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).

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Better Known.

John Clare

June 19.  I have just recorded a contribution to ‘Better Known’, a podcast series in which the speaker recommends six people, places, objects, stories, experiences and ideas that should be better known.*

https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/better-known/id1302791677

It was a challenging task.  Most of us carry in our heads our eight Desert Island Disks, revising them from time to time in the hope that one day we will be asked to make them public.  The brief for ‘Better Known’ was much wider, and coming in the middle of an avalanche of work, there was little time to ponder upon it.  I came up with five entries, and spent three quarters of an hour talking about them. 

For places:

  • Montaigne’s Tower, in south-west France.  The man himself, the first modern explorer of how an individual should live, is well enough known, but his tower, which we visit whenever we are in the Dordogne, is largely neglected by French visitors.  Montaigne spent his days in one tower at the corner of a large courtyard, his wife in another (now demolished), and his mother in the main house (now rebuilt), a perfect arrangement for any family.
  • St Peter’s Church Melverley.  A rare, perfectly preserved timber-frame church, constructed out of local oak in around 1405, every beam pegged to another without any fixtures, standing on a bluff with the River Vyrnwy swirling around it.
  • The Stiperstones.  A long rocky ridge, in sight of my house, with the remains of Britain’s largest lead mine at its base, and long views across the Welsh Marches.

For objects:

  • Caroline Testout climbing rose.  Names for a late-nineteenth-century French couturier, a splendidly blousy pink rose, with a faint scent.  I have one growing over my front door, and any house would be improved by it.

For writings:

  • Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, sometimes cited in these diaries
  • The poetry of John Clare, the great peasant poet of the first half of the nineteenth century, the finest observer of the natural world this country has ever produced.

It is in some ways a counterproductive undertaking.  The last thing I want is coach loads of tourists at Melverley, or Everest-like queues to ascend the Stiperstones.  The writings are more secure.  There will be a limit to the number willing to tackle the two million words in Mayhew’s volumes, and Clare, quite simply, really should be better known, although his reputation is building, not least thanks to a recent biography by Jonathan Bate.  Here is an evocative poem written in his asylum years on the topic of solitude, to which he returned frequently over his life:

There is a charm in Solitude that cheers
A feeling that the world knows nothing of
A green delight the wounded mind endears
After the hustling world is broken off
Whose whole delight was crime at good to scoff
Green solitude his prison pleasure yields
The bitch fox heeds him not – birds seem to laugh
He lives the Crusoe of his lonely fields

*To be broadcast on July 6

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Intrinsic and Extrinsic

June 18.  I recently had a discussion with a Dean at a university I am reviewing, about intrinsic versus extrinsic reward.

She was arguing that in her faculty, staff found such satsifaction in their teaching and research that external validation was not important. 

There is a truth in this view.  One of the great privileges of a career in higher education is that it is full of people who found a passion in life, and a form of employment that enabled them to pursue it.  Most academic staff pay little attention to the exact length of a working week, or indeed very often to their maximum holiday entitlement.  They work long hours because of their commitment to the progress of their students, and their desire to push back the boundaries of knowledge in their chosen field.  A smart or lucky institution will align the enthusiasm of staff with the interests of the organisation without imposing a formal regime of mission statements and coercive strategies.

And yet, from a PhD onwards, every move is subject to peer review.  Projects are initiated and completed as part of a conversation with fellow researchers, and their response will range from the supportive to the terminally destructive.  And however much an academic’s labour is driven by personal enthusiasm, mortgages have to be paid.  Everyone in the trade has either experienced or witnessed the colossal demotivation a failed or delayed promotion can cause. 

There is a contrast with the passions that get you out of bed in this lockdown world.   Where there is no remunerative labour to undertake, what is the purpose of the day’s activities? 

