From David Maughan Brown in York: The Fool and the Blind Man

26th November 

One of the more memorable, if enigmatic, lines from W.B. Yeats’ very late poem ‘The Circus Animals Desertion’ keeps going round in my mind:  ‘And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread….’  Yeats was alluding to the legend of Cuchulain, but the symbolism of the Fool – in the Elizabethan sense of the court jester – and the Blind Man seem peculiarly apposite.  In the present context the Fool needs no introduction, although Shakespeare’s Fools were often able to use their foolery as a front behind which a wisdom was to be found that is notably absent from the clown who is supposed to be leading our country at present.   The Blind Man is the one who, while seemingly able bodied, walks straight towards, and falls into, a gaping hole that almost everybody else can see.  Our Blind Man, Rishi Sunak, however eminently smooth, affable and seemingly reasonable, is, like our Fool, not gifted with foresight.  He is not a Tiresias figure – the blind but far-sighted seer of myth and legend – and seems incapable of seeing the pitfall in front of him.  While Sunak may be doing his best to shore up the sides of the Covid pit which the incompetence of his colleagues is digging ever deeper, the Brexit pit is one he is said to have been striding towards all his adult life, and he appears blindly oblivious to the danger.  So much so that the word wasn’t heard once as he outlined his plans in yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review.  The Brexit pit has been predicted by both the Governor of the Bank of England and the independent Office for Budget Responsibility to be destined to be at least twice as deep as the Covid pit.   

So whose was the bread the Fool and the Blind Man have “stolen”?  In the first instance, that of the 4.2 million children under 16 in UK who were already living below the poverty line in 2019 and whose situation will inevitably have become significantly worse during the pandemic.  The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently warned the government that the pandemic was having a ‘devastating’ impact on the well-being of children.  It took a 23 year-old football player to shame the Fool and the Blind Man into reversing their policy of discontinuing the provision of free school meals during the holidays.  And it isn’t because the feckless working class unemployed aren’t prepared to go out and work to provide for their children, as the backwoodsmen on the Tory back benches would no doubt maintain: seventy percent of children in poverty, according to May Bulman in Tuesday’s Independent, have at least one parent who is in work.   In a context in which it was disclosed yesterday that £10 billion was wasted on PPE in the early months of the pandemic because government incompetence had ensured that the stock of PPE when the pandemic struck was grossly inadequate, imposing a freeze on most public sector salaries, which will amount to a real term decrease as Brexit sends prices soaring, seems pretty shameless.  It certainly won’t help to put the bread back on the table.  And all the while the Blind Man assures us that there won’t be a return to austerity.

Beyond the UK, the bread is being stolen from the poorest of the poor elsewhere in the world, as the Fool and the Blind Man set about changing the law to save £4 billion by cutting the legislated 0.7% of GDP that our laws dictate should go to foreign aid every year down to 0.5%.  The quantum of foreign aid that will be available after the 28% cut will, of course, also be significantly reduced by the fall in GDP resulting from the pandemic, and the much longer-term reduction in GDP resulting from a no-deal Brexit, which, the Blind Man asserted again on the Today programme this morning, wouldn’t bother him.   This cut is being made in the same breath as four times as much, £16bn extra, is gifted to the Ministry of Defence to appease the Hooray Henrys on the Tory backbenches and pander to the Fool’s delusion that the UK is still the global superpower it was in the 19th century.  Tory backwoodsmen will be arguing that much of our foreign aid is wasted as a result of corruption in the countries to which it is granted, in a context in which it has been made all too clear that the £4 billion saving in financial aid is dwarfed by the tens of billions that have been squandered through the pandemic via the corrupt Tory ‘Chumocracy’ that has seen huge contracts going to line the pockets of wholly unqualified friends and relations of Tory Ministers, MPs and special advisers.  “Chumocracy” is a grotesquely inelegant word, but then what it describes isn’t very pretty either.   British foreign aid buys us wholly disproportionate goodwill and influence around the world, vastly more (pace the Blind Man’s feeble plaint on the Today programme) than our defence force, and once converted into local currencies at very advantageous exchange rates brings enormous benefits.   Cutting the aid budget is short-sighted and mean spirited, but then, of course, a Fool is a fool and a Blind Man is, by definition, the apogee of short-sightedness.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Reflections on Mangrove

The Mangrove Nine

16th November 

Yesterday evening’s brilliant BBC One screening of Mangrove, the first in a series of five films in the Small Axe series directed by Steve McQueen, was difficult to watch.  The historically accurate film covers the two years from 1968, the year of Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, when Frank Critchlow established his Mangrove Trinidadian restaurant in Notting Hill, which rapidly became a much needed hub for the British-Caribbean community, to the 1970 Old Bailey trial of nine men and women of West Indian extraction who had been arrested following a protest march on the local police station.   The protest was the eventual outcome of eighteen months of racist harassment by the police who had conducted twelve violent and destructive raids on the Mangrove over that period under the pretence that, being run by black people, it was bound to harbour drug-dealers and prostitutes.  The trial lasted for 55 tense days during which the defendants were liable, if found guilty, to ten-year prison sentences for incitement to riot.   The acting across-the-board is mesmerising, the story-telling superbly nuanced, and the film has deservedly earned five star ratings from the critics.

