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.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Confusion and the Border Wars

12  January, 2021

It has been going on for so long.

At first, in March 2020, all Australians took careful note of the dos and don’ts, the rules and regulations – as a nation. There was a unity between the states.

And then there wasn’t.

On April 3rd last year, Premier Mark McGowan closed the West Australian border to the eastern states for the first time in Australian history. And suddenly, Premiers found their higher calling. Each one could now command their state like a mini-nation and this would only increase their popularity. Just too tempting.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was not slow to realise this. Her Labor government faced an election in October. In August 2020, with the LNP, the Opposition party, gathering strength and with Victoria still in lockdown, the Queensland premier closed the border. Labor won the election with an increased majority. They are calling it the ‘border wars’.

Each state premier is mirroring Palaszczuk’s statement: ‘And today is the day that we say we are putting Queenslanders first.’

The thing is the borders of the mainland states are not sharply defined, particularly between Victoria, NSW and Queensland and to a lesser extent, South Australia. The border towns are now beset with problems of access to services: to schools and hospitals. Farms extend across borders.

At no stage have the number of infected people reached the percentages of Europe or the USA but we all realise that the virus is so infectious that it does not take much relaxation in the rules for it to become uncontrollable.

So now we have 7 sets of rules and specific use of language from the 7 states and territories to be considered. And more specifically: your own state’s rules, which change regularly with the ebb and flow of outbreaks, and the rules for states where you plan to travel or where your family are.

It’s plain confusing.

South Australia: as of January 12, all travellers coming to South Australia are required to complete a Cross Border Travel Registration. Our authorities have declared areas to be ‘High’ and ‘Low Community Transmission Zones’. Rules apply to each of these if you desire to enter South Australia. There are special rules for border areas – a ‘Cross Border Community Travel Zone’. Applications are required.

Rules are changed so often and are so confusing that often the police and border officials get it wrong. And this is quite apart from mask-wearing rules.

Other government COVID-19 website travel information

Victoria has just come up with a brilliant new idea: coloured zones! They have green, orange and red zones. Like a traffic light. Which means everyone entering Victoria must apply for a permit – even from WA or South Australia. We have had no community spread cases since mid-November last year.

‘These are the rules as per the Victorian government. If you have been in:

  • a green zone, you will be able to apply for a permit and enter Victoria. Once in Victoria you should watch for symptoms and get tested should you feel unwell. ​
  • an orange zone, you will be able to apply for a permit and will have to take a coronavirus (COVID-19) test within 3 days of your arrival in Victoria and isolate until you receive a negative test result.
  • a red zone, you will only be able to apply for a permit as a permitted worker, or to transit through Victoria to another state or territory. You may also apply for an exemption. Exemptions are only granted in special cases. If you try to enter Victoria by road without a valid permit, exemption or exception you will be turned away. If you attempt to enter via an airport or seaport without a valid permit, exemption or exception you will be fined $4957. Victorians will be required to quarantine at home, and others will be sent back.
  • a NSW-Victorian cross-border community. If you are a resident, you will be able to enter Victoria without a permit, but you must carry photo ID and proof of your address. ​’

The Australian newspaper makes the comment today: ‘The extreme approaches of Victoria and WA are out of all proportion with Australia’s COVID-19 caseload. The nation had four new cases of community transmission on Monday, all of them in NSW. Nobody is in intensive care. The maze of confusing, costly, job-destroying over-regulation by some states is now intolerable…. But … the commonwealth (government) lacks the constitutional power to force states to open borders or abandon their ludicrous red tape.’

We were hoping to holiday on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria at the end of February. It’s not looking very promising. Point one: can we get through the border? Point two. When we are there, will South Australian stop us coming back home or make us go into quarantine?

To travel or not to travel, the decision awaits us.

from Louis in Johannesburg, South Africa: Level 3 Lockdown

December 29.

author: Louis van der Merwe. PhD, Strategy process consultant and executive educator

An emotional President Ramaphosa last night announced a return to level three lockdown to combat the second wave Covid-19 currently raging uncontrolled through SA. Hotspots isolate cities and specific communities while super-spreader events, mainly teen music-driven rage events, act as incubators and catalysts for infection of families and communities by returning teens. A further surge is expected when holiday-makers return to their city and town communities. A general disregard of mask-wearing other than to gain entry after which masks are discarded. Other safety measures such as sanitisation and self-distancing have with a few exceptions fallen by the wayside.

President Ramaphosa announced last night that we had passed the 1 million confirmed Coronavirus cases.

“Nearly 27,000 South African are known to have died from Covid-19. The number of new coronavirus infection is climbing at an unprecedented rate. More than 50,000 new cases have been reported since Christmas Eve.” He announced. The Covid-19 variant called 501.V2 appears to be spreading faster than the first wave of infections. Excessive alcohol consumption is driving up the trauma cases, including a spike in gender-based violence, in hospitals, putting an unnecessary strain on the already stretched public health facilities. During the month of December 4,630 public sector health employees contracted COVID19 bringing the total number infected since the start of the pandemic to 41,000.

