From David Maughan Brown in York: The Crown and Cushion

September 21st

It has been an exquisite early autumn day: perfectly cloudless; the temperature in the low twenties (Centigrade); a light wind, with just the faintest edge of a hint that we had better make the most of the sun as it will not be anywhere near as welcoming for much longer.  Probably not beyond tomorrow, in fact, as another cold front is due to arrive on Wednesday.  Definitely a day to be celebrated by an escape into the North Yorkshire countryside, particularly as the cold front seems likely to arrive in the unwelcome company of another tightening of the lockdown screw.  Our Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser were due to perform a pas de deux in Downing Street, warning us about the exponential rise in Covid-19 infections, this time without the encumbrance of our scruffily inept Prime Minister but, even so, well worth avoiding. This can only mean that the latter is, once again, taking pre-emptive precautions to ensure that someone else can be blamed for what is about to go wrong

But why worry about that on such a beautiful day?  So we head for The Crown and Cushion at Welburn, near Castle Howard, an ‘award-winning’ pub where we can book an outside table, a scenic and leisurely 40 minute drive from our house. Provided, that is, one can avoid the perpetually coagulating stream of traffic along the A64 ‘main road’ by going through Strensall, Sheriff Hutton, and Bulmer.  But we are turned back by a pair of police people on the main street in Strensall, which is swarming with police cars and ambulances responding to an accident of some sort, and we have to go across Strensall common – feeling relieved that the military operations that prominent notices are warning us about appear not to be taking place – and join the A64 after all.  It occurs to me that the army may well be somewhere in the city being trained on how to police the lockdown, a possibility currently being leaked to the media.   As we drive, I find myself wondering aloud, as I probably do every year, what it is that determines the order in which the trees decide that it is time for their leaves to ‘turn’ and take on their autumn colours – horse-chestnuts first, then oaks, and so on.  The trees, once again, don’t divulge their secret.

The pub lunch lived up to its ‘award-winning’ standing in suitably leisurely fashion.  Leisurely for those doing the eating and drinking, that is; anything but leisurely for the three members of staff doing the serving.   The pub’s already extensive outdoor seating area has been extended further by cannibalising the corner of the car-park nearest to the back door.  For lunch-time on a Monday, with the weather as perfect as it was, there was no shortage of customers, most of whom appeared, like us, to be retired.   It was a good fifty yards from the back door to the furthest occupied table and I commented to the member of staff who was serving us that she must be keeping very fit.  She told me that last Friday her Fitbit had recorded more than 20,000 steps between the kitchen, bar and tables.   After traditional pub fare of beer-battered fish with chunky chips and mushy peas, for me, and steak and ale pie for Susan, we were intrigued by the names of the (inevitably ‘award-winning’) cheeses on the cheese-board – Stottie Goat’s cheese, Swaledale, The Duke of Wellington, Ewe Beauty, and Flatcapper Northern Brie – and decided that (with the possible exception of the worthy Duke) they would be more appropriate to a Yorkshire pub lunch than our usual ‘affogatos’, which were also on the menu.  

The lunch was excellent, the release from the endless news about our increasingly dysfunctional Test and Trace system was almost palpable, and I only found myself on one brief occasion wondering fleetingly how many of our fellow customers – only two of whom I saw wearing the face-masks we dutifully put on when we went into the building – would still be with us by next Spring if the dire warnings about the second spike are proved accurate.  When it came to paying the bill, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that The Crown and Cushion has extended its ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ £10 discount per person, scheduled to end at the end of August, all the way through September.  It seemed the least I could do to split the unexpected windfall with the staff by way of a compensation for the wear and tear on their footwear.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Sewerage with your salmon, sir?

September 21.

Nineteen years ago, I read the June 21st article in the Economist, headed with this challenging and half-amusing title: ‘Sewerage with your salmon, sir?’ I have never forgotten it. Some articles fall on fertile ground! I had, mistakenly, thought that farmed salmon was a good food choice. After reading this article (about salmon ‘farms’ in Scotland), I learnt a lot about farmed salmon. I also learnt it was cruel.

‘Salmon are kept at higher densities than battery hens. Packed in cages of up to 70m in diameter, holding up to 500,000 fish, they are fattened on a diet of the rendered remains of small fish. Anti-bacterial chemicals are used to ward off sea lice and other parasites. Colouring agents are included in their pellet food because, deprived of its natural diet of krill and shrimp, the flesh of a farmed salmon looks an uninviting shade of grey. Roche sells a colouring agent, called Salmofan, which allows salmon farmers to choose the exact shade of pink they like for their fish.’

That was just the beginning of my education about farmed salmon. The excreta from the fish falls to the bottom of the fiords where, in certain weather conditions, it is stirred up into the pens and eaten by the fish. The pollution affects the wild fish and resultant levels of parasites (lice) are unacceptable (and the lice jump onto the wild salmon). The same story is found in Canada and north-western USA.

Since writing for this Covid-19 diary, I have noticed that any of my posts that feature food and cooking gets more ‘likes’. Food is popular! I believe this reflects our current anxiety about what we are eating. Are we keeping healthy? Are we looking after our immune systems? When the virus invades us, will we have the physical resources to survive it? Especially if you ‘suffer’ from the co-morbidly of age, your health is a matter of extra concern.

