From David Maughan Brown in York: Of flames and ashes

Belfast in flames again

April 15th

It took 30 years of violence during the euphemistically termed ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, at the cost of more than 3,500 lives, before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement enabled the more than twenty years of peace that followed.   It took all of three months from the end of the one-year Brexit transition period on December 31st for the petrol bombs to start being hurled again, and buses and cars in Northern Ireland to start being torched.  It is reported that more than ninety policemen in Belfast and elsewhere have been injured in the riots over the past couple of weeks.   A quaintly deferential pause has been called by the ‘loyalists’ to the escalation of what is rapidly becoming a deeply worrying conflict between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the great divide in recognition of the week of mourning following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, but this ‘truce’ has no more chance of lasting than the unofficial truce that broke out on the Western Front at Christmas in 1914. Boris Johnson can’t pretend he wasn’t warned.

Northern Ireland was always going to be the single intractable and ultimately irresolvable problem with Brexit.   As the legacy of slavery hangs over the United States, and to a somewhat lesser extent over us, so the legacy still endures of the ‘planting’ of Protestants in the north of Catholic Ireland that began some three hundred years ago.  As long as Northern Ireland remained one of the four component parts of the United Kingdom, and Ireland remained part of the European Union, the former’s departure from the EU was going to have to result in a border of some description between the two if the EU was going to be able to maintain the integrity of its trading standards.   It was abundantly clear that a land border of any description would inevitably, and very quickly, put the fragile peace accord of the Good Friday Agreement in serious jeopardy.   So Boris Johnson, very late in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, adopted what seemed to be the lesser of two evils and agreed to a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain down the Irish Sea.

One minor problem with this solution was that Johnson had visited Northern Ireland the previous August and assured the political and business communities, hand on heart, that access to the markets the other side of the Irish Sea would remain entirely unfettered:  ‘There will be no border down the Irish Sea, that will happen over my dead body.’   Whether this was a deliberate, bare-faced lie, like some many of his others – his conscience and any ethical sense he might ever have had were dead and buried long ago, even if his body hasn’t yet followed their example – or whether he simply hadn’t bothered to look at, or think through, the detail, is immaterial.   Trade in both directions is fettered; many businesses in Great Britain have decided it isn’t worth the hassle to continue to deliver to Northern Ireland; the supermarket shelves there are depleted; and unionists, in particular, understandably feel betrayed.

Even as the petrol bombs exploded and the police were trying to quell the rioting last week there was little indication that Downing Street gave much of a damn about what was going on.  Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, went to the verbal extreme of declaring that the injuries to the ninety-odd policemen were ‘unacceptable’. But I suspect that for all his protestations of devotion to the United Kingdom Boris Johnson himself, ensconced as King of his Little England castle, just doesn’t care about what happens to those he probably thinks of as the ‘Paddies’ and ‘Micks’ of Ireland, precious few of whom ever got to Eton.   Ireland, like France, is the other side of a stretch of water and full of people who, because they aren’t part of England, are all essentially foreigners, even if the ‘loyalists’ don’t agree,  and even if they all speak a version of the Queen’s English.   But Johnson would do well to remember that, with Biden now President of the United States, if the Good Friday Agreement goes up in flames, which seems pretty well inevitable if Johnson keeps on down the path he is taking at present, any hopes of a trade deal with the United States, supposedly the one big, fat prize of Brexit (however deluded that ambition was in the first place) will be consumed to ashes by those very same flames.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Greed and capitalism’

March 25th

If anyone was still wondering what Brexit was all about, the last couple of weeks have provided some very clear pointers, not the least of which was Boris Johnson’s revealing off-the-cuff attribution of the success of the Covid-19 vaccine programme to ‘greed’ and ‘capitalism’ in a Zoom talk to Conservative backbenchers.  Astra-Zeneca is manufacturing the vaccine at cost, unlike the producers of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as Johnson knows full well, but greed and capitalism have good cause to float around near the frothy surface of Johnson’s mind.  What the mythical ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ of the Brexit rhetoric would appear to have been about was the freedom to break international agreements, as we saw so clearly with the Northern Ireland agreement, and ignore our obligations under international treaties.  Both of which offer plenty of scope for capitalist greed.

Last week saw the publication of The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, a pointer to what Johnson means by ‘Global Britain’, one of whose more noteworthy proposals is for a 40% increase from 180 to 260 in the UK’s stock of nuclear warheads.  We apparently need to do this in the face of an ‘evolving security environment’ and a ‘developing range of technological and doctrinal threats.’   Dropping a hydrogen bomb on them has apparently become the best way to see off doctrinal threats.  The review explains that “A minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent, assigned to the defence of Nato, remains essential in order to guarantee our security and that of our allies.” Our current stockpile would give us the capacity to wipe out 1,200 Hiroshimas, but that is apparently not enough. We are asked to believe that our deterrent won’t be ‘credible’ until we can wipe out more than 1,700 Hiroshimas.

