From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Log Stack

September 24.  It’s the autumn equinox, so we take delivery of a thousand kiln-dried logs to get us through the winter. 

As the logs tumble out of the trailer onto our drive, we ask how business has been during the pandemic.  Never better says the man from Logalog, a Shropshire firm specialising in high quality timber.  In March, orders were three times higher than the same time last year. Enquiring on the web confirms this report.  ‘Kindwood’, a firm claiming to be ‘the UK’s first and only true sustainable firewood brand’, experienced a 320% rise in sales at the beginning of the lockdown.

It’s an oddly atavistic form of hoarding.  It was to be expected that there would be bulk buying of modern essentials such as loo paper and pasta, and later handwash and face-masks.  But not firewood, at the end rather than the beginning of winter (I find a report of a similar rise in demand in March in the Stirling Woodyard, Adelaide, Australia, but there at least the obverse seasons made this a more rational behaviour).  There is something very primal about stocking up with firewood in the face of a looming national crisis, just as the days are lengthening.

Our heap of logs has then to be transported down the garden and carefully stacked.  For this activity I rely on one of my favourite books, Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood.  Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.  This was a surprise hit when it was published in Britain in 2015.  Its title fully reflects the contents.  Chopping, and in particular stacking wood are treated as both a science and an art.  There are wrong ways and right ways to construct piles that are stable, damp-proof and aesthetically pleasing. Mytting writes (p.113):

‘You know exactly where you are with a woodpile. Its share price doesn’t fall on the stock market.  It won’t rust.  It won’t sue for divorce.  It just stands there and does one thing:  It waits for winter.’

Or a pandemic.

Amongst the information the book conveys is the existence of a Norwegian law which requires every house over a certain size to possess a source of heating independent of the electricity supply.  This makes a lot of sense.  Most forms of domestic warming depend on the national grid, either directly or in order to pump the water through a central heating system.  In an arctic winter, if the electricity supply fails, families can freeze to death.  Hence the importance of a log-stack (and a wood-burning stove, upon which Mytting is also a source of encyclopaedic advice).

Almost unnoticed in the catalogue of government incompetence, the British long-term energy strategy collapsed last week.  Hitachi pulled out of building a nuclear power station in Wylfa, north Wales, calling into question the planned Sizewell C project.  The only plant actually under construction, Hinkley Point C, is over time and over budget.  The official policy is to rely on nuclear power to fill the gaps in renewable energy generated by the sun, wind or waves.  If that strategy is correct, the consequence of the serial failings in implementing the nuclear programme will be that sooner or later in the UK, the lights will start to go out, and the central heating boilers cease to function.

Better stock up on logs.  But do make sure they are stacked properly.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK. New Life

September 21.  We have a new granddaughter, conceived when coronavirus was only an unreported event in China.  ‘Shielding’ has entered our vocabulary during the last six months, but no living being has been as protected from the raging storm as this infant growing in her mother’s womb.  Now she is amongst us, three weeks old, small but perfectly formed.

There have been a host of petty inconveniences surrounding her first few days.  My son found himself almost completely excluded from her birth, much as fathers were when I was born. It took a fortnight’s careful planning before my wife and I could drive down to London to greet her.  Distance was observed during the visit, masks were worn where necessary.  What effect so many half-covered faces is having on this intensely observing person we will only later discover. 

These difficulties eventually will pass.  The bigger question is the longer term.  I grew up in a country still recovering from the material and human destruction caused by the Second World War.  My recollection of that era is entirely of the future that was being created in the 1950s.  I had no experience of ruined buildings and crippled lives.  Just a newly-built housing estate in the midlands, and parents making their way out of the working class into the relative comfort and security of white-collar occupations.  The state was responding to the failures of a previous generation by creating a structure of welfare from which I directly benefited.  My granddaughter might not feel so blessed.  She may instead experience a childhood over-shadowed by the re-fighting of wars of the previous decade.

About the yet longer term I have almost nothing to say.  With an average amount of luck, this small child will live through the whole of this century.  I simply cannot conceive what her surroundings will look like by the time she reaches my age.  Climate change must constitute the greatest risk, but what in the end will be the balance between human neglect in creating the crisis and human ingenuity in responding to it, is beyond my calculation.

