David Maughan Brown: Of deckchairs and dance schools

Summer?

Deck chairs are one of the world’s more considerate inventions when it comes to soporifically sunny summer days on beaches, particularly when those beaches happen to consist of stones rather than sand, like those, for example, in Brighton and Hove(actually).   ‘Beaches’ consisting of stones, euphemistically referred to as ‘pebbles’, can occasion acute discomfort to bare feet, even when they have had some of the sharp edges worn off by being rolled around in the waves for a few millennia.  They also tend to be seriously uncomfortable to sit on. While not exactly the lap of luxury, deck chairs are generally a preferable alternative to sitting on stones. 

Wet afternoons on hilltops in Sheffield, a very long way from any pebbly expanse alongside the sea that purports to be a beach, are by contrast a very different matter – even at the height of what passes for the summer.   Deck chairs appear to be cleverly designed to ensure that, regardless of which of the various options one chooses as the correct angle for the back rest, rain water can be guaranteed to run down the back and pool in the seat, irrespective of whether or not one happens to be sitting in it.   So one can get thoroughly soaked from the bottom up, so to speak, without ever having to go near the pebbles or the sea.   Add an umbrella into the mix and you have a marriage made in a very wet heaven: the rainwater cascades off the umbrella to be redirected by the back of the deck-chair to swell the pool at the bottom. 

Our Sunday afternoon last Sunday was spent on top of one of Sheffield’s seven hills – the city’s main, and possibly only, claim to affinity with Rome – watching the annual dance-show put on my ten-year-old granddaughter’s dance school.  The weather forecast had not been propitious, predicting rain around the time the show was scheduled to start, but that wasn’t ever going to faze the dedicated organisers of a dance-school annual show – any more than Covid-19 was going to stop the show just because it couldn’t take place indoors.  So we went prepared with such waterproofs as we could muster, and armed with quantities of umbrellas.  I even managed to locate a set of waterproof leggings to wear over my jeans that I had last worn thirty years ago when watching my sons play football in the pouring rain in Hove, which seemed somehow appropriate.

So we took our seats on deck chairs in the open in front of a stage that looked as if it had been designed for a pop concert and, by way of the trailer for the main event,  watched a thunderstorm advancing inexorably towards us from the south west, which, conveniently enough, happened to be behind the stage.  Given that thunder-storms and lightning go rather well together, I spent part of the time trying to assess whether there was anything in the immediate vicinity that would provide a more welcoming conductor for the lightning than the metal uprights supporting the cover over the stage on which my granddaughter would soon be dancing.  I concluded that there was a good chance that any lightning would find a couple of lamp-posts near the carpark more attractive as they reached marginally higher into the sky than the stage uprights.  But I wasn’t able to convey this less than definitive information to my socially distanced granddaughter who was very scared by the thunder when the storm did hit us two or three dances into the show.

Health and Safety fortunately dictated that a temporary halt need to be called, so we were able to escape the worst of the downpour to sit in a very steamy car for twenty minutes or so until the storm died down to a steady and persistent cold drizzle and a resumption of proceedings was announced.  Although hastily folded and left on the ground on our way to the car, the deckchairs were no drier by the time the show resumed.  Nor did the stage entirely escape the rain.  Although the organisers conjured-up a pile of towels from somewhere with which to dry the exposed front edge of the stage, some water had leaked through at the back, as one of the somewhat older dancers discovered to her cost when she slipped and fell flat on her face.  Fortunately, she wasn’t hurt, merely shocked, but she wasn’t the only one who slipped, and for the next few ballet items the dancers had to dance barefoot, which hadn’t been rehearsed.

The show lasted three and a half hours with the dancers all taking part in at least one freshly-costumed dance in each of the disciplines they were taught in the school: ballet, tap, street, modern… you name it.   The rain relented towards the end of the first half and most of the second half could have been completed without any added wetness, had the organisers hired a portaloo or two.  But the available resources had apparently been used up by the hire of the stage, so the cold and bedraggled audience of doting relatives had to queue for the one loo that Covid restrictions allowed to be open in the community hall beside which the stage had been erected. The result was a very prolonged interval and a late night for the gaggle of twenty to thirty three and four-year-olds who had showed off their very nascent dancing capabilities in the first half but were expected to stay until the end so that they could stand looking tired and forlorn off-stage in the rain for the finale.

We are very pleased that Covid-19 restrictions had been relaxed to the point where we could go down to Sheffield for the weekend, and we very much enjoyed watching our granddaughter dancing her six dances, which she did beautifully.  It did cross my mind from time to time, however, that the Blitz Spirit can perhaps be overdone, and that the organisers of children’s dance-school shows might sometimes, not entirely unreasonably, be considered to be somewhat over-endowed with that spirit.  

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘We’re all goin’ on a summer holiday’

21 May, 2021.

So who’s for a summer holiday? Confusion reigns among the climate gods as we move from winter directly to autumn with a vague gesture towards spring along the way, but so far with very little prospect of anything resembling summer. So a large portion of the UK population apparently wants to join Cliff Richard in ‘goin’ where the sun shines brightly … goin’ where the sea is blue.’

Tristan da Cunha

May 17th was the milestone along Johnson’s much-bruited roadmap to ‘freedom’ when international travel broke free from the bonds of illegality and, in one giant bound, became legal (with streamers of red tape attached), even if in almost all cases, according to Boris and some of his cabinet ministers, not generally advisable.   So confusion reigns there too.   And that is in spite of the elegant simplicity of the traffic light system, so much loved by those who govern us.   The minor problem with that elegant simplicity is that apparently roughly half the population (and half our cabinet) thinks that amber means ‘stop’, while the other half think it means ‘go’.  Clearly not so simple after all.  So as we explore the generous array of options for our summer holiday destination we will stick to the wholly uncomplicated green list, which incontestably means ‘Go’. 