Stewart McDonald’s response, in his capacity as the Scottish National Party’s defence spokesman, summed it up very well: “For the prime minister to stand up and champion the international rules-based system before announcing in the same breath that the UK plans to violate its commitments to the international treaty on non-proliferation beggars belief.”[1] David Cullen, the director of the Nuclear Information Service, added: “The UK has repeatedly pointed to its reducing warhead stockpile as evidence that it is fulfilling its legal duties under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. If they are tearing up decades of progress in reducing numbers, it will be a slap in the face to the 190 other members of the treaty, and will be regarded as a shocking breach of faith.”  But Brexit Britain isn’t going to get prissy about a little thing like a breach of faith, provided, of course, that it is its own breach of faith. 

Last week also saw confirmation that, as the head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs pithily put it, UK Ministers have decided to balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen in an act that will see tens of thousands die and damage the UK’s global influence.  Mark Lowcock went on to describe what the UK was doing as ‘an act of medium and longer term self-harm, and all for saving what is actually – in the great scheme of things at the moment – a relatively small amount of money.’[2] The UK’s aid to Yemen, much of which is used to address issues resulting from the bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia, with the help of weapons the UK government refuses to stop selling to Saudi Arabia, is being cut by 47% to £87m.  The Guardian tells us that ‘Boris Johnson has said the decision is due to the “current straitened circumstances” caused by the pandemic and has insisted the public would think the government had its “priorities right”.’  So the British public would, in Johnson’s view, not mind that, in Lowcock’s words again, ‘There is no getting away from the fact that it will have the effect of large scale loss of life and the piling on of misery in lots of places.’ The government is legally bound to spend 0.7% of the national budget on foreign aid, so its decision to cut that to 0.5% needs the approval of parliament, but the government knows that even its own backbenchers will recognise the immorality and inhumanity of what it is doing, so it is refusing to put it to parliament on the pretext that the reduction is only temporary.  The introduction of income tax in 1799 was only a temporary measure to help fund the cost of the Napoleonic wars; it is still with us.

The ‘lots of places’ where the misery will be piled on include Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Libya and Nigeria whose aid packages are due to be cut by 60%, 59%, 67%, 63% and 58% respectively.  The UK has up to now enjoyed an international reputation for its support for international development, but then it also had a reputation for standing by its international agreements.   The entirely justified damage this mean-minded cut in foreign aid will do to our international reputation and influence is incalculable.  It is also extraordinarily short-sighted.   At a time when Priti Patel is flailing around trying to dream up ever more fascistic ways of ignoring another set of our international obligations and stopping asylum seekers who are legally entitled to seek refuge on our shores from reaching us, Lawcock points to some of the implications of what would happen if other countries decided to follow the UK’s deplorable example on the aid front: ‘The result would be much more loss of life and misery, additional instability and fragility, and more substantial problems in these hotspots, which, we know, from bitter experience, have a tendency to spread and create their own bad dynamics, with wider international consequences, including to countries like the UK.’  The best way of stopping asylum seekers arriving in Kent in small boats is to make life in their own countries livable.

So the aid budget is being slashed because of our present ‘straightened circumstances’; and NHS staff in England are being offered a derisory 1% salary increase, 25% of what is being offered in Scotland, ‘because we can’t afford more’. Yet we can afford to enlarge our almost entirely useless stockpile of nuclear weapons (when it comes to deterrents, it that were what is at issue, I would have thought one Hiroshima was quite enough), and to waste tens of billions of pounds on a still deeply unimpressive Test and Trace programme and on wasteful PPE contracts and inefficient lateral-flow tests.   Johnson’s telltale invocation of capitalism and greed provides the likely answer.  Austerity has returned to most public sector salaries, which are frozen, and we can only afford 1% for the nurses, because there is nothing whatever to be had by way of immediate pay-back.   Weapons manufacture, on the other hand, tends to pay handsome dividends, as no doubt do PPE and the private sector companies into whose eager hands the Test and Trace contracts were thrust.  If we are greedy enough, and can identify where the dividends will come from, we can learn to stop worrying and learn to love almost anything.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/15/cap-on-trident-nuclear-warhead-stockpile-to-rise-by-more-than-40

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/07/uk-balancing-books-on-backs- of-yemens-starving-people-says-un-diplomat of-yemens-starving-people-says-un-

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Pause, reflect, remember’

126,172 tea lights?

March 23rd

Today is the anniversary of the imposition of the first lockdown in the UK and we are being told that it is an opportunity to pause, reflect and remember.   By the official count, which is dutifully included in the BBC news-bulletins every day, 126,172 people in the UK have now died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test.   Anyone trying to light 126,172 candles or tea lights in memory is likely to find the first one going out long before the last one has been lit.  The number of people whose death certificates indicate that they have died from Covid-related causes, is over 146,000.   Nobody has counted the number of people who might be still alive had they not wanted to avoid going anywhere near a potentially Covid-infected Accident and Emergency Department; had they been able to get to see – rather than merely talk to – a GP; or had their treatment for cancer or other diseases not had to be postponed or paused because the hospitals were full of Covid patients.

Researchers in the United States have come to the conclusion that every Covid-19 death leaves 8.9 grieving family members.[1]  Even making allowance for somewhat different family demographics, that statistic points towards the huge weight of grief the UK has to reflect on.   My own extended family, being white, middle-class, and not yet dependent on care-homes, has been lucky; all too many others have not.   So, rather than reflecting on the lives and deaths of family members and friends, as so many people will be doing today, reflection turns to causes and effects, to questions about what might have been.   Questions our government would very much rather leave for another day.