Eating less meat, more fish, more vegetables, is discussed. Getting enough sleep, enough exercise is also promoted. We are trying.

Can you add to this a concern about how our food is produced? How is it farmed? Are our meat chickens raised in cages? Do we need to drink cow’s milk? Do we need to eat veal? Should we include more vegetarian meals in our at-home cooking?

Along this line of thought, I decided I would check on the latest news about salmon farming in Scotland. Surely, in the 19 years since ‘Sewerage with your salmon, sir?’ the situation would have improved in the fiords of Scotland.

No! They have not!

Production of salmon has increased since 2001 from 127,000 tonnes to 189,000 tonnes in 2017.

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-48266480

This article explains that wild salmon numbers are at their lowest levels since records began – experts talk about a ‘crisis’. Lice numbers on wild fish are at epidemic levels. Effectively, the fish gets eaten alive …. Severe injuries are found on the farmed salmon and apparently the inspectors have trouble recording this!

Marine ecologist Dr Sally Campbell says: “I think most people who choose salmon off their supermarket shelves have no idea of the waste that’s going into our marine environment as a result of that. And they would be appalled.”

Every year about 9.5 million fish die in the salmon farms, about 20% of the total.

Disease, parasites and even chemicals designed to treat them can all prove fatal.’

If you have read this far, I should apologise in bringing you this bad news when you already have enough going on.

Why worry about fish, you might ask. Do not worry – just check out the guides and buy accordingly.

https://www.mcsuk.org/goodfishguide/search

Meanwhile, I should think twice about eating our local Tasmanian farmed salmon (which has been a favourite). It’s easy to get advice on what ‘sustainable-stock’ fish I should eat. Keep away from the top predators: marlin, sailfish, tuna, farmed salmon. Keep away from fish that are caught with a huge bycatch.

I am pleased to say that the crabs and southern calamari that I used to catch on our Yorke Peninsula are deemed sustainable. In Australia they have generous bag-limits for crabs and calamari.

Now summer is approaching, I shall have to go fishing again.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Accountability

September 16th

The ‘operational challenges’ (see my September 6th entry) wholly unapologetically identified by our esteemed Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, as being responsible for people with Covid-19 symptoms being sent hundreds of miles across the country to be tested are worsening, and are already resulting in a health crisis months before the predicted winter surge of the virus.  Yesterday more than 100 people, who, after hours – sometimes days – of trying, had found it impossible to book a test, are reported to have flooded the Accident and Emergency Department at a hospital in Bolton in a desperate attempt to get themselves tested.  Front-line NHS staff, including GPs, are having to stay at home and add to the burden being shouldered by their colleagues because even they are finding it impossible to get a test.   Hancock is now petulantly blaming people who don’t have symptoms for blocking up the system by getting themselves tested, or at least by trying to.  Somebody needs to point out to him that one of the many problems with Covid-19 is that people carrying the virus can be infectious even if they are asymptomatic.  So to advise GPs to go to work when they don’t know whether they are infected, as Hancock is implicitly doing, may well add a few more to the thousands of unnecessary deaths this country has already suffered.

One might have thought that running a country of over sixty million people would carry a greater level of responsibility, and should accordingly carry a higher level of accountability, than running a FTSE company.  Under Health and Safety legislation, company directors are responsible for ensuring that their company complies with its obligations relating to the health, safety and welfare at work of its workers.  Company directors whose gross negligence leads to the death of even one of their workers can be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter and find themselves in prison.  But gross negligence on the part of a government, leading to twenty thousand deaths of their citizens, carries no such accountability.   Had it done so, to cite just one example, even our cavalier Prime Minister might have thought twice about not bothering to attend five consecutive meetings of the Cobra emergency committee held to discuss Covid-19 in the weeks before the virus arrived in UK.

But then, if the same code of conduct applied to running the country as pertains to company directorships, Boris Johnson wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a national emergency committee.  According to a Begbies Taylor advice article, ’Company directorship brings with it a legal obligation to act in a “proper” manner when undertaking company business. If you are found to have acted improperly, you may face disqualification as well as other penalties and fines,’ or even ‘a possible prison sentence in the most severe cases.’ The article goes on to point out warningly that, ‘Company director disqualification can stop you from acting as a company director if you fail to fulfil your legal duties or demonstrate improper conduct.’   It might be thought that ‘fulfilling your legal duties’ probably doesn’t extend to unashamedly announcing an intention to flout international law.

In the lead-up to the election of Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party (note the irony in the name), on 25th May 2019, Peter Stubley published an article in The Guardian titled ‘Boris Johnson: The most infamous lies and untruths by the Conservative leadership candidate.’  Johnson has repeatedly been fired from jobs for dishonesty, on one occasion for lying to the then Prime Minister about one of his many affairs.  There can surely be no question that he would have been disqualified from company directorship for improper conduct on more than one occasion, a disqualification that lasts for 15 years.  Yet here he is, negligently mishandling the most deadly pandemic our country has experienced for a hundred years, and simultaneously cocking a snoot at international law as he leads the charge of the morally light brigade over the cliff-edge of a no-deal Brexit.  And there isn’t even a company AGM at which he can be held to account.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Public Good and Private Mischief

September 8. I have been reading Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, a biography of the outbreak of bubonic plague in London in 1665.