After an inordinate delay, which greatly frustrated the travel industry, the finally published the Green List provided those in search of brightly shining sun and blue seas with a geographically widely dispersed range of twelve tempting options: Portugal, Israel, Iceland, Brunei, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, the Faroe Islands, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, St Helena, Tristan de Cunha and Ascension Island.   The only minor problem with this Green List was that for all of those destinations apart from Portugal our green list just happens to coincide with their Red Lists, or equivalents.   And the prospect of joining every other newly-released-from-lockdown Brit-in-search-of-the-sun heading for Portugal doesn’t, for some reason, hold a great deal of appeal. 

The best chance of hitting on an alternative Green List destination that won’t refuse entry on arrival would seem to be to identify somewhere really remote where they might not have heard that we have had one of the worst fatality rates from Covid per head of population in the entire world.  And the one thing that can be said in favour of the Green List is that for its size it is extremely well endowed with remote destinations, which have the added attraction after a year of isolation of not being overcrowded.  In that regard the choice would seem to come down to a straight contest between South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, on the one hand, and Tristan de Cunha on the other.  The fact that June and July just happen to be the dead of winter in the South Atlantic doesn’t necessarily mean that the sun won’t be shining brightly from time to time. 

Wanderlust.co.uk will confirm that where the South Georgia option is concerned the islands are, indeed, ‘very remote and isolated’.   So that particular criterion is met, and the website also provides a tempting list of all the things there are to do when you get there.  Top of the list is ‘communing with king penguins’.  That could be a full-time occupation, but if it palls for any reason you can also ‘immerse yourself in the history of the polar explorers and whalers in South Georgia’s museum’ and ‘visit the grave of Ernest Shackleton, whose body was returned to South Georgia to be buried.’   The only problem with a destination so loaded with irresistible attractions – unless you happen to be fussy enough not to fancy extended communion with penguin royalty, visiting whaling museums or making pilgrimages to graves – is that you can only visit via a cruise ship which, even were they currently sailing, might feel a bit crowded in the middle of a global pandemic.  Wherever they sail from won’t, in any case, be on the Green List. 

Tristan da Cunha, on the other hand, is the most remote inhabited island in the world and with only 270 inhabitants shouldn’t feel too overcrowded.  Apart from other islands in the Tristan da Cunha archipelago, one of which appropriately enough is called Inaccessible Island, the nearest land is Saint Helena, over 1500 miles away. Wikivoyage will tell you that a visit requires careful planning because you can only get there by sea and the only boats that make the five to ten day (depending on which way the wind is blowing) 1800 mile trip from Cape Town (where you won’t be allowed in if you come from UK) are two fishing boats and the South African polar research ship the SA Agulhas.  The sun does shine brightly and the sea is blue in the Antarctic regions – though generally not in the middle of winter.    

You will need to be relatively flexible where timing is concerned when it comes to getting back to Cape Town (if they’ll have you by then) because, again according to Wikivoyage: ‘Visitors are the lowest priority for passage on vessels and may be forced to forfeit their passage to persons with a higher priority (medical evacuation, officials on official business, even locals leaving on holiday have higher priority).’  Wikivoyage doesn’t give a list of ‘things to do’ on Tristan de Cunha but, as there isn’t anything resembling a beach, rock-climbing appears from the photograph to be a good option (there must be a great view of sea from the top) and waiting for the next boat back to Cape Town would obviously be top of the list.  Also on the plus side, you won’t need a visa, just a Police Certificate and a letter of permission from the Tristan Government.  If you play your cards right you might even be able to get your fare paid by the Home Office if you let Priti Patel know that you are going to Tristan de Cunha to assess how suitable it would be as an alternative to Ascension Island or St Helena for the processing of UK asylum seekers.  

Some people, presumably those who don’t have much of a spirit of adventure, aren’t appreciative enough of the amount of careful thought that has obviously gone into the compiling of our government’s Green List of possible summer holiday destinations.  George Granville, the CEO of travel company Red Savannah, interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday went so far as to say ‘If you analyse the green list it is lunacy, it’s a sort of joke list.’   

It takes a rare talent to come up with a joke quite like this one. If you can stop laughing for a minute or two, spare a thought for those who work in our £148 billion a year travel industry.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: ‘and we shall be changed’

24 April, 2021.

Nine days ago, we had our first Astrazeneca vaccination. A suite of offices, consisting of four rooms, beside our large doctors’ surgery has been organised into a vaccination centre.

The whole process was very simple, without fuss and with a certain determined cheerfulness. Outside the centre, yellow lines marked the approved social distancing for the queue. We could not enter until the waiting room was sufficiently empty for the next batch of people, so we were asked to wait outside until it was within five minutes of our vaccination time. No masks were required.

Once we were allowed into the small foyer, our details were checked and we were asked whether we were prepared to have a vaccination before we were given a sticker inscribed with our first names. Someone asked if they had had many cancellations. The young receptionist said, ‘Very few, and those appointments have been quickly filled.’ It seems to me that the scare campaign has not stopped us wanting to be vaccinated.

A nurse called us and led us through to one of the two vaccination rooms. Once more details were checked and once more we were asked if we were prepared to have the vaccination. Then a doctor came in and she asked if we had any questions. She also asked if we had had any reactions to previous vaccinations.

Page 1. Read carefully….

The actual vaccination was a non-event. Afterwards, we were given a three-page document listing all the possible side-effects and what to do if we were concerned about our reactions. We were then led through to a large waiting area which was divided into two sections: one marked 15 minutes the other 30 minutes. The 30-minute section was for people who had had some previous adverse reaction to vaccination. I sat and read through the rather intimidating listing of common, less-common and rare side-effects. After the allotted time our names were called out and we were told we could go out the exit door. DONE!

Our vaccination status is immediately registered on our digital Medicare profile. I am ready for a vaccination passport and almost ready to travel! (New Zealand authorities are looking at insisting on a digital proof of vaccination).

It is now nine days since our vaccinations. At first, my arm felt slightly stiff, Over the next four days I found that I was very tired, wanting to go to bed at 8 pm and reluctant to rise at 7 am. I was quite happy to collapse back and read awhile. This is unlike me.

Australia – not looking too impressive.