At least we have met.  A cousin has just sent me a photograph of my paternal grandmother, Hannah, called Polly.  She was a miner’s wife, and died of TB, what used to be called consumption, at the age of forty, on my father’s tenth birthday.  I never knew even what she looked like.  Cameras were uncommon possessions in her community.  But it turns out that an image has survived, taken in a studio in Hanley.  I gaze upon her face with fascination.  She has thick dark hair, pulled back from a central parting.   A strong, intelligent, humorous face.  In what way have her looks found their way into my children?  What was she like, and what part could she have played in my childhood, when she would only have been in her sixties and seventies? 

I have lived long enough to encounter five grandchildren, and with this latest there is once more the prospect of getting to know each other, of exchanging views about what the world is like and how we might better live in it. 

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: “very little Difference was to be seen.”


September 15.  Once the scale of the pandemic became clear, commentators of all perspectives began asking the question, how different would the post-coronavirus world look?  Would individuals, societies, governments, embrace radical change, or would we do all that we could to reinstate familiar routines and pleasures?

Looking back in 1772 to the 1665 plague, Daniel Defoe was pessimistic about the outcome.  “But except what of this was to be found in particular Families and Faces,” he wrote, “it must be acknowledg’d that the general Practice of the People was just as it was before, and very little Difference was to be seen.”*  At least part of the explanation for the transient effect was that the outbreak of bubonic plague was immediately followed by the Great Fire of London, which reset the programme of improvement on every front.  We have already arranged for a cataclysm next year in the form of a no-deal Brexit, which in the UK at least may indeed wipe out all prospect of progressive change in the 2020s.

Nonetheless the question remains on the agenda, even if the point of conclusion is now receding into the distance.  The large-scale Nuffield / UCL Covid-19 survey which I have written about before, has just asked its panel of now over 70,000 respondents whether they expect to change the way they live their lives once the pandemic is over.**

The results are deeply underwhelming.  Whilst only ten per cent expect to return exactly to their previous life, a mere two per cent of the respondents assented to the proposition, “I will entirely change the way I lived compared before Covid-19”.  Over half the population thought that “they were more likely on balance to return to how things were before” with about a fifth expecting to change things and over a quarter in between no change and some change.

When the survey focussed on the specific actions of those who wanted a new life, the poverty of aspiration becomes still clearer.  Top of the list is an activity which perhaps has been created by the pandemic, giving more support to local businesses.  But as the fourth most desired change is more shopping online, it seems unlikely that there is going to be a wholesale shift to buying the necessities of life from the grocer around the corner.  Otherwise the head of the chart is filled with such mundane ambitions as saving more money, exercising more, eating healthier food.  About ten per cent report an intention to ‘seek a new romantic relationship’ but it is not clear whether this ambition has been communicated to an existing partner.

The problem with these sorts of enquiries is the absence of a pre-Covid baseline.  In a culture which foregrounds the freedom of individuals to set their own future, it might be supposed that a desire for some sort of change is near universal.  The content of the reported agenda looks a lot like the first week of any given New Year, when in the aftermath of over-consumption, resolutions are formed to live a more virtuous life.  These peter out as the days lengthen, leading to an outcome that looks very like Defoe’s verdict.

The conclusion has to be that alongside staying alive and getting a virus test, we need to devote serious time to conceiving a new future.  It will not occur by default, nor by responding to short-term inconveniences.  The slogan ‘Build Back Better’ is now widely used by agencies, pressure groups and politicians (even B. Johnson, God help us) reacting to the crisis.  On the survey evidence, what is better remains out of focus and beyond what at present we seem able to imagine. 

*Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722; Penguin 2003), pp. 219-20.

**Covid-19 Social Study Results Release 19, 26th August 2020, pp. 44-50.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fiction and fact

September 9th

Most of my time is currently being divided between painstakingly working through the page proofs of a novel scheduled for publication at the end of November, and trying to ensure that members of our York U3A who are venturing cautiously out of their homes to involve themselves once again in their widely differing interest groups are going to be as safe from Covid-19 as we can make them.