Pitiful cries for help from doctors in the front line. They cry out; “Our hospitals are FULL, No oxygen points. Private hospitals are full. No beds anywhere. And we have not yet reached the peak. Unless we act now and act decisively the number of new infections will far exceed the number of infections in the first wave and thousands more will lose their lives.”

The National Coronavirus Command Council has decided to put the country into Level 3 from Level 1 with immediate effect. Several of the level 3 regulations have been strengthened while trying at the same time to keep the economy open.

  • All indoor and outdoor gatherings are prohibited except for funerals and other limited exceptions such as restaurants, museums, gyms and casinos
  • Funerals no more than 50 people with social distancing
  • Every business premises must determine maximum number of staff and customers permitted at any one time
  • Nationwide curfew extended from 09:00 pm to 06;00 am
  • Non-essential establishments must close at 08:00 pm

In an open letter to President Ramaphosa, Prof Thuli Madonsela reminds him and his cabinet that “People’s resistance to colonial and apartheid laws has taught her that when a law is unjust, violating it is not only justified but legitimate-it is exalted as heroic.” She goes on to state that any regulations must withstand the test of social justice and reasonableness, both protected in our constitution. Public policies must not only pass the test of reasonableness in a court of law but also in the court of public opinion. She warns that more people will push back against perceived excesses since parliament has been missing in action during the pandemic.

Food parcels are delivered randomly in a process tainted by corruption. As the ANC loses its moral authority as a result of duplicity, factional friction and lack of unity its ability to lead and demand compliance also declines. Modern government is built on the rule of law, accountability and capability. The leadership of President Nelson Mandela provided a  glimpse these foundations, not to be seen again since those heady days and the promise of a rainbow nation. President Ramaphosa must feel like the captain of a ship in stormy waters where the helm has become disconnected from the rudder, as the ship of state drifts inexorably towards menacing, submerged rocks.

The best he can do is light a candle at midnight and pray for the best outcome. May God bless him and his cabinet.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Books that sustain us OR keep us exploring.

Richard Flanagan’s lastest novel

December 14. The year is almost past. We have survived so far. For those who love books, the reading life has been an activity that has helped us get through the worst times. The Economist magazine agrees. In their business section of the edition, ‘The World in 2021’ I was pleased to see an article, ‘Books bounce Back’. Book buying – print and digital has increased. We cannot be sure that books have been read, but they have been bought!

‘The year 2020 is on track to be one of the best for print books in America since 2004.’

eBooks and audio book sales have recorded double digit growth and print books sales increased by 7%. 2021 is also forecast to be another positive year for book sellers. And it’s not just Amazon that has benefitted: a newish online bookseller which routes sales to independent bookstores is doing well.  

https://bookshop.org/

I often wish I had kept a running list of the books that I read each year. Because I forget. Maybe that is why I don’t like to give away the books that fill our bookcases.

I usually have at least a couple of books on the go. The mind can do that! At the moment I am reading The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, (due out in the UK in January 2021) a fascinating, dark, imaginative novel by Richard Flanagan, (he of the Booker Prize, Winner 2014 with the Narrow Road to the Deep North).

Interesting title. Some of you, unlike me, will be ultra-aware and recognise it as a quote from a poem by English poet, John Clare (1793-1864). Ignorant, that I am, I did not know about John Clare until David Vincent (also a writer in this group of bloggers) introduced me to him. It’s a very sad, very beautiful poem written when Clare was bereft of love and hope (as some are during these times).

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43948/i-am

‘Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is a strange novel for strange times. It is set in Tasmania during the 2019 summer where 3 siblings gather around the bedside of their dying mother while Australia burns. Ignore the darkness and read it. It will take you away to wonder at many things: of hope in the face of disaster, of our threatened natural world, of vanishing wildlife, of the nature of kindness and of family dynamics around a dying parent.

‘Is translating experience into words any achievement at all? Or is it just the cause of all our unhappiness?’ (Flanagan) All writers might ask this. What is there left to write in this new world?

I too am a writer: attempting through imagination translated into words to create a believable story. I feel what Flanagan has done is to take us into the Covid-19 future of an unravelling world. He uses magical realism and the disturbing ‘vanishings’ of The Living Sea to place us in that world.

It is worth listening to the excellent podcast of Richard Flanagan talking to Richard Fiedler (another author and an excellent interviewer) on ABC’s Conversations. Even if you don’t see yourself getting this book, do listen to this podcast. Amongst other things, It will take you away to a distant lighthouse island; to the idea of Tasmania being a Jewish safe zone during the 2nd WW; to the dying rainforest of the SW of Tasmania, to the politics of denial.

https://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/conversations/richard-flanagan-living-sea-of-waking-dreams/12715504

How lucky we are as readers to have such resources at our fingertips.

This part-poem from Mervyn Peake comes from one of his Gormenghast books (Titus Groan). The poem may not be about books, instead it is about loneliness, imagination and exploring ideas. And, of course, it keeps us exploring and paying attention to things that are vanishing.

https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/linger-now-with-me-thou-beauty/

Will thou come with me, and linger?
And discourse with me of those
Secret things the mystic finger
Points to, but will not disclose?
When I’m all alone, my glory
Always fades, because I find
Being lonely drives the splendour
Of my vision from my mind.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Let’s Dance…

December 13.

