from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Cherry Ripe…

the harvest

July 3 ‘Cherry Ripe’ is a great example of the interpenetration of polite and popular culture in Britain.  The seventeenth century lyric poet Robert Herrick based his famous poem on the cries of costermongers (whose successors featured in Henry Mayhew’s study), selling fruit in the streets of London.  It became part of the literary canon:

Cherry-Ripe, ripe, ripe, I cry,
Full and fair ones; come and buy.
If so be you ask me where
They do grow, I answer: There
Where my Julia’s lips do smile;
There’s the land, or cherry-isle,
Whose plantations fully show
All the year where cherries grow.

In 1824 the composer Charles Horn set the poem to music, and the song immediately became a hit in London.  It was particularly associated with the contralto Madame Vestris, who as both an actor and a theatre manager was an influential figure on the Georgian stage.   A year later, the immensely successful comedy Paul Pry began a record-breaking run at the Haymarket Theatre.  Its popularity was enhanced by inclusion of Cherry Ripe, sung by Madame Vestris, although it had nothing to do with the plot.  From the theatre, it escaped back into the streets.  In 1841 the writer Charles Mackay, reflecting the growing sensitivity of middle-class householders to street music, gave a jaundiced account of the inescapable presence of Horn’s song: 

“About twenty years ago London resounded with one chorus, with the love of which everybody seemed to be smitten. Girls and Boys, young men and old, maidens and wives, and widows, were all alike musical. There was an absolute mania for singing, and the worst of it was, that, like good Father Philip, in the romance of “The Monastery,” they seemed utterly unable to change their tune. “Cherry ripe!” “Cherry ripe!” was the universal cry of all the idle in the town. Every unmelodious voice gave utterance to it; every crazy fiddle, every cracked flute, every wheezy pipe, every street organ was heard in the same strain, until studious and quiet men stopped their ears in desperation, or fled miles away into the fields or woodlands, to be at peace.*”

The popularity of the song owed much to Horn’s attractive melody, but it also reflected the perennial attraction of the subject.  Nothing speaks more eloquently of the wealth of summer than the pure red fruit.  The picture above is some of the crop from our garden this year.  The larger bowl contains sweet ‘Stella’ cherries.  They grow on a large tree we planted more than three decades ago.  It is too tall to net, so we just share the crop with the blackbirds who nest in the adjacent hedge to ensure the shortest journey to their breakfast each morning.  The smaller bowl has sharper morello cherries from a fan-trained tree on a wall, now carefully netted after the birds stripped it bare last year.

The sweet cherries became a clafoutis earlier this week, and the remainder we eat between and after every meal for as long as they last.  The morellos were bottled yesterday and will be cherry brandy by Christmas.  At least we have something to look forward to amidst the collapse of all plans and expectations. 

* Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, 3 vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1841), vol. 1, p. 336

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: On Isolation and Hunger

July 2. Those of us in lockdown feel, of course, isolated from our friends and family.  We count the days, which in the present uncertainty stretch before us without limit, until we can share our lives with them.

This fragmentation of the population is reflected in other dimensions.  Sitting inside our houses, patrolling our weedless gardens, we don‘t see, literally don’t see, anything of how the rest of the country is experiencing the pandemic. Amongst the consequences of confining to their homes the fit and active of seventy and over is depriving the community of a host of active volunteers who could  both witness and respon to cases of need.

It is very easy to turn off our sensors and concentrate solely on our own misfortunes.  One effect of the lockdown is to throw attention onto the most trivial grievances.  The major event last Saturday in my household was the failure of Sainsburys to deliver the supplements in the weekend papers we had ordered.  No book reviews, no television guides.  It quite spoilt the day.

If you look for it, however, there is evidence that out there people are going without more than just newsprint.  There are those deprived of their income because they don’t qualify for the furlough payments.  There are the daily increasing numbers who are being fired in anticipation of the closure of that scheme.  There are those who legally have ‘no recourse to public funds’ because they have a right to live here but not to benefit from the welfare state.  There are those who had been barely getting by in the gig economy who are now wrestling with intricacies and inadequacies of universal credit.  There is the group described by the money expert Martin Lewis as experiencing a ‘financial catastrophe’ as their businesses have failed leaving them with no safety net of any kind.

