From David Maughan Brown in York: Exceedingly Testing

August 18th

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 16th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: No better way?

August 13th

I hope regular readers, if there are such, will bear with me if I ride another hobby-horse off in pretty much the same direction as I did in my last entry, and write about exams again.  My excuse would be that having spent 12 years at high school and university being expected to write them, and my entire 43 year working life at universities either setting and marking them or dealing with the copious fall-out from them, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about them.

So, half-listening to the Today programme yesterday, I sat up and took notice when our callow Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, who always manages to look like an adolescent rabbit in the headlights when interviewed on TV, articulated his (and by implication the government’s) key principle of educational faith when questioned by Nick Robinson:  “There is no better way of doing assessment than exams.”   In case we hadn’t been listening properly the first time, he reassured us later in the interview, not once but twice in successive sentences, that we had indeed heard him correctly: “No system we put in place is going to be as good as exams.  Every system we put in place is going to be second best to that.”  So lots of equal seconds, then, but no question whatever about what gets the gold medal.

However imperfect exams are, it has to be admitted that they will in many instances be better than assessing students via an algorithm that can somehow manage to increase the proportion of pupils achieving A* and A grades at private schools by twice as much as that at comprehensives.  Just as racist computers don’t programme themselves, so algorithms aren’t self-generating.  Our Prime Minister has declared the system to be ‘robust’, which his minders should know by now would fatally undermine any lingering confidence any half-intelligent observer might have had in it.  But anyone who has ever been involved in education knows that three-hour examinations, which is what Williamson is talking about, are a very much less than perfect way of assessing much beyond a student’s capability at writing three hour exams. And three-hour exams tend not to be one of the frequently encountered hazards of working life.  In an examination in the humanities, for example, if what you are looking for is a student with a disposition not prone to nervousness and the ability to spew large quantities of verbiage, much of it memorised, onto paper in a wholly arbitrary three hours, then examinations are your bag.  Quite what that ability is supposed to be useful for is not entirely clear.

Many parents would be very happy to let Williamson know that some children are very much better suited to the peculiarly artificial exigencies of sit-down examinations than others.   My own siblings are a case in point.   I was relatively good at exams because I enjoyed the challenge, had worked out how to work the system, particularly with regard to what was likely to come up in an exam, and in those days had a half-decent memory.   As an undergraduate I devoted about as much time to honing my bridge skills as to covering the extensive lists of set books (which I didn’t), and good results were in no way an accurate reflection of my knowledge of the curriculum as a whole.  My sister, who is no less intelligent and capable than I am and was vastly more diligent, has a brain that functions in a different way from mine, never came anywhere close to completing any exam paper, and consequently came out with consistently lower results, which didn’t stop her from becoming a successful computer programmer.  One of my brothers is dyslexic, was at school in an era when teachers had no idea how to identify or respond to dyslexia and assumed, wholly incorrectly, that he just wasn’t very bright.  He was petrified by exams and, unsurprisingly, didn’t get good results, which didn’t stop him from having a successful career as a primary school teacher.  And our Secretary of State thinks there is no better way of doing assessment than exams.

On top of their artificiality, the stress and anxiety they occasion, and the questions they raise about what they are supposed to be testing, exams also have unintended and pernicious consequences in encouraging both a narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’ (see nesta link below).  Continuous assessment would be a vastly ‘better way of doing assessment than exams’ if one could be sure precisely who it is one is assessing.  The only thing sit-down exams have going for them, pace their full-throated endorsement by the likes of Williamson, is that with proper security you can, at least, be quite sure who is responsible for the answers.   In that single respect they are the least-worst of all the many alternatives.  But, as I suggested in my last entry, the current A-level shambles is forcing people to confront exam and assessment-related issues in a way they haven’t had to before, and there may be hope for a revisiting of continuous assessment on the horizon.   It has been suggested that developments in Artificial Intelligence may eventually make sit-down exams obsolete (https://www.nesta.org.uk/feature/ten-predictions-2019/beginning-end-exams/). One can only hope so.  In the meantime our Prime Minister and our Secretary of State for Education, among others, might be well advised to start praying that continuous assessment via AI is never applied to their performance. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: A-levels.