It was difficult to watch for two reasons.  The first was that it was such a visceral reminder of so much that went on in South Africa during the apartheid years.  The film captures the vicious racial stereotyping, the casual racist brutality of the police,  vividly and chillingly.  And it manages to do so without caricature or overstatement.    PC Frank Pulley, superbly acted, still a constable after 15 years in the police force, epitomises the racist bully who takes his own inadequacies out on those he assumes to be powerless to resist.   The film reveals the extent to which those in the dock are in every respect – morally, intellectually, and in terms simply of their common humanity – vastly superior to their corrupt and mendacious police accusers and, for that matter, to the inhumane court orderlies, the supercilious prosecutor and the establishment judge.  The film brought home to me, once again, just how naïve some of us in South Africa were to imagine during the 1970s and 1980s that Britain could be looked to for a model of decency and justice where the police and courts were concerned.  Give PC Pulley and his cronies a crash course in Afrikaans and they would have been entirely at home in the Suid Afrikaanse Polisie of the time.

The other reason it was difficult to watch was much more immediate and equally, if not more, visceral.  It was, quite simply, that there is still at least one arm of the British State, namely the Home Office, that blithely continues to operate with the same casual and dishonest brutality today.  The only way I can account for its appalling behaviour is by assuming that it must still be informed by a similar dehumanising racism.  We learnt from a report from Lizzie Dearden[1] in today’s The Independent that the latest device for stopping asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel in small boats in the Priti Patel box of tricks is to prosecute and imprison as a people smuggler any asylum seeker who has been coerced into steering one of the boats. Having been criminalised for trying to make sure that their fellow asylum seekers don’t drown, these asylum seekers then become liable for immediate deportation on their release from their up to 30 months imprisonment. A report in yesterday’s Observer revealed that many asylum seekers arriving by boat are being deported back to France before their asylum claims have been properly considered.  As was no doubt the case with the Mangrove Nine, who faced ridiculously exaggerated charges, the Crown Prosecution Service are cravenly acceding to, in this instance it would seem, the Home Secretary’s vicious whims.  

A second article in today’s The Independent, this time from May Bulman[2], draws our attention to a twenty-fold increase in the number of self-harm incidents in one of the detention centres holding asylum seekers who have arrived in small boats.   They are only taking to small boats in their desperation, it bears repeating, because safer routes to seek asylum, and in many instances join family members, in UK have been deliberately closed to them.   After the trauma and fear that drove them from their homes, after the hazards, hardship and hostility they have faced on their long journeys overland to reach the English Channel, after having had to pay people smugglers for the privilege of risking their lives to get here, it is hardly surprising that when they find themselves imprisoned on their arrival and threatened with immediate deportation before their claims to asylum have even been listened to they should self-harm in their utter desperation.   And this is the country that they looked to for sanctuary and justice.

We are being told that the departure of Cummings and Cain from Downing Street will give Boris Johnson a chance to ‘reset’ the direction of his government.   Now that he has crossed the threshold of the Promised Land of Brexit ‘sovereignty’, with or without a deal, one can only hope that he will demonstrate the statesmanship to look beyond the Brexit credentials of his cabinet ministers.    Unless he thinks that the majority of the British people are so brutally xenophobic that they are happy to go along with the  appalling way Patel wants asylum seekers treated, which I can’t bring myself to believe, he must, surely, taker a closer look at the role of Home Secretary.   Patel seemed to win some public sympathy via her account of the racism directed towards her when she was at school.  But it is common cause that the abused all too often end up as abusers, the bullied all too often become bullies themselves.   The outcome of the long-standing enquiry into Patel’s alleged bullying of her officials in the various government departments unfortunate enough to fall under her spell has been kept under wraps, no doubt for very good reason.   Now that Boris is having to self-isolate in the austere confines of his Downing Street flat he can, perhaps, find time to watch Mangrove.  As he does so, with a possible cabinet reshuffle in the back of his mind, he should perhaps ask himself whether it is possible that any of his current cabinet ministers have the instincts and mental attitudes of a grossly over-promoted 2020 version of PC Frank Pulley, and, if so, whether he wants them to continue to discredit any claims that the United Kingdom is a humane and civilised country.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/channel-crossings-migrant-boats-jailed-dinghies-smugglers-cps-b1722937.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/self-harm-detention-brook-house-asylum-seekers-b1668406.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Hot-air balloon?

Into the sunset?

November 15th.

The UK is currently facing two existential crises simultaneously, either of which would, on its own, constitute the severest test of a UK government since World War II.   On the one hand, we have a pandemic that has so far, even by the official underestimate, cost over 51,000 lives, is still getting worse, and is once again threatening to overwhelm our hospitals.  Our Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, is predicting that the coming winter will be the NHS’s worst in decades.  The UK was always going to be affected by Covid-19 but the pandemic has been far worse in the UK, and has killed tens of thousands more people than it need have, as a result of our government’s embarrassing incompetence and, in particular, its desperately poor communication. On the other hand, as if the damage done to the economy by the pandemic were not bad enough, we have the economic catastrophe of an ideologically-driven Brexit to contend with in six weeks time.  This last will almost certainly result in a relatively short time in the break-up of our supposedly ‘United’ Kingdom.    In the meantime, as a ‘no-deal’ Brexit looms, the Prime Minister’s always very limited attention span is entirely taken up with the internecine ferret-fight in the Downing street sack that I wrote about in my last entry.

