From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Wish fulfilment’?

November 18th

There are many reasons for those of us who have retired from the business of university management to be grateful no longer to have to worry about how best to steer our universities through whatever rough seas the shifting winds of politics and economics put in their way.   As I’ve said in previous entries, I don’t envy today’s Vice Chancellors having to contend with the current pandemic and its future repercussions on top of the perennial problem of transient cabinet ministers intent on to leaving their mark on the system before they move on to a more significant portfolio.   But recent events have made me particularly pleased no longer to be implicated in any way in a global academic research system which is, in one aspect at least, unforgivably wasteful and exploitative, and is arguably profoundly immoral.   

Where the UK is concerned, we still have one of the most productive and highly regarded university systems in the world, although there is no question that Brexit is bound to wreak very serious, and possibly irreparable, damage on it.  An impressive array of outstanding research, disproportionate to the size our system, still comes out of our universities, but it does so at incalculable cost.  Most of that cost is entirely hidden, both at the national and individual institutional levels.   The figures for the monies distributed by the six UK Research Councils (see the table from the THES above) amounted in 2017-18 to rather under £1.2bn; a roughly equivalent amount will have been distributed to Higher Education on the basis of the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF).   That is the visible cost where the Research Councils are concerned.   Some idea of the invisible cost, literally invisible, is arrived at by the simple expedient of subtracting the number of successful grants, 1,793, from the number of applications, 6,959.   So 5,226 bids that will each have taken literally hundreds of hours to put together, and will have carried the hopes, and sometimes the livelihoods, of their authors with them, have all been an abject waste of time and talent.   ‘Livelihoods’ because far too many researchers around the world are obliged to live a frighteningly precarious existence from one successful funding grant to the next.   Much of the cost is unquantifiable as it relates to mental health, wellbeing and general quality of life.

That, if course, is only half of the problem where government funding of universities in UK is concerned.    The other half lies with the countless more hours that have to be spent preparing for the regular cycle of REF evaluations; hours spent administering and writing about research rather than doing it.  And then there are all the other non-governmental funding bodies that, to their great credit, fund academic research, but in the process compound the problem where the wholly unproductive time and energy expended on unsuccessful funding bids is concerned.   This is often time and energy expended by many of the ablest men and women in the country that could have been spent far more productively.

Why write about this right now?  Because over the past nine months I have spent a significant amount of time painstakingly proofreading and commenting on an excellent collaborative research bid being produced by a group of researchers from, among others, Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania, whose principal investigator was from the University of Cape Town.  The proposal to one of the major medical research funding bodies in the United States was for the funding of the evaluation of a potentially really important behavioural intervention designed to try to address the significant number of young men in the Western Cape (and, ultimately, elsewhere) who test positive for HIV but don’t then move to treatment.   The intervention involves a short video to be used when they are being counselled on first receipt of their HIV-positive result.  The video, whose production was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, features brief interviews with HIV positive men on antiretroviral treatment trying to address stigma and fears about antiretrovirals by talking about the normality of the lives they are able to lead.  

The bid was not funded at initial submission, but the reviews were largely very positive, detailed comments were received from the reviewers, and the researchers were invited to resubmit.  A huge amount of work went into making sure all the comments were addressed and the bid was duly resubmitted. The devastating news came through on Tuesday that the resubmission had been rejected without further review.  No reasons given; apparently no appeal possible; literally hundreds and hundreds of hours wasted, not just the time of those preparing the bid but also that of the initial reviewers.   The funding body would have been perfectly within its rights to change its funding policies in the interim to focus, for example, on Coronavirus instead of HIV/AIDS, but if that is what has happened it is wholly indefensible for them not to have communicated that to researchers whom they had invited to resubmit a bid on HIV.

A better way needs to be found globally for funding academic research, some way that does not result in the livelihoods and wellbeing of academic researchers becoming collateral damage, and so much of the time and energy of some of our ablest minds being  entirely wasted. 

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: So much for democracy

October 31st

It will be apparent to outside observers, even if it apparently isn’t to many of our own citizens, that in UK we are currently trying to contend with two simultaneous, and in some ways related, crises.   On the one hand, we have a health crisis occasioned by the Covid pandemic, with all the economic stresses that entails; on the other hand, we have a political crisis occasioned by the election of a blindly ideological and helplessly incompetent government that cannot be effectively held to account by a terminally divided opposition that spends so much time tearing itself apart that it is barely level with the government in the polls instead of being the 20 to 30 points ahead that it should be.    Both are cause for despair, but at least there is some hope on the distant horizon that an effective vaccine might one day be developed where Covid is concerned.   I very much doubt that a vaccine will ever be developed that will inoculate politicians against ideological blindness and self-harm, or that a remedy can be found for our seemingly terminally ailing democracy.