It behoves me to report on the media situation with the rollout of vaccinations in Australia. If you followed our media, you would think that there was a disaster going on here. It is true that announcments were made by the Federal government, and we were filled with expectations of a seamless vaccination routine. However, there has been a hiatus due to many factors such as the concern over the AstraZeneca vaccine, the delayed arrival of ordered vaccines and the shortage of the Pfizer vaccine. Each state premier was very quick to blame others. Of course. There is also the difficulty of organising between state and federal agencies. Many of these factors are beyond the ability of the federal government to change. But as I have said before, the Australian media love to complain.

On our ABC this morning it was almost as though they were encouraging people in the 1b category (those over 70 or over 50 with some sort of complicating factor) not to get vaccinated. The Victorian Government has opened mass vaccination centres. The ABC was critical of this whole process, siting uncertainties and saying it was hard for people to understand the online advice. In spite of this, I hear today that 67,000 people were vaccinated. And the graph of those getting vaccinated is pointing in the right direction. The government has announced that over 50’s can now go and get vaccinated.

The trouble is that we are still short of the Pfizer and AZ vaccine.

The federal government will receive 53.8 million doses of AstraZeneca, 50 million of which is being manufactured in monthly batches at the CSL factory in Melbourne.

Australia has secured 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with the bulk expected to arrive in the final three months of 2021.’ ABC

The government has now appointed a military veteran, Royal Australian Navy Commodore, Eric Young, to coordinate the vaccine rollout. After all, it is a mammoth task across this vast country. Young said he has a ‘simple mission’ to get every ‘available jab’ into the arms of vulnerable Australians. Scott Morrison has put the national cabinet on a ‘warlike footing’ to fix the delayed program.

On the way back from having my vaccination Handel’s Messiah played on ABC Classic radio. It’s good to be cheeful.

Somehow, the music seemed appropriate.

…..And we shall be changed
And we shall be changed
We shall be changed
And we shall be changed
We shall be changed

For this corruptible must put on
Incorruption
For this corruptible must put on
Must put on
Must put on, must put on
Incorruption

From David Maughan Brown in York: An “unfussy” funeral.

All alone

April 20th

One didn’t need to be a Royalist to be moved by images of the Queen sitting on her own, bowed with age, at the funeral of a husband to whom she had been married for 73 years, or to feel that the numerous accolades for the Duke of Edinburgh’s loyalty, dedication and public service through all those years were fully merited.   The funeral service had by all accounts been meticulously planned by the Duke himself, and in terms of its relative brevity and lack of sermonising, as well as the beauty of the music, it would, one assumes, have met with his no doubt somewhat sardonic approval had he been around to watch it.   The sound of the bagpipes playing ‘The Flowers of the Forest’, fading as the lone piper slow-marched out of the chapel while the Duke’s coffin was lowered into the vault, will live long in the memory.

We listened to the funeral service in the car on the way back to York after taking advantage of a perfect Spring day to meet with my daughter’s family for a released from lock-down picnic at Nostell Priory, a National Trust property near Pontefract, and then watched the televised broadcast in the evening.   Where the music was concerned I was particularly struck by the beauty and appropriateness of the exquisitely sung ‘Russian Kontakion for the Departed’ which I hadn’t heard for the better part of sixty years, and which Prince Philip had presumably chosen in part as a nod towards his mixed European, including Russian, ancestry.   It brought back memories of my time in the ‘Special Choir’ at boarding school in Cape Town where we were each paid 2/6 for singing at weddings and funerals in the school chapel, not caring particularly whether we were taking part in a ‘matching’ or ‘dispatching’ ceremony as long as we were able to double our weekly pocket-money on the strength of a couple of hours of practice, often of the Russian Kontakion, and the sacrifice of part of a Saturday afternoon – the only times I came anywhere close to being a professional singer.

The commentators made much of the ‘ordinariness’ of the Queen’s funeral experience under lockdown:  the lonely widow, sitting by herself without the close support of her family, with attendance at the funeral restricted to the Covid regulation limit of 30, rather than the five to eight hundred who might have been expected at a funeral that hadn’t had to be ‘scaled-down.’  But this was, of course, no ‘ordinary’ funeral.   The ‘chapel’ in which it was held is large enough to be a cathedral, even if the ‘choir’ only consisted of four singers.   Ordinary funerals, ‘scaled-down’ or not, don’t feature 700 members of the armed services lined up in socially-distanced ranks awaiting the arrival of the funeral procession.   Most people, for that matter, don’t get to design their own hearse.   For somebody who, we were repeatedly told, ‘didn’t like a fuss’, there was quite a bit of fuss not to like, much of which the Duke had planned for himself – which is not to suggest that the fuss was not appropriate as a send-off for someone who had spent a life dedicated to public service of the highest order.   

To the extent that Covid-19 necessitated the foregoing of the pomp and circumstance of a funeral with over 500 assorted guests, the Duke of Edinburgh might well have been pleased to have a pandemic-affected departure.  There was certainly less fuss than there otherwise would have been.   The Queen might well also not have been too unhappy to be obliged to endure the funeral without close family beside her if the upside was that she also didn’t have to survive the sight and sound of a repugnantly self-absorbed Prime Minister using the occasion for self-display.  Of all the 14 Prime Ministers of the UK whom the Queen has seen come and go during her reign, Boris Johnson is the one whose total lack of principle or morality she is likely to have found most at odds with her own, and her husband’s, principled dedication to public service.

The funeral provided some interesting insights into the quirkiness of British ceremonial tradition.   Three struck me in particular.  The first was the way in which the decision not to allow the mourners to wear military uniform – which we were allowed to understand was to spare the blushes of Prince Harry who has been stripped of his – resulted in the rows of medals standing out much more prominently against the background of the dark suits and coats on which they were worn than they would have on uniforms.  Rows and rows of medals, most of which, one could only assume from looking at the somewhat motley array of mourners, had been awarded in recognition of the great favour those sporting them had done to the world by having granted it the favour of allowing themselves to be born into it.  The second was the Garter Principal King of Arms’s proclamation of ‘the styles and titles of HRH The Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh’, most of which the Prince had presumably acquired as a result of whom he had married, dressed in a tailored Royal Standard that made him look like the King (if not the Joker) from a pack of up-market playing cards.   Lastly, the fact that the ‘Lady-in-waiting’ who supported the Queen by accompanying her in the car to the funeral, the only one of the 67 or so million population of the UK who was with her to offer that support at that exceptionally difficult moment in her life, wasn’t even allowed the dignity of a name in the commentary – she was a mere functionary.  So, for that matter, was the Garter Principal King of Arms, but who needs a name when you can wear a fancy-dress costume like that?

The funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh also offered interesting insights into our society and culture more generally.   One was the extent of the media obsession with the detail of the lives of the royal family: which of the ‘senior’ royals, for example, had allegedly snubbed Harry at the funeral, and why their cousin Philip had been placed between the two princes in the funeral procession, but then deferentially hung back about eighteen inches behind them.  Why would anyone care?   Another was the very many thousands of pounds that had been spent helping florists out of their Covid-induced financial slump by the laying of thousands of bouquets outside royal residences, only for them to be taken into the grounds, piled up and, presumably, composted, the majority of their messages of condolence unappreciated.   Couldn’t the money have been better spent by one of the late Duke’s many charities?  Perhaps most bizarre of all, the large numbers of royalists, crowded together in their maskless lack of herd immunity behind the barriers lining the roads along which the funeral procession had never been destined to process.  Why were they there, adorned in their jingoistic accoutrements, unable to see anything whatever of what was going on, in spite of all the earnest requests from those to whom they were supposedly paying deferential homage to ‘stay away’?   Because, they said, they ‘just had to be there’, they ‘couldn’t stay away’.   The ‘herd’ bit came to mind, even if the lack of immunity only seems likely to become all too apparent in a week or two.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Wrapped in the Union Jack

Prime Minister grimaces as flags close in, threatening to crush him.

April 7th

One of the stranger and thus far insufficiently analysed – although frequently observed  – symptoms of the changes the Covid-19 epidemic has brought about in England is a rash of red, white and blue flags that can be seen to have broken out in the offices of cabinet ministers.  It is widely suspected that this may somehow be linked to the UK’s departure from the European Union.   While it isn’t considered likely to be fatal in itself, there would appear to be a possibility that, like other prolonged side-effects of long-Covid, this could be seriously damaging and debilitating for England in the longer term.   It is worth noting that the same side-effect is not being observed in the other three countries of the currently United Kingdom, and is not thought likely to prove dangerous for them.   Indeed, it is even possible that it could in the long run result in their separation from England, and thereby protect them from this peculiarly English variant.

The rash of flags has in recent months been largely confined to the stage sets for ministerial press conferences and interviews, and the offices of generally male, and generally somewhat adolescent, cabinet ministers who appear to have been vying with one another to see who has the biggest one.  But the rash will soon be breaking out over all government buildings.  ‘New rules surrounding flying of the Union Flag’ were published by the Government on March 24th, although, as with so much else, our government of all the talentless couldn’t make up its collective mind and so concluded the announcement by saying:  ‘This update is guidance only and will apply from the summer.’ *  So not ‘rules’, then, just ‘guidance’.  But, unsurprisingly, it will be a rule, not just guidance, that planning permission will be required before anyone can fly the flag of the European Union.

Currently, Union jacks are only required to be flown on all UK Government buildings on some 20 designated days every year – the quirkily British designation often having to do with the birthdays of members of the royal family – but the expectation is that in future they will be flown every day.   And it isn’t just the government’s expectation; it is apparently also the expectation of ‘the people’, whose minds our psychic government is always confident it can read.   As Culture [Wars] Secretary Oliver Dowden put it: ‘The Union flag unites us as a nation and people rightly expect it to be flown above UK Government buildings. This guidance will ensure that happens every day … as a proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us.’  The ‘rightly expect’ bit was obviously one of the key phrases the children were required to learn before they were allowed out to play, as the announcement also quotes Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP saying:  ‘Our nation’s flag is a symbol of liberty, unity and freedom that creates a shared sense of civic pride. People rightly expect to see the Union Flag flying high on civic and Government buildings up and down the country, as a sign of our local and national identity.’  Lord Nelson missed a trick when he forgot to include the ‘rightly’ in ‘England rightly expects every man to do his duty.’  The honesty of Jenrick’s recognition that the nation’s flag might at best be creating ‘civic’ rather than national pride was probably inadvertent: it certainly won’t have been in the script.  

If the rash of flags really is intended as a proud reminder of the totality of our history, it would suggest that selective amnesia needs to be factored into the equation as one of the more worrying side-effects of whatever it was that brought on the rash.   It is difficult to believe, even of our current cabinet of the clueless, that the likes of Dowden and Jenrick could really be proud, by way of example, of the deaths of the women and children in the Anglo-Boer war concentration camps in 1901-2, the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, the Hola detention camp massacre in 1959, and Bloody Sunday in 1972, to mention just four of the many moments of our relatively recent history that vanishingly few people can feel proud of.

Flags are a serious business, under no circumstances to be laughed about, particularly not by our revered national broadcaster.  The BBC recently shame-facedly reported that BBC Breakfast presenters Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty had to be ‘spoken to’ following complaints after the former had gently mocked Robert Jenrick’s flag at the end of an interview: ‘I think your flag is not up to standard size, government interview measurements.  I think it’s just a little bit small, but that’s your department really.’**  Another BBC presenter, Huw Edwards, was apparently made to remove a tweet of the Welsh flag that poked fun at the row over the union jack.  And Tim Davie, the Director-General of the BBC, who will probably have done the talking to Stayt and been responsible for the pressuring of Edwards, was himself recently castigated by a Tory MP, James Wild, who is reported to have told Davie that his constituents would “expect to see more than one flag” in the BBC’s 268-page Annual Report. *****  It has not as yet, however, been made mandatory to hug the Union jack in the way the immediately past President of the USA was sometimes wont to hug the Star Spangled Banner.