The first two ferrets to be evicted from the sack, or alternatively given it, have been Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s Director of Communications, and the infamous Dominic Cummings.  Lee Cain’s career started with his appointment as a tabloid journalist working for The Sun, which provides a very good early indication of his moral compass, or lack thereof, although he may well have learned the art of telling convincing lies earlier.  His distinction in the field has been plummily expressed by no lesser personage than the honourable member for the eighteenth century, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who declared on his departure that Cain had been ‘a fantastic public servant … somebody instrumental in ensuring the Vote Leave campaign was successful and somebody who has made a huge contribution to this government’.  Enough said.  One has to assume that, as Johnson’s Director of Communications, Cain was at least partly responsible for the government’s shift from the clarity of its initial Covid slogan, ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’, to the much-ridiculed opacity of the May revision: ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save lives.’  It is arguable that the ineptness of that slogan, and Cain’s soul-mate Dominic Cummings’ drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, were the two most significant factors in undermining the credibility of government communications about the pandemic.  Cain’s place in Downing St. is due to be taken by one James Slack, who is obviously perfectly named to take tighter control of the government’s communication strategy.

The ferret fight was over Lee Cain’s prospective promotion to being Boris Johnson’s chief of staff following the appointment of Allegra Stratton as the government’s political press secretary. The latter would appear to have a career death-wish as she has apparently agreed to front Downing Street’s proposed imitation of the White House daily press briefings.  That was obviously going to cut across Cain’s direction of communications, so another job needed to be found for him.  The whole point of what goes on behind the scenes in Downing Street is that it goes on in the dark as far as the public is concerned.  It, like Michael Howard, has ‘something of the night about it’, and it is this Achilles heel, alongside our lack of a written constitution, that point to the weakness in our democracy that I referred to in my last entry.  It is ‘special advisers’ who, no matter how comprehensively they fit into Dominic Cummings’ ‘misfits and wierdos’ category, currently determine the direction of government, not the cabinet, and certainly not parliament. 

According to Andrew Woodcock’s report in The Independent, the ferrets ranged against Cummings and Cain (and who knows how many of their dozen or so fellow travellers from the Vote Leave campaign who had joined them behind the scenes in Downing St.) were, we are told, Allegra Stratton, Munira Mirza, who is currently Johnson’s ‘policy chief’, and, no doubt crucially, Carrie Symonds. Symonds is Boris Johnson’s fiancée, mother of his most recent child, which makes her officially the latest in the long line of women with whom Johnson has shared his bed, not that history suggests she will be enjoying an exclusive privilege in that respect.   So who gets to hold some of the most influential political appointments in what we are pleased to call our ‘democracy’ can be largely determined, not by formal processes of advertisement, application and assessment,  by who our Prime Minister happens to have as his formally acknowledged bed partner at any given time. 

From time to time on still days when I’m working on my allotment I hear a sudden belching sound and look up to see a hot air balloon drifting gently overhead.  The one I saw most recently seems in retrospect to be pertinent.  Hot air balloons strike me as having a lot in common with our Prime Minister.  They are highly visible – all show  – but have very little substance; they are kept afloat by hot air, fuelled by toxic gases, and extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of circumstance, being blown, hapless and uncontrollable, in unwanted directions before any adverse wind that arises.  Nobody down on the ground, mere earthlings, can have any idea who the hell, if anybody at all, is steering them.   The balloons that fly over my allotment are often like the one illustrated, floating off towards the sunset  – one hopes not the sunset of our democracy.  The faintly discernible ‘Virgin’ is obviously very much less than accurate in Johnson’s case, but then he clearly relished driving around in a bus with an obvious lie about the NHS blazoned across its sides in the run-up to the referendum, so it doesn’t seem too inappropriate.  Anyone who takes the trouble to type ‘Hot-air clown balloons’ into the Google Images search facility will see that I would have been spoiled for choice had I wanted to choose one of those as an illustration for the analogy, but none of the clowns on view came close to capturing the uniquely Johnsonian combination of deranged hair and shifty eyes.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Freedom is Slavery’?

November 10

‘War is Peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.’   Anyone might think that our brain-washed cabinet ministers are required to spend at least an hour every day meditating on these slogans, originally inscribed on the white pyramid of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, as their mantras.  How else can one account for their ability to tell us with straight faces and reverent voices, that the Internal Market Bill, which they are very happy to admit breaks international law, is designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement and ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland?  How silly of the rest of the world, now rather significantly including the President-Elect of the United States, to see it as doing precisely the opposite.   Orwell’s Big Brother would be hard pushed to come up with anything quite as imaginative as the government’s claim, articulated again by the Right Honourable George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, that what amounts in effect to a wrecking ball where the Withdrawal Agreement (and, for that matter any hope of a trade deal with the US) is, in fact, ‘a vital safety net.’

In marked contrast to the lickspittle Tory MPs who seem only too willing to vote for anything Boris and Dominic Cummings tell them to vote for, and duly ensured that the bill passed with a substantial majority in the House of Commons, a number of Tory Peers, including Michael Howard (who was memorably described as ‘having something of the night about him’) have spoken eloquently about the damage the bill will do to the UK’s reputation and international credibility.  As Baron Howard of Lympne put it, having stressed that he is a strong supporter of Brexit: ‘This government has chosen as one of its first assertions of its newly won sovereignty to break its word, to break international law and to renege on a treaty it signed barely a year ago.’   Howard’s speech contributed towards the offending clauses of the bill being voted down by a huge majority of 268 votes in the House of Lords.