Were I ever to venture an application to become a Mastermind contestant, my specialist subject would not be either Risk Management or Health and Safety.  But the basics are relatively straightforward as long as the parameters within which one is working are clear and relatively constant.   We pressed the starter button on indoor meetings last week with a ream of cleaning, access and other requirements in place, only to find our selves suddenly subject to the Boris & Matt ‘Rule of Six’ Act.  Having been heavily, and justifiably, criticised for increasingly confused messaging for the past few months, Matt Hancock declared that the time had come for the message to be ‘absolutely clear’, which inevitably meant that for some people it is anything but clear.  The rule precludes ‘social gatherings’ of more than six people, but is not applicable in educational and business settings.   Our language classes, for example – German, French, Italian and Latin – are unquestionably educational, but the Friends Meeting House where we rent rooms is not an ‘educational setting’ – or is it, given our educational activities there?  It is a ‘business setting’ in that it rents the rooms to us, but would the government regard it as such?  It is undoubtedly a ‘religious’ setting, but we aren’t using it for religious purposes.  We are still waiting for absolute clarity, as is the Third Age Trust to whom we look for guidance (and insurance cover).

Proof reading wouldn’t be my specialist subject either.  Last time around I sent back 84 out of 440 pages that needed minor corrections – typos, the odd word left out, punctuation (mainly misplaced or absent commas), and so on – and felt it was a job pretty well done.  That was until the proofs came back for checking and I decided not just to check that the corrections had been made, but to proofread the whole lot again.  That time I sent back 90 pages.   I also try to be alert to plausibility where the minor details are concerned as I go along.  Could a protest march from the assembly point to the City Hall in Sheffield, for example, really be completed in the time I allowed?  By the time it gets to the proof reading stage it is much too late to start asking oneself whether the major points on which the plot depends are plausible.   But that, like Covid-19 risk management, is time-dependent too.

I wrote about fictional plausibility in my entry for July 10 and chose, as an example of what wouldn’t be regarded as plausible in a novel, the appointment of Chris Grayling, ‘Failing Grayling’, to the Chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee – ironic as the ‘Intelligence’ bit would have been.  As it happens, Boris’s cunning plan was foiled and Grayling wasn’t appointed.   In July it would have been regarded as too wildly implausible to choose as an example of possible fictional implausibility the idea of a government Minister of any political complexion standing up in Parliament and brazenly acknowledging that the legislation our government was about to introduce would be a deliberate transgression of international law.   A Conservative Government of the United Kingdom deliberately reneging on a treaty it had willingly signed up to less than a year ago? Come off it!

More implausible still would be a Prime Minister boldly declaring that the international illegality he was embarking on was, in fact, to protect the one precious thing his actions seemed ineluctably bound to destroy.   There is no way the extraordinarily hard-won Peace Accord in Northern Ireland could survive the erection of physical check-points for customs and excise purposes along the border with Ireland, which Johnson is effectively daring the EU to set up to ensure the integrity of the European single market in the absence of the checks at the Northern Ireland ports which Johnson signed up to in the Withdrawal Agreement, but is now intent on ratting on.  On reflection, describing Johnson’s behaviour as ‘ratting’ is unfair to rodents that can’t be expected to abide by any moral code as they go about their business of eating, sleeping and breeding.   Boris Johnson isn’t stupid.  He way well have been, probably was, too lazy to read the detail of what it was he was signing up to, but its full implications will have been explained to him, and he is now, for once, refusing to make one of his regular U-turns.  He isn’t stupid, but he is deeply immoral, and the way he is behaving is as far out of bounds where fictional plausibility is concerned as it is when it comes to international law. But then one would only have to go back two or three years for it to have seemed wildly implausible that any dystopian writer could get away with imagining that a man like Boris Johnson could ever be appointed as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

From David Vincent In Shrewsbury, UK: Smoking the Mail

Daniel Defoe

September 10.  Over the last six months, the main exposure of our home to the threatening outside world has been in the form not of visitors but deliveries of post, weekly groceries and the fruits of online shopping.   The postman and other van drivers keep their distance.  The problem is what to do with the letters and boxed items.  We know that the coronavirus can linger on hard surfaces for at least twenty-four hours.  This causes us to leave untouched boring items such as advertising circulars and bank statements. But we are less patient with anything that looks as if it will entertain us or improve our lives.

For guidance on how we should conduct ourselves in this regard, we can turn once more to Daniel Defoe.  Alongside his Journal of the Plague Year he also published the much less well-known Due Preparations for the Plague, as well for Souls as Body.  Being some seasonable Thoughts upon the visible approach of the present dreadful Contagion in France; the properest measures to prevent it, and the great work of submitting to it (1722).  This was a more overtly didactic work than the Journal, although it deployed much of the same material. 

