from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Free and not free

June 11.   In the lockdown, I have tried to be sensible.  I have maintained my hours of work despite the absence of timetabled commitments.  I have written diary entries.  I have resisted drinking all of our not very capacious wine cellar.  My one besetting sin has been newspapers.  Deprived of hard copy I have set up online feeds from the Guardian, The Times (for an alternative view), the Financial Times (for hard evidence) and the New York Times (for the rest of the world).  Unlimited words, limitless time consumed.

Much of the knowledge thus gained has not illuminated my life.  Today I learn that there is a looming shortage of marmite (caused by a decline in beer brewing, who knew), and mounting anxiety about the closure of public lavatories.

Occasionally, however, there is a story that seems to encapsulate all that is now going wrong.  Yesterday’s online Times has an article headlined: ‘Lockdown eased to allow lonely to meet another household.’  It was part of the good news narrative that Johnson is trying to promote.  Day by day things are getting better.   In every other regard it brings no comfort.

First there is the nominative disarray I discussed yesterday; the confusion in this case between those living alone, and those who are lonely.  A third of UK households are occupied by one person.  Some of those are lonely; most are not.  All of them with grandchildren are probably missing them.

Second there is the small print.  Everyone can go and see their grandchildren except those in lockdown, which includes all those over seventy.  My wife and I, as it happens, are bang on the demographic average for the birth of our first grandchild (we were 63).  But now we have more years and more grandchildren.   Under the new regulations, we are too old to see them.  It’s as if the Government had announced with a fanfare that everyone was now free to play football, except those under thirty.

Third there is the surrounding argument.  The fifth paragraph of the same article reads:  ‘However, the government’s claim to have made the right decisions at the right time on the pandemic was dealt a severe blow when one of the architects of lockdown said Britain’s death toll could have been halved by imposing it a week earlier.’  What has collapsed in the last few weeks is not the infection rate but public trust in the entire official management of the crisis.

Every recent decision, whether about schools, testing, opening shops, allowing grandparents out of the house, quarantining international arrivals, has immediately been met by criticism, counter-argument and in some cases legal action.  The point is not so much the rights and Priti Patels of each issue, rather the belief that everyone is free to advance their own view and can find an ‘expert’ somewhere to back them up.  Deference towards politicians, and towards those who advise them, has disappeared.  In the early days there was a tendency to accept what we were told in the grave surroundings of No. 10.  We needed to believe that those with power were doing the right thing, and anyway it was difficult for amateurs fully to understand the science and the projections.  That comfort is no longer available.

The largest argument, referred to by the Times journalist, is about what was not done in February and March and how many tens of thousands of people died as a result.  The Government’s repeated hope that this kind of retrospective analysis could be left to a post-pandemic enquiry is in vain. 

We are all historians now.  And that is a measure of the trouble we are in.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Here and not here …

June 10.  Too many of the accounts of our present circumstance draw a hard line between what we are doing and not doing.  We are inside our houses not out in public spaces.  We are permitted to share the company of certain people and kept apart from all others.  But it is the essence of our human condition that we are not confined to such binary choices.

We have imaginations, the capacity to create and inhabit worlds apart from the actual present.  We all know this.  In better times, it is how we deal with that reality, offering us escape, solace, explanation.  In the lockdown, the media are full of devices for getting us to places that we are currently forbidden to enter.  Books are recommended that will take us to the holiday locations we might have visited this year (headline in yesterday’s Guardian: ‘10 of the best Latin American novels – that will take you there.’)  Television programmes, magazines and digital outlets let us wander through the gardens and art galleries that are now closed.  Food and sport journalists recycle stories that can at least remind us of pleasures denied.  And the imagination for its own sake, more important than ever, is succoured by print and electronic media.

My wife and I, inveterate readers and consumers of film and theatre, are at home in these parallel universes.  Nonetheless we grieve the physical absence of our grandchildren, going through changes which we can only witness in weekly Zoom meetings.  Unless Johnson and company sort out the mess their incompetence has compounded, we will miss the first sight of a new grand-daughter in a couple of months.  Yet even this basic dichotomy of presence and absence can be bridged.

On Sunday we tuned into our weekly family get-together to find that my London-based elder daughter, her partner and her five and eight-year old children, had something to show us.  For some weeks past they had been secretly building a scale model of the house and garden of the parents and grandparents they could no longer visit.

Everything that mattered had been re-constructed.  The black and white house with cotton-wool smoke coming out of its chimney.  The car (a sportier model than our ageing Volvo) in the drive behind the gate.  In the garden were flowers (miniature versions of the actual flowers now blooming), fruit trees, a vegetable plot, a greenhouse, a paddling pool, a swing, a sandpit with real sand, two wigwams.  There was even a miniature wheelie-bin which the children help me fill when they are staying.  Around the perimeter was the River Severn, now alarmingly close to the property, but a reminder of its existence in our country life.  Rus in Urbis if ever there was.