The government has vowed to reinstate the offending clauses when the bill comes back to the House of Commons regardless, but, given how adept practice has made Boris Johnson where abrupt U-turns are concerned, that wouldn’t be the safe bet this week that it would have been a fortnight ago.   Johnson and Cummings will not have regarded Joe Biden winning the US election as a significant factor in their gaming of Brexit.  Biden has in the past referred to Johnson as a ‘kind of physical and emotional clone of Trump’, he has made it absolutely clear that if Brexit threatens the Good Friday Agreement in any way the desperately desired trade deal with the USA will not be forthcoming, that his ancestry is Irish rather than British, and that he will be more interested in the USA’s relations with the EU than with UK.  The Scottish newspaper The National reported that Tommy Vietor, who was a former special adviser to President Obama and is ‘close to Biden’ responded to Johnson’s congratulatory tweet to Biden and Kamala Harris by saying: ‘This shapeshifting creep weighs in.  We will never forget your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to Trump.’  It seems safe to assume that the ‘we’ included Biden.

So the past week has been, as the cliché would have it, something of a rollercoaster, as hopes rose and fell, taking levels of shadenfreude with them, that Trump would finally get his long overdue comeuppance, and that Johnson and his no-deal Brexit plans would, to one extent or another, be collateral damage.  But, where the USA is concerned, hope for the short-term has been qualified by the recognition that, even after Trump’s four long years spent reducing the reputation of the US Presidency to a steaming pile of ordure, 71 million US voters still managed to find reason to vote for him.   So what, one has to ask, even as one enjoys the viral videos of Trump as a two-year-old having a tantrum, is the long-term future of US democracy?  More immediately, what does the future for the UK look like now that Johnson finds himself internationally friendless in his proudly, if deceitfully, won ‘sovereignty’?  Which populist bully does he cosy up to next? Bolsonaro?  Even if someone at the last minute manages to point him successfully in the direction of an intelligent trade deal with the EU, we will still be left with his landslide general election win to mull over.   Johnson isn’t quite as much of an embarrassment as Trump (nearly, but not quite), and Biden clearly appealed to a much broader cross-section of the US electorate than Corbyn ever could to its UK counterpart, but one only has to look at the twitter feed following the debate on the Internal Market Bill in the House of Lords to recognise the parallels between the mindless irrationality of many of the Trump supporters our televisions have been serving up to us over the past month and that of the Brexit devotees whose devotion has not been shaken one little bit by the intervening months of shambolic incompetence.  Perhaps Freedom is Slavery after all.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The naivety of hope.

5th November

One might have thought one had learnt by now.  It wasn’t, surely, possible that people in the UK could be so easily fooled, or perhaps so desperate, that they would think Brexit a good enough idea to vote for.  Wrong.   Donald Trump was so unspeakably awful that, however uninspiring Hilary Clinton might be, there couldn’t really be any serious chance that he might become President.  Wrong again.  Boris Johnson had made such a dog’s dinner of the Brexit negotiations and showed such overweening contempt for parliament that if he were to win the 2019 general election it had, surely, to be by a wafer-thin margin.  Wrong yet again.  Well, anyway, if anything was absolutely certain it had to be that, after four years of racism, misogyny, deranged tweets and 220,000 Covid-19 deaths, the predicted ‘blue wave’ of Biden-voting states must surely materialize as an eminently well deserved landslide come-uppance for Trump.  You didn’t need a vibrantly youthful and charismatic visionary to knock a grotesque caricature of a President out of the park; surely you just needed someone who was decent, intelligent and reasonably articulate? Wrong again – at least where anything remotely resembling a landslide is concerned.

So where does my seemingly irredeemable naivety in such matters come from? High on my list of suspects would be my 43 years spent working in Higher Education.  You can’t spend your working life in the company of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed university students, almost always intelligent and often very idealistic, without coming away with some hope for and belief in the future.   Higher education must, surely, imbue graduates with an ability to distinguish what has a good chance of being true from what is obviously untrue; with some degree of ethical sensibility; with some level of social conscience and environmental awareness?   Wrong again – or, at least, there seems to be a lot of evidence to the contrary. 

60% of the United States electorate is said to be ‘college educated’; 35% of them have bachelor’s degrees.  I haven’t seen a more recent statistic with regard to the number of USA adults who believe that the world really was created in seven days in 4004 BC, but in 2000, when George Bush was elected President via the infamous ‘hanging-chad’ election, the figures I saw indicated that precisely the same proportion of the electorate, marginally over 50%, were full-blooded creationists as had voted for him.  That may, or may not, have been a coincidence.  Sceptics might be inclined to ask: ‘What about the multi-million year-old fossils that would seem to belie this belief?’  The answer to that is obvious:  ‘God planted the fossils in 4004 BC to test our faith.’  If a context of wholly irrational religious belief, which must, statistically, be informing the lack of thinking of many voters in the USA who have been through Higher Education, provides any kind of clue, one can begin to understand some otherwise incomprehensible aspects of the wider intellectual climate behind what our televisions have been showing us over the past few days:  how can so many women be ardent supporters of a man who has such obvious contempt for women? How can any black American possibly support so blatantly obvious a racist?  How can anybody from any religious faith root for a man who has spent the last four years sowing division and hatred, and deliberately fomenting violence?  So, what price universal education, and higher education in particular?

