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: Fiction

September 17th

Distraction from the catastrophic train-crash of our world-beatingly incompetent government’s Covid-testing programme being sorely needed, I stoically continue with the painstaking process of reading and correcting the proofs of Game of Stones, a novel I completed two years ago but delayed publishing.   I find I am pleased with some parts, less pleased with others, but only mildly frustrated that it is now too late to alter more than a couple of words here and there.   Because of the time lag since completing the final draft, I can look at it with relatively fresh eyes, remind myself what I was trying to do and make an at least half-detached assessment of whether I succeeded.

Before I was lured onto “the dark side” and joined the senior management of the University of Natal after the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, I spent the first twenty years of my academic career in the English Department, initially teaching English but gradually managing to introduce more African Literature onto the curriculum.  I was particularly interested in, and most of my research focussed on, the generally covert ways in which fiction invites its readers to agree with the political and moral perspectives of its authors.  This is most obviously true of ‘popular fiction.’ In the 1970s and 1980s rather more white South Africans were reading, and having their race attitudes shaped by, Wilbur Smith than Dickens or Conrad.  My doctoral research focussed on the very different ways a variety of colonial and indigenous authors treated the 1950s “Mau Mau” emergency in their novels, partly because the race mythology around the revolt was heavily referenced in white race attitudes under apartheid.   There were four distinct groups of authors: metropolitan writers who used it to add exotic local colour to their stories; authors like Robert Ruark and Elspeth Huxley who used it to propagandise the generally profoundly racist Kenyan colonial settler view of the movement; and two distinct groups of post-Independence black Kenyan novelists who tried with varying success to counter the colonial mythology.   Many of my later publications in the last decade of apartheid were aimed at unpacking the extent of the racism and sexism being promoted by the hugely popular novels of writers like Wilbur Smith under cover of their skill as narrators of fast-moving and gripping story lines.    

Throughout the managerial half of my academic career I felt a lingering regret about the abandonment of academic research and teaching necessitated by the commitment to helping to manage the transformation of a large research-intensive university in the decade after the formal ending of apartheid.  So when I retired I thought it would be interesting to explore fiction from the writing, rather than the reading, end – very conscious of the medium’s power both to promote and to question political and other perspectives.  What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that the interest would need to be extended to the intricate ins and outs of the publishing industry, such as the copyright issue I elaborated on in my September 11th entry, in comparison with which the mere business of writing is comparative child’s play.   

Both my first novel, Despite the Darkness, and the sequel, Game of Stones, explore the interface between fact and fiction.  The action of the former takes place in the months immediately after the declaration of the state of emergency in South Africa in 1985, with the fictional action being set very precisely in its apartheid historical context and geographical location in Pietermaritzburg and incorporating some non-fictional personal experience of secret police harassment.  Game of Stones is set in Sheffield twenty-three years later and ties up the loose ends deliberately left with a sequel in mind.   Perhaps ‘exploring’ the interface between fact and fiction is too seriously academic-sounding a description of what I was doing in writing the sequel – ‘playing around at the edges’ of the interface might capture what I was doing rather better.   So, although some of the subject matter the novel touches on is, again, very precisely located historically, and very dark – historical events don’t get a whole lot darker than the Rwandan genocide or the Hillsborough disaster, the novel plays with authorial identity.   The plot of this novel has none of the relatively limited  autobiographical elements informing the first one, but one of the key moments in the plot hinges on the police having hacked the main character, Cameron’s, computer and read a chapter he has written giving an account of the notorious Forest Gate police raid in 2006.  The chapter, carefully researched and footnoted, which appears as an appendix to the novel, has been written as a chapter for a book Cameron is preparing titled The Age of Overreaction.  As it happens, the first project I embarked on after my retirement was the writing of a book titled The Age of Overreaction, whose putative contents page was destined to feature a chapter on Forest Gate.  I decided that writing fiction would be more interesting and could be fun, and gave up on that project, but decided that, if most fiction is in one way or another a recycling of fact, that particular chapter could be usefully recycled as an addendum to fiction.  Writing fiction, however serious, is a kind of play, and I enjoy playing with words – so, as I grind through the proof reading, I recall and recapture some of the enjoyment I derived from playing around as I wrote it, and don’t bother that it isn’t destined for fame and fortune.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Exceedingly Testing

August 18th

There is a school of thought that holds that you aren’t in any position to criticise, and can’t write really authentically about, anything that you haven’t experienced yourself.  It isn’t a position I have a lot of time for – apart from anything else it would rather limit the scope of the writers of crime and thriller novels – but after months of irregular diary entries about coronavirus testing, I am in the privileged position of now being able to reassure members of that school that I am in a position to write from personal experience about the joys of being tested.  Pace Boris it wasn’t a world-beating experience.