The consequence is not just some kind of social poverty, but basic physical deprivation.  The Food Standards Agency has just published a report showing that since the pandemic began between 6.3 and 7.7 million adults had reduced their meals or missed them altogether because of lack of money, and that between 2.7 and 3.7 adults sought charity food or used food banks.*   The food banks themselves have found it difficult to meet the increased demand, despite a ‘Food Charities Grant’ the government has established to provide them with short-term assistance.

Just now, my wife and I are living in a two-person fenced community.  We must be grateful, I guess, that so far the material sufferings of so large a minority seem not to be reflected in the crime figures.

Add Mss 4.  OU brings down French Presidential candidate.  Further to yesterday’s discussion of the work of the Open University, the verdict has just been reported in the trial for embezzlement of the former French prime minister and presidential candidate, François Fillon, and his Welsh-born wife Penelope.  Up to a million euros were paid to Penelope over a number of years for office support that she never undertook.  The offence first came to light in a newspaper interview with Penelope back in 2007, when she admitted in passing that she was too busy to work for her husband.  The reason she gave for her lack of time was that she had just started an OU course in English literature.  She told the journalist that she was studying for a second degree because ‘her five children viewed her as “just a mother.”  She wanted to show them she was “not that stupid”’ (my own mother, in her time, took an OU degree in her sixties for much the same reason).  Both action and motive seem more than sufficient to acquit Penelope Fillon of the charge she faced.  As it is, she has been given a suspended sentence of three years.

*https://www.food.gov.uk/research/research-projects/the-covid-19-consumer-tracker 

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Telling the Numbers

July 1.  My job as a Pro Vice Chancellor at the Open University, working with Brenda, covered many areas, as befitted so protean an organisation.

Two of my responsibilities, ten years on, still influence all our lives.  I inherited the task, central to the OU from its creation, of working with the BBC to promote learning across society at large, as well as our own students.  And in what had become a digital age, I initiated the transfer of OU learning materials to a free-to-use site we called Open Learn.

The Radio 4 programme, More or Less, has just finished a series which has coincided with the coronavirus outbreak.  Its brief is to interrogate and illuminate the figures by which we understand our lives, some official, some generated by other organisations.  The programme is sponsored by the OU and listeners can follow up its broadcasts by going to the Open Learn site and engaging with further learning materials.

This morning, More or Less conducted a retrospect of its coverage of the pandemic from the first cases in Britain.  The emphasis was exclusively on what has gone wrong, particularly in England.  Data published in the last few days has demonstrated beyond doubt that we have the worst record in Europe, and over the long run are likely to be overtaken only by the disastrous populist regimes of Brazil and the United States.  The programme both summarised official data and demolished claims made along the way by Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson, particularly with regard to the tragedy in the care homes, which have accounted for 43% of all excess deaths.

Throughout the crisis ministers have sought to postpone any historical reckoning until some later date, when a leisurely public enquiry can accumulate the evidence and reach a conclusion long after the guilty parties have left office.  We are supposed to focus only on the future.  The More or Less programme was broadcast the day after Boris Johnson’s ‘New Deal’ speech in which he attempted to re-set the agenda of public debate, shifting the narrative away from the pandemic towards the glorious ‘bounce forward not bounce back’ economic agenda.  It’s not going to work.  We are all of us historians now.  We want to understand what went wrong, and, critically, we have multiple channels for helping us do so, including, directly and indirectly, the OU.

Amongst the comparisons made in any retrospective is with China, whose response, after a critical delay, has ultimately been much more effective that the UK’s.  The vast difference is in the level of public debate.  It is more than possible that in free society, the outbreak in Wuhan would have been spotted before it escaped to infect the rest of the world.  And there is no prospect whatever of Chinese citizens now discussing what long-term improvements should be made in the management of pandemics.  For all its ramshackle systems the British state is still exposed to the informed, Radio 4-listening, OU-studying, public.  

Much of the More or Less programme focussed on the missing fortnight in March, when the government failed to act on the information that was building up in Europe.  It concluded, however, with a new scandal, the failure to inform local health officials of test results in their areas.  The Labour MP Yvette Cooper tweeted today: “Our local public health teams, council, NHS doctors & managers in Wakefield have had to fight for months to try to get this data. In public health crisis, most important thing is knowing where infection is. Appalling & incomprehensible that basic info hasn’t been provided.”  Indeed, it is. 