This side of the Atlantic, significantly over 40% of UK voters between the ages of 25 and 65 have first degrees, but it won’t only be the remainder who are sufficiently undiscriminating to regard The Sun, and the Daily Mail as sources of wisdom, nor will it have been only those over 65, many of whom are also university-educated, who will have voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson. It is a commonplace that Trump and Johnson have a great deal in common.  When Johnson stands up and tells us that it is a “moral imperative” to impose a four-week lockdown, we don’t have any reason whatever to think he has any greater acquaintance with the morality he invokes than his grotesque American counterpart.  Trump spent two years at Fordham University and followed that with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.   Johnson, as everyone knows, has a degree from Oxford.   Whatever else they might have imbued these two eminences of the global political landscape with, the universities that Trump and Johnson attended have clearly not cultivated in them a sense of morality, or much in the way of common decency.  That will not have stopped the universities in question from regarding Johnson and Trump as a credit to them, or deterred the universities in any way from cynically trying to exploit their political eminence for recruiting and fund-raising purposes.  Such is the nature of the Higher Education marketplace.  But that won’t stop me, perhaps naively, from regarding higher education as being ultimately a force for good, in spite of individual examples to the contrary.

David Maughan Brown in York: Covid dilemmas

October 17th

Covid-19 has brought with it a spate of novel dilemmas – some of great moment, some infinitesimally small in comparison.  But such are the peculiar circumstances of our time that even the very smallest can seem, at least to individuals, to loom disproportionately large.

The dilemmas of great moment are the ones at national level that one can do virtually nothing about: the simultaneously impending train smashes resulting from the wrong choices being made at UK government level where the Covid-19 (read ‘government of England’ for this one) and Brexit dilemmas are concerned. All one can really do with regard to Covid is make as sure as one can that one doesn’t become infected oneself, and that one doesn’t do anything that might pass it on to someone else, in the very unlikely event that one has become asymptomatically infected.  Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t have thought it was an insuperable dilemma to choose between saving lives and saving jobs – but that assumes that the pandemic is being competently handled at the national level, which all too obviously is not the case.  Where the obsessive self-laceration of Brexit is concerned, all one can do is try to stock up on the non-prescription drugs one needs that probably won’t be available for many weeks after January 1st, and watch the slow-motion train smash unfolding.   It is going to be difficult to avoid both the despair and the schadenfreude of seeing it being forced home on the Brexiteers just how fundamentally delusional their dream of a thriving post-“independence” economy is going to prove.   Too many people will have died; too many families will have fallen into destitution.

It is the small dilemmas that loom so large in a largely locked-down world in which we can seldom see, and never hug, our children and grandchildren that concern me here.  One example will have to do.

All that is left to harvest on the allotment now are the last of the apples and a few potatoes.   The conference pears should still be there, but I spotted a week or so ago that some seemed to have disappeared mysteriously overnight, with neither the rats nor birds being apparently blameworthy on this occasion.  Three or four years ago the entire tree was stripped some time in August and all the still green pears were lying, unpecked, on the ground.  A couple of magpies were sitting in a nearby tree cackling at me, from which I drew my own deductions.   This time I picked what pears remained and am still hoping that they will ripen.  The Charles Ross, as large as big cooking apples but a lot more attractive, were ready four weeks ago; the Ellison’s Orange a week after that.  More recently most of the Fiesta and Jupiter apples were ready, both with heavy crops considering that they have been cordoned.  That leaves the two trees of cooking apples – Bramleys and Howgate Wonders – and the final row of cordons, mainly russets, to pick later this month and into next.   The Ashmead Kernels and Tydeman Late Oranges are cropping particularly heavily this year and have the advantage of, at least in theory, keeping through the winter.  Three-year old Rosie hasn’t ever picked apples or helped with lifting potatoes, so Anthony brought her and James round for some socially distanced harvesting last weekend.

James, a wonderfully caring twelve-year old elder brother, took Rosie off to see whether they could find some very late autumn raspberries on the Joan G canes, whose leaves were already yellowing.  I watched from a distance as they shared the few they could find.   Then, from her low vantage point, Rosie spotted the hidden treasure of an unusually large and perfectly formed berry hiding under a leaf near the top of one of the canes and asked James to pick it for her.  James duly did so and gave it to her to eat.  She received it eagerly, but I then watched her deliberating over it for much longer than I would have expected.  She was clearly longing to eat it, but she looked up and saw me watching her, walked tentatively over to me with shining eyes and a winning smile, and held her treasure up as a gift for me. 

 What was I to do?  She had spent the week with 6-8 other children at childcare while the number of coronavirus infections in York grew at the rate of roughly 40% a day.  Seven months of careful Covid precautions could have been wasted had I accepted her raspberry from her well-licked fingers and eaten it.  But to suggest to her that she should eat it herself, however kindly, would have been to reject her gift of love, and what seemed to me the remarkable degree of selflessness it embodied.   In normal times I would have been able to give her a hug and either enjoy the raspberry myself or share it with her.  So what did I do?  I accepted her gift gratefully, gave a convincing pretence of enjoying it, and dropped the raspberry she had so clearly wanted to eat into a bush behind me, before rubbing sanitiser on my hand.  I have felt a sense of having betrayed her love ever since, but suspect I would have felt exactly the same had I somehow managed to reject her gift without upsetting her.  A Covid-19 dilemma: infinitely trivial in the grand scheme of things, but in a world in which I can only see her briefly perhaps once a week, and never get to hold, or hug, or read to, or even touch her, it assumed absurdly disproportionate dimensions. I guess very small things have loomed very large for most of us at times over the past few months.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Universities

October 9th

It won’t be entirely coincidental that ‘the first of the new wave of alternative [Higher Education] poviders’, as the Guardian puts it, to be granted its own degree awarding powers is the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology founded by Sir James Dyson (note the honorific) and established as recently as 2017.  Dyson is a Tory donor who heads the UK ‘Rich list’ and was appointed to the Order of Merit in 2016.  An ardent Brexiteer who thinks the UK should just ‘walk away’ from negotiations with the EU (in spite of having called on the UK government in 1998 to join the Eurozone as soon as possible), Dyson is so confident of the UK’s future financial and commercial wellbeing outside the EU that he has moved his company’s ‘titular’ (Dyson’s word) headquarters to Singapore. 

