I’ve got a wobbly tooth and I couldn’t wobble it out so I had a carrot. Do you know you need about 10 carrots to get a tooth out……there followed a detailed conversation about the strength of carrots versus the obstinacy of loose teeth when you are 7.
That’s what I miss- the incidental conversations that children initiate, that grandparents go along with, that remind us of the importance of a child’s perspective on the world.. Adults perspectives are far too jaundiced.
Jacob and his brother had their 7th birthday in the summer. They usually have raucous fun filled birthday parties with loads of cake. That’s the good news. The bad is that they live in Manchester and have been unable to have people in the house for months.. The party was cancelled 3 times and finally went ahead at an activity centre where only the children were allowed to go in. So picture 30 parents of 7 year olds dropping off their offspring somewhere where they will have a great time and then come home exhausted…..a total win win….
The phenomena of unintended consequences looms large these days… but are they enough to change behaviours on a permanent basis? Thinking life on a daily basis is boring- the times we have walked out of the house without masks- but at least it puts up the number of steps walked!!
Socialising face to face has to be the gold standard, hugs gold star plus and anything else is a pale second best….
Talking of which (a pale second bet) – the rush to the bottom of competencies in the government. I have lost count of how my times Matt Hancock has had a foot in mouth moment ( has he had any successes?) The Track and Trace, the App, the spurious 6 people only in houses – if I had one iota of confidence that he has surrounded himself with people infinitely more competent than himself that he would listen to, I’d feel we were going to beat the virus. However, I remain dumbfounded that he is still in position.
Ditto Gavin Williamson. Ask any educationalist how they think he’s doing.. their answers are usually too blue to print… they are both playing with people’s lives- and Boris won’t move them whilst they detract from his lacklustre leadership…..
Having just streamed the launch of Fiddler on the Roof from Brooklyn Theatre here in Pretoria from the comfort of my lounge what they have achieved Covid and unethical landlords notwithstanding, deserves mention on our Blog. Longer story short Brooklyn Theatre (BT) converted to digital format and successfully streamed Fiddler on the Roof: The musical. It launched this past Saturday 17th of October 2020. I had bought tickets in anticipation of the live performance of this classic. Then Covid struck and all hell broke loose with any function where people were gathered in numbers. BT had secured the rights to produce and had faithfully paid the royalty providing the rights to perform Fiddler.
There was no going back.
When the owners of the theatre that BT used on aregular basis refused to accommodate BT with a reduction in rental that final straw broke the camel’s back and BT decided to go digital based on nothing but Chutspa and stream the production. They had no experience with digital productions and decided to press on anyway. Rehearsals took place on a regular basis until the production flowed smoothly. Musicians provided backing and support. Here I need to declare my interests: My wife Marie plays Yente the matchmaker and daughter Rachel plays one of Tevye’s five daughters, Shprintze. Having declared my interests you will appreciate how BT and the Fiddler production is worthy of support based purely on what they have achieved during Covid19 lockdown and with extortionist landlords. It truly is an ill wind that brings no good with it.BT has taken the leap of faith and has successfully gone digital with their productions.
If ever a production was relevant to a society it is Fiddler’s relevance to South African as well as global society in a post-modern era. The original purpose of Opera to remind society of the morals that guide it is also relevant to this wonderful musical production. The plot is well known to many. A traditional Jewish family living in the Ukraine during a Pogrom by the Russian authorities dispossess them. They have to leave for foreign shores after much protestation by Tevye with only the possessions they can carry. The family headed by Tevye and his wife Golde who lament the loss of their traditional way of life. Tevye draws traditions and teachings which inform their day to day lives from “The Good Book”, quoted frequently by him. Tevye and Golde have five daughters (Tzeitel, Hodel, Chava, Shprintze and Beilke) who need to find suitable Jewish husbands, hence the need for a traditional matchmaker (Yente) to facilitate this. To the frustration of the matchmaker, as well as Tevye, in the end the daughters marry for love. The compassion and understanding of their mother, Golde, provides a softer touch. Tevye accepts their choice after due consideration. Humour punctuates this otherwise tragic storyline of a Ukraine Pogrom, which includes, discrimination, loss of property, the disruption of traditions and displacement of people from the land they have long occupied. A reminder of the perils of current society, the role of traditional family morals and the danger of discrimination based on religion and race. Support a worthy cause at www.brooklyntheatre.tv
Brookly Theatre (BT) will also never be the same again in the Post-Covid world…
August 18. Let’s talk about home cooking. What have you been cooking and how has your meal preparation changed during these COVID-19 months?
