From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Gogglebox

According to a new survey by OFCOM, at the height of the lockdown in April the average person watched television for six hours and twenty-five minutes a day, up almost a third on the same month last year.*

With people locked in their homes, and those who could get out faced with closed cinemas and theatres, it was inevitable that there should be a rise in viewing.  But six hours and twenty-five minutes?  After reading the papers online, complaining about Johnson, taking care of emails, zooming relations and colleagues, walking round the garden, eating and drinking, complaining about Johnson, where are there so many hours left in the day?

Some of the answer lies in the flexible term ‘watched’.  In the late 1980s, with a tv in every home, sociologists led by Laurie Taylor began to enquire into what actually happened when the screen was lit up.  They found that in many households the television tended to be switched on permanently, providing the same kind of generalised warmth as the fireplace, but otherwise disregarded unless a particularly popular programme brought the family together.  For the most part the life of the household went on much as before, with its members occupied with their particular concerns.  They cited the response to their inquiry of a thirty-one year-old housewife: ‘We have it on but we don’t sit watching it.  We turn it on first thing in the morning when we come down and it’s on till late at night.  I’m out in the garden, doing the gardening, going back and forth – I’m not watching telly all the time – it’s just there and it’s on.’**

I am part of that vanishing generation which had no television at all until mid-way through my childhood (our first set was acquired from our cleaner when I was about nine).  My responsible parents decreed that their children could only watch this enticing invention for an hour a day, leaving the rest of free time for homework, playing in the garden, talking to each other.  This at least meant that we watched every last minute of our allocation and I still regard it as sinful to have a television playing to an empty room.

The Ofcom finding that there has been a surge in subscription television may mean something.  We too have joined the art-house channels MUBI and Curzon Home Cinema.  These are vastly superior to the repetitive menu of Film 4.  But they are a tough challenge at the end of another wearisome day.  A current MUBI offering is described thus:

“Defined by its director as a work of ‘futurist ethnography,’ this gem of Brazilian underground cinema is a dystopian sci-fi at once witty and visually thrilling. Powerfully commenting on modern-day racism, Adirley Queirós’ third film digs into the very heart of both past and present politics.”

Instead we decided late yesterday evening to start watching a re-run of The Blues Brothers on Netflix.  Stylish fun with a knock-out cameo by Aretha Franklin.

And it only lasts two hours and thirteen minutes.

* https://www.ofcom.org.uk/research-and-data/tv-radio-and-on-demand/media-nations-reports/media-nations-2020

** Laurie Taylor and Bob Mullan, Uninvited Guests (London: Coronet, 1987), 184

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury UK: Dostoyevsky rules

Dostoyevsky

August 5. In an addendum to the June 22 diary, I noted a further still-birth in a woman’s prison.  As ever in this rear-view country, a set of inquiries has been launched, but their findings have been pre-empted by a whistle-blower in the person of Tamsin Morris, a lawyer who previously managed the mother-and-baby unit at Styal Prison.

She revealed that four months before the event she had written to the local MP, the Mayor of Manchester, and the Ministry of Justice, raising concerns about conditions for pregnant women in prison.  Together with the charity Birth Companions, she had drawn attention to the failure to record the number of women in prisons who are pregnant, the unavailability of appropriate termination procedures, inadequate pregnancy testing, and inconsistent antenatal services.  Pregnancy tests were only offered on entry to the prison and could be declined by the prisoner.  Thereafter there were no further tests, and no national record of pregnant women prisoners. 

In the Styal case, no care was given until the prisoner unexpectedly went into labour.  It is possible that in this prison, and across the sector, some minor reforms will follow.  The question remains, as I argued in my entries for June 2 and June16, whether the coronavirus presents an unmissable opportunity to reform and essentially inhumane and destructive penal regime.  As the pandemic persists so also does one of its more unacceptable consequences, the imposition of widespread solitary confinement in prison cells as the only available means of preventing mass infection. 