In recognition of this momentous landmark for Higher Education – colleges of technology with 150 undergraduates, who are only expected to study a single discipline for two days a week, haven’t previously been granted degree awarding powers, particularly not after being in existence for a mere three years – Dyson was interviewed by Nick Robinson on the Today programme to mark the occasion.  Nick Robinson has the very big advantage of not being John Humphrys, whose role as the very conservative Today attack dog was presumably intended to demonstrate the political illiteracy of those who imagine the BBC to be left-wing – but there was no need for Robinson, even as a mere commoner, to be quite so deferential to this particular Knight of the Realm.  

In the course of the interview both Nick Robinson and Dyson referred to Dyson’s Institute as a ‘University’.  Although it would certainly help, one doesn’t need to go back to Cardinal Newman or Wilhelm von Humboldt these days to get a general idea of what a university is.   Were they to take the trouble to Google “What is a university?” it would take twenty seconds, literally, for Robinson and Dyson to discover that, according to www.dictionary.com, a university could reasonably be considered to be ‘an institution of learning of the highest level, having a college of liberal arts and a program of graduate studies together with several professional schools, as of theology, law, medicine, and engineering, and authorized to confer both undergraduate and graduate degrees.’   The same 20 seconds would inform them, were they to be interested, that the purpose of a university, this time according to www.pearson.com, is to be ‘the guardian of reason, inquiry and philosophical openness, preserving pure inquiry from dominant public opinions.’   However good it may well be at what it does, Dyson’s Institute is not a university.

All of which serves to remind me, if I needed any reminding, just how thankful I am that I am no longer involved in any way in the thankless task of trying to manage a university, and maintain the values remarkably well articulated in the fifteen-word quotation from Pearson, in 21st Century England.  The relentless passage of transient Ministers given responsibility for Higher Education since the turn of the century, most of whom seemed to think that having been an undergraduate qualified them to know how to run a university, and all of whom were anxious to leave their idiosyncratic mark on the sector before being moved on to something regarded as more important than Higher Education, has contributed towards universities being viewed as little more than soullessly utilitarian degree factories.  National league tables, incapable of recognising value-added, and self-evidently designed to perpetuate the elitism of the so-called “top” universities, have reinforced this.  Research metrics that focus on ‘impact’ and do anything but ‘preserve pure inquiry from dominant public opinions’ don’t help. So when one of said past Ministers, our esteemed Prime Minister’s brother Jo, asks James Dyson “Why don’t you start your own university?’’, as recounted by Nick Robinson, and Dyson sets up his Institute by way of a response, Dyson and Robinson are both able to think of it as, indeed, being a university.

I particularly don’t envy university Vice-Chancellors and their teams the quandary they have found themselves in as a result of the pandemic.   Having spent more than forty years of my life working with students, it always seemed certain to me that bringing students back onto campus at this juncture was bound to be asking for coronavirus trouble.  But most Vice-Chancellors will know that distance learning involves a whole lot more than simply asking their lecturers to put their lectures up on the web, and will be only too well aware that they are simply not equipped to do an adequate job of going fully digital, not even for one semester.   The creeping privatisation of the university sector has resulted in most of our universities being almost wholly dependent on fee income, and many will be facing bankruptcy if student numbers drop dramatically, or they have to discount their fees substantially.   Many universities are not coming out of the present government-induced shambles very well, but in the absence of anything resembling a coherent policy for higher education in present circumstances, it isn’t easy to see how, beyond making provision for quarantined students to have hot meals, they could have done very much better.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Hulk or Home Office?

October 2nd

What is being contemplated with regard to asylum-seekers unwise enough to think that England’s green and pleasant land might be a desirable destination is becoming simultaneously clearer, murkier, and much darker.   It seems from a couple of interviews in yesterday’s edition of the BBC’s Today programme and a report in the Guardian that it isn’t just our execrable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who would really, really, really like to find a way of getting rid of pesky asylum-seekers by transporting them to Ascension Island (or, one gathers, St Helena) in the South Atlantic, but the Cabinet Office and “Downing Street” as a whole (i.e. Dominic Cummings with Boris Johnson in tow).  There is a move afoot, according to a Guardian source, to “radically beef-up the hostile environment” in 2021 as soon as the Brexit transition period comes to an end.  The Windrush disgrace and our government’s declared intention to ignore international law where Brexit is concerned have apparently not done enough damage to our increasingly wafer-thin international reputation.

A smorgasbord of options other than rocky islands in the South Atlantic has apparently been put before civil servants to consider in a despairing effort to keep asylum-seekers off our sceptred isle. The options are said to include Morocco, Moldova, Papua New Guinea (only twice as far away as Ascension Island), disused oil-rigs, and ships anchored off-shore.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  The cunning wheeze of using disused ships to house prisoners was conceived in the 18th century, as anyone who has read Great Expectations and made the acquaintance of the escaped convict Abel Magwitch will know.   Permanently moored prison ships, known as ‘hulks’, were never one of the hallmarks of a civilized society and their use was discontinued in 1856 because they were regarded as inhumane.   But the hallmark of Conservative parties is, of course, to conserve the past.