In early March, when we first heard about ‘lockdowns’, there were certain common world-wide reactions. Our supermarket shelves emptied in a couple of days. Packets of pasta, flour, sugar, tins of tomatoes, beans, tinned ham, became restricted purchases before they were out of stock. Within hours, supermarkets limited on-line orders.
Companies that supplied complete meals were inundated with new subscriptions. HelloFresh, Dinnerly and Marley Spoon, are the popular meal-kit delivery companies in Australia. A day or so later, they closed their books; they could take no new customers. After a few weeks, these companies increased capacity. However, the meals supplied are usually only for 3-5 main meals a week.
All this meant we are doing a lot more cooking at home. And this has continued for five months. I have noticed that I have not been enthusiastic in preparing any challenging recipes. Just the opposite. It’s been a case of reverting to the tried and tested, an emphasis on feelgood meals. I do think, that we have been eating more than normal. Mealtimes are now an occasion! Until recently, we were on the 5 -2 diet made popular by Michael Mosley. But during COVID-19 we have lacked commitment to hold to any diet – especially one that involves eating almost nothing all day for two days a week.
More than ever we have had to plan our meals. After all, we are no longer going to the shops at will. The Australian government has established a website which is headed ‘Healthy eating during Covid-19’. This site includes lots of obvious advice: what to eat; what to avoid; how to wash your vegetables; where to go grocery shopping; making sure you have a list of items and asking for assistance if you need it. They have a meal planner which you can download to facilitate your weekly outing or on-line purchase. I liked the section on motivation and support where it states “it can be hard to stay motivated to eat well in difficult times”.
Next to the meal plan it is a physical activity plan. They have thought of almost everything, even encouraging you to involve the whole family in your food preparation. After all, it is quite an entertaining daily event! It can be a time to forget the news flooding in on your computer and TV.
At the very bottom of this government website there is a section on mental health. I do wonder how many people would have read that far and actually see the mental health advice.
The kind of meals that have been most popular in our household hark back to earlier times in our lives – comfort food. I have an old Thermomix machine and a recipe book of their South African recipes. One of them is the rusk recipe. I have merged this with an online one which is more exciting, containing nuts, seeds, sultanas and all sorts of healthy things. Rusk have an origin in South Africa’s Cape Colony, the word coming from the Afrikaans, ‘beskuit’. They were happily dunked in your black coffee at start of day.
Rusks are super easy to make. The warm rich smell of the rusks in the oven, and they cook for eight hours or more, fills the house. I can linger in bed with a cup of tea, a rusk, a book and a warm dog curled at the bottom of the bed.
Another childhood recipe that I have returned to is bobotie. Bobotie is an old Malay dish. Probably brought to the South African Cape Colony by the slaves during the Dutch occupancy (beginning in 1652). Some of the slaves were political exiles from the Dutch East Indies colonies. Some captives came from East Africa – even from Zanzibar.
The recipe has many variations, basically involving a curried mince mixed with bread soaked in milk, a chopped apple. It is topped with eggs beaten with milk before being baked. Serve with yellow rice and home-made chutney.
Spring is around the corner. The prunus is already dropping flowers and now the peach blossoms and spring daisies are out. My long-suffering cymbidium orchids are in full flower. Rain remains in short supply this year. For example, we are promised 5-10mls and received about 3, promised 15 and get 7. And so it goes. We had hoped for a wet August.
