from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”

20 April.  My wife and I keep in touch with our London-based family through Zoom and Skype: a get-together of the entire tribe at 4 on Sundays, bi-laterals with each of our three children and the grandchildren at intervals during the week.  In one of these, my second daughter, having gone through all the projects she had undertaken with her two young, now unschooled, children, and described her re-entry into home-based work after three weeks of inactivity, turned the conversation back to her parents:

“So, what have you two been doing?”  We both of us realised that we really had no answer to that question.

Our days had not been empty.  We had gardened, cooked, shopped online.   I had sat at my desk writing odd pieces and collecting material for books which may never be written.  Thanks to the discovery of sites such as Curzon Films, and, in particular, MUBI, we had watched an increasing range of art-house films late at night – our physical art-house, The Old Market Hall, a seventeenth-century building in the town square, skilfully converted into an compact cinema, with an adjacent café to supply food and drink, is like all public entertainment, firmly closed.  

But we had not really done anything worth reporting.  Nothing to change our circumstances.  Nothing to impact upon the world and its suffering.

It is of course otherwise with those, who include my children and their spouses, who are at home but still pursuing their careers.  And with those who are using their enforced idleness to undertake useful voluntary work.  But for those of us who are both retired and locked down, each day just follows another. 

We no longer have plans with outcomes.  There are occasional disjunctions, but for the most part action has been replaced by ritual and routine.   In our household, as in much of British culture, these are largely secular and private.  Unlike the celebrations so vividly described by Nike in Katerini, Easter has never passed so unremarked as it did with us.  The upcoming May Bank Holidays have no meaning.  Nor do the summer holidays beyond them.  The Queen will have no guns firing for her birthday.  

Now we focus attention on the weekly round of Zoom conversations.  In the early evening we take a turn round the adjacent field, circling a flock of mildly curious sheep.  Within each day my wife and I not only eat together but make a particular point of meeting at the coffee and tea breaks which punctuate our particular labours.  Two public rituals have been introduced.  The first is the daily press conference given by some hapless minister.  The second is the Thursday 8 p.m. public applause for the front-line workers, which is partly a genuine show of gratitude, and partly a demonstration that we remain connected members of a larger society. 

 “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons” wrote J Alfred Prufrock (as it happens in the middle of the national crisis of the First World War).  So, for the time being, with us.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: not in our stars, but in ourselves …

The weekend papers are dismal with stories of collapsing businesses, the horrible nature of this Covid-19 virus and the political storm between the USA, China and the WHO. Meanwhile Trump gets weirder and more virulent himself.

So, I turned to the bridge column in The Australian’s Review section and the thorny question of how to make a contract of 6 Spades with a difficult distribution. Easy when you know how.

And then my eye dropped to the Astrology section. I don’t follow the stars, never had, always wondered a little suspiciously about those who do. However, HERE was good news.

“…the sun into Taurus reminds you of your body (!) and the dark moon says hello from your psyche. …. You only get new moon benefits after some high-calibre contemplation time. …. (now comes the best part) … Writing is more favoured than ever. Idea: give up your apocalyptic diet and re-engage with nutrition.”

HOW DID THEY KNOW? I ask you. I shall retake up my pen with enthusiasm. Now comes that advice on the diet. Are we not all eating with care, thinking of what we do to survive? My son is doing a 16:8 fasting diet whereby you fast overnight making sure it is 16 hrs between meals and then take all your meals within 8 hours. I have been doing this for 10 days.

So, I am advised to give up this ‘end of times’ diet and ‘re-engage with nutrition’. I will have to think about that. I am told a glass of red is good for the body and we have some good shirazes in the cellar waiting for some imagined special event.

A small concern about this new found interest in astrology is the name of the bright-eyed forecaster of these star signs, it is one ‘Mystic Medusa’. I know enough about Greek myths to remember Medusa is not at all ‘nice’ … all those writhing snakes for hair and the ability to turn you to stone – lethal like Covid-19. I shall engage in some contemplation, as recommended.