Adam Holloway, very Conservative MP for Gravesham in Kent, made it clear when interviewed by the Today programme that Patel’s and Downing Street’s object in considering these literally outlandish schemes is to provide ‘some sort of deterrent’ to discourage asylum-seekers from wanting to come to the UK.   Putting them in the stocks or giving them public floggings for having the temerity to think that England might be a good place to seek refuge from persecution and torture might seem a bit too strong by way of a deterrent for all but the retired colonels in the shires.  So what about a nice “detention centre” in the sunshine of Morocco, for example?  You wouldn’t need to go back historically as far as the hulks, the archives will be sure to have kept the blue-prints for our Anglo-Boer war concentration camps.  If you are planning to outsource your interviews with asylum-seekers anyway, you could outsource them to locals in Morocco – think how much cheaper that would be.  If you are aiming at the 99% failure rate of the much lamented “fast-track” process, it wouldn’t matter if the locals couldn’t speak the asylum-seekers’ language and didn’t know anything about asylum law – it would be easy enough to make sure UK journalists couldn’t get anywhere near the concentration camps.  It’s been done before. Of course, even if you were to intercept the asylum-seekers in the English Channel before they arrived in England, you would need to break international asylum laws by taking them ashore to an airport in order to deport them to Morocco, or wherever else, without assessing their claims first, but we are soon going to be an independent sovereign state, so, once again, to hell with international law.

I find myself wondering why I find all this so deeply depressing.   It isn’t so much because of its callous inhumanity towards people so desperate to find a home here, and in some instances join family here, that they are prepared to put to sea in inflatable swimming pools.  Xenophobia and inhumanity is what one has long come to expect of the Conservative party.  It isn’t so much the utterly absurd and impractical options that have been put forward by Patel and “Downing Street” more generally for serious consideration by civil servants.  That is entirely in line with the wholly fanciful, and ultimately delusional, construction of a United Kingdom better off economically and politically outside the European Union – the Conradian “fixed idea” that obsesses the Brexiteers. What is probably the most depressing aspect of this whole sorry business is the extent to which it lays bare the apparently irredeemable shortsightedness of our politics.   The asylum-seekers who are taking to small boats and enriching the people smugglers are only doing so because more conventional ways of getting here are closed off to them.   They are showing themselves to be courageous, determined and resilient.  Most of them happen to be young; many have skills that are needed here.  I’ve made the point before, but it seems particularly pertinent here.  Who, precisely, do Johnson, Patel and rest think is going to be driving our economy in 30 years time as our population growth declines and our current workforce grows old?  Who, for that matter, will be left to look after them in their old age once their fatal combination of xenophobia and negligence has decimated our Health and Care sectors?  Better surely to offer genuine, which means competently assessed, asylum-seekers a home rather than consigning them to concentration camps in the desert or the modern equivalent of the hulks.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Insanity

24th September

Regular readers of our Covid2020diary blog will have noticed that Covid-19 testing or lack thereof has become a source of morbid fascination for me.  It’s like watching an incompetent clown trying to ride a unicycle round and round a circus ring, falling off in an ungainly and far from funny heap at regular intervals, but endlessly persisting in getting up and trying again in full view of a tent full of varyingly astonished, bored or increasingly angry spectators, some of whom have been unsuccessfully trying to boo him out of the ring ever since his first pratfall. The tragedy being that people’s loved ones go on dying outside the tent.

Our supposedly world-beating Test and Trace system is disintegrating, as was apparent from my entry a few days ago about people with coronavirus symptoms being sent hundreds of miles for a test.  Fewer that 28% of test results are being returned from the inaptly named centralised ‘Lighthouse’ laboratories within the targeted 24 hours.  Some are taking up to 8 days, with rumours circulating that some tests are being sent to USA (improbable) and some to Germany or Holland (much more likely) for processing.  Contact tracing is nowhere near the 95% efficiency that experts are saying is required if the virus is to be kept under control, but, unsurprisingly, contact tracing by local health authorities is proving much more successful than the centralised outsourced system favoured by government for purely ideological, rather than health-related, reasons.  Serco, a private company with no previous experience whatever in the field has recently had its £300 million contract renewed by government without any invitation for competitive bids being issued.  NHS hospitals that have been doing their own testing out of desperation to have their staff tested so that they can continue to work have been instructed not to conduct their own tests.  Boris is at it again, pulling a new numerical rabbit out of the top hat and promising that 500,000 tests a day will be achieved by the end of October.   Either he has forgotten, or thinks that we will have forgotten, that he pulled exactly the same rabbit out of exactly the same hat on July 17th.   Then he had over a hundred days to play with, now he has 36.  We are still only managing around 40% of his target and the rabbit is getting a bit long in the tooth.   It won’t be coincidental that the latest figures on infections show that we have just exceeded the highest number of Covid-19 infections across the UK ever.  Increases in the number of hospitalizations and deaths will follow inexorably.

Today the Chancellor of the Exchequer cancelled this year’s budget speech, making it clear that now is not the time to start thinking about how to fund the hundreds of billions that have been spent so far on Covid.  As the furlough scheme comes towards its scheduled end, Sunak also announced another, much less generous, job-support scheme that may help to stave off some of the impending redundancies, but he also accepted that many of the jobs the furlough scheme had been supporting have effectively disappeared and should no longer be funded.  A huge rise in unemployment is inevitable.  Morrison’s is rationing toilet paper again because people are starting to hoard it again.