A functioning democracy needs debate not just at the national level but in local communities, which in turn requires the appropriate data to be made available at that level.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Loneliness and Life Satisfaction

June 30. We are living through a time of drama.  Every week brings a new crisis, reported or anticipated.

History will record a belated response in the early days leading to thousands of avoidable fatalities, critical shortcomings in PPE, scandalous death-rates in care homes and amongst the BAME population, widespread failings in introducing test and trace procedures, the complete failure of the NHS testing app.  Today we have the return of lockdown in Leicester and later this week there is the predicted disaster of choosing a summer Saturday night to open all the pubs in England for the first time in three months.  And so it will continue in the face of a still unknowable virus and a government of still uncharted incompetence. 

And yet, if attention is paid to how people are feeling about the crisis, a very different picture emerges.  In my entry for May 27 I drew attention to the social surveys which have been launched at great speed in response to the coronavirus.  One of the larger enterprises, the UCL Nuffield Covid 19 Social Study, has now published four further weekly reports, displaying consistent data over three full months of the pandemic.*  The questions in the survey cover basic attitudes and emotions in the lockdown.  Each topic has its own trajectory since the last week of March, and its own variations by age, income, and living conditions.  But standing back from the detail, what is most striking is the absence of change over the period.

Graph after graph proceeds in an even line as each week passes, sometimes on a slightly upward trajectory, sometimes downward.  What is missing almost completely is the kind of volatility that we read in the headlines each day.  ‘Loneliness’ (see above) has been almost completely flat since the last week of March, unaffected by the recent marginal lifting of the lockdown.  ‘Life satisfaction’ has gradually risen from 5 to 6 on a 10-point scale [it should be 7.7].  ‘Happiness’ [you may not know what that is, but here it is measured by the Office for National Statistics wellbeing scale], has been at or just under 6, again on a 10-point scale, with very small fluctuations.  Levels of depression and anxiety have been higher than in pre-Covid times but have gradually declined through the Spring and early Summer.  Confidence in the English government showed one of the largest short-term changes, falling from 4.5 to 3.5 on a 7-point scale at the beginning of May, but has since levelled out. Notwithstanding this decline, willingness to comply with guidelines has barely altered, slipping over three months from almost 100% to just over 90.  The sharpest fall has been in worries about food security, which began at around 60% of the population and are now only a little above zero. 

The scale of the sample, which involves 90,000 respondents, inevitably has a dampening effect on variability.  Individuals who have lost their jobs, or have been ill, or have suffered serious bereavement, will scarcely report so uneventful an experience.  Nonetheless the absence of sudden change across the population in such fundamental areas as depression or life-satisfaction is a necessary corrective to the melodrama played out on the front-pages of the newspapers.

When the scores are broken down by issues such as income or living conditions, there are generally only minor differences.  In most categories the young are suffering more than the old, the poor more than the rich, but often the differences are small.  Much the largest variable on almost all issues is a prior diagnosis of mental ill-health.  Again the scores show little change over the period, but there are significant gaps between the graphs of the well and the unwell. On key issues such as depression, anxiety, loneliness and happiness, the mentally fit are between half and three times better off than those who entered this crisis already in trouble. 

According to a report by the charity Mind this morning, almost two thirds of those with a pre-existing mental health problem said it had become worse during the lockdown.**  When we consider where the effort should be placed in alleviating the consequence of the pandemic, the mental wellbeing of the population at the outset of the crisis will require particular attention.

* Covid-19 Social Study Results Releases 1-14

** https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/jun/30/uks-mental-health-has-deteriorated-during-lockdown-says-mind?CMP=share_btn_link

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Lonesome George and the Cowboy

Lonesome George

June 29 I enjoyed Nike in Katerini’s account of sleeping with an owl and a snake by her bed.  In her culture, these are choices full of classical meaning.  In my own more prosaic world, I do not instinctively turn to such mythical objects when in need of guidance or security.

I was raised in a Protestant denomination.  Methodists focus on words, whether spoken, read, preached or sung.  They do not employ three-dimensional symbols to embody spiritual verities or to keep us safe from Bunyan’s lions, dragons and darkness.   I do, nonetheless, keep two objects on my desk to guard my endeavours, albeit of an altogether more humdrum nature.  

