from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Bedtime stories.



HMP Bronzefield -women’s prison

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 the restrictions 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)

from Nike in Greece: at the Paralia Katerini beach

Greece: beach at Paralia Katerini

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.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Numbering the days

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.

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: your flight is cancelled!

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.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Sunday night and a project

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.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: pickled eggs

May 19.  Last week the invaluable Office for National Statistics published a survey of gardens in the UK.  The headline news was that one in eight homes lacked a garden, another measure of the wide-ranging inequality of experience in this crisis.

It is possible, however, to take a glass half-full, or seven-eighths-full, view of this finding.  It seems to me astonishing that on this over-crowded island, so long after the invention of high-rise living, the great majority of people in Britain want to live in property with a fenced fragment of nature attached to it, and are able to do so.  For the locked-in elderly the proportion of those with access to private outdoor space is even higher at 92%.

The size of the patch of land is not really the point.  Obviously, half an acre is a luxury to be enjoyed if it can be afforded.  But each of my children, living in their first houses in London, take immense pleasure in the small rectangles of grass and surrounding borders beyond their back doors.  The two that have young offspring have room for a sandpit, a paddling pool on hot days, a portable wigwam to play in.  It’s been kind of rite of passage for them to start acquiring the horticultural knowledge and skills that they saw their parents possess and practice when they were themselves growing up.

Possession and use of a garden are matters of private choice.  It is a measure of the relative transience of the coronavirus pandemic is that we have not been instructed to ‘dig for victory’ as was the case in the Second World War (although today Prince Charles has launched a ‘pick for victory’ campaign to help the commercial fruit growers).  Despite occasional gloomy forecasts, we have not been told to grow our own food to survive.  In the First World War the pressures of urban slums were relieved by the provision of over half a million allotments following the Smallholdings and Allotment Act of 1908, which required local authorities to purchase or lease land upon which their communities could grow flowers and food.

Gardening is a necessary pleasure.  As we begin to reduce the lockdown, garden centres have been amongst the first to be allowed to re-open, albeit with appropriate distancing measures.  That much of their retail space is out of doors makes them a safer proposition than, say, clothing shops, but the queues that immediately formed once the relaxation was announced were testament to the pent-up demand.  As I noted in a previous entry, the fact that in the northern hemisphere the pandemic has coincided with Spring not Autumn has helped to make the crisis bearable, but it has also created a lively market for plants, fertilizer and other sundries.

As with any recreation, gardening also performs the function of providing substitute dramas and anxieties, to distract from the larger problems.  Last week the major misfortune in my life was not some coronavirus-related event, but a sharp May frost which decimated fifty cosmos plants that I had grown in my greenhouse and just planted out in the garden.  Then there is the mole which has started digging up a lately sown patch of grass.  In a Zoom session with my home-schooling seven-year old granddaughter, I asked her to research humane remedies for moles.  She came back later in the day with information that putting pickled eggs down their holes should keep them at bay.

But where, in the midst of a lock-down, am I going to obtain pickled eggs?

https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/oneineightbritishhouseholdshasnogarden/2020-05-14

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: cute and clever they came …

beware the curise ships …

May 5. Soon after the virus arrived and we were in isolation, jokes and memes flooded the internet. Whatsapp, Instagram, Youtube, email and Facebook, all carried these humourous and charming commentaries on our situation. Then the home singing and entertainment videos started. No sooner had you received one, than you found people to send it on to – to keep us lighthearted. We needed to be light-hearted and amused and to feel that others were contacting us to share this emotion. Many, too many, images and videos addressed the need to have another drink to keep you going in the circumstances. We were promised that ‘the whole world will dance again’; shown cute animals apparently freed of the presence of humans and shown clips of Trump being stupid (not difficult). All this interspersed with advice on how to survive, how to bake bread at home, how to sew your own face mask and how to mix your own hand sanitizer.

Through it all the official news from our TV and newspapers keeps us informed on the real numbers. It’s a numbers game, it appears. Numbers positive, numbers in hospital, numbers dead.

The most endearing message of our times arrived this week. It’s a video purportedly from sometime in the future when Covid-19 is a distant memory: a period of history almost forgotten. A father lies in bed reading stories to his young child and the sleepy kid asks for the story about the VIRUS. The father then tells his child how this virus effected the world in terrible ways BUT we all learnt a lesson and the world became a better place: kinder, less acquisitive. It’s called ‘The Great Realisation’, by British artist and poet ‘Probably Tomfoolery’. 

A world of waste and wonder. But then in 2020 … the people dusted off their instincts and …the earth began to breathe … remembered how to smile … good news was in the making … we all preferred the world we found to the one we left behind. Old habit became extinct … made way for the new. Why did it take a virus to bring the people back together? … who knows if you dream hard enough, some of them may come true.’

The internet is ecstatic … 2.9 million views on Youtube and growing. We feel this touching video is the way we might go, living in our first world countries we can especially appreciate a warm glow of hope.

But what do you think will emerge from this period of Covid-19? What is the reality of the direction the world is heading?

I am going to think of the possible outcomes (don’t you love the word ‘outcome’), positive and negative, before my next post.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: scavenging

May 1. Yesterday, the Zoom session was with my younger daughter and her two daughters aged two and five.  It began badly.  I asked the older child what she had been doing during the day.  It was now four in the afternoon so plenty had happened.  There was a long silence before she finally said, ‘we had lunch’.

I should have known, I do know, that children of that age do not go through a day narrativizing their activities.  Any parent greeting a child back from school soon gives up trying to find out what went on that day.  Interesting things do happen, and when the child is interested in talking about them, it will.  Until then, the point is what it is doing now, and might do next.

