From David Maughan Brown in York: Roosting chickens

October 14th

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

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

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

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

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

From David Vincent in Shewsbury, UK: On Saints

St. John Henry Newman

September 25. I read that Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu has resigned suddenly over a scandal concerning the purchase of property in London.

This is, of course, not the first time that a large sum has been used to buy housing in the world capital of laundering illegitimate money.  What caught my eye was the role in the Vatican played by the Cardinal, which presumably will be carried on by his successor.  The corrupt prelate was in charge of the department that decides who will become saints.

It might be supposed that in this time of crisis, when the wrath of God is being visited on the children of disobedience, we are in sore need of such exemplary figures.  Since the early days of the pandemic, there has been chorus of praise in the media for the devotion in particular of health professionals who were risking their lives to save the afflicted.  The now discontinued collective applause on Thursday evenings was a diffuse recognition of their selfless dedication.

It is important, however, to look carefully at the criteria for canonisation in the Catholic Church.  Besides leading an ‘exemplary life of goodness and virtue worthy of imitation’, and ideally having suffered martyrdom, the candidate also has to be shown to have performed directly or posthumously two miracles.  Much of Cardinal Becciu’s time will have been spent sifting out candidates who were exemplary moral beings but could not display the requisite number of verifiable miraculous actions.

A miracle is a divine event that has no natural or scientific basis.  The latest English saint, Cardinal Newman, was credited with curing a man’s spinal disease and a woman’s unstoppable bleeding.  I used to teach Newman’s theology for a living as part of a Master’s course in Victorian culture.  He was the leading Christian intellectual of his generation in England, first in the Church of England, and then following his conversion in 1845, in the Catholic Church.  None of his writings, and no scholarly examination of his career, ever featured a personal role curing the sick, but the Vatican managed to find two instances which could not be explained by medical science.

It could be argued that this kind of saint is nothing but a threat in our present difficulties.  The public figure who by his own estimation mostly closely fulfils the criteria of performing actions that defy scientific reasoning is Donald Trump.  Since the outset he has made predictions about the course of coronavirus and the efficacy of remedies (including bleach) that are not only unsupported by medical knowledge but in his terms are the more credible because they are the product of a higher grasp of the truth.  Trump evidently believes that he has access to knowledge that has more authority than the reasoning of toiling scientists.  So, by extension, the internet is awash with covid-19 cures sold on the basis of their superiority to orthodox medicine.

We see it also in the pale imitations of Trump who govern our destiny in Britain.  Whilst they must make a profession of listening to scientists, their narrative of progress is essentially magical.  Johnson has made a series of proclamations about the course of the pandemic which have no basis in evidence-based fact, but are justified only by private insight into the future.  Similarly his hapless Health Secrecy has promulgated achievements and targets for track and testing (with a new app launched yesterday) that are the product of faith rather than substantive calculation. 

Now, more than ever, we should seek solutions that have a rational or scientific basis.  We want leaders of goodness and exemplary virtue; we have no use for saints.

That said, the odd martyrdom would not come amiss.  St Dominic Cummings would be a good start.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘News’?

August 11th

In an earlier blog some weeks ago I voluntarily offered up a plea of ‘guilty’ to spending too much time watching and listening to the ‘News’, even though nobody had actually accused me of doing so.  The point was made to me a couple of days ago, in not particularly accusatory fashion it must be said, that I almost invariably listen to the 7.00 am, 8.00 am and 1.00 pm BBC news and usually watch Channel 4 news (generally much more probing than the BBC) at 7.00pm and the BBC news at 10.00pm.  How sad is that?  The only plea I could make in mitigation was that I hardly ever watch the rolling news on any channel.   I couldn’t even claim that the only reason I indulge this vice is because there is nothing else to do under lockdown, or that I do it in search of something to blog about, because (while I’m coming clean I may as well make a full confession) I tended to do the same before lockdown.  

