its plea to the deity to enable her ‘long to reign over us’ has clearly been met by the Queen’s 68 year reign, but carrying on earnestly praying for her to live long into the future now she is 94 seems to be pushing it where both optimism and the powers of the deity are concerned.  But leaving the anthem itself aside, heralding the Duke’s birthday by playing his wife’s tune, and thereby further erasing his individual identity, is going too far.

The Duke of Edinburgh seems to me to deserve a lot better.  He is not responsible for the supreme social inequity of inherited wealth and privilege that inclines some of us to republicanism.  He may have been prone to the odd faux pas over the years, but he has performed an exceptionally unenviable subordinate role to the Queen with great diligence for almost all of what must have seemed 68 very long years.  Whether precisely accurate as to the detail or not, the television series The Crown has, I suspect, conveyed a fairly accurate idea of some of the difficulties of his position.

The 1995 Royal Visit to Natal in 1995 coincided with a fund-raising visit Brenda had to make to the United States, so it fell on me to spend a couple of hours showing him round the Howard College campus of the University of Natal, and then to attend an evening reception on the royal yacht Britannia, where I spent some further time chatting to him.   I found him very engaging and easy to talk to, and he was clearly genuinely interested in, and asked penetrating questions about, the exhibitions we had mounted for him, for what must have been his umpteen hundredth visit to a university campus over the course of the more than forty years during which he had by then been performing the role.  He even managed to refrain from commenting on the fact that the Union Jack that had been brought out of mothballs for his visit was inadvertently being flown upside down on the University’s flag-pole in his honour. Not being practised in such matters, I hadn’t noticed; I am sure he would have.   

The last two or three years have succeeding in shredding the credibility of our version of ‘democracy’ as a political system.   It has landed us with a government that has mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic so hopelessly badly that an OECD analysis shows that our economy is on track to be the worst affected of all the world’s major economies, with a probable slump in 2020 of over 11%.  That is without taking any account of the rapidly approaching economic insanity of a probable ‘no deal’ with the EU at the end of the transition period.  Our Brexiteer cabinet couldn’t be trusted to run a Sunday school picnic without losing half the children and leaving the rest with food poisoning.  A marginally different version of democracy has landed the United States with the execrable Donald Trump.  I wouldn’t advocate it, but in a crisis like this a return to monarchy right now could only be an improvement.  Any one of our monarch’s combination of experience, wisdom and intelligence would be extremely welcome.   But if the Duke of Edinburgh makes it to his hundredth birthday, as I’m sure we all hope he will, could someone please make sure that the BBC has the decency and tact to get the military band to play a simple ‘Happy Birthday to you’ for him instead of playing his wife’s tune as she passes the congratulatory telegram to him over the cornflakes.  The Duke of Edinburgh’s very special day will surely deserve to be recognised as his day rather than hers.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Luck

June 9th

So another special occasion passes with Covid-19 and the lockdown combining to preclude appropriate celebration.  This time it isn’t a birthday but a one-off:  my daughter, Sarah, passed the viva for her Sheffield Ph.D with flying colours via an online platform.   I was tempted to jump into the car and zoom the 45-odd miles down to Sheffield to toast her success with a socially distanced glass of something in their garden, but the something couldn’t have been celebratory champagne because we would have had to drive back up the M1 to York afterwards as we couldn’t stay the night.   I had to remind myself that there had been tens of thousands of other people in recent months who, also because of the lockdown, hadn’t been able to come together to console one another at the funerals of their loved ones.  We are, all too obviously, the very lucky ones, but, stark as that realization was, frustration at not being able to be with Sarah at this very proud moment outdid by a significant margin any sense of how lucky we were.

Talking of luck, we had gone through the ritual of wishing her luck beforehand, while I assured her that I didn’t think it was a question of ‘luck’.  What on earth, one might wonder, has ‘luck’ got to do with the outcome of the examination of what had in this instance been four very intensive years of ‘part-time’ work? It was either the product of good original research, well written-up, or it wasn’t.  But it isn’t entirely unknown for academics to be idiosyncratic, some have been known to ride hobby-horses into the ground, and there can undoubtedly be an element of luck in whom universities hit on to be the two, sometimes three, examiners on whom so much depends.   The top choices might be ill or unavailable, others might be too busy, it is not unknown for those doing the choosing to have to cast the net pretty wide.  Where career academics are concerned, it isn’t just the past five, or six, or seven or more years of hard work, sacrifice and stress that are at stake, it can also be an entire future career that hangs on the judgement of the examiners, who will all too often be overworked and stressed themselves.   If the topic is remotely contentious there is no guarantee that the examiners will necessarily agree with the line being taken.