Anyone who reacts with a measure of cynicism to the outbreak of a rash of flags will find him or herself in extensive, and often very good, company.   Given Jenrick’s own history of dodgy dealing with Richard Desmond (see my entry on 28th June), and the corruption around the PPE and Test and Trace contracts, Bill Moyer’s cautionary note is salutary: ‘They’re counting on your patriotism to distract you from their plunder. They’re counting on you to be standing at attention with your hand over your heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, while they pick your pocket!’   David Lloyd George’s comment, ‘The man who tries to make the flag an object of a single party is a greater traitor to that flag than any man who fires at it,’ would serve as a suitable put-down of the Tories’ transparent attempts to outdo Labour where the size of their respective patriotisms is concerned.  As for being proud of the totality of our history, particularly such darker corners of our history as those listed earlier, Howard Zinn put it very well when he said: ‘There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.’  Johnson and company might also do well to think both about Laurence Peter’s aphorism, ‘The man who is always waving the flag usually waives what it stands for,’ and Arundhati Roy’s, ‘Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.’   But perhaps the most pertinent comment of all in view of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill I wrote about on April 5th is the warning about America attributed to Sinclair Lewis, adapted for our own country: ‘When fascism comes to the United Kingdom, it will come wrapped in the Union Jack.’


* https://www.gov.uk/government/news/union-flag-to-be-flown-on-uk-government-buildings-every-day

** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/union-jack-flag-eu-buildings-b1822026.html

*** https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/mar/22/bbc-chief-told-to-use-more-than-one-union-jack-in-annual-report

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Worse things happen at Sea.

April 1, 2021

One way people once got to Australia

‘Easter is good to go’ says Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk on the news from Queensland. Did anyone tell her that it will come and pass, whatever, without her being able to stop it? What she really announced is that the 3-day sharp lockdown in Greater Brisbane is not being extended and Easter gatherings and celebrations can continue with many conditions. After an amazing 35,000 tests only one new community case was recorded in Queensland yesterday (and 9 new cases in hotel quarantine).

However, as with many Covid-19 outbreaks this will not have been in time for thousands. Many people have already cancelled their Queensland holidays: their hotels, their restaurant bookings and other entertainment. And because the outbreak, which was connected to staff members of Brisbane’s Princess Alexander Hospital, spread, there have been flow-ons into northern NSW. In all, there are 100 ‘exposure’ sites. These infected people certainly get around.

One of the 18 infected people travelled from Brisbane 165 kms south over the border into NSW, to Byron Bay, and attended a hen’s party and infected at least one person there. Byron Bay only has a population of around 10,000 people but it is a major holiday destination with, perhaps, the best all-year weather in Australia (Sorry – only when there aren’t floods).

And so, the famous Byron Bay Bluesfest Festival has had to be cancelled. Scheduled for April 1-4 they had expected 15,000 people to attend each day – and 100,000 over the whole show. Byron Bay would have welcomed a few days of musical celebration after the floods that devastated the area only 2 weeks ago – and the internet remains full of heartbreaking images of destroyed cars and homes, drowned and drowning animals from northern NSW.

This is the second year in a row Bluesfest has had to cancel at short notice. However, they are to reschedule and have asked ticket holders to hang on to their tickets. Bluesfest has been going since 1990 and has had outstanding performers. They have an excellent Spotify playlist called ‘Bluesfest 2021 playlist‘. Enjoy the sound of the Aussie Blues!

There are prices to pay for these years of Covid-19 and losing a holiday or being unable to go to a blues festival is nothing in the light of the suffering across the world. Australia is stumbling forward: half open, mostly safe, but still complaining. Australians love to complain and our ABC radio is full of complaints. It’s a reason not to listen to the news. When you are of an age, you don’t want to hear people complaining all the time. A long time ago, my father, born in 1911, would to say to us when we complained, ‘Worse things happen at sea’. I am not sure what that was about but I think he meant that the world is full of unexpected disasters beyond our control. Accept that and deal with it. He came from a generation of stalwart and resourceful people.

We, on the other hand, had a festival last weekend and it was not disrupted by rain nor by Covid-19. Indofest is an annual Adelaide festival. ‘Indofest-Adelaide is a vibrant community festival celebrating all things Indonesian.’ Covid-19 rules called for many adaptations: only 2,000 people were allowed to attend – registering was required – entry and exit areas were separated – many Covid Marshalls stood around in yellow jackets and sanitizer bottles were displayed on every table.

Indofest 2021 was a joyous occasion: families camped, shared meals and listened to music on the grass of Pinky Flat, also called Tarntanya Wama, beside our Torrens Lake in the centre of Adelaide. Once upon a time this was where the local Aboriginal people camped.

https://adelaidecityexplorer.com.au/items/show/226

Adelaide, a tribe of natives on the banks of the river Torrens by Alexander Schramm1850 (National Gallery of Australia. Canberra).

I was very aware of this as I listened to the gamelan percussion ensemble playing: all of us new immigrants enjoying this land together. A ‘welcome to country’ had been performed during the opening ceremony by local Kaurna people.

Looking back and forward – this country desperately needs immigrants as our population ages and declines in number. (2020 growth1.18%. average age 37.9yrs).

For sure, the Lucky Country needs more people. I listened to a representative of our Dept. of Home Affairs make a speech to Indofest attendees about how Australia welcomes immigrants. She went on to discuss the importance of social cohesion, our shared history, Australian values and the English test for citizenship.

For this article I had a look at Australia’s immigration website for applicants for permanent visa – not refugees. It is not for the fainthearted nor for those whose English is not their primary language. Apparently 70% give up on attempts at immigration. The wait is long and BTW you cannot get married while you are waiting. Oh – you must be under 45 years of age.

So, if you want to come to the lucky country, the way is long and the entry gates are narrow …

From David Maughan Brown in York: “x9k9”?

x9k9?