Defoe addressed his subject much as Netflix might treat the current event.  Carefully accumulated factual evidence was translated into a moving human document by means of a lightly fictionalised narrative structure.   He wrote in 1722 about an event that took place when he was about five years old.  His direct memory of the plague must have been slight, but as the son of a London tallow-chandler he grew up amidst a community for whom this was an epochal experience.  He was one of the first modern journalists and accumulated as much factual evidence as he could find, making particular use of the contemporary Bills of Mortality which provided a weekly map of the spread of the plague across the city.  Defoe wrote to entertain, to make money, but above all to warn.  The plague had broken out again in Marseille in 1720, and all Europe was on the alert in case it spread across the Continent once more.  The Journal was history written to prevent its repetition. 

In every major plague outbreak from the fifteenth century to the coronavirus, the central response of authorities has been to keep victims apart from those yet to be infected.  Whether it was the forty-day quarantine invented by the Venetians in the fifteenth century, or our own mis-firing track and trace system, the task is to identify the sick and remove them from the company of the healthy.  Until the late nineteenth century there was no accurate understanding of the biology of pandemics, but the coming of DNA analysis has made little difference to the essential common-sense reaction.

Neither has there been any alteration to the basic relocation of power from the individual to the collective at such a time of crisis.  In 1665, the Lord Mayor of London imposed the drastic remedy of locking families in their houses when one of their members fell ill.  Defoe was impressed by the ferocity of the policy:

“It is true, that the locking up the Doors of Peoples Houses, and setting a Watchman there Night and Day, to prevent their stirring out, or any coming to them; when perhaps the sound People, in the Family, might have escaped, if they had been remov’d from the Sick, looked very hard and cruel; and many People perished in these miserable Confinements, which ‘tis reasonable to believe, would not have been distemper’d if they had had Liberty, tho’ the Plague was in the House … But it was a publick Good that justified the private Mischief; and there was no obtaining the least Mitigation, by any Application to Magistrates, or Government, at that Time, at least, not that I heard of.” (Penguin Classics Edition, 2003, p. 48).

So it comes to pass that the plague has arrived in my own small village.  A twenty-year-old decided that he was owed a continental holiday.  On his return he transmitted Covid-19 to his parents.  Defoe’s principle still applies.  ‘Publick Good’ justifies ‘private Mischief’, that is to say the harm caused to the felt interests of individual citizens.  Parties, large-scale social gatherings, foreign vacations, are personal luxuries we cannot afford.  In Defoe’s plague year the Magistrates stuck to their rule, despite the many attempts to evade it.  As we must. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: Collateral Damage Part 2

September 1st

Any regular readers who had the stamina to soldier on to the end of my last entry might have been left with the uneasy feeling that that might not be the end of the non-coronavirus testing saga, and that they might find themselves subjected to a further chapter in the not too distant future.  If so, their apprehension is about to prove well-founded, probably a lot sooner sooner than they might have feared.

Having been told to anticipate that the results of last week’s hard-won test would be available in a mere five days time, I received an SMS yesterday evening announcing their receipt a day ahead of schedule.  Verily I say unto you, a truly world-beating testing regime – even if it isn’t for Covid-19.    The SMS said: ‘The result of your recent test has been received.  A further test is advised – please collect a form from the surgery at your convenience.’  No three-minute phone-call to say that the result had been received, and not to worry but they thought it would be helpful for me to have another test, or something similar.   Just a bald SMS giving no indication as to who it ‘is advised’ by, or for what reason.  One could only assume that whatever the test had showed up couldn’t be too serious because the style of communication suggested that if, for example, the test had revealed a third-stage brain tumour, the SMS message would have read something like, ‘The result of your recent test has been received, the purchase of a coffin is advised’ or, perhaps more humanely, ‘investment in a funeral plan is advised.’   ‘At your convenience’ rang a little hollow, given that last week’s saga was initiated by the receipt of an electronic form for me to print that didn’t require me, in a Covid-ridden world, to drive in and collect a hard-copy from the surgery.

So, at my inconvenience, I drove into the surgery first thing this morning, idly  wondering whether the NHS might not be on a secret mission to stack up the mileage so that petrol sales could contribute towards life-support for the economy.  I arrived at the surgery half an hour after it was supposed to have opened to find the front door locked and no sign of life whatever, although there were a couple of cars in the reserved parking spaces.  There was no sign on the door indicating opening hours and, as with last week’s surgery, the NHS had not been able to afford the installation of the promised bell to ring.  I checked that my mobile was still boldly declaring the surgery to be OPEN, which appeared to be an outright lie directly out of the Johnson playbook.  So I waited for ten minutes hoping somebody would come, and then steeled myself to try the surgery’s telephone number, which of all the telephone numbers I have ever phoned is the one guaranteed to ensure the most rapid loss of a caller’s will to live.   An asset for an undertaker but not, one might have thought, for a Medical Group.  When the interminable advice about Covid-19, which I must have heard thirty times over the past few weeks, had dragged itself to an end, I opted for the ‘Reception queries’ number and after a miraculously short two or three minutes got a real living person on the end of the line, which seemed a good start.  It didn’t last. I asked whether the surgery, which claimed to be open, was in fact open, the operator said she didn’t know (which seemed odd, given that the number I had phoned was ostensibly the number of the surgery outside whose very front door I was at that moment standing) but she would find out for me, and asked me to hang on for a minute, at which point the phone went dead.  I tried to phone her back after a few minutes, only to be told that the ‘Reception query’ number was now closed and that I should try again in two hours time.  Kafka came to mind again.