Sarah’s thesis incorporated two published articles, one in a very high impact journal, which extended the number of people involved in making judgements about her research to some extent, as the articles had been reviewed by authorities in the field and been deemed publishable, which is one of the key criteria for success.  I had read the articles, and proofread other chapters, and although I am not a social scientist, the thesis looked to me to be very accomplished.   But its topic, research into the use of NHS paediatric Accident and Emergency Departments by immigrant parents for their children, was not uncontentious.   And my own D.Phil experience in the early 1980s was enough to leave a residual nervousness.   My dissertation was on the fiction written about the ‘Mau Mau’ movement in Kenya in the 1950s, was very quickly picked up and published by Zed Books once completed, and has recently been published in a second edition for Zed’s African Cultural Archive.   When I went into the viva it very quickly became painfully apparent that one of the two external examiners had failed it outright having barely bothered to read it, to the evident embarrassment of the other external examiner.  Failing the outcome of five years spent getting to my office at 4am every day to work on it, rather than simply refusing to examine it, was his contribution to the boycott of South African academics at the time.   Fortunately the other external examiner was one of the world’s leading authorities on East African history and, although the history of the movement was a relatively minor component of the dissertation, he was happy to pass it, and he won the day.   That particular, almost certainly career-determining, choice of examiner was as lucky as the choice of the other examiner was unlucky. So my wishing Sarah luck for her viva was not just ritualistic.  In the event I was right: it wasn’t a question of luck.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Colston and Rhodes

June 8th

As I watched last night’s news coverage of the statue of Edward Colston being pulled, Saddam Hussein-like, off its plinth before being dragged to the harbour and thrown into its depths, I wondered how long it would take before the name of Cecil Rhodes was mentioned.  The answer came with today’s BBC 1pm news – just over 15 hours.

There can be no escaping the fact that statues of historical figures are not simply inanimate sculptural artefacts that have been erected as historical records of what their subjects looked like.   They honour particular individuals and embody the values that informed the life-story for which those individuals are recognised.  So Saddam Hussein honoured himself with his many statues, and the destruction of the statue in Bagdad represented a symbolic rejection of the values represented by the statue as well as marking the end of his rule.   Edward Colston’s statue was erected in Bristol towards the end of the nineteenth century ostensibly to honour his very extensive philanthropic legacy in Bristol, but that, critically, was not all he was known for.   Many of the now highly contentious statues of Confederate generals in the Southern United States were not erected at the time of, or shortly after, their deaths but rather in the 1950s and 1960s in tacit opposition to the Civil Rights campaign.  Their erection embodied a particular set of mid-20th century values as much as any 19th Century ones.

The mention of Rhodes by the BBC was via reference to the highly contentious ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, which started at the University of Cape Town and then spread across South Africa, before being taken up at Oxford.  Its original focus was on a statue of Cecil Rhodes, who had donated the land on which the University was built.  The statue dominated the approach to the University and had to be passed by students walking up the hill to go to lectures, including steadily increasing numbers of black students.   It honoured a very driven man who achieved a remarkable amount in his relatively short life, acquired a vast amount of money, seized a million square miles of land in the process and, like Colston, was a benefactor to many good causes.  But in achieving what he did Rhodes was utterly ruthless, occasioned a great many, mainly black people’s, deaths and operated on the basis of a wholly repugnant racism, best exemplified by his bald five-word statement to the House of Assembly in Cape Town: “I prefer land to Niggers”.   It was Rhodes who pushed the Glen Gray Act, a blueprint for apartheid, through the Cape Parliament in 1894.  How could it possibly be appropriate for a statue bearing that weight of history and racist ideology to preside over the physical access to a post-apartheid South African University?   The statue had been a bone of contention for a number of years before a bucket of excrement thrown over it by a student heralded the protests that led to its final removal by the university.  With hindsight, it would have been far more sensible to celebrate the new dawn in 1994 by having a statue that was bound to be seen as a provocation quietly removed, instead of keeping it in its place of honour for fear of offending the university’s alumni and the more conservative white citizens of Cape Town.