The first of these is a small, carved, wooden tortoise whose provenance I have long forgotten.  I explained the connection between this animal and the lot of the long-distance writer in the entry for April 29.  I have an engagement with tortoises beyond the ownership of my pet Herodotus (Nike may note that I was stretching for a classical association).  Ten years ago, whilst still a university manager, I was sent to give a keynote speech at the remarkable Loja University in central Ecuador.  The organisers arranged for the speakers to visit the Galapagos Islands before the conference started.  There I met Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island giant tortoise, just two years before his untimely death at the age of 102.*  It is one thing encountering a tree that has survived over centuries, it is quite another gazing eye to eye with a creature that has moved so little and seen so much over so many years.

My second penates is quite different and much slighter.  It is a mass-produced, 6.5cm high plastic model of a cowboy, six shooter in each hand.  I don’t know where I found it, but it speaks to me at some unconscious level.  I must have owned such a toy as a small child.  Now it stands at the opposite pole to my other desk guardian.  The tortoise represents the slow daily slog that all scholarly writing requires.  But I have read book after article after manuscript where the routine has overwhelmed the inspiration.  Each page represents a dutiful journey between evidence and interpretation, all true, all hard won, but lacking any spark in either the prose or the argument.   It is far from easy to sit down day after day and attack the project, putting to flight mediocrity of thought or writing.  My cowboy with his guns reminds me of that requirement.

So it has been during the pandemic.  The tortoise element has not been so difficult.  For those already living in semi-lockdown, surrounded by sufficient creature comforts, the prohibition on movement has not seemed a practical problem.  The real threat is avoiding the descent into the Slough of Despond which faced Bunyan’s Christian.  Deprived of the stimulus of events, travel and fresh company, it becomes a challenge to generate the spark of energy and creativity during a day that begins and ends in the same place as the one before. 

I have to find the six-shooter in me, up for whatever drama and danger I can manufacture.

*In February of this year, naturalists claimed that after all they had found thirty near relatives.  Too late for George.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Mr Worldly Wiseman

Pilgrim’s Progress

June 26. Pilgrim’s Progress has featured in the recent entries on Beveridge and the Welfare State.  For those who do not keep the text by their bed, here is a taste of John Bunyan’s writing.  The first part of the book was published in 1678, following twelve years in Bedford prison for refusing to cease unlicensed preaching. 

Christian abandons his family and the City of Destruction and sets off, carrying his burden, to find salvation.  Along the way he encounters a series of temptations and dangers:

Now, as Christian was walking solitarily by himself, he espied one afar off come crossing over the field to meet him, and their hap was to meet just as they were crossing the way of each other. The gentleman’s name that met him was Mr. Worldly Wiseman, he dwelt in the town of Carnal Policy, a very great town, and also hard by from whence Christian came….

Worl.  … I see the dirt of the slough of Despond is upon thee, but that slough is but the beginning of the sorrows that do attend those that go on in that way: hear me, I am older than thou, though art like to meet with in the way which thou goest, wearisomeness, painfulness, hunger, perils, nakedness, sword, lions, dragons, darkness, and in a word death, and what not?  These things are certainly true, having been confirmed by many testimonies. 

Worl.  Why in yonder village (the village is named Morality) there dwells a gentleman, whose name is Legality, a very judicious man, (and a man of a very good name) that has skill to help men off with such burdens as thine are, from their shoulders, yea, to my knowledge, he had done a great deal of good in this way: Ay, and besides, he hath skill to cure those that are somewhat crazed in their wits with their burdens.  To him, as I said, thou mayest go, and be helped presently.  His house is not quite a mile from this place; and if he should not be at home himself, he hath a pretty young man to his son, whose name is Civility that can do it (to speak on) as well as the old gentleman himself…

So Christian tuned out of his way to go to Mr. Legality’s  house for help: but behold, when he was got now hard by the hill, it seemed so high, and also that side of it was the next way side, did hang so much over, that Christian was afraid to venture further, lest the hill should fall on his head; wherefore there he stood still; and wotted not what to do.  Also his burden now seemed heavier to him than when he was in his way.  There came also flashes of fire out of the hill that made Christian afraid that he should be burned: here therefore he sweat, and did quake for fear.  And now he began to be sorry that he had taken Mr. Worldly Wiseman’s counsel; and with that he saw Evangelist coming to meet him; at the sight also of whom he began to blush for shame.  So Evangelist drew nearer and nearer, and coming up to him, he looked at him with a severe and dreadful countenance…  (Penguin 2008 edn, pp. 20-23).