February 19th

The sign in the photograph above is shiny new.  It appeared this week on the gate that allows access to one of the public footpaths that that lead to the 277 Low Moor Allotments among which ours is to be found.  The silhouette of the German Shepherd dog on the sign transported me instantly back to anti-apartheid protests and the myriad of guard-dog warning signs currently to be found decorating so many garden gates and walls in the suburbs of towns and cities in South Africa (including, intriguingly, the wall of the Fish Hoek police station).  Wondering who or what x9k9 might be, I resorted, as one does, to Google.  As expected, it is a security company whose website, rather more unexpectedly, offers a link to MI-5 and tells me in a flurry of acronyms worthy of a University policy document that:   ‘All x9k9’s dogs and handlers undergo licencing from independent ACPO instructors as well as NTIPDU, NASDU or BIPDT examiners. The quality and professionalism of our protection and detection dogs and handlers remains at the forefront of our commitment to all our clients and ensures a complete, second to none service you will find hard to beat.’  

Mulling over precisely how one would distinguish between ‘professional’ guard or sniffer dogs and amateur ones distracted me for a while from pondering over the x9 part of the title once the doggy dimension of k9 had become apparent.  When I got round to Googling ‘x9’ I was offered an impressive range of things to buy – from John Deere combine harvesters, to mountain bikes, to rugby boots, to electric golf carts, to tickets for the X9 bus company, (none of which I need right now) – but I remain none the wiser.  I am also puzzled as to precisely how useful dog patrols are likely to be to our allotment holders, unless the German Shepherds are ace rat-hunters – which would be very welcome.

The reason for the erection of the new signs at the entrances to the allotments is that the occasional bout of vandalism that has plagued the allotment site over the years has become a bit of a surge over the past few months.  A group, or possibly groups, of youths have been getting together after dark to socialise on some of the less well maintained allotments whose bushes provide cover for their activities.   Over the same period the locks on more than 30 allotment sheds have been cut off, some tools have been stolen and some items of garden furniture have been purloined, not necessarily by the burglars, for use at the gatherings.   One of the allotment holders had his shed burned down as the penalty for having had the temerity to remonstrate with one group.   Thus far, I’m pleased to say, our allotment has not been affected: it is right on the main path (as I mentioned in my entry on May 20th); I have avoided replacing the gate since it disintegrated; and the shed doesn’t look as if it has ever had a door or would be likely to house anything worth stealing.   In fact the only impact I’ve felt has been from the bombardment of well over 150 messages from members of the ‘Allotment watch’ WhatsApp group over the past couple of weeks.

I sympathise greatly with fellow allotment holders who have had their sheds damaged and their tools stolen.  But dog patrols?  Really?  The breakages and thefts are obviously wholly unjustifiable, but if I am feeling the frustrations of lockdown-induced cabin fever how much more desperate are teenagers likely to be feeling.  No school or college; no organised sport of any sort; no clubs to go to; no opportunities to meet their friends.  And they will be all too well aware that their own chances of getting Covid and being seriously ill are minimal.   So a huge amount is being asked of them by way of altruism.   This has been the case for a year now, on and off, and for a 17-year old that is, relatively speaking, more than four times as long as it is for someone who is over 70, who will in most instances be self-isolating from Covid infection for selfish (not intended in any pejorative sense) rather than altruistic reasons.    We certainly don’t need breakages, arson and theft on the allotments, but do we really need weaponised dogs?  The occasional police patrol wandering around the allotments would be enough, but a decade of austerity has cut police numbers too drastically for that.  The National Association of Security Dog Users (the ‘NASDU’ of the quotation from the x9k9 website) will have trained their German Shepherds to catch people, not rats.   Anyone who has been anywhere near the business end of a German Shepherd straining at the leash to get a piece of a protest marcher is likely to consider their addition to the wildlife on the allotments as going a good few steps too far.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’

Blow winds and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

February 6th

So our inimitable Home Secretary, Pretti Patel, the darling of the political dinosaurs of the Conservative Party, has finally found her ideal solution to the irritating problems posed by pesky foreigners misguided enough to seek asylum in the UK.  If you can’t create giant waves along the length of the English Channel to swamp their overcrowded dinghies and drown them, and you can’t pack them off to St Helena in the South Atlantic as soon as they arrive, the best thing to do is to make the lives of those who don’t die of disease so unutterably miserable and dangerous at the Covid-19 plagued Napier Barracks in Kent that they will be desperate enough to risk those lives once again by crossing the channel to get back to France.  

Yesterday’s Independent carried an article by May Bulman whose title says it all:  ‘”Inhumane” conditions are forcing asylum seekers to risk their lives to leave UK.’[1]   As one Kurdish asylum seeker intent of making the return journey put it: ‘I am not being treated like a human being here.  The Home Office is making an effort to make people hate asylum seekers…. The journey back is totally dangerous.… But in the UK I am losing my dignity.’   A Syrian man who managed to reach UK after five years of trying, but who is now also intent on leaving, said: ‘I want to feel that I am a human being.  I want dignity and freedom.  I am looking for safety.  I came here because I thought there was no racism in the UK and that it was a country that protects people’s human rights.’  This is obviously deeply shameful, a desperately depressing indictment of this country as represented by its 2021 Conservative government, but what on earth is the point, one might well ask, of writing a blog entry on Covid2020diary about it? 

One normally thinks of a diary as a daily record of the events of the day, which makes the writing of diary entries somewhat problematic when day follows day follows day, with very few of those indistinguishable days being able to boast anything resembling an event.  One can go out for an occasional bike ride when the weather permits, but usually around the same traffic-avoiding circuit, now keeping well clear of the Ouse which is still in flood.  One has the very occasional fleeting non-contact with family, friends or neighbours, and the very welcome but very distanced ‘contact’ via FaceTime, Zoom or Whattsapp chats.  But there is an overriding sense of stasis. The result being that much of what a diary or blog entry is left to record in the absence of noteworthy events in one’s own life is the thoughts, emotions and reactions stirred by external events.  