Sunday saw the high-point of a two-week self-isolation build-up towards a pain-blocking epidural for my progressively degenerative spondylolisthesis, scheduled for this afternoon.  For anyone wondering why I bother to accord it the dignity of its full tongue-twister name, the answer is that getting my head and my keyboard around its name is the only means I have of asserting any kind of control over it when the analgesics stop working.  On Sunday I was not merely allowed out of strict lockdown, but actually, by way of enjoying my freedom, required to take a spin through the Yorkshire countryside for a test.   

‘Countryside’?  Those of you who know I live in York may be inclined to ask.  Isn’t there a testing site in York?  Yes, there is, there’s one in Poppleton, a village on the outskirts of York four miles the other side of the city from where we live, and, as it happens, two and a half miles from the York Hospital clinic I need to go to.  But I have been told to go to Malton for my test, 20 miles down the A64 towards Scarborough.   So I phone the relevant number and ask whether I can’t have my test at the Poppleton Testing Centre instead.  No, I can’t.  Why not?  “Because the centre at Poppleton isn’t connected to the hospital in York.”  So the centre a couple of miles from the hospital isn’t ‘connected to’ the hospital, but the one twenty miles away is?  “That’s right.”  So who gets to go to the one at Poppleton then? I ask.  “People who have phoned 119”, comes the answer.  “Ah”, I say, light dawning, brilliant idea arriving, “can’t I just phone 119 and go to Poppleton instead?”  No, comes the answer (they have thought of that wizard wheeze), you can’t, because if you do we won’t get the results in time.  Silly me.  48 hours is obviously not nearly long enough to get the results across the gaping two and a half mile distance from the testing ground to the hospital in a world-beating system.  The swabs must have to go to Birmingham or somewhere properly centralised to be processed.

So we are sent off down the A64 towards Malton for a scheduled appointment at 11.30 on a Sunday morning in the middle of August.   For those unfamiliar with the geography of the North of England, the A64 is the main route from Leeds, the third largest city in England, to the seaside.  For those unfamiliar with what is referred to as the North-South divide in UK, the road from Leeds to the seaside just happens to be single carriageway for a good part of the way.   The nearest equivalent in the South is probably the road from London to Brighton, which just happens to be a motorway.   For those unfamiliar with the seasonal cycle in UK, a Sunday in August is guaranteed to be peak traffic-jam time for everyone heading for the beach during the school holidays.  It happened to be raining, so I naively thought I might just try the A64, but when did a mere spot of rain deter the hardy citizens of Yorkshire from heading for the beach? As soon as we got to the first single-carriageway stretch just beyond  the York ring road the traffic was a bumper-to-bumper crawl, we weren’t going to get to the appointment in time so I ducked off the main road as soon as I could to go the far more scenic but round-about route through Sheriff Hutton.   To cut a very long story short the expedition involved a stressful two-hour, 53 mile, environmentally unfriendly round trip, all in aid of a highly efficient, less than 90 second, testing procedure.  And all the while the lucky 119 callers were being tested in Poppleton.

As I write, an SMS has just appeared on my mobile phone from the York Hospital Out-patients Department asking me to tell them about my Sunday experience.  I think I might just do that.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘News’?

August 11th

In an earlier blog some weeks ago I voluntarily offered up a plea of ‘guilty’ to spending too much time watching and listening to the ‘News’, even though nobody had actually accused me of doing so.  The point was made to me a couple of days ago, in not particularly accusatory fashion it must be said, that I almost invariably listen to the 7.00 am, 8.00 am and 1.00 pm BBC news and usually watch Channel 4 news (generally much more probing than the BBC) at 7.00pm and the BBC news at 10.00pm.  How sad is that?  The only plea I could make in mitigation was that I hardly ever watch the rolling news on any channel.   I couldn’t even claim that the only reason I indulge this vice is because there is nothing else to do under lockdown, or that I do it in search of something to blog about, because (while I’m coming clean I may as well make a full confession) I tended to do the same before lockdown.  

I suspect that this addiction has its origins in the two decades I spent in South Africa under apartheid when the South African Broadcasting Corporation was one of the main instruments the Nationalist government used for disseminating its unhinged racist propaganda and its paranoid perception of itself as the target of a ‘total onslaught’ from the rest of what it perceived as a communistic world.   For most of those years I was lecturing in a very traditional English Department, which saw itself as a global heir to F.R.Leavis and the New Criticism.  While students at all levels might have been good at analysing poetry, they were, with few exceptions, not applying any of the analytical skills they were acquiring to the language or subject matter of the all too often pernicious media they were consuming.   So, with considerable effort, I managed in the early 1980s to drag a Media Studies course onto the curriculum in the hope of enabling the students to discover that, if history is written by the victors, so the ‘News’ is not a neutral given but is, to a greater or lesser extent, selected for consumption, and controlled by, representatives of the dominant group in any society.   The withering, and wholly ignorant, contempt in which Media Studies as an academic discipline is held by conservatives, and many Russell Group universities (is there a difference?), in spite of the complex and rigorous body of theoretical work behind it, is obviously a reflection of the extent to which they would much prefer what goes into the print and broadcast media not to be subject to rigorous analysis.