Among the topics he addressed was how to treat incoming mail.  James Daybell and other historians have demonstrated that there was a widely-used postal service operating across Britain by the mid-seventeenth-century.  It was deployed for business purposes, for connecting family members of the middling and upper classes, and for supporting an international network of scholars.  At the Restoration in 1660, Charles II established the General Letter Office, which was designed to create a state monopoly in the conveyance of letters.  Operating with a very broad understanding of infection, Defoe regarded the service as a serious threat to health. 

We now know that the bubonic plague was spread by fleas carried by black rats, and unlike fabrics sent about the country, the hard surface of paper was not likely to be a means of transmission.  But it is now, so we should take seriously the Due Preparations.   In the book Defoe cited the example (also referred to in the Journal) of a prosperous wholesale grocer in London, head of a household which comprised his wife, five children, two maid servants and an apprentice.  The grocer took the precaution of keeping his doors shut in order to avoid physical contact, hauling any necessary items to an upstairs window by means of a pulley:

“Hitherto he had corresponded with several of his acquaintances and customers in the country, and had received letters from them, and written letters to them constantly, but would not do any business, or send any goods to them upon any account, though very much pressed to it, because he resolved not to open his doors, whatever damages he suffered.

“His letters were brought by the postman, or letter- carrier, to his porter, when he caused the porter to smoke them with brimstone and with gunpowder, then open them, and to sprinkle them with vinegar ; then he had them drawn up by the pulley, then smoked again with strong perfumes, and, taking them with a pair of hair gloves, the hair outermost, he read them with a large reading-glass which read at a great distance, and, as soon as they were read, burned them in the fire ; and at last, the distemper raging more and more, he forbid his friends writing to him at all.” (New York, 1903 edn., p. 63)

I can only commend this practice to you.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Public Good and Private Mischief

September 8. I have been reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, a biography of the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665.

Defoe addressed his subject much as Netflix might treat the current event.  Carefully accumulated factual evidence was translated into a moving human document by means of a lightly fictionalised narrative structure.   He wrote in 1722 about an event that took place when he was about five years old.  His direct memory of the plague must have been slight, but as the son of a London tallow-chandler he grew up amidst a community for whom this was an epochal experience.  He was one of the first modern journalists and accumulated as much factual evidence as he could find, making particular use of the contemporary Bills of Mortality which provided a weekly map of the spread of the plague across the city.  Defoe wrote to entertain, to make money, but above all to warn.  The plague had broken out again in Marseille in 1720, and all Europe was on the alert in case it spread across the Continent once more.  The Journal was history written to prevent its repetition. 

In every major plague outbreak from the fifteenth century to the coronavirus, the central response of authorities has been to keep victims apart from those yet to be infected.  Whether it was the forty-day quarantine invented by the Venetians in the fifteenth century, or our own mis-firing track and trace system, the task is to identify the sick and remove them from the company of the healthy.  Until the late nineteenth century there was no accurate understanding of the biology of pandemics, but the coming of DNA analysis has made little difference to the essential common-sense reaction.

Neither has there been any alteration to the basic relocation of power from the individual to the collective at such a time of crisis.  In 1665, the Lord Mayor of London imposed the drastic remedy of locking families in their houses when one of their members fell ill.  Defoe was impressed by the ferocity of the policy:

“It is true, that the locking up the Doors of Peoples Houses, and setting a Watchman there Night and Day, to prevent their stirring out, or any coming to them; when perhaps the sound People, in the Family, might have escaped, if they had been remov’d from the Sick, looked very hard and cruel; and many People perished in these miserable Confinements, which ‘tis reasonable to believe, would not have been distemper’d if they had had Liberty, tho’ the Plague was in the House … But it was a publick Good that justified the private Mischief; and there was no obtaining the least Mitigation, by any Application to Magistrates, or Government, at that Time, at least, not that I heard of.” (Penguin Classics Edition, 2003, p. 48).