August 12th

The omnishambles our impressively incompetent government manages to engineer in every area it is responsible for may be deeply damaging for all those affected, but from time to time the mess it makes opens the possibility that some long-term benefit might nevertheless inadvertently come from it.   The entirely unfunny farce those responsible have made of what they are choosing to call this year’s ‘A-level results’ is a case in point.   How schools, parents and A-level students are supposed to have any confidence whatever that the ‘results’ are any kind of reflection of the students’ ability is anybody’s guess.   Prospective employers can have equally little confidence in the capabilities of students who haven’t been able to go to school for the past five months and are now being made the victims of the pandemic twice-over.  Universities are being told that the ‘results’ they based their selections on may change at the last minute and are being requested to ‘keep places open’ for students, seemingly indefinitely.  Which last makes it clear that those making the request have no idea about how a university runs.   So how could any possible benefit come from this deplorable chaos?  

Whatever uncertainty and stress the shambles is wreaking on those directly affected in 2020, the one thing it is unquestionably doing is focusing a spotlight on the predictive omniscience of A-level results, which, with the notable exception of the Open University, are normally lazily fetishized as the almost exclusive means of determining whether or not students are fit to breathe the rarefied atmosphere of higher education.   This is particularly the case with those universities that like to see themselves, and make sure the media depict them, as the ‘top’ universities, and collude in the development of league-table indices to that end.  This year, for once, all universities are being forced to face the possibility that the highly fluid 2020 A-level results may not be a reliable indicator of a student’s potential to succeed at university.

In 1985 in South Africa, when I became the Dean responsible for admissions to the Faculty of Arts on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal, the apartheid system had, very deliberately, made sure that the school-leaving results of black students were almost completely useless as an indicator of university potential.  Apart from anything else, one had to contend with the results from 17 different Departments of Education and national Examination Boards, which all set different school-leaving exams.   To cite just one of countless examples, I arrived back at my office one evening, after a day spent on the university’s campus in Durban, to find a flustered PA and a Zulu-speaking student who had arrived early in the morning, refused to go away without seeing me, and sat himself down on the floor of the corridor outside my office all day to wait for me.  His school leaving results had earned him a total of 13 points from his six subjects in a system which prescribed a minimum requirement of 28 points for admission, barring ‘Dean’s discretion’.   He was highly articulate, obviously highly intelligent, and nothing if not persistent and committed, so I took a chance, and the Dean accordingly exercised his discretion.   The student in question took 13 subjects instead of the required ten, completed the degree in the minimum three years, and never had a result lower than an upper second.   He had obviously been given the wrong candidate’s school-leaving results.   Another Dean, I hoped at a different university, was probably left wondering what on earth could have happened to make the student who received my student’s results fail first year so badly.

So if you couldn’t rely on school-leaving results what could your do to find students who had the potential to do well at university in spite of their schooling? One answer was to set up what we called the Test-Teach-Test programme, TTT for short, which was based on the research of Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli psychologist who developed a theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability.   To grossly oversimplify, the implementation of this theory involved an iterative process of asking a candidate to take a test, ‘teaching’ the right answers and the reasoning behind them, getting the aspirant student to take the same test again, then assessing the difference between the two sets of answers,  and potentially repeating the exercise.  We took in significant numbers of black students on this basis who wouldn’t have had a hope of being admitted otherwise, and many of them justified our faith in them.   The prior question, of course, was who to test.   School results were a good place to start:  if a student had come first out of a class of 160, that fact might be a better indicator than a final mark of, say, 55%.   We wanted rural students as well as urban ones, so we sent people out to villages in the hills and valleys to identify likely candidates for the tests via, among other methods, asking the village elders who they thought were the really bright school-leavers.  And so on.