They still want to come and see us.  We for our part felt still more strongly the pain of their absence.  But nevertheless, it was such a joyful achievement, such a demonstration of how the creative spirit can bridge the gap between what is and what is not in our locked down world.

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.

from John Fielden in Tadcaster, UK: remote everything

The thought of members of Parliament staring into a screen and trying to have a civilised debate with 50 others on one screen and at least 100 others on 100 screens does challenge the mind.  Is this really the best way we can show the democratic basis of our governance? At the least, however, it will allow her majesty’s opposition to make long overdue challenges to the Government in the Commons on its two major practical failures to date – the take up of tests and the provision of timely PPE.

There could be some interesting constitutional issues about the set up; can the Commons in this state enact or endorse anything? Or is it merely a House of Challenging Questions? While it may be possible for its Select Committees to continue to do some good work, what actions can follow – merely Statutory Instruments?

The rash of remote or virtual activities is widespread. We hear of attempts to launch a huge virtual tea party to cheer everyone up. (This brings back memories of a tea party for 2,733 people organised by one of my ancestors to celebrate the passing of the Ten Hours Bill in 1848. It was held in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester at a cost of £946 – or £93,800 in today’s money). Many grandparents are having remote lunches or tea parties with their grandchildren. My wife and I, along I am sure with others, set up a table for a neat lunch on Easter Sunday with a daughter and two grandchildren 250 miles away and they did the same.

Family remote meetings can work, but the method does not succeed when transferred to television panel shows – as we see from the limp chemistry on programmes such as Have I got News for you. It just about works on outside programmes such as Countryfile where the animals and the countryside are the stars of the show.

Remote education has hit my grandchildren. Their summer term has started at four private schools in Banbury, Calne, Thirsk and Shrewsbury.  Or it should have.  The reality is that they are sitting at home online. I really wonder how their teachers who, presumably are novices at the art, have responded in the design of the material and the pedagogy. Have they passed Step 1 which simply puts text on the screen? [I spent five years of my life in the 1970s evaluating the National Development Programme for Computer Assisted Learning –NDPCAL – which was a major national programme exploring the use of computers in teaching and learning. Hence I have an interest in the matter).

The school fees for this novel experience are far from remote. My son who is chair of the governing body of one of the schools tells me that all private schools are charging 80% of the usual fees. He argues that almost all their costs are fixed and that he can only save on cooks, cleaners and the electricity bill. On the plus side all the teachers are full employed and fully paid. If they are using the potential of online learning effectively, they will certainly be overworked.

from Megan in Brisbane, Australia: what an action packed musical weekend!

On Saturday afternoon, I watched”Phantom of the Opera” on YouTube. Andrew Lloyd Webber has made his musicals available for viewing during this isolation time. He started on 3 April with “Joseph and the amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat”; “Jesus Christ Superstar was on 10 April; and “Phantom…” on 17 April.

The announcement of the musical is made on the Friday, and it is available for watching for 48 hours. It was two hours of enchantment. At the end of the show, Lloyd Webber came onto the stage to make the acknowledgements. Very generous in his praise of all the people who bring his shows to life. A real treat was Sarah Brightmann coming onto the stage and singing one of the songs. All together, a wonderful afternoon.

I had told my children about this weekly treasure that Andrew Lloyd Webber is sharing with us, and on Sunday they marshalled their children to watch the performance.  

Afterwards, my youngest grandchild of six dug out a recorder and got his father to record him playing the instrument by creating notes with the exhaled breath from his nose. After his performance, he took a bow. 

 I wonder what the 24 April holds in store. And what might follow from one of the inspired grandchildren. 

Then there was the One World Together at Home concert on Saturday with a great number of performers sharing their talents with us – again, a great opportunity to see them perform. Lady Gaga was marvellous, as was Tom Jones, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, and more.

I continued with the musical theme. On Sunday, I started reading a book called “The Music Shop”by Rachel Joyce. The book comes with a play list which has the songs and music referred to in the book. So each time a piece is mentioned, I play it before I move on. I have had the pleasure of listening to music I would otherwise not have done, as my preferences in music have not stretched that far. So far, I have listened to Miles Davis, James Brown, Led Zeppelin, and some familiar Bach and Beethoven. I have now started “Tosca”, which may take me a while.  It’s a very rewarding and interactive experience. And the story is not too bad.

The Cambridge English dictionary defines a cultured person as having “…had a good education, and knowing a lot about art, music, literature etc”.

I think I may have my foot on the ladder.

from Megan in Brisbane, Australia: a Greater Purpose

April 10. Events have taken a turn!  My design-a-day has been adjusted and now accommodates a Greater Purpose, the existence of which can be traced to a single pivotal moment arising from the virus restrictions: my grandson posting his first video and his challenge to the family members.
These are the developments – he continues posting his videos, but now my youngest grandson aged 6 (yes, six) is making and posting his own videos. That is how much he was enthralled by his cousin’s creativity. They are delightful! Our challenge is to do something new, to look at the view, to help Mum with the weeds, do puzzles, and when doing your schoolwork, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I admit that, in the early hours when I can’t sleep, I watch all these videos over and over again. My battery is on permanent red alert.
Another of my grandsons has now decided to write a novella! So every day for an hour, we have a chat about plot, characters, suspense, description, dialogue, he writes and we convene the following day. So you see the Greater Purpose. But there’s more.
Someone on the family group, adult or child, quite spontaneously sets a daily challenge – a brain teaser or a word puzzle, cryptic clues to find deeply buried solutions – which keeps me busy in ways I didn’t dream of when I set about my design-a-day. How things can change from one day to the next. As has been proved in a more global context .
What will you create today? How will you express your creativity?