I have forgotten what real rain sounds like: rain that thunders on the roof, overflows the gutters and makes our Roy dog hide under the bed. Once upon a time, I used to jog in the rain in the streets of Durban, South Africa. That was warm semi-tropical rain and such a delight. In Zanzibar, we would swim with the monsoonal rain pounding the waves flat. Only memories.
It is time to dunk another rusk in my afternoon tea.
The solitude of my initial isolation was quite pleasant as I prepared the rental house for our granddaughters, and ranged through a too large selection of books culled from the many not-read options in my library. In the end, I read When We Were Orphans by Kasuro Ishiguro (acquired from the sale of books at our local library), The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (bought because I wanted to know whether I agreed with the award of a Pulitzer prize) and Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think, by the wonderful Swede, Hans Rosling. The first I found a beautifully written story. The second I found a gripping page turner, much to my surprise. And the last I loved; I had truly saved the best for last. I bought the book when it was released after Rosling died, but being quite familiar with his work I had never read it. Our current worldwide situation, made it rather attractive: the title promised a more optimistic reading and thinking than current events, and it more than fulfilled the promise.
I came upon the work of Hans Rosling while working at the Paris based UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (better known as IIEP). He used software called Gapminder to graphically convey his messages about the state of the world over time. In those days when graphics were not so well used as now, I found it very powerful and potentially interesting for the educational planners studying at IIEP. Rosling himself was a very powerful and entertaining communicator. As a youngster he had wanted to become a circus artist – his parents preferred that he get an education and so he became a medical doctor and eventually professor of international health at the Svenska Institute in Sweden. There he set himself the task of sharing and explaining a worldview gained from analysis of large data sets – that things are getting better in the world – even though we tend to think they are getting worse. Through his many presentations and TED Talks he energetically shared this vision, and occasionally gave a sword swallowing performance at the end. Before he died, he worked along with his son and daughter-in-law to put his messages in a book. His heartfelt address to the reader is on the fly leaf, and concludes thus:
This book is my last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance …Previously I armed myself with huge data sets, eye-opening software and energetic lecturing style, and a Swedish bayonet for sword swallowing. It wasn’t enough. But I hope this book will be. *
Then two weeks ago, our granddaughters finally arrived in Ottawa from Florida. Heart could be removed from mouth and put back where it belonged. As pre-arranged, they phoned when they had crossed the US/Canada border that is currently closed to all non-essential travel and there was relief for everyone watching the progress of their three-day journey north. They were very well prepared for the border crossing with a folder of documentation, including negative test results. The official just stuck to a series of questions, and satisfied with their answers he sent them on their way with the specifics of the required fourteen-day self-isolation. They were directed to stay in the house or in the garden. No one could come on the property except for deliveries. And they were contacted by telephone to ensure they were complying with the rules. They have worked, gardened, cooked and today their period of self-isolation ended. We are celebrating with dinner together in our garden.
And to conclude, I would not be a Canadian if there was no mention of our foe, the weather. We have been having extremely long heat spells, even the mornings and evenings, that keep us indoors most of the time. Even with a spacious home, this additional restriction weighs on one, and is yet another unpleasant indicator of advancing years. Heat that was once bearable, now saps all energy and turns me into a limp, lethargic lump. Nonetheless, I am continually heartened to see the smiling faces of our granddaughters across the street, safe from the rising numbers of COVID cases in Florida.
July 10 Following my piece on ‘Cherry Ripe’ last week, my friend Marie contacted me about the French national song on the same topic. She writes:
‘I was interested to see your post on cherries and the popularity of the song “cherry ripe”. In France too we have a very popular song about cherries. “Le temps des cerises” A sweet and wistful song about the fickleness of girls and the transient nature of the cherry season. It’s a lament for lost love and maybe the lost ideals of the Revolution as well. It was composed by Jean Baptiste Clément in 1866 and was popular during the time of the Commune rebellion. In fact, Clement who supported the Commune, later dedicated it to a nurse helping the wounded on the barricades during the “semaine sanglante” in 1871 when the French government pitilessly overthrew the Commune.