Edward Colston was a very significant benefactor to Bristol, but he only had the money to give away as a result of wealth gained from the transportation across the Atlantic of around 85,000 African slaves.  The presence of the statue, with its highly visible demonstration of implicitly on-going admiration for Colston, had been deeply hurtful to many citizens of Bristol, and the subject of petitions for its removal for many years, to no avail.  It should have been removed via peaceful processes decades ago, as its presence was a gratuitous and wholly unnecessary provocation, just as the statue of Rhodes was.  The much less prominent statue of Rhodes at Oriel College is still in place.  After extensive debate and, one gathers, threats from donors to withhold their donations to the college, it was decided to keep it.   It was argued, as it was in Cape Town, that one shouldn’t judge 18th of 19th century figures on the basis of 21st century values and thereby ‘rewrite history’.   But the decision to retain the statue is not a ‘historical’ decision, it is a contemporary decision made in the context of 21st century values.  It is very difficult to argue that it is not an implicit endorsement of Rhodes’s own repugnant values, which, as it happens, were extreme even for the late nineteenth century, and were regarded with suspicion by many prominent figures in England at the time.

Our hopelessly tone-deaf Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have, with depressing predictability and lack of emotional intelligence, been castigating the ‘vandalism’ and thuggery involved in pulling Colston’s statue down, beating the Law and Order drum to appeal to the elderly Tories in the shires.   For my part I would much prefer Bristol to have found a more orthodox way to remove Colston’s statue long ago, but what I took away from watching the news reports of yesterday’s protests was an unexpected sense of optimism for the future.   The large crowds of mainly young people who took part in the protests were strikingly integrated.   Black Lives Matter very much, and it very clearly isn’t just black people that they matter to.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Protests against racism

June 7th

Protest marches against racism, most notably under apartheid, have been so memorable and regular a feature of much of my life that I am finding it increasingly frustrating not to be able to do anything active by way of demonstrating my support for those protesting against the murder of George Floyd, and institutionalized racism more generally.   Judging by the TV news coverage, the proportion of ‘vulnerable’ protesters (in this new world in which anyone over 70 is, by definition, ‘vulnerable’) is far lower than usual.  Of course the news footage has made it all too clear that anyone who protests in USA is vulnerable when it comes to police brutality.  The absence of older protesters suggests that, because we are statistically 500 times more likely to be seriously affected by Covid-19 than people who are only 20, even the most inveterate protesters of my age are with good reason less inclined right now to take part in large protest gatherings which are bound to preclude social-distancing.  But that does nothing to lessen the frustration.  Nor does the fact that I can’t possibly march more than a few hundred yards until such time as I can have a fusion operation on my back – and today’s Independent suggests that I am now one of ten million people waiting for non-emergency procedures of one sort or another.  I could ride my bike, but bicycles can’t very easily be accommodated in protest marches.

George Floyd’s killing, passively assisted by the three other policemen with him, was an outrage and it took far too long, even for the USA, for them all to be arrested and for charges to be brought against them.  It will no doubt be argued that they are ‘bad apples’ in an otherwise squeaky-clean police force.  The extraordinary footage of the elderly white man being pushed to the ground by the policemen in Buffalo, falling backwards, hitting his head on the pavement, and being left lying unconscious with a pool of blood seeping rapidly from a head wound is, in its way, more telling.   Afro-Americans are murdered by white policemen time and time again in the USA and I have no doubt the ‘bad apple’ argument is trotted out every time.  What was telling in Buffalo is that one policeman did try to tend to the fallen man but was hurried on by his colleagues, and that when the two men who appeared to be responsible were suspended, the entire 57 man emergency response squad resigned in protest. No 57 varieties there.  One can only hope that by doing so they will all be charged as accessories to the violent assault.  Whether or not that happens, and it probably won’t, this episode has blown the ‘one bad apple’ argument out of the water:  that whole barrel-full of apples has declared itself to be bad.

Leaving aside the almost certain second spike in Covid-19 infections that seems bound to result, it has been encouraging to see so many people coming out to protest against racism.   Many of those who have been interviewed by reporters have expressed optimism that this is the ‘break-through’ moment; that now something really will be done to address institutionalised racism in USA (and Australia and UK).  To which I can only respond with a world-weary sadness.  Would it were so.  As both South Africa and the United States show all too clearly, there are no break-through moments for societies built for centuries on institutionalised racism.   If ever there were was the potential for such moments, the elections of Mandela and Obama as Presidents should have been ones, but they only made the smallest of dents.  It will take generations to eradicate the legacies of slavery and apartheid from the consciousness of individuals instilled from birth with notions of racial superiority.