The situation in UK is obviously vastly different and A-level results are a much better predictor than the results we had to try to deal with.   But rich parents do have their sometimes not very bright students intensively tutored in ways poor parents can’t; the children of highly educated parents generally have resource availability and other advantages over those of less well-educated ones; some children come from broken homes, others have home lives wholly unconducive to study; some schools have better teachers and resources than others; some pupils choose A-level subjects they aren’t suited to, and others choose subjects some universities treat with contempt.  All this is blindingly obvious, but ‘contextual’ factors still seem to play far too insignificant a role in student selection, compared to A-level results, at most universities.  If universities really want to take in the students best suited to university study they need to take such factors much more seriously than they do.   Whatever the outcome of the 2020 A-level omnishambles, it is going to force the university sector as a whole to focus its collective mind on A-level results in a way it hasn’t had to before.   So in this one aspect, at least, this government’s incompetence might have done higher education and future students a favour.   It is also just possible that in the long term the UK university sector might find that in such matters there are one or two things the ‘developed’ world might usefully learn from the ‘developing’ world.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘News’?

August 11th

In an earlier blog some weeks ago I voluntarily offered up a plea of ‘guilty’ to spending too much time watching and listening to the ‘News’, even though nobody had actually accused me of doing so.  The point was made to me a couple of days ago, in not particularly accusatory fashion it must be said, that I almost invariably listen to the 7.00 am, 8.00 am and 1.00 pm BBC news and usually watch Channel 4 news (generally much more probing than the BBC) at 7.00pm and the BBC news at 10.00pm.  How sad is that?  The only plea I could make in mitigation was that I hardly ever watch the rolling news on any channel.   I couldn’t even claim that the only reason I indulge this vice is because there is nothing else to do under lockdown, or that I do it in search of something to blog about, because (while I’m coming clean I may as well make a full confession) I tended to do the same before lockdown.  

I suspect that this addiction has its origins in the two decades I spent in South Africa under apartheid when the South African Broadcasting Corporation was one of the main instruments the Nationalist government used for disseminating its unhinged racist propaganda and its paranoid perception of itself as the target of a ‘total onslaught’ from the rest of what it perceived as a communistic world.   For most of those years I was lecturing in a very traditional English Department, which saw itself as a global heir to F.R.Leavis and the New Criticism.  While students at all levels might have been good at analysing poetry, they were, with few exceptions, not applying any of the analytical skills they were acquiring to the language or subject matter of the all too often pernicious media they were consuming.   So, with considerable effort, I managed in the early 1980s to drag a Media Studies course onto the curriculum in the hope of enabling the students to discover that, if history is written by the victors, so the ‘News’ is not a neutral given but is, to a greater or lesser extent, selected for consumption, and controlled by, representatives of the dominant group in any society.   The withering, and wholly ignorant, contempt in which Media Studies as an academic discipline is held by conservatives, and many Russell Group universities (is there a difference?), in spite of the complex and rigorous body of theoretical work behind it, is obviously a reflection of the extent to which they would much prefer what goes into the print and broadcast media not to be subject to rigorous analysis.

So my self-exoneration when it comes to news addiction is that watching and listening aren’t a matter simply of accepting what one is being told or shown but, rather, a questioning of why it is being selected for our consumption in preference to the myriad other things that have happened nationally and globally, and of trying to analyse what lies behind the particular way in which it is being presented.   Sometimes, of course, the interesting thing is what is not being reported on, as with the long silence that suddenly fell on the ‘world-beating’ Test and Trace statistics.  What are we supposed to do, for example, with the daily list of the number of redundancies recently announced at major UK companies, or the wholly unsurprising drip of ‘news’ that their sales are down and their profits have dropped through the floor?   Why is Donald Trump’s being ushered away from a microphone because the US secret service have seen a suspicious man with a gun near the White House (Newsflash: said suspicious man has just been shot) seen as one of the three or four most important things to have happened in the world for the past 12 hours?  To raise our hopes?   One can assume that the difference between the BBC News and Channel 4 News has to do with Tory jabbering about the license fee, and I assume that very precise increases in the official Covid death statistics trotted out every day aren’t intended to depress us as much as to distract our attention from the very much worse ‘excess deaths’ statistics.   But, unlike the apartheid media in South Africa, the broadcast media in UK pose many more questions than they provide answers, and there lies a major part of their addictive interest for me.  