The red colour of the cherries became a symbol for the shed blood of the Commune martyrs and the nostalgic longing for the cherry season was equated with a yearning for social change. It is well known even now and was often sung by left leaning singers and heard at socialist meetings. Barbara Hendricks sang it at François Mitterrand’s memorial ceremony in 1996 in front of the Opera Bastille. I imagine a large part of the crowd would have sung along and been sad.
People of my age think of their grandparents when they hear it and feel a lump in their throat.’
These are the verses:
Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises (Quand nous en serons au temps des cerises) Et gai rossignol et merle moqueur Seront tous en fête Les belles auront la folie en tête Et les amoureux du soleil au cœur Quand nous chanterons le temps des cerises Sifflera bien mieux le merle moqueur
Mais il est bien court le temps des cerises Où l’on s’en va deux cueillir en rêvant Des pendants d’oreille… Cerises d’amour aux robes pareilles (vermeilles) Tombant sous la feuille (mousse) en gouttes de sang… Mais il est bien court le temps des cerises Pendants de corail qu’on cueille en rêvant !
Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises Si vous avez peur des chagrins d’amour Évitez les belles! Moi qui ne crains pas les peines cruelles Je ne vivrai pas (point) sans souffrir un jour… Quand vous en serez au temps des cerises Vous aurez aussi des chagrins (peines) d’amour !
J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises C’est de ce temps-là que je garde au cœur Une plaie ouverte ! Et Dame Fortune, en m’étant offerte Ne pourra jamais calmer (fermer) ma douleur… J’aimerai toujours le temps des cerises Et le souvenir que je garde au cœur !
And here is Le temps des cerises sung by Yves Montand in all its lovely melancholy. Do listen:
June 16. There are three ways of identifying the impact of the coronavirus:
Pre-existing problems exposed by the pandemic
Pre-existing problems exacerbated by the pandemic
Pre-existing problems which the response to the pandemic failed to fix
In the UK, the prison system sits under all three headings.
Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons has just published a report on three women’s prisons, Bronzefield (the largest purpose-built women’s prison in Europe), Eastwood Park and Foston Hall.* It focusses on actions being taken to protect the prisoners from infection. “We found”, reported the inspector, “that self-harm had increased from the high levels seen prior to therestrictions being implemented.”
In these prisons, and across the system, levels of self-harm, up to and including suicide, were already at an unacceptable level, and would have remained so without the impact of coronavirus.
As I discussed in my diary entry a fortnight ago, the key failure of the Ministry of Justice was not implementing a plan to reduce the size of the prison population, particularly those serving short sentences which would have included many women. This is confirmed by the new report:
“The two early release schemes in operation had been largely ineffective in reducing the population. Despite the process taking up significant amounts of management time, only six prisoners had been released. This was a failure of national planning.”
Instead the women prisoners were subject to a host of restrictions to protect them from the virus. They were kept in their cells for all but an hour in two of the prisons and half an hour in a third. Face-to-face education ceased, although it was noted that “some limited one-to-one teaching support was given at cell doors.” Schoolteachers and university lecturers don’t know what they are worrying about. All family visits were suspended, which “had a particularly acute impact within the women’s estate.”
Above all, in the case of prisoners “with very high levels of need”, who had been “previously receiving significant structured support from a range of agencies”, the services “had stopped or been drastically curtailed at all three sites, creating a risk that these prisoners’ welfare could seriously deteriorate.” The consequence was felt in all three prisons: “Self-harm had risen since the start of the restrictions at Bronzefield and Foston Hall. The number of incidents was beginning to reduce at Foston Hall in May but remained above the level seen before the restricted regime was implemented.”
The report paints a picture of staff doing their best in impossible circumstances, working around obstacles as best they could, and in some cases finding new ways of alleviating the stress on prisoners. The inmates had phones which they could use in limited circumstances. At one of the prisons these were employed to help compensate for the absence of family visits.
“At Eastwood Park”, the inspector reported, “managers had established a scheme where prisoners could read a bedtime story to their children each evening.”
Makes you weep.