Take for instance gardening.  My village takes part in a national open gardens scheme, where on a given summer Sunday, people can visit private gardens for a small fee which this year is donated to a nursing charity.  We have always refused absolutely to take part, however worthy the cause.  This is partly because in normal years we lack the time to arrive at a point of weedless perfection, but more fundamentally because what we grow is no-one else’s business.  We are happy to show it to visiting family and friends, but our pleasure in our achievement is, in management speak, entirely intrinsic.  Even between the two of us, each has their own programme of work, and we choose whether to tell the other what we are doing and how well it is going.

There are, of course, those who treat gardening, or some other recreation, as a form of work or competition.  Targets are set, outcomes are measured.  A brother-in-law runs every Sunday, recording his performance on an app that allows him to compare his times with runners of the same age around the world.  Gardeners have been forming themselves into societies and awarding prizes for fruit and vegetables for more than two centuries in Britain.  This was not just the practice of the well-heeled.  A survey of working-class gardeners in the industrial north in 1826, identified fifty auricular and polyanthus shows annually, together with twenty-seven tulip, nine ranunculus, nineteen pink and forty-eight carnation competitions.  The committee of the society would meet for a leisurely, alcohol-fuelled judging dinner, and then award prizes.

It is, nonetheless, one of the reasons why the pandemic lockdown has been bearable for those lucky enough not to be struggling with working and child-teaching at home.  We have always pursued our recreations for our own satisfaction, and it is a minor matter that, in my case, the best of my garden will be over this year before anyone else gets to see it.

That said, were I to win a prize for my sweet peas at the Shrewsbury Flower Show, all my promotions and all my books would be set at nought.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Permanence and Planning

Tom Scholar

June 17.  The clue is in the qualifier.  The heads of civil service departments in the UK are called ‘Permanent Secretaries.’  They are in charge of bodies of public employees whose tenure is independent of changes in the political complexion of government.

Two of the most senior members of this cadre, Tom Scholar, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, and Alex Chisholm, Permanent Secretary at the all-powerful Cabinet Office and formerly at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, were interviewed on Monday of this week by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on their preparations for a pandemic. 

Dominic Cummings said earlier this year that he wanted to recruit to the civil service “some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole.”  Scholar, the son of a knighted civil servant, fought his way out of the hell hole that was Dulwich College public school and Trinity Hall, Cambridge, Chisholm struggled up from Downside public school and a degree (in history) from Merton College, Oxford.  They are in charge of sections of a civil service that has so far resisted attempts to politicise its membership.

The question is, what are the demonstrable gains from this oasis of institutional stability?  Over the last three years, there has been an obvious need for a locus of stable management of the affairs of a troubled state.  There have been three Chancellors of the Exchequer since 2016, one of whom, Philip Hammond, ended up having the whip withdrawn and retiring from Parliament.  The Department for Business has also had three heads, and the Cabinet Office, the central unit for co-ordinating the government machine, no less than five in four years.

What the PAC wanted to know, was whether the Permanent Secretaries had formed plans for the management of the economy during a pandemic, following the Cygnus simulation exercise in October 2016, which had modelled a scenario in which 50% of the population was infected by a flu-like virus.

It had cause to suppose that the civil service had a particular responsibility for this kind of planning.  The politicians were living day-to-day through the prolonged crisis set in motion by the Brexit referendum in June 2016.  Ideological commitment overwhelmed long-term thinking.  Ministers ate, drank and dreamed the pursuit of negotiating deadlines.  Cohorts of civil servants were taken from their normal duties to work with Brussels, but compared to their political masters, there remained wide areas of the government machine with the time and space to engage with medium and long-term futures.

The answer to the Committee’s question was that there had been no planning for the economic impact of a pandemic.  The measures taken once the real thing arrived were made up as the crisis deepened.  The chair of the PAC pronounced herself “quite dumbstruck” by this omission.  “Could you do us a follow-up note on the lack of economic planning for the pandemic?” she said.  Chisholm confirmed that he would. 