From David Maughan Brown in York: “Completely potty”

August 8th

A cacophony of clucking reverberates around our shores as another flock of Brexit chickens, not yet chlorinated, comes home to roost.   These particular metaphorical chickens have taken on the guise of asylum seekers who are desperate enough to pay up to £3000 each to people-smugglers to allow themselves to be put on overcrowded and unseaworthy small boats, pointed towards these shores, and pushed out into the English Channel.  Taking advantage of the calm weather, they are arriving in our territorial waters in increasing numbers.   Many of them will be fleeing the violence in countries like Syria and Somalia, many of them will have seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed, their friends, and members of their own families, killed.  Some will be fleeing persecution, torture and death threats.   Some are unaccompanied children.  They will all have made their hazardous and unwelcomed way across Europe and will be traumatised enough to think that, after all they have been through, it is worth the risk to try to make it across the last twenty or thirty miles of open water to what they hope will be a safe haven where some of them already have friends and family.

We should be pleased that the UK is still seen around the world as the kind of country it is worth undergoing daunting hardship and perilous journeys to try to get to.   After five more years of this government it almost certainly won’t be.  Instead of meeting trauma, courage and resilience with compassion and understanding, our national figurehead where such matters are concerned, the execrable Priti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Office, she of the permanent smirk, spews her xenophobic venom over Twitter and threatens to get the Royal Navy to sort them out.  A Ministry of Defence ‘source’, according to the Independent, says the idea of using the navy is “completely potty” and elaborates as follows: “We don’t resort to deploying armed forces to deal with political failings.  It’s beyond absurd to think that we should be deploying multi-million pound ships and elite soldiers to deal with desperate people barely staying afloat in rubber dinghies in the Channel.”

In essence, Patel’s problem is that ‘Taking Back Control’ and a national ‘Independence’ from anybody else’s rules was always a chimera.  Just as operating on World Trade Organisation terms means exactly what it says on the tin – being bound by regulations we don’t determine ourselves – so the ‘law of the sea’ dictates that people in small boats in UK territorial waters have to be rescued and taken to land in UK.   However much a furious Patel might feel inclined to sink the rubber dinghies, she can’t order the Navy even to ‘turn them back’.  It isn’t possible to disregard internationally agreed rules without making one’s country a ‘world-beating’ international pariah with whom nobody would want to have any dealings.   Genuine control would involve allowing the migrants to travel here safely, processing their asylum claims rapidly and humanely (which would require a different Home Office), welcoming those entitled to asylum and returning those we aren’t convinced by to the country of first entry to Europe to try to persuade that country to accept them.

Patel and her Brexiteer buddies are also going to sort France out, and make sure that France takes seriously its responsibility for stopping the boats leaving its shores, or turning them back before they leave French territorial waters.  They had better remember who won the Battle of Agincourt.   But if the Brexiteers were capable of coherent thought instead of perpetually playing to their fellow frothing-loon media supporters they might conceivably ask themselves two questions.  First, why on earth should France bother?  Once the transition period is over, the French would be entirely justified in feeling insulted, looked down on and patronised enough by the Brexiteers to stop spending what must be very extensive resources on trying to prevent migrants from making the crossing.  Indeed, it would be sensible, and almost certainly cheaper, to provide the migrants with the boats and escort them into British territorial waters themselves, with a ‘You wanted to leave the EU and “take control of immigration”, so it’s over to you.’  Literally ‘over to you’.