We arrive at the end of the second decade of the twentieth century with, at best, a partially modernised version of the system that began to be constructed in 1842 with the opening of Pentonville.  There has been a long debate about the function of incarceration. Proponents of rehabilitative justice have largely been defeated by the advocates of retribution.*  Ever since the introduction of solitary confinement where the prisoner was supposed to repent and reform through a prolonged period of spiritual meditation, there has been scant evidence that rehabilitation works.  After nearly two centuries of inquiry and adjustments to the system, the recidivism rate in England and Wales (the proportion of prisoners committing crimes on release) stands at 50% after one year.  There is ample evidence not only that prison does not reform, but that the experience of incarceration is destructive of mental and physical health, more especially with the renewed use of solitary confinement.

The prisons should be front and centre of public policy in this pandemic for two reasons.  The first is that of opportunity.  Dominic Cummings promises that a ‘hard rain’ is going to fall on the civil service.  Were he to focus his iconoclastic tendencies on the Ministry of Justice, then history would indeed go round a corner.  There are European examples of how to do it better.  In Norway a much smaller proportion of the offending population is housed in civilised, small-scale accommodation where the prisoners are treated with a basic respect.  The result is a vast reduction in both public expenditure and the recidivism rate, which stands at 20% over two years.  In Britain, perhaps ten per cent of the current prison population needs to be behind bars to protect the rest of society.  Outside, the plethora of electronic surveillance devices, which so alarm privacy campaigners, could be applied to the task of monitoring the behaviour of potential repeat offenders.

The second reason is more basic.  Dostoyevsky’s much travelled dictum still applies: ‘A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.’

So also will be the verdict on how we have learned from this crisis.

*Victor Bailey, The Rise and Fall of the Rehabilitative Ideal, 1895-1970 (London: Routledge, 2019).

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Keeping the Secret

Sir Paul Nurse

After the performance of the confused Matt Hancock over the weekend (see yesterday’s diary), the premium on a figure of trust and competence has risen still further.

Step forward Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner, director of the Francis Crick Institute, former president of the Royal Society, chief scientific advisor to the European Commission.  Here at last is a figure whom a local radio presenter would not be able to reduce to incoherence in a few short minutes.

His contribution to the Covid-19 debate on Sunday should be taken seriously.  The issue to which he drew attention was excessive secrecy in government decision-making.

I have written a book on this subject.*  I argued that the birth of the modern state following the 1832 Reform Act was accompanied by the development of the doctrine of ‘honourable secrecy’.  Politicians and civil servants controlled information on the basis not of law but culture.  Honourable men could be trusted to decide what to say and when not to say it.  For as long as the state machine remained small, this system worked on its own terms.  The government apparatus was, for its times, both competent and honest.  But when, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the civil service expanded and drew in officials who were not gentlemen, and still worse, not men at all, then a law was required to discipline junior staff.  The definition of what was a secret was left in the hands of senior officials and their masters.  The continuing growth of the role of the state in everyday life eventually required further legal clarification, resulting in a revised Official Secrets Act in 1989 and the 2000 Freedom of Information Act (FOI).

But entrenched habits die hard.  What bothers Nurse are two aspects of the old culture.  The first is that despite twenty years of FOI, official information is still seen as the possession not of civil society but of politicians and their advisors.  They are free to decide when to release it, and even to admit that it exists at all.  In the words of Henry Taylor in 1836, ‘A secret may be sometimes best kept by keeping the secret of its being secret.’ 

The second is the instinctive feeling that open debate impedes rather than enhances policy-making.  It invites disruptive commentary by the ill-informed or the ill-intentioned.  It distracts and delays the work of those charged with taking action.  Better to leave the moment of full openness until some later inquiry.

Thus SAGE, the key advisory committee, chaired by two scientists who are now government employees, sought in the early stages to deny information on who were its members unless they were subject to unwarranted lobbying.  Its advice on key areas of policy remains confidential.  “It sometimes seems” said Nurse, “like a ‘black box’ made up of scientists, civil servants and politicians are coming up with the decisions. … It needs to be more open. We need greater transparency, greater scrutiny and greater challenge to get the best results.”  Rather than the scientific culture of critical debate informing government, the political process had muzzled science.