In our present context this can all too often feel like raging against the dying of the light.  Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is, of course, about old age, which should in his view ‘burn and rave at close of day.’  That may well be applicable in my case, although it is probably fair to say that ‘old age’ isn’t quite what it used to be, even as relatively recently as 1947 when Thomas wrote the poem.   But I recall having a very strong sense of raging against the dying of the light, to broaden the scope of the metaphor, when lecturing, speaking on public platforms and at funerals, and writing articles for, and letters to, the newspapers raging against apartheid in South African between 1970 and 1990.   In those years, unpleasant as it was, 3am death threats, loads of chicken manure being sent to be dumped on our lawn, workers arriving to cut down all the trees in our garden (both of the last two fortunately being intercepted) and so on, at least made it clear that, if nothing else, what I was doing and saying was getting under the skin of the apartheid Security Branch.  It won’t have contributed to the demise of the National Party and the formal ending of apartheid, but it was clearly making an impression on somebody.

Here the light is not, at least not yet, dying as comprehensively as it was in South Africa under apartheid, but one just has to look across the Atlantic to see how Biden’s arrival in the Oval Office has dispelled so much of the darkness of the Trump era to recognize the extent to which, by contrast, the light is still dying in the darker corners of our own polity.   By way of illustration one could point to Biden’s immediate executive order to reunite the children of asylum seeking immigrants with their parents, by way of contrast to our government’s illegal detention of immigrant children, which is reported in today’s Independent to have been condemned by Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, as ‘wilfully ignoring the plight of vulnerable children’.  But is there much point in the UK of 2021 in raging against the dying of the light by writing letters to newspapers; making blog entries; signing petitions organized by Avaaz, 38 Degrees, Change.org etc.; responding to surveys, publishing human rights themed novels, and making whatever peripheral contribution I can, to the excellent work of the Centre for Applied Human Rights?

Beyond the few reassuring ‘likes’ that indicate that a handful of people are reading the blogs, raging feels about as effective as King Lear’s raging against the storm.  The storm can’t hear King Lear and, even if it could, it is controlled by forces far stronger than even a Shakespearean king has the power to control.  I know, to refer back to Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, that my words are forking no lightning, but I also know that, unlike his ‘wise men’ who ‘at their end know dark is right’, I remain convinced that raging against the dying of the light is better than subsiding into frustrated silence.  Lightning is destructive, contributing to Covid2020diary, while not necessarily creative, has provided a necessary outlet for otherwise impotent frustration over the past year.   Readers who don’t want to read what they might well regard as yet another rant about Johnson, or Priti Patel, or the Home Office, don’t need to.  It is possible that I lived under apartheid for so long that I can’t shake off the now ingrained compulsion to rage against what I perceive to be the dying of the light.  I’m just grateful to those responsible for setting Covid2020diary up for providing a vehicle.


[1] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-independent-1029/20210205/281672552628016

From David Maughan Brown in York: Beyond reason

February 6th

Regrettably, the ‘Q’ in the placard being held aloft by ‘QAnon shaman’ Jacob Chansley in the above photograph, does not stand for the Quartermaster whose role in life was to equip James Bond with ever more sophisticated technological devices with which to outwit and, where necessary, try to kill Blofeld and the other evil villains of Ian Fleming’s fictional world.   Problematic as the delusion that he had been sent by Fleming’s Q might be in a United States absurdly awash with semi-automatic rifles and other assorted lethal hardware, the delusion for which Chansley is a figurehead is not just the isolated delusion of a single deranged individual, but a bizarre moral panic shared by a very significant number of people.  What its adherents believe is, for those less delusional, literally unbelievable: President Trump is waging a secret war against an elite of Satan-worshipping paedophiles led by the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton who have a nasty habit of drinking children’s blood and will at some point, preferably very soon, have to be arrested and executed.   It is almost as unbelievable, but in this instance true, that nearly 75 million people voted for Donald Trump in November, an unknown but not insignificant number of whom are QAnon conspiracy theorists whom Trump has approvingly described as ‘people who love our country.’

Not an orderly queue

The absurdity of the QAnon conspiracy would be laughable were the belief not to have been held fervently enough to have motivated a significant portion of the rabble who stormed the Capitol on November 6th in what has been described as the most significant assault on democracy in the US in the past two hundred years.  QAnon came to mind yesterday evening as I watched the Channel 4 news coverage of the online abuse to which NHS staff in UK are being subjected by equally delusional Covid-19-deniers.  Nurses working themselves into the ground, in some instances all too literally, enduring 14 hour shifts in their efforts to keep Covid patients alive in ICUs, traumatised by the deaths of the very many who are beyond saving, are being accused of being lying prostitutes, and worse, whose comments on social media about what they are going through are held to be nothing more than crude attempts to cover up the fact that, in reality, the hospitals are empty.  Consultants who go public about the difficulties the hospitals are facing are being sent abusive death threats.   This is several stages beyond the level of insanity needed to believe that 5G phone masts are responsible for causing Covid-19, and potentially far more damaging in the long term than going out and trying to burn down a few 5G masts:  many of the staff in our underfunded and overstretched NHS have already been pushed to, and beyond, their limit, and being rewarded for their sacrifices by vicious abuse seems likely to result, as soon as the immediate crisis is over, in a exodus of the staff essential to the survival of the NHS. 

So what is going on?  What is it that not only enables such delusions to gather momentum and infect so many people, but also that allows so many of those people to feel free to direct virulent and ignorant abuse at professional people who know what they are talking about?  Recent OECD figures indicate that 91% of US citizens between the ages of 25 and 64 have completed high school education, and 47% have a post-secondary degree; the equivalent figures for the UK are 79% and 46%.[1]  QAnon believers in the US are not confined to the 9% who didn’t complete higher education, as exemplified by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a recently elected Republican Congresswoman graduate of the University of Georgia, who is an outspoken QAnon supporter who apparently has a habit of ‘liking’ social-media posts calling for violence against elected Democrats and claiming that both 9/11 and the multiple school shootings in US are staged events.   I cannot pretend to know what going on, but it is clear that ‘universal’ education, as currently practiced, is not succeeding in vaccinating enough of the population of either the USA or UK with sufficient rationality to protect against infection from wholly irrational and potentially extremely damaging conspiracy theories.