My friend, Ingrid, lives in a retirement village outside Durban, South Africa. a few months ago, she had had enough of doing do very little so she and a few friends decided to put a video together with some help from a couple of techno-capable younsters with a drone. They persuade many residents to leave their lonely units and started teaching them a dance routine.  They would meet on certain days in different locations/villages. She said it was wonderful seeing the reaction from many who had never met their neighbours before or had not left their units for months due to their strict lockdown regulations.  Hence all of the scenes were in the open air with the participants wearing masks.

So, there are little ways to change the world and make it a better place during these difficult days! Enjoy!

From Brenda in Hove, UK: “Change your Habits, Change your Life” Scott Piles

December 5

Consider the following five quotes:

“Covid has saved my life”.

“Covid has changed my life for the better.” 

“Covid made me see the world differently.”

“Covid made me see my partner differently.”

“I have rather enjoyed lockdown.”

All these quotes come from people who have not had Covid of course – but they have had their lives dramatically changed by the lockdown measures – and have no intention of going back to the way their lives were before Covid.

1.“Covid has saved my life”.

This one is attributable to a friend of my son’s who used to travel four hours a day to and from work and was totally worn down by that. His firm has learnt that he doesn’t need to be in the office every day and wont be expecting him to resume his commute when lockdown comes to an end. This is a massive learning that has happened right across the economy and calls into question all sorts of infrastructure arrangements including plans to upgrade rail networks and roads which will be bearing far lower traffic flows – with the obvious benefits for the environment. I don’t imagine that everyone feels the same about not going into the “office.” Working from home can be quite isolating and even difficult with small spaces and family needing to be accommodated. Many of us have Zoom fatigue and would welcome the social interactions a workplace provides – to say nothing about the creative space that comes from bouncing ideas off one’s colleagues. But not every day!

2. “Covid has changed my life for the better.” 

This quote comes from somebody I know who tells me she hardly knew anybody in her street before lockdown but now, thanks to energetic and neighbourly individuals in the road she now knows them all and feels part of a community. One person in the road (a cul-de-sac actually) ran bi-weekly exercise classes that people did on the pavement outside their houses (clearly a summer thing), another organised a roster for weekly shopping to be delivered for those who needed it, and a third organised a knitting group to make blankets for refugees. This is obviously an extraordinary street but we have heard tales from up and down the country of ordinary people going out of their way for people they didn’t previously know. Such is the kindness of strangers. And all see a new emphasis on the importance of community.

3. “Covid made me see the world differently.”

The third quote comes from a friend and came out of a discussion about how we don’t see our lives going back to where they were before. Many things that we took for granted now seem extravagant and indulgent – even reckless. Travel is one example. The cost to the environment of us taking off to here, there and everywhere without thought for the long term consequences was not sustainable anyway but this massive disruption to our habits has occasioned a more thoughtful approach. There are so many other examples that bear thinking about, some quite small in the scheme of things. Why, for example, did we buy so many clothes? Mad. The fashion industry alone has imposed a massive burden on the environment – and what made us go along with that? I had a cupboard full of clothes and didn’t see myself ever buying another thing. I now feel part of the new ‘circular economy’ and give some of my clothes to an organisation like ‘Thrift’ where they will be sold and some of the proceeds going to charity – and many more to charity shops. What was I thinking?  This new economy is not limited to clothes of course. Even big brands like Ikea are joining this ‘circular’ movement. It took a pandemic to get us to wake up to exactly how gross we had become and how heedless. 

4. “Covid made me see my partner differently.”

This statement needs no explanation because the divorce statistics say it all. Divorce lawyers say they are extremely busy and domestic abuse cases have rocketed. Counselling services are being strained and one counsellor tells how many calls are being made from cars and sheds and streets where people can speak more freely than they can at home. Couples that just about managed when they could spend a lot of time away from each other absolutely cannot manage 24/7. Previous coping habits just don’t work anymore. And they are doing something about it.

5. “I have rather enjoyed lockdown.“

The last quote comes from a friend who has many grandchildren and tries her best to be available to them all. Being released from duty over lockdown has made her realize how exhausting it all was and how little time it left for her to choose what she wanted to do. She has blossomed over lockdown, discovering a talent for painting, growing her own vegetables and fruit, and a host of other quiet pleasures she didn’t have time for before. Hers may be an extreme case but all of us have had to learn new ways of spending our time – and many have found it revelatory.

All this got me to thinking about how many of the ways we spend our time are habitual. We know that new habits take time to establish – and the lockdown period has been long enough to develop new habits. We might not have made the effort to change without the pandemic but now we have – and the chances are that our new habits will endure. We had better be careful we chose the right ones. We know that many of them will be formed about how we see the world. And that has changed in this last year.

I am reminded of the story that the writer David Foster Wallace told a class of graduating college students in 2005. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. He nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit, and eventually one of them looks over at the other and says ‘What the hell is water?’ *

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*Quoted in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

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.