I suspect that this addiction has its origins in the two decades I spent in South Africa under apartheid when the South African Broadcasting Corporation was one of the main instruments the Nationalist government used for disseminating its unhinged racist propaganda and its paranoid perception of itself as the target of a ‘total onslaught’ from the rest of what it perceived as a communistic world.   For most of those years I was lecturing in a very traditional English Department, which saw itself as a global heir to F.R.Leavis and the New Criticism.  While students at all levels might have been good at analysing poetry, they were, with few exceptions, not applying any of the analytical skills they were acquiring to the language or subject matter of the all too often pernicious media they were consuming.   So, with considerable effort, I managed in the early 1980s to drag a Media Studies course onto the curriculum in the hope of enabling the students to discover that, if history is written by the victors, so the ‘News’ is not a neutral given but is, to a greater or lesser extent, selected for consumption, and controlled by, representatives of the dominant group in any society.   The withering, and wholly ignorant, contempt in which Media Studies as an academic discipline is held by conservatives, and many Russell Group universities (is there a difference?), in spite of the complex and rigorous body of theoretical work behind it, is obviously a reflection of the extent to which they would much prefer what goes into the print and broadcast media not to be subject to rigorous analysis.

So my self-exoneration when it comes to news addiction is that watching and listening aren’t a matter simply of accepting what one is being told or shown but, rather, a questioning of why it is being selected for our consumption in preference to the myriad other things that have happened nationally and globally, and of trying to analyse what lies behind the particular way in which it is being presented.   Sometimes, of course, the interesting thing is what is not being reported on, as with the long silence that suddenly fell on the ‘world-beating’ Test and Trace statistics.  What are we supposed to do, for example, with the daily list of the number of redundancies recently announced at major UK companies, or the wholly unsurprising drip of ‘news’ that their sales are down and their profits have dropped through the floor?   Why is Donald Trump’s being ushered away from a microphone because the US secret service have seen a suspicious man with a gun near the White House (Newsflash: said suspicious man has just been shot) seen as one of the three or four most important things to have happened in the world for the past 12 hours?  To raise our hopes?   One can assume that the difference between the BBC News and Channel 4 News has to do with Tory jabbering about the license fee, and I assume that very precise increases in the official Covid death statistics trotted out every day aren’t intended to depress us as much as to distract our attention from the very much worse ‘excess deaths’ statistics.   But, unlike the apartheid media in South Africa, the broadcast media in UK pose many more questions than they provide answers, and there lies a major part of their addictive interest for me.  

From David Maughan Brown in York: Taking Back Control

July15th 

Another day, two more U-turns.   Michael Gove’s libertarian assertion a couple of days ago that he wouldn’t favour making face-coverings compulsory for people entering shops because it is ‘common courtesy’, and the great British public can implicitly be relied to exercise that courtesy, has been overruled.  Whoever makes this government’s decisions in the shadowy depths of 10 Downing Street – usually Dominic Cummings – appears to have rather less confidence in our collective courtesy, and face coverings are now, very belatedly, going to be compulsory for anyone visiting shops after all.  But, fair play, it is important to be even-handed, and common courtesy needs to be exercised towards the virus as well:  it needs to be given a chance to infect people for at least one more week, so face coverings don’t need be worn in shops until 24th July.  This will give the government time to ask the police, who are going to have to work out how to enforce the law, whether they think making it compulsory and making people who don’t wear face coverings eligible for £100 fines was a good idea in the first place.  They don’t.   But we shouldn’t bank on there not being another rapid U-turn, as the Tory backwoodsmen don’t like the idea of having to wear face coverings any more than Michael Gove does.   Desmond Swayne, of deepest and darkest backwoods fame, declared in parliament yesterday that the new regulation was a ‘monstrous imposition’ that would deter him from going shopping.  So goodbye to the V-shaped recovery then.

The other U-turn, much more dramatic and with the potential for vastly more serious long-term consequences, sees our government performing an abrupt about-turn and reneging on its previous commitment to allow the Chinese private company Huawei to be involved in the 35% of the roll-out of the UK’s 5G network that isn’t security sensitive.   Not only is any future involvement arbitrarily ruled out, but all Huawei- manufactured components of the existing 3G and 4G networks need to be stripped out by 2027.  Now there’s common courtesy for you.  It isn’t as if Johnson and company have suddenly unearthed the fact that Huawei is a Chinese company and that China has a communist government with some very unsavoury propensities.  Nor have they suddenly discovered that Huawei poses a more serious security threat than they had realised in January when they made their original commitment.   It is unlikely that even Dominic Cummings, radical thinker that he is, has been influenced by the deranged conspiracy theorists who think that 5G masts are responsible for Covid-19.   A conservative estimate suggests that the sudden volte-face will involve picking another £2 billion from the magic-money tree, and up to two years delay in the roll-out of 5G.   Any pretence that this U-turn has anything to do with China’s new stance on Hong Kong or its treatment of the Uighur Muslims would have to be based on the assumption that Tories have even the first remotest interest in Human Rights which (with a few honourable minority exceptions) is entirely belied by, among other things, the Windrush scandal, and the government’s persistence in maintaining Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ with its appalling attitude towards immigrants.   The Huawei U-turn can be laid entirely at the door of Johnson and cronies’ cringing subservience to the erratic whims of Donald Trump, so desperate are they to feast on the crumbs under his trade table. Trump, needless to say, has no qualms about making it embarrassingly clear what he thinks of them by boasting to the world about having persuaded them to do turn their backs on their commitments to Huawei.