So my self-exoneration when it comes to news addiction is that watching and listening aren’t a matter simply of accepting what one is being told or shown but, rather, a questioning of why it is being selected for our consumption in preference to the myriad other things that have happened nationally and globally, and of trying to analyse what lies behind the particular way in which it is being presented.   Sometimes, of course, the interesting thing is what is not being reported on, as with the long silence that suddenly fell on the ‘world-beating’ Test and Trace statistics.  What are we supposed to do, for example, with the daily list of the number of redundancies recently announced at major UK companies, or the wholly unsurprising drip of ‘news’ that their sales are down and their profits have dropped through the floor?   Why is Donald Trump’s being ushered away from a microphone because the US secret service have seen a suspicious man with a gun near the White House (Newsflash: said suspicious man has just been shot) seen as one of the three or four most important things to have happened in the world for the past 12 hours?  To raise our hopes?   One can assume that the difference between the BBC News and Channel 4 News has to do with Tory jabbering about the license fee, and I assume that very precise increases in the official Covid death statistics trotted out every day aren’t intended to depress us as much as to distract our attention from the very much worse ‘excess deaths’ statistics.   But, unlike the apartheid media in South Africa, the broadcast media in UK pose many more questions than they provide answers, and there lies a major part of their addictive interest for me.  

From David Maughan Brown in York: Very testing

May 10th

When, rather more than a month ago, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care set his arbitrary target of ‘100,000 Covid-19 tests a day’ by April 30th few of us will have appreciated just how literal he was being.  What Matt Hancock meant by ‘a day’ was very precise: the one day he meant was April 30th.  His triumphant claim of 122,000 tests for that day has been debunked, but, leaving that aside, he will no doubt have been feeling intensely relaxed about the fact that no day since then has seen more than about 80,000 tests – it is not his fault if we were silly enough to imagine that 100,000 ‘a day’ meant every day.  It won’t have been his fault either that, even with substantially fewer than 100,000 being conducted every day, we have still had to send 50,000 tests to the USA recently to be processed.  So much for his promise of “capacity” for the promised number of tests in the days immediately before April 30th,  at a time when he clearly feared (correctly as it happens) that the target wouldn’t be met.   And what does Boris do when he realises that the 100,000 tests every day target isn’t being met?  You guessed it: he just raises the target to 200,000 tests a day (no doubt forgetting that he fleetingly declared 250,000 as the target several weeks ago.)

If our government’s Covid-19 testing strategy leaves a lot to be desired, its communication strategy, in so far as there is one, has been even worse.  Boris  announced a grandstanding address to the nation at 7.00pm this evening to tell us what the Government’s exit strategy from lockdown is going to be.  This was greeted with a tart suggestion from the Speaker of the House of Commons that it would be a good idea if such statements were delivered in Parliament before being offered to the nation as a whole.  We have a very good idea, once again, about what he is going to say, because he went off-piste at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday and indicated that there would be some easing of the lockdown tomorrow.  This brought our brain-dead tabloids out in a rash of excitement with banner headlines the next day of the order of ‘Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons’ from The Daily Mail, and ‘Happy Monday!’ from The Sun.   Ministers had to spend the rest of the week rowing back from any suggestion that there would be a major change of policy.   

With a sunny bank holiday weekend predicted, what did the tabloid editorial boards think would happen, other than that people would assume there wouldn’t be a problem with ignoring the soon to be lifted social distancing restrictions?  The police were predictably appalled.  With well over 30,000 families mourning their loved ones on that ‘Happy Monday’ for The Sun, any increase in infection rates over the next few days should lie heavy of the consciences of Boris and the tabloids, were they to boast such inconveniences. Why address the nation on Sunday evening, after the governments of Wales and Scotland have already made it clear that any tweaking of the lockdown will be pretty minimal? Quite simply, one suspects, because if Boris made his announcement either in Parliament or at his daily Downing Street press conference people would have the opportunity to ask questions.  And Boris isn’t good at answering questions.

Barack Obama has described Donald Trump’s federal government’s response to Covid-19 as a ‘chaotic disaster’.  The same could be said of our government’s response by influential people in UK, but it won’t be.  As a nation, the UK is far too deferential.  Reporters from the quality newspapers and broadcast media have been coming in for flak just for asking awkward questions at the daily Downing Street press conferences.  The official opposition knows that it needs to be extremely careful not to sound conflictual, rather than bi-partisan, in its approach to the government’s handling of the pandemic.  The general attitude seems to be: ‘Don’t be nasty to Boris.  He’s just been in hospital, and he is doing his best.’  Never mind that ‘his best’ has also been a chaotic disaster responsible for the unnecessary deaths of thousands and thousands of people.   Even allowing for instinctive deference being a national characteristic, I still find myself wondering how on earth, in view of the number of deaths, the testing debacle and the communication deficiencies, it is even remotely possible that public approval ratings of the way the government has handled the crisis can have steadily risen by 17% as the disaster has unfolded.