As the pandemic visits our lives, we are all us faced with ‘wearisomeness, painfulness, hunger, perils,’ to say nothing of ‘nakedness, sword, lions, dragons, darkness, and in a word death, and what not.’ The characters, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Legality, Civility, and the places, Carnal Policy and Morality, may find their counterpart in people and locations you know yourself.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Six Giants

William Beveridge

June 24.  In the matter of identifying the aftermath of the pandemic, history has to be used with caution.

Peter Hennessy (see June 23) knows well that the Beveridge revolution was initially resisted by the war-time Conservatives.  Churchill believed that planning for a post-war future was simply a distraction in the middle of a conflict whose outcome was far from certain.  His attempt to bury the Beveridge report was defeated by its dry-as-dust author, who proved surprisingly adept at deploying the media of his time to publicise his document.  The report was full of practical detail, but by couching his target in terms of the five ‘giants’, Beveridge tapped into the moral subconscious of the British people, engaging with a tradition of social justice that stretched all the way back to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The report became a best-seller.  My dog-eared copy once belonged to my father, who used it in the latter days of the war to lecture to his fellow sailors with whom he was serving in a naval outpost in Sierra Leone.   It was central to Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 (though Beveridge was himself a Liberal), and in turn the scale of that majority was critical to overcoming the opposition to many of the proposals, ranging from the Tory Party to a host of vested interests.

Starmer’s Labour Party will need another landslide, and another document to energise the electorate.  The Beveridge Plan offers only a partial model.  Lakes of ink have since been spilled over its recommendations.  Eligibility for relief was centred on the outdated figure of the male breadwinner with his dependants.  The ‘National’ in the NHS and other reforms reflected a passion to centralise every form of welfare, in most cases denying effective local participation in the provision of services.  There was no engagement with the environment by a Labour Government which spent its time in office burning every ton of coal it could get out of the ground.

There is a case for simply taking on the same giants and this time slaying them properly.  Anne Chappel has directed me to a recent article which points out in convincing detail how Beveridge’s agenda is still yet to be met.*  We still have work to do with poverty, health, education, unemployment and housing.  Nonetheless, three quarters of a century on, it is perhaps time to update the mission.

I would slightly re-shape Hennessy’s agenda.  The giant of Squalor remains a task in the form of social housing.  Idleness remains a task in the form of the vast numbers, barely visible in 1945, beyond working age and needing affordable social care as they grow old.  Ignorance remains a task in terms of acquiring the skills to combat and exploit technical change, including artificial intelligence.  Want has worsened since 2010, a permanent stain on the record of successive Conservative administrations.  There is a new giant of Pollution to be attacked.  And there is a new giant of Power, collected at the centre since the war by both parties, and now needing to be distributed to the localities in which the new sense of community is now flourishing, and more effectively devolved to the nations, where Labour urgently has to relaunch itself.

Above all we must revive and give purpose to the closing paragraph of the Beveridge Report: 

Freedom from want cannot be forced on a democracy or given to a democracy. It must be won by them. Winning it needs courage and faith and a sense of national unity : courage to face facts and difficulties and overcome them ; faith in our future and in the ideals of fair-play and freedom for which century after century our forefathers were prepared to die ; a sense of national unity overriding the interests of any class or section. The Plan for Social Security in this Report is submitted by one who believes that in this supreme crisis the British people will not be found wanting, of courage and faith and national unity, of material and spiritual power to play their part in achieving both social security and the victory of justice among nations upon which security depends.(para 461)

* https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/10/beveridge-five-evils-welfare-state

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Hibernation

hibernating dormice

June 24.  Hibernation.  Tuesday’s public announcements, reinforced in my case by a personal letter from the NHS, have merely highlighted the collapse of trust in governing bodies in the UK.

According to Boris Johnson, the era of hibernation is over in England.  Pubs and hairdressers will open, the two-metre rule is halved.  The ‘shielded’ will be allowed to visit family from July 6, and permitted to roam freely from the beginning of August.