The English Nationalists have taken control of the ship – otherwise known as hi-jacking – that had been comfortably and productively docked in a European harbour for the better part of 50 years.   They didn’t like having to pay harbour fees and there were too many pesky foreigners around for their liking – foreigners who for the most part couldn’t even speak proper English.  So, after spending three years blundering around in the engine-room before finally managing to get the engines started, they have set sail and headed out into the unforgiving ocean towards the Americas, following in the wakes of heroes like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, their eyes alight with the prospect of fresh riches and empire.  Regrettably, unlike those plundering knights of the realm, they haven’t the first idea about how to sail a ship, nor have they the faintest notion about where they are going or how to navigate the way to get there.   So they go round and round in circles, not catching the faintest stirring of a trade wind but caught in a trade war between the world’s two major economic powers, China and the USA.  They had hoped that China would be a source of riches, at it used to be, but the trade war, over which they have no control, has crushed all hope of that.   They are tempted to seek safe harbour on the other side of the Atlantic to replenish their supplies, of chicken in particular, but that would make it a bit too embarrassingly obvious that they are, in fact, handing control to the mad Donald Trump. So much for taking back control.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Happy Birthday to the NHS

July 4th

Happy Birthday to the NHS on its 72nd birthday.   As everyone in UK who has made it to the Biblical cut-off age of three score years and ten knows only too well by now, 72 is a dangerous age in the Covid-19 era.   In this strange new world, people attain instant vulnerability on the day they turn 70.  In that respect people are actually rather luckier than the NHS, which becomes instantly vulnerable every time a Conservative government comes to power.  Right now, after a decade of Tory misrule, the NHS is more vulnerable than it has ever been, as the present pandemic has made all too obvious. 

So Boris, in his kindly way, has given the NHS an unforgettable birthday present, gift-wrapped, virtually if not literally, in the blue light that will bathe key buildings around the country in its honour this evening, and presented to the NHS to echoes of the applause that rang out around the country on Thursday evenings not so long ago. Boris’s present is to honour the NHS’s birthday by declaring it ‘Independence Day’ and encouraging us all to get out to celebrate it in the pubs which were opened in its honour today for the first time in three months.   Boris has suggested that we might want to ‘act responsibly’ in doing so, and has set the example when it comes to acting responsibly by boasting about going around shaking the hands of Covid-19 patients in hospitals, and regarding it as entirely reasonable for his chief advisor to go for thirty mile drives to test his eyesight.

So the NHS will be partying tonight to celebrate its birthday, with extra staff invited to come in to join the party.  The Independent reports that ‘all NHS trusts have been warned to expect levels of attendance usually seen during new year celebrations, and have been asked to prepare their A&E departments and free up bed capacity in their hospitals to manage the increase.’  A&E staff must be really bored by now with trying to save the lives of Covid-19 patients, so they are bound to welcome an influx of drunk and injured people, many with alcohol poisoning, instead.  Some of the drunks will be violent and abusive instead of singing Happy Birthday, as they always are, but that will give the police who always have to hang around A&E departments a good reason not to get themselves injured trying to break up the celebratory riots out in the streets.   Boris could, of course, have scheduled the opening of the pubs for a more boring mid-week evening, but that would have limited the opportunities for his compulsively grandiloquent rhetoric and for the close association of post-Brexit England’s ‘Independence Day’ with the USA’s Independence Day, and he would thereby have lost an opportunity to ally himself with his insane counterpart in the USA.

Dealing with drunks who might try to tear off their face masks will obviously heighten the vulnerability of NHS staff, so many of whom have died unnecessarily from Covid-19 already, but the vulnerability of the NHS goes far deeper than the immediate safety of its current staff.   Tory Party ideology fetishises the private sector and abjures large national organisations: privatisation offers more opportunity for private profit, profiteering, graft and corruption.   Adherents of the ideology maintain, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that it leads to greater efficiency and promotes productivity.  One only has to look at our railways and the UK probation service to see the absurdity of that idea.   The NHS was progressively, and I suspect deliberately, starved of the funds it needed to maintain the quality of its service for a steadily ageing population through the years of austerity, as seen, to take just one example, from the woeful shortage of PPE equipment and ventilators when a long-predicted virus struck.  The drying up of adequate funding enabled bits of the NHS to be carved off and handed to the private sector, as will have been intended. 