How different might it have been had we had Jacinda Ardern at the helm, with her common sense and compassion, instead of Boris Johnson who boasted about shaking Covid-19 patients’ hands and didn’t start taking the pandemic seriously until he had nearly died from it himself?  When it comes to quarantining, New Zealand has the signal advantage of being an island nation with complete control of its borders.  But so, of course, is Great Britain, which could have locked itself down nationally as well as domestically in a way the countries on the European mainland couldn’t.  If it were to be argued that New Zealand has the advantage of being miles from anywhere, whereas UK is inextricably linked to a continent not much more than twenty miles away, one might reflect that Covid-19 timed itself to arrive very shortly after the UK had supposedly cast off the shackles of its ties with the rest of Europe and become a sovereign island nation supposedly in full control of its own destiny.

Jacinda Ardern’s government’s success in keeping Covid-19 at bay has no doubt been helped by her own practicality, untainted with Johnson’s compulsive ‘boosterism’, and by the absence of a significant cohort of libertarians on her back-benches motivated by commercial rather than public health interests.   New Zealand also had the advantage of not going into the Covid-19 pandemic suffering from a decade of ideologically driven austerity and anti-immigrant sentiment which had depleted the capacity of the National Health Service, most obviously by allowing stocks of PPE to dwindle and decay, and by discouraging the recruitment of NHS staff, most notably of nurses.  That same ideology then dictated that the success-critical Test and Trace system be kept out of the hands of public health and farmed out, at vast cost, to private sector companies that still, a year later, haven’t got on top of what is needed.

It is impossible to know how many of those 146,000 lives might have been saved had we had a serious and even half-competent Prime Minister, and a cabinet whose  qualification for membership extended beyond thinking that Brexit was a good idea.  It is equally impossible to know how many lives have been blighted by those deaths; how badly the lives of many of those who survived Covid-19 have been, and will continue to be, blighted by long Covid; how many people’s mental health has been damaged by repeated lockdowns; and how badly the nation’s education has been affected by a year of on-and-off home-schooling.  One thing we have not been short of over the past year is statistics.  One of the more striking ones to appear today came from the Health Foundation, which has calculated, on the basis that each victim lost an average of 10 years of life when they died, that a total of 1.5 million years – yes, years – of potential life has been lost to the UK as a result of the pandemic: 825,000 years for men, compared to 670,000 years for women.  Dr Jennifer Dixon, the CEO of the Health Foundation, fleshed out the bald statistics: ‘Ten years is quite a lot of Christmases that you might have had with your relative or friend.’[2]

There will be a great deal to reflect on as we stand on our doorsteps this evening holding lighted candles, as we have been requested to do.   There won’t be any banging of pots and pans this time, no clapping and cheering for the front-line workers.  Just silent reflection. 


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/datablog/2021/feb/22/covid-4-million-family-members-grieving-us-study-finds

[2]   https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-lockdown-deaths-health-nhs-b1820617.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Our ‘one-way road to freedom’

February 23rd

By his own avowal, our inimitable Prime Minister’s buccaneering days are done:  “I won’t be buccaneering with people’s lives” he insisted, as he traced the contours of his much trailed ‘roadmap out of lockdown’ at his Downing Street press conference yesterday. In the context of Johnson’s repeated promise to focus on ‘data not dates’ in responding to the pressure to relax the Covid restrictions prematurely from the libertarian loons on his backbenches, Johnson’s roadmap and accompanying announcement of his retirement from buccaneering with people’s lives, over 120,000 deaths too late, was less than entirely convincing.  The key milestones on the road consist entirely of dates, not data: March 8th, March 29th, April 12th, May 17th, June 21st by when all restrictions will supposedly be lifted.   The five-week gaps between the last three dates are, however, intended to allow for reviews of the data.  The roadmap is ‘a one-way road to freedom’, Johnson assured us, but so adept has he become at spectacular U-turns that we can be entirely confident that the mere fact that he is proceeding down a one-way street wont preclude yet another U-turn.

The last one-way road to “freedom” we went down was, it is probably worth remembering, with Brexit.  On January 1st this year Johnson, glowing with self-satisfaction, announced that ‘we have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it.’   Brexit is already giving some of our fishermen the freedom to make the most of the opportunity to find other jobs as their businesses go belly-up.  It seems doubtful that they would have voted so enthusiastically for a move that would, they were told, return to them the entirety of the UK’s freshly ‘independent’ fishing waters had they known that their quotas would in some instances go down rather than up, that transport delays would see millions of pounds worth of their fish having to be destroyed, and that they wouldn’t be able to export their shell fish catches to the EU at all.  In similar fashion, supermarket workers in Northern Ireland have been granted freedom from the irksome business of having to stack goods on their shelves as exporters from England, Scotland and Wales make the most of their freedom not to export their produce to Northern Ireland, freeing themselves thereby from the onerous necessity of filling in the reams of paperwork that Johnson erroneously declared before Brexit that they would be free to bin.