Countries which have done best in this crisis have been characterised not by their particular political complexion, but rather by their capacity to have in place and then fine-tune long-term plans for crisis management.  When the history of the UK’s lamentable performance is written, it will not be just the politicians who are in the firing line.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Bedtime stories.



HMP Bronzefield -women’s prison

June 16. There are three ways of identifying the impact of the coronavirus:

  • Pre-existing problems exposed by the pandemic
  • Pre-existing problems exacerbated by the pandemic
  • Pre-existing problems which the response to the pandemic failed to fix

In the UK, the prison system sits under all three headings.

Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons has just published a report on three women’s prisons, Bronzefield (the largest purpose-built women’s prison in Europe), Eastwood Park and Foston Hall.* It focusses on actions being taken to protect the prisoners from infection.  “We found”, reported the inspector, “that self-harm had increased from the high levels seen prior to the restrictions being implemented.”

In these prisons, and across the system, levels of self-harm, up to and including suicide, were already at an unacceptable level, and would have remained so without the impact of coronavirus.

As I discussed in my diary entry a fortnight ago, the key failure of the Ministry of Justice was not implementing a plan to reduce the size of the prison population, particularly those serving short sentences which would have included many women.  This is confirmed by the new report:

The two early release schemes in operation had been largely ineffective in reducing the population. Despite the process taking up significant amounts of management time, only six prisoners had been released. This was a failure of national planning.”

Instead the women prisoners were subject to a host of restrictions to protect them from the virus.  They were kept in their cells for all but an hour in two of the prisons and half an hour in a third.  Face-to-face education ceased, although it was noted that “some limited one-to-one teaching support was given at cell doors.” Schoolteachers and university lecturers don’t know what they are worrying about. All family visits were suspended, which “had a particularly acute impact within the women’s estate.”

Above all, in the case of prisoners “with very high levels of need”, who had been “previously receiving significant structured support from a range of agencies”, the services “had stopped or been drastically curtailed at all three sites, creating a risk that these prisoners’ welfare could seriously deteriorate.”   The consequence was felt in all three prisons: “Self-harm had risen since the start of the restrictions at Bronzefield and Foston Hall. The number of incidents was beginning to reduce at Foston Hall in May but remained above the level seen before the restricted regime was implemented.”

The report paints a picture of staff doing their best in impossible circumstances, working around obstacles as best they could, and in some cases finding new ways of alleviating the stress on prisoners.  The inmates had phones which they could use in limited circumstances.  At one of the prisons these were employed to help compensate for the absence of family visits.

“At Eastwood Park”, the inspector reported, “managers had established a scheme where prisoners could read a bedtime story to their children each evening.”

Makes you weep.

* Report on short scrutiny visits to Prisons holding women by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (19 May 2020)

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Prince Phillip again.

Prince Phillip

June 15.  This is the same story told by David Maughan Brown on June 10, from the same perspective.

I too was a Deputy Vice Chancellor when the Royals came to my university.  I too ended up spending time with the Duke of Edinburgh (we both occupied, after all, the same rung in our organisations).

There was some flummery.  Ladies in Waiting really exist, and are indeed well-dressed women who stand around waiting to be useful.  One of them told me that the Queen was excited about the bus we had hired to transport her from one side of the campus to the other, because she had never in her life travelled on one.  Perhaps Ladies in Waiting have a hidden sense of humour.  I was gravely instructed in how to ask the Queen if she wanted to use the loo.  Unfortunately, I have now forgotten the exact form of words, but as she and I are now in perpetual lockdown, the occasion is unlikely to arise in the future.

After an opening ceremony, we divided our forces.  The Vice Chancellor, Janet Finch, took the Queen to see some new buildings, and I escorted Prince Philip to inspect a display of work by staff. He treated them as equals, interrogating the meaning of graphs, demanding to know the evidence for their conclusions.  Aggressive, but in the way that academics are to each other.

Then I walked him down to our main hall.  ‘Has the campus ever been planned?’ he asked me.  I told him that not initially, but a master-plan was developed in 1962.  ‘Are its results showing yet?’ he asked (this was now four decades later).  Fair question if you know the Keele campus.