So it comes to pass that the plague has arrived in my own small village.  A twenty-year-old decided that he was owed a continental holiday.  On his return he transmitted Covid-19 to his parents.  Defoe’s principle still applies.  ‘Publick Good’ justifies ‘private Mischief’, that is to say the harm caused to the felt interests of individual citizens.  Parties, large-scale social gatherings, foreign vacations, are personal luxuries we cannot afford.  In Defoe’s plague year the Magistrates stuck to their rule, despite the many attempts to evade it.  As we must. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: Shooting at the moon

September 6th

My first diary entry about our Covid-19 testing incapacity in UK was on March 31st when the UK was managing to achieve some 7,500 tests a day, at a time when Germany was testing 500,000 people a week.  There followed a series of wishful-thinking targets that were never even close to being met, as the our Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care competed with each other to raise the bar to 25k, then 100k, then 200k then 500k tests per day by way of distracting the dumb masses from noticing that each ever more ambitious goal wasn’t being met.   Well over five months later they are still at it.  We are now, in early September, managing to test around 320,000 people a day, still well short of the 500,000 target, but we should all ignore that minor detail and, with joy in our hearts, celebrate the fact that we will soon achieve lift-off.   We will soon be testing four million people a day, a target which was apparently down-graded by the incorrigible pessimists in the civil service who didn’t think it was realistic to aim for ten million a day quite yet.   This wondrous escalation in our achievements will, appropriately enough, be called “Operation Moonshot”.  Seriously.  This isn’t a belatedly discovered Monty Python sketch; not even the combined wit of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman could have come up with something quite so ludicrously absurd.

This is in a context in which Boris’s ‘world-beating’ testing regime is requiring people sick enough to feel the need to get themselves tested to drive over a hundred miles  – from, for example, London to the Brecon Beacons in Wales, or the Lake District to Dumfries in Scotland – to get a test.  Distances that even Dominic Cummings might think twice about before driving by way of an eye-test.   When confronted with what might seem a bit of a flaw in a world-beating testing system, our inimitable Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, was wholly unapologetic and pointed out that there were bound to be ‘operational challenges’ with any national system.   He is undoubtedly growing into the big job his support for Brexit earned him: instead of being diffidently incompetent he is now super-confidently incompetent.   He has also learnt from experience that the best way to appease the plebs is just to change a target: with the lordly manner of the monarch distributing alms to the poor on Maundy Thursday, he graciously undertook to ensure that nobody in future would need to travel more than 75 miles to get a test.   I was irritated enough at having to make a round trip of 53 miles to get a test when I was feeling perfectly well a couple of weeks ago.  If anything were beyond belief where this government is concerned, it would be beyond belief that the man responsible for the nation’s health should be quite happy for a sick person to be expected to drive 150 mile round-trip for a blood-test.  And this is the same man who expects us to believe that we will soon be testing four million people every day.

It is, of course, just remotely possible that I am misjudging Hancock and that the “Operation Moonshot” moniker represents an exceptionally rare moment of honesty for a cabinet minister in the Brexit cabinet.   Perhaps a momentary flash of self-perception has enabled him to appreciate that his new target is wholly unrealisable while he is in charge, and his patently ridiculous name for it is a coded admission that he recognises that he is aiming for the moon.  It is much more likely, though, that the moon he is shooting at is made of green cheese.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Collateral Damage Part 3

September 3rd.

111 is a magic number, to which a variety of superstitions are attached.  Perhaps the best known one, at least for anyone who has an interest in cricket, where it is referred to as ‘Nelson’ (one arm, one eye, one unmentionable) is that it is unlucky and that the only way to combat the incipient bad luck is to make sure that one’s feet aren’t touching the ground.   So when a batting side finds itself on 111, or multiples thereof (‘double Nelson’ etc.), all the members of the batting side in the pavilion are wont to sit down and lift their feet in the air until the score moves on.   Umpires who are superstitious in this way do, however, have some difficulty in levitating.  The portly David Shepard was a commentator’s delight whenever a batting side reached Nelson or multiples thereof, as his sterling efforts to keep his feet off the ground always made it look as if something exceedingly uncomfortable was happening in his nether regions.   Wikipedia boasts a wealth of esoteric information about 111 in the unlikely event of anyone being interested.   For those who correctly point out that Wikipedia will often be found to be very much less than reliable when it comes to factual accuracy, I can only respond by saying that it is, at least, far more reliable where the truth is concerned than the members of Her Majesty’s government’s cabinet, either collectively or individually.   For those who might, not unreasonably, think I have cracked under the strain of the lockdown, a brief discourse on the magic properties of the number 111 is not quite as irrelevant to the topic of collateral damage as it might seem.