The immediate occasion for the Labour Party’s fresh round of self-laceration has been a report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission forcefully condemning the way the party, and the leadership of the party in particular, has handled complaints of anti-Semitism in recent years.  Jeremy Corbyn, the immediately past leader of the party, who was implicitly held to be at fault for the mishandling, responded to the report by saying that even a single anti-Semite in the party was one too many, but that the incidence of anti-Semitism in the party as a whole had been very significantly overstated.  Corbyn was summarily suspended from the party for being “in denial” about anti-Semitism, and his suspension, equally instantly and all too predictably, resulted in the long-standing divisions in the party revealing themselves again in all their ugliness.

Anyone who took part in any way in the struggle against apartheid will be profoundly conscious both of the iniquity of racism in any form, and of the strong parallels between the plight of the Palestinians today and the plight of black South Africans under apartheid.   It is common knowledge that the governments of South Africa and Israel worked hand in glove during the 1970s and 1980s on such things as the development of nuclear weapons, and many of their tactics for the repression of opposition have been similar, for example the resort to the selective assassination of leading opponents, and the fomenting of internecine violence between the different factions of their opposition.   The two moral giants of South Africa’s liberation both made the parallel between South Africa and Palestine very directly, as seen from Desmond Tutu’s statement – ‘We in South Africa had a relatively peaceful transition. If our madness could end as it did, it must be possible to do the same everywhere else in the world. If peace could come to South Africa, surely it can come to the Holy Land?’ – and Mandela’s pithier 1997 comment:  ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’   

Where the parallels between apartheid South Africa and modern-day Israel diverge dramatically is that whereas criticism of the evils of apartheid became common cause globally, pro-Israeli propagandists have muddied the waters so successfully where anti-Semitism is concerned that any criticism of the government of Israel’s behavior, no matter how draconian or how internationally unlawful, is liable to be castigated as anti-Semitic.   Any and all racism directed against Jewish people on the grounds of their Jewishness is totally unacceptable; criticism of anything the government of Israel does as a government has, like criticism of any other government, to be permissible.

When the Labour party was catching up in the polls, and snapping at the heels of a callous and indifferent Tory governing party fixated on shrinking the State under the guise of ‘austerity’, it was blindingly obvious that the predominantly right-wing media would exploit any chink in Labour’s armour to the hilt.  The chink it seized on was the incidence of anti-Semitic invective directed at Jewish members of the party by a small minority of members who should unquestionably have been expelled from the party forthwith.  To say, as Corbyn did, that the incidence of anti-Semitism in the party had been overstated was merely to state the patently obvious, as Starmer, being an intelligent man, must clearly know.  But, given a context in which what Corbyn said was bound to be interpreted as downplaying the genuine hurt felt by the members of the party who had been the targets of vitriolic anti-Semitism, it was, to say the least, not a sensible or necessary point to make at the time.   But suspending Corbyn was the last thing anyone who genuinely wanted to unite the Labour Party should have done. Starmer must know that the only way he has any chance of winning power is by leading a united party into the next election.  So as we head into another nation-wide lockdown, once again leaked to the media rather than announced from the podium, let alone discussed in parliament, we find ourselves with a terminally wrong-headed and incompetent government ineffectually confronted by a terminally divided and self-lacerating opposition.  So much for democracy.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Fundamentalisms

October 24

Assuming that any will still be around by the end of this century, social historians may by then have arrived at a consensus as to what it was about the fifty years many of us have just lived through that led to the development of so many different brands of fundamentalism.

Yesterday, the u3a* French conversation group I belong to spent its meeting discussing two articles extracted from French newspapers.  The first, which need not detain us here, gave an account of how the unfortunate Mr Eugène Poubelle, a 19th Century local administrator in Paris, came to give his name to French garbage bins.  The other was a copy of the very unusual, it claims unique, joint manifesto ‘in favour of freedom of expression’ recently published by the French audiovisual and print media titled (obviously translated from the original French), “Together let us defend freedom”.  This was a collective response to the beheading by a religious fundamentalist of Samuel Paty, the French teacher who had shown the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to those children in his class who were not Muslims.