If you want me to send you the wisdom from this Astrology page – let me know your birthday. Maybe you too will gain some insight.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Memories of Contagion

1919. My grandmother, Catherine Smithyman, and 4 of her 7 children. My father, Mervyn Smithyman is on the left.

1961. I was a thirteen-year-old travelling by bus from Florence to Venice as my father shared his story of the Spanish Influenza of 1919. I can still see in my mind’s eye the flat Italian landscape with little stone villages passing by as he told me how his mother had ministered to her seven small children while she herself was sick and unable to walk. His father had not yet returned home from the war in German East Africa where the British South African forces were mopping up after the guerrilla battles against the famous General von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Schutztruppe . My father wept as he told the story. I had never before seen my father weep.

Over thirty years later, I taped an interview with my father and my uncle about their memories of the Spanish flu.

In 1919 the family were living in Bloemfontein, South Africa.  My father was the third child and 8 years old.

Uncle Harold: ‘At the end of the war, before Dad got back, the Spanish Influenza arrived. I was a Wolf Cub and we were sent to the Market Square where they had clothes boiling in a huge cauldron. These do-gooders had a big billycan to take from door from door and people went in and cleaned out and I waited outside. I wore a little packet of garlic round my neck and this went on till Mum said, ‘No! I had to stop!’ I was then sent out to Tempe Park School to get away from the infection.’

My father: ‘One by one the rest of the family got sick except Mum and me. Then she got sick and I can remember she was telling me how to go to the kitchen to get soup. People came to the door to help but she said that she would not accept charity. She told me from her sick bed to go to the kitchen to get soup.

That was all fine for a little while and then I said, ‘Mum I have a headache!’

Now she had to get up, otherwise there was no way we were going to survive. But she got up. She could not stand so she crawled to the kitchen. I remember she gave us some soup to bring back. Every one of us survived the influenza. The carts were passing the door with the corpses of hundreds of people. There were more people killed with the Spanish Influenza than in the Great War.’

I think we need to look back on such personal memories: to remember what our mothers and grandmothers did to care for us. That we are here, that we have survived so long, is a daily blessing for us.

John in Brighton, UK. March 2020

29 March. Well it’s just gone 8am – or 7am in yesterday’s “money” – and there’s a chilly north wind telling us that the weather Gods forgot that it’s now British Summer Time. But despite that I’ve still managed to get a bit hot under the collar. 

After firing off yesterday’s little contribution I watched Question Time on the i-player. Clearly Richard Horton, Editor of The Lancet, was equally exercised describing the Government’s responses (or lack thereof) to Covid-19 as a scandal. But what really got me was the response of Robert Jenrick that they were now providing all the equipment needed (only a month late Bob) and when challenged totally denied that the Government policy was transiently to encourage infection to 60% of the population creating herd immunity. We all know that was the case. Why don’t MPs ever admit they got something wrong, why don’t they ever apologise , why do they lie to us? Surely it’s counterintuitive and we would respect them much more if they acknowledged the occasional human frailty.

Then I hear on the early news that BJ is writing to every household to tell us to behave ourselves and stay indoors or something similar…at an estimated cost of 5 million quid. Surely most of us are and the recidivists will pay as little attention to BJ’s letter as BJ’s dad did to the dictum to avoid pubs. I can’t help feeling we could have spent that dosh more judiciously and not to mention replacing all the trees.

Anyway I’d better go and take the blood pressure tablets before I have a stroke….’cos there sure won’t be a bed for me at the hospital.