The consequence, as so often in the past, was that the wrong decisions were made and then covered up to prevent embarrassment.  On the rolling shambles of coronavirus testing, for instance, Nurse charges that, “They seemed not to want to admit that they weren’t prepared, that they were unable to do the testing properly, because that would have been an admission of failure from square one.”

As in other areas the response to the coronavirus has exposed rather than transcended deficiencies in public life.  And as elsewhere, this matters not just for the management of the crisis but for the future of society more generally.  The pandemic is just one example of how complex policy decisions will need to be fully informed by scientific information which is itself a matter of constant debate. 

The discovery of how far secrecy is still ingrained in the official mind is an open threat us all. 

*The Culture of Secrecy.  (Oxford University Press, 1998)

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Fixed Point

Matt Hancock: ‘You seem a little confused’

We travel across the country, our first weekend away since Christmas.  The trip was planned as a celebration of the ending of lockdown for the shielded, officially dated from August 1st.  But as we drive, announcements are being made on the radio about the re-imposition of restrictions across a swathe of northern England. 

On Radio Manchester, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock conducts a car-crash interview.  The presenter, who seems not to be point-scoring, just puzzled, asks him: 

‘You said that people could go out of Greater Manchester to another area if they followed social distancing but, the government guidance online says you must not visit someone else at home or garden even if they live outside the infected areas, so can you clarify that for us?’

Hancock: ‘Yes, I’ll make it absolutely clear, which is that there’s a distinction between the guidance and the law, I will absolutely get back to you with exact chapter and verse.’

Presenter (after two more minutes of further incoherence): ‘Forgive me, but you seem a little confused.’

Had we set off on our journey from about thirty miles further north, we would, at this point, have had to turn around and go home.  Hancock does at least seem clear that whilst the new rules / guidance / law means that people can meet outdoors, this does not include gardens, where, on a warm weekend, we did in fact spend most of the time with our friends.  Later a newspaper reports that the Government is considering not only locking down the shielded again, but extending the category to include a larger section of the population.  This is officially denied but that does not mean it will not happen within days.

So what is fixed in the fifth month?  As we once more conduct a risk assessment about whether it is safe to go out, perhaps just this one point.  The factor analysis which various bodies have been undertaking since the pandemic took hold, has produced a picture which is at once complex and very simple in terms of our household.*  There are range of indicators which make it more likely that infection will lead to hospitalisation and death.  These include medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, obesity, recent organ transplant, some forms of cancer, together with deprivation, gender and race (particularly black and Asian).  But standing out above all others is age, particularly from sixty onwards.

The chef Rick Stein was interviewed last week.  He is seventy-four but said he still felt no more than forty, perhaps just a little stiffer.  We all do this, taking decades off our birth years in terms of our physical or mental capacity. 

We can still, within limits, choose the age of our state of mind.  We can still, within limits, choose the age of our fitness.  But when it comes to our body’s resistance to infection, there is no gaming Bergman’s chess player.  It is the lesson we have been forced to learn in this pandemic.

Seventy, alas, is the new seventy.

* See, for instance, OpenSAFELY Collaborative, ‘factors associated with COVID-19-related hospital death in the linked electronic health records of 17 million adult NHS patients’ (May 7, 2020), p. 11. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.06.20092999v1.full.pdf

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury UK: London Sounds

30 July. The enterprising Museum of London has just made available two sets of recordings of London noise.  The first is a series of gramophone records of street sounds made in 1928.*   The Museum claims that these were the earliest such recordings ever made, and that they have never since been heard in their entirety.  They were commissioned by the Daily Mail as part of its campaign against what it considered to be the unbearable noise of the modern city.  It wrote that:

Those who cannot afford the time to travel about the city to hear for themselves how ear-splitting the traffic din has become will be able to have the noises brought to them so that they may be analysed and studied. It is confidently expected that a surprising proportion of them will be found to be wholly unnecessary and therefore preventable.

The Museum then had the bright idea of organising a parallel set of recordings of the same streets this May, in the midst of the lockdown.**  They are posted on its site as ‘Silent London.’