We entered the hall, in which were gathered a hundred local dignitaries, standing around in groups of ten.  We had arrived before the Queen, but Philip suggested we tour the room without her.  I had a crib sheet and introduced him to each individual in turn.  ‘This is Mr. Blenkinsop of Allied Ball Bearings, this is Mr. Greatbach of the Greatbach Pottery …’. When we got to the end, the Queen appeared, and Philip said he would show her round, leaving the crib sheet with me.  He introduced the Queen to Mr. Blenkinsop and every subsequent person, without missing a name.  I was astonished at this feat of memory in a man who was by then well into his seventies.  ‘How did you do that?’ I asked him.  ‘Ties’ he said.  ‘I remember each tie and the name and activity attached to it.’

I think now, as I thought then, that this was a display of professional competence of a high order.  A little like that shown by nurses and doctors and social workers and teachers as they go about their business in the coronavirus crisis.  Quite unlike that displayed by our political leaders, the product of a democratic system which we thought was a better form of government than royalty.

And I say that as a life-long republican.

Dickens and Sundays, note 1.

The Guardian, as it happened, ran a piece by Peter Fiennes the day after mine, on Dickens and Little Dorrit and the lockdown.  It broadened out into a discussion of his way of life at the time, with the beginning of his public readings, a walking tour of the Lake District, his constant pacing of the London streets.  ‘Dickens of 1857’, it concludes, ‘would have had trouble enduring the lockdown.’

Dickens and Sundays, note 2

It was reported in the Times on Saturday Boris Johnson ‘is facing a cabinet backlash over plans to suspend Sunday trading laws after three ministers, including the chief whip, warned against it.’  Another of those three was the nanny-raised Jacob Rees-Mogg, in his capacity as Leader of the House of Commons.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: London. Gloomy, close and stale

Little Dorrit (first edition image in public domain) ‘Damocles’

June 12. The most famous literary description of lockdown is to be found at the beginning of chapter 3 of Dickens’ Little Dorrit.  Arthur Clennam, a middle-aged businessman, has returned to London from Marseilles to close down his late father’s estate.  He is gazing out of the window of a coffee shop, summoning the courage to visit his old family home:

“It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close, and stale.  Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance, sharp and flat, cracked and clear, fast and slow, made the brick and mortar echoes hideous.  Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look out of windows, in dire despondency.  In every thoroughfare, up almost every alley, and down almost every turning, some doleful bell was throbbing, jerking, tolling, as if the Plague were in the city and the dead-carts were going round.  Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people.  No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world – all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again.  Nothing to see but streets, streets, streets.  Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets.  Nothing to change the brooding mind, or raise it up.  Nothing for the spent toiler to do but to compare the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it – or the worst, according to the probabilities.” Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857; Penguin 1967), pp. 67-8.

It should be noted that this was the perspective of a particular section of British society.  That symbol of a more secular sabbath, the Sunday newspaper, had recently been invented – Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in 1842, the News of the World in 1843, Reynolds’ News in 1850.  At the time that Dickens was writing, Henry Mayhew, whose surveys of food and flowers we have cited in earlier Friday diaries, was walking the London streets collecting material on the vivid, noisy world of the costermongers, which continued the week round.

Nonetheless it was a vivid account of the experience of the evangelical middle class of the time.  As with the current lockdown, it was an essentially man-made event.  In this case it replicated the response to a pandemic without the medical justification.  And whilst the full observance of a day of church services and Bible reading was confined to a religious sect, their influence on the political process was such that they were able to impose their restrictions on the rest of society.  What most annoyed Dickens was their success in closing the widening range of improving entertainments which had opened in the capital and elsewhere during the second quarter of the nineteenth century.  Working a six-day week for the most part, Sunday was the only time that the bulk of the London workforce could take their families to visit attractions which were both entertaining and instructive.  They both deserved and would benefit morally from the opening of the British Museum and other venues.