So we quickly moved on.  My wife read a story to the two girls which last she had read to their mother when she was at the same age (Sally’s Secret by Shirley Hughes).  Mother and children were equally pleased.  Then the five- year-old, who is rapidly mastering the skill, read us a school book, which featured a grandmother who bought blue shoes to see the Queen.  A heel broke and she was in despair until a kindly palace official produced a bag of spare blue shoes, and all was well.

Last week we played the well-known game of scavenging.  A list is sent of things to find in the house and garden, and the video session begins with a show-and-tell, which displays the energy and ingenuity of the finder.  The five-year-old is now old enough to reverse the game.  For the following session, the grandparents were sent a list of things to collect, and we were required to display them in front of two critical grandchildren.  The list was as follows:  we had to find something that was

  • really bouncy
  • has a strong smell
  • prickly
  • smooth
  • sticky
  • fluffy
  • a cone shape
  • multicoloured
  • made of rubber
  • very heavy
  • very light
  • has a switch

Good luck with this.  You can show and tell on Monday.  Enjoy the weekend.

from Steph in London: grandchildren adapting …

 April 30. “Watching” the grandchildren adapt to being at home has been interesting. They seem to be happy to work at home and are enjoying not getting into school uniform every morning although they do have a routine. Joe Wicks is the start of the day, followed by school work until lunch time-ish. The older ones continue to work after lunch, the younger ones do I know not what but they have been cooking, baking, digging up worms and generally learning how to play on their own without outside or electronic distractions. There have definitely been fewer fights than normal and it appears (via Face time or Zoom) that they are calmer, more able to just ‘play’ and even, dare I say, a better cooperation culture is emerging.

They range from 15-6 in 3 families, the most labour intensive being the 9-year-old and her 6-year-old twin brothers. They have a garden, so are some of the lucky ones- playing out has become part of the routine (“We have to play out for an hour at a time”)

However, as an ex-teacher I watch the adults trying to juggle their work and the properties of a quadrilateral and I don’t envy them.  Most of them spend the day in conference calls, which requires a different level of concentration and my eldest son has asked the children to text him and their mum when they need help. Being in the next room seems a bit OTT but it’s working.

Or it was until the 10-year-old had a message from his teacher – he HAD to build a working volcano … he texted his parents – both of whom were knee deep in keeping the economy going. A once very calm mum went mad and threw her toys out of the pram-

‘How can we be expected to do that?’

‘Does the teacher not realise we have to work too?’

‘How the … do we make it froth?’

They compromised and he built a building of interest instead with help from his older brother (The leaning Tower of Pisa)

When the message from the teacher was re-read, there were  about 20 options, including the volcano, but not a building of interest! Am sure going off piste won’t be the difference between a stellar career or failure…

Finally, some friends with autistic children have found that they are calmer at home, without the hustle of uniforms and deadlines to meet every 45 mins and are learning well. They are seriously considering what sort of education will be best for them in the future …

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Screen Life

April 30. Like everyone else, the fixed points in my week are mostly through the medium of Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Team.

Those connected with my work are relatively stress free.  There is widespread use of microphone cancelling to preserve the signal in multi-participator events, so every sound in the house does not have to be quietened.  The Open University History Department meetings, involving over twenty people, have adopted the etiquette of turning off the video.  This means that colleagues cannot see that you have temporarily ceased to pay rapt attention to the matter in hand, or are sneaking a look at emails on your phone, or briefly leaving the room to make a cup of coffee.

With calls to family and friends it is quite otherwise.  There is no point at all in forbidding sight of children and grandchildren you would give so much to see in person.  Or in turning the sound on and off when small parties are prone to make unscripted interventions.   This makes the whole experience both pleasurable and surprisingly tiring.  After an hour’s interaction, you feel drained of energy. 

There are several reasons for this.  The first is the technology.  Smart though the competing sites are, the quality of the sound is often poor, and the picture of limited quality.  In talking to each other we are all of us minutely attuned to tiny movements in facial expression.  The video images, under stress with so much increased use, can be insufficiently sharp, or require intense concentration to decode.  There is also the question of positioning the camera.  My younger daughter, a BBC producer, is long used to this business.  She strongly advises two techniques; always place the camera at head height so that the viewer is not focussing on the underside of your chin; and always sit back, so that your face does not dominate the screen.

The second is the intensity.  In normal life we don’t often talk to someone without a break for a whole hour, and when we do there are pauses, moments when we are looking elsewhere, or have briefly diverted attention to our own thoughts.  In my book I examine what I term ‘abstracted solitude’, the capacity to withdraw from pressing company.  Daniel Defoe in his second sequel to Robinson Crusoe, caused his hero to write that,  ‘all the Parts of a compleat Solitude are to be as effectually enjoy’d, if we please, and sufficient Grace assisting, even in the most populous Cities, among the Hurries of Conversation, and Gallantry of a Court, or the Noise and Business of a Camp, as in the Deserts of Arabia and Lybia, or in the desolate Life of an uninhabited Island.’  It is very difficult to be there but not there, if you are constantly on camera.

The third, unique to this medium, is the accompanying presence of your own image, particularly on ZOOM.  The one thing you never do in ordinary conversation is look at yourself.  I am not fond of my own image at the best of times, and now, two months and counting since my last haircut, I am beginning to look like Al Pacino in his later manifestations.  To be faced with such a sight for so long is deeply dispiriting.

These limitations have caused some of my friends to revert to the older technology of the telephone, where you are free to concentrate on the conversation, without the distracting video technology.

But then again.  A video call yesterday was held up when my five-year grandson discovered, to his great satisfaction, that if he put his bare foot up against the camera on the laptop, it would appear five times larger than the rest of him.  Can’t do that on a telephone.