After another ten minutes of waiting, I decided that there couldn’t be any harm in banging on the door – it looked strong enough to withstand the force of any pent-up frustration the exercise might release.   Sure enough, a little bit of sustained, but commendably restrained, knocking dragged an extremely surly receptionist out of the bowels of the building, clearly deeply resentful of being interrupted doing whatever it is that receptionists do when doors are locked to ensure that there isn’t anybody to receive.   ‘Do you have an appointment?’ she shouted through the door.  ‘No,’ I replied, at which point she turned around to walk back to whatever it was she had been doing. ‘I was told to come here and pick up a form “at my convenience”,’ I added hastily.  The weight of irony I injected into the last three words passed her by entirely.  She demanded to know my name, date of birth etc. and went off to check whether I was lying.   When it turned out that I wasn’t just a stray passer-by who had nothing better to do than waste her time telling lies and pretending to want a blood-test form, she grudgingly opened a folder that had been lying just inside the door all along, waiting for me and others like me, handed me the form and told me to go to the infamous Nuffield Hospital, scene of last week’s tribulations.   I told her what had happened last week, and asked for an appointment at one of the Group’s clinics.   She couldn’t give me an appointment, that wasn’t her job, I would just have to go to the Nuffield Hospital, which she assured me had reopened for tests, and have the test done there.

Wearily resigned to my fate, I headed back to my car to try my luck at the Nuffield again.  As I got into the car my phone rang and the original receptionist I had managed to contact apologised profusely that I had been cut off.  I thanked her and told her I was on my way to the Nuffield Hospital for the blood-test.   ‘Oh no, you don’t want to go there,’ she said hastily. ‘They are only doing emergency blood tests there now.’ ‘Wouldn’t having to have a retest count as an emergency?’ I asked.  ‘No, I don’t think so,’ she said.  ‘I think you would be in the queue for a very long time on the day after a public holiday, and when you got to the front of the queue they would probably say yours wasn’t an emergency.  But, in any case, I’ve managed to get them to fit you in for a test at the Water Lane clinic tomorrow, if you would like that.’  I assured her that I would like that very much indeed, and thanked her profusely for her kindness.  There was no need for her to have done that for me, and her thoughtfulness went much further than she could have imagined to ease the frustration. But, dear reader (as the rather quaint saying goes), don’t bank on this being the last chapter of this particular saga.

There was a time not so long ago, before the blindly ideological drive for ‘austerity’, and the viciously xenophobic immigration policies of the past decade of Tory government put unsustainable pressure on GP practices, when I would have been phoned with my results by my GP, told what they meant and invited in for a blood-test on the same day.  Sadly, those days are gone, and will almost certainly never return.  

From David Maughan Brown in York: Collateral Damage

August 28th

Collateral damage from Covid-19 manifests itself in different ways in UK.  At the most dramatic end of the spectrum it manifests itself in the number of excess deaths above what would normally be expected to have occurred over the months since the pandemic arrived.  That number used to be quoted fairly frequently, but it has for some not particularly mysterious reason disappeared from our screens in recent weeks.   The last time I remember seeing it, the number was at least 10,000 above the official figure for Covid-19 deaths, but since the latter total has been significantly reduced following the redefinition of a Covid-19 death as one that has occurred ‘within 28 days of testing positive’, the difference must be a good deal more than that now.   Another dramatic manifestation is the figure of 10 million that I have seen being cited, and now have a direct interest in, as an estimate of the number of people in UK who will be on waiting lists for elective surgery by Christmas.

At the other end of the spectrum are the relatively minor irritations that have resulted from enforced changes to the way the NHS normally runs.   Our 53 mile round trip to Malton for a Covid test ten days ago would be a case in point.   But even that was a one-off for me, as distinct from some of the far more frequent idiosyncrasies of everyday interactions with the NHS.  My GP changed one of my prescriptions three weeks ago and asked me to go to the local private hospital, currently being used as the NHS blood testing centre, for a non-Covid blood-test once I have been taking it for a fortnight.  Not a problem, I thought.  I must have had at least a dozen blood-tests in the time we’ve lived in York, and can’t ever remember having to wait more than 15-20 minutes, usually much less, in a far from luxurious, but perfectly adequate, waiting room in York Hospital, in no way exposed to the elements.