In normal times, museums and galleries are now open on Sundays as are a host of more profane entertainments.  But we continue to experience the Sabbatarian legacy, with larger shops closed before 10 and after 4 in order that we might attend a church service.  As we begin to explore a return to a post-pandemic world, Sunday opening has become one of the many issues that were described in yesterday’s diary, where Government proposals are provoking argument rather than consent.  In order to boost the retail sector which has been so badly hit, a Minister has suggested that the Sunday trading laws be suspended for a year.  The British Chambers of Commerce is in favour of the change, but Labour argues that it would favour supermarkets over the smaller shopkeepers, as does the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores.  USDAW, the shopworkers’ trade union, protests that “the last thing the retail industry needs is longer trading hours, there is no economic case for this and it will put extra pressure on the retail workers who have worked so hard throughout this crisis.”  Then there associated disputes about whether any relaxation of social contact should be allowed, and if so, what distance should be kept between people.

We need a Dickens fully to describe the times we are living through.  And we need a basis for agreeing change, without setting interest against interest, class against class.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Free and not free

June 11.   In the lockdown, I have tried to be sensible.  I have maintained my hours of work despite the absence of timetabled commitments.  I have written diary entries.  I have resisted drinking all of our not very capacious wine cellar.  My one besetting sin has been newspapers.  Deprived of hard copy I have set up online feeds from the Guardian, The Times (for an alternative view), the Financial Times (for hard evidence) and the New York Times (for the rest of the world).  Unlimited words, limitless time consumed.

Much of the knowledge thus gained has not illuminated my life.  Today I learn that there is a looming shortage of marmite (caused by a decline in beer brewing, who knew), and mounting anxiety about the closure of public lavatories.

Occasionally, however, there is a story that seems to encapsulate all that is now going wrong.  Yesterday’s online Times has an article headlined: ‘Lockdown eased to allow lonely to meet another household.’  It was part of the good news narrative that Johnson is trying to promote.  Day by day things are getting better.   In every other regard it brings no comfort.

First there is the nominative disarray I discussed yesterday; the confusion in this case between those living alone, and those who are lonely.  A third of UK households are occupied by one person.  Some of those are lonely; most are not.  All of them with grandchildren are probably missing them.

Second there is the small print.  Everyone can go and see their grandchildren except those in lockdown, which includes all those over seventy.  My wife and I, as it happens, are bang on the demographic average for the birth of our first grandchild (we were 63).  But now we have more years and more grandchildren.   Under the new regulations, we are too old to see them.  It’s as if the Government had announced with a fanfare that everyone was now free to play football, except those under thirty.

Third there is the surrounding argument.  The fifth paragraph of the same article reads:  ‘However, the government’s claim to have made the right decisions at the right time on the pandemic was dealt a severe blow when one of the architects of lockdown said Britain’s death toll could have been halved by imposing it a week earlier.’  What has collapsed in the last few weeks is not the infection rate but public trust in the entire official management of the crisis.

Every recent decision, whether about schools, testing, opening shops, allowing grandparents out of the house, quarantining international arrivals, has immediately been met by criticism, counter-argument and in some cases legal action.  The point is not so much the rights and Priti Patels of each issue, rather the belief that everyone is free to advance their own view and can find an ‘expert’ somewhere to back them up.  Deference towards politicians, and towards those who advise them, has disappeared.  In the early days there was a tendency to accept what we were told in the grave surroundings of No. 10.  We needed to believe that those with power were doing the right thing, and anyway it was difficult for amateurs fully to understand the science and the projections.  That comfort is no longer available.

The largest argument, referred to by the Times journalist, is about what was not done in February and March and how many tens of thousands of people died as a result.  The Government’s repeated hope that this kind of retrospective analysis could be left to a post-pandemic enquiry is in vain. 

We are all historians now.  And that is a measure of the trouble we are in.