Much to praise, except the title.  The ten, five-minute recordings, listened to through earphones, are anything but silent.  The recordings were made during weekday afternoons, and almost without exception they are dominated by the roar of street traffic.  It is difficult to calibrate the relative volume of noise in the two sets of recordings.  The 1928 sounds, taken from sometimes scratchy LPs with a voice-over describing what is passing the microphone, seem less invasive than the technically much superior modern recordings in which vehicles pass in stereo from one ear to the other.  Only in Leicester Square, where there is limited traffic in ordinary times, is it possible to pick up occasional birdsong (particularly cooing pigeons at the beginning) and passing conversations. 

By contrast the 1928 soundscape, which so exercised the Daily Mail, presents a wider range of aural events.  The traffic is more varied, with steam lorries and frequent horse-drawn carts amidst the petrol-driven cars, taxis, buses and lorries.  The bells and wheel-flanges of trams can be heard.  And over the background roar there is music – a violinist playing with great clarity at the beginning of one recording, a boy whistling, a band including a clarinettist and a banjo-player, and a barrel organ, the mainstay of later nineteenth-century street players, still issuing mechanical tunes.  There is a newspaper seller barking in a strident monotone.

So was the much-discussed phenomenon of the silent, locked-down city an illusion?   Perhaps the May recordings were just made too late.  My diary entry of April 17 described a 75-mile drive to Manchester where the traffic was lighter than usual but far from absent.  The period of grace in central London, if it existed, may have been over before the Museum of London set up its microphones (it is not clear when in May it did so).  I am told by a friend who daily walked through the streets in the early days of lockdown that birdsong could be heard loud and clear, though not much conversation between people keeping their distance.  And always there were the ambulance sirens.

Perhaps it was and still is seriously much quieter in the side streets.  Perhaps a half-empty thoroughfare, on which the traffic can flow freely, is intrinsically noisier than a near-gridlocked one where cars are mostly at a standstill (I assume traffic engineers know about this).  There are other silences not picked up by road-side microphones.  My son tells me that he remains daily mindful of the absence of planes on the flight-path to and from the City of London Airport which normally pass over his house. 

I would like to imagine the possibility of walking about the capital listening to nothing noisier than birdsong, occasional conversations, and intermittent church bells.  But I fear that at least in the daytime, the streets of London have never been that quiet since the fields were first built over.

* https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/recording-london-soundscapes-past-present

**The modern London recordings were made on behalf of the Museum by Will Cohen of ‘String and Tins.’

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: The Wisdom of Aznavour

Charles Aznavour

The lyricist Don Black (Born Free, Diamonds are Forever and an awful lot else), now a cheery eighty-two-year-old Covid-19 survivor, is interviewed in my paper.  He has a memoir coming out.  The journalist is anxious to discover the secret of his continuing good spirits.  Black explains: “Something Charles Aznavour once said always stayed with me: ‘A man will never grow old if he knows what he’s doing tomorrow.’ I think that’s true.”

That, in a nutshell, is the problem in this lockdown for those of us who are fighting to resist the advance of age.  The first thing we all had to do in March was to erase every planned event from our diaries for what looked like a few weeks and now appears, like diamonds, almost forever.  My daughters have rebooked their flights to France so we can have the family holiday next July that should be happening now.  It seemed a sensible thing to do, until this week when ministers started talking about second waves and re-imposing travel restrictions from the continent.   Most days all that we can say about what we are doing tomorrow is that it is likely to be very similar to what we did yesterday.   

So we go about inventing small tasks whose content has some purpose and whose completion we can control.  Yesterday, on what was falsely promised to be twenty-four hours without rain, I finished varnishing the oak window frames on our extension.  Today, as part of a research project on the history of silence, I will immerse myself in the recordings of the sounds of the same London streets in 1928 and this May which the enterprising Museum of London has just placed online.   And I will write a diary entry, a task set and finished around breakfast time.

I don’t doubt that Aznavour, who died recently at the age of ninety-four after a singing career which spanned seventy years, had plans for the morrow which embraced more than home improvements and long-distance research projects.   As it happens, on Friday we are finally getting away from the house to visit locked-down friends in Suffolk for the weekend.  Aznavour would have gone further.  According to his Wikipedia entry, in the last two years of his life he performed in: Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Vienna, Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, and Haiti, Tokyo,, Osaka, Madrid, Milan, Rome, Saint Petersburg, Paris, London, Amsterdam and Monaco. 