Yesterday saw a good deal of further engagement with things medical.  Apart from the promised and hard-won mid-morning blood-test, I needed to talk to a doctor about what I suspect are some unpleasant side effects from the blood pressure tablets.  So the day got off to a déjà vu (my spellcheck thinks that should be ‘deejay’ – which would be a welcome alternative) telephonic start as I set about getting a same-day gold-dust opportunity to talk to a doctor.   The automated voice tells me that the line is very busy but kindly offers to ring me back when I get ‘near the head of the queue’.   This it does sometime later when it informs me that I have been promoted to the dizzy heights of third in line to speak to someone.  But my hopes are dashed when the someone I eventually get through to tells me she is sorry but all the morning slots are taken, so I need to phone again at 2.00pm.  

By this time I need to start thinking about trundling across town to the blood-test appointment mentioned in my previous instalment.  All goes well, not least because this clinic does actually have the promised bell to ring, the masked figure who comes to interrogate me manages to convey a degree of friendliness from behind the mask, and it all goes to plan.   The thimbleful of blood is duly extracted – an entirely painless process these days, given the scar tissue built up over the course of donating over 500 pints of blood for plasmapheresis, in the later years for the production of serum for the treatment of rabies, which I always feel obliged to explain away lest it be assumed that I’ve been mainlining for the past fifty years.  When the process has been completed, I indicate that I am puzzled as to what was so dire about the results from the last test that I had to take another so soon, so the blood-letter kindly says she will have a look for me.  She starts off by telling me that the results indicate that the sodium reading is a bit low and then pauses before saying ‘Oh dear!’.   ‘Oh dear what?’ I ask, fearing the worst.  ‘The message they sent you says “a further test is advised” – it should have said “in four weeks time” but the doctor who sent it forgot to put the “four weeks” bit in.’  So the visit to the clinic to pick up the form, the further visit for the test, the low-level anxiety in between, were all entirely unnecessary.  And, joy of joys, I will need to go through the whole process again in just over three weeks time.

So home I go to take the 2pm telephone endurance test involved in trying once again to talk to a doctor.   When I eventually get to the head of the queue again, the telephonist makes a show (in so far as anything can be shown via the telephone) of looking at her booking form and tells me she is very sorry but all the slots are taken today – I must phone again tomorrow.  “Well, if I really can’t speak to anybody today, can I book a slot for tomorrow?” I ask despairingly.   No, I can’t.  These days they only deal in same-day appointments, it is impossible for her to book an appointment for tomorrow or any other day.  I must phone again in the morning.  Is it any wonder our Accident and Emergency departments find themselves under pressure from people who haven’t had an accident and don’t really think it is an emergency?  She agrees that it is an impossible system for patients, but she is very sorry there is nothing she can do about it.  After we have spent a minute of two mutually agreeing what an ordeal the whole business is for her, me and all the Medical Group’s patients, and trying to console one another on our lot, she says, her voice conspiratorially lowered, ‘You could try 111.’   I tell her I’ve had experience of telephoning the NHS non-emergency line before and found it completely useless.  ‘Ah, but it is different these days,’ she says mysteriously.  ‘Are you implying that someone on the other end of 111 might be able magically to find me a slot with one of your doctors this afternoon when all the slots are full?’ I ask.  ‘They sometimes can,’ she says cautiously, sounding as if she might be worried that she has let a black cat out of the bag.

So I phone 111, get straight through to someone who asks me a long but sensible series of questions which seem designed not only to elicit my answers but to leave me glowing in the knowledge that I must have an IQ of about 250: every time I give an answer, apparently always the right answer, he responds by saying ‘Bril’ with ever increasing enthusiasm.  When he has finished massaging my ego he says, ‘Right, I’ll get someone to phone you, but it may not be for ten or fifteen minutes.’  10 or 15 minutes – I’ll believe that when I see it.  Intrigued by what I am discovering, I ask him as a matter of interest how may slots he has available for the medical practice I belong to.  ‘There are only eight or nine left today,’ he says.  ‘Do you always fill them all?’ I ask.  ‘Usually,’ he says.   Sure enough the phone rings ten minutes later and the Holy Grail of a same-day conversation with a doctor has been achieved.