So, full of misplaced optimism, I drove across the city on Monday afternoon, on the one hot sunny day of the week, to have a test, took one look at the queue stretching all the way along the side of the hospital in the glaring sun and decided to try again later.   An hour later, by now mid-afternoon but just as hot, I returned to find the queue looking just as forbidding, but decided I’d better join it anyway.   I attached myself to the back of the queue for a full 15 minutes during which several people spared me the ignominy of being the last in the queue, but the queue itself moved forward not an iota.   After 15 minutes, one survivor who had succeeded in reaching the front of the queue and attaining the sought-after goal of having someone spend three minutes extracting a thimble-full of his blood, came out and told the only person near me who plucked up the courage to have her worst fears confirmed that he had been standing (standing being the operative word) in the queue for two hours.  So I ducked for cover and went to ask the PPE-wearing gatekeepers on the hospital’s front door when the best time to come might be, and was told “either before 8.30 am or between 4.00 and 4.30 in the afternoon.”  So I went home and drove across the city again to get there by 8.20am on Tuesday, this time in the pouring rain, only to find the queue just as long as it had been the previous afternoon.   Everyone was in rain gear and under umbrellas, so I couldn’t ascertain whether they were, in fact, by way of a Kafkaesque nightmare, exactly the same people that I was standing behind the previous day.   This time it was decidedly chilly, and the wind was threatening to blow umbrellas inside-out, so I looked at the weather forecast, saw that there was a reasonable chance of the rain having stopped by the evening, and decided that a fourth trip across the city would be the better option.  Getting a blood-test was beginning to assume the proportions of one of the ordeals favoured by Greek mythology.    

So Tuesday evening comes, the rain has stopped and the wind has dropped, if only marginally, and I make my fourth trip across the city.  As I drive in, I glance down the side of the hospital and see that now, believe it or not, there is no queue at all.  Eureka!  Patience and perseverance do, indeed, win out in the end.   What I didn’t spot as I drove in to park my car is that the gate at the end is closed and there is a notice on it stating the rather obvious: ‘Closed’.   I know from much ascertaining and verifying that it is only supposed to close at 5.00pm, so I go back to the gate-keeper and ask him what on earth is going on.   ‘Someone had a heart-attack and collapsed in the queue this morning, and the testing-centre has had to shut indefinitely,’ he said darkly, looking sufficiently sombre to leave me to infer that the unsuccessful queuer had, unlike the previous afternoon’s success, not been a survivor.  I tell him that I’m not remotely surprised, and ask ‘So what do I do now?’.   He’s sorry, but he doesn’t have any idea, it is all really rather unfortunate.

What I do now is go home and phone my GP’s surgery the next morning – which is a different kind of ordeal in itself.  An hour and three quarters later I achieve my goal of an appointment to have a blood-test at one of the group’s surgeries, inevitably the one on the outskirts of the city furthest from our house, the next day, which will (in case you have lost the plot by now – as well, probably, as the will to live) be Thursday.  A few minutes after I put the phone down, my mobile releases a fusillade of pings telling me that a rapid series of text messages has come through: one confirming the appointment, the others telling me in no uncertain terms to wear a mask and not to try to access the building without first ringing the bell and waiting outside.  Telling me once is apparently not adequate.  Clear enough – except that when I get there at the appointed time there’s a masked lady waiting outside, but no bell to ring.   ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ I ask myself out loud.  ‘Just wait here.  They’ll fetch you,’ comes a voice from behind the mask; a voice so funereally lugubrious that for a fleeting moment I have a vision of the door opening and an undertaker in full Dickensian mourning-regalia appearing to ‘fetch’ me.  The masked lady is invited in by a reassuringly normal looking nursing assistant, and I wait alone with my mask.  One of the other members of staff returns with her shopping and asks on her way in, ‘Do they know you are here?’.   I confess that I don’t know whether they know I’m there (but don’t add that I’ve been standing ten feet from the window of the receptionist’s office for the past ten minutes), and point out that the bell I have been instructed to ring appears to be non-existent.   ‘I know,’ she says sadly, ‘but the people who make the appointments obviously don’t know.  I’ll tell the nurse you are here.’  This she duly does, and a few minutes later said nurse, dressed comfortingly in white rather than black, opens the door and asks me whether I have an appointment.  I assure her that I have, and five minutes later (three days later, if one were to be pedantic) my thimbleful of blood has been duly extracted.   It will only take five days for the results to be processed, I’m assured (and it isn’t even a test for Covid-19.)  It is perhaps a good thing that the change in medication that was the occasion for the whole saga was an upping of the daily dose of blood-pressure tablets.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Land of Hope and Glory

August 26th

I promised, or perhaps threatened, in my last entry to return to the cultural war that continues to rage around the Last Night of the Proms – mainly, I suspect, because free-market Tories (is there another kind?)  have seized on it as another stick with which to beat the BBC in their campaign to do away with the license fee.   

The particular occasion for this latest spewing of right-wing bile was the BBC’s decision that, given that choral music is a known disseminator of the Covid-19 virus, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia!’ should be played, but not sung, at the Last Night of the Proms this year.   The words of both songs, as culturally appropriated in the 21st century, unashamedly glorify Empire, which many people find embarrassing.  As one might have expected, the BBC’s decision has revitalised the conservative ‘erasure of history’ argument, and, even more predictably, provoked an intemperate rant from Johnson who asserted that it is ‘time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history’, an embarrassment which he described in cringe-worthy Public Schoolese as ‘wetness’. 

The words of ‘Rule Britannia!’ were written in 1740 and interesting, for me at least, mainly for the punctuation of the first line. (‘You can take the English Professor out of the Department but you can’t take the Department out of the Professor,’ they say.)  The first line was an exhortation: ‘Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves’.   When we used to bawl it out as loudly as we could at a very ‘English’ preparatory school in the wilds of the Southern Highlands of what was then Tanganyika in the 1950s, we added a tell-tale ‘s’ and sang ‘Britannia rules the waves’, changing it from an injunction into a statement, which, even in the 1950s, was an exaggeration.   If Britain’s claim to rule the waves was tenuous in 1740, in a way it wasn’t in the 19th century, it is entirely untrue now, but my guess is that 95% of the singing flag-wavers at the Proms will, probably inadvertently, have been adding that undeniably jingoistic ‘s’. 