* Report on short scrutiny visits to Prisons holding women by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (19 May 2020)
Just in case you’re all thinking I have nothing to do all day but go to the beach …. I’m getting the folks some sunshine to enjoy in the quiet – and the bountiful parking – before the tourists start arriving on Monday when the borders open to certain selected countries. My aunt came along to give me moral support.
June 8. Besides his weekly column in the Observer, and sundry research activities at Cambridge, my friend and former colleague John Naughton is maintaining a daily blog, Memex1.1, to which is attached a short oral diary. Both are well worth attention. And the oral diary begins with a shock. Yesterday: ‘Sunday June 7. Day Seventy-eight.’
Seventy-eight?! If asked I would say perhaps a month since the lockdown began. Likewise, with this diary. About twenty since the site was established. But I count back and find that this is my fiftieth piece (unlike John I don’t write at weekends).
Time has collapsed. We have only a distant sense of it passing. This is the immediate consequence of erasing our diaries when Johnson confined us to our homes. In my case, out went working trips to Cambridge and London and Ireland, a short holiday on the West Coast of Scotland, and various visits, planned and not-yet planned, to and from family and friends. Events to embed in the memory the succession of days and weeks.
In response to this common experience, it has been reported that increasing numbers of people have been occupying their spare hours by anchoring their present in the history of their own families. Some years ago, on behalf of the OU History Department, I manned a stall in the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ show at London’s Olympia, where tens of thousands of people paid £22 a head to wander past stalls helping them with their genealogies. Next to my table was ‘Deceased.Com’, a database of tombstones, which remains a favourite electronic address. My pitch was that if you want to understand what it means to have a family tree, you need to study some history of those times. I didn’t get as many customers as my neighbour.
Now I too have paid my shilling to Ancestry.co.uk, the largest of many online resources for this activity. In my filing cabinet are the paper records assembled by my parents at a time when such research meant physically visiting archives and buying copies of birth, death and marriage certificates. I have long meant to put these in electronic order for the sake of my children and those that come after them.
Besides providing a template to set out the family tree, the value of the resource, I have discovered, is not the now digitised census records, which only provide one line of information and for the most part had already been visited by my parents. Rather it is the access it provides to the work of other amateur genealogists. Each of my forebears, going back to the late eighteenth century, also feature in up to a dozen other family trees which have already been industriously assembled. The past is now a networked world. All I have to do is call up one of these lists, and most of my work is done.
I have filled out the detail of a story I already knew. That my parents were the first to break out of the ranks of the labouring classes. That amongst their forebears were a scattering of skilled workers – a postman, a policeman, an overman miner – but at the beginning of the nineteenth century, most were just farm labourers. In what way their wives and daughters contributed to their family economies is almost never recorded.
Above all, across the six generations or so that can be traced, my family is utterly English. There is some movement out of a common point of departure in Sussex to the new employment opportunities in the capital and the north Midlands, but no hint of a connection even with Wales and Scotland, let alone further afield. Marriages were contracted by people of the same social standing, usually in nearby villages and towns. Until, that is, my children’s generation. My brother and I, who went so far as to take wives with a Scottish heritage, have sons and daughters-in-law from Japan, France, Ireland, and Iran by way of the United States. These alliances are for the most part the consequence of higher education and attendant gap years, experiences wholly denied my forebears.
Just as my family tree largely conforms to what I know to be the broader demographic transition in Britain, with an evolution from large Victorian families to the tight two and three-child units of the twentieth century, so also this sudden internationalisation of the Vincent tribe may well be the common experience of the generation born in the closing decades of the last century.
If so, it will do much to explain why the young are so unattracted by the petty nationalism of Brexit, whilst the old cling to the world contained in the carefully-assembled family trees.