Racism hasn’t been codified in our law and practice in the UK in the way it has in USA and South Africa, but the UK is obviously not exempt from a similar legacy of institutional racism: much of our wealth was built on the backs of slaves, the history of Empire is not one to be proud of, and many black people have died at the hands of the police over the years here too.   More recently the racism and xenophobia underlying much of the Leave rhetoric in the 2016 Brexit referendum struck enough of a chord with the electorate to win the day, and in the process has given copious licence for racist abuse.   Much of the behaviour of our Home Office, the body responsible both for policing and immigration, is nakedly racist, as exemplified most obviously by the ongoing Windrush scandal.   There are multiple layers of irony in our Home Secretary’s instruction to us all not to attend this weekend’s protests against racism – if one could be bothered to waste time unpeeling them.  Priti Patel, recently crowned Queen of the Hostile Environment, whose presence in UK in the first place is entirely the result of Idi Amin’s racist expulsion of ‘Asians’ from Uganda, takes the lead for the government in ordering people not to attend demonstrations against racism – once again, you couldn’t make it up. Perhaps, given the very real difficulty associated with protest marches during lockdown, they did try to find a credible cabinet minister to deliver the message but realised that there isn’t one.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Kilometre-long queues

June 6th

Another York family birthday, this time it’s grandson James turning 12.  Another expedition across town along ‘half-known roads’ to go through the increasingly familiar ritual of putting a bag of presents on the doorstep and wishing him a socially-distanced Happy Birthday when he appeared in the doorway.  Definitely no hugs.  The sense of loss that comes with not being able to share the special days in person rather than via Zoom doesn’t lessen with the repetition.  This time no lingering either as it was raining and an ‘unseasonal’ North wind was blowing.  ‘Unseasonal’ is another word that could do with some scrutiny these days.   After the wettest February on record and the driest May on record, it feels as if we could be in for the windiest June on record, if anyone tries to keep that particular record.  It is almost as if the 2020 weather is as discombobulated as the rest of us by what is, or more probably isn’t, going on. When everything becomes ‘unseasonal’ it might be time to consider what it means to be ‘seasonal’.   In the meantime I would appreciate it if somebody could work out how to lock the wind down, as my roses are not enjoying it one little bit, welcome as the rain is. The drought-breaking shower I celebrated a few days ago didn’t even begin to penetrate the rock-hard soil on the allotment.

At least the weather in Cape Town appears to be doing what it should, the winter rain is back and had we been locked down there, which we came very close to being, we wouldn’t have had make do with the 35 litres of water per adult per day which was our allowance on our last two water-restricted visits.  That relatively close shave lends itself to ongoing comparisons of lockdown experiences in our Zoom chats with our family in Cape Town.  

Yesterday my son mentioned that a couple of days after the South African government had lifted its lockdown ban on alcohol and tobacco sales he had driven past a not very rigorously socially-distanced kilometre-long queue outside a local liquor store.   The South African government, which in general responded to the pandemic vastly better than ours has, banned alcohol and tobacco sales when it imposed the lockdown, arguing that alcohol and social-distancing were not good companions.  That may well be true, but it doesn’t take any account of addiction, and although the profits of online wine merchants increased dramatically in the first weeks of lockdown in the UK, the lockdown regulations here were generally adhered to reasonably well.  The tobacco ban took no account of the history of such prohibitions and instantly created a thriving black-market for criminal gangs to exploit. An abrupt ban on a previously legal and easily accessible addictive substance is not well advised, to put it mildly. 

When it came to kilometre-long queues, however, I wasn’t in any position to brag about the wisdom of our recent performance on that front.  People who queue outside a liquor store for a couple of hours at least have something to show for their patience when they finally get to their destination.  Our democratic representatives in the House of Commons have recently been forced into a kilometre-long, socially distanced queue in order to be able to cast their votes on our behalf.  The infinitely more sensible casting of votes electronically has been stopped; Members of Parliament have been forced to ‘set an example’ by returning to London from the far-flung corners of the UK, often having to risk taking public transport, which we are all advised against, to do so; MPs who for one reason or another can’t return to London are thereby disenfranchised.   When those who could get down to London eventually get to the front of the queue, all they have achieved is the opportunity to cast a largely meaningless vote: it isn’t parliament that is making our Covid-19 policies up on the hoof.  And all because the Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century, the inimitable Jacob Reese-Mogg, formally titled even more risibly as ‘Leader of the House’, thinks the raucous baying of the Tory backbenchers – better suited to a dogfight than the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ – might help our chaotic shambles of a Prime Minister to look a little less pathetic as he is humiliated week after week at Prime Minister’s Questions.