The other, longer term, question they should be asking themselves – although it seems way beyond their intellectual capacity and the very limited horizon of the immediate self-interest on which their attention is exclusively focussed – is who on earth do they think is in a decade or two going to be staffing the NHS, looking after their parents, waiting on the tables in their restaurants, and keeping fresh food on their tables, as our birth rate declines and they make sure that what is left of the once United Kingdom is a wholly undesirable place for people from Europe to seek work?   Many of the desperate people in those boats are highly qualified professionals (how else do they get to have the £3000?); they have all shown themselves to be enterprising, courageous and resilient.  They can only, in the longer term, strengthen the shallow gene-pool that has given us the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois, to name just two of the leading lights guiding our apology for a government.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Uncertainty and certainties

August 6th

For those of us fortunate enough not to have been directly affected by the sickness and death, the bereavements, and the worries about money, jobs and schooling that Covid-19 has brought with it, the main burden has probably been uncertainty.  We wonder when will we get to visit family in other countries again, and when will they be able to come to visit us; when will the elective surgery we are waiting for be possible; when will we get to hug our children and grandchildren again; when will it feel safe to do something as ‘normal’ as going to the cinema again.   

So it is kind of government ‘spokesmen’ (seemingly always ‘men’ even when they happen to be women) to provide a level constancy and certainty in our lives for us, what T.S.Eliot might have referred to as ‘the still point in a turning world’, even if it is the government they represent that is doing much of the U-turning.   The constancy lies in the certainty that, however indefensible, they will always find a way of denying that the government department they represent has ever done anything wrong.  Today’s example was comfortingly predictable.   In response to people being impertinent enough to ask about the £150 million of our money recently spent by government on buying 50 million useless face-masks for the NHS, the spokesman responsible for answering silly questions responded by categorically assuring us that: “There is a robust process in place to ensure orders are of high quality and meet strict safety standards, with the necessary due diligence undertaken on all Government contracts.”  Really? I am sure we were also reassured to have another element of constancy confirmed:  “Throughout this global pandemic, we have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect people on the front line.”  Everybody in government is always working ‘tirelessly’, even Boris, and not many more than 300 NHS workers and care workers had died from Covid-19 by the end of May, who knows many of them as a direct result of a lack of adequate PPE.

It turns out that our government of all the talentless, this time via our fascistic Home Office, has been caught out in another of the ‘robust processes’ it has in place to ensure things.  In this instance they were using a ‘decision-making algorithm’ to ensure that as few Africans as possible were granted visas to darken our national doorway.    Anyone who might have been puzzled by the bewildering number of African academics who have been denied visas to come to UK conferences over recent years now has the answer.  Visa applications from Africans have, in fact, been more than twice as likely to be rejected as similar applications from anywhere else in the world.   Those of us who suspected that it was simply because there were too many racists working in the Home Office were wrong, it turns out that it was a racist computer that was at fault, not that the computer will have programmed itself.  To forestall legal action against it, the Home Office has, according to the Independent, suspended the offending ‘digital streaming tool’ pending a redesign.   If the original design involved the computer scanning the photographs on the applications to try to identify the friendly black people who should be welcome in UK – our influential Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s, ‘piccanninies’ with their ‘watermelon smiles’, no doubt – the designers of the new system probably need to remember that most applicants are too old to be considered piccanninies, and that nobody is allowed to smile any kind of smile in a visa photograph.   True to form, the Home Office spokesman assured us that the withdrawal of the programme wasn’t an indication that it was flawed in any way, but rather, “We have been reviewing how the visa application streaming tool operates and will be redesigning our processes to make them even more streamlined and secure.’   So any uncertainty about the system can be dispelled: we can rest assured that the new system will keep an even higher proportion of African applicants away.

But it is manifestly unfair to single out individual departments of state.   It is our government of all the talentless as a whole that provides us with certainty in these uncertain times.  We know with absolute certainty that they won’t meet any of the targets they set and will lie about the reasons for not meeting them; their messaging will always be hopelessly confused and confusing; they will always try to centralise any action to be taken in combatting Covid-19 that should be devolved to local authorities; and by the time this pandemic is under control many more people will have died in UK than anywhere else in Europe as a direct result of their incompetence.   But the certainties to be found in public life don’t compensate for the uncertainties of private life.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Suffer the little children…’