From David Maughan Brown in York: Reflections on Eyam

April 9th

My nine-year-old granddaughter, Hannah, devoted 15 minutes yesterday evening to reading to me on Face Time – and it wasn’t even my bedtime.  Her reading matter of choice was a page or two of short articles from Whizz Pop Bang, ‘the awesome science magazine for children.’   The articles were short but highly informative and didn’t shy away from using fully-fledged scientific terminology.  I was very impressed by the fluency with which Hannah read some quite technical material, only stumbling a little over ‘palaeontology’ – for which she could very easily be forgiven as I suspect it would floor the majority of our adult population – and I learned a good deal about gargantuan prehistoric turtles 100 times the size of our largest present-day turtles, and a massive explosion in the far reaches of outer space that generated an outsized black hole.

I had no urgent need to learn about prehistoric turtles or black holes, and Hannah clearly didn’t have any need to practice her already advanced reading skills, but that wasn’t the point.  The point was some kind of contact in a world in which the kind of contact we usually have with our much-loved children and grandchildren is impossible.  And that contact was very much the highlight of another day of social isolation.  Thank you, Hannah.  

As we learn to come to terms with the loss of physical contact, the loss of closeness, with many of the people we love, I find my thoughts often turning to Eyam.  The parallels are, fortunately, not all that close (at least we hope they aren’t), but in present circumstances it is salutary to think of the nobility and self-sacrifice of the entire population of a 17th century village who voluntarily quarantined themselves and waited to die so that the surrounding villages and cities would not be contaminated by the bubonic plague they had accidentally brought into the region.  They had no ICUs, no respirators, no personal protective equipment, no antidote; they just waited to die themselves, and in the meantime buried their dead.  Over a period of 14 months of lockdown, those dead numbered over 75% of their families and fellow-villagers.

Most of us are so much more fortunate than the villagers of Eyam in that we know why people are dying, we know how to keep ourselves safe (even if some of us, unlike them, don’t have the good sense to do it), and we know that a vaccine will, once it can be developed, put an end to this plague.   None of which will be of any comfort whatever to those who are currently losing people they love and are, in some instances, even worse off than the villagers of Eyam in that they can’t even bury their dead.  But, when it comes to the daily experience of living in a kind of collective quarantine, where we are perhaps luckiest in comparison with our 17th century forebears is in our often taken-for-granted communication technology.  There weren’t many telephones, tablets or televisions in Eyam.   Nobody in Eyam could have been read to by a granddaughter living in the next village.

from Megan in Brisbane, Australia: Algebra and Time Management

April 5. Today is feedback day on various items raised in earlier posts.

The first is feedback on the algebra challenge set by my grandson for the Brisbane extended family (20 people). He has created a group chat page and, in the video he makes, sets challenges and other tasks to keep us busy in this time of coronavirus and staying at home.

‘Granny, your answer was correct but you were penalised for your (very) late submission.’

I mentioned in a previous post that I had to set aside my time management for that day to complete the challenge, so you can imagine how miserable I felt with this outcome. I found myself using some of the excuses my students used on me when they submitted their assignments late. I noticed the same whining tone in my voice. I practiced every sympathy-rousing technique I could think of. To no avail. My poor performance will go down in history.

I submitted my answer to the next challenge (Maths) in record time.

Next up is the time management. I am definitely getting better. First of all, I don’t set an unrealistic number of tasks to do in a day. Small steps. This isolation is here for a while. Tomorrow is another day. And so is the next. And the next. And the next. And the…

STOP!
Get a grip!
Stay focused!

Bearing the above in mind, I now prefer to design my day rather than manage/plan my time. Design is creative and interesting, requires imagination and brings pleasure.  My design includes one big housework task a day: polish the furniture. Yay! I tell myself. I designed that for today and I love seeing the furniture glow in the rays of sunlight that filter through the clean blinds, the cleaning of which was yesterday’s fun thing to do…

And so, it goes.
Something I read:

During difficult times, you move forward in small steps.
Do what you have to do, but little by bit.
Don’t think about the future, not even what might happen tomorrow. Wash the dishes.
Take off the dust.
Write a letter.
Make some soup.
Do you see?
You are moving forward step by step.
Take a step and stop.
Get some rest.
Compliment yourself.
Take another step.
Then another one.
You won’t notice, but your steps will grow bigger and bigger.
And time will come when you can think about the future without crying. Good morning

(Elena Mikhalkova, “The Room of Ancient Keys”)