At the vastly more trivial end of the spectrum of damage, tens of thousands of people in this country must be being impacted by unheralded inconveniences arising from the freedom we are now holding in our unappreciative hands.  My particular irritation derives from the brand-new exercise bike that that has now been sitting lifelessly in our house for five weeks, all through our week of sub-zero temperatures, because the missing electrical connection is still missing.  My weekly phone-calls to Emma, Dominic, Dominic again, Emma again, and finally, yesterday, John – Emma and Dominic’s supervisor – have elicited the information that a batch of 50 of that same missing part (I was obviously not the only victim) arrived on our newly independent shores three weeks ago but had been held up in Customs until two hours before I phoned yesterday.   I am told it will arrive with me before the end of the week, but I’m not holding my breath.

Boris Johnson’s roadmap holds out the extremely attractive prospect of our being able to meet up outdoors with our Sheffield and York families over Easter, although separately, and spend time with children and grandchildren.  But I’m not holding my breath on that score either.   Perhaps Johnson would inspire more confidence that his buccaneering days really are over if he took the trouble to comb his hair occasionally and didn’t always look as if he had just come down off the poop deck of a wind-blown pirate ship wearing a hair-style modelled on an irredeemably worn-out lavatory brush.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Having one’s fishcake and eating it.

The Conker King

December 31st

So, as 2020 shuffles embarrassedly off the stage, our ever-modest, ever-honest, ever-understated Prime Minister has finally, as far as he is concerned, ‘got Brexit done.’   As of 11pm tonight it will all be a thing of the past, the bright new dawn will break in the middle of the coldest night this winter, and we can all come together again and rejoice in our newly won freedom and sovereignty.  Not only has be ‘got Brexit done’ but, as he announced to the evident astonishment of BBC’s outstanding political commentator, Laura Kuenssberg, who was interviewing him yesterday, he has achieved what the skeptics regarded as being impossible by way of ‘cakeism’:  he has managed both to have his cake and eat it.  Given that we have actually had a sovereign throughout the four and a half long years of the Brexit saga, I’m hoping it isn’t too outrageously pro-EU of me to wonder whether he has taken the trouble to ask Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II what she thinks of his cake deal.  It isn’t difficult to guess what the answer would be, were the protocol to allow her to tell him. 

The ‘democratic’ process of parliamentary approval of the deal left something to be desired.  After those very long, very fraught, four and a half years, our elected representatives were allowed all of 24 hours to read the 1200/2000-page (estimates vary) agreement, and given five hours to debate it.  Leaving aside the minor detail that the cake deal only looks at trade in goods, which account for only 20% of our GDP, and completely ignores the other 80% that relates to Services, there remains endless potential for years of ongoing wrangling with EU negotiators on a wide range of important issues, such as: the mutual recognition of professional qualifications; data sharing; and, perhaps the most serious, security, as the deal cuts the UK out of the Schengen Information System database, which provides real time information on serious crime and terrorism and was said by a senior police officer to have been checked 603 million times by the police last year, and the EU’s policing agency, Europol.  Our Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, assertion that the deal will make UK ‘safer and more secure’ is manifestly untrue.

The great ambition of Brexit was for the UK to ‘take back control’ of its destiny which, bearing the island heritage of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Admiral Horatio Nelson et al. in mind, meant the need to demonstrate symbolically that Britannia Rules the Waves.  The grand announcement of the agreement of a deal was delayed hour by hour, pizza by pizza, through the night into Christmas Eve as the 0.12% of UK GDP represented by the off-shore fishing industry was haggled over to this end.  Given that HMS Victory, the Golden Hind and Raleigh’s ship the Ark Ralegh (which he gave to Elizabeth 1st who ungratefully renamed it the Ark Royal) are, regrettably, no longer in service, the waves these days apparently have to be ruled by fishing trawlers.  One might have imagined that the triumphant gesture with which Johnson greeted the news of the agreement (see above) – the eleven-year old who has just been crowned Conker King of the second form – signified that he had achieved his goal of having his fishcake and eating it.  But far from it.  The Independent’s analysis tells us that:  ‘EU boats will continue fishing in UK waters but their share of fish will [only] fall 15 per cent in the first year and 2.5 per cent in each of the four following years…. By 2026, UK boats will be allowed to catch approximately £140m more fish.’   After that there will be annual negotiations, and no doubt more late night pizzas (despite Brexit being ‘done’ five years before) to decide how much of the catch each side gets.  The UK could, of course, decide at that point not to allow anyone else’s fishing boats into its waters, but then not only would the EU be entitled to place tariffs on UK exports (including all the fish the UK can’t eat as it is), but someone has also uncovered a paragraph buried among the 1200/2000 pages entitling the EU to cut its supplies of petrol and gas to UK in such an eventuality. SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford has spotted, buried in the detail, that the deal Johnson is busy celebrating means that Scottish boats will actually have less access to cod and haddock than they do now.   Apart from being yet more grist to the Scottish Independence mill, this means that whatever fishcake Johnson thinks he can both have and eat is unlikely to be made from either of our two most popular fish.

I hope it won’t sound too hollow if I take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year as Covid2020diary turns 21, in fact if not in name.

From David Maughan Brown in York: It’s all in the stars.