August 5th

Yesterday morning’s BBC Today programme featured an interview with Charleen Jack-Henry, an NHS nurse whose daughter, Nicole, left with her husband and three children to join ISIS in Syria five years ago.  Nicole’s husband and eldest son, Isaac, by then nine years-old, were killed in the conflict and Nicole and her three remaining children, all under 12, have ended up, ‘abandoned by the British government’, as the children’s grandmother says, in a Syrian refugee camp, like Shamima Begum whom I wrote about on 17th July, .  The report indicated that there are around 80 British citizens (or ex-British citizens if, like Shamima Begum, they have had their citizenship arbitrarily terminated) in such camps, most of whom are women and children.  Our Conservative government apparently pays lip-service to the idea that children are innocent, but has so far managed only to repatriate three British orphans from Syria.  Irrespective of the innocence of the children, any parent who has gone to join ISIS must, by definition, be so serious a threat to national security that she must be kept out of the country at all costs, literally, as demonstrated by our craven government’s desperate attempt to overturn the Appeal Court’s verdict that Shamima Begum be allowed to return to UK to present her case.

What, exactly, is our government so frightened of?  Are they, newly ‘independent’, incapable of doing anything that might not win the approval of the frothing reactionaries of The Sun and its ilk? Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act of 2015, which they themselves passed into law, relates to ‘Controlling or Coercive Behaviour’.   If they can recognise the existence of such behaviour, how do they know that Nicole Jack wasn’t coerced by her husband into going to Syria, or doesn’t that matter?  That could be assessed by a court of law on her return, if they weren’t too scared to allow her back.  Even if she went to Syria willingly, how do they know that the harrowing experiences she has been through won’t have enlightened her?  Does their theology not allow for any possibility of redemption?  Or do they suspect that the prison system for which they are responsible is entirely incapable of reforming anyone?  In which case what are they doing about it?  As the children’s Trinidadian step-grandmother, via Nicole’s second marriage, says: ‘If you leave kids in a place where violence is normalised, they can’t have a normal life.’  Charleen Jack-Henry’s own wistful plea for her grandchildren is: ‘Don’t we owe these children a duty of care?’  Don’t we?

Our arrogant, self-absorbed government has a lot to learn from the supposedly ‘third world’ countries it looks down on from its ‘global Britain’ pinnacle.   The Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago, Faris Al-Rawi, is much less terrified of the Trinidadian women and children currently languishing in Syrian refugee camps, in spite of the roughly 130 men who left Trinidad to join ISIS and are now said to be ‘desperate to return.’  Al-Rawi recognises that under international law Trinidad is obliged to take them back – ‘we must have our citizens returned to our country’ – and is introducing new terror laws to allow them back.  These laws are designed, he says, ‘so that we can buffer their return, receive them into a safe zone so that we can actually debrief, investigate and reacclimatise our citizens into life in Trinidad and Tobago in a responsible way.’  It would be good if ‘global Britain’ could have a global government of all the talents.  I suggested some time ago that Jacinda Ardern would make an excellent Prime Minister, perhaps she could choose Faris Al-Rawi as her Attorney-General.  He sounds to be unlikely to run scared of The Sun, and would appreciate the poignancy and truth of the words of the children’s Trinidadian grandmother: ‘I can’t see a four year-old boy being a terrorist.’

From David Maughan Brown in York: Thunder and lightning

August 1st

Yesterday evening we went round to a friend’s house nearby to sit, suitably socially distanced, in their garden for a taken-away pizza from an excellent Sicilian restaurant in Bishopthorpe Road that has recently switched to pizzas as its exclusive range of offerings.  Our highly erratic weather had served up the hottest day of the year for us, the third hottest ever recorded in UK, over 37 degrees at Heathrow, and somewhere around 30 degrees here.   Our hosts had put up a gazebo for us to sit under, mainly to provide shade until the sun set.  Having started by being eccentrically blustery for the time of year, the wind dropped, the atmosphere became very close and ominously still, and I commented that were we in South or East Africa I would know for certain that a decent-sized thunderstorm was on its way.  But you don’t get proper thunderstorms in York – or at least we hadn’t experienced one in the almost twenty years we have been here.  I had barely made the comment before I heard the first faint murmurings coming in on the wind, which had changed direction, and within a surprisingly short time it wasn’t shade we needed the gazebo for.  A thunderstorm came through that the unfortunate owners of a house set on fire by lightning in Haxby, a few miles away, certainly wouldn’t have regarded as being in any way ‘proper’.  