The triumphalist words of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ are more revealing in the context of Johnson’s declaration that we should ‘get over’ what he called ‘our bout of self-recrimination’ about our past.  The words were written by A.C. Benson in 1901 in the immediate aftermath of the Anglo-Boer – usually referred to in UK as the ‘Boer’ war by way of distracting attention from the fact that Britain was the aggressor, in much the same way as ‘NHS Test and Trace’ is an attempt to deflect attention from the fact that the associated chaos and incompetence is entirely attributable to the government and not the NHS.  The words were written soon after the death of Cecil Rhodes, and the line in the chorus, ‘Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set’, clearly echoes Rhodes’ vision of an ever expanding British Empire on which the sun never sets.   So when it comes to there being no need for national self-recrimination, the Anglo-Boer war is as good a place to start as, say, the massacres committed by British troops at Amritsar or on Bloody Sunday.

Concentration camps were not invented by the Nazis, they were first used in Cuba in the 1890s and shortly after that they were used more extensively by the British to intern Afrikaner women and children, and an unknown number of black South Africans, during the Anglo-Boer war, before being used by the British to the same deadly effect in Kenya and Malaya.  They ‘concentrated’ the civilian population in prison camps to prevent them from offering assistance to the Boer guerrilla fighters, while they ‘scorched’ the earth by burning all crops and homesteads to the same end.   It is estimated that somewhere around 28,000 Afrikaner women and children died of disease or starvation in the concentration camps in South Africa in 1901-2, of whom around 22,000 were children.   A further 20,000 black South Africans are estimated to have died in racially segregated camps over the same two years.  Twenty-two thousand dead children would not normally be associated with either ‘Hope’ or Glory’, nor were they much cause for triumphalist celebration then, let alone now.  And Boris clearly thinks that we shouldn’t be bothered with self-recrimination about them – I suppose they were just another bunch of foreigners.

The Right Honourable the Viscount Alfred Milner, who was the High Commissioner to South Africa and Governor of the Cape Colony at the time, would have been a shoe-in for Boris Johnson’s cabinet had he only been with us now.  Recognising belatedly that all those women and children dying on his watch might result in some regrettably bad press down the line, he wrote, refreshingly frankly (Dominic Cummings would have sorted that out): ‘It is impossible not to see that, however blameless we may be in the matter, we shall not be able to make anybody think so, and I cannot avoid an uncomfortable feeling that there must be some way to make the thing a little less awfully bad if one could only think of it.’  Cummings and Johnson would have been able to think of it.  Part of Milner’s problem, of course, was that the NHS wasn’t around at that time so he couldn’t label them ‘NHS Concentration Camps’.   In the meantime our Culture representative in the government of all the talentless, Oliver Dowden, says: ‘Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history [however ‘awfully bad’], they add to it.’  To which one can only respond by saying that nobody is trying to ‘erase history’: the BBC merely thinks it is not a good idea to celebrate some aspects of that history.  But the telling last word, and the strand of culture it represents, should perhaps be left to Piers Morgan as a representative spokesman for the jingoists who have responded to the BBC with such frothing outrage:  “The BBC needs to grow a pair & stop grovelling to such insane ‘woke’ cancel culture nonsense that most Britons find utterly absurd.”  The ‘pair’ he is referring to are, all too obviously, not breasts.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Investing in a whelk stall?

August 16th

In the unlikely event of future political scientists or historians perusing this diary in future years, they might, depending on their political leanings, be inclined to start making deductions about the effect of lockdown on the mental health of those who have been locked down.  Her Majesty’s Government, duly elected by a mature electorate to grace the illustrious benches of the Palace of Westminster, the Mother of Parliaments, in December 2019 couldn’t possibly have been as utterly hopeless as diarists have tried to make out.  The grumpy carping must have been an irrationally resentful response on the part of mentally fragile people, who happened to have nothing better to do than write diaries, to the wholly rational decision on the part of government to lock them down for their own good.  The tempting alternative would have been to allow a ‘herd immunity’ strategy to sort them out and save billions on state pensions at the same time.  You can never please some people.

A rapid run-through of a random day’s coverage of ‘Home’ news, in this instance yesterday’s, August 15th, by the Independent, a broadly liberal and by no stretch of the imagination radically leftist newspaper (not that ‘paper’ has much to do with an exclusively digital compilation of news-reporting and commentary) might give the historians pause to reconsider that diagnosis.   With the exception of a nod in the direction of VJ-Day, a story about a man who nearly lost a leg as a result of being bitten by a ‘false widow’ spider, and an article on the implications for the Arts of a premature termination of the current furlough arrangements for employees, the rest of the coverage focuses entirely on four issues:  the quarantine regulations, in relation to France in particular; the government’s handling of various NHS related issues; the A-Level debacle; and the on-going situation with cross-channel migrants.  I’ve written about these individually (in some instances several times), but the cumulative impact when they are all extensively covered on the same day is impressive.