December 23rd

Manston Airport in Kent: 22/12/20

‘It’s all in the stars’ – or, more accurately, to be a bit of a killjoy, in the planets.  A Grand Conjunction only happens once every 800 years so it must, of course, be redolent of cosmic significance, and Jupiter and Saturn chose to align for our benefit at the winter solstice in 2020.  What could be more significant than that?  Given what 2020 has dished out to everyone, astrological significance should come as no surprise, but when it comes to comprehensive interpretation one has to rely on the wisdom of astrologers.  What better authority to call on to tell us what it all means than the Daily Telegraph’s tame astrologer Carolyne (sic) Faulkner who informs the world that this conjunction is occurring in Aquarius, which is an air sign, and that all other conjunctions for the next 200 years will be occurring in air signs.  She goes on to say that whereas “Earth energy triggers people to become more grounded, practical, sensible; to have respect for politicians and institutions. Air energy triggers cerebral, less tangible happenings.”

I’m glad she told us that.  If we had been told that it was Earth energy that was holding sway over us we would have had to conclude that the energy, like that of the pink mechanical rabbit in the battery advertisement, was grinding to an arthritic halt.  There is very little that is grounded, practical or sensible in the way we are being governed, and respect for politicians, and many institutions – the NHS being a notable exception – dribbled away long ago.   On the other hand, if air energy ‘triggers cerebral less tangible happenings’ that explains why our entire economic and societal future is currently caught up in an ideological wind-storm with no tangible benefits whatever in prospect.  To take the latest example of the utterly delusional cerebral forces determining our future (giving the benefit of any doubt that anything resembling a brain is involved), one only has to cite our representative Home Secretary, the inimitable Priti Patel: ‘The government has consistently, throughout this year, been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures.’  She then went on to correct Boris Johnson’s absurd claim that only 170 HGV’s were queuing in Kent, by claiming the number was 1500, in itself a serious underestimate (today there are said to be 5000- 8000), and then pointing out that the number was constantly fluctuating as “lorries are not static”.  Tell that to the drivers of the seemingly motionless lorries ‘stacked’ on Manston airfield in the photograph above.   She might also like to tell them where they are supposed to find food, water and loos – never mind somewhere to sleep – for the three or four non-‘static’ days they are having to spend in Kent before being forced to be away from their children for Christmas.

The Grand Conjunction, symbolically hidden from the view of most of the UK by impenetrable clouds, should probably be taken as nothing more esoteric than a stark cosmic warning – a preview projected in the stars – of the much less grand, but probably equally far reaching, conjunction of Covid19 and Brexit.  The French government, understandably panicked by our callow Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock’s, ill-judged statement that the new variant of the virus was ‘out of control’, promptly closed their borders to all people coming from UK, and every single state in the EU, apart from Greece and Cyprus which are retaining strict quarantine regulations, immediately followed suit.  Many other countries around the world have now done the same.  So our proudly independent and sovereign little island nation is completely cut off; nobody wants us anywhere near.  Our rabidly jingoistic tabloid press promptly and predictably erupted with age-old Francophobic fury, accusing President Macron of playing politics.  Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian politician, reflecting on the current chaos and probably on the empty supermarket shelves to come, commented that the British people “will now start to understand what leaving the EU really means….”  Matt Hancock, gaze fixed firmly on the national navel, and unable to see beyond the white cliffs of Dover, had been intending his comment to persuade those living on his little island to abide by their Tier restrictions, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world was bound to be listening.  Those trying to argue that lorry drivers don’t pose any risk of transmitting the virus because they spend their time ‘alone in their cabs’, and should have been allowed to cross back to France, have the same problem with national navel-gazing: they would appear not to have heard that HIV/AIDS research in South Africa has demonstrated very clearly that the spread of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa can be traced along the routes taken by long-distance truck drivers ‘alone in their cabs’.

The timing of the Grand Conjunction so close to Christmas 2020 has reawakened discussion of the theory that the star of Bethlehem in the story of the nativity could have originated with the conjunction of Jupiter with Venus (rather than Saturn) in 2BC. For those inclined to read messages into astronomical events, there might be a message there for our nationalistic ‘Christian’ xenophobes as they ponder the Nativity story in their unsung Christmas church services.   Perhaps the writing in the stars might be inviting them to compare the fates of two families, and two very young children in particular.   On the one hand, 15-month-old baby Artin who drowned in the English Channel in 2020, along with his parents, Rasoul and Shiva, his nine-year-old sister Anita, and his six-year-old brother Armin, after the family had fled from the violence in the near East, travelling from Iran to Turkey, Italy and France before having to try to cross the channel in a small boat because Priti Patel had closed off all legal and safe ways to get here under the pretext of Covid.  On the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth, whose parents had also had to flee violence in the near East, but who found refuge in a non-Christian country that was happy to provide refuge to asylum seekers long before there were international agreements requiring countries to do so.

It’s all in the stars – if one only knew how to interpret them.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The ‘easiest deal in human history’

December 14th

Those of us in UK who still have the residual energy to bother with what is going on where the self-defeating business of cutting our ties with the rest of Europe is concerned find ourselves in an uncomfortable state of suspended animation, still vaguely hopeful that it might yet turn out to be slightly less catastrophic than it seems almost certain to be.   Boris Johnson’s very, very, very last deadline date for the completion of talks about a Brexit deal has, like the rest of the bedraggled trail of final deadline dates, come and gone, and the talks still go on.  Given that the talking was said to have gone on all night on Saturday to meet that very, very, very final deadline, the talkers must be getting very tired of talking, but the fatigue can’t be allowed to slow the talking down too much as the dread hour when our Covid-tarnished sliver carriage of an economy turns into a pumpkin pulled along by rats is only 17 days away. 