Nothing Samuel Paty could possibly have done could ever have justified his arbitrary beheading, which was clearly the product of an extremity of what the manifesto rightly condemned as an example of the ‘novel totalitarian ideologies that are threatening freedom of expression.’   But I felt I was swimming against the tide of group sentiment when I argued that it was possible for the fervent upholding of the right to freedom of expression to shade into an equally totalitarian ideology.  It would have been perfectly possible for Mr Paty to make his historical point by describing the cartoons, rather than displaying them.  However well-intentioned, his discriminatory ejection of the Muslim students from the class before showing the cartoons demonstrated his awareness that what he was about to do in the name of freedom of expression would be considered highly offensive.  Telling a group of devout Christians that you are about to burn a copy of the Bible, but will kindly close the door so that they can’t witness your doing so, wouldn’t lessen the extent of the offence being occasioned, even if the repercussions would be unlikely to be the same.  As the old saw has it, the right to freedom of expression self-evidently doesn’t extend to shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, nor should it give totally free license to the provocative causing of unnecessary offence. For Samuel Paty to be posthumously awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his crass insensitivity was to implicate the entire French nation in the gratuitous offence he had occasioned.  My response to the manifesto, and to the huge crowds that gathered to align themselves with Samuel Paty, was ‘I’m sorry, but “Non, je ne suis pas Samuel”.’

An equivalent fundamentalism – in this instance free-market fundamentalism – has been the ultimate cause of the much less spectacular deaths of untold thousands of people in England over the past few months who should not have, and need not have, died from Covid-19.   Our pathetically inadequate test and trace system, which over the past week has been able to return test results within the necessary 12 hours in fewer than 15% of cases, and trace fewer than 60% of all contacts (in a context in which it is said to be essential for at least 95% of contacts to be traced if the disease is to be contained effectively), is the entirely predictable outcome of the Tories’ obsessional devotion to the private sector.   It required a wholly irrational faith in the free market for Johnson and company to by-pass local health authorities and the network of NHS GP surgeries around the country entirely, in the process squandering billions of tax-payer’s money on outsourcing companies with no relevant experience whatsoever, to put their largely useless track and trace system in place and then seriously imagine that it could ever be ‘world-beating.’   It still rankles that they should have been shamelessly deceitful enough to taint the name of our excellent NHS by calling their failing system “NHS Track and Trace”.

*  In the hope of literally downplaying the ‘University’ in the name ‘University of the Third Age’, which rather depressingly for some of us is apparently now regarded as having the potential to put people off joining, the decision has recently been taken to make the subtle change of lowering the case of the logo from ‘U3A’ to ‘u3a’.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Covid corruption

October 21st 

It would appear that the supposedly Right Honourable Robin Jenrick – Member of Parliament for Newark and Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – has achieved the elevated status of being informally appointed, in public school terms, as the Prime Minister’s private fag.  He is being sent scurrying all over the country, most often to media studios, running errands for Boris.  Most people have better things to do, even under Covid restrictions, than keep an accurate count of the number of hours the different cabinet ministers spend in front of microphones and TV cameras, but if anyone is keeping count they will almost certainly find that Jenrick is way out in the lead at present.   I suspect that, although he is so bland as to be instantly forgettable, his readiness to run errands enables Boris himself to get on with his other priorities in life which, if past record is anything to go by, involve spending a lot of time in bed – not with Covid-19 for company.  As the one Cabinet Minister who should very evidently have been sacked for corruption – in his case for his role in the Richard Desmond property scandal I wrote about on 28th June – it is entirely appropriate that Jenrick should be seen to be the government’s chief spokesperson these days. 

Anyone in the UK who stereotypically regards governance in Africa as endemically corrupt, needs to look closer to home.  Motes, beams and eyes come to mind.  Human Rights organisations around the world have been pointing to the extremely worrying extent to which the governments of a range of countries around the world have been taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to crack down on human rights.  Far less publicity seems to have been given to the extent to which the pandemic has provided cover for governments to line their own pockets, and those of their friends and associates, while attention has been focussed on the far more immediate issues of national health systems and economies that are on the verge of being overwhelmed.   Arguing the need to act urgently in these “unprecedented” circumstances, without any parliamentary scrutiny or oversight, the UK government has seen the pandemic as the ideal opportunity to pour billions of pounds without any need for a competitive tendering process into the coffers of private sector companies that in many instances have had no previous experience whatever of the services or goods for which they have been contracted.   We should all by now be detecting a very pungent stink of rat every time a cabinet minister opens his or her mouth to utter the word “unprecedented”. 