Today we also learnt that one of the benefits of the Brexiteers’ promised Brexit-land is going to be a police-patrolled border, not between Northern Ireland and Ireland after all (or not yet), but between Kent and the rest of the UK.  In anticipation of the real possibility, acknowledged by government, of queues of up to 7000 heavy goods vehicles spending up to two days each queuing as they try to negotiate the customs and other hurdles involved from January 1st in getting across the 21 miles of the English Channel, lorries without the necessary paper-work are going to be stopped at the Kent border.  That is probably not what people thought was meant when they voted to ‘take control of our borders’.  Concreting over large swathes of the Kent countryside to accommodate 29 giant lorry-parks is apparently not considered likely to be adequate to accommodate the HGVs.  Perishable goods will perish.  Entirely undaunted by such mere details, our stately ship of fools sails determinedly on into the sunset.  Under no circumstances will our Brexiteer cabinet contemplate postponing the end of the Brexit transition period from January 1st 2021.  It has been entrenched in law, they say, ignoring the fact that if their parliamentary majority could see to its entrenchment it could presumably equally easily make sure that it is disentrenched. 

Add Covid-19 + Mass unemployment + an economy in deep recession + No deal Brexit, and how do you describe anyone who thinks the sum of the four makes a good enough mix to be even vaguely contemplable?  Perhaps as suffering from a “mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality”?   That happens to be the first part of law.com’s definition of insanity.

From David Maughan Brown in York: “Completely potty”

August 8th

A cacophony of clucking reverberates around our shores as another flock of Brexit chickens, not yet chlorinated, comes home to roost.   These particular metaphorical chickens have taken on the guise of asylum seekers who are desperate enough to pay up to £3000 each to people-smugglers to allow themselves to be put on overcrowded and unseaworthy small boats, pointed towards these shores, and pushed out into the English Channel.  Taking advantage of the calm weather, they are arriving in our territorial waters in increasing numbers.   Many of them will be fleeing the violence in countries like Syria and Somalia, many of them will have seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed, their friends, and members of their own families, killed.  Some will be fleeing persecution, torture and death threats.   Some are unaccompanied children.  They will all have made their hazardous and unwelcomed way across Europe and will be traumatised enough to think that, after all they have been through, it is worth the risk to try to make it across the last twenty or thirty miles of open water to what they hope will be a safe haven where some of them already have friends and family.

We should be pleased that the UK is still seen around the world as the kind of country it is worth undergoing daunting hardship and perilous journeys to try to get to.   After five more years of this government it almost certainly won’t be.  Instead of meeting trauma, courage and resilience with compassion and understanding, our national figurehead where such matters are concerned, the execrable Priti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Office, she of the permanent smirk, spews her xenophobic venom over Twitter and threatens to get the Royal Navy to sort them out.  A Ministry of Defence ‘source’, according to the Independent, says the idea of using the navy is “completely potty” and elaborates as follows: “We don’t resort to deploying armed forces to deal with political failings.  It’s beyond absurd to think that we should be deploying multi-million pound ships and elite soldiers to deal with desperate people barely staying afloat in rubber dinghies in the Channel.”

In essence, Patel’s problem is that ‘Taking Back Control’ and a national ‘Independence’ from anybody else’s rules was always a chimera.  Just as operating on World Trade Organisation terms means exactly what it says on the tin – being bound by regulations we don’t determine ourselves – so the ‘law of the sea’ dictates that people in small boats in UK territorial waters have to be rescued and taken to land in UK.   However much a furious Patel might feel inclined to sink the rubber dinghies, she can’t order the Navy even to ‘turn them back’.  It isn’t possible to disregard internationally agreed rules without making one’s country a ‘world-beating’ international pariah with whom nobody would want to have any dealings.   Genuine control would involve allowing the migrants to travel here safely, processing their asylum claims rapidly and humanely (which would require a different Home Office), welcoming those entitled to asylum and returning those we aren’t convinced by to the country of first entry to Europe to try to persuade that country to accept them.

Patel and her Brexiteer buddies are also going to sort France out, and make sure that France takes seriously its responsibility for stopping the boats leaving its shores, or turning them back before they leave French territorial waters.  They had better remember who won the Battle of Agincourt.   But if the Brexiteers were capable of coherent thought instead of perpetually playing to their fellow frothing-loon media supporters they might conceivably ask themselves two questions.  First, why on earth should France bother?  Once the transition period is over, the French would be entirely justified in feeling insulted, looked down on and patronised enough by the Brexiteers to stop spending what must be very extensive resources on trying to prevent migrants from making the crossing.  Indeed, it would be sensible, and almost certainly cheaper, to provide the migrants with the boats and escort them into British territorial waters themselves, with a ‘You wanted to leave the EU and “take control of immigration”, so it’s over to you.’  Literally ‘over to you’.

The other, longer term, question they should be asking themselves – although it seems way beyond their intellectual capacity and the very limited horizon of the immediate self-interest on which their attention is exclusively focussed – is who on earth do they think is in a decade or two going to be staffing the NHS, looking after their parents, waiting on the tables in their restaurants, and keeping fresh food on their tables, as our birth rate declines and they make sure that what is left of the once United Kingdom is a wholly undesirable place for people from Europe to seek work?   Many of the desperate people in those boats are highly qualified professionals (how else do they get to have the £3000?); they have all shown themselves to be enterprising, courageous and resilient.  They can only, in the longer term, strengthen the shallow gene-pool that has given us the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois, to name just two of the leading lights guiding our apology for a government.