28 March. Medical Final exams are stressful enough at the best of times – which these aren’t – and sadly covid-19 sticks its knife in. Having done their OSCEs (objective structured clinical exam to the uninitiated or in basic demotic “the practical”) my daughter and her peers have their written papers starting on Tuesday gone. Seems an age ago but that was “lockdown day”. So  a text at 10pm the night before tells the insomniac students that the exam is off. No details on a replacement or anything else. Five years of study, weeks of intense revision peaking at the right time they all hope and suddenly an anticlimax and uncertainty. In Aintree speak (another covid casualty) this was no ordinary hurdle but Becher’s or The Chair – fall badly and it could be fatal. They’ve now been given dates for an online exam next week but most have lost all motivation to revise further. By all accounts the goal will be to pass as many as possible – the country is desperate for more doctors and even a fledgling as green as a spring leaf is better than nothing. But she’s ambivalent she tells me – partly the pressure and demand of starting your first post in the height of a pandemic and secondly quite simply because the young are at risk albeit to a lesser degree than us geriatrics but death is not unheard of. Indeed today the 50th doctor has died in Italy and we’re just two weeks behind them. Of course I hope she passes but a bit of me would prefer that in a resit a month or two hence when maybe things will be a bit more settled…or maybe not. 

Much has been made of our clapping and banging our saucepans to thank the NHS staff and carers – a warm gesture indeed. But how much more they would have appreciated masks, gowns, visors and appropriate testing far quicker than it’s all materialising. Nine days ago on Question Time Matt Hancock issued reassurance that all staff would have the protective gear by the end of last weekend – if only! How come Johnson and Hancock can get tested and a result within 24 hours of symptoms whilst health workers are simply told to lump it at home for a fortnight? But there is a theme with the Tories and public services – warm words but little more. The courage of the police (and Theresa May cuts their number), the firemen of Grenfell and the health workers’ commitment and exposure to risk. But the only group worthy of a good pay rise was……11% for the MPs. Money isn’t everything but I’d like to propose that in acknowledgement for their efforts no nurse should need to resort to a foodbank.

23 March. I’m due a blood test this week. Thinking the arrangements may be changed I ring the Polyclinic – “yes, still functioning as normal”. “Do you mean it’s still open access?” I ask someone against my expectation. “Yes, open access…” she jauntily replies “….for the time being” added almost as an afterthought. So restauarants, cafes, shops, National Trust sites, sports stadia are closing en masse but you can still toddle along for a blood test. Almost by definition this is a vulnerable group with a health problem either acute or chronic and in my experience you can expect to wait packed closely together for well over an hour. Surely it would be more logical to resort to an appointments system (which is how it used to run) and simple to reinstate. Do I need to go to Specsavers or is this nearly as short-sighted as downgrading the WHO recommended protective wear for NHS staff and even then not providing enough? Anyway it’s decision time and I’m going for mid-week as potentially the quietest and thank God the weather is better so I can at east go outside and wait alongside  the fag smokers. Another good reason for social distancing. I know it’s only March but surely that’s a hot tip along with corona or corvid as word of the year 2020. Or maybe it’ll all be distant memory by December.

22 March. For starters, I could let rip re my 7am trip to Sainsbury this morning for the geriatric and vulnerable hour – naively half-expecting to be wandering as lonely as a cloud (Wordsworth) but they were already queuing right across the car park on my arrival. And there were several shoppers who were either incredibly well worn for 70: ie they looked about thirty and a few even had young children or the vulnerabilities were well hidden. And then to boot loads of shelves were empty. The bloke on medicines told me he hadn’t seen paracetamol for two weeks!!! That really annoys me as it’s NHS recommendation and we’re constantly told “there’s enough of everything” by Boris and his mates. How therapeutic to get that off my chest.

22 March. I never thought I’d be saying this but I was glad of the arthritis this morning. Unbeknownst till my arrival Waitrose reserved the first half hour for the fragile crocks aka old and vulnerable. Indoctrinated from a young age never to fib I had to deny being over 70 but like the best of strikers (football lingo) I netted the rebound and got in on the arthritis card. Brilliant – only about twenty of us in the store (but I still sneeringly wondered how a few young and fit looking shoppers managed to get past the bouncer). Anyway shot round, got the free newspaper and first on the coffee machine….out by five past ten, never done that before. What a contrast to the rabble at Sainsbury on Thursday. Notwithstanding under-reporting, still only 17 documented cases in Brighton and Hove so far but the dilemma will be if and when to start fighting for an online slot as things escalate which they surely will. ….worry about that later but for now it’s The Observer and a cuppa coffee in the spring sunshine.