The photograph on the front page is of the queues of people at the airport at Nice trying desperately to get a flight back to UK in time for them to arrive before the magic 4am deadline.  The editorial takes this as its topic for the day, suggesting very mildly that, given the implications of 14 days of quarantine, a collective shrug on the part of government and ‘Well, you knew the risks when you went’, isn’t good enough. It goes on to suggest that 30 hours notice of a deadline, generally poor communication, and weak quarantine enforcement, in a context in which the Cummings episode shows that the rules apply to some but not others, aren’t conducive to public confidence or compliance.  For my own part, the 4.00am Saturday deadline left me wondering which particular bit of science the government was following that dictated that anyone who set foot back on British soil at 3.59am was bound to be Covid-free, but anyone who did so at 4.01am needed to go into quarantine for 14 days to protect the rest of us.

Where the NHS is concerned the reports focus on the government’s declared intention to keep the outcomes of inquiries into the Covid-related deaths of 620 health and care workers secret; the recall from NHS hospitals of 200,000 defective gowns, following closely on the heels of the recall of the 50 million defective face masks; and the quiet removal of 1.3 million tests from the running total of coronavirus tests nationally as a tacit admission of double-counting.

The on-going debacle over the A-level ‘results’ was covered in four separate articles, one of which predicted similar levels of chaos when the GCSE ‘results’, based on the same algorithm are released this coming week.   It is anticipated that up to 2 million results are likely to be downgraded, with the examining bodies already swamped by appeals against the A-level outcomes.  As one commentator put it in relation to the A-levels: ‘Unless Gavin Williamson [the Secretary of State for Education] can set up an appeals procedure that resolves the worst cases within days, he will destroy any illusions that his government could run a whelk stall.’

One article on the migrants who have been crossing the English Channel in small boats in their tens and twenties during the calm weather was written by May Bulman, and focuses on our bombastic Prime Minister’s assertion that “this is a very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do.”  Bulman draws on legal opinion in pointing out that there isn’t any legal obligation on asylum seekers to seek asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, and that they aren’t, in fact, committing any unlawful act in crossing the channel in small boats to seek asylum.  She argues that making the crossing is neither ‘bad’ nor ‘stupid’ if they are seeking asylum and choosing a country in which they would be joining known communities, and there are no alternative routes to do so.  Bulman quotes Frances Timberlake, coordinator at the Refugee Women’s Centre in Calais and Dunkirk, in this regard: ‘I would use stupid to describe most of the policies [in this regard] the UK has proposed so far, which have totally failed.’

The anti-migrant rhetoric is obviously intended to pander to the xenophobic right wing of the Tory party and the populace as a whole.  Any one of the other three debacles – the mishandling of the response to Covid-19 and its impact on the NHS, the A-levels disaster, and the quarantine issue – should, one might have thought, be enough to sink any government without trace in the opinion polls.   Future historians, even those sceptical about the mental health of those of us who have been self-isolating for five months, seem likely to agree.  But, while Johnson’s own credit rating is falling, the polls suggest that responses to his government as a whole seem to remain astonishingly little affected.  So anyone up for investing in a government-run whelk stall? 

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: that sleeping Black Swan

August 10. Black swans are commonly found in SE Australia and West Australia. They are not threatened – I would even say they are fairly common. You don’t want to say any bird is ‘common’ – apart from our marauding silver gulls and pesky starlings. Birdlife-Australia notes that, ‘Over just 25 years of monitoring migratory shorebirds in Australia some species such as the Curlew Sandpiper have decreased by 50-80%’. The UK (2012 report) was reported as losing more than 44 million breeding birds in less than half a century. (RSPB). And the story is worse in the USA: ‘Nearly one-third of the wild birds in the United States and Canada have vanished since 1970, a staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unravelling.’ (NY Times. September 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/opinion/crisis-birds-north-america.html

This is not good news. The report went on to say, ‘Birds are indicator species, serving as acutely sensitive barometers of environmental health, and their mass declines signal that the earth’s biological systems are in trouble.’

Black Swans are big powerful birds and can be quite aggressive to humans and to one another. They can fly long distances to find suitable territory – but they might have to compete for it. Their plumage is not entirely black. The flight feathers have a broad band of white which is obvious as they take flight. Apparently, the white is a warning signal, so the flock will rise and depart when one or two birds are aware of danger. Swans are efficient swimmers – I have seen them off our coast and in one memorable Youtube video they were recorded enjoying surfing off a Queensland beach.

I did note that the Black Swan I saw recently in our Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens was resting and when I looked at him with my binoculars, I saw that he was closing his eyes.

I was first told about ‘Black Swan events’ by my brother, Mike Smithyman, sometime after 2007. I was amused because black swans originate in Australia and the first Westerner to see them caused, in part, the origin of the idea of a ‘Black Swan Event’.

In 1697, Dutchman Willem de Vlamingh was on a rescue mission along Australia’s west coast to look for survivors of a shipwreck two years earlier. He sailed up a river estuary river and was amazed to come across a flock of black swans. He named the river the Swan River which now flows through the centre of modern-day Perth.

The point is that until then swans were all assumed to be white. A black swan was inconceivable.

Apparently, we can go back to the second century Roman poet, Juvenal. He thought a ‘black swan’ would be “a rare bird in the lands”.