In better times, a public statement by the Prime Minister in Parliament, reinforced by a press conference attended by both the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, plus an official three-page letter, should be enough.  Who am I, a toiling historian, entirely innocent of a medical education, to dispute these authoritative statements?

But before I will move an inch from my current uneventful but secure lockdown I will consult every newspaper I can find, sundry blogs to which I subscribe, my neighbours, my friends (particularly two who actually are scientists), my younger brother who is playing a major regional role co-ordinating trace and test regimes and sits on the board of two hospital trusts, my grown-up children (especially), my lawyer, my astrologer, anyone who might be able to triangulate the official message.  Then I will discuss the matter with my similarly sceptical wife, and between the two of us I expect we will decide to change nothing in our daily ritual until the consequence of the relaxation becomes evident in the infection rates (see Add Mss below).

This is tiring.  A healthy democracy requires a questioning electorate, but only so far.  If we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to invest confidence in those to whom we delegate fundamental decision-making powers.  The education we have received since the beginning of the year tells us that the administrative competence of ministers appointed not for their abilities but for their position on Brexit is low, that the government machine which should support them is not firing on all cylinders (no controlling ‘deep state’ here, anymore than there is in the USA), that the Prime Minister is careless of detail and the truth, and that the scientists and medical specialists argue with each other, including about the current topic of the safe rate to relax restrictions. 

And if we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to walk down a street or enter a public building without viewing every stranger as a potential threat to our health and wellbeing.  Amongst the many inherent contradictions in the new policy is allowing alcohol to be consumed in a ‘mitigated’ form.  Someone somewhere has forgotten that the point of drinking is that is a means of throwing off the mitigations of the daily round.  It promotes personal interaction, reduces inhibitions, and in extreme, but far from uncommon, cases leads to profoundly anti-social behaviour (there is a reason why the business of Accident and Emergency Departments has sharply declined in the pandemic lockdown).  

In the end the calculation of risk will be largely personal.  In two months we expect the arrival of a new grand-daughter a hundred-and-fifty miles away in London.  It is likely to be that event, not further iterations of official advice and guidance, that will cause us to emerge from the burrow in which we have been sleeping.

Add Mss 3.  June 10 Staying Alive: “When the final calculations are made, it is likely that those dying alone because they are alone will be far exceeded by those dying in company because they are in company.In Australia a lifting of the lockdown has been suspended in large parts of Melbourne because of a resurgence of infections blamed on family gatherings and birthday parties.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Five Giants

Lord Hennessy

June 23.  This week, BBC Radio 4 is running programmes under the heading of: “Re-think.  People’s Hopes and Dreams for the world post-corona.”   It launched the series with a talk by Peter Hennessy on yesterday’s World at One programme.

Peter Hennessy, Lord Hennessy, is, for those who do not know his work, the leading historian of modern politics in Britain.  As a Times journalist and later an academic, he has written widely and authoritatively on the practice of government in Britain since the Second World War.  His views repay attention.  This is what he said:

“It is possible that out of our experience of a cruel, capricious and deadly pathogen something of real and enduring value could emerge.  That out of tragedy could come possibility and purpose.  Is there a usable piece of our past to guide us, to give us hope?  I think there is.

The Covid 19 experience has sharpened our sense of the duty of care we have one for another, that a state has for its people, all of its people, to a degree we’ve not felt collectively since World War II and its aftermath.  We heard it week after week on Thursdays at eight when we clapped, cheered and rattled our pots and pans in salute to the NHS front line and other key workers.  It was the sound of people, rediscovering themselves. 

There are too many differences between six years of total war and the likely length of the Covid emergency for easy comparisons to be made, but what we can learn from those war years is just how powerful and beneficial a never-again impulse can be if it is poured into the making of a new deal for the British people.  The great World War II coalition led by Winston Churchill and Clem Attlee began to plan for exactly that on the back of what was and still is the most remarkable report ever produced for a British government.  In late 1942, Sir William Beveridge, the leading social arithmetician of his day, identified what he called five giants on the road to recovery, and he put them in capital letters: Want, Ignorance, Idleness, Squalor, Disease.  The report was a best-seller. Beveridge’s great insight was that all five giants had to be struck simultaneously if the hard crust of deprivation was to be shattered.  After the war, governments of both parties were fuelled by a Beveridge-ite consensus for over thirty years. 