Eight of those cities I have lectured in and recall visiting.  Perhaps Aznavour’s dictum should be reversed.  A man will never grow old if he can remember what he did yesterday.      

From David Vincent in Shropshire, UK: Having Babies

July 29. A Minister of Health, Nadine Dorries, is reported as speculating that nine months on from the start of the lockdown there will be a bulge in business in the nation’s maternity units.

Should we take her seriously?  There are two levels of response to this question.

The first is ad personam.  This is the same Nadine Dorries whose first book, published in 2014, was described by the Daily Telegraph reviewer as ‘the worst novel I’ve read in 10 years. Only with imaginative effort might some readers of a mawkish disposition like The Four Streets. A sequel – may the Holy Mother protect us – is due in the autumn.’  Undeterred, she appears to have written another fourteen novels, all of the same quality.  In the meantime she earned a reputation in Parliament, as an especially thoughtless, publicity-seeking Brexiteer, opposed to gay marriages and abortion counselling.  So it was when Johnson came to form his ministry-of-almost-no-talents, she was appointed a Minister in what would become the key Government Department for responding to the pandemic.  Here she distinguished herself by becoming the very first MP to be infected with Covid-10, getting diagnosed on the same day she attended a reception with the Prime Minister at Number 10.

Then there is the scientific evidence.  Studies beginning with the 1889 flu epidemic in France and the 1918-19 global Spanish flue pandemic have long established that birth rates tend to fall rather than rise after a medical crisis.*  This applies also to natural disasters like major earthquakes.  In the case of our current event, in a recent study people under 35 living in five European countries – France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK were asked whether they intended to have children this year.  Between 60 and 80% of respondents replied that they were postponing or abandoning altogether such a decision.

The reason for this caution is not hard to find.  Parents seek as much security as possible for the early years of child-rearing.  In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, every forecaster is predicting the worst economic recession since as far back as records exist.  The only question is about the speed of recovery.  It is recognised that the aftermath of the 1918-19 pandemic, compounded by the Slump of 1929, depressed birth rates in Britain throughout the inter-war period.

What is different this time is the demographic context.  I have always felt vaguely guilty that my three children have been a contribution to the unsustainable rise in the global population.  Since 1970 the number of people on the planet has almost doubled to the current figure of 7.8bn and was thought to heading to 11bn by the end of the century.  Now a new study by Washington University is predicting that the peak will be reached in 2064 and will be followed by a major fall in most populations outside Africa, with a halving in countries such as Japan and Spain.**  In Britain the Office for National Statistics reports a 12.2% fall in the birth rate since 2012, giving a reproduction rate of 1.65 per woman, well below the level needed to maintain current numbers.  

If these projections are even distantly accurate, they pose a major threat to the sustainability of modern economies.  The old will no longer have enough people of working age to pay for their pensions and their health care.  The long-term remedy will involve major changes in the notion of what a ‘working age’ is.  Mine may be the last generation ever fully to retire.

In the short term there are only two solutions in the UK.  Increase the birth rate by attacking child poverty, restoring Sure Start, improving nursery provision, reversing reductions in per-capita educational funding.

Or increase immigration.  Not a policy favoured by Nadine Dorries.

* A. Aassvel, et al, ‘The COVID-19 pandemic and human fertility’ Science,  vol. 369, issue 6502, 24 Jul 2020, pp. 370-1

** Stein Emil Vollset et al, ‘Fertility, Mortality, Migration and Population Scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study’, Lancet,July 14, 2020.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: I am not an Island

I am not an Island.

July 28. Over the weekend there appeared in the newspaper a preview article of the kind publishers like to commission as free advertising.  It was headlined, ‘I ran away to a remote Scottish isle. It was perfect.’  The book in question was I Am An Island by Tamsin Calidas (Doubleday, £16.99).

As with my own project on solitude, isolated living in nature, a subject addressed by writers at least since Petrarch in the fourteenth century, is suddenly topical.  A recent example of this genre is Sara Maitland’s How to be Alone (2014) about a retreat to an empty stretch of south-east Scotland.  This new memoir should find a wide readership.  There are, however, reasons for limiting its relevance to our present circumstance.