From David Maughan Brown in York: A tale of two delusions

3rd June

I’m beginning to think that I am destined to live much of my life under the shadow of irredeemably deluded governments.  

The first half of my life was ruled over by South Africa’s apartheid government, which deluded itself on the basis of an assumption of racial superiority that it could, in perpetuity, brutally ‘dominate’ – to use a Trumpism – the vastly more numerous black population of the country.  They were happy to go it alone in this inevitably futile endeavour in the face of almost universal hostility from the rest of the world, partly because they had managed to develop a Theology that helped them to believe that their God was entirely supportive of their project.   Even when they managed to decipher the writing on the wall, they embarked on the negotiations to end apartheid under the delusion that their racial superiority would ensure that they could run rings around the African National Congress representatives during those negotiations and would end up still effectively in charge.  Wrong again.

Our current ‘UK’ government, exclusively populated as it is by English nationalist Brexiteers, is equally deluded, and many of the signs of that delusion are not at all unlike the symptoms presented by the apartheid government.  Instead of straight racial superiority, this lot appear to be informed by an overweening sense of national superiority.  Any multilateral or bilateral trade agreement for which they are not exclusively responsible, and over which they do not have exclusive jurisdiction, is seen as a potential threat to a mythical ‘sovereignty’, elevated so high that it appears to have become the equivalent of the Afrikaners’ deity.  Our English cabinet’s sense of superiority over the Scots the Welsh and the Irish makes a mockery of a ‘United’ Kingdom as they go it alone with their lethally inept response to the present pandemic.

Much of that response demonstrates all too clearly just how badly a sense of national superiority gets in the way of rational government.  The UK had weeks in which to watch other countries responding to the spread of Covid-19, to learn the lessons and to make suitable preparations.   But when you are the best in the world at everything there isn’t anything anyone can teach you, and following the good example set by any other country might be seen to undermine the sacred ‘sovereignty’ of your independence.  So why bother to notice that New Zealand, which has handled the pandemic better than almost anyone, imposed its entry restrictions and quarantine as soon as the pandemic struck, not three months later once tens of thousands of people had already been allowed to die?  

Boris claiming to be proud of his government’s handling of Covid-19, and boasting that his risible testing and tracking system is ‘world beating’, is on a par with a six-year old child, who hasn’t even learnt how to brush his hair yet, jumping up and down on a tub in the playground chanting “I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal!” at the rest of the world.  Part of Boris’s problem is, of course, that much of the rest of the world is not as impressed by kings as it once was, and is no longer prepared to accept being relegated to inferior status.  

From David Maughan Brown in York: Rain!

June 3rd

Rain!  In York it doesn’t arrive accompanied by the unmatchable freshness of the scent of parched African grass being revived after a drought, nor does it usually come heralded by thunder and lightning, with the accompanying risk of hail damage.   But if allotments are into the business of praying silently for relief, their prayers have finally, if probably temporarily, been answered.   May 2020 was the driest May on record in England and the sunniest month ever, at least as far back as records go; this spring’s sunshine hours smashed the previous record by all of 70 hours, and have only been exceeded by summer sunshine hours in three previous years.  So you will gather that it has been dry.

Exceptionally welcome as waking up to unexpected rain has been after days of cloudless skies and temperatures in the mid to high twenties, it has brought a minor element of frustration with it.   Having seen an obese pigeon lumbering clumsily around in my strawberry bed two days ago, I concluded that it was past time to net the strawberries, and decided that, in spite of the heat, I needed to do that yesterday  afternoon.   I don’t enjoy the heat, and still can’t get used to finding that it seems to be hotter here at three in the afternoon than it does at midday.    When in the middle of January, in the deepest gloom of a York winter, people commiserate with me on the stereotypical assumption that I would rather be back in Africa, I assure them entirely truthfully that I would far rather be in York in winter than enduring the heat, humidity and mosquitoes of a Pietermaritzburg summer.  I suspect they don’t believe me.  But I digress.

Netting the strawberries involves the simple process of putting the various sections of a tubular steel frame together, positioning it over the strawberry bed and putting the net over it.  Simple in previous years, not simple in 2020.   The soil is rock hard, water poured onto it to soften it had about as much chance as it would have had on granite, so I couldn’t push the uprights into the ground.  The BBC weather forecast did predict a change in the weather, with the possibility of some rain, but the weather-app said there was only a 60% chance of rain in York, and experience tells me that a 60% chance almost invariably flatters to deceive where York is concerned and is more realistically a 0% chance.  So I decided I needed to make my way back to the car, go home, collect my largest hammer and hammer the uprights in.  Careful as I was in that process, the ends of the steel uprights were slightly splayed by the lengthy hammering and the plastic connections wouldn’t slide cosily onto the tops of the uprights any more.  So my whole netting structure has been compromised – and today it rains.