An article by Ben Chu in Sunday’s Independent 1 titled ‘Has the government wasted billions on private firms?’ provides some revealing figures.   The desperately poorly performing “NHS” test and trace system, outsourced to companies like Serco, whose notoriety has up to now been based mainly on the crass way it runs detention centres and gaols, has quietly soaked up £12bn.  Serco apparently thinks its contribution to the programme has been a ‘triumph’.  Another 15bn has been allocated for personal protective equipment.  Ben Chu cites a figure of 1,997 private sector contracts that have been awarded to the private sector, to a total value of £12bn, since February. The absence of any need for competitive tenders has, inevitably, resulted in a number of suspicious awards such, for example, as a £840k contract for running focus groups awarded without competitive tender to what Ben Chu categorises as “close associates” (read “friends”) of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. 

In the context of this over-energetic pumping of tens of billions of pounds into the bank accounts of private sector companies – Serco’s trading profit for the first half of this year was up 53% at £76m – the additional £5m Boris Johnson balked at in his protracted negotiations with Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, is utterly trivial.  Burnham needs the money to provide support for those about to lose their incomes as a result of the imposition of Tier 3 on Greater Manchester and the significant, and wholly unexplained, drop in government support since the first lockdown.  Boris’s tactic of trying to pit the different regions in the North against each other by insisting on negotiating support packages with each region separately, rather than having a nation-wide formula, is cynical and contemptible but will almost certainly come back to bite him via its exacerbation of the North/South divide in this country.  A further example of the Tories’ utter disregard for the hardship and destitution being visited on so many families came with the voting down by a significant majority this evening of the proposal that free school meals should continue to be provided through the coming half-term and the school holidays until next Spring for children whose families qualify for them.  Angela Rayner, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was obliged to apologise for referring to one of the Tory backbench MPs as ‘scum’ during the debate.  She probably wouldn’t have got away with ‘lick-spittle’ either.

[1] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-independent-1029/20201018/281655372555692

From Louis in Johannesburg: Fiddler on the Roof

Having just streamed the launch of Fiddler on the Roof from Brooklyn Theatre here in Pretoria from the comfort of my lounge what they have achieved Covid and unethical landlords notwithstanding, deserves mention on our Blog. Longer story short Brooklyn Theatre (BT) converted to digital format and successfully streamed Fiddler on the Roof: The musical. It launched this past Saturday 17th of October 2020. I had bought tickets in anticipation of the live performance of this classic. Then Covid struck and all hell broke loose with any function where people were gathered in numbers. BT had secured the rights to produce and had faithfully paid the royalty providing the rights to perform Fiddler. 

There was no going back. 

When the owners of the theatre that BT used on aregular basis refused to accommodate BT with a reduction in rental that final straw broke the camel’s back and BT decided to go digital based on nothing but Chutspa and stream the production. They had no experience with digital productions and decided to press on anyway. Rehearsals took place on a regular basis until the production flowed smoothly. Musicians provided backing and support. Here I need to declare my interests: My wife Marie plays Yente the matchmaker and daughter Rachel plays one of Tevye’s five daughters, Shprintze. Having declared my interests you will appreciate how BT and the Fiddler production is worthy of support based purely on what they have achieved during Covid19 lockdown and with extortionist landlords. It truly is an ill wind that brings no good with it.BT has taken the leap of faith and has successfully gone digital with their productions.

 If ever a production was relevant to a society it is Fiddler’s relevance to South African as well as global society in a post-modern era. The original purpose of Opera to remind society of the morals that guide it is also relevant to this wonderful musical production. The plot is well known to many. A traditional Jewish family living in the Ukraine during a Pogrom by the Russian authorities dispossess them. They have to leave for foreign shores after much protestation by Tevye with only the possessions they can carry. The family headed by Tevye and his wife Golde who lament the loss of their traditional way of life. Tevye draws traditions and teachings which inform their day to day lives from “The Good Book”, quoted frequently by him. Tevye and Golde have five daughters (Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze and Beilke) who need to find suitable Jewish husbands, hence the need for a traditional matchmaker (Yente) to facilitate this. To the frustration of the matchmaker, as well as Tevye, in the end the daughters marry for love. The compassion and understanding of their mother, Golde, provides a softer touch. Tevye accepts their choice after due consideration. Humour punctuates this otherwise tragic storyline of a Ukraine Pogrom, which includes, discrimination, loss of property, the disruption of traditions and displacement of people from the land they have long occupied. A reminder of the perils of current society, the role of traditional family morals and the danger of discrimination based on religion and race. Support a worthy cause at www.brooklyntheatre.tv  