In the first place there is the headline (for which neither the author nor the publisher may have been responsible).  It suggests that it is a narrative of a flight from the pandemic-ridden city to the sea-protected Hebrides.  What is left of wilderness in Britain usually has communities living in them, who have not been enthusiastic about acting as refuges from the coronavirus.  One of the first actions taken by the Scottish Government was to forbid the ferry company Caledonian MacBrayne from taking anyone to the islands who was not already a resident there.  It was rightly fearful of an influx of infected escapees from elsewhere in Britain.  On closer examination it transpires that Tamsin Calidas had moved to her island sixteen years ago.  This is an insider’s account.

Beyond this technical point are more fundamental issues.  The book is about isolation as pain.  In the summary we are introduced to the breakdown of her marriage on her island, debt, unemployment, bereavement, loneliness, and acute illness.  The path out of this suffering involves a voluntary embrace of other forms of hardship, particularly swimming:  ‘I have swum in snow, in freezing rain with thick ice particles obscuring visibility, in crisp sunshine and in dense mist, and once with the wind chill dipping to -16C and the solid edges of the sea freezing.’  This need not diminish the readership.  At least since Robinson Crusoe, the numbers of those who have taken comfort reading about the solitary misfortunes of others, whether imposed or chosen, vastly outnumbers those who have directly endured them.  But it does call into question the relevance of such a narrative to those who are seeking a more humdrum, and essentially benign pathway through the unexpected experience of enforced solitude.

Tamsin Calidas describes how she made the transition from breakdown to fulfilment by embracing the spiritual resource of nature: ‘Some call this biodynamic living, and it makes sense.  It connects the unique solitude of every animate or inanimate sentience, and connects it to an expansive, interconnected universe.’  Again there is a long literary heritage for this kind of pantheism, given a classic expression in Henry Thoreau’s Walden and restated in writings such as A Philosophy of Solitude by John Cowper Powys (1933).  It still has a niche in our culture.  People like to think of the countryside as restorative of health and spirits.  However our growing awareness of global pollution has made it increasingly difficult to conceive an untouched nature as a of source of moral regeneration in the face of a corrupting urban civilisation.   

At least in Western Europe and its surrounding seas there are diminishingly few opportunities to escape the trail of our destructive practices.  We carry our responsibilities with us as we walk into what is now very rarely an unspoiled landscape.   

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Home Restaurant (2)

St Nectaire Fermier

July 26. I have long wondered whether there is an easier way of earning a living with my pen than writing history.  Anything will do that does not involve footnotes (as even these diary entries must have from time to time).

So I have decided to explore a career as a food critic.  Doesn’t seem difficult.  I have to eat every day.  There is a common experience (more or less), a common language (ditto), and to judge from the persistence of food columns in the lockdown even when their writers were unable to get to restaurants, an inexhaustible demand for such prose.

And I have a specialist topic.  Restaurant meals at home.  Last week it was Elite Bistros, this time it is the Côte brasserie chain which has recently expanded across the country.  It opened a branch in my local town just before the coronavirus struck.  I’m not sure whether it’s still there, but I can now buy Côte’s meals online.

For Saturday dinner we ordered: starter (for two) marinated heritage beetroot with crème fraiche £4 50; mains: chicken and walnut salad £ 6 95, poulet breton with chips £ 7 95; desserts: lemon and armagnac posset  £ 3 50, crème caramel £ 3 50.  The service also has a bakery and a cheese counter, so we added a sourdough seeded batard and two croissants, a St Nectaire fermier and a chèvre buchette frais cendrés.  The was a £4 95 delivery, charge, waived if the bill exceeds £80.

The website was easy to use, with every dish and product illustrated.  The box arrived within the specified hour on Saturday morning. 

Unlike the serious misadventure last week, cooking was straightforward.  I wrote then that it was nothing like a Marks and Spencer meal.  This, by contrast, was exactly such a product, better quality, not much more expensive, and requiring only time in the oven.  Or rather several different time slots in two ovens at different temperatures, but not too great a sweat.  Five minutes unwrapping, half an hour watching the timer, and we sit down to eat. 