So, unbeknown to most of the long-suffering, both literally and figuratively, patients who stick with the practice, a significant slice of every day’s doctors’ appointments (all telephonic) is allocated to 111 and entirely beyond the control of the employees of the practice whose wretched responsibility it is to have to bear the brunt of disappointed, angered and unwell patients anxious to talk to a doctor when the practice’s limited allocation of its own appointments runs out.   If that isn’t collateral damage I don’t know what is.  I got the impression that the practice telephonists have been trained to try avoid letting prospective patients know the magic number unless and until the they give the impression of being about to spontaneously combust or expire in more mundane ways on the other end of the line.  They probably withhold the magic formula for good reason: I won’t bother to go through the ordeal of phoning the practice in future, I’ll just dial 111 and keep both feet on the ground.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK.

September 4. The Rise of an Historian

Here’s a question for you.  Who is the author of this PhD?

“This research takes a chronological approach, in order to trace both the development of policy and of the role of the JIC within central government. It explores the major crises of the period: the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948, the riots in East Berlin of June 1953 and the 1958-61 Berlin Crisis. Away from these crises, the thesis examines the picture that the JIC painted of Soviet intentions and capabilities in Eastern Germany and of the development of the two German nations.”

The answer is the second, or joint second, most powerful man in the British political system.  Should he wish so to do, the new Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service could describe himself as Dr. Simon Case.  At a certain point in his late twenties, he decided not to publish his thesis and pursue a university career, although he has retained an association with academic life and is currently a visiting professor at King’s College London.  Instead he passed the exams for fast track entry into the civil service.  Thereafter he rose rapidly, until he fell out with the then chief Brexit negotiator in 2018, and after three months working on the Irish problem left for what was surely the dead-end job of Private Secretary to the Duke of Cambridge.  Now amidst the massacre of Permanent Secretaries, he has been recalled to active service. 

The question for us all is not so much his indecent youth, as his academic qualification.  Should we worry that the country is now being run by two historians in their forties?

A further degree gives only qualified assurance.  I spent my adult life in the company of men and women with a doctorate, and supervised a fistful of students seeking to obtain one.  I know whereof I speak.  Demonstrated command of what is usually a very narrow field of knowledge is not to be confused with any level of general intelligence or practicality.  I have worked with holders of PhDs whom you would not trust to write an online shopping list, much less unpack the groceries on arrival.   However, Case appears to have been an exception.  His supervisor Peter Hennessy has said that “He had a muscularity of intellect and masses of intellectual curiosity, plus precise organisational gifts which you don’t usually see in students.”  A historian who can tie his shoe-laces unaided is indeed a promising prospect.

The larger question resolves itself into a narrower issue: can he defeat ‘hard rain’ Cummings in the battle to politicise the civil service. 

There are two grounds for hope, beyond the general fact that after the brutal dismissal of his predecessor, he is unsackable for the time being (unless Johnson goes the full Trump and dismisses all his senior officials every year).

The first is that his academic mentor was not, as in Cummings’ case, Norman Stone, the most morally corrupt senior historian of the modern era (see Diary 27 April), but the upright Peter Hennessy (see Diary 23 June), the wisest and best informed of all historians of contemporary British politics.  And Hennessy backs him: “There is nothing flash or histrionic. He is one of those people you find every now and again in professional life who are so capable that you don’t mess around with them because they are a level above.”

The second is that the completion of the long, lonely road of a Ph.D in the humanities is at least a measure of persistence.  This is someone who has demonstrated a capacity to take the slow road to achieving his goal.  Cummings has never held any post for much more than a year and will be out of Number 10 before the end of 2021, for whatever cause.   Case will outlast the man who despises the civil service, and with any luck will turn out to be its creative defender.

*you can read the full thesis at:

From David Maughan Brown in York: Land of Hope and Glory

August 26th

I promised, or perhaps threatened, in my last entry to return to the cultural war that continues to rage around the Last Night of the Proms – mainly, I suspect, because free-market Tories (is there another kind?)  have seized on it as another stick with which to beat the BBC in their campaign to do away with the license fee.   

The particular occasion for this latest spewing of right-wing bile was the BBC’s decision that, given that choral music is a known disseminator of the Covid-19 virus, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia!’ should be played, but not sung, at the Last Night of the Proms this year.   The words of both songs, as culturally appropriated in the 21st century, unashamedly glorify Empire, which many people find embarrassing.  As one might have expected, the BBC’s decision has revitalised the conservative ‘erasure of history’ argument, and, even more predictably, provoked an intemperate rant from Johnson who asserted that it is ‘time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history’, an embarrassment which he described in cringe-worthy Public Schoolese as ‘wetness’. 