The government’s ideological mind-set blinded it to the need to look to local authorities and GPs in establishing an efficient track and trace system rather than relying on privatised central laboratories, with the result that England’s failure, even now on ‘Independence Day’, to have an efficient system in place has made us the subject variously of international pity and scorn.   But, in spite of all this, this government has shown itself to be incapable of learning from its manifest mistakes.  They are still careering towards a no-deal Brexit whose symbolic success depends to their blinkered minds on a trade-deal with the USA.  This government knows, and doesn’t care, that what the USA wants most out of a trade deal with the UK is for us to be carving nicely chlorinated roast chicken on our Sunday dinner tables, and for our government to reciprocate by carving our NHS up for them and handing the potentially profitable parts to Donald Trump on a plate.   Happy Birthday, NHS, I hope it won’t be your last.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Happy Birthday

June 10th

I woke up this morning to the sound of a military band playing the national anthem and gathered that this was in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh’s 99th birthday.  How bizarre is that?  It happens every year and the same happens on the birthdays of other members of the Royal family.  The oddity of the ritual never ceases to astonish me.   I commented in an earlier blog on the eccentricity, to put it politely, of a supposedly ‘national’ anthem whose exclusive focus lies on a single individual.  Its plea to the deity to enable her ‘long to reign over us’ has clearly been met by the Queen’s 68 year reign, but carrying on earnestly praying for her to live long into the future now she is 94 seems to be pushing it where both optimism and the powers of the deity are concerned.  But leaving the anthem itself aside, heralding the Duke’s birthday by playing his wife’s tune, and thereby further erasing his individual identity, is going too far.

The Duke of Edinburgh seems to me to deserve a lot better.  He is not responsible for the supreme social inequity of inherited wealth and privilege that inclines some of us to republicanism.  He may have been prone to the odd faux pas over the years, but he has performed an exceptionally unenviable subordinate role to the Queen with great diligence for almost all of what must have seemed 68 very long years.  Whether precisely accurate as to the detail or not, the television series The Crown has, I suspect, conveyed a fairly accurate idea of some of the difficulties of his position.

The 1995 Royal Visit to Natal in 1995 coincided with a fund-raising visit Brenda had to make to the United States, so it fell on me to spend a couple of hours showing him round the Howard College campus of the University of Natal, and then to attend an evening reception on the royal yacht Britannia, where I spent some further time chatting to him.   I found him very engaging and easy to talk to, and he was clearly genuinely interested in, and asked penetrating questions about, the exhibitions we had mounted for him, for what must have been his umpteen hundredth visit to a university campus over the course of the more than forty years during which he had by then been performing the role.  He even managed to refrain from commenting on the fact that the Union Jack that had been brought out of mothballs for his visit was inadvertently being flown upside down on the University’s flag-pole in his honour. Not being practised in such matters, I hadn’t noticed; I am sure he would have.   

The last two or three years have succeeding in shredding the credibility of our version of ‘democracy’ as a political system.   It has landed us with a government that has mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic so hopelessly badly that an OECD analysis shows that our economy is on track to be the worst affected of all the world’s major economies, with a probable slump in 2020 of over 11%.  That is without taking any account of the rapidly approaching economic insanity of a probable ‘no deal’ with the EU at the end of the transition period.  Our Brexiteer cabinet couldn’t be trusted to run a Sunday school picnic without losing half the children and leaving the rest with food poisoning.  A marginally different version of democracy has landed the United States with the execrable Donald Trump.  I wouldn’t advocate it, but in a crisis like this a return to monarchy right now could only be an improvement.  Any one of our monarch’s combination of experience, wisdom and intelligence would be extremely welcome.   But if the Duke of Edinburgh makes it to his hundredth birthday, as I’m sure we all hope he will, could someone please make sure that the BBC has the decency and tact to get the military band to play a simple ‘Happy Birthday to you’ for him instead of playing his wife’s tune as she passes the congratulatory telegram to him over the cornflakes.  The Duke of Edinburgh’s very special day will surely deserve to be recognised as his day rather than hers.