Brookly Theatre (BT) will also never be the same again in the Post-Covid world…

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: Roosting chickens

October 14th

Flocks of chickens are coming home to roost on our Prime Minister, the supposedly Honourable Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and it isn’t just the odd stray feather they are contributing to his general air of lazy dishevelment.  When the great moment came on Monday for the unveiling the new Covid-19 tiered lockdown system that had been trailed so extensively for the better part of the previous week, Boris Johnson’s Chief Medical Officer, standing a socially distanced few feet beside him, calmly asserted that he had no confidence that it would work.  Immediately after the news conference, the Scientific Advisory Council for Emergencies (SAGE) released the minutes of a meeting it had held on 21st September at which the Government’s own hand-picked scientists unequivocally advocated a short, sharp, ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown as the only way to get the rapidly escalating incidence of infections under control. Boris Johnson rejected their advice and implemented his Rule of Six and the 10pm curfew on restaurants and bars instead, thereby comprehensively demolishing any last remnants of his endlessly repeated claim to have been ‘following the science.’  He can no longer get away with blaming the scientists.

The latest figures show that very nearly 20,000 people were diagnosed as Covid-19 positive in UK yesterday.  There has been an exponential increase in the number of infections, hospitalisations and deaths in the weeks since Boris and his lackeys took that September decision, and we are headed within the next two weeks to equal the March and April numbers in intensive care and we haven’t hit winter yet.  The trailing of the severe Tier 3 restrictions in Liverpool five days in advance inevitably resulted in the predicted partying in the streets on Tuesday night in anticipation of the midnight implementation of the new rules.  The almost unbelievable stupidity of that crowd differed only from the stupidity of the similarly maskless crowd that flocked to Donald Trump’s recent election rally in Florida in that, whereas the stupidity in Florida was suicidal given the age-profile of that crowd, in Liverpool the sozzled revellers appeared to consist largely of young people who probably won’t die themselves but will inevitably be passing the virus on to their elders, some of whom most certainly will die.  The measures brought in by Boris on 21st September as an alternative to the lockdown simply haven’t worked, and there is no reason whatever to imagine that his new Tier system will work either.   The number of infections in York, currently in tier 1, has increased by almost 50% in the past 24 hours.

If the current exponential growth in infections and deaths is stripping the Emperor of whatever clothes he had left, the wedges Johnson’s incompetence has succeeded in driving between the different nations of the supposedly United Kingdom will soon be making his unsightly nakedness even more glaringly apparent.  Northern Ireland has decided to implement the national lockdown Boris is refusing to agree to.  In two weeks time it will be possible to compare the results of the two different approaches to the crisis.  In the meantime the government of Wales has felt obliged to take the extraordinary step of trying to protect the public health of its citizens by banning cars from the North West of England.  Scotland, one gathers, is contemplating taking similar measures.  So some parts of the UK are, indeed, taking control of their borders – but, again, not in the way Boris anticipated.

The flocks of chickens do not cluck in unison.  Johnson is caught between several competing factions.  One flock consist of the supposedly ‘libertarian’, Tory backbenchers who oppose any kind of lockdown on the basis of the damage it does to the economy.   Closer inspection would probably reveal that that group really doesn’t care how many plebs in ‘the North’ die, just as long as their own shares in in the Wetherspoons pub chain don’t take too much of a hit.  That group would be better described as braying rather than clucking.  Another group, including extra-parliamentary experts, is warning the government about the destitution that will result if a lockdown is implemented without adequate support for those whose incomes will suffer: parents won’t be able to buy shoes for their children; women will have to prostitute themselves to keep food on their children’s plates.  The official opposition is demanding a national lockdown along the lines of SAGE’s September recommendations.  The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is still threatening to bring legal action against the government and refusing to cooperate if restrictions in his area of responsibility are raised to Tier 3 without adequate financial support being put in place

If the variously suicidal or homicidal crowds of revellers and Trump devotees can be fairly described as stupid, their idiocy does not begin to compare with Johnson’s stupidity as he steadfastly lumbers towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit in 10 weeks time, apparently intent on making sure that the worst crisis in UK since World War II gets a whole lot more catastrophic for everybody involved.   And ‘everybody’ includes the entire continent of Europe, even if it will be vastly more catastrophic for us in the still ‘United Kingdom’. Having opportunistically lied and cheated his way into the position from which he can do greatest damage to the country he is supposed to be leading, Johnson fully deserves everything the roosting chickens can dump on him.   If I sound close to despair, it is because I am.