What else to say?  How do these food writers spin out a meal into a thousand words or more?  There is no service to describe.  You don’t want to know about my kitchen, before or after cooking.  Or my kitchen table (though if you do it was made by a friend out of elm blown down in the great gale of 1987).  The beetroot was a surprisingly attractive reworking of a familiar vegetable.  The mains were huge.  I had ordered mine largely because I hadn’t eaten chips since before I can remember, and these oven products were not great.  The desserts were fine, the crème caramel leaving us with a little earthenware pot. 

The real gain was the bread and cheese.  On Saturday, had the year turned out as planned, we would have begun our family holiday in a gite on the shores of the Mediterranean south of Montpellier and west of the Camargue.  There we would have enjoyed one of the basic pleasures in life, visiting the boulangerie every day for croissants and cakes, exploring the cheese stalls in the weekly markets.  Now we could do it online, with a fine array of bakery products and regional cheeses  (Côte advertises itself as a ‘Parisian brasserie’, but I have rarely stepped inside one, except in the pages of a Maigret novel where the alcohol-dependent policeman is forever visiting them during the course of his working day, or in the case of the ‘Brasserie Dauphine’ next to the Quai des Orfèvres, inventing the modern office takeaway by having beer and sandwiches sent up in the midst of a long case.)

The one demerit, as with Elite Bistro, is the pile of packaging left behind, although it is all supposed to be recyclable.  The washable ceramic plate is one of those inventions that once made, is unimprovable.  As also the metal pot.  Food packed in, or still worse eaten out of, paper, plastic and cardboard, is an offence against civilisation and will be the death of this planet.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: On Happiness

July 24  On happiness

Four months pass.  We remain fit and well-fed.  But do we know we are happy? 

Few ask that question unless the answer is likely to be a negative.  And those that do find it difficult to consult any objective evidence.

However the pandemic has provoked a wide range of studies in the social sciences as well as medicine.  The largest of these, the Covid-19 Social Study run by a team at University College London, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has been addressing the question of happiness in a series of reports.

The latest of these, published on 16th July, provides further evidence on the incidence of happiness across British society.  The study deploys the methodology of the government’s official body, the Office for National Statistics which regularly measures personal well-being under four headings: Life satisfaction; Feeling the things done in life are Worthwhile; Happiness; and Anxiety.  Like Spinal Tap’s amplifiers, total well-being scores 11 on a 1-11 point scale.

The Covid-19 study, which is concentrating on the experience of the lockdown, finds that overall happiness, though starting at a lower base than pre-lockdown, has been slowly but consistently rising over the period between 21 April and 14 July.*

More interesting are the variations by condition.  You are more likely to be happy if you are:

Older:  we struggle against the label, but have had to wear it through the crisis

Live with company:  we have each other and we know we are not amongst the one in four couples reported in another study whose relationships have come under pressure in the crisis.**

Have higher than average household income:  there is much to be said for receiving a public sector, final salary pension on retirement; one of the last such pensions ever likely to be paid in this stressed economy.

Have no underlying mental health conditions: which is our good fortune.

Live in a rural area: as we do.

The only qualification is that the Welsh and Scottish are slightly happier than the English.  But Wales is in view from the bottom of the garden, and my wife considers herself entirely Scottish, so we can work around that disability.

Still I wonder if I know what it is that I have.

And then, just after breakfast this morning, the phone rang.  My younger daughter was in a car with her husband and two children on their way from London to Holyhead to catch the ferry to Ireland where her mother-in-law has a house by the sea in Cork.  They were ahead of time, had changed their route, and would be calling on us within the hour (we live a couple of miles from the old Holyhead Road).

And so, for the first time since Christmas, we saw them in the flesh.  The children, escaped from the car, played in the garden.  If we could not embrace, we could at least talk face to face as we sat around a table in a rare burst of sunshine. 

That was happiness.

* Covid-19 Social Study Results Release 16  15th July 2020

**Source: 1,241 people with a partner were surveyed by Censuswide on behalf of Relate between 9 and 14 April 2020.