In the meantime, Johnson appears to be oblivious of his past utterances as he hangs the Brexit-supporting mediocrities in his cabinet out to dry as they trudge wearily round the broadcasting studios lamely trying to explain what their boss meant when he said on Friday that a ‘no-deal Brexit would be wonderful.’   Johnson may not be able to remember or care about the various lies he has told to suit the moment over the past few years, but they go on record and the journalists and interviewers who get to interview him have access to the record.  So in 2016 Johnson is on record as declaring, ‘I would vote for the single market.  I’m in favour of the single market’; in 2017 he said, ‘There is no plan for no deal because we are going to get a great deal’; in the run-up to the General Election in 2019 Johnson said of a no-deal, ‘…be in no doubt that outcome would be a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible’; again shortly before the election in 2019 he said, ‘We have an oven ready deal, put it in the microwave as soon as we get back after the election on Friday 12th Dec and get it done.’   Instead of doing all that talking, someone should just have remembered to switch the microwave on.  And now a no-deal Brexit would be ‘wonderful’ because ‘we’d be able to do exactly what we want from January.’

How could one argue with that?  Look where doing exactly what he wants – lying, philandering, endorsing bullying, to mention just a few of his favourite pursuits – has got him.  If it was good for him, why shouldn’t that be good for the country as a whole?  Leaving aside all the very many economists, business leaders, captains of industry, senior police and intelligence officers and many others who think it will be disastrous, there are grown-ups even in the Conservative Party who think so too, as exemplified by Michael Heseltine: ‘This government will be – and should be – held responsible for quite simply the worst peace-time decision of modern times.’

The most optimistic interpretation of what is happening is that it is all just elaborately staged theatre designed to present superman Boris, dressed in his best Winston Churchill outfit, as flying to the rescue of the nation via a vaguely workable deal at the very last minute, and that the EU is playing along with it in order to enable Boris to save face.  It would be nice to believe this, but it would require the EU’s key players to be as dishonest and careless of the wellbeing of their representatives as Johnson is, which they clearly aren’t.   It would also require Johnson to be capable of the most elementary understanding of the EU’s position and negotiation principles, which he clearly isn’t.  This was plainly evidenced last week by his pathetic attempts to have a quiet word in the ears of Merkel and Macron in the hope of being able to have his cake and eat it by following Britain’s long-standing colonial strategy of dividing and ruling.  Neither Merkel nor Macron, wholly predictably, was prepared to take his phone-call.  Their refusal provoked a response from the Conservative MP for Wakefield, Imran Khan, that demonstrates precisely what kind of Tory mind-set Johnson represents, and what the rest of us find ourselves up against:   ‘I stand with millions of Britons that are deeply insulted at the shocking news that the German chancellor has refused the British prime minister’s request for a telephone call.  This is an insult to every Briton, whether they support our PM or not.’  Oddly enough, I don’t feel insulted.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Optimist or pessimist?

Q: Why would anyone need a lorry park?
A: To replace the green fields of Kent

December 11th

To get the ball rolling (or, alternatively, decléncher la conversation) at our final U3A French conversation group for the year, our excellent group leader asked us each in turn to say whether, and why, we were feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the prospect of 2021.   I was tempted to offer, but didn’t think my French was up to an instantaneous translation, so refrained from offering, a French version of William E. Vaughan’s definition of the difference: ‘An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.’   

Given that it was a French conversation group, it could be taken as read that our collective vision would by definition extend to the world beyond the white cliffs of Dover, or, perhaps more pertinently, the newly created lorry parks of Kent – one of which has seen 27 acres of the famed green fields concreted over to provide ‘spill-over’ space for around 2000 heavy goods vehicles when the motorway inevitably becomes completely impassable.  Our government’s recently postured conversion to environmentalism would appear not to have seen any contradiction in the creation of 29 such concrete lorry parks around the country to cope with the fall-out from its failure to achieve what it had predicted would be the “easiest (trade) deal in human history”.

But I digress (it is very easy to get carried away when contemplating such matters.)   In spite of the Francophile character of the group, I found that I was the only member to declare himself or herself to be ‘very pessimistic’ in response to the question.  A couple of the other members came down on the side of pessimism, but most declared themselves, overall, to be optimistic in spite of their lack of enthusiasm for Brexit.  In each case this was on the strength of the remarkable success of the scientists in managing to produce an effective vaccine in less than a year.  One member’s partner had already been contacted and given a date for his first vaccination next week.   The vaccine will unquestionably make our lives much easier in the short to medium term, but, however damaging and distressing Covid-19 has been and still is, its longer-term effects are bound to be eclipsed by the damage a no-deal Brexit will wreak.

