from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Festival Time …

Elder Park, Adelaide – better than Mars

February 20, 2021

Well, we have cancelled our trip to Victoria. We decided it was too risky with the threat of Premier Andrews suddenly slapping another sharp lockdown over the whole state. South Australia has not yet lifted the quarantine requirement for those returning from greater Melbourne. And – if we went – all venues still have strict rules of numbers and masks wearing. So instead, we will have a short local holiday on the Yorke Peninsula.

a Martian Landscape from NASA – streaming via the BBC

Yesterday I enjoyed a busy, interesting day. I woke up to watch the BBC’s live streaming the landing of the Mars Perseverance Rover. NASA talked about the ‘7 minutes of terror’ as they waited for the landing. The entry, descent and landing phase (EDL) was to take 7 minutes and much could go wrong. Nothing did, and the rocket powered sky crane landed the Rover in the chosen spot in the Jezero Crater. I saw the first images of the Mars terrain sent by the Rover. It looked like our desolate Australian Outback: a curving horizon, some nondescript rocks, pebbles and dust overlaid by the shadow-shape of Rover’s robotic arm. Surely, this was a pretty all-round bloody amazing effort! Not sure anyone would want to move to Mars though! I do wonder about the wisdom of the plan to bring back microbial fossilized rocks from the planet, even if that will only take place in a decade or so.

While the East coast of Australia is being pelted with rain, our three-day heat wave ended yesterday with the arrival of a relatively cool change. Last night was the opening of our Adelaide Fringe Festival (900 events at 392 venues). Our Fringe Festival, Main Adelaide Festival and Writers’ Week will go ahead in controlled circumstances over 3 weeks. There are fewer international artists, many shows are on for a single night and we have to wear masks for all inside shows. Many events have been moved outside.

The Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide

We attended the preview of A German Life, a play by Christopher Hampton starring Robyn Nevin. The single actor show was first presented at The Bridge Theatre in London in April 2019. Robyn Nevin acts as Brunhilde Pomsel, (1911-2017) (yes, she lived to be 106). Brunhilde lived an extraordinary life and Robyn Nevin took 90 minutes to recount some of it. (Brunhilde was depicted at the end of her life, living in a nursing home.)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brunhilde_Pomsel

Brunhilde Pomsel is most famous for the interviews she gave telling of her years working in the office of Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister for Propaganda, where, for example, she massaged down number of German dead and increased the numbers of German women raped by the Russian army. During the show, short video clips of various events in Germany were beamed onto the stage. (eg. Goebbels making his 1943 Sportpalast Speech, or Total War speech – which event Brunhilde attended.) To the end of her life, Brunhilde maintained that she was not guilty of complicity, that she did nothing wrong, that she did not know of the genocide of the Jews.

Looking north from the Playhouse to the Adelaide Oval

The director Neil Armfield developed the play during 2020. He spoke in the notes about how much he was aware during that year of the fragility of democracies …’more and more this play seems to be as much about our contemporary world as it is about Hitler’s Germany … in one of Brunhilde’s last interviews she said, “Hitler was elected democratically, and bit by bit he got his own way. Of course, that could always repeat itself with Trump, or Erdogan …”’

It was somewhat shattering to emerge from the confronting expose of Brunhilde’s life into Adelaide’s mild summer evening. My generation all have stories of the Second World War. My father was born in 1911, the same year as Brunhilde. We are the children of those that fought and or suffered in some way from that war. For us, in terms of war and national strife, life has been kind but when I watched on January 6 the madness of Trump’s enraged followers as they attacked the Capitol, I realised that the veneer in our democracies is indeed skin-deep.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Telling the Numbers

July 1.  My job as a Pro Vice Chancellor at the Open University, working with Brenda, covered many areas, as befitted so protean an organisation.

Two of my responsibilities, ten years on, still influence all our lives.  I inherited the task, central to the OU from its creation, of working with the BBC to promote learning across society at large, as well as our own students.  And in what had become a digital age, I initiated the transfer of OU learning materials to a free-to-use site we called Open Learn.

The Radio 4 programme, More or Less, has just finished a series which has coincided with the coronavirus outbreak.  Its brief is to interrogate and illuminate the figures by which we understand our lives, some official, some generated by other organisations.  The programme is sponsored by the OU and listeners can follow up its broadcasts by going to the Open Learn site and engaging with further learning materials.

This morning, More or Less conducted a retrospect of its coverage of the pandemic from the first cases in Britain.  The emphasis was exclusively on what has gone wrong, particularly in England.  Data published in the last few days has demonstrated beyond doubt that we have the worst record in Europe, and over the long run are likely to be overtaken only by the disastrous populist regimes of Brazil and the United States.  The programme both summarised official data and demolished claims made along the way by Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson, particularly with regard to the tragedy in the care homes, which have accounted for 43% of all excess deaths.

Throughout the crisis ministers have sought to postpone any historical reckoning until some later date, when a leisurely public enquiry can accumulate the evidence and reach a conclusion long after the guilty parties have left office.  We are supposed to focus only on the future.  The More or Less programme was broadcast the day after Boris Johnson’s ‘New Deal’ speech in which he attempted to re-set the agenda of public debate, shifting the narrative away from the pandemic towards the glorious ‘bounce forward not bounce back’ economic agenda.  It’s not going to work.  We are all of us historians now.  We want to understand what went wrong, and, critically, we have multiple channels for helping us do so, including, directly and indirectly, the OU.

Amongst the comparisons made in any retrospective is with China, whose response, after a critical delay, has ultimately been much more effective that the UK’s.  The vast difference is in the level of public debate.  It is more than possible that in free society, the outbreak in Wuhan would have been spotted before it escaped to infect the rest of the world.  And there is no prospect whatever of Chinese citizens now discussing what long-term improvements should be made in the management of pandemics.  For all its ramshackle systems the British state is still exposed to the informed, Radio 4-listening, OU-studying, public.  

Much of the More or Less programme focussed on the missing fortnight in March, when the government failed to act on the information that was building up in Europe.  It concluded, however, with a new scandal, the failure to inform local health officials of test results in their areas.  The Labour MP Yvette Cooper tweeted today: “Our local public health teams, council, NHS doctors & managers in Wakefield have had to fight for months to try to get this data. In public health crisis, most important thing is knowing where infection is. Appalling & incomprehensible that basic info hasn’t been provided.”  Indeed, it is. 

A functioning democracy needs debate not just at the national level but in local communities, which in turn requires the appropriate data to be made available at that level.