Through the grim Covid weeks and months of 2020, can we see the possible outline of a new Beveridge, a new post Corona banner we can all rally round, a banner emblazoned with the heraldry of a new consensus?  We can. I think there is a hard edged, not a fudged consensus to be crafted, using five priorities.  Social care.  Something must be done, and fast.  A big public-private push on social housing.  Getting technical education right at last after a hundred and fifty years of trying.  Combatting and mitigating climate change.  Preparing our country and our people for the full impact of artificial intelligence on our productive capacity and our society.

If our politicians could pick up this new consensus and run with it, finding the right tone and pitch of language in which to express it, the early twenty-twenties could be one of the most creative and productive patches of our history and a worthy memorial to the Covid fallen.  It has taken a pathogen for us to find and refresh our shared duty of care, but rediscover it we have.”

More tomorrow on this vision.  Others may wish to comment on his optimism, and on the five giants he has chosen to slay.

Add Mss (2)  May 21 Being Local.  “The NHS has decided to write its own track and trace programme, rather than install the simpler and operational Apple / Google app.  To no-one’s surprise, it is already in trouble and missing deadlines.  At this level, the bespoke solution is a mistake.”  Thus it transpires.  The only comfort is that in spite of the words spoken at the launch of the project, a computerised app seems no longer to be crucial, whoever designs it.  A voice on the phone, preferably from the locality of the infected person, is what you need.  And we have had telephones since 1875.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Reading and Solitude.

The LRB – improve your solitude …

June 22 The London Review of Books (LRB) sends me a digital advertisement: “Improve Your Solitude. Engage with the world’s best thinkers and writers, with Europe’s largest literary magazine.”

In a practical sense the advert is wasted on me. I have been a subscriber since the happy day ten years ago when I retired from university management and swapped my subscription to the Time Higher Education Supplement for the LRB in the mistaken assumption that I would now have more time for reading books and reviews.

Since then the LRB has been a mixed blessing. Most issues contain a piece that interests and informs, but not all. A great literary magazine makes you think you are a little smarter, a little better-read than you actually are. The LRB generally has the reverse effect.

Nonetheless its advert contained a basic truth. For those of us who are locked down without other responsibilities, there ought to be more time for reading. At the least it gives us a chance to replenish the shelves that we want to display behind our heads in ZOOM meetings (the prize for the politician for what clearly is the least-read, and smallest, background bookshelf goes to Iain Duncan Smith. No surprise there).

Books occupy empty hours. But they have never simply been the handmaiden of solitude. It took centuries after the invention of printing for the act of reading silently to yourself to become the standard practice. In the eighteenth-century women in particular read to each other as they worked at a household task, and one in a family read to the rest in the evenings. Increasing literacy and falling book prices in the Victorian era promoted private consumption of the printed word, but demand for books still outstripped the capacity to own them individually, and amongst the newly literate, children read to their less-educated parents and their parents to grandparents. In crowded households with unheated and unlit bedrooms, those who did read to themselves frequently had to do so amidst company. Books were less often the solace of complete isolation, and more the facilitator of abstracted solitude, the practice of withdrawing from others whilst still physically in their midst.

It is too early to take a final view of reading in the lockdown. Bookshops were shut until last week in the UK, book launches cancelled (including my own), as were book festivals. My wife and I were at the Dalkey Literary Festival in Dublin this time last year, and had planned a return visit.

https://www.dalkeybookfestival.org/

On the other hand, the online trade was already well-established, and unlike food, and (for the most part) clothing, it is always possible to re-use what was purchased years ago. It is reported that sales of thrillers have risen, and also books about pandemics. My expectation is that the overall change will not be that great. For every household with more time on its hands, there will be several more in which the adults at least have lost every minute of solitary recreation.

In my case, where not much has altered in my daily round, the problem is as it always has been, the reluctance to take a book off the shelf after an entire day at my desk, reading and writing words. I’d sooner dig my garden.

Add Mss (1). June 16. Bedtime Stories.  No bedtime stories at Styal Women’s Prison, where the stillbirth of a baby to a prisoner has been reported, the second in nine months. The medical staff failed to diagnose the pregnancy, and gave the prisoner paracetamol when she complained of severe stomach pains. Only twenty-three women across the system have been released under the scheme for pregnant prisoners and new mothers under the coronavirus pandemic (Guardian 19 6 20).