In what is still, though one suspects not for long, the fifth richest country in the world, the Social Market Foundation recently released a report stating that nearly two million UK children ‘went short of food this year.’  The report stated that some 16% of surveyed parents had said their children had to make do with smaller portions, had to skip meals, or had to go without eating at all for at least one day between March and September.  Any kind of Brexit can only make matters worse over the coming months and years, as every serious economist has been making abundantly clear for years now, and even our congenitally mendacious government has had to admit. The no-deal Brexit we are now hurtling towards, with the introduction of tariffs and the inevitable increase in food prices, will inevitably make matters very much worse.   It is shameful that so many families in UK already have to rely in food banks , and there is a limit to the extent to which food banks, and the likes of Marcus Rashford, can compensate for our government’s stupidities and inadequacies.

If Donald Trump’s reign of chaos and incompetence has been catastrophic for the United States in terms of lost lives and reputation, it seems reasonable to fear that the scar left on his country will be likely, in the medium to long term, to be far less disfiguring and long-lasting than the one that will be left on what is left of the UK by Boris Johnson and his fantasist colleagues.  More individual and family lives in the USA will be permanently scarred by the number of unnecessary deaths that country will have suffered, but most of the short-sighted and often self-defeating policies Trump has embraced can be undone by Biden over the next four years.  Brexit, by contrast, cannot be easily reversed.  The damage Johnson’s contemptibly immoral and dishonest behavior has done to our national standing and reputation is almost certain to be equally irreversible, as is the damage done to our relations with the countries of Europe whom Johnson persists in hypocritically referring to as “our friends”.  Both men have been equally divisive for their countries, and my only hesitation in anticipating that Johnson’s legacy will be far worse in the long term than Trump’s will be lies with the deranged number of guns carried by both sides of the divide in the USA.   

I’ll certainly be staying up on December 31st to make sure that the old year leaves, but I don’t think it is too unreasonable not to be wildly optimistic about the New Year as I see it in.

From David Maughan Brown in York: “V Day”

December 9th                                                                                                                                  

‘O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’, as Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock might say, chortling in his joy.  Never was there such a glorious day.  VE Day, and VJ Day both marked a triumph, but the V in both of those had to be qualified by the E and J respectively, and the British triumph had, however grudgingly in retrospect, to be shared with allies.  Now V Day stands tall, sovereign and unqualified on top of the world – finally, an unquestionable world-beater.  People say the V stands for Vaccination, but we know that that is just natural British deference and that V stands, as ever, for Victory.  Britannia rules the air-waves (and the print media.)  We were the first to run the four-minute mile; now we have proved ourselves the fastest in the world to approve a vaccine developed in another country, and produced in a different other country, and to inject it into the arm of a 90-year-old British citizen.  During an interview with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, Matt Hancock, our more or less grown-up looking Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, was moved to tears in his excitement at this unwonted triumph.  But then being in the presence of Piers Morgan must, in itself, be enough to reduce many a fully grown-up man to tears. 

The unlikely 90 year-old celebrity who was the heroic recipient of the first approved vaccination, and whose photograph has appeared on the front pages of most UK newspapers, was one Margaret Keenan whose not particularly distinguished biography is now known to everyone in UK who reads the front pages of newspapers.  Demonstrating that, in true Christmas spirit, it is almost as good to give as to receive, the nurse who administered the epoch-making vaccination, May Parsons, is allowed her share of the glory by appearing in many of the photographs at the very moment of the impact of that first needle on that first flesh.   Only almost as good to give, though, as the file photograph of May in the act shows her uniform-clad left thigh and buttock looming very large, but her face not featuring at all.  

In the photographs and news-clips Margaret Keenan looks somewhat bemused by all the fuss, as well she might, (insofar, that is, as one can tell how anyone looks behind a face-mask.)   But so, for that matter, does the wide-eyed penguin on her Christmas jumper, who is breaking hospital rules by not wearing a mask. Given her new-found and obviously wholly unexpected celebrity status, the look of bemusement may have had something to do with wondering how she should respond when the invitations to “I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here” and “Strictly Come Dancing” start rolling in.  From what one can see of her above the mask, she looks unlikely to relish the idea of eating tropical creepy-crawlies, so those invitations should be relatively easy to turn down, but she could hardly be worse dancing-wise than Ann Widdicombe, so she might have been taking the idea of Strictly somewhat more seriously.

The media missed a trick in their coverage of the very first triumphal vaccination, as the very second person in the entire world to receive the vaccination was a certain Mr William Shakespeare who hails from Warwick.   If Newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Sun can persuade a gullible British public to believe that Brexit heralds a glorious future in which a ‘sovereign’ UK will ‘prosper mightily’, in the imperishable words of our esteemed Prime Minister, they could surely have made an equally persuasive claim that V Day was so unique and glorious a day in our history that the Bard had felt compelled to rise from the dead to share it with us.  Instead, they had to make do with photographs of Margaret Keenan being wheeled out of the hospital along a  corridor lined with a guard of honour of clapping hospital staff, as though she had just survived 70 days in intensive care on a respirator rather than having had to endure a needle being stuck in her arm by a nurse in exactly the same way as she will have had a needle stuck in her arm at least once every year for the past ninety years.    I couldn’t help feeling that the 40 thousand volunteers who had come forward to be injected with the vaccine before it was shown to be safe were more deserving of the clapping.