The words of ‘Rule Britannia!’ were written in 1740 and interesting, for me at least, mainly for the punctuation of the first line. (‘You can take the English Professor out of the Department but you can’t take the Department out of the Professor,’ they say.)  The first line was an exhortation: ‘Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves’.   When we used to bawl it out as loudly as we could at a very ‘English’ preparatory school in the wilds of the Southern Highlands of what was then Tanganyika in the 1950s, we added a tell-tale ‘s’ and sang ‘Britannia rules the waves’, changing it from an injunction into a statement, which, even in the 1950s, was an exaggeration.   If Britain’s claim to rule the waves was tenuous in 1740, in a way it wasn’t in the 19th century, it is entirely untrue now, but my guess is that 95% of the singing flag-wavers at the Proms will, probably inadvertently, have been adding that undeniably jingoistic ‘s’. 

The triumphalist words of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ are more revealing in the context of Johnson’s declaration that we should ‘get over’ what he called ‘our bout of self-recrimination’ about our past.  The words were written by A.C. Benson in 1901 in the immediate aftermath of the Anglo-Boer – usually referred to in UK as the ‘Boer’ war by way of distracting attention from the fact that Britain was the aggressor, in much the same way as ‘NHS Test and Trace’ is an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that the associated chaos and incompetence is entirely attributable to the government and not the NHS.  The words were written soon after the death of Cecil Rhodes, and the line in the chorus, ‘Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set’, clearly echoes Rhodes’ vision of an ever expanding British Empire on which the sun never sets.   So when it comes to there being no need for national self-recrimination, the Anglo-Boer war is as good a place to start as, say, the massacres committed by British troops at Amritsar or on Bloody Sunday.

Concentration camps were not invented by the Nazis, they were first used in Cuba in the 1890s and shortly after that they were used more extensively by the British to intern Afrikaner women and children, and an unknown number of black South Africans, during the Anglo-Boer war, before being used by the British to the same deadly effect in Kenya and Malaya.  They ‘concentrated’ the civilian population in prison camps to prevent them from offering assistance to the Boer guerrilla fighters, while they ‘scorched’ the earth by burning all crops and homesteads to the same end.   It is estimated that somewhere around 28,000 Afrikaner women and children died of disease or starvation in the concentration camps in South Africa in 1901-2, of whom around 22,000 were children.   A further 20,000 black South Africans are estimated to have died in racially segregated camps over the same two years.  Twenty-two thousand dead children would not normally be associated with either ‘Hope’ or Glory’, nor were they much cause for triumphalist celebration then, let alone now.  And Boris clearly thinks that we shouldn’t be bothered with self-recrimination about them – I suppose they were just another bunch of foreigners.

The Right Honourable the Viscount Alfred Milner, who was the High Commissioner to South Africa and Governor of the Cape Colony at the time, would have been a shoe-in for Boris Johnson’s cabinet had he only been with us now.  Recognising belatedly that all those women and children dying on his watch might result in some regrettably bad press down the line, he wrote, refreshingly frankly (Dominic Cummings would have sorted that out): ‘It is impossible not to see that, however blameless we may be in the matter, we shall not be able to make anybody think so, and I cannot avoid an uncomfortable feeling that there must be some way to make the thing a little less awfully bad if one could only think of it.’  Cummings and Johnson would have been able to think of it.  Part of Milner’s problem, of course, was that the NHS wasn’t around at that time so he couldn’t label them ‘NHS Concentration Camps’.   In the meantime our Culture representative in the government of all the talentless, Oliver Dowden, says: ‘Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history [however ‘awfully bad’], they add to it.’  To which one can only respond by saying that nobody is trying to ‘erase history’: the BBC merely thinks it is not a good idea to celebrate some aspects of that history.  But the telling last word, and the strand of culture it represents, should perhaps be left to Piers Morgan as a representative spokesman for the jingoists who have responded to the BBC with such frothing outrage:  “The BBC needs to grow a pair & stop grovelling to such insane ‘woke’ cancel culture nonsense that most Britons find utterly absurd.”  The ‘pair’ he is referring to are, all too obviously, not breasts.