The storm passed by just far enough away for us to catch the edge of the rain, but I’ve always been invigorated by the drama of the sound and light show of a thunderstorm and it brought a flood of random memories sweeping in.  A clear, bright afternoon, fishing with my brother Mike on the upper reaches of the Umgeni river on a farm in what was then Natal.  There were storm clouds miles away over the Drakensberg, not close enough to worry us in spite of our being all too aware that a schoolboy from a private school nearby had been killed by lightning attracted to his carbon-fibre rod not long before.  We were fishing about 100 yards apart when a bolt of lightning, the proverbial ‘bolt from the blue’, struck the water between us and sheeted out, a dazzling blue, in both directions along the river.  We both dropped to the ground, lifted our heads successively to check that the other was still alive, and, when he wasn’t to be seen, assumed he had been killed, before we both eventually stood up simultaneously.  We decided to call it a day as far as the fishing was concerned.

Yesterday the lightning was close enough for me to ask our hosts whether the poles holding the gazebo up were made of metal, as I recalled a thunderstorm one evening when we were at a party in Pietermaritzburg and returned home to find that the Norfolk Pine tree in our front garden had been struck, had exploded pieces of wood weighing up to 15lbs or so fifty yards across the street, which would have killed anyone passing by, and had permanently traumatised our already neurotic Border Collie, which subsequently alerted us to any impending storm long before we could hear it by trying unsuccessfully to cram itself into the minute space behind the toilet.  

Last night’s storm would have brought hail with it in South Africa, and put me in mind of an occasion when I was caught by a sudden violent storm when I was out in the middle of Midmar dam on my sail-board.   I had to jump off the board and seek shelter as best I could under the sail, trying to protect myself from jagged accretions of small pieces of ice, not far short of the size of my fist and a whole lot more dangerous.  To call them ‘hailstones’ would have been a grave understatement.   I realised how lucky I had been a few years later when, having watched a fusillade of hailstones hitting the dam alongside Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse in the Natal Midlands one evening, sending waterspouts two or three feet into the air as they hit the water, I went out for a ride the next morning and saw half a dozen dead cows lying in a field.  I initially assumed they must have been struck by lightning but the local man I was riding with said they were too scattered for it to have been a lightning bolt and that it would have been the hail that killed them.   

There is something manifestly perverse about being excited by, and attracted to, dramatic weather events.  Not that my perversity even begins to approach that of the ‘storm-chasers’ who follow tornadoes in tornado-alley in the United States who were featured in the film ‘Twister’, which I found myself glued-to late into the evening recently.  I should probably have been cured of the fascination by the occasion in my late teens when I was staying on an uncle’s farm near Ficksburg in the Orange Free State.  I heard a thunderstorm approaching up the Caledon river valley and walked out about a mile from the farmhouse to meet it, intending to turn round to get back to the house in time before it got too close.   With the thunder rolling up and down the valley I didn’t realise that, improbable as it seemed, another thunderstorm was approaching up the valley from the other direction behind me, and the two storms proceeded to converge directly above me when I was still half a mile or so from the house.  I knew enough not to run, and spent what seemed like forever crawling that last half mile over a ploughed field and up a painfully gravelly drive before reaching the shelter of the verandah with very raw knees.   Fortunately there was no hail, but there was lightning aplenty.   And the storm last night still excited me.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Black Lives Matter