This being the case, what can be done to protect the vulnerable, and try to preempt the long-term damage that social media, feeding off deranged conspiracy theories, can do to individuals, and through them to precious and indispensable institutions like our NHS?  Freedom of speech is precious, but it isn’t an absolute right:  nobody has a right to stand up in a crowded theatre and shout ‘Fire!’ when there isn’t a fire.   One safeguard against that happening lies in the fact that shouting ‘Fire!’ in those circumstances could hardly help but draw very immediate attention to the person doing the shouting. Twitter-handles and Facebook accounts, by contrast, can be linked to made-up email accounts that enable trolls to retain their anonymity.   Is there any reason in a democratic society, where the rule of law is respected, for social media companies not to require verifiable identification from their users?  Those companies are currently investing substantial resources in taking down offensive posts, but usually only after they have already done their damage to the recipients.  Why should people who want to exercise their right to freedom of expression in ‘free’ societies not be expected to be held accountable for what they say?  

Trying to find ways of making sure trolls can be held accountable for their media posts is, however, a case of trying to lock the stable door long after the horse has bolted.  The prior question must be what could those of us who have spent their lives as educators have done, and what can our successors now do, to try to instill in our students some kind of rational defence against the siren attractions of ever more deranged conspiracy theories?


[1] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cac.asp

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of Universities and Food-banks

2nd February

Over the course of the last many months of WordPress blog entries, I’ve noted on more than one occasion how pleased I am not still to be part of a senior team trying to manage a university during a global pandemic.  The arrival of a pandemic like Covid-19 might have been manageable for universities in the idealistic decades of their post-war expansion, when Higher Education was seen as a largely unquestioned social good and its roles both as a ‘critic and conscience’ in an increasingly secularized society, and as the provider of much of the intellectual leadership behind commercially beneficial research were recognized.    Before the days of the 1985 Jarratt Report’s study of efficiencies in Higher Education and the Boston Consulting Group’s ‘Cash Cows’ and ‘Dogs’, before the growth of populist anti-intellectualism, and long before Michael Gove told us we were ‘tired of experts’, many governments around the world recognized the intellectual, social and commercial value of university education and were prepared to pay for it via student grants and university subsidies. 

The very rapid expansion of Higher Education obviously posed challenges for a model based on an enthusiastic recognition by government of the extent of the benefits universities and their graduates bring to society.  From the 1980s onwards, with the Jarratt Report being a key moment, the weighting of the perceived benefits changed and the emphasis shifted to the benefits of Higher Education to the individual, rather than to society as a whole.  This has resulted in a steady decline in government subsidy to universities and grants to students; a rapid commodification of education; a reification of students as ‘products’; and an instrumentalist fetishisation of ‘impact’ as the measurable benefit of research.   The withdrawal of public funding for all but the most resource-intensive science-based subjects resulted in what amounted for many universities to privatization by stealth, which means that many now have to rely almost entirely on student fees to cover their costs.   Given that there is a ceiling to the fees universities are allowed to charge ‘home’ students, the mass recruitment of international students was an obvious recourse and, in a competitive market economy, many universities have been charging as much for their courses as the market will bear.   There may well be some additional cost to teaching international students who are often not English first- language speakers and often come to the UK with very different learning styles from ‘home’ students, but that additional cost is pretty marginal, and the ethics of charging international students significantly higher fees for exactly the same courses as are offered to ‘home’ students are highly questionable.

Our universities seem to me now to be finding themselves in an impossible position in times of Covid-19 crisis, and are coming in for increasingly virulent criticism from students, parents, the media and the wider public.  In this context it seemed important to explore very briefly how the universities reached this point – oversimplified and crude as the account I have given is – if only because it throws some light on the Pontius Pilate-like extent to which, regardless of universities’ major contribution to society, government now washes its hands of its responsibility for our universities and, through them, their students.  That responsibility would have been painfully obvious to everybody in the 1960s and 1970s.  The very poor university experience being offered to ‘home’ students has been the subject of quite extensive media coverage over the past year; the plight of international students has received much less coverage here, although one suspects that it has featured prominently enough in the media in the students’ home countries to act as a significant deterrent to future international recruitment.

The photograph above, published three days ago, is of an amorphous queue of destitute international students, many of them postgraduate students from India, waiting in line for handouts of food parcels from a food-bank.   The accompanying Channel 4 news report revealed that the food-bank in question, whose location remained discreetly undisclosed, now caters solely for students and succeeds in providing food for 1,700 of them every week.  As someone who spent his working life in universities I found the photograph and accompanying report deeply disturbing.   The students cannot afford to buy food, partly because the pandemic has resulted in the disappearance of the 20 hours per week part-times jobs many would have relied on.   The ones who were interviewed said that they didn’t want to let parents, who had in most cases made enormous sacrifices to enable them to come to the UK, know that they were struggling.  They were also very reluctant to make approaches to their university as they were worried, in the context of the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’, that that could lead to their visas being withdrawn.  It is obviously common knowledge that the Home Office will have done its best to find reasons stop them coming to UK in the first place, and it is not an unreasonable assumption that it will be looking for reasons to deport them.   In the meantime, it was clear that the universities had proved themselves incapable of communicating with the students who were being interviewed to let them know what student welfare provisions, however limited, were available to them. 

The universities remain reliant on student fees.  Their overheads will remain largely the same.  There will not be many opportunities to furlough staff, as academic staff are having to come to terms with remote teaching, and marking loads will stay the same, while most support staff in roles that haven’t been outsourced will still be needed.  Some universities will have significant reserves to draw on, but many don’t.  As I have said, I do not envy university managers their role in current circumstances.  But they should, at least, be able to communicate with their students a great deal better than some of them appear to be doing, and they need to find some way of helping the very many international students who find themselves having to queue at the food-banks if they want to have something to eat.  It isn’t as if this situation is new.  The BBC was already reporting on 29th July last year that up to 600 international students a week were queuing round the block on Tuesdays and Saturdays at the Newham Community Projects base in East Ham to receive food from volunteers.  Charging international students very high fees for the privilege of registering, and then leaving them to be fed by food-banks is not a good look for our universities.