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: Signs and signals

September 28th

Every time a significant new announcement is made with regard to Covid-19 regulations, which seems to be around twice a week these days, the BBC News dutifully does the rounds of the four countries of the supposedly ‘United’ Kingdom’ in turn, so that those of us in England can be kept up to speed with the invariably much more sensible variations on the theme being proposed in the other three countries.  Not, of course that the BBC would ever be likely to venture such a value judgement at a time when the right wing of the Conservative Party (i.e. about 90% of it) is baying for the BBC’s blood on the wholly specious grounds that it has a left-wing bias.  What I am finding increasingly irritating about this regular tour of the UK’s four constituent parts is not the regular reminder that Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers respectively, are so much more articulate than their English counterpart, whose stumbling inarticulacy, however plummy, so often gives the lie to the notion that he is a good communicator.  What gets me much more viscerally is the glaring absence of a signer in the background whenever Boris delivers one of his portentous orations, by stark contrast with the ever-present signers helping the First Ministers to communicate with the people in their countries who are hard of hearing.

It is beyond comprehension both that Boris would not narcissistically want to admire his own speeches, and that he would not be compulsively drawn to watch his Scottish and Welsh counterparts’ speeches, not because he is interested in what they are saying, which might require too much concentration, but to prove to himself how much better he is at oratory.  Does he not notice the signers in the background?  Does he think that English superiority and exceptionalism must mean that we don’t have any people in England who are hard of hearing?  Are the signers, to him, simply an unusually animated part of the furniture that isn’t worthy of his attention? Or does he perhaps think that what they are doing is translating spoken language into signs for the benefit of the backward descendants of the Celts and Gauls who inhabit the mountainous outer reaches of the UK and haven’t in consequence yet developed to the point of being the proud owners of a spoken language?   Or does he, quite simply, not care?  And what about the Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health (sic)?  Or the Minister of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (sic)?  Or any of the rest of our Cabinet of the talentless?  Do they neither notice nor care either?  Or is it that, just like the First Ministers of the other countries they only get to speak to Boris once every three months and our ministers are so awed by the privilege that they don’t want to rock the boat by asking awkward questions?

If the absence of signers is signalling to those who want to read the signs that our government in England (the government, in theory, of the whole United Kingdom) is a lot less caring and inclusive than the governments of the Scotland and Wales, it has not been the only sign over the past six months that has signalled that we have plenty to worry about where our government is concerned.   A handshake is normally a sign of greeting and friendship; when Boris Johnson invites the cameras to photograph him shaking hands with Covid patients in hospital it signals a reckless braggadocio that, all too literally, bodes ill.   The meaning of ubiquitous signs saying “Stay at Home” is crystal clear – until Dominic Cummings jaunts off to County Durham and cabinet ministers from the Prime Minister downwards, falling over themselves to claim that he has done nothing wrong, signal that the injunction only applies to some people, not everyone, and half the population, picking up the signal, thinks ‘what the hell’ and starts following the Cummings example and interpreting the advice and regulations to suit themselves.

My personal assumption about the reason for the absence of signers from our screens when Johnson is exercising his oratory is that the necessary animation of a signer in the background inevitably attracts the attention, however fleetingly, of viewers who aren’t hard of hearing, and Boris is always desperate to have the full gaze of the nation exclusively, and he no doubt assumes admiringly, focussed on himself.  Of all the warning signs visible on our screens over the past six months signalling that the consequences of Covid-19 are going to be very dire for our incompetently governed country, the most telling sign, paradoxically, has probably been that glaring absence of signers.   What it signals, at least to me, is that we are being told what to do, rather than led, by a self-obsessed narcissist with a hand-picked Cabinet of the like-minded who are ultimately interested only in themselves and their chums.  All talk of inclusivity and ‘levelling-up’ is simply window-dressing.