When a media campaign is so obviously being carefully orchestrated to hype-up the good news, long experience has taught me to wonder precisely what it is that the hype is designed to distract our attention from.  In this instance I suspect we are being inoculated with the good news as insurance against the likelihood that our portly superman of a Prime Minister, who has flown to Brussels to the rescue of a Brexit deal that will allow him both to have his cake and eat it, will come back empty-handed and hungry.   Nobody but the sovereignty-fetishist loons on his back benches will regard that as good news, so Margaret Keenan’s vaccination will have to do.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of lights and tunnels

3rd December

“The beginning of the end,”  “the light at the end of the tunnel”, the clichés roll out towards Dover today to greet the ‘unmarked’ lorries as they emerge from the Channel tunnel bringing the UK our first batch of the newly approved Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.  ‘Unmarked’, presumably, lest anyone have the bright idea of hi-jacking the tens of thousands of vials of vaccine to do a bit of do-it-yourself vaccinating, sell them on the black market, or ransom them back to Boris.  Good luck with that: I would have thought that freezer boxes of a vaccine that needs to be kept at minus 78-80 degrees centigrade would be about as difficult to shift as the Mona Lisa. 

This is, of course, extremely good news.  Having just scraped over the 75 year-old bar, I find myself in the fortuitous position of being in priority category number 3, a poor but eager third to the medical staff, carers and retirement home inhabitants in category 1, and the over-eighties in category 2 – not that that will be much use to us, given that Susan remains languishing in the over-70 category 4.  But there does seem to be a realistic hope that we might both have been able to receive our two doses by Easter and be able to start living a rather more ‘normal’ life again.  But, inevitably, the good news had to be soured for most of us by our cringing embarrassment of a government’s having felt compelled to leap on the opportunity for some of the jingoistic competitive crowing one might expect to hear in the playground of an independent prep school.

The fact that the UK just happened to be the first country ‘in the world’ (as distinct, presumably, from on Mars, Venus or Jupiter) to approve the roll-out of the vaccine has been held to be evidence that Boris Johnson’s regular claims that the UK is ‘world-beating’ have finally been proved true.  It matters not that Pfizer just happens to be an American company and that the vaccine is manufactured in Belgium: we approved it first.  This, according to the wholly inimitable Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, lest we forget, was ‘because of Brexit’ which unshackled us from the pedestrian ‘pace of the Europeans who are moving a bit more slowly.’   

Not to be outdone in the jingoist stupidity stakes, Gavin Williamson, our overgrown schoolboy of an Education Secretary, who is even further out of his depth in his portfolio than Hancock is, if that is possible, went further in an interview with LBC this morning.   His imperishable words in response to a question as to whether Brexit could be really held responsible for this world-beating achievement deserve to be quoted in full:  “Well I just reckon we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulators.  Much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have. That doesn’t surprise me at all because we’re a much better country than every single one of them, aren’t we.”   I’ve listened to the clip; I can vouch for the fact that that is exactly what our Secretary of State for Education really did say.  There we have it in a nutshell:  Brexit was necessary because we didn’t want to be held back from our glorious destiny by that inferior lot across the channel.  As we have always believed, even if political correctness has got in the way of saying it, Worthy Oriental Gentlemen start at Calais. 

Leaving Brexit and the question of whether our glorious destiny lies in the 21st or the 19th century aside, the immediately self-defeating stupidity of the playground boasting about being world beating lies not with the offence it will have given to the French, the Belgians and the Americans, but with the open invitation it provided for doubt to be cast on the credibility of the approval process.  If it was the fastest approval process in the world might it have been the least thoroughgoing?  After all, Boris was the fastest and first person in the world to approve of a twenty-five mile drive to Barnard Castle as a good way to test one’s eyes, but that didn’t say a whole lot for the credibility of the approval process.   Why would that matter?  Because the main obstacle to achieving the ‘herd immunity’ to Covid-19 across the population as a whole that is essential to the return to a ‘normal’ life, lies with the anti-vaxxers who are looking for reasons to persuade their social-media followers not to accept the vaccination, and appear already to have recruited a significant number of people to their cause.

Hancock’s and Williamson’s juvenile bragging invited the inevitable responses from the countries they were demeaning.  The most telling of those has probably been the one from Anthony Fauci, Donald Trump’s least favourite Director of the USA’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who is on record as stating that the UK ‘really rushed through that aproval’.[1] Fauci compared it to running ‘around the corner of the marathon’ and joining it in the last mile, and then touched on the anti-vaxxer issue in suggesting that if the U.S. “had jumped up over the hurdle here quickly and inappropriately to gain an extra week or a week-and-a-half, I think that the credibility of our regulatory process would have been damaged.”  Fauci went on to be even more damningly specific: “… they just took the data from the Pfizer company. And instead of scrutinizing it really, really carefully, they said, ‘OK, let’s approve it. That’s it.’ And they went with it.”

So there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, however hard our esteemed cabinet ministers try to extinguish it with their rancid hot air.  But I’m not waiting with bated breath for my two doses to speed through the Channel tunnel to rescue me from self-isolation.   It will have taken the lorries a few hours to get here from Belgium today; my two doses won’t be coming until after the 31st December, by which time the queues of lorries could be taking many days.  If it was seriously stupid to claim that Brexit had speeded up the approval process for the vaccine, it would be manifestly insane to imagine that Brexit won’t slow its delivery down immeasurably.


[1]https://www.politico.com/news/2020/12/03/fauci-uk-pfizer-vaccine-rush-442588