So, black swans were deemed to be impossible in nature until 1697.

Fast forward to 2007 when a Lebanese-American called Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’ … with a new section: “On Robustness and Fragility”. Taleb is a risk manager and statistician, and has many other skills beside these.

Taleb says his aim is to encourage society to become more aware of the possibility of Black Swan events so that we are robust enough to survive them.

(Out of interest I read that Taleb is worth over $60 billion from his business in option trading. Oh! he also speaks 10 languages.)

When I read up about Taleb he was even more fascinating: he had called for the cancellation of the Nobel Prize for Economics as he held that economic theories can cause devastation. Perhaps we need to revisit his ideas!

Taleb gives examples of Black Swan events: World War 1, the impact of the personal computer, the rise of the Internet, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the 2001 terrorist event. The event has to be deemed unpredictable, an outlier; secondly, to have severe consequences and thirdly, to be an event that people will look at it with hindsight and say … it was predictable. He does say that Black Swan events depend on your viewpoint.

Obviously, some Black Swan events are catastrophic and some are beneficial. I wish there were more beneficial Black Swans.

The COVID-19 pandemic on this analysis, is not a Black Swan event. Currently, commentators love to repeat the word ‘unprecedented’ about the pandemic. However, it was predicted by many people, discussed in many books and some countries had pandemic plans in place. So Covid-19 fails on the first test.

The central idea of his (very readable) book ‘concerns our blindness with regard to randomness: particularly the large deviations’.

‘I … make a claim, against many of our habits of thought, that our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known and the repeated.’ (Taleb – The Black Swan)

We are asleep it seems, like the Black Swan in our Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens, but woe betide when it wakes and we are asleep.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Uncertainty and certainties

August 6th

For those of us fortunate enough not to have been directly affected by the sickness and death, the bereavements, and the worries about money, jobs and schooling that Covid-19 has brought with it, the main burden has probably been uncertainty.  We wonder when will we get to visit family in other countries again, and when will they be able to come to visit us; when will the elective surgery we are waiting for be possible; when will we get to hug our children and grandchildren again; when will it feel safe to do something as ‘normal’ as going to the cinema again.   

So it is kind of government ‘spokesmen’ (seemingly always ‘men’ even when they happen to be women) to provide a level constancy and certainty in our lives for us, what T.S.Eliot might have referred to as ‘the still point in a turning world’, even if it is the government they represent that is doing much of the U-turning.   The constancy lies in the certainty that, however indefensible, they will always find a way of denying that the government department they represent has ever done anything wrong.  Today’s example was comfortingly predictable.   In response to people being impertinent enough to ask about the £150 million of our money recently spent by government on buying 50 million useless face-masks for the NHS, the spokesman responsible for answering silly questions responded by categorically assuring us that: “There is a robust process in place to ensure orders are of high quality and meet strict safety standards, with the necessary due diligence undertaken on all Government contracts.”  Really? I am sure we were also reassured to have another element of constancy confirmed:  “Throughout this global pandemic, we have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect people on the front line.”  Everybody in government is always working ‘tirelessly’, even Boris, and not many more than 300 NHS workers and care workers had died from Covid-19 by the end of May, who knows many of them as a direct result of a lack of adequate PPE.

It turns out that our government of all the talentless, this time via our fascistic Home Office, has been caught out in another of the ‘robust processes’ it has in place to ensure things.  In this instance they were using a ‘decision-making algorithm’ to ensure that as few Africans as possible were granted visas to darken our national doorway.    Anyone who might have been puzzled by the bewildering number of African academics who have been denied visas to come to UK conferences over recent years now has the answer.  Visa applications from Africans have, in fact, been more than twice as likely to be rejected as similar applications from anywhere else in the world.   Those of us who suspected that it was simply because there were too many racists working in the Home Office were wrong, it turns out that it was a racist computer that was at fault, not that the computer will have programmed itself.  To forestall legal action against it, the Home Office has, according to the Independent, suspended the offending ‘digital streaming tool’ pending a redesign.   If the original design involved the computer scanning the photographs on the applications to try to identify the friendly black people who should be welcome in UK – our influential Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s, ‘piccanninies’ with their ‘watermelon smiles’, no doubt – the designers of the new system probably need to remember that most applicants are too old to be considered piccanninies, and that nobody is allowed to smile any kind of smile in a visa photograph.   True to form, the Home Office spokesman assured us that the withdrawal of the programme wasn’t an indication that it was flawed in any way, but rather, “We have been reviewing how the visa application streaming tool operates and will be redesigning our processes to make them even more streamlined and secure.’   So any uncertainty about the system can be dispelled: we can rest assured that the new system will keep an even higher proportion of African applicants away.

But it is manifestly unfair to single out individual departments of state.   It is our government of all the talentless as a whole that provides us with certainty in these uncertain times.  We know with absolute certainty that they won’t meet any of the targets they set and will lie about the reasons for not meeting them; their messaging will always be hopelessly confused and confusing; they will always try to centralise any action to be taken in combatting Covid-19 that should be devolved to local authorities; and by the time this pandemic is under control many more people will have died in UK than anywhere else in Europe as a direct result of their incompetence.   But the certainties to be found in public life don’t compensate for the uncertainties of private life.