July 28th

One of the items on this morning’s BBC Today programme was a Mishal Husain  interview with Mina Agyepong who told her about a police raid on her house late on the evening of 17th July, after a passer-by had told the police that a ‘non-white man’ with a hand-gun had been seen in the house.   The ‘hand-gun’ was an entirely legal BB pistol that belonged to her 12 year-old son, Kai, and was visible in the living-room from outside the house.  Ms Agyepong, who was asleep on the couch, was woken by a commotion outside, Kai went to open the door, half a dozen (reports vary) police burst in carrying rifles which they trained on the heads of Ms Agyepong, her two daughters and Kai, who had their hands up.  The police refused to lower their rifles in spite of the fact that Ms Agyepong explained that the clearly visible ‘hand-gun’ was a toy (which any trained firearms officer would have recognized instantly).  The police proceeded to arrest Kai, handcuff him and lead him away, after which Ms Agyepong and her two daughters were led singly out of the house at gun-point and held outside while the police searched their house for over an hour.   When the police couldn’t find anything other than the toy gun, Kai was ‘unarrested’ and the police left.   His mother said that Kai had been traumatised and was now afraid to answer the front door bell, and it was obviously a traumatic experience for the rest of the family as well.  Ms Agyepong said she was terrified they were going to be shot.   A police spokesman said that the police had merely followed ‘normal protocol in the circumstances.’

This can, surely, only have been a racially motivated raid.   Mishal Husain rightly picked up on the fact that the report had been of a ‘non-white man’, and it seems inconceivable that my 12 year-old grandson would have been treated in the same way.   But, at the risk of seeming to trivialize what was a very serious and obviously terrifying incident by seeming to echo the Monty Python ‘4 Yorkshiremen’ sketch, the Agyepong family can consider themselves lucky.   Nobody was shot, it was only half a dozen or so policemen armed with rifles who burst into the house, and the police only spent an hour or so trying to save face by searching for non-existent weapons after the ‘hand-gun’ had been identified as a toy.

This contrasts markedly with the police raid on 48 Lansdown Road in Forest Gate in east London on June 2nd 2006.   That raid saw around 250 policemen dispatched to look for a chemical bomb at a small terrace house on the strength of sole intelligence provided to them by a man in prison on terror charges who had an IQ of 69 and had been described by his own defence lawyer as an ‘utter incompetent.’  Fifteen specialist firearms officers burst into the house wearing chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) protection suits.   Abdul Kahar, whose house it was, headed down the stairs to see what that commotion was, encountered the leading ‘firearms specialist’ on the stairs and received a bullet from a Heckler and Koch MP5 for his pains.  The bullet hit him in the chest and exited through his shoulder, fortunately without hitting any vital organs.   So Mina Agyepong had reason to be frightened.  Kahar and his brother Abdul Koyai were incarcerated for a week at a police station, their house and that of their equally innocent neighbours, who were also carted off to a police station, were so badly damaged in the search that followed that they couldn’t return home for many weeks.  Needless to say no bomb was found.   It won’t have been coincidence that their family names, like Agyepong, are not Smith, Brown or Jones.  Subsequent inquiries found that the police had ‘followed proper procedures’ here too, and apparently there wasn’t even a health and safety issue involved, in spite of the fact that the officer who shot Abdul Kahar was wearing two pairs of gloves, couldn’t feel the trigger, and purported not even to know that he had fired a shot. 

I spent much of my time under apartheid in South Africa being made to feel thankful that, purely by the accident of birth, I was not born black.  The likelihood is that I wouldn’t be alive now if I had been. One of the first things that happened when I arrived in York was that I was wrongfully arrested in my bank, led out of the bank and carted off in a police van.   I drove around for the next ten years in the car I bought with the five figure compensation payout.  When was a black victim ever paid out a substantial sum for wrongful arrest?  The arresting officer kindly refrained from handcuffing me because, he said, I didn’t look to him like a flight risk.  And a small, bewildered, half-dressed 12 year-old boy arrested for doing precisely nothing late at night in his own home was a flight risk?  But he was black and I happen to be white.   In a supposedly civilized country nobody should ever be made to feel thankful that they were born with a different pigmentation from that of anybody else.  If Mina Agyepong was right to be fearful about being shot, she was also right to be worried about what the long-term effect of his experience would be on her traumatised son.   Black lives matter; the experience of black children matters very much.   But don’t expect a government led by a prime minister like Boris Johnson, who is capable of talking about ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’, ever to understand that.