Two days ago Greece recorded one new case of Covid-19. Last night I held my breath as the next day’s count was revealed. We were all hoping for a Zero. It was 19. Most of them flew in on a flight from Doha, Qatar. Some of them were Australian Greek. In any case, now all flights in from Qatar are banned indefinitely and Qatar has stopped certain routes to Australia – including the one I was booked on. My flight has been cancelled and no new one is available as yet. I have no idea when I’ll be back in Australia. Now, if one must be stuck anywhere seriously I can’t think of a better place than Greece in the summertime. My travel agent said he could arrange flights in September but they’d be a little more complex with more stopovers. He then told me, ‘Just relax and enjoy the Summer.’ Errr – you betcha I will. The nights are perfumed with jasmine, it seems to be draped on every second fence. I want some for my garden at our house on Mount Olympus but I doubt it will survive the winters. I’m assured it will by the staff at the garden centres but I take guidance from the other gardens in our village. Not a jasmine in sight. The climate is Alpine, so roses it is. This summer I will divide my time between Olympus and the beach. I, along with the rest of Greece, will enjoy having it to ourselves. Not that we don’t want the tourists. We do. And the businesses relying on them deserve a bumper season. But, the rest of us are enjoying their absence for a while. The chaos in the USA is certainly in the news but Greece is not as Americocentric as other nations. We have hostile neighbours, specifically Turkey, who have entire departments dedicated to creating unrest in the Aegean and on encroaching our borders. When we see Trump on the news telling Erdogan he’s doing a ‘great job’ much sympathy evaporates. The current president of the US has decimated and stripped the dignity from a magnificent nation and still around 30% of its population think he’s faultless. His bombast and lies have won the day there many times but, as with everything, his days are numbered. So – anyway – I do not know when I will be in Australia again. My biggest yearning is to put my arms around my three grandchildren again, who are all there. At least technology keeps us linked.
May 31. I don’t like Sunday nights. Maybe this stems from my years at boarding school, when Sunday nights were the pits. Maybe it was the long weeks remaining of term time, or the sad girls coming back from exeat, or struggling over an evening meal of brown vegetable soup, or the sound of weeping after lights out.
And this Sunday night, the last night of May 2020, it seems the world is not getting better on many levels. I planned to write a blog about how we all hoped for an improved quality of life emerging after Covid-19. I would amass the feel-good stories of people being kind and resourceful and imagine how this might carry forward.
Instead, tonight the TV news was about the USA cities on fire with protests as the country is saddled with a president who fails on every count of decency, honesty and moral leadership. Next came the news about the virus: we have reached over 6 million cases and 370,000 deaths of Covid-19 world wide and that is surely a significant under-assessment of the real numbers. These numbers are rubbery, certainly not overstated. The virus spread continues – without much check in densely populated countries.
My husband and I are in the cohort of the elderly in need of ‘shielding’ (as the Guardian suggests). The over 70’s. As my friend, James, said, it’s a bit like being back at boarding school. There are certain similarities: that feeling of nothing to look forward to, an awareness that you are being controlled by the system. This sense that tomorrow is like today.
But hold on! We have so much more we can do. We baby boomers have, in general, lived a charmed life in the West. Better education, better health that ever before. So, we have lived longer than the generations before us. We are a bridge between the old world and the new one of our grandchildren and we are in a position to remember the lives of our parents and the stories that came down through them of our grandparent’s lives. We might have snippets, or long stories; we might have old black photos albums or diaries. But I am sure we have something – and that something is of value.
My father was born in 1911, my mother in 1920. They were strong people and valued their backgrounds. I learnt of my grandparents and their birthdates go back to the 1880’s. I have stories of the Boer war, of the Kimberley’s diamond mines, of a great uncle dying in the Gaza desert in the 1st WW; of an uncle shot down in the Dieppe Raid, of my father fighting the Italians in the mountains of Somaliland in the 2nd WW and of my mother driving an African man mauled by a leopard to a hospital in Tanganyika. And so it goes.
The thing is, our kids are too busy, our grandchildren are too ignorant – at the moment to ask, to remember, to value this. We have a debt to pay, to record what we know of the past: to keep our family stories alive for the future – whatever form that takes. We are the shaky bridge between the past and the strange post Covid-19 future.
It’s not a repeat of a boarding school exercise, but it is a serious project to take on board during Covid-19. No exams to fear, no pass or fail, just a challenge to record your past as a gift for your future generations.