Keeping the allotment going through what has been a mini-drought has involved refilling our water-butt on a far more regular basis than usual.  This means dragging one end of a length of three connected hosepipes all the way to the nearest stand-pipe, and doing so as early in the morning as one can face getting up so that one isn’t monopolizing the tap when other people need it.   That is something of a hassle, but it is compensated for by the birdsong  – and at least one can still do it.   At the end of the driest May on record, one might have expected a hosepipe ban.   The reason that there isn’t one in the offing, and that the muttering about the possibility of one coming is still very muted, is that December, January and February were very much wetter than usual.  While one can be thankful that the reservoirs are still around 75% full, the contrast between the exceptionally wet early months of the year and the exceptionally dry spring, another entry in the record books, is almost certainly another indicator of climate change.   With all the other, Covid-19 induced, anxieties lining up to be worried about, one can probably be forgiven for allowing climate change to slip down the list a little.  But it certainly mustn’t be allowed to fall off the list altogether, and gardens and allotments will equally certainly help us to keep up to the mark on that one. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: Back to school?

1st June

How on earth could it have come to this? Today is the day, much-heralded by the tabloids, for the return to school after the ten long weeks of lockdown and home-schooling.  But only for some classes and only in England, and it is being left entirely up to parents, living through the worst health emergency this country has experienced for a hundred years, to take the potential life-or-death decision whether or not to risk sending their children back to school if they happen to be in the eligible classes.

On what possible basis are they supposed to make that choice?  Because the government of England, which we used to think was the government of the United Kingdom, says it is now time (and safe) to do so?  But the June 1stdate was decided weeks ago on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that it would be safe by today and, given that 8,000 people are still being infected by the virus every day, it is still, all too clearly, not without risk.  And not just risk to the children.  Although the evidence shows that children are the age group least badly affected by Covid-19, the extent to which asymptomatic children can carry the virus back into their homes to infect the rest of their families is still a lot less certain.

So are parents supposed to base their decision on our government’s track-record where the virus is concerned?  That is something of an ask considering that the UK is widely considered to have been one of the four worst countries in the world when it comes to its handling of the pandemic, unfair as that is to the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland.   Thanks to a decade of austerity, and a linked determination to be deaf to all warnings, we were hopelessly illprepared and under-equipped for the outbreak of a widely predicted global pandemic.   We stopped testing and tracking just when we should have been ‘ramping’ it up.  We allowed two major sporting events to go ahead, bringing thousands of spectators into this country from the epicentre of the disease in Europe, at a time when the rest of Europe was busy locking everything down.   We didn’t close our airports when we should have, and our government now bizarrely thinks that it is a good idea to do so three months too late.   So our government’s track-record isn’t going to inspire in parents a lot of confidence that it knows what it is talking about when it says it is safe for schools to reopen.

To complicate their decision even further, parents are having conflicting advice and concerns dinned into them from all sides.  The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) thinks it is OK for schools to reopen, but at least four members of that group have come out independently to say it is too soon.  And in any case that group lost credibility to such an extent when it became clear that Dominic Cummings was sitting in on SAGE meetings, and might be influencing its decisions, that an independent group scientific advisory group felt obliged to set itself up.  Teachers unions think it is too soon.  The vastly more credible devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland, which don’t consist of English Nationalists, think it is too soon.   But educational experts and children’s mental health experts are consistently pointing to the need to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so.  And almost all parents who aren’t teachers are likely to be only too ready to acknowledge that the home schooling they are trying to supervise won’t be as educationally sound as the lessons their children enjoy (or otherwise) in their classrooms.

What more basic reason could there ever be for having any government at all than to have a competent and authoritative body that can ensure that children will be safe in its schools?  One only has to look to New Zealand to know that, even in a global pandemic such as the one we are trying to live through now, that is not an unrealizable ambition.  But pity the unfortunate parents in England who have been left high and dry by our parody of a government to make the choice themselves as to whether to expose their children and their families today to the unquestionable, if one hopes relatively minor, risk of being infected by Covid-19.  It is a huge relief for me personally that none of my grandchildren is in one of the guinea-pig classes.  Not that I imagine for one moment that my children would think it a good idea to send their children